Pink-footed Geese © Mark Lewis

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.