Wintering birds are settled in to their preferred sites and are generally likely to remain until moving east and north in the early spring. Cold weather, a lack of food or disturbance can however cause wintering birds to seek new sites. The main aspect of January birding is the cold weather movements that occur with birds moving from the near continent and in to south and eastern Britain. Divers, grebes, geese, ducks, raptors, auks and passerines are the most affected especially in very hard weather which results in the surface of lakes and reservoirs freezing. Cold weather in northern Britain can have the same effect with birds moving out of the North Sea areas and in to the English Channel as they follow their food source and stay ahead of poor weather conditions.
A good example of cold weather movements that take place during the winter was seen during the exceptionally cold weather in early 1963. Kent saw large numbers of common birds and higher than normal counts of scarce and rare wintering birds.
The average number of wintering Whooper Swan (right) in Kent is around ten birds. During January 1963 eighty-one birds were seen in small groups. Scaup were also involved in this movement with 700 off Cliffe, 400 of Ramsgate and 80 in the Medway, several sites recorded 30 - 60 birds with the total number of Scaup around 1500 this is far higher than the usual 50 birds per winter. Smew winter each year in Kent with an average of 20 individuals, over 90 were found during January 1963.
Several rare birds are found more often in January than any other month ( at least up until 2002 ) and these include Harlequin Duck, Great Bustard, Kumlien's Gull, Ross's Gull, and American Robin, in fact four species of American passerines have been found in January.
Strong onshore winds can produce sightings of sea-birds during cold weather including petrels and sea-ducks. The same weather can also increase the species and number of birds visiting garden feeding stations. Uncommon garden birds such as Yellowhammer and Reed Bunting are often seen.
Whooper Swan photo © Laura Bimson