House sparrow Passer domesticus, adult female perched on guttering, South Wales

Nature's calendar: January

In the garden

Let's take a closer look at some of our garden favourites and a few more unusual visitors to look for.

House sparrows Passer domesticus, on seed feeder with family watching in the background, back garden, Cheshire

House sparrow

That bush is making a racket! Hang on, it’s full of house sparrows

House sparrows are very social birds. They gather in flocks that seemingly love a chin wag. Social structure and society are very important, and they often adopt a single bush or short section of hedge as a gathering location. Protect these fiercely – if this meeting point is lost it can impact your local house sparrow population. Imagine losing your favourite café!

European robin Erithacus rubecula, adult male singing in tree, Attenborough Nature Reserve, Nottinghamshire

Robin

We’ve seen plenty of robins in peaceful Christmas card scenes over the holidays, but all isn’t quite what it seems…

Robins are one of our fieriest garden visitors in temperament as well as colour. A good feeding patch is well worth defending and that is exactly what they are doing when singing in mid-winter or chasing off anything that might have an eye on their worms.

Wren Troglodytes troglodytes, perched on an old tree stump, Co. Durham

Wren

These shy and tiny birds can be easily overlooked but cold weather will make wrens easier to spot as they’ll be searching for insects. Although not the smallest bird in the UK (that’s the goldcrest), wren are tiny and have a distinctive sticky up tail.

Their scientific name is Troglodytidae which means ‘cave-dweller’. This reflects their habits of nesting and searching for food in gaps and crevices.

Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla, adult female perched on lichen covered branch, January

Blackcap

A few decades ago, it would have been unusual to see the appropriately named blackcap in a garden in winter. Now, they can be an anticipated daily visitor to many gardens, especially those offering fat balls or rotting apples.

Whilst most of our breeding population will be wintering in North Africa and southern Spain, our winter birds tend to come from colder countries in central and eastern Europe to escape the harsh winter.

Grey wagtail by James Glover

Grey Wagtail

A surprise garden visitor but a very pleasant one. Will you be lucky enough to spot a grey wagtail?

Although they are grey, these are often confused with the scarcer yellow wagtail due to their bright yellow belly and undertail. During the spring, this species will be found near streams and rivers but in winter many move into our towns and villages in search of insects. It has the longest tail of our wagtail species.

Unusual garden visitors

When snow covers the ground, food becomes hard to find. As many species to head off in search of food, gardens can be a welcome refuge for unexpected species.

Snipe, Gallinago gallinago, adult, male in boggy edge of pasture, Northumberland

Snowy visitors

Past cold snaps have seen woodcock visiting gardens and even snipe (pictured), which are usually found in wetlands. Another wetland species that could show up is the water rail.

Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita, perched on a branch, Co. Durham

Chiffchaff

A chiffchaff in January?! As with the blackcap, chiffchaff have been an increasingly regular winter visitor and very occasionally wander into gardens. Their small size and need for insects makes wintering a challenge.

You’ll often find chiffchaffs at coastal locations, wetter areas, sewage treatment works or anywhere else that is warmer and home to insects throughout winter.

Out and about

You may be surprised to read the phrase ‘nest-building’ in the middle of winter, but a few species will be getting busy this month.

Grey heron Ardea cinerea, adult collecting nesting material, Regents Park, London

Nest-building herons

Grey herons are one of our earliest nesting species and will lay their eggs next month, meaning their huge nests will need a lot of attention in the meantime.

Look out for herons hunting for sticks as well as fish.

Rook Corvus frugilegus, adult forging in grassland, Wiltshire

Rooks make their move

Persistent rooks will be busy preparing their nests in preparation for the spring and the early birds get the… not the worm but the best spot. It’s risky business as a winter storm may ruin their efforts but getting the best spot is important if you're hoping for a successful breeding season.

Mistle thrush Turdus viscivorus, adult nesting in the fork of a tree, Yorkshire

Mistle thrush singing

Bird song isn’t something that springs to mind during winter and many of the birds that do sing are defending a feeding territory. There is one bird that isn’t afraid to get ahead of the rest to start attracting a mate: the mistle thrush. This bird is sometimes known as the storm cock because it often needs to sing during rough weather. Let’s face it, we may not get many sunny days in January.

Winter moth (Operophtera brumata) against brown leaves

Moth of the month

On very cold nights you might not believe that there are moths flying, but there is one intrepid species that’s in its element ...and that’s the winter moth.

Male winter moths are often spotted in headlights whilst driving around lanes. Females, on the other hand, are wingless and therefore flightless. They simply sit on tree trunks attracting males with pheromones.

Their caterpillars are an important food source when blue and great tits are feeding young in spring.

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