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 not seen since 2018 following a one day appearance in 2016 and a ten year absence otherwise back to 2005, 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 vey rare in the local region since to the closure of the major landfill operations in the Marston Vale and would now represent a significant find.

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. Less likely but found in some years is Tundra Bean Goose.

The unfortunate absence of suitable has limited the amount of suitable habitat in the county for hunting Short-eared Owl and Hen Harrier and these two species may prove tricky to find though the best option may be to try a place that attracts Barn Owls which seem to be doing quite well at the moment. Any Hen Harrier is worth looking at carefully following the recent significant increase in records of Pallid Harrier, including the first county record near Sandy in autumn 2011 and one nearby in Hertforshire in 2018. 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 near in Luton and Leighton Buzzard 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 may be reported in gardens in a particularly cold spell as was the case in mid December 2022.

At this time of year, our gardens may 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 unfortunately last winter 2021/22 had very few birds anywhere in the UK but 2023 seems might be a little better, though no suggestion it will be a classic year.

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 inland wintering rarities such as Ovenbird and American Robin. Will a rarity of this standard be the next addition to the Bedfordshire list? Why not another Black-throated Thrush as our bird at Whipsnade in 2019/20 spent much of its time feeding on pyracantha and there is plenty of that in our suburban gardens.

I’m just off to check under my feeders…

Good birding and we look forward to receiving your records.