Red Knot © Mark Lewis

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.