Bedfordshire Birding in April
April is a very exciting time for birding in Bedfordshire as a trickle of summer visitors at the beginning of the month becomes a flood by the end of the month. New birds and year ticks are around every day and with birds on the move hastily returning to their breeding areas there are lots of opportunities to find a scarce or rare visitor, but records show that they generally do not hang around for long.
By the beginning of the month the early arriving summer visiting species will be present within areas of suitable habitat; Sand Martin, Chiffchaff and locally, Little Ringed Plover while the first Swallows and Willow Warbler will be found at favoured locations.
The first wave of migrant Wheatears may have passed through to more northerly territories but many more will be found throughout the month, either on hillside slopes, on grassy areas around lakes or occasionally on a ploughed field.
Ring Ouzel at Sandy Heath © Steve Blain
The first few days of the month are a good time for early Ring Ouzels. Dunstable Downs, Blows Down and Pegsdon Hills are most popular locations for looking for these birds and regular watching on these sites has often produced double figure counts around the middle of the month. These sites are also the most likely to host a few Black Redstart at the beginning of the month or Common Redstarts a little later; most records of the latter are around the third and fourth week when there is also a peak of Pied Flycatchers and odd records of Wryneck in the same chalk scrub habitats. The increasingly scarce Wood Warbler song can sometimes be heard from a migrant at the end of the month.
Around wetter habitats, interesting and mostly coastal wader species such as Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Turnstone and Sanderling are unlikely to pass through until the last few days of the month but there are still good birds to be found and Ruff or even Avocet are more likely at the start of the month. April has over 70% of the records of Blue-headed Wagtail with a handful of birds seen every year and a few pairs of Garganey are certain to appear, along with migrant Greenshank and Black-tailed Godwit.
The second half of the month sees the mass arrival of various warbler species. Blackcap and Whitethroat are the most numerous and widespread while records of scarcer species such as Grasshopper Warbler vary from year-to-year and all records are welcome.
Other species for which all records are particularly welcome are scarce but increasing species such as Cettis Warbler, Woodlark, Firecrest, declining local breeding species such as Cuckoo, Turtle Dove, Nightingale or the more elusive, and potentially extinct as breeders within the county, Lesser Redpoll, Redstart and Tree Pipit.
Red-rumped Swallow at Brogborough Lake © Andy Whitney
There has been a recent increase in spring records of birds more typical of warmer climates, maybe a symptom of global warming, and the majority of recent Aprils have produced Hoopoe. Red-rumped Swallows were present and seen by most local birders in April in 2003 and 2007 but Bedfordshire has only one single observer record of Alpine Swift in 2006 but there were up to 30 identified in the UK in March 2010 and we are surely due to find another soon. A White Stork in April stands a good chance of being a true wild bird, with examples seen soaring through the county airspace in 1991, 2003 and 2004.
Winds with an easterly component and gloomy anticyclonic conditions in April have proved to be an excellent combination for holding up seabirds while making cross-country migrations maybe from the Severn or the Solent to The Wash. The Saturday morning of Easter weekend in 2009 was one of the best in recent years and gives an insight into what could be seen with Stewartby Lake hosting Arctic Skua, Kittiwake, Red-breasted Merganser, Black-necked Grebe and three species of Tern. Sandwich and Arctic Tern were also located elsewhere while the following day two flocks of Common Scoters were found including 22 together at Brogborough Lake.
Arctic Tern has proved to be a regular spring migrant in recent years, maybe the development of inland pits and reservoirs has encouraged an increase in cross-country migration as this offers good feeding and resting opportunities. These birds may usually pass over the county without being noticed but a small band of showers may be the trigger to bringing them down on to lakes and pits. The last week of the month is also a good time for passing Little Gulls and Black Terns, both of which are more numerous with easterly winds and can occur singly or in flocks up to 50 or more, maybe a Little Tern or more rarely a White-winged Tern may be found amongst these movements. Despite many recent records in local counties, Bedfordshire is yet to record a spring Whiskered Tern which would be most welcome this year.
Migrant raptors are on the move in April, with Marsh Harrier and Osprey most likely though Red Kite and Buzzard movements may occur but with large numbers already in the county, the separation of migrants from local birds may be impossible.
Rare birds found during April in recent years also include Purple Heron, Crane and an array of interesting wildfowl: four out of seven county records of Ring-necked Duck, two Green-winged Teal and the only Velvet Scoter records away from the early winter period (in 1986 and 1989).