November

Siberian Chiffchaff © Mark Lewis

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…