Identifying Exmoor Birds

Moving to Exmoor from the South Downs has resulted in a whole new range of moorland birds to be identified and enjoyed.

Certain species can be relatively easily identified, particularly the many birds of prey,and it helps to know what is likely to be seen, and identifying features as the little whatsits fly away from you at speed!

With many thanks to Brian Coulsen from the Exmoor Natural History Society for his assistance with this project.

Moorland birds on Exmoor

The birds described here are listed in the order in which we have commonly found them, and I hope that that is useful…”common things are common” and those that are distinctive in looks or song are perhaps more rewarding to the first time twitcher!

Meadow pipit

The most numerous “little brown bird” on the moor, and in fact prettily striped like a humbug. They have a characteristic “parachuting” flight, bibbling about from bush to bush. The Tree Pipit is very similar looking but much less common and  has a different song and display flight, they prefer to perch on the very top of the gorse, rather than low within it.


Iconic songster of the open moor, no one can mistake this little fellow in full song as he soars high overhead. His characteristic “quiff” isn’t always apparent, and he has to be differentiated from the pipit above which has similar colouring but is smaller. The two are quite different in habit, however, so watching for a few minutes should show you which one you are watching.

(thanks Laura Jackson for sending your beautiful photo!)


The sound of this little bird really is just like two stones being chinked together, and coupled with his distinctive black head, white clergyman’s collar and red breast the male is unmistakeable. He also tends to perch in full view on the top of gorse bushes…nothing secretive about this chap! Then you can be pretty confident that the more nondescript birds accompanying them are the female stonechat!

stonechat bird
Exmoor wheatear


Beautiful well marked birds, these are summer visitors who are easy to identify by their “white arses”….very apparent as they fly away, and after which they are named….nothing to do with ears!!

link to rspb


A beautiful orange on the front with a black mask and slate grey back, these summer visitors are more commonly found on the edge of Exmoor’s woodlands, and characteristically quiver their tails up and down as they perch. They are quite bold birds, and so can often be seen close up.

 Willow warbler

These are the little brown birds that fill the Exmoor woods with descending notes of song on a summers day. Close up they are very pretty with a cream eye stripe and pink legs, very similar to a chiff chaff although these have black legs and really do just monotonously call “chiff chaff chiff chaff” – if in doubt wait for the song!

(thanks Laura Jackson for sending your beautiful photo!)

link to rspb


Absolutely unmistakeable call, the sound that Spring is Sprung on Exmoor! Can prove very difficult to track down and spot, however. Did you know that an individual female cuckoo lays eggs that mimic a particular small bird’s egg colour and pattern, so that they will always lay their eggs in that particular species nests! It is then, of course, down to those poor foster parents to bring up this monster fledgling. Cuckoos are in decline nationally but Exmoor remains a stronghold for them. They winter in sub Saharan Africa.

link to rspb


Summer visitors with a marked white eyebrow and a pale orange breast, less “natty” than the stonechat.

Exmoor reed bunting


Usually found in longer grass or deep heather and not unlike the male of the common house sparrow, they can often be clearly seen perching on the top of bushes.

male linnet


Often seen in pairs, the male has a  distinctive raspberry coloured breast and white outer tail feathers. Their song is very pretty and linnets were commonly trapped and sold as caged songbirds in Victorian times. Thankyou so much to Robin Shelley for this delightful pair!

female linnet
link to rspb

Lesser Redpoll

Can be recognised by their unusual bright red fore crown, rather like a misplaced fascinator on a tipsy wedding guest! They are sociable and usually found in groups.


Quite a large bird for the moor, 16.5 cm to the tip of his long tail, with white outer tail feathers again. He also tends to hang out in groups and has the characteristic call “a little bit of bread and NO cheese.”


large groups of these colourful birds can be seen on the lower parts of the moor, and up to 50 have been counted feeding on thistles at Dunster beach in the autumn. Their group name is very appropriately a charm.

Amano's photo of a whitethroat


Can be relatively easily spotted as they parachute up and down on top of a bush singing their scratchy little song.

Thank you so much Amano for letting us have this gorgeous photo…taken at Bossington, Exmoor, at the West Somerset wildlife Dawn Chorus walk….worth getting up at 4 a.m. for!!

 Pied Flycatcher

The numbers of these smart little birds have been boosted by providing nest boxes and they are now fairly common in the woods of Exmoor We spotted one of these little fellows in a tree at Webbers post  that we would have missed without recognising its song.

(thanks Laura Jackson for sending your beautiful photo!)

  Dartford Warbler

Cocky little bird that was doing very well on Exmoor until a couple of hard winters saw their numbers plummet again. They are secretive, preferring to skulk about in the gorse bushes and so are hard to spot.

link to rspb
grasshopper warbler

 Grasshopper Warbler

These  are more commonly heard than seen, and are named for their song which resembles a grasshopper or cricket. They are summer visitors and sing mostly at dusk and dawn. They hold themselves very upright so that if you see an unusually skinny, tall sparrow with a more pointy bill, it may be this chap.

Thankyou very much to Howard Thompson of ON Advertising for this great image!

link to rspb


A rather exotic bird, in both looks and song, slightly bigger than a chaffinch and with specially adapted bills for getting the seeds out of pine cones. They can sometimes be seen in quite large flocks in Exmoor’s coniferous forest, we have seen and heard them at Webbers Post and in the Doone valley.

Thankyou so much to Jezz Cook-Abbott for this stunning photo.

link to rspb
Ring Ouzel i.d.

 Ring Ouzel

Quite rare on Exmoor now, but you can be lucky and see quite a number together at Chetsford water just North of Exford. They look like a blackbird with a white bib on.

Thankyou so much to Joe Cox for this brilliant photo!

Andrew Bentley nightjar


These are really fun to spot, and you are very welcome to join us on an evening/ dusk walk specifically to  find these little fellows, so do please join us in June, July and August to listen to their distinctive, churring call. They look a bit like a kestrel or a cuckoo but have a very distinctive, jerky flight and are relatively easy to identify in the gloaming.

Many thanks to Andrew Bentley for his tweeted photo!



The lonely sound of the curlew is sadly becoming more and more rare throughout Britain but you may be lucky and find one on the more watery parts of Exmoor.



These lovely little waders have very long beaks for grubbing about in the mire and the Exmoor Mires project has happily boosted numbers here. They are relatively common in the winter, we often see them on the moor and wetlands around Exford. They demonstrate their rapid zigzag flight when disturbed, an effective ploy for avoiding being shot!

turtle dove

  Turtle dove

This dainty little dove is a summer migrant only with us from late April until August, sadly many birds are shot as they pass over Mediterranean countries and it is on the “red” list as under threat.

Waterbirds of Exmoor Streams and Rivers

The species below are very easy to recognise, and we regularly see them, both on the Barle in front of Buchan Cottage

and, the Goosanders particularly, on the Exe by Spindrift Barn

click for our cottages


The portly little dipper in dinner jacket apparel  is the one that flies at speed along the length of the water just ahead of you as you walk along the bank of the river. He can often be seen standing on a rock midstream “fishing” for insects and we have one at Court bridge in Exford that happily lodges midstream, waiting for supper to arrive on the current. He doesn’t seem to mind us paddling about alongside, and generally they are quite sociable birds.

 Grey Wagtail

These are really easy to recognise with their bright yellow belly and grey back, with a long tail. One often accompanies me when I am cleaning up the pony’s field, along with an assortment of pied wagtails. They are commonly mistaken for yellow wagtails which may occasionally be seen on Exmoor but are a vivid total yellow, and may sometimes be seen on Dunster marsh and the golf course there.


Arguably one of our most iconic birds and always so thrilling to see that flash of iridescent blue.They can be seen at multiple locations over Exmoor, including the rivers Barle, Exe and at Wimbleball lake, and of course  on our stretch of the Exe at Exford. Check out our barn conversion to stay and get up early for the best chance of catching one fishing off the bridge.

Spindrift Barn


We see this large and distinctive duck quite often on our stretch of the Exe in winter, the male and female strikingly different in colour. The male is a glossy greenish black and white whilst his mate has a chestnut head with a grey body and back.

With many thanks to Elisabeth Zellwegger-Schroer for the beautiful and representative painting.


By far the commonest duck on the Barle and the Exe, these are our classic british wild duck that all children need to have lobbed bread at!

They commonly fly past the window of the bedroom of our Dulverton cottage which is at flight height, a great sight over your morning cuppa!

Exmoor Birds Of Prey

My most exciting sighting to date was of a male hen harrier at dusk on the road between Dulverton and Exford on the moor at Winsford hill. He swooped in front of the car and I was left with the impression of a very fast, very svelte barn owl type bird which I knew was certainly not a barn owl! Google came up trumps with an action video and I was in no doubt as to his i.d. They are now becoming a more frequent visitor to Exmoor and may even be breeding here…time will tell!


These big brown birds are relatively common on Exmoor and have a very distinctive mewling cry which will often catch your notice as they fly high above you. Look out for smaller birds and particularly crows that may be mobbing them to keep them away from their nests.

These will sometimes be seen perched beside the road or in a tree, and some of our guests have wondered whether they might be an eagle, they are so big close up.

female hen harrier

Hen harrier

I spotted a male hen harrier in the very early days up on Winsford hill as I drove back from Dulverton one evening, very exciting as they are only occasional visitors but if you spot something that looks a bit like a barn owl, but slimmer and much more athletic darting about on the moor,this is what it may be!

link to rspb
Marsh Harrier by Eric Hill

Marsh harrier

Very similar in size to the buzzard, but more streamlined, these big colourful birds have a distinctive facial ruff which makes them rather owl like.

The juvenile has a striking orange head whilst the male is tricoloured black, grey and chestnut brown. The female is mainly brown with a pretty cream head.

You may be lucky enough to witness the male’s courtship display, tumbling through the air, occasionally joined by the female, he may pass prey to her on the wing.

Thankyou very much to Eric Hill, both for this beautiful photo and for identifying the bird in my Blog

 Red Kite

These are again an occasional visitor, but becoming more commonly seen on Exmoor. They are slimmer and smaller than the buzzard but with a wider wingspan of up to 185cm and a  totally characteristic forked tail. They have white patches under the outer parts of their wings which are very obvious as they soar above you.

peregrine falcon

  Peregrine Falcon

These are stunning dark grey birds and breed on the sea cliffs of Exmoor, They can therefore most commonly be seen hunting on the moor near the coast and you can sometimes spot them at Hurlestone Point above Bossington. . During the starling murmurations you may be lucky enough to catch this bird of prey in action.


Much smaller than the above birds, and with a characteristic habit of hovering above its prey before dropping like a stone to catch it. They are a beautiful chestnut and slate grey colour and used to be really quite commonly seen. Although numbers have declined in the last few years you may well spot one hunting close to the road at some stage during your stay.

(thanks Laura Jackson for sending your beautiful photo!)


This neat little bird is the smallest of our UK birds of prey, with a wingspan of 50-62cm, about the size of a mistlethrush. It feeds mainly on small birds and is spectacular to watch in pursuit as it mimics every twist and turn of its prey in flight. The male has a blue/grey back and rusty streaked chest whilst the female has brown upper parts and a buff coloured breast. They are moorland birds but will often move towards the coast in winter so Exmoor and its coasts are a good place to spot them!


Extra sparrowhawks migrate to the UK in winter from Scandinavia and they are relatively common garden visitors, taking songbirds from the birdtable .

Their wingspan is 55-70cm, slightly  less than the kestrel, and are a similar weight and height. The female has a pronounced white stripe over and above the eye, both sexes have a barred breast with the male slate grey on his back, the female more dark brown.

hobby falcon


This little summer visitor is very distinctive, with its fox red undertail and thighs. It fits between the kestrel and the peregrine in size, with a wingspan of 70-92cm.

Prey is generally insects, and our birds are believed to winter in the zambezi basin…a tempting prospect!

Many thanks to Carolyn Farry @FarryCarolyn for letting me use her beautiful tweet!

Bits and Bobs and Garden Birds

Add to the above all those other beautiful birds that you will see….water birds at Wimbleball  lake,

Ravens flying overhead with their unmistakeable “cronk” call.

Flocks of visiting fieldfares often mixed with redwings in the fields on a sharp winter’s day.

Feeding chaffinches crumbs from a cream tea at Tarr steps,

Spotting the fluffy apricot plumage of our resident nuthatches on the feeder…..we have seen treecreepers on our huge beech tree as well; generally  the little humbuggy tree creeper goes spirally up the tree whilst the nuthatch faces downwards.

So, next time you are on Exmoor, walk a little more slowly and carry a pair of binoculars – you will be surprised what you may see!


Thanks to Robin Shelley for his Oystercatcher……more seabird photos please!