January

Glacous Gull © Mark Lewis

A long-standing tradition among many birders is to see as many species as possible on New Year’s Day, in order to kick start the year’s list, and this generally involves covering a lot of ground and visiting as many different areas and habitats as possible. It’s great fun and a great way to clear your head after Hogmanay, but why not keep things close to home this time? ‘Patch birding’ is not a new thing and for those who enjoy a little challenge, neither is ‘competitive patch birding’ – with Birdguides/Birdwatch magazine’s #LocalBigYear being the latest version, see here.

Local Big Year encourages birders to define an area around their home (e.g. a certain radius or an OS grid square – it’s up to you) and to focus their efforts for the year here. There are plenty of benefits to this approach; You get to know your local birds and local area much better and,as such, redistribute observer effort away from favoured hotspots and more evenly across the country. Through recording your sightings with BirdTrack, your data will help contribute to a much richer and fuller picture of your region’s birdlife. Most importantly perhaps, it reduces the time spent driving, which has to be good news for both you and the environment.

A patch can be anything you want it to be, but to ensure it maintains your interest, having a variety of habitats to hand is a good idea. Water adds diversity, and even if a loch or reservoir isn’t available, a river will draw in birds that won’t be found elsewhere on the patch. And if you can get to the coast, that opens a whole new world of opportunity. Why not choose a local water body and count the wildfowl on it as part of your patch birding? This sort of observing can often help with digging out some more interesting species. Midwinter can be good for lovely little treats like Smew, interesting geese, or frozen-out Water Rail or Jack Snipe. A local river may have Goosander and Goldeneye but may also get occasional Green Sandpiper or Mandarin, just the sort of records your Local Bird Recorder would be interested in!

Open country such as farmland can be very rewarding in winter. Any observations of species such as Corn Bunting, Tree Sparrow, or Grey Partridge would be worth noting as these birds have suffered recent declines and tend to be found in areas not frequently visited by birders. Large flocks of thrushes, finches and geese can occur in these areas and would all be very rewarding finds. There are chances for midwinter surprises too – inland Snow Bunting in with finch and bunting flocks, or maybe a rogue Twite? Check scrubby coppices and corners for roosting Long-eared Owl.

Woodland of any kind will always be worth checking. Winter is a good time to locate drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker and maybe you will find new sites for Nuthatch, a species on a northward march across Scotland. On the forest floor, Woodcock can be found, and at the other end of the spectrum, maybe you’ll get lucky and find Hawfinch in the tops of mature trees.

Regular patch birding throughout most of Scotland would usually see you finding over 100 species in a year, even inland, if the range of habitats available was suitable, and some of these are bound to be surprises. Bird populations are always changing so there is always something to learn, something new to see, and discoveries to be made.

Gulls may not be everybody’s cup of tea. In fact, they are pretty much the opposite of a cup of tea in the eyes of the public, and, with a myriad of plumages and hard-to-identify species, have a justified reputation as being tricky little blighters in the eyes of the birding community. Don’t let that put you off though. Gulls can be found everywhere, present great opportunities to learn and improve your birding, and flocks of common species regularly carry more glamorous things. Time spent grilling gulls is never time wasted. At this time of year, gull flocks all over Scotland could hold yearlist- boosting goodies such as Mediterranean, or Glaucous or Iceland Gull. But why not aim a little bigger - check Iceland Gull for the darker primaried American visitor, Kumliens Gull. Or for the real enthusiast, why not try to dig out a Caspian Gull? Although records of this species have increased over recent years, it’s still a rare bird in Scotland. Timing of previous records suggests midwinter to be a good time for them here. If you don’t manage to dig out anything rare, you can always practice aging the birds or look for colour rings or darvics (coloured plastic rings with ‘field readable’ codes on them).

Do you have access to a rocky shore? If so, high tide could be the time to go and search for Purple Sandpiper. On a bright sunny day, the purple sheen on this species’ upperpart feathers can be quite obvious at this time of year, transforming what might often look like a dull little wader into something far easier on the eye. Counts of roosting Purple Sandpiper would be just the sort of thing your Local Bird Recorder would be interested in, so don’t assume they’ve already been counted, or that they are not there in significant enough numbers to merit submitting. All data is worthwhile! ‘Our’ Purple Sandpipers converge from all over their Arctic breeding grounds. Those wintering in South-East Scotland may be of Norwegian or Siberian stock, whereas those in more northern and especially western areas are likely to have come from Greenland or potentially even Canada.

We think of warblers as summertime species but Chiffchaff are wintering in Scotland more frequently these days, and Blackcap are now regular winterers, often turning up in urban areas. Recording wintering warblers helps to track their numbers and this in turn can prompt researchers to look into what is going on. Did you know that the Blackcap that winter in Scottish gardens are probably of German descent? Research has shown that German Blackcap wintering in the UK as opposed to areas to the south have the upper hand when it comes to the breeding season. They return to breeding areas earlier than those wintering in their traditional wintering sites, getting first choice of the best territories, and as such, breeding more successfully than the others. Is something similar happening with our wintering Chiffchaff?

Mid-January may hardly feel like the time for birds to be thinking about the breeding season, but nature waits for nobody. As such, even though food must be scarce and survival tough, some birds already have the spring in their sights; Listen for Coal and Blue Tit singing, or investigating a nearby air vent as a potential nest site! You can check out the Coal Tit song here. Goldfinches will be cranking up their songs and Eider will be starting to display. All of this is a lovely reminder that spring is just around the corner, but it’s also very useful information. As birders, we’re pretty good on the whole when it comes to documenting the presence and numbers of the birds around us, but generally we’re less good at documenting what they are doing. Recording the presence of singing birds, or other signs of breeding helps us to document the numbers, distribution, habitat choices and phenology (i.e. the timings of each stage in a species life cycle) of birds, which in turn can lead to more accurate estimates of numbers of breeding birds, among other things. If you use an app such as BirdTrack for your bird records, why not start adding some ‘breeding information’ when you put your data in. It’s immensely useful stuff, even for the commonest species.

One of the nicest songs to listen out for at this time of year is the Mistle Thrush. You can hear a nice example of its rather Blackbird-like song here. Notice how it differs from a Blackbird song – lacking the high notes and maintaining a steady pace through each phrase, and with shorter gaps between the phrases too. Mistle Thrush can be found through most of Scotland, from lowlands to relatively high up, from farmland to forest – but nowhere do they occur in high densities. Recording observations of singing Mistle Thrush will help your local recorder get a handle on just how many birds are present, and how many territories there are. Over a wider scale, this sort of data can help us work out what the species habitat preferences are, and over time of course, can help us to chart population trends. Mistle Thrush are one of those birds that could fly under the radar a little, perhaps not glamourous enough to be reported all of the time by all birders..

There are several other species that you could potentially describe this way, that we can start to look and listen out for at this time of year. Stock Dove is another great example. Their ‘song’, consisting of a long series of deep, repeated ‘hoo’ or ‘hoowu’ sounds, is quite distinct from that of Woodpigeon, with its repeated five-call phrases. It can take a moment to register, especially if your ears are fully tuned in to the much higher pitched sounds of other common woodland birds such as tits, crests, Treecreeper and Robin. Listen out for them in mature woodland or even gardens and keep an eye out for them investigating holes in trees too, as they look for breeding sites. They are inconspicuous birds, which may account for their low reporting rate, but some of this must be related to observer preferences as well – for example, the Club's excellent Online Scottish Bird Report shows that there wasn’t a single confirmed breeding record of this widespread and numerous species in North East Scotland in 2016.

Colonies of birds are something that we might traditionally associate with the coast, with towering cliffs and all the associated sights, sounds and smells. Some birds are thinking about the breeding season already, with some seabirds starting to make more frequent visits to nesting sites from now on. Auks will be starting to gather in inshore areas and may spend some time up on the cliffs themselves. Guillemot tend to be first with Razorbill coming in that little bit later on, perhaps at the beginning of February. Fulmar will also be visiting their preferred ledges from around now – perhaps less inclined to sit on the sheer cliff faces preferred by the auks, and preferring grassier slopes, or nooks and crannies in rocky places. If the birds are there now, they’re likely to be there for the breeding season – so why not investigate your local coastline (if you’re lucky enough to have one) and maybe you’ll see some of this ‘pre-breeding’ behaviour for yourself.

There are lots of other bird colonies, and luckily, you don’t need to be by the coast to see them. House Sparrow is a species in decline (in fact, they are red listed as a result of these declines), and its preference for urban habitats probably means it goes under recorded to some degree. Do you walk the same route to work, or regularly pop down to the shops? Why not count the House Sparrow you see and make a note of when you first see nesting behaviour, young birds etc.

Our final colonial birds are corvids – species of crow. Rooks are famously colonial, and if you have mature deciduous trees near you, you might be familiar with the load calls and clusters of shaggy nests. Less obviously colonial is Jackdaw, but next time you walk down town, see if you notice clusters of the birds, rather than picking them up randomly along the way. Jackdaw are starting to get noisy at this time of year, and will soon start to investigate potential nest sites, such as, but by no means exclusively (being intelligent, adaptable corvids!), in and around chimneys. 

Late January is the time for RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, making it a good time to focus on some birds that might be very familiar to you, but still have a tale to tell. If you have feeders in your garden, or mature trees close by, then Greenfinch might be a regular visitor. Sometimes they can look drab and quite like a female House Sparrow, but adult males are a handsome combination of green and yellow and are beginning to sing from treetops and other prominent perches right now. Listen out for their jaunty trills and maybe later in the year, their ‘wheeze’ like song phrases – you can hear the latter here

Although still relatively common, Greenfinch populations have been in some decline recently. This is thought to be down to a disease called Trichomonosis, which impacts their ability to eat. You can help guard against the spread of this disease by regularly cleaning your bird feeders. Collecting data on this species will help scientists and bird recorders keep track on any further declines or changes in distribution.

We might not think of our garden birds as being adventurous types, but the Collared Dove in your garden are not too long descended from some real pioneers. Historically, Collared Dove ranged eastwards from Turkey, but in the 1950s, a remarkable range expansion took place. They began to colonise Scotland in the late 50s – you can read some early accounts of their presence in Scotland in some of the very earliest issues of Scottish Birds – on page 37 and on page 125. They are now common across much of Scotland but remain less widespread in plenty of upland, western and northern parts. Keeping tabs on your local Collared Doves may help those monitoring birds find out if the species is still slowly spreading across Scotland, or if it has essentially filled all of the bits it can thrive in already.

Finally, if you’re on the edge of a town, you may be lucky enough to have Tree Sparrow visiting your feeders. This may be a relatively new thing too as, until recently, Tree Sparrow had declined massively across the whole of the UK, with an estimated decline of 93% between 1970 and 2008. Luckily, they clung on in a few parts of Scotland and now seem to be faring a little better, with Breeding Bird Survey data from the BTO showing quite a sharp increase in Scottish numbers from around 2007 onwards. These tiny chestnut-capped sparrows have a distinctive dark spot on their cheek, and unlike House Sparrow, have no separable male and female plumage. 

As well as submitting records to your Local Bird Recorder and to BirdTrack, taking part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch or BTO’s Garden Birdwatch are both great ways to contribute.