Finding birds in weird weather

As the British summer continues (more rain forecast this week…) guest blogger Marianne Taylor writes on birding whatever the weather.

Are you a fair-weather birder? It’s OK, you can own up, you’re among friends. Bad weather, of which we’ve seen far too much lately, isn’t just off-putting to us humans, it can also have a profound effect on bird behaviour. Some species become very difficult to see on rainy or windy days, but for others, the arrival of a low-pressure weather front is the cue to get out and start searching.

A bad hair day for a Tufted Duck – most birds sensibly seek shelter from strong winds.

Cold, rainy, windy days make life difficult for large, soaring birds that use thermals (rising warm air) to gain lift. There’s not much point scanning the skies for high-flying raptors on days like this – it’s too energetically expensive for the birds to reach a good height without the help of the thermals, so they tend to sit out the bad weather.

Calm, still days are best for seeing reedbed birds like Reed Warblers

Small birds on migration in both spring and autumn are also likely to go to ground in bad weather – they’re liable to become exhausted and possibly blown off course so when conditions are dire they will often take a pitstop and spend the time feeding up, waiting for the weather to improve before continuing their journeys. This means that bad-weather days are good times to look for them, especially in coastal areas. They’ll be in the bushes or on the ground, depending on species – in spring some of the males will often sing, even though they’re just stopping off with no intention of staying on to breed.

Swifts will travel many miles to find good feeding conditions – the abundance of flying insects is very weather-dependent.

A Herring Gull making a splash. Most seabirds can cope with some quite rough conditions but tend to head closer inshore during storms.

Some of our most interesting birds are best looked for on the most uninviting days. Spring storms with easterly winds are perfect conditions to send migrating Black Terns our way, the tired birds often homing in on inland water bodies to feed. Autumn gales push scarce seabirds like Leach’s Petrels and Sabine’s Gulls close inshore and sometimes even upriver.

Warming air on fine mornings encourages birds of prey like Red Kites to take to the air – attracting the attention of mobbing corvids.

It’s not all about rain, wind and gloom though. Fine, warm days in late spring – and we’ll be enjoying some of those soon with any luck – can be great for birdwatching, with a chance of rarities like Black Kites, Red-rumped Swallows and Bee-eaters overshooting their normal breeding grounds and reaching Britain. Long summer evenings with a pleasant light breeze are great for watching Barn Owls, and still days encourage reedbed birds like Bearded Tits to show themselves, rather than lurking low in the reeds as they do on windy days. Even snow and a freeze can assist with bird-finding, as water birds concentrate on patches of clear water, and skulkers like Bitterns and Water Rails are more likely to venture into the open.

A cold snap may bring unusual wildfowl to any unfrozen waters, like this party of Bewick’s Swans at a Kent reservoir.

So, whatever the weather’s doing there are birds out there to find, but finding out a bit about different species’ habits will help you pick the likeliest targets and best strategy for a successful day.

If you are interested in this, you might like:

Marianne’s new book

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