Where to spot winter birds in Derbyshire

A goldfinch in the snow Photo: Paul Hobson

A goldfinch in the snow Photo: Paul Hobson - Credit: Archant

Paul Hobson suggests you head for the water, if you are searching for wildlife in January

A male wigeon in flight Photo: Paul Hobson

A male wigeon in flight Photo: Paul Hobson - Credit: Archant

Winter is certainly the hardest time of the year for wildlife. Not only is it often cold but the days, particularly in January, are very short with less than eight hours of useable light for hunting and foraging. The 16-hour nights are long and because many animals cannot use the dark hours successfully to find food it is a never-ending battle for survival. Perversely a number of birds actually migrate to Derbyshire to take advantage of what for them are warmer temperatures, preferring it to the snow-clad north where they spent the preceding summer.

Short-eared owls are always a bird watcher’s enigma. Some years we have more than 30 over-wintering, yet in others they only appear in single figures. Beeley Moor and Leash Fen have always been reliable areas to search for this stunning, day-flying owl. Our resident ‘shorties’ migrate from the moors where they bred in August and seek out lower ground such as old meadows where voles and small birds are easy to catch. However, not all the owls that over-winter are resident birds. In some years quite a few may migrate north from the continent.

Insects find winter an incredible struggle. For the vast majority, hibernation or surviving as an egg or pupae is the only reliable method to ensure they have a chance of making it through the bitter, freezing months. Some butterflies have adapted well to our climate and small tortoiseshells will often be found hibernating as adults in garden sheds. Peacocks are also fairly successful at over-wintering but, unfortunately, red admirals are not. That is why you may often find the odd peacock or small tortoiseshell flying on the few sunny days in the winter months, yet you rarely see a red admiral. You will have to wait for late summer for these lovely butterflies to grace our hedges and gardens again.

A female sparrowhawk at a goldfinch kill in woodland Photo: Paul Hobson

A female sparrowhawk at a goldfinch kill in woodland Photo: Paul Hobson - Credit: Archant

January, whilst one of our coldest months, is actually never really freezing cold. It is now rare for our water systems, particularly the larger lakes such as Ladybower and Carsington, ever to freeze over. This means that the larger reservoirs are a Mecca for winter ducks. However, they are not all equally wildlife-rich. The nutrient status of the water means that some, like Ogston and Carsington, are brilliant places for a day’s winter birdwatching. Others, however, like Ladybower and Howden, are poor but dramatically scenic in frosty weather.

Among Derbyshire’s wintering ducks, wigeon and pochard are common visitors whilst the rarer pintail and shoveler are harder to find, but time spent searching for them will make all your efforts worthwhile.

Apart from Ogston and Carsington, other reservoirs that are well worth checking out are Dove Valley lake, Willington gravel pits and Church Wilne reservoir. The River Trent in the far south of the county is also a fantastic birdwatching river where as well as a good smattering of ducks, you may see cormorants and goosanders.

Short-eared owl in flight Photo: Paul Hobson

Short-eared owl in flight Photo: Paul Hobson - Credit: Archant

Animal life in our gardens is now probably more dependent on our hand-outs than at any other time of the year and it’s a good idea to make sure your garden feeders are stocked up with a variety of bird food. Peanuts and sunflower seeds offer protein and energy but are not suitable for all birds. If you have never done so before, think about buying a specialised goldfinch feeder with niger seeds. The number of goldfinches has increased greatly in the last few years and they make a gorgeous addition to your garden bird life.

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January is also the time of year when you might increasingly notice two birds that elicit mixed feelings amongst bird enthusiasts – magpies and sparrowhawks. Both are absolutely stunning to look at, yet because of their predatory habits, they are often discouraged. I must admit that if I get a sparrowhawk in the garden, which occurs from time to time over the winter, I absolutely love it. If it kills one of the goldies or blue tits I simply remind myself that it is doing exactly what it is designed to do – weeding out ill or weak birds so only the strong remain to breed.

Another aspect of garden maintenance that should become a regular part of each day, particularly when it freezes, is to make sure there is some clean, fresh water available for the birds. This might mean cracking the ice at the edge of the pond or pouring some warm water into the bird bath. Birds often struggle badly to find a drink in freezing weather and it is one aspect that many of us forget about.

A male pintail duck in flight Photo: Paul Hobson

A male pintail duck in flight Photo: Paul Hobson - Credit: Archant

Whilst January can seem a bleak month with short days and cold weather, there is always something on the wildlife menu to watch. It might be a day spent winter birdwatching at one of our reservoirs or a walk across one of Derbyshire’s moors where you may see mountain hare, red grouse or courting ravens. Whichever you choose it will always be worth the effort of dragging yourself out of your cosy, warm house.

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