Goosander © Mark Lewis

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!