Bedfordshire Birding in February
February is the depth of winter for some species as food becomes scarcer and continuing cold weather puts a strain on survival for winter visitors and residents alike. The gradual increase in day length gives an indication of the spring to come and warmer days towards the end of the month will encourage a significant increase in bird song from many resident birds as they establish new territories. Some early nesters may already be on eggs at the end of the month. Cold weather spells will encourage more movement and new visitors to the county.
Attention of many birders will remain with the larger water bodies with the possibility of finding wintering or visiting Divers, Grebes or scarcer ducks in the county the main attraction, particularly if any cold weather on the near-continent or storms around the coast generates some movements. Records in February often include groups of Bewicks Swans or White-fronted Goose, which do occasionally occur in large influxes such as two flocks of around 40 birds at least in 2006, though a family party or lone individual is more likely.
Any wintering Bitterns should become less elusive if there is a spell of ice cover while Water Rail, Snipe and Jack Snipe will also become more visible in these conditions.
A look through the records will show that February is one of the best months for scarcer gulls in the county but unfortunately recent years have not produced any sightings of the either Glaucous or Iceland Gulls which were once regular during the major landfill operations in the Marston Vale and both are now considered very rare visitors.
Mediterranean Gulls are more widespread in the UK in recent years with hundreds of pairs breeding along the south coast and it is not unusual for birds to turn up in the roosts with up to three birds on occasion in February. With a mix of ages and plumages, it is possible to recognise individuals when the birds can be found regularly.
In recent winters some very impressive flocks of seed-eating birds have been found including a group at Stotfold in 2010 which included 800+ Corn Buntings accompanied by over 100 Yellowhammers, Skylarks, Stock Doves and Starlings. Within a similar flock in early 2011, one observer had a tantalising glimpse of a Rustic Bunting with this group indicating what may be hiding amongst the commoner species. Unfortunately, there are many locations which seem devoid of birds and these large flocks now only suggest the mass of birds that may have been present in Bedfordshire in previous decades when farming practice was different.
February is a good month for searching out these farmland bird flocks as they concentrate around areas of good feeding, maybe a remaining game strip of maize or sunflowers. Brambling is usually a good bird to find which has had a couple of particularly lean years recently. A key species for which records are always welcome is Tree Sparrow; recent years have seen a few small parties in farmland locations in the north and east of the county but generally this is now a very scarce species in the county and these birds appear to be winter visitors from elsewhere, perhaps North Lincolnshire or Yorkshire.
In our woodlands, particularly later in the month and in warm periods, the spring territorial song of Robin, Wren, Dunnock, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush and Blackbird begins to become obvious and early nesters such as Tawny Owl will also be calling.
A good bit of woodland, containing birch and alder, is likely to hold Redpoll and Siskin which may also be apparent in pines or larches where Crossbill can also be found.
There has been a lot of debate about Redpolls in the county recently with birds found in the flocks that are clearly identifiable as Common or ‘Mealy’ Redpoll but many more found that are paler but fit neither the description of Common Redpoll or the more regular Lesser Redpoll of the UK and NW Europe.
Quality county rarities found in this month in previous years include a selection of seabirds in 1983 when five Little Auks, a Razorbill and a Puffin were found though unfortunately only three survived to be released on the coast. On a similar theme, the first county Serin was brought in dead by a cat in Biggleswade in this month in 1984.
A White-tailed Eagle briefly in the south of the county in this month in 2012 was the first since a bird at Woburn in Feb 1928 which is not on the list of even the oldest active county birders so a repeat would be very welcome.