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August birds

Other August pages: Berries, fruits, nuts and treesFlowersButterflies and insectsWeather

For more pictures, information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website.

Birdsong remains eerily silent at the start of August: now that the breeding season is over, the birds have no reason to call attention to themselves. Adults also tend to be moulting at this time of year, while newly-fledged young are learning the ropes and trying not to be eaten by predators. All of this means it is in the bird's best interests to be as inconspicuous as possible.

An exception are sparrows, who can occasionally be heard making their cheerful communal cheeps near buildings, such as farmhouses or in house gardens. Otherwise the most prominent birdsong in August is probably wood pigeons, whose hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo call is common until late in the month and can be heard occasionally right to its end. Collared doves - "hoo-hooo hoo" (with a slight emphasis on the second hoo) - are occasionally heard, though they do not seem to be singing systematically (an exception being 2014, when they seemed in mating mode all month). They tend to be found (and seen) on the roofs of houses, while wood pigeons can be found both in woodland and amongst houses. Much less common, and exclusively a woodland bird, is the stock dove, whose call is a throaty "woo".

Early in the month you may also hear greenfinch males singing but this dies away by mid month. Yellowhammers may also be heard right at the start of August. Goldfinch males may still be singing to defend territory early in the month, but for the most part during August these birds are communal, twittering away as they feed on thistle or teasel seeds

One forceful birdsong you can hear in August is a prolonged series of single notes - a repetitive hweet...hweet...hweet…hweet - which always seem to come from scrub or tree tops in hedgerows. If you hear this, the bird making it will almost certainly be a chiffchaff, a conclusion supported by online recordings, sightings of an olive bird that looks just like a chiffchaff making the call, the fact that chiffchaffs are very common in the south east, and the fact that I have once heard it alternating with the full chiffchaff song. The call seems to be at least partly territorial in nature because you can sometimes hear two birds calling in competition. Even without a rival the call can go on for extended periods.

Just to make things confusing chaffinches also make a somewhat similar repeated call earlier in the year, which I have also once or twice in August. Their repeated call is harsher and more insistent (recording), though it can sometimes be a bit softer, while the chiffchaff one is a bit more erratic because it is making it while moving through the branches feeding.

Some of the bird noises that will keep us company throughout the winter are also starting up as the month progresses. From around mid month (very occasionally earlier) robins start to sing their twittering song, though it is rather tentative and short-lived to begin with. The reason for the song is that once they have finished breeding, both males and females become aggressively territorial: the breeding pair immediately become rivals once more. And of course juveniles are trying to establish themselves too. Robins also have a very occasional call which sounds like a ratchet tightening.

Right from the start of the month you can hear blue tits churring and calling to each other as they feed on bushes and trees, a welcome return of this pleasing sound after the gap for the breeding season, though to begin with it is very tentative and rather hushed.

This churring is similar to that occasionally made by great tits in August: the blue tit version rises in tone slightly at the end, the great tit one does not. More common is to hear great tits making their characteristic "see-choo-choo" call. As with the blue tits it is all very quiet and shy, however.

More noticeably, you occasionally hear both great tits or coal tits bursting into their see-saw mating song. One explanation of this that I have heard is that it is young males practising for the next mating season, which starts in January. Whatever, these outbursts rarely last for long.

You may also hear the high-pitched squeaks of long-tailed tits as they hop from branch to branch, or the occasional trilling outburst from a wren and a clicking noise they make which sounds like two stones being banged together. Just occasionally there is the high pitched "tseep" of a dunnock or the "wit wit wit" call of a nuthatch. A very noticeable absence from the soundscape are larks, who for the first time since February are not twittering overhead on downland and arable fields.

Perhaps the best bird spectacle in August is to look up and see swallows or house martins flying overhead. One way to tell them apart is by their calls - house martins make a sort of staccato rasp, while swallows sound like a child's squeaky bath toy. Swallows also fly very fast and very close to the ground - sometimes only at knee height - while house martins fly higher and have a 'flap flap glide' flight.

Both have white undersides, but swallows have a dark throat and a long forked tail, while house martins have a stubbier one and a white patch at the bottom of their back. House martins are also more sociable, always appearing in groups near buildings (where they nest in colonies), and coming to rest in groups on a fence or a telephone wire and then abruptly taking off again (though this behaviour is not unknown in swallows as summer progresses and young fledge).

But confusing the issue in August is the fact that juvenile swallows do not have so long a tail and have a lighter throat patch. Likewise, as the breeding season comes to an end swallows get very sociable. Eventually, in late August, you come across enormous flocks of them, sat on telephone wires or fences chattering and swooping for insects. When this happens they are getting ready to migrate. They depart at night so one never sees them go, and indeed as recently as the 18th century the renowned naturalist Gilbert White thought they spent the winter at the bottom of ponds. Even after most have gone you can still see some, particularly along the south coast - probably juveniles or possibly birds who have spent the summer further north now in transit towards the south.

Early in the month you may also see flocks of swifts circling high overhead. They have swept black wings, an all-dark plumage, and are never seen near the ground. Despite their name, they don't fly that fast. If you see a large group of them, they are probably preparing to migrate because they tend to leave the UK by mid month. Like swallows, they depart at night, so you never see them go.

Towards the end of the month in seaside towns one sees lots of juvenile herring gulls - distinguishable by their brown-ish plumage. They follow their parents around making mewing noises in the hope of being fed, but the adults ignore them. (Note that young adults also make this sound, even after they have fully fledged: it takes them some years to fully mature and develop their characteristic piercing calls). On newly cut arable fields large flocks of rooks or jackdaws may be seen - a sight uncomfortably reminiscent of winter.

More August pages:

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