Other October pages: Introduction to leaf fall • Tree by tree - the autumn sequence • Berries, fruit, nuts and shrubs • Flowers • Deer rut and insects • Weather
For more pictures, information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website.
Birdsong is at a very low level in October, with birds busy feeding up on the remaining berries and insects. Robins are the only birds singing an organised way, with both males and females vigorously defending their territories. They also make a clicking noise that sounds a bit like like a ratchet turning.
Otherwise there are the contact calls of sociable birds – odd cheeps and churrs and rattles that birds make to each other as they hop around the branches feeding. The most audible are great tits who produce churrs, single notes, a "see-choo-choo" sound, and a "cheep cheep" call. Blue tits also churr, while long-tailed tits make almost inaudible high pitched sounds (a squeak and a kind of rasp) in their restless journey through the tree tops.
Less commonly you may hear a group of goldfinches making their demented twittering (80 percent of our native population apparently migrate to the continent for the winter, though overwintering numbers have been boosted recently by garden birdfeeders, apparently). Near buildings you may also hear the cheeping of sparrows, though even this sounds rather muted in October.
Sometimes you also come across a whole flock of birds feeding on a berry-laden bush. Look carefully at them, as they may be composed of interesting species - yellowhammers, for example, which live communally in winter, or treecreepers and nuthatches, who join flocks of chaffinches. Some of the chaffinches may also be migrants from Scandinavia or mainland Europe, who come to the UK for the winter.
You can also occasionally hear the trilling outburst of a wren (or its call, which sounds like two stones being banged together) or find a dunnock sitting on a hedge and emitting a thin tseep. Nuthatches sometimes make their "wit wit wit" call. At dusk blackbirds indulge in competitive bouts of tup-tup-tupping at dusk, perhaps to ward off winter migrants from the continent who swell our blackbird numbers at this time of year.
One phenomenum that continues from late September into October is that some birds break into an occasional unseasonal burst of their mating song. Examples include the see-saw of the great tit or coal tit, or the abrupt riffs of dunnocks. One theory I have heard is that these are juveniles practising for the coming mating season.
In 2009 and 2010 the ponderous song of the chiffchaff was also heard widely in late September and early October, but this had experts puzzled. Most - but not all - chiffchaffs depart for Africa in early October, so the song could have been males marking their territory one last time before leaving it. The only time in subsequent years that I have heard this is in 2016, however. Early in the month you may also hear the repeated, almost metronomic hweet that the chiffchaff makes in late summer (see September birds).
Also very early in the month you may just see some juvenile swallows lingering in coastal areas, but in general the summer migrants have all left by now. They are replaced by birds coming from colder parts of the continent. This includes many wetland birds outside the scope of these pages, but also chaffinches and blackbirds, as mentioned above, along with robins and blue tits from Eastern Europe, attracted by our warmer winter climate. In turn some of our populations of these birds head south to France or Spain.
These migrations tend to go unnoticed but you can see a definite increase in starling numbers as October progresses as continental migrants arrive. Large flocks of them may fly at dusk in tightly packed formations before roosting - a phenomenum known as mumuration. The synchronisation is apparently simply due to all the individual starlings responding independently to the same stimuli. A wonderful place to see this is Brighton Pier – up to 25,000 have been reported here in recent years.
Later in October, redwings and fieldfares - Scandinavian thrushes with characteristic red tints on their plumage - also arrive in the UK for the winter, and may be seen feeding in flocks on fields or hedgerows. You may also see a flock of migrant siskins, yellow finches, quietly feeding in small groups on alder and birch trees, though they prefer conifers.
On arable fields you can see vast flocks of rooks or jackdaws (sometimes both together), which then roost noisily in a favoured stand of trees (for example the ones by Lewes railway station). At night in or 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.
More October pages:
- Introduction to leaf fall
- Tree by tree - the autumn sequence
- Berries, fruits, nuts and shrubs
- Deer rut and insects
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