A POPULAR winter pastime for local birdwatchers is to scan the gull roosts as they are often the best chance of finding a rare or scarce bird. But with roosts of up to 20,000 birds, trying to find the odd unusual individual in failing light and with a cold easterly blowing takes real dedication.

Nonetheless, there were a number of interesting sightings. The most notable find was a Caspian gull at Ladybridge Lake, Nosterfield, but also seen at this site were at least three different glaucous gulls.

At Bolton on Swale, an adult Mediterranean gull was found among the large numbers of black-headed and common gulls.

Garden birdwatching is another popular interest at this time of year. This has been particularly encouraged by the National Garden Birdwatch scheme organised by the RSPB. Last year, more than 350,000 households took part, recording all the species they saw in the garden in an hour-long observation, making this the largest natural history survey in the world.

I recorded 15 species in my own modest village garden. The total would have been somewhat higher if the survey had been held a few days later, as the short snap of very cold weather at the month-end brought large numbers of birds into people's gardens. At one point I had 29 thrushes of five different species on a single small Siberian crab apple tree.

A number of readers have asked me about planting for birds in the garden and I would certainly recommend a Siberian crab. Not only is it a beautiful plant, but the large berries need frosting to make them edible to birds so often last later in the winter. As most other berries have been consumed by then, it makes them a magnet for a range of species. Incidentally, the variety in my own garden is Red Sentinel.

Another garden bird of interest this month was the blackcap. Small numbers of this handsome little warbler began regularly wintering in Britain in the late Sixties, mainly in the South-West, but numbers and range grew rapidly and last year's Garden Birdwatch found 1pc of gardens held the species.

In the North, they are still relatively scarce but I've received many more reports than normal this year, including two together in a small garden in Bedale. As they tend to prefer "natural" food while it is available, there may well be a number of other sightings as they turn to bird-table food later in the winter.

Goshawks are usually birds of extensive conifer forests in the uplands so the sighting of a large female slowly drifting over County Hall, Northallerton, was unusual to say the least. And talking of birds out of place, one can only conjecture on the source of the pair of golden pheasants seen on the roadside near Great Langton.

Finally, other sightings of note during the month included a long-staying red-breasted merganser, a green sandpiper and four over-wintering ruff at Bolton on Swale. Nine more ruff were seen at Catterick.

A fine flock of 250 pinkfooted geese flew west over Richmond on the tenth and four more pinkfeet and a white-fronted goose were found among the large greylag flock at Scorton.