January in Bedfordshire

Bedfordshire Birding in January

January is a month for searching out the scarcer or more elusive winter visitors, either for a new year-list or maybe just purely the pleasure of discovery and observation and having a reason to get outdoors during the potentially cold or gloomy month.
Adverse weather conditions may encourage some interesting birds to take up temporary residence in the county with most focus from birders on the water bodies. A sheltered corner, even a local garden, may hold the biggest surprise though, as national rarities have been reported from neighbouring areas in recent winters.

The potential bird list for January is very similar to that for December with a good selection of waterfowl available around the pits and most years will turn up a Smew, both wild swans and a Diver or one of the rarer Grebe species. A wintering Bittern is most likely to show itself when an icy margin develops on our larger lakes. One sought-after species, with only a one day appearance in 2016 following a ten year absence, is Red-necked Grebe which must be due a reappearance soon; one of the larger lakes with a wintering group of Great Crested Grebes is most likely to attract this species.

Bad weather in the North Sea may be responsible for moving birds around and no doubt contributes to coastal feeding species such as Shag making regular appearances in January. Alternatively, strong winds from the north and west will move increasing numbers of Glaucous and Iceland Gulls into the country though sadly these have become very rare in the county due to the closure of the major landfill operations in the Marston Vale.

Anywhere attractive to our regular goose flocks in the county may be visited by scarcer wild species and regular checks of the flocks may be rewarded with discovery of a lone Pink-footed Goose or a family group of White-fronted Goose, the most regular visiting species.

The unfortunate demise of many areas of set-aside has reduced the amount of suitable habitat in the county for hunting Barn Owl, Short-eared Owl and Hen Harrier and the two latter species may prove tricky to find. Any Hen Harrier is worth looking at carefully with the recent significant increase in records of Pallid Harrier, including the first county record near Sandy in autumn 2011. Merlin and Peregrine are more regular and increasing in numbers in the county and can be seen anywhere in the more open areas, even around farmland where flocks of ground feeding species gather. Recently, town centres have proved attractive to roosting Peregrine with birds in Bedford over a few years and a regular in Luton in 2009, favouring the clock tower on the Town Hall, as well as others known from neighbouring counties in Stevenage, Hemel Hempstead and Aylesbury.

Laughing Gull, Stewartby Lake © Neil Wright
Laughing Gull, Stewartby Lake © Neil Wright

The formation of ice is likely to attract more elusive species out into the open. Any damp area remaining unfrozen may hide a feeding Snipe, while stream banks and edges of marshy and reedy areas particularly with some flowing water are worth searching for Water Rail or Jack Snipe. Roadside verges are also a favoured feeding place in frozen weather for Woodcock, a species that was very frequently reported in the cold spell of January 2009 with a few noted in gardens.

At this time of year, our gardens have a higher density of birds than most other habitats in the county. One of the most attractive species that winter in the UK, the Waxwing, is most regularly found in gardens or supermarket car parks feeding on abundant berry crops from ornamental trees and shrubs. There are good years and bad years and the influxes of 2010/11 and. to a lesser extent. 2012/13 were some of the best on record when the majority of local birders were able to locate their own flocks.

Quality county rarities reported in this month in previous years include Laughing Gull (2001) and Ring-billed Gull (2002); maybe the next one of these is already feeding on the local school playing field like the bird that spent three winters in Uxbridge in the ’90s.

Many birders will also have travelled the short distance to look in other people’s gardens at Naumanns Thrush (London 1990), Black-throated Thrush (Peterborough 1996) and Northern Oriole (Oxford 2004/05) and been intrigued by discussion of other recent wintering rarities such as Ovenbird and American Robin. Will a rarity of this standard be the next addition to the Bedfordshire list? I’m just off to check under my feeders…

Good birding and we look forward to receiving your records.