The time of year is a critical factor in defining how we watch birds and what we might see. In the table below are month by month suggestions of things that you might keep an eye to the sky, or an ear to the ground for. The table is by no means exhaustive and there will of course be plenty more on offer than what is detailed here. The descriptions for each month are derived from the Something for the Weekend series that ran for one year on the Club's Facebook page. In addition to what is written in the text, the table below aims to give a quick reference as to what activities might be the most productive at particular times of the year. Again, this is not comprehensive. Activity within each category in each month is colour coded, with darker blue meaning more activity.
You can use the Club's free Where to Watch Birds in Scotland app to search for likely locations for any of the species mentioned below, or anything else that takes your fancy. Simply open the app, select ‘species’ from the menu at the bottom of the screen, and then chose the species you want to find. The app will return sites where that species can be found, with information on access, timing, and, if applicable, other interesting wildlife the site has to offer.
Whether you see any of the above or not, you can make your birding count for conservation by submitting your sightings, ideally as a complete list to BirdTrack, or your Local Bird Recorder, for use in the local bird report.
A long-standing tradition among many birders is to see as many species as possible on New Year’s Day, in order to kick start the year’s list, and this generally involves covering a lot of ground and visiting as many different areas and habitats as possible. It’s great fun and a great way to clear your head after Hogmanay, but why not keep things close to home this time? ‘Patch birding’ is not a new thing and for those who enjoy a little challenge, neither is ‘competitive patch birding’ – with Birdguides/Birdwatch magazine’s #LocalBigYear being the latest version, see here.
Local Big Year encourages birders to define an area around their home (e.g. a certain radius or an OS grid square – it’s up to you) and to focus their efforts for the year here. There are plenty of benefits to this approach; You get to know your local birds and local area much better and,as such, redistribute observer effort away from favoured hotspots and more evenly across the country. Through recording your sightings with BirdTrack, your data will help contribute to a much richer and fuller picture of your region’s birdlife. Most importantly perhaps, it reduces the time spent driving, which has to be good news for both you and the environment.
A patch can be anything you want it to be, but to ensure it maintains your interest, having a variety of habitats to hand is a good idea. Water adds diversity, and even if a loch or reservoir isn’t available, a river will draw in birds that won’t be found elsewhere on the patch. And if you can get to the coast, that opens a whole new world of opportunity. Why not choose a local water body and count the wildfowl on it as part of your patch birding? This sort of observing can often help with digging out some more interesting species. Midwinter can be good for lovely little treats like Smew, interesting geese, or frozen-out Water Rail or Jack Snipe. A local river may have Goosander and Goldeneye but may also get occasional Green Sandpiper or Mandarin, just the sort of records your Local Bird Recorder would be interested in!
Open country such as farmland can be very rewarding in winter. Any observations of species such as Corn Bunting, Tree Sparrow, or Grey Partridge would be worth noting as these birds have suffered recent declines and tend to be found in areas not frequently visited by birders. Large flocks of thrushes, finches and geese can occur in these areas and would all be very rewarding finds. There are chances for midwinter surprises too – inland Snow Bunting in with finch and bunting flocks, or maybe a rogue Twite? Check scrubby coppices and corners for roosting Long-eared Owl.
Woodland of any kind will always be worth checking. Winter is a good time to locate drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker and maybe you will find new sites for Nuthatch, a species on a northward march across Scotland. On the forest floor, Woodcock can be found, and at the other end of the spectrum, maybe you’ll get lucky and find Hawfinch in the tops of mature trees.
Regular patch birding throughout most of Scotland would usually see you finding over 100 species in a year, even inland, if the range of habitats available was suitable, and some of these are bound to be surprises
. Bird populations are always changing so there is always something to learn, something new to see, and discoveries to be made.
Gulls may not be everybody’s cup of tea. In fact, they are pretty much the opposite of a cup of tea in the eyes of the public, and, with a myriad of plumages and hard-to-identify species, have a justified reputation as being tricky little blighters in the eyes of the birding community. Don’t let that put you off though. Gulls can be found everywhere, present great opportunities to learn and improve your birding, and flocks of common species regularly carry more glamorous things. Time spent grilling gulls is never time wasted. At this time of year, gull flocks all over Scotland could hold yearlist- boosting goodies such as Mediterranean, or Glaucous or Iceland Gull. But why not aim a little bigger - check Iceland Gull for the darker primaried American visitor, Kumliens Gull. Or for the real enthusiast, why not try to dig out a Caspian Gull? Although records of this species have increased over recent years, it’s still a rare bird in Scotland. Timing of previous records suggests midwinter to be a good time for them here. If you don’t manage to dig out anything rare, you can always practice aging the birds or look for colour rings or darvics (coloured plastic rings with ‘field readable’ codes on them).
Do you have access to a rocky shore? If so, high tide could be the time to go and search for Purple Sandpiper. On a bright sunny day, the purple sheen on this species’ upperpart feathers can be quite obvious at this time of year, transforming what might often look like a dull little wader into something far easier on the eye. Counts of roosting Purple Sandpiper would be just the sort of thing your Local Bird Recorder would be interested in, so don’t assume they’ve already been counted, or that they are not there in significant enough numbers to merit submitting. All data is worthwhile! ‘Our’ Purple Sandpipers converge from all over their Arctic breeding grounds. Those wintering in South-East Scotland may be of Norwegian or Siberian stock, whereas those in more northern and especially western areas are likely to have come from Greenland or potentially even Canada.
We think of warblers as summertime species but Chiffchaff are wintering in Scotland more frequently these days, and Blackcap are now regular winterers, often turning up in urban areas. Recording wintering warblers helps to track their numbers and this in turn can prompt researchers to look into what is going on. Did you know that the Blackcap that winter in Scottish gardens are probably of German descent? Research has shown that German Blackcap wintering in the UK as opposed to areas to the south have the upper hand when it comes to the breeding season. They return to breeding areas earlier than those wintering in their traditional wintering sites, getting first choice of the best territories, and as such, breeding more successfully than the others. Is something similar happening with our wintering Chiffchaff?
Mid-January may hardly feel like the time for birds to be thinking about the breeding season, but nature waits for nobody. As such, even though food must be scarce and survival tough, some birds already have the spring in their sights; Listen for Coal and Blue Tit singing, or investigating a nearby air vent as a potential nest site! You can check out the Coal Tit song here. Goldfinches will be cranking up their songs and Eider will be starting to display. All of this is a lovely reminder that spring is just around the corner, but it’s also very useful information. As birders, we’re pretty good on the whole when it comes to documenting the presence and numbers of the birds around us, but generally we’re less good at documenting what they are doing. Recording the presence of singing birds, or other signs of breeding helps us to document the numbers, distribution, habitat choices and phenology (i.e. the timings of each stage in a species life cycle) of birds, which in turn can lead to more accurate estimates of numbers of breeding birds, among other things. If you use an app such as BirdTrack for your bird records, why not start adding some ‘breeding information’ when you put your data in. It’s immensely useful stuff, even for the commonest species.
One of the nicest songs to listen out for at this time of year is the Mistle Thrush. You can hear a nice example of its rather Blackbird-like song here. Notice how it differs from a Blackbird song – lacking the high notes and maintaining a steady pace through each phrase, and with shorter gaps between the phrases too. Mistle Thrush can be found through most of Scotland, from lowlands to relatively high up, from farmland to forest – but nowhere do they occur in high densities. Recording observations of singing Mistle Thrush will help your local recorder get a handle on just how many birds are present, and how many territories there are. Over a wider scale, this sort of data can help us work out what the species habitat preferences are, and over time of course, can help us to chart population trends. Mistle Thrush are one of those birds that could fly under the radar a little, perhaps not glamourous enough to be reported all of the time by all birders..
There are several other species that you could potentially describe this way, that we can start to look and listen out for at this time of year. Stock Dove is another great example. Their ‘song’, consisting of a long series of deep, repeated ‘hoo’ or ‘hoowu’ sounds, is quite distinct from that of Woodpigeon, with its repeated five-call phrases. It can take a moment to register, especially if your ears are fully tuned in to the much higher pitched sounds of other common woodland birds such as tits, crests, Treecreeper and Robin. Listen out for them in mature woodland or even gardens and keep an eye out for them investigating holes in trees too, as they look for breeding sites. They are inconspicuous birds, which may account for their low reporting rate, but some of this must be related to observer preferences as well – for example, the Club's excellent Online Scottish Bird Report shows that there wasn’t a single confirmed breeding record of this widespread and numerous species in North East Scotland in 2016.
Colonies of birds are something that we might traditionally associate with the coast, with towering cliffs and all the associated sights, sounds and smells. Some birds are thinking about the breeding season already, with some seabirds starting to make more frequent visits to nesting sites from now on. Auks will be starting to gather in inshore areas and may spend some time up on the cliffs themselves. Guillemot tend to be first with Razorbill coming in that little bit later on, perhaps at the beginning of February. Fulmar will also be visiting their preferred ledges from around now – perhaps less inclined to sit on the sheer cliff faces preferred by the auks, and preferring grassier slopes, or nooks and crannies in rocky places. If the birds are there now, they’re likely to be there for the breeding season – so why not investigate your local coastline (if you’re lucky enough to have one) and maybe you’ll see some of this ‘pre-breeding’ behaviour for yourself.
There are lots of other bird colonies, and luckily, you don’t need to be by the coast to see them. House Sparrow is a species in decline (in fact, they are red listed as a result of these declines), and its preference for urban habitats probably means it goes under recorded to some degree. Do you walk the same route to work, or regularly pop down to the shops? Why not count the House Sparrow you see and make a note of when you first see nesting behaviour, young birds etc.
Our final colonial birds are corvids – species of crow. Rooks are famously colonial, and if you have mature deciduous trees near you, you might be familiar with the load calls and clusters of shaggy nests. Less obviously colonial is Jackdaw, but next time you walk down town, see if you notice clusters of the birds, rather than picking them up randomly along the way. Jackdaw are starting to get noisy at this time of year, and will soon start to investigate potential nest sites, such as, but by no means exclusively (being intelligent, adaptable corvids!), in and around chimneys.
Late January is the time for RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, making it a good time to focus on some birds that might be very familiar to you, but still have a tale to tell. If you have feeders in your garden, or mature trees close by, then Greenfinch might be a regular visitor. Sometimes they can look drab and quite like a female House Sparrow, but adult males are a handsome combination of green and yellow and are beginning to sing from treetops and other prominent perches right now. Listen out for their jaunty trills and maybe later in the year, their ‘wheeze’ like song phrases – you can hear the latter here.
Although still relatively common, Greenfinch populations have been in some decline recently. This is thought to be down to a disease called Trichomonosis, which impacts their ability to eat. You can help guard against the spread of this disease by regularly cleaning your bird feeders. Collecting data on this species will help scientists and bird recorders keep track on any further declines or changes in distribution.
We might not think of our garden birds as being adventurous types, but the Collared Dove in your garden are not too long descended from some real pioneers. Historically, Collared Dove ranged eastwards from Turkey, but in the 1950s, a remarkable range expansion took place. They began to colonise Scotland in the late 50s – you can read some early accounts of their presence in Scotland in some of the very earliest issues of Scottish Birds – on page 37 and on page 125. They are now common across much of Scotland but remain less widespread in plenty of upland, western and northern parts. Keeping tabs on your local Collared Doves may help those monitoring birds find out if the species is still slowly spreading across Scotland, or if it has essentially filled all of the bits it can thrive in already.
Finally, if you’re on the edge of a town, you may be lucky enough to have Tree Sparrow visiting your feeders. This may be a relatively new thing too as, until recently, Tree Sparrow had declined massively across the whole of the UK, with an estimated decline of 93% between 1970 and 2008. Luckily, they clung on in a few parts of Scotland and now seem to be faring a little better, with Breeding Bird Survey data from the BTO showing quite a sharp increase in Scottish numbers from around 2007 onwards. These tiny chestnut-capped sparrows have a distinctive dark spot on their cheek, and unlike House Sparrow, have no separable male and female plumage.
There are many species that can be used to mark the progress of Spring. Some of the most anticipated are the songs of Chiffchaff in late March and Willow Warbler in early April, and the arrival of Swifts in May. However, perhaps the first step on any annual walk through Spring is the song of the Skylark. In some areas, Skylarks tend to be elusive (if present at all) through the winter, reappearing in small numbers in early February. Once arrived, they waste no time at all in getting down to the business of establishing territory and finding a mate. The song is usually delivered from a high, hovering bird which then parachutes down to the ground, and can last for a very long time. This full display isn’t usually given this early in the year, with song flights in February tending to be shorter, but you can hear one in full flow here. This was recorded in April 2019. Even if Skylark don’t breed near you, you can still listen out for them making their way to their breeding grounds. They have a distinctive flight call and are usually pretty vocal as they go. You can hear the sounds of migrating birds here.
While many birds are still establishing territories or finding partners, some are already well into their breeding cycles. Common Crossbill may well be on nests by February, but breeding can happen from any time between December and June. They like to breed in mature coniferous woodland and if they are nesting or feeding they can be quite elusive. Luckily they can be located through their songs and calls. A nice example of a song can be heard here. This bird was recorded in Spain. The song itself doesn’t tell us that – but the distant calls of Bee-eater in the background are a bit of a giveaway that this is not Scotland! Phenological records (i.e. those that are related to the timing of events in a birds life cycle) are valuable, especially when considered against a backdrop of climate change. Over a long period of time, reporting events like the first singing Skylark will help scientists track how birds adapt to the changing climate, and reporting singing Crossbill will provide valuable evidence of, and information on the timing of breeding.
A good example of a bird whose life cycle has changed in response to climate change is the Barn Owl. According to the Barn Owl Trust, the average laying date for this species has advanced from May 9th pre 1990, to April 17th! And of course if Barn Owl are laying eggs around April 17th, then before then, they will be going through the process of courtship, and finding somewhere to nest. By February they may well be settled on a location (if not a nest itself) and they will stay nearby for the duration of the breeding season. Although Barn Owl are crepuscular (i.e. active at dawn and dusk) they are most vocal at night. The Sound Approach describes their calls along with many other elements of its natural history, and is full of fantastic recordings of the sounds that they make. If you can tear your ears away from the chilling screeches of the owls, listen out for some glamorous backing vocals from things like Red-necked Nightjar and Arabian Wolf! Courtship screeches can be heard around Barn Owl territories through February, and if you hear one, that’s a really good sign that they will breed. Breeding records for owls are very important and your local bird recorder will be interested in hearing about them.
February and March are great times to bump into wandering American wildfowl. The theory is that they are already on this side of the pond, so to speak, and are going through the sort of northward movement that they would be doing if they were on the right side of the Atlantic. For some reason diving ducks seem to fit this trend best, so if you know of a loch that has good numbers of Tufted Duck, go and take a look. It may well be that your ‘Tufties’ have attracted a Ring-necked Duck or even better, a Lesser Scaup. Other wildfowl worth looking out for include American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal. These are dabbling ducks and wigeon will frequently graze on grass, so these two are less reliant on large expanses of open water and can be found in more marshy habitats. Again, look out for large groups of ‘carrier species’ like Eurasian Wigeon and Common Teal.
While we are on the subject of wildfowl, let’s not ignore the geese. Any flocks of geese are worth checking for unusual interlopers, but at this time of year and after storms we may set our sights higher than hoping for the odd White-fronted Goose in with the Pink-feet. Canada Geese may not invoke excitement most of the time, but what about Canada Geese that have actually come from Canada? In among flocks of Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese, look out for small, square headed and tiny billed versions of Canada Geese – the Cackling Goose, named after its laugh like calls. These birds can be tricky to identify as there are all manner of races of Cackling and ‘Lesser’ Canada Goose, smaller versions of our familiar Canada Goose. Don’t let that detract from the bird itself though. The cutest goose you’ll ever see, an ID challenge, and an incredible journey as well.
The west coast would be well worth checking for seabirds. Little Auk may have been blown inshore, but gulls should be the focus for someone looking for a real rarity. We may see increased numbers of Iceland and Glaucous gull in western areas or the northern isles. Among these may be some rarer visitors. The Kumlien’s Gull is essentially an American version of our Iceland gull, but adults or adult like birds have varying amounts of black or grey at the wingtips, separating them from ‘our’ Iceland gull which have pure white wingtips. If you were really up for a challenge, how about picking an American Herring Gull out of the crowd? Younger birds are probably the easiest ones to pick out so fingers crossed it’s a first winter. Identifying any other age class may just be too much of a challenge on a blustery winters day.
Early March is usually just that little bit too early to be thinking about the first spring migrants of the year, unless southerly (or more likely, south easterly) winds deposit something that was hoping to arrive somewhere further south.
Instead, let’s think about what remains of the winter. It’s around the beginning of March that many of our winter visitors start to think about departing towards their breeding grounds, or at least making progress towards a first staging point. It can be a good time to catch departing Redwings or Blackbirds. They sometimes gather on eastern coasts when the weather puts them off making the long sea crossing, but they can also be heard moving overhead during the night all over Scotland. These movements are likely to happen on a clearer night so listen out for the hard ‘zeeep’ of the Redwing or the slightly softer ‘tsweep’ of Blackbirds passing overhead. You can hear examples of their calls here: Redwing and Blackbird.
Something else that will be thinking of heading back towards wilder landscapes will be some of our wintering wildfowl. Both Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans may start to move around at this time of year. Pink-footed Geese may be especially prominent on the eastern side of Scotland as they make their way towards sites like Loch of Strathbeg. Here, numbers of wintering birds will be swollen by an influx of Pink-footed Geese that have spent the winter elsewhere in the UK, most likely Norfolk or Lancashire. From here, they will move on towards their breeding grounds, most likely in Iceland or Greenland. You can also hear these species as they migrate by night.
Starling songs may feel less wintery and certainly a less nocturnal thing, but there is a connection to nocturnal sound here. Starlings are all over the place and are famously good mimics of other bird species. Early March is when that mimicry really starts to appear, and starlings are more likely to mimic the sounds they hear around them here and now, rather than delve into the memory banks and repeat things they heard last June. A great one you can hear Starlings doing right now is the calls of displaying Buzzards, but they might also mimic some sounds they hear by night. As we sleep, waders such as Oystercatchers, Golden plovers and Curlews will be nocturnally migrating over our towns and cities, and you can hear this reflected in Starlings songs, if you can pick out the mimicry. See if you can pick out the Curlew mimicry in this recording (as well as the mimicry of the screaming children! Not as sinister as it sounds, I promise…) or for some lovely Buzzard mimicry, have a listen here.
By mid March, we can let the floodgates open! Now, at last, we can finally start talking about our returning spring migrants. We’re beginning to see the first of the earlier arriving species in Scotland, and we may even be able to raise the excitement levels beyond ‘mild anticipation’!
Usually by mid March there have already been several reports of Chiffchaff in song in Scotland. It’s hard to know whether these birds are genuine newly arriving migrants, or perhaps birds that have wintered not too far away. It’s still early for Chiffchaff, and they are becoming more numerous as a wintering bird in Scotland – but some of these reports could refer to the first vanguard of arrivals. Keep an ear out for their obvious ‘chiff chaff chiff chaff’ song, or their ‘hweet’ call, and enjoy the brief few weeks before you need to start separating them from Willow Warblers! With the weather the way it is, eastern coasts might get the bulk of the new birds first – generally the western half of the country gets this species first, but perhaps the wind will up the odds on the east coast.
Something else much more likely in numbers on the western side of the country is the White Wagtail. This is the ‘continental’ version of our own Pied Wagtail, and it migrates through (mainly) western Scotland en route towards its breeding grounds in Iceland. It has quite a prolonged passage period but is traditionally one of the earliest migrants we see passing through Scotland, and mid March tends to be when we start seeing them. They can be quite tricky to separate from female Pied Wagtails, but look out for lovely neat, crips, pale backed and crucially, pale rumped birds among the Pieds. Cleaner white flanks can be another good indicator. If you’re in Western Scotland and start seeing more wagtails feeding on shorelines, seaweed, coastal golf courses etc, there’s a good chance that some of these birds will be involved. They do occasionally stay on to breed, most often in the northern isles, so do keep an eye out for lingering birds too.
There will be other migrants to be aware of too. Scotland’s first Sandwich Terns will have arrived, a Sand Martin or two isn’t out of the question, and we may get the odd Wheatear arriving as well. However, for the last species we’ll look at a slightly longer shot. Mid March can be a good time for Black Redstarts to arrive – especially on eastern and northern coasts. They tend to like derelict buildings, harbours, rocky shores, and for some reason, coastal allotments! So, if you’re out planting carrots, or whatever it is that gardeners do at this time of the year, keep an eye out for the distinctive combination of smoky grey with a rusty red tail.
Let’s think about things we might see walking or hopping around in the grass (without forgetting the aforementioned White Wagtail, too). One of the most popular early arrivals is that of the Wheatear, a pretty and charismatic little thing, and one of the most remarkable migrants on earth. Birds that breed in Scotland will have started arriving already, like other species, in western areas first. Later in the year we see the peak passage of Wheatears that will use Scotland as a stepping stone towards higher latitude breeding grounds, such as Iceland, Greenland, or even Canada’s Atlantic coast. These birds will potentially make a non-stop transatlantic crossing on their return in Autumn, which is not bad for a 20 - 25 gram bird. But that’s not even the most impressive thing they do! Wheatears breeding in Alaska winter in Sub Saharan Africa, a journey of around 15,000 km. It takes them up to three months to do this, meaning they spend half of every year migrating, covering a distance that would comfortably take them once around the globe. Remarkable.
Also on the move are Lapwings, Curlews, and Oystercatchers. These tend to be the first wader species that we see migrating, or whose numbers build up first at preferred staging grounds. The simple reason for this is that they are (relatively) lowland and low latitude breeders. The door is open to them long before it is open to high altitude specialist such as Dotterel, or high Arctic breeders such as Sanderling or Turnstone. Look out for gatherings of all three species at wetlands, or even in fields for Curlew and Lapwing. Counts of staging waders are just the sort of thing that your local recorder would be interested in – as are breeding behaviours for any wader species.
Finally, something perhaps a little more esoteric. Rock Pipits are not really considered as migrants in the same way as Swallows, Willow Warblers and Wheatears. However, Scandinavian breeding Rock Pipits spend the winter further south and west in Europe, including many in the UK. During the winter they are generally considered to be inseparable from their resident relatives, but in the spring they can acquire colours that a British Rock Pipit could only dream of. They can be variable, but look out for rock pipits that look paler, a lovely grey/blue colour on the back, and have a pinkish wash to the throat. Birders refer to these as ‘littoralis’ (that’s the name of the Scandinavian/eastern subspecies) and enjoy the challenge of finding or picking out this subtly pretty, under the radar migrant. It doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of the Wheatears accomplishments, but it’s just the sort of thing your Local Bird Recorder would welcome records of.
While much of the focus is on the species that arrive from African or southern European wintering grounds at this time of year, there are all sorts of other birds moving around. These may be more local movements, but they are still migrations, and of course will still mean turnover and arrivals of birds wherever you do your birding. One little studied aspect of bird migration is the northward passage of corvids (crows etc) in the early spring.
This becomes most apparent in places where certain species don’t occur (for example, when you look at April occurrences of Rooks in the northern isles away from the places where they usually occur) but it can also be seen over much more of Scotland. On my little golf-course-next-the-sea here in Aberdeen, I’ll be looking out for sudden increases of crows (Where I usually see a handful of crows, at this time of year I sometimes see larger groups of 20 to 30 birds) – or, high flying flocks of birds heading purposefully northwards. Another big giveaway is when these groups have lovely, pure, hooded crows among them, where these birds are not normally found. I love seeing these movements, as they serve as reminders that very few birds are completely sedentary, and as such, anything can happen!
Anything can happen, but what about those good old reliable things that almost certainly will. Soon, we will find ourselves serenaded by the song of the Willow Warbler. The first birds will be arriving in Scotland at the very end of March (in Western areas first), with the males usually arriving before the females in a race to establish territories. The wonderful thing about Willow Warbler territories is that they mean Willow Warbler song. Nightingales, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes might be more technically adept, but for me there is no song more beautiful than that of this little green visitor. It fills me with nostalgia, hope, and the anticipation of the spring ahead, and sounds an awful lot better than it looks! See what it makes you feel here.
For those interested in seeing something a little rarer, late March can be good for Garganey. They could turn up anywhere wet really – lurking around the edges of a large loch, hiding in a reedbed, or swimming around in the open in a flooded field – I guess they will take what they can find! They are rare breeding species in Scotland but do breed every year – so should you find Garganey in suitable breeding habitat, or displaying, do consider whether it would be wise to publicize the location – but also, please pass details on to your local recorder.
It can still be chilly in April and sometimes it can feel like we’ve skipped summer and autumn and gone straight back to winter… The migrants will battle forth regardless, against the weather, but there may be impacts from a cold spells. It can delay arrival dates, suppress insect activity which makes it harder for a lot of our newly arrived migrants to get into breeding condition, and ultimately if it’s cold enough, it could even spell disaster for some individuals. However, the majority will still make it, so who is going to be arriving next?
Perhaps the most iconic summer migrant of all will be arriving soon. One swallow may not make a summer, but I’m guessing it will be making someone’s day at the beginning of April, most likely somewhere in southern Scotland. Early April sees this species arrive en masse here, but also look out for House Martins as well. The bulk of our breeding House Martins will arrive later in April, but gatherings of hirundines (swallows and martins) may well encourage an early arrival to linger. If you are interested in seeing how species such as Swallow and House Martin spread across Europe at this time of year, have a look at these great interactive maps generated by the EuroBirdPortal. The map for Swallow can be found here and House Martin is here and from there you can browse for distribution maps for hundreds of different European species. Isn’t the internet wonderful!
Another species that will be arriving sooner rather than later is the Common Sandpiper. This species breeds in upland areas and has a characteristic way of bobbing along faster flowing streams and rivers. However, on migration they can be found in a variety of wetland habitats and are less restricted to upland areas. Listen out for their distinctive calls along waterways and inland lochs, or even as they migrate overhead during the night – you can hear a selection of their high pitched, whistling calls here and here. In spite of this species having the word common in it's name, it is amber listed in the UK due to the severe declines in its breeding population. As such, any record of Common Sandpiper, but especially those in suitable breeding habitat, would be very useful.
Having ‘our’ warblers spend the winter here is becoming less unusual, but still the majority of them move away from our hard winter climate. Blackcaps winter in small numbers here but will be arriving back into Scotland in big numbers by mid April, with the first arrivals at the beginning of the month. At first, they are likely to give themselves away with their loud, rich songs, an example of which can be heard here. Their song always puts me in mind of a blackbird in a hurry! There’s not much out there that sounds a lot like a Blackcap – that is until the Garden Warblers arrive, as the two can sound very similar! Luckily we don’t need to worry about that until mid May, which is when the first Garden Warbler territories will be defended in Scotland.
Our Curlews are already on the move, heading from our coasts and estuaries back up to higher ground, or perhaps back over the North Sea to breed somewhere in Scandinavia. Their close relative the Whimbrel will also be moving as well. Their journey is a longer one, as having spent the winter in Africa, they will be passing through Scotland over the first half of April on their way to breeding grounds at much higher latitudes. There is a small breeding population in Scotland, almost exclusively in Shetland these days, but the vast majority of birds that are seen in Scotland in the spring will be heading elsewhere. Separating Whimbrels from Curlews can be a bit of a headache as they are generally very similar in appearance. The Whimbrel has a shorter and ‘kinked’ bill compared to the longer and more smoothly curved Curlew, and the Whimbrel has a more well marked head pattern, with a more contrasting eyestripe, and a dark crown that is neatly divided by a thin pale stripe. Whimbrels also have a very distinctive call, with its series of short whistles sounding quite unlike the ‘cuuurl – EE’ of the Curlew. You can hear a nice example of a Whimbrel’s call here.
Something else moving towards much higher latitudes to breed is the Iceland gull. Traditionally this has always been considered to be a winter visitor, but away from favoured harbours, you’re actually a lot more likely to come across one in early spring, as it meanders its way northward. It’s a pretty uncommon bird but once you have your eye in on its pale plumage, and especially its pale wingtips, they can be very easy to pick out among the commoner species of gull, although Glaucous Gull will give you something to think about when identifying one, of course. With juvenile birds, think biscuits. Iceland gulls tend to be Rich Tea colour or paler. If you get something that looks more Digestive, it’s much more likely to be a Glaucous Gull. Naturally, coasts and especially harbours where fish are landed are the best places to go and look for them, but with at least three different immatures inland in Scotland this week, they can turn up anywhere.
And finally, one to one of our most iconic summer visitors. The first Cuckoos should be reaching us by mid April so when it’s warm and the wind has dropped, it may be time to start listening out for that distinctive song, especially in south western areas. Many will still be in Africa but the first few will be on their way across Europe or even England. Tracking projects run by the BTO have opened our eyes onto the wintering grounds and trans-Saharan migration routes of ‘our’ Cuckoos (seems strange calling them that when they’re only here for four or so months!) and you can keep up with the journeys of the current pool of tagged birds here. The Cuckoo is a declining species so records of them will be appreciated by your Local Bird Recorder. You can read a little more about their decline here.
Birding always used to be called bird watching, but I think one of the reasons that the name birding has stuck is because it acknowledges the role that our ears play. In fact, there are plenty of birds that we might not see at all, but can recognize by their distinctive sounds. Several ‘wetland’ birds fall into this category (Bittern, Water Rail and both crakes, for example) and another one of these is a summer migrant that will be arriving into Scotland towards the end of April. If you’re enjoying any wetland edge with thick vegetation (or even any thick, grassy habitat) at this time of year, keep an ear out for a Grasshopper Warbler. These birds can be incredibly elusive (although in contrast, if you do find one they can sometimes show very well) but where they are present, they give themselves away with their ‘reeling’ song. You can hear a nice example of that here. It’s called ‘reeling’ as it has been likened to the sound a fishing reel makes, and the bird’s name is also a result of this song, which is similar to the sounds some species of grasshopper make. I guess we should make our minds up which it sounds like and stick with one!
A more visible summer migrant (and dare I say it, a slightly better looking one…) is the Common Tern. Common terns arrive in Scotland slightly early than the very similar Arctic Tern, and they are a little different in their habits. Arctic terns are exclusively coastal species in terms of their breeding, and although small numbers may pass inland, an inland ‘commic’ tern (that’s the name given to this species pair) is much more likely to be a Common. Unlike their Arctic cousins, Common Terns will breed on inland lakes and islands in rivers, and have even nested on the rooves of industrial buildings near rivers. A sure sign that a Common Tern is heading to an inland nest is if you see one carrying a fish away from the sea.
In April, we’re still very much in the period of exchange. We have plenty of summer visitors arriving of course, but we also still have some winter visitors left to depart. It’s worth remembering that these birds are still around, and can sometimes be encountered singing a song that’s unfamiliar to us. The most likely of these would be the Redwing and the Brambling. Redwings will still be passing over during the night – a great one to listen out for on your way back from the pub!
What might be the cherry on time we start seeing the first Swifts arriving into southern Scotland. Obviously they will arrive in greater numbers through May but some of you may be lucky and see one earlier than this. There are few birds that scream (literally!) migration like a Swift does – built to move, arriving late and leaving early. Their time with us is fleeting, yet later in the year they really make their presence felt, screaming along our streets and over our houses as dusk falls, having what one can only assume, is a good time. We experience swifts as a shape in the sky, for the most part. There is little plumage detail to see, but what is there is rendered invisible by the height, speed and agility of their flight. They are mysterious, and declining, and if you are lucky enough to be blessed with Swifts around you, do look out for visits to nests later in the year. Records of nesting birds would be particularly useful to your local bird recorder.
The Whinchat is everything the swift isn’t. Dapper - colourful and exquisitely patterned, often motionless, and unobtrusive. They will have made similar journeys to the Swifts that are incoming (although from less far south in Africa), but one can imagine in a very different manner – either skirting around the coast of West Africa or flitting across the Sahara, one oasis at a time. When they arrive here they will head into the lowlands of the uplands, if that makes sense, breeding in valleys with scrubby vegetation and bracken. As I seem to say a lot, this is another declining species, and hopefully you know the drill: Report, report, report!
And last, something of a longer shot, unless you’re in the south east of Scotland. Yellow Wagtails are rare, but perhaps increasing visitors to Scotland, and can be found from late April through to later in the spring. Birders up here like them for several reasons. They’re rare, which gives them value, and they look brilliant too (we are human, even if we don’t always make that obvious! ). As if this wasn’t enough, they also come in lots of different guises too, depending on what part of Europe they are from (and I guess, are supposed to be heading back towards). ‘Our’ birds are brilliant yellow with greener upperparts. Birds from the bulk of the European mainland are known as ‘Blue-headed Wagtails’ (I’ll let you work out why…) and a little later on we may see Scandinavian breeders known as ‘Grey-headed Wagtail’. There are many more options – these are just the most numerous visitors. What makes them even more complicated, or interesting, depending on your point of view, is that the different forms can hybridise with one another. When our birds meet Blue-headed Wagtails, they make little baby ‘Channel Wagtails’, which have the most delicate powder blue heads (and I think are the best looking ones, although I’d be happy if I looked as good as any of them…). Look out for them on lowland coasts, wetlands, and fields with livestock in them.
Back in April it was suggested that we looked out for the first Common Terns of the year. Well, in early May,it’s time to start thinking about their very similar cousin, the Arctic Tern. This is a much more exclusively coastal bird (unless you’re based in Shetland and Orkney, where they will nest pretty much anywhere), so a trip to the seaside might be in order! It’s incredible to think of the journeys that these birds have made, from the icy waters of the Antarctic to our coasts and islands. People often talk about the distances they cover during their migration, but consider this. They hardly get a rest once they settle to breed. On returning, they will feed up to get themselves into good condition, then once the eggs hatch, they will need to spend every waking hour defending the young or foraging for food for the chick. These foraging trips must clock up a huge distance over the breeding season, and then when it’s all over again, they only have to go and migrate 10,000 miles again! I’m pretty glad I’m not a tern….
Slightly more exotic but no less iconic - why not look out for Dotterel? Yes, they’ll be up on the high tops soon and once they settle onto nests, extremely hard to see – but before then, well, they’ve got to get here haven’t they. It’s from early May that (if we are pretty lucky!) we may bump into a small group of Dotterel feeding or resting in a ploughed field. Eastern and coastal areas tend to be better but in theory they could turn up anywhere really. Ploughed fields are well worth checking for other things at this time of year too – White Wagtails, Wheatears, Golden Plover, and maybe other waders could all be found using this habitat while on migration.
And finally, baby birds! By early May we might start to see our first young birds of the year. Recording these is really important, as each time you do so you’re recording a successful breeding attempt. Birders are pretty good at recording what birds they’ve seen, and even counting them, but one thing we might be less good at is recording some of the really useful extra details such as breeding evidence. Recording fledged young is one of the best (and easiest) ways you can record breeding evidence, so look out for juvenile ducks, waders, Coots and Moorhens, Blackbirds and Robins (and many more) from now on.
Strathspey has a range of goodies on offer (Capercaillie, Crested Tit, Crossbills of all manner of persuasions, Slavonian grebes, I could go on….) but I’m going to focus on some of the slightly less glamorous species, that could be found more widely across Scotland that you could see in mid May.
Woodcock breed in woodlands all over Scotland and spring evenings are a great time to catch their ‘roding’ display flights. These flights play a similar role to leks carried out by some grouse species, with male Woodcocks seeking to dominate the airspace, and those that do will get to mate with multiple females. The high pitched squeak part of the call is more easily heard than the grunt, so keep your ears peeled for that and look up when you hear it – roding takes place above the treetops! You can hear both elements of the call in this recording – but the grunts are barely discernable compared to the squeeks – listen out for them at around 10 to 12 seconds into the recording https://macaulaylibrary.org/asset/402360641. If you’repottering around in the dark, also listen out for Grasshopper Warblers and anything else that feels like it ought to make its presence known at that time of the night. Perhaps a Tawny Owl or two?
Perhaps not quite over the treetops, but sat right in them, you could hope to find some singing Common Redstarts. Perhaps the only thing better than hearing a Redstart is getting a nice look at the male. These birds will not long be back from Africa and will probably still be intent on proclaiming territory in early May, so they should still be singing very actively at this time of year. When they sing, they tend to perch high up and on display in the treetops. Here’s hoping for a gap in the canopy!
Something else that needs a gap in the canopy is the Tree Pipit. It’s a bird of woodlands, but it needs a bit of open space so that it can ‘parachute’ down to the ground as part of its display flight – you can see it doing this (and hear its distinctive song too) on this video. Again, these will have returned back from Africa by early May, and will hopefully be in fine voice. Both the Tree Pipit and the Redstart can be found widely across Scotland, mainly in lower to middle elevation woodlands, although the Tree Pipit prefers much more open areas. They are both species that occur at reasonably low densities, so records of either, and also of roding Woodcock, would be welcomed by your local bird recorder.
May can be one of the best months of the birding calendar for finding something a little bit different. It’s not quite up there with the autumn in terms of the number and diversity of rarities on offer, but if the weather is helpful, and you’re feeling a little lucky, May can certainly deliver. We’re going to look at something that could turn up on the east side, something for the west, and something that could turn up anywhere, including right in the middle. Also, we’re going to leave the mega rarities to one side and focus on things that could actually happen!
First up, one of the classic drift migrants. In mid May, on the east coast and with a decent south easterly wind, there’s every chance a Bluethroat could turn up. These stunning little chats are found (usually) hopping around on the ground under coastal bushes or sycamores – watch out for something like a Robin that looks like it has a lot of orangey red in the tail when it flies away from you (a bit like a Redstart). When it lands, the first thing you’re likely to notice is the whacking great supercilium as it turns its head, and then BLAM, it turns around and that electric blue throat hits you in the eyes. Even those who’ve found loads of much rarer birds than Bluethroats can’t help going a little weak at the knees when that happens.
Over to the west now, where skuas might be migrating. Great and Arctic Skuas may be mostly back onto their breeding grounds by now, but some of the jazzier ones will still be on the move. In the middle of May, large numbers of Long-tailed and Pomarine Skuas can be seen moving northward towards their high arctic breeding grounds. The Outer Hebrides tend to be the best bet to witness this spectacle (and it really can be a spectacle on some days, with thousands of birds noted when weather co-operates) although anywhere on the Atlantic seaboard will be worth a look. Some skuas will also take a wee short cut over land too, passing over mountains and glens at great height from the west, and dropping back down to sea level when they reach the other side. Could there be any more bizarre a sighting than seeing a flock of Long-tailed Skuas travelling along theGreat Glen?
And finally, something that could turn up anywhere. One of the smallest waders you’re ever likely to see is the Temminck’s Stint. If you don’t know what they look like, imagine a pocket Common Sandpiper – appreciably smaller than a Dunlin. These birds, like all of the others that will be passing through Scotland this late in the year, will be heading to the wilds of the far north – a real wilderness species. So, what habitat might a real wilderness species use while it stops off in Scotland? Well, anything wet with fresh water really! Any loch or pool with a muddy shore could do the trick, and they are quite partial to a flooded field too. Just the sort of place a Garganey might turn up as well, if you’re feeling particularly lucky….
By late May the Swifts, Spotted Flycatcher and other late migrants are well in and will be settling down to get on with breeding. Some species however are already getting to the end of their first breeding attempts, and the signs of that may be quite obvious! Ducks such as Mallard will have young already and it may soon be time for more interesting species to fledge as well. Your Local Bird Recorder would be delighted to receive records of any species of ducks with young birds – but especially things that are rarer or decreasing (such as Pochard) or things that might not get reported such as broods of Tufted duck. Scanning around well vegetated edges of ponds and lochs might give you the best chance, and who knows what you might find? Breeding Teal surely fly under the radar and at larger or more remote bodies of water, you might get lucky with a brood of Wigeon, Gadwall or Goldeneye?
The Quail belongs to a little band of loosely related birds that can be quite easy to hear but pretty hard to actually see. Some years see lots of Quail arriving in this country, and during these times they can be quite easy to bump into – or at least their calls can be. In other years they can be less easy to come by, but there are no years when Quail records are not interesting. They like to sing from tallish crops and can sometimes be heard singing as they fly around at night – the following recording was made in SW France and features a migrating Quail giving its distinctive ‘wet me-lips’ song- please excuse the excessive insect noise!
Spring is an exciting time for birders because there is a suite of nice juicy scarce birds that inevitably turn up. A lot of them have their own temporal niches (e.g. Bluethroats arriving in mid-May), and by late May we’re getting into the period of spring where we need to keep our ears peeled for mimicry. Two of our dullest, drabbest but best sounding rare birds turn up around now – the Marsh Warbler and the Blyth’s Reed Warbler. One of the features of both species songs (and especially the Marsh Warbler) is that they are rich in mimicry, and one of the joys of hearing one of these sing is the mixing of familiar sounds like Linnet and Swallow with more exotic Bee-eaters and other tropical sounds. In this 18 minute recording you can hear a Marsh Warbler mimicking 27 different species of European birds and several more African species that have not been confidently identified. Listen out for songs like this from thick vegetation and don’t worry if you can’t see the bird – the song is by far its best feature! It’s likely that records of Marsh or Blyth’s Reed Warbler will need to be verified by your local records committee, so do try to get a recording with your mobile phone if you’re lucky enough to stumble into something like this. The longer the better!
Although it may well feel like summer out there in early June, and with newly fledged birds apparently everywhere, some birds are still in the process of migrating towards their breeding grounds. Generally, the further north somewhere breeds, the later it needs to arrive – otherwise there is risk that a bird arrives onto its breeding grounds before insect numbers are high enough, or while there is still snow on the ground. Waders such as the Knot, Turnstone and Sanderling are great examples of this. They breed at very high latitudes, and as such, will still be en route in early June.
This can lead to scenarios like the same shingle shore shared between a group of migrating Turnstone, who would barely have started thinking about breeding, and a pair of Ringed Plover, nervously watching over their recently hatched young. It’s a great time to look out for these species, as they look fantastic at this time of year, with (literally) Red Knots, Sanderlings brick-red and white, and Turnstones a dazzling mixture of black, white, and rusty brown. They can also turn up in unusual places too, with either species potentially turning up on inland loch shores as they head towards the wild northern tundra.
From the wild to the perhaps not so wild – but fascinating nonetheless. We are entering the time of year when some very exotic looking species can occur – although we may not be so sure where they have come from. Both Bar-headed Geese and Ruddy Shelduck tend to start turning up around now. The geese are native to India and north of the Himalayas, so natural vagrancy for these is extremely unlikely – but the Ruddy Shelducks are native to eastern Europe so it’s possible that some of the ones that turn up here are truly wild birds. What is more likely though is that these birds are part of the feral populations that breed in places like the Netherlands and Germany. That doesn’t make them any less worthy of our attention of course. Recording occurrence of these birds may help piece together the jigsaw with regard to why they come, and where from. Likewise, it’s useful to keep tabs on non-native species, as they could be future colonists and with that comes the potential for ecological damage, and an obligation to monitor. Finally, although these birds are likely to be ‘plastic’ (a term birders use for escaped/feral birds), they are still extremely striking and will be a surprise when you come across one! I’ll never forget the moment a Bar-headed Goose whizzed past me through Aberdeen harbour – completely off the radar, a huge surprise, and great fun!
Now – to some exotic (and noisy!) visitors you can trust to be wild. Bee-eaters are very rare birds in Scotland but June is the best time to catch up with one. As bright and colourful as they are, perhaps the best way to find one would be to learn its call – an abrupt, bubbling ‘prrp…..prrp’ which the bird gives in flight – you can hear a short recording of one here. Equally as rare, but equally likely to turn up in June, and just as vocal are Common Rosefinch and Golden Oriole. I was lucky enough to bump into a singing Golden Oriole on Shetland a few years ago – you can hear that bird here- so odd to hear it against a backdrop of Shetlands breeding waders! I’m yet to find a singing spring Rosefinch, but this is the distinctive song I’ll be keeping my ears open for. Maybe it’ll be your lucky day?
By mid June we can officially declare spring to be over. There seems to be little happening in terms of migration at the moment – although for some failed breeders, it is time to start behaving like it’s autumn already. But, enough of that – let’s enjoy the summer while it lasts.
One thing that has becomes evident by mid June is that lots of our spring migrants have raised their first broods already this year. I’m intrigued by how synchronised these fledges are. Chiffchaffs could have arrived a good five weeks before Whitethroats and yet here they are fledging their first broods at roughly the same time. Have I missed a brood of Chiffchaffs already – or are things timed to coincide with abundant food resources? I don’t know – but what I do know is that recording and reporting these fledged birds to the Local Bird Recorder will help keep tabs on any changes in phenology (when birds do what they do, essentially), and will provide valuable breeding evidence, helping make population estimates more robust.
Lots of our seabirds have young by this time, but they are still far from fledging. This means that there is an awful lot of to-and fro, with adult birds completely immersed in the process of feeding
young. On some coasts, it’s a particularly good time of year to see Puffins, and other things that may be moving from even more distant colonies. Maybe the Great Skuas and Manx Shearwaters that can be seen far from their colonies at this time of year will be immatures or adults taking a ‘sabbatical’ from breeding? Perhaps that is more likely than these birds coming from one of the distant colonies! It won’t have escaped people’s notice that seabirds were impacted by Avian Flu in Scotland in 2022. Will the reduction in numbers at the colonies be reflected in the numbers of birds being counted offshore? Only time will tell – but you could help find out…
It’s getting towards the time of year when Rosy Starlings can turn up. In spite of coming from the east, they have a knack of turning up on the west coast, or inland. Also, they often turn up on bird tables, almost exclusively in non-birders gardens (as far as I can make out). Look out for them among starling flocks – they will, at this time of year, be adults or subadults, so very nice and pink and striking. A lovely easy one to identify! If only all rarities were as easy…
For some reason, mid summer seems to be a good time of year to pick up a wandering Spoonbill, and other ‘continental’ herons. While these birds are still rare, be aware that they are increasing and have, in the case of Spoonbill, even bred in Scotland. Surely it’s just a matter of time before Little Egret are regular breeders and then what’s next? Great White Egret, or maybe even Cattle Egret? Check your local estuaries and wetlands, and of course, keep an eye to the skies, for wandering birds but do exercise a little caution if you want to report these, or of course any other potentially breeding rare birds. Data submitted to Local Bird Recorders is good, either directly or via BirdTrack – but reporting these things on the usual rarity channels if you suspect that the birds are breeding should be done with extreme caution. Also, be aware of an ID pitfall. In the summer, Great White Egrets take on a breeding ‘plumage’ that consists of a dark bill, and sometimes pinky red legs – not all dark billed egrets are Little Egrets!
While we are on about birds with wet feet, what about Guillemots? By late June the first young birds have already jumped from their cliff ledges and will be squealing away at Daddy Guillemot. They have a long couple of months ahead of them, drifting out to sea and being fed by Dad alone, before they suddenly grow up and decide they don’t need any more help. On calmer days, it’s likely the first you will know of them is their very distinctive call. If you hear this (usually) three note squeal, look out for one obviously smaller Guillemot hanging around with a normal sized one. This early in the year, they may well also retain some of their fluffy juvenile plumage. However, sometimes Dad is under water and you can be faced with what looks like a very small auk. Don’t be fooled! There are usually a couple of Little Auks reported around this time of year and the smart money would go on them being young Guillemots!
Evidence of breeding seems to be one of those things that birders might be less good at recording, yet at the right time of year it is all around us. Many species of birds begin to hold territory as early as February, and singing birds at that time of year can be considered as at the very least, a potential breeding attempt. Fast forward to early July and it’s difficult not to see breeding evidence! Birds will still be singing – those territories are still important as there is still time for another brood, but we can see lots of other things that can tell us that breeding has, or is still going on. Recently fledged birds are a very reliable indicator of local breeding, with most passerines at least lingering near the nest site while they feed dependent young. Often, these young birds will be distinctly coloured, but where they are not, the residual yellowish gape flanges will give their immaturity away. Even more reliable are indicators such as birds carrying large quantities of insects in their bills, or fecal sacks, as these are proof that the bird is nesting right there and then. Others include signs of nest building such as carrying sticks, or distraction displays like that of the Ringed Plover. So – you don’t need to find a nest with eggs in it to prove breeding, and in fact, unless you are actively partaking in a nest recording scheme there is no reason to disturb the birds at all. Even your presence near a nest will lead to birds changing their behaviour. If you see birds hanging around with a bill full of insects, perhaps looking or sounding agitated, you’re probably quite close (too close, if you were to ask the birds!) to a nest.
Most of the above is written with passerines in mind but we can apply some of it to other species too. Looking out to sea in July you can see a lot of auks on the move, and when they are close enough to shore, you can see that many of them are carrying fish. If you are inland, look out for Common Terns passing over carrying fish. Both of these can tell us something. Recording the latter of course indicates that there is an inland colony of Common Terns somewhere (they have nested on the roofs of industrial estates, in the past). Recording auks flying past with fish can tell us what species might be breeding where, and it can also give us an indication of when chick rearing starts and ends. In a world with global warming and fluctuations in fish stocks, this sort of information could be very useful.
You can record these types of breeding evidence using BirdTrack, and your Local Recorder will no doubt be very pleased to receive them, as they help to build a much more complete picture of the bird populations in your local area.
Mid summer is often thought of as a quite portion of the birding calendar, but in the birding calendar, the ‘summer’ is extremely short, if it even exists at all. Some high arctic breeding waders wait until late May before reaching their breeding grounds, while some species that breed at lower latitudes, such as curlew and lapwing, will begin their return journeys in June. All of which means, that in terms of the birding calendar, we’re already well into autumn!
Curlews are on the move, and so are their close relatives, the Whimbrel. They can be found along any shoreline at this time of year. Look out for a smaller, and shorter billed version of a curlew with a prominent dark eye stripe and a narrow pale line through the centre of the crown. They also have a distinctive call – a series of 5 – 10 short whistles, which to those familiar with it, often means the birds are identified before they have even been seen, as they pass high overhead. A nice example of this call, recorded on Mull, can be found here. Looking at data gathered through BirdTrack, sightings of Whimbrel rose through July and peaked in August. You can see a graph of 2020 data here. Look out for other waders too such as Knot and Bar-tailed Godwit, which will still be looking great in their breeding plumage.
For those who can’t get to the coast, there is another distinctive sound to listen out for. Newly fledged Long-eared Owls are still fed by their parents long after leaving the nest. They make their presence (and hunger!) known with a high pitched, descending whistle, known among birders as the ‘squeeky gate’ call. Have a listen to this bird recorded in Aberdeenshire, to find out why! June is usually the best time to hear this call, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t still hear it into July.
Of course, there are plenty of other things to keep an eye open for. Rosy Starlings are still popping up all over the place, and it won’t be too long before the first terns (usually sandwich terns) are fledging.
As July progresses, sadly, it gets closer to the time when we can say goodbye to some of our first departing summer migrants.
Cuckoos are already on the move (some are already well into Africa) but July is a really good time to bump into dispersing juvenile cuckoos in places where you might not normally find this species. Perhaps due to their rather falcon like shape, small birds will mob a cuckoo like they might mob any raptor, so keep an ear out for the calls of anxious sounding pipits and warblers! In fact, this is a good clue to follow up on at all times, as it’s a very good indicator that there is a predator around. The juveniles disperse slightly later than the adults (who have very little reason to stay around once they have laid their eggs) but are generally all but gone by the middle of August. You can find historical arrival and last record dates for cuckoos in your local area here.
Another bird that leaves our shores early is the Swift. If you begin to notice an increase in swifts where you are, this may well be because juvenile birds are fledging their nest sites and joining the wheeling, screaming groups of adults in the sky. It’s incredible to think that the first thing these birds will do will be to migrate to southern Africa, potentially spending the next 10 months without ever landing. Enjoy them while you can! Keen migration watchers will be on the lookout for groups of swifts purposefully moving southward from now and over the next month or so.
If you’re keen on an identification challenge, look out for Mediterranean Gulls. Although they are never common in Scotland, mid to late in the summer is a great time to see these birds as they disperse from their breeding sites. Coastal and southern areas are better, but they can be seen in inland gull flocks too. Be on the lookout for rather Common Gull like juveniles or more Black-headed gull like adults and immatures. Adults in breeding plumage are truly stunning birds and could never be accused of being just another boring gull! There is a good write up of this species with photos of birds in a variety of plumages here.
By late July, we can expect the first movements of Tree Pipits to begin. These birds will mostly have bred in Scotland’s upland open woodlands, and will be beginning their long journey to sub-Saharan Africa. Visually, they can be very difficult to separate from the commoner Meadow Pipit, but fortunately they have a distinctive call. It is this call that gives them away while on migration. You can hear a recording of this call here, but if you feel like testing yourself, see if you can pick out the migrating Tree Pipit calls among the Meadow Pipits and other species here!
Another species heading south is the Sandwich tern, but something else rather strange happens with this species, before they embark upon that big journey. Birds from colonies in places such as Northumberland, Norfolk, and even the Netherlands make their way northwards before turning around and heading back south. Many of these birds will be juveniles, and they will make use of the excellent feeding opportunities on the east coast of Scotland and make large roosts with local birds. We know about these movements through ringing, so keep an eye out for ringed birds, and especially, those with colour rings that can be read in the field. If you’re lucky enough to find a colour ringed bird, you can report this through the BTO website.
Wader passage is now in full swing. Some species are almost exclusively coastal, but one that can turn up almost anywhere inland is the common sandpiper. Inland lochs, reservoirs, rivers and streams could all host this species, as long as there is a suitable margin for them to forage along. Like most other waders, they could be accused of being a little dull, plumage wise, but they are still very distinctive. They have a clear, sharp, high pitched call, and a flight style that flits between buzzing on flickering, stiff wings, and periods of gliding, as they pass low to the waters surface. If you are finding common sandpipers, keep an eye out for their rarer relative, the Green Sandpiper.
Separating Willow Warbler from Chiffchaff is a perennial problem for birders, with even the most experienced observers resigned to calling them ‘willow-chiff’ at times. Early August however, is the best time to make a firm identification. Birds hatched this year (known as 1cy – birds in the first calendar year) are perhaps easier to separate than adults (apart from when they’re singing!) with willow warblers having a lovely clean, pale lemony yellow tone to the throat and underparts, and chiffchaffs having a duller, dirty browny yellow tone. Don’t you just love the way birders describe colours! They can also be separated by their calls at this time of year, although this takes a bit of practice and familiarity. Chiffchaffs go around saying ‘hweet’, whereas willow warblers make more of a ‘huuweet’ sound. Those two ‘u’s are important!
As mentioned earlier in the year, terns are finishing up their busy breeding season and are thinking about getting on the move. We think of terns as being strictly seabirds, especially outside of the breeding season – but modern technology is showing that they regularly migrate over land. Tracking has shown that Arctic terns breeding on the east coast migrate over central Scotland at this time of year (and for the next month or so at least), and nocturnal recording devices in the central belt have also picked up large movements of Common, Arctic, and to a lesser extent, Sandwich terns. Now could be a great time for picking up the species usually considered most coastal (e.g. Arctic and Sandwich tern) at an inland location. And if you’re up in the middle of the night, keep an ear out too! Although if you’re on your way back from the pub, people might not believe you when you say you’ve been hearing terns flying over…!
For those able to get to the coast, early August is a great time to watch out for this years jumplings. Jumplings are young Guillemots and Razorbills that have literally jumped off the cliff and are now voyaging out to sea with their Dads (it’s always Dad that takes this job on). By August, Guillemots will mostly have jumped already, but now will be peak time for Razorbills to do the same. Look out for tiny auks associating with normal sized ones! And also, keep an ear out too. We don’t always think of hearing as a useful tool when looking from the shore for seabirds, but the squealing calls of young Guillemots and Razorbills can carry a long way, and are easily audible from the shore at this time of year. Harder to hear are the guttural growls the adults make in response, but on a calm day you should be able to pick this call up as well. Away from the cliff ,we don’t get much insight into the private lives of auks, so if you do encounter a young one, listen out for it calling and look out for dad, delivering fish whenever it can, fattening the young bird up for it’s first winter at sea. It’s making me cold just thinking about it…
By mid-August, if the weather looks promising, we can start thinking about passerine migrants and their associated scarcities. For those on the east coast or northern isles, a blend of south-easterly winds and rain could deliver good numbers of migrant passerines. It’s very hard to predict what sort of arrival might happen, but don’t be too surprised to see Redstart, Whinchat, Flycatchers, and Warblers such as Willow Warbler and Lesser Whitethroat in coastal places where they are not usually found. And of course, there is the prospect of something rarer showing up too – perhaps a Barred or Icterine Warbler, a Red-backed shrike or a Wryneck. Exciting times, if not potentially quite damp ones!
For those who cannot make it to the coast, there are still rare birds to be found. Quail often sing well at this time of year, so if you find yourself out and about in rural countryside, with well grown crops, keep an ear out for their song. Dusk (or even well into the night) is the best time to hear this, a repetitive ‘whipdy whip’ with the quality of a dripping tap – sometimes described as sounding like ‘Wet my lips’. You can hear a nice example of a singing Quail here. Hearing a Quail is one thing, but seeing one is a totally different prospect, as they generally stay well hidden in the cover from which they sing. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and see one in flight, or dashing across a gap in the crops?
If you’re near a river mouth or estuary, look out for gatherings of Goosander. Not the glamourous looking breeding plumage males with their stunning pink and dark green hues, but more subtly beautiful ‘female type’ birds, with their smoky brown bodies and chestnut heads. Depending on where you are, these gatherings may consist of moulting adult males and females, and this years young too. The young birds can sometimes be picked out by having slightly shorter bills. Goosander in this plumage are often confused with female type Red-breasted Mergansers. They tend to have different ‘hairstyles’ with Goosanders having much neater crests, but the best way to separate the two is by looking at their necks. In Red-breasted Mergansers, the chestnut head merges gently into the grey on the neck. In Goosander, it’s a very abrupt change.
Some birds might only make quite short movements, but there are still notable changes that can be seen in their numbers and behaviour. Goldfinch is one of those species that is not really renowned for its movements, and although some British birds do migrate to France and Spain for the winter, many others stay put. In late summer, with numbers swollen by juvenile birds, Goldfinches can form into large and noisy flocks, wheeling and tinkling around as they feed on seeds from preferred species like thistles. The young birds can be easily identified as they lack the striking red, black and white face pattern of the adults. They can sometimes be easy to see well at this time of year, and within these flocks you might also find linnets, and later in the year, perhaps siskin or redpoll. Look out for these big flocks in open areas with lots of unmanaged grass and scrub.
One species that is never easy to see well is the Grasshopper warbler. It’s a secretive species inhabiting wetlands and grassy areas, from where it sings, usually from deep within cover. They have the uncanny knack of remaining hidden from view even at close range and with limited cover to conceal themselves! Luckily, they have a very distinctive song, and August can be a good time to hear it. They get their name from their insect like ‘reeling’ song – a long sequence of rapid clicks that in real time sounds a lot like an old fashioned fishing reel. This song can be heard anywhere with suitable habitat, but Grasshopper warblers have a preference for singing at dusk or during the night – so perhaps this is another one to listen out for on the way back from the pub! You can hear a nice example of a Grasshopper Warbler in song here.
On the coast, (or if you are very lucky, inland) we begin to see good numbers of Knot come through by mid August. These stunning brick red waders will have bred in the high Arctic, probably Greenland or Canada, and will use Scottish shores for feeding and resting, before travelling further south where they might form wintering flocks tens of thousands strong. The adults travel first, followed shortly after by the slightly less glamourous, but subtly good looking juvenile birds, with their silver and peach washed look. Other brick red waders to be on the lookout for at this time of year are Black and Bar-tailed Godwits. These are taller, leggier birds than Knot, with much longer bills.
As we get later into August, It’s eyes to the skies. Ospreys will be on the move, as they migrate from Scottish breeding grounds towards their African winter quarters. As they can glide with slightly bent wings, they can often cut a rather gull like figure, and as such, they might be overlooked. However, the gulls themselves can tell the difference so keep your eyes peeled if your local gulls suddenly start wheeling around and making a lot of noise! You can see a selection of routes taken by migrating Scottish Ospreys here. While lochs and estuaries offer the best chance, a drifting osprey could be seen almost anywhere, even a city centre, as they progress along their long southward journey.
Osprey migration is remarkable enough, but a trip to the coast could reveal some of the world’s most incredible travelers. Shearwaters are perfectly built for flight, and late August is a great time to see Manx Shearwaters from Scottish coasts. Huge numbers can be seen on Scotlands west coast, with birds focusing around colonies such as those on Rum and Canna, and even birds from Copeland in Ireland venturing towards Scottish shores. They can be seen on the east coast too, although in lower numbers. Later in the year, they will migrate south through the Atlantic ocean to spend the northern winter off Brazil and Argentina, before travelling north again via a different route to make the most of the prevailing winds, and feeding opportunities. As they tend to stay a long way offshore, a telescope is really handy. Look out for their distinctive flight, showing the dark upperside and then flicking to the light underside, and back and forth. You might also be lucky enough to see a Sooty Shearwater. These larger and all dark versions will have bred on the Falkland islands and will be passing through Scottish waters in small numbers around now. An onshore wind can be very helpful in getting good views of shearwaters and any other seabirds that are otherwise hard to see.
Another bird that will be embarking upon a substantial journey is the Sanderling. These high arctic breeders will be heading south, using Scottish shores for resting and refueling before most of them move on southwards again – birds occurring in Scotland could have bred in Spitzbergen, Greenland Siberia or Canada, and they may travel as far as West Africa . These small waders can form large flocks and have a distinctive feeding style, running along the shore and hastily retreating with every incoming wave. People liken them to clockwork toys, and when you see their legs going and their sometimes relentless activity, you can see why!
Our first bird to feature for early September needs no introduction. The Kingfisher is as popular as it is well known, yet in spite of its flashy colours, it can be a surprisingly difficult bird to see. Most observations are restricted to a moment of blue, dashing along a stream or over a lake. At this time of year, young Kingfishers will be dispersing from breeding sites, and as such can turn up in places where they are not usually found. Rivers with breeding populations often see young birds disperse downstream, and it’s not too unusual to find an ‘out of place’ Kingfisher feeding on an estuary, or even feeding in the sea. Likewise, young birds will find new ponds and lakes to forage on, and can very occasionally leave you surprised if you see one in transit, apparently miles from any suitable habitat! Young birds are similar to adults but have a green tone to the blue upperparts, and have dull coloured, rather than orange legs and feet.
Another bird potentially winging its way to a lake or estuary near you is the Wigeon. During September, the small British breeding population is augmented with breeders from Iceland, and in even higher numbers, birds from Russia. Male Wigeon are stunning birds, but this is not the case when they arrive in late summer. At this time of year, males will be in what is called ‘eclipse’ plumage. Wildfowl moult their flight feathers very quickly, which means that for a short period, they become flightless. This leaves gaudily patterned males vulnerable, so to counter this, they also moult their body feathers, and acquire plumage similar to the females. By October they tend to look back to their best, but look out for signs of ‘female type’ birds beginning to show male plumage traits in the first returning birds in September. Listen out for the whistling calls of the males, which can often be the first sign that there are Wigeon about.Another species for early September is the Little Stint, and is perhaps one for the more experienced birder. Little stints pass through the UK en route between their breeding and wintering grounds, and early September is probably the best time of year to see them. As the name suggests, they are very small – noticeably smaller than Dunlin for example, which they often keep company with. They can also be similar to Sanderling, plumage wise, although again they are a lot smaller. They are not common anywhere, but their tiny size, and combination of gingery tones and prominent white ‘braces’ forming a white ‘V’ on the back makes them a firm favourite with birders. Look out for Little Stints on estuaries and any sandy or muddy shores. Any wader smaller than a Dunlin is likely to be a Little Stint, but this is also the best time for a variety of even rarer tiny species from America, so beware of those too.
By the time we get to mid September, it’s goose time! It’s hard to predict exactly when they will arrive en masse, but its going to be around this time of year. The entire breeding population from Iceland and Greenland winters in the UK, moving about between key areas of North East Scotland, North West England, and Norfolk, which means they can be seen pretty much anywhere as they commute. Listen out for their distintive ‘wink wink’ calls as they pass overhead in their V shaped skeins. An estimated 500,000 Pink-footed Geese winter in the UK, and the vast majority of these will pass through (or at least over!) Scotland at the very least. They may also bring small numbers of other goose species with them adding an extra dimension to our enjoyment of the spectacle of goose migration. Look out for almost pure white Snow Geese, or more subtly different White-fronted Geese.
Coming from a slightly different direction, but with the same plan of moving on to wintering grounds are Grey Plovers. At this time of year, adults are only just losing their breeding plumage and as such, can still look pretty sensational – with their sparkling black, white and grey plumage really standing out among a mass of brown and grey waders. These birds are travelling between their Siberian breeding grounds and their winter quarters, potentially further south in Europe or perhaps on the coast of west Africa. They are less eye-catching when juvenile, but the jet black armpit, which is easily seen when the bird is in flight, separates this species from all other waders. It’s not particularly common anywhere, but numerous and widespread enough to have a chance of turning up at any coastal site – especially where there is exposed sand and mud.
One species in particular could feature if the weather conditions combine in the way that east coast birders will always hope for. It used to be quite a rarity, but in recent years, we have seen record numbers of Yellow-browed Warblers arriving in Scotland. Traditionally, this Russian taiga forest breeding species would migrate to south east Asia, but increasing numbers are now travelling west, and potentially wintering in western Europe. By the time late September looms, we have usually seen a few records, but if the stars align weather wise, we could see hundreds arriving. In fact, there have been times when this Siberian special has felt like the most numerous warbler species on the east coast. Not only are these birds enigmatic travelers, but they look great (for a warbler) and sound great too. You can hear a recording of their distinctive ‘tsooeet’ call here.
Although Yellow-browed warblers usually arrive on the east coast and northern isles, some of them with trickle through the Scottish countryside and they can be encountered almost anywhere.
Late in September, hot on the heels of the Pink-footed Geese, which will be pouring into Scotland from their Icelandic and Greenland breeding grounds, we should start to see movements of Whooper Swans. Virtually all of the birds that pass through or winter in Scotland breed in Iceland, and these birds may well travel on the same conditions that favour Pink-footed Goose movements. It’s likely that any large group of swans seen on the move at this time of year will be Whooper Swans, but even if you can’t see them well enough to identify them, their distinctive whooping call should give them away. You can listen to a recording of migrating Whooper Swans here. Unlike their more familiar cousins the Mute Swan, Whoopers are less tied to wetland habitats, especially for feeding. If you encounter large groups of swans feeding in fields from now through to the spring, it’s likely that the majority will be Whooper Swans. Coming to us from Scandinavia, on the other side of northern Europe, Bewick’s swans look very similar to Whoopers, having a slightly different bill pattern and being slightly smaller. Sadly, Bewick’s Swans are becoming increasingly rare in Scotland.
Another Scandinavian visitor that will start to arrive at this time is the Redwing. Look out for this distinctive thrush, with its orange underwings, anywhere that there are plentiful berries. The first arriving waves of Scandinavian thrushes (usually Blackbird, Song Thrush and Redwing) will descend onto trees heavy with berries and strip the lot before moving on to find more, in preparation for the winter. Like Whooper Swans, Redwing migrate at night, and often our first encounters of the Autumn are the calls of unseen migrating birds. This call is an easy one to learn (although Blackbirds can make a similar noise), and you can hear an example of a night migrating Redwing here. As the Autumn progresses, western and northern parts of Scotland may see Scandinavian breeding redwings mixing with Icelandic birds. These Icelandic birds are subtly different, being darker and more heavily marked. Also like Whooper swans, Redwings can be seen all over Scotland. They arrive in coastal areas but quickly move inland, and can form large flocks in farmland and woodland.
The Chiffchaff is a familiar species with its habit of singing its name over and over again. In the Autumn, ‘our’ Chiffchaffs depart for warmer areas (although they don’t go as far as most other warblers, probably spending the winter in southern Europe), but we still see large numbers of Chiffchaffs arriving into Scotland on the east coast and northern isles. These birds will be Scandinavian and possibly Russian breeders, looking to escape the brutal winters that will fall over their breeding grounds. Many of these will move on further south, but it’s not too unusual for chiffchaffs to winter in Scotland these days. Late Septembercan be great for encountering chiffchaffs as they forage with the mixed feeding flocks that form in the Autumn. Look out for them with Goldcrests and Long-tailed Tits especially. Often, they will give themselves away with bouts of repeated ‘huit’ calls – you can here an example of such a bout here. The tricky issue of separating Willow Warbler from Chiffchaff is less of a problem from now on, with almost all of our Willow warblers having moved on.
Following on from Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans, the next species to be passing over our heads (or landing in our fields) is the Barnacle Goose. These small, black, white and silver geese have a distinctive ‘barking dog’ like call, sounding very different from most other things that may pass overhead in ‘V’ shaped skiens. ‘Our’ Barnacle geese arrive on two fronts. In more northern parts of western Scotland, and down towards Islay, the wintering population comes from breeding grounds on the eastern side of Greenland. When they make landfall they will rub shoulders with Greenland White-fronted Geese, who will have made a similar journey. Those seen passing over eastern Scotland are more likely to have come from Svalbard, way to the north of Norway, and will be migrating to wintering grounds on the Solway Firth. Here, over 40,000 Barnacle Geese may mingle with Whooper Swans and Pink-footed Geese, creating an incredible autumn spectacle.
From looking up, we go to looking down towards our feet. Common Snipe and Jack Snipe flood into Scotland in the autumn, looking to spend the winter in more hospitable climes than those on offer in Iceland and Scandinavia. Any wetland of any size can host these birds, although they can be difficult to see. Their camouflage is excellent and they tend to remain motionless when they detect a threat, before exploding away when you get to close. Jack Snipe may wait until you are only a yard or so away before flushing, although more often than not, you have no idea they are there until they fly off! Common Snipe have a ‘sneeze like’ call that they give in flight, whereas Jack Snipe tend to be more silent. You can hear the calls of a nocturnally migrating Common Snipe here.
Finally, we look to the trees. Berry bushes are still laden with fruit at this time of year, which bodes well for recently arrived Redwings.. Following them closely could be large numbers of Fieldfare. This handsome thrush is larger than a Redwing, and has a distinctive ‘ch-ch-chack!’ call that it gives in flight, which should help distinguish flocks of one from the other (although rather unhelpfully, they do mix together quite frequently!). They will arrive in coastal areas but unless weather conditions are adverse, are likely to make their way inland quickly. As such, like Redwings (and other Scandinavian breeding thrushes such as Blackbirds and Song Thrushes), large flocks can be encountered throughout Scotland soon after they arrive.
As we move into mid October, the first great pulses of goose and thrush migration are behind us, but still there are birds steadily moving into Scotland from continental breeding grounds. Among these will be the first Woodcock to arrive. Woodcock breed in Scotland, but in autumn and winter, numbers here are swollen by an influx of birds that have bred in northern Russia, and to a lesser degree, in Scandinavia. Your first encounter with one might be when it bursts into flight from beneath your feet. Their camouflage is excellent and even when you know roughly where they have landed, they can be extremely hard to locate on the ground. Many will make landfall on the east coast of Scotland, where they can be found in a variety of unusual habitats, such as rocky shores, gardens, and even city centres. Most however will continue inland where they will feed nocturnally in woodlands, moorland, and wetland edges. They can be found throughout Scotland during the winter, but are easiest to find when on migration.
Another species that may well have come from a similar part of the world is the Brambling. This close relative of the chaffinch starts to arrive in bulk in mid October. Brambling thrive on Beech mast, and in years when this is in short supply, they can even wander into gardens to make the most of food resources there. There normal habitat however is deciduous woodland, and here they may form large flocks with other seed eaters such as other finches, and in more open areas, buntings. They have a distinctive nasal call and their white rump allows easy separation from the similar Chaffinch, in flight. In Europe, roosts of Brambling have been estimated to number over 70 million birds!
Slightly less numerous than Brambling, at least in a Scottish context, is the Black Redstart. This species is a rare breeder further south in England, but during the autumn, small numbers of presumably continental breeders arrive onto Scottish east coasts. They can turn up at any time in the autumn, but seem to show a trend for arriving well into October and even November, suggesting that these birds may have come from further afield than our nearest European neighbours. They can be found on rocky shores but have a liking for built up areas. Old buildings and coastal allotments seem to be firm favourites for this species. Most Black Redstarts encountered at this type of year will be young birds, lacking the glitz of an adult male, but still very beautifully combining smoky grey with a brick red tail.
By late October, we will probably have had some substantial arrivals of thrushes, which are very nicely captured by these visualisations in the EuroBirdPortal. These are likely to have mostly consisted of Redwing, Fieldfare and Blackbird, but a few other Scandinavian wanderers have visited with them. The Ring Ouzel is a close relative of the Blackbird, distinguished chiefly by the pale crescent on its chest. It’s an uncommon visitor but late Autumn can be a good time for them – look out for them feeding on berries with other flocks of winter thrushes. Unlike our other Scandinavian visitors, these birds will not hang around for too long - Ring Ouzels in Scotland at this time of year are likely to be passing through on their way to wintering grounds in southern Spain or the Atlas mountains of North Africa. Knowing what the weather can be like at that time of year,who can blame them…
Something that feels much more at home in autumnal weather is the Little Auk. This high Arctic breeding seabird is a winter visitor to Scottish waters, with large numbers being seen in some years. Although they are built for a life at sea, when the winds get too strong they can be blown inland and can ‘wreck’ in some very unexpected places. Strong north-westerly winds could blow good numbers of Little Auks into the North Sea. Look out on East and North coasts for these tiny, Startling sized black and white seabirds passing close inshore on whirring wings, looking to make their way back to wherever they were blown in from!
Next we look to a declining duck species. Pochards are a rare breeding bird in the UK but until recently, were a numerous winter visitor. However, since the 1980’s, wintering numbers have declined by over 60% - a pattern that has been mirrored on its European breeding grounds. Like other declining species such as Black-necked Grebe, Pochard breed among gull colonies for protection, Declines in gull numbers (among other things) therefore means a decline in Pochard. Pochard like large expanses of open water in the winter, and dive for their food. You can sometimes find this handsome smoke, black and burgundy duck among large rafts of other diving ducks such as Tufted Duck, and they can be found across most of Scotland.
For those of us who’s minds turn to rarities when we think out birds, Autumn is still alive and kicking – for the first half of the month at least. However, for the first time in the year, birding may have a bit of a wintery feel, as the big influxes of southbound migrants have largely been and gone.
One species that is considered a migrant over much of its range, but less so in Scotland is the Woodpigeon. In Southern England and across Europe huge numbers of Woodpigeon can be counted migrating (for example, 202,000 in 3 hours in Gwent! [Trektellen.org] - Migration counts & captures). Were Scottish birds involved in this movement? Quite possibly, although autumnal movements of Scottish Woodpigeon are not well known. Some effort counting migrating birds in southern Scotland at this time of year could shed lots of light onto that situation. Not all of our Woodpigeons leave Scotland of course – those that stay may gather into large flocks, feeding in fields and farmland and roosting together in woodlands. Woodpigeon are a species that suffer from a paucity of data, from a local bird recording point of view, possibly being too ubiquitous for their own good! Counts of your local Woodpigeons could really begin to plug some gaps, data wise.
A bird that has increased in recent winters here is the Chiffchaff. It is one of the few regularly wintering species of warbler (along with the Blackcap) and both species seem to do well in man made environments. Blackcaps will sustain themselves over winter visiting garden feeders, or eating wind blown apples for example. Chiffchaffs have perhaps a less pleasant sounding association with man made structures. For some reason this species loves sewage works. Perhaps it’s the warmth, or the smell, attracting large quantities of insect food. Perhaps it’s the age and structure of the vegetation planted around these facilities. Whatever it is, they like it, so why not take a peg for your nose off the washing line and check out your local sewage works for wintering Chiffchaff this weekend. Pay special attention to pale, almost silvery brown and green birds too. Siberian Chiffchaffs, a late autumn speciality, could be lingering among their European cousins.
If you should find yourself on the east coast, early November can be as good a time as any to find a Grey Phalarope and dedicated effort from any part of the coastline could pay off. They breed in the high Arctic and spend the northern winter far offshore in the southern oceans, often in large rafts. Any birds in Scottish waters now will be in the middle of this journey – possibly blown off course and towards the North Sea by strong winds A telescope will likely be essential for picking out these tiny waders as they battle over the waves, and if you’re on the hunt, keep an eye out for Little Auks, Black Guillemots, and migrating wildfowl and divers. Seawatching in November can be great fun, but a real test of your endurance! Wrap up warm – it’s not only the birding that has begun to feel wintery…
As we progress through November the wintery feel builds, but put your gloves and scarf down for the moment , as we can also find birds from within the comfort of our own homes. Those of us lucky enough to have gardens or bird feeders can look forward to some more interesting visitors as the weather gets colder. Cold snaps can bring thrushes into gardens (especially those with berry trees or fallen apples) and finches attending the feeders might also reward closer scrutiny. Siskins are increasingly regular garden visitors where food is provided, and it seems that Redpolls are finally getting it too! These small finches are perhaps less glamorous looking than Goldfinches and Siskins, but their streaky subtleness should still stand out on your feeder – preferably niger seed, or whatever your local goldfinches and siskins are going for, if you have them. For birders, Redpolls are a bit of a nightmare, with their taxonomy seemingly forever in flux (i.e. which variations on the Redpoll theme are species and which aren’t) and then how to identify each of the different species and subspecies providing more of a headache. In Scotland, the vast majority of our redpolls will be Lesser Redpoll, although it’s not unknown for Common or Mealy redpoll (the same thing as each other, just a different name) to turn up in gardens occasionally. This is a gross oversimplification, but Lesser Redpoll tend to be smaller and warmer tones of brown. Common Redpoll are a mite larger, and colder (greyer) in colour.
While we’re on things that are cold and grey in colour, let’s talk gulls. November is a really good time to catch up with some high Arctic species that visit Scotland in the winter. Glaucous and Iceland Gulls are the most numerous of these, and harbours with active fish landings probably offer the best bet if you want to find one of these relatively uncommon birds. However, they can occur anywhere where there are other large gulls, so anywhere from offshore (especially around fishing boats) to fields with gull roosts could be worth checking. Both of these large species are relatively easy to pick out among other gulls once you have your eye in. For adult birds, both species are pale backed (like Herring Gull) but lack the black area at the wingtip. Younger birds also lack the black wingtips present in other large gull species, and tend to be a rather uniform biscuit brown colour – ranging from Rich Tea to Digestive!
And for something a little rarer… If you’re a long way from a harbour you might well be in prime Great Grey Shrike habitat. These Scandinavian wanderers prefer open wintery woodlands and forest edges on moorland, where they can be quite easy to find as they tend to sit high up in the treetops as they look for food – anything from beetles to mice or small birds. These grey, black and white mini-Magpies are famous (along with other shrikes) for storing their prey on spiky bushes or barbed wire – so even if you don’t find the bird itself you could still find signs that one has been there. Even without a record of the bird, this is the sort of observation that it would be useful to pass on to your local bird recorder.
Late November storms could influence bird movements in several ways. Heavy snow could force birds into adopting different feeding strategies – so perhaps look out for thrushes like Redwing and Fieldfare on your lawn after hard weather. A few scattered halved apples will encourage them in, as well as providing some welcome calories for your local Blackbirds. Look out for Bullfinches and Redpolls where there are suitable trees and bushes too.
If temperatures drop to low enough levels, freezing of wetland habitats can lead to the birds that use them needing to find a temporary new home. Little Grebes can find themselves using rivers more during these times, for example. Kingfishers disperse and can be found using very small waterbodies, especially those where running water has prevented freezing. Even if freezing doesn’t encourage birds to find entirely new places to feed, it can make them much easier to see in their home wetlands. Species such as Snipe, Jack Snipe and Water Rail should all be a little more obvious during a big freeze.
It's out to sea where we might see the biggest changes due to hard weather. Birds such as divers and grebes may seek sanctuary in harbours, and flocks of ducks may do the same. Gulls will tough it out, but could be joined by northern specialties such as Glaucous and Iceland Gull – especially harbours with active fishing fleets or fish processing.
For those humans hardy enough to endure a seawatch in these conditions, there will be plenty to train your scope on, if you can keep it steady. Look out for divers, especially Great Northern Diver passing by, and don’t rule out the possibility of a rare White-billed Diver with them. At the opposite end of the size scale, Little Auks are bound to be displaced. In rough weather these tiny seafarers can pass by extremely close inshore – and sometimes over land too. Ducks can also provide interest at this time of year – November is particularly good for Long-tailed Duck and Goldeneye, and Velvet Scoter is a possibility too. Whatever you see, you’ll almost certainly feel like you’ve earned it…
Every year, with data collated through BirdTrack and other data painstakingly collated from other sources, an ‘annual report’ will be produced – a snapshot of the birdlife in your local area. These are fascinating and extremely useful things, but they are by no means a complete picture. Relying as they do on observers sharing their data, the picture painted depends on where all of those observers went, and how they recorded when they were there. There will be places that were never visited, and species that were overlooked – or more likely, not reported, and these are the missing pieces that you could help to fill.
Finding species that are under-recorded is easy. Think of unglamourous birds. Everyone wants to record every single Little Auk or Spotted Redshank that they see, but how many of us do the same for species like Dunnock? And here’s a question – what do Linnet, Greenfinch, Yellowhammer and Starling all have in common? Well, sadly, they were all red listed on ‘Birds of Conservation Concern’ – which set out which species should be our highest conservation priorities going forward. They are declining species and yet I suspect that they also something of an afterthought in much of the bird recording that goes on these days. Data on any of these species would always be welcomed.
If you’re interested in finding some unglamorous species to focus on, you could do a lot worse than starting here, at the SOC’s very own ‘Online Scottish Bird Report’. And do you know the really cool thing? You can record data on these species when you haven’t even seen them! By recording in BirdTrack using a ‘complete list’, not only are you telling us where you were, when, and what you saw – you’re also telling us what you didn’t see, which can be just as valuable.
The other way of finding missing pieces would be to go where others don’t go. You could do that by trawling through past reports, but perhaps the simplest way would be to look at the map on the BirdTrack homepage. This map shows where data has been collected most intensively, but also where data hasn’t been collected at all, over the last 30 days. Why not go somewhere new? Find somewhere on the map with little or no coverage, and go and see what’s there. It might be an innocuous looking bit of farmland but who knows where you’ll find a stubble field full of Starlings, Linnets, Greenfinches and Yellowhammers? It might have a stream with a territorial Dipper singing on it, or it might be some sort of plantation, with drumming Great Spotted Woodpeckers or although perhaps a little early, a singing Crossbill. Maybe you’ll see a Grey Partridge or find a flock of wintering Fieldfare or Skylark somewhere – yet more recently red-listed species.
December is a great time to find rare ducks, and particularly rare ducks from North America. December is a great time to find these things as they are generally settling to winter (usually in flocks of ‘carrier species’ which will have stopped moving around by now) and, male birds are coming into their breeding plumage, and as such, look great, and distinctive from their European counterparts. Look out for American Wigeon in among flocks of Eurasian Wigeon, and look for the distinctive vertical white breast-stripe of a Green-winged Teal among flocks of Eurasian Teal. Among rafts of Tufted Duck, look out for Ring-necked Duck and Lesser Scaup. They are rare, but they are out there, and you never know when your lucky day will come. Even if you don’t find an American vagrant, scrutinizing flocks of wildfowl can often return interesting records of species like Greater Scaup, Smew, and the increasingly rare Pochard. All of these are species your Local Bird Recorder would be interested in receiving records for.
Another rare bird that seems to crop up in December is the Hawfinch. This species is quite widespread over eastern Scotland but is always present in pretty low densities, and as such can be difficult to find. They have a liking for mature deciduous trees, particularly Hornbeam, and perhaps they’re easier to see in December as they perch up in the leafless branches in the tops of these trees. In spite of their rarity, they may be expanding their breeding distribution, with recent breeding records from Strathclyde, and regular wintering birds around Speyside. Maybe these Speyside birds were reared locally, or perhaps, with this species nomadic winter lifestyle, they congregate there from elsewhere. If you find yourself in the countryside, far from a town and among some mature deciduous woodland, look out for their distinctive heavy billed profile in the treetops, or their calls. They give an abrupt, robin like ‘tick!’ and a high pitched ‘ziiap’, both of which can be heard in this recording.
Also, how about something to look out for over a town or city. The Raven is becoming increasingly common in lowland areas away from their traditional strongholds of the far north and west. Early spring is perhaps a better time of year to find these birds, when they are pairing up and looking for nesting sites, but both Dundee and Aberdeen have seen recent records, so why not somewhere close to you too? Surprisingly, this huge crow can be awkward to identify when seen in isolation (i.e. when there is nothing to compare it’s size with) so look out for the diamond shaped tail and the rather unique, deep, ‘Kronk’ call, which you can hear here.
Winter is a great time to catch up with wildfowl with drakes looking amazing in their ‘breeding’ plumage, and continental visitors contributing to large flocks. So where can you go to see wintery wildfowl near you? All of the following sites can be found on the brilliant (if I may say so myself…) SOC ‘Where to Watch Birds in Scotland’ app, with directions, and details on access and where to see the best birds.
For those near Edinburgh, one of Scotland’s most popular birding spots is right on your doorstep. This is one of the best places in Britain to catch up with some very specialist sea ducks. As well as Eiders (that may well be displaying around now), you may get really good views of Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser and Common and Velvet Scoter from the sea wall, as well as a good selection of divers and grebes. Also, keep an eye out for some rarities, as Surf and White-winged scoter have been seen and a King Eider just down the road. If you visit, don’t forget to have a look at the freshwater parts of the reserve too, where there will be a different selection of freshwater ducks. At the other end of the M8, Lochwinnoch, to the west of Glasgow, will be worth a look, with a Smew being regular there. This is a great place to see Whooper swans, which share the loch with rafts of ducks such as Goldeneye, Pochard, Wigeon and Tufted Duck. Pink footed Geese are also regular in this area, and Lochwinnoch holds much more than wildfowl. Hen Harriers and Otters can be seen here, and the visitor centre has a feeding station which should offer good views of a variety of species.
With a similar selection of species to Lochwinnoch, those in need of a duck fix in Perthshire or Dundee should look no further than Loch Leven. Huge numbers of waterfowl use this vast lake in winter, and the shore is served by a path that can take you all the way around the loch, should you be feeling adventurous. For those with less time, the visitor centre at Vane Farm has telescopes, bird feeders and a lovely café and expertise on hand to tell you what is about. Loch Leven does well for rarer birds too. Keep an eye out for Smew, Slavonian Grebe, and maybe some rare geese among the Pink-footed geese that may linger there through the winter.
As we head north past Aberdeen, the Loch of Strathbeg is an excellent place to catch up with winter wildfowl. Whooper Swans and large numbers of Pink-footed Geese may be the star turns, but there are always good numbers of Wigeon and Teal around in the winter, along with Tufted Ducks and the like. Strathbeg has an excellent supporting cast during the winter, with Bearded Tit and Bittern regular, and other rare waterbirds likely.
Following the coast around towards Inverness, Alturlie point offers a fine selection of seaducks and other species, feeding along the shores of the Moray Firth. Teal and Wigeon aggregate there, and Goldeneye and Greater Scaup are easy to catch up with here. Look out for Eider, Long-tailed Duck and other seaduck further offshore, along with other species such as divers and Slavonian Grebe.
There are, of course, many other places where you can enjoy Scotland’s wonderful winter wildfowl. There are too many to describe here, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find somewhere suitable near you using the SOC’s ‘Where to watch Birds in Scotland’ app. Or, alternatively, why not choose somewhere off the beaten track. Go somewhere not listed on the app, and record the birds you see using BirdTrack.
With the long dark nights of late December, it can be a great time to catch up on some admin. There’s generally nothing else going on around that time of year (tongue firmly in cheek!) so why not spend an evening making sure that all of your observations and data have been submitted. Local Bird Recorders are delighted to receive data in most formats, and around now will be turning their thoughts towards collating data for the year about to end. They will be keen to receive any data, but another task they often have to perform is to chase up descriptions and photographs of any rarities that might have been seen in your region. If you were lucky or skillful enough to find some species that require extra documentation, please get these records in promptly – waiting for submissions of this nature is one of the key obstacles in the workflow that ultimately leads to the production of the annual bird report. Your local bird recorder needs you and your records, and you can help them carry out their tasks by making sure they receive data in good time.