|Priory Country Park is a great place for watching birds at any time of year. There is always something of interest to see and sometimes rare or unusual birds are present. The notice board outside the visitor centre will tell you what's about and there are two hides where you can observe waterfowl in particular.
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Priory Country Park is signposted from the A5140 to the east of Bedford town centre.
Priory Park has three main entrances. Two on the north side; off Barkers Lane and off Riverside Drive. The third is on the south side between Cardington Road and the A421. There are car parks at these entrances as well as at Aspects Leisure Centre.
Surface types: You will walk across a range of surfaces from hard and firm with no stones greater than 5mm in size, to grass or uncultivated earth paths with and without ruts. Parts of the route can be very muddy at times.
Linear Gradient: There is a short slope steeper than 1:6.
Cross Falls: There are no cross falls.
Width Restriction: There is a narrow footbridge to the Finger Lake with a minimum width of 800mm.
Steps: There are nine steep steps from the lakeside around ‘The Rough’, but this area can be accessed from behind the Visitor Centre to avoid these steps.
Barriers: None recorded.
Public Toilets: At the Visitor Centre
Picnic Tables: There are plenty of tables at the Visitor Centre and near to the bridge on the slalom course.
Refreshments: There are refreshments at the Visitor Centre and a pub at the Priory Marina.
Seats: There are seats at various points along the route.
BINOCULARS: This is really the most important piece of equipment that you will need. When choosing binoculars go for ones which are comfortable to hold, not too heavy and no greater magnification than x10. Greater magnification than this will mean it will be difficult to hold the image still, which is essential when identifying birds. The objective lens should be at least 30mm in diameter, so avoid going for pocket sized binoculars. The larger the objective lens the brighter the image, which is useful early in the morning or at dusk.
FIELD CRAFT: To get good views of birds you have to blend into the environment and be quiet and patient, so don't wear clothes that are bright and noisy when you move. When approaching a bird move slowly and calmly, stopping frequently to look through your binoculars. Use trees and bushes to move behind and sometimes just wait!
IDENTIFICATION: Accurate identification takes time and experience so don't be put off by not getting your bird every time and don't fall into the trap of assuming that just because you don't recognise a bird that it must be a rare species. A common bird can look strange in different light conditions or at different times of year. Start by carefully checking that it is not a bird you are normally familiar with and move on from there. Look at the bird's size and its type of movement and flight and listen for the noises it makes. A notebook is useful for notes and sketches (very basic sketches are good enough). Compare unknown birds with birds you know, for example it might be bigger than a sparrow but smaller than a blackbird.
FIELD GUIDES: Apart from binoculars this is the most useful thing you can have and so it's worth investing in a good one. There are now many good bird field guides in most bookshops. Only get books which cover birds of Britain and Northern Europe unless you intend globetrotting! Make sure the pictures are clear and big enough and include the birds flying as well as just standing.
PRIORY LAKE: Always a good place to see grey heron, cormorants (on the raft in the winter), great crested grebes and common and arctic terns (summer). In the reeds around the margins look and listen out for reed warbler and sedge warbler in the summer. In winter go to the hide to see large numbers of duck: mainly pochard and tufted duck but also teal and shoveler.
FINGER LAKES: Moorhen, coot and mute swan are always present. From The Kramer Hide look for gadwall and little grebe in amongst the overgrown fingers.
THE ROUGH: This is a good area for warblers in the spring and summer, especially blackcap, garden warbler and whitethroat. In winter flocks of goldfinches are commonly seen. Please do not go beyond the gate to avoid disturbance to this area.
THE MARSH: Flocks of reed buntings and sometimes corn buntings roost in the reeds in the winter. Look out also for water rail.
GENERAL: Wherever you are in the park you are bound to see other birds not mentioned here. Check the back channels for kingfisher and look up as well for sparrowhawk and in summer, hobby. Regular rarer birds that turn up include nightingale (summer), red crested pochard (winter), black terns (spring) and osprey. Remember the more often you visit, the more you are likely to see.
1. Priory Country Park, Wardens office Tel. 01234 211182.
2. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, The Lodge, Sandy, Beds. Tel. 01767 680551.
3. Other useful local contacts can be found on the notice board in the visitor centre.
Birds of Priory Country Park and The Annual Bird Report, both by David Kramer (from The Wildlife Shop in the Park).