Other November pages: Leaf fall and autumn colours • Bushes, berries and seeds • Flowers • Weather
For photos, sound clips and more information on the birds mentioned in this section, see the RSPB website.
Once the foliage falls away it is suddenly much easier to see birds – though not very easy, as they are still nervous and liable to fly off if they see any human watching them. Bird noises give you little help in locating them, as they are very muted at this time of year.
The main sounds are contact calls. Most active in this respect are great tits, one of whose characteristic calls is a double cheep followed by a churring sound, another being a kind of “see-choo-choo”. You may also hear them make occasional bursts of their see-saw mating song, but these never last long.
Blue tits make also make a churring sound to each other as they feed (rising in note at the end, while the rattle of the great tit does not), and very occasionally also burst into a snatch of their mating song - a single note, rapidly repeated. In addition you can hear the chaotic babbling of goldfinches - usually high up in the treetops, where they are surprisingly hard to see as they peck away at the bark - or the minute squeaks of long-tailed tits, which look like hyperactive balls of fluff as they flit restlessly among the branches.
Among more solitary birds, dunnocks give the odd high-pitched tseep or (very rarely) sing a brief snatch of their squeaky mating song, and you can get the occasional sudden outburst from a wren (recognisable as a flurry of notes with a trill in the middle). Nuthatches can sometimes be heard making their de-dit de-dit de-dit call and you may also hear the chin...chik... call of the greater spotted woodpecker. All of these tend to be isolated incidents, however.
The only really organised song comes from robins – they trill away particularly at dawn, though sometimes during the day too. But even they are fairly quiet at this time of year. From 2009 to 2011 song thrushes were also in full voice throughout November, to the bafflement of scientists, though none were heard in 2012. Since then it has been more the case of a few (juveniles?) practising towards the end of the month, as if they are testing out what different phrases they can do. Near buildings sparrows also cheep away, as they do all year, though this is a much rarer sound than it once was. At dusk blackbirds make a repetitive "tup tup tup" sound to ward off rivals.
If you see flocks of larger birds on arable land they might well be starlings, jackdaws or rooks. Enormous flocks of starlings (many of them winter migrants from Eastern Europe) can collect at dusk and making the most extraordinary racket before they settle down for the night. If you are lucky you can see them wheeling in unison in the sky - a manoeuvre called a "murmuration" – Brighton Pier is especially good for this, with an estimated 25,000 starlings roosting there. Jackdaws and rooks often feed in mixed flocks and also gather at dusk to roost in favoured trees in big noisy colonies.
There are also migrants from Scandinavia who arrive in late October to winter with us, such as the fieldfare and redwing – both colourful relatives of the thrush, the giveaway being that they feed in flocks, while domestic thrushes are solitary. They are easier to spot later in the winter when they become more adventurous in their feeding habits, however. In woodland (and particularly on alder trees) you may also see siskins (a yellow finch: but do not confuse these with yellowhammers, who also live in flocks at this time of year).
At night near woods this is also a good time of year to hear tawny owls, which are finding mates and establishing territories at this time. The female makes a "kewik" noise and the male the characteristic "hoo-hoo-hoo hoo" sound. Towards dusk you can also hear the clucking of pheasants as they settle down for the night, something which they do all the year round but which is more noticable as the nights draw in.
You may think that there are no insects around in November but you would be wrong. Look carefully and one can see swarms of winter gnats on windless days. They are performing their mating dance and presumably evolved to do so at this time of year to avoid predators.
If you turn over a rotting log in woodland you might also be surprised to see woodlice or spiders. These are all inactive in winter, but not actually hibernating, a term which only applies to mammals. Instead what the insects are doing is known as "diapause": they shut off their metabolism entirely, though if they are disturbed it instantly starts up again. The same is true of ladybirds, flies, and bumble bees, all of which sometimes make an appearance on sunny days. With all these insects if you leave them alone they will soon go back to their state of suspended animation.
Peacock, small tortoiseshell, brimstone, comma and some speckled wood butterflies also diapause as adults - Second World War pillboxes are apparently one favoured spot. Quite a few other butterfly and moth species spend the winter as dormant caterpillars - one of the things the great and blue tits are looking for as they feed.
Insects also overwinter as eggs, larvae or pupae, or in the shape of one fertilised queen (as with bumble bees and wasps). Honeybees remain closeted in their hives, living off the stores of honey they have hopefully built up over the summer. Every species has to have some strategy to get through the cold months and populate the world anew in spring and summer.
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