October

Pallas's Warbler © Mark Lewis

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.