Other September pages: Trees, berries, fruits and nuts • Flowers • Weather
For pictures, more information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website. Put your cursor over any photo on this page to see its caption, or click here to see more September bird, butterfly and insect photos.
Bird noises increase a little bit in September after the summer silence, though robins are the only bird singing systematically. After the breeding season, both males and females establish separate territories and defend them aggressively. Their twittering song is the outward sign of that contest - an avian divorce court, perhaps. They also make a contact call that sounds a bit like a ratchet turning.
Otherwise the most common noise you hear is from tits, though even they are not very vocal. Blue tits cheep away as they feed on trees and bushes, while great tits make a variety of calls (for example see-see or see-choo-choo). Both species make a kind of churring noise, with the blue tit version rising in pitch at the end. Long-tailed tits also squeak and rasp as they feed rapidly in bushes - always on the go, never stopping for a rest. Occasionally both great tits and coal tits utter a burst of their see-saw mating songs, though these never last for long. One theory I have heard is that this is juvenile males practising.
One of the other bird sounds in September is an almost metronomic series of single notes - a repetitive hweet...hweet...hweet...hweet - which always seem to come from scrub or tree tops in hedgerows. The bird making it is almost certainly a chiffchaff, a conclusion supported by online recordings, visual sightings, and the the fact that chiffchaffs are very common in the south east. However, chaffinches also make a similar repeated call earlier in the year, though theirs is harsher and more regular (recording); the chiffchaff one is a bit more erratic because it is making it while moving through the branches feeding.
(In late September 2009 there was also an outbreak of the full mating song of the chiffchaff, which was reported on the BBC Autumnwatch programme. The cause was a complete mystery - perhaps males marking their territory before they migrated. This was not repeated until 2016, when I again heard several chiffchaff song bursts in September, all of them quite brief.)
Other very occasional bird sounds come from the dunnock, which occasionally utters a high tseep, and wrens, which make a clacking noise like two stones being banged together, and very rarely also let rip a burst of their trilling song. Just once I have heard a dunnock singing its full mating in September, but I assume this was a confused young male. In addition, nuthatches sometimes produce their "wit-wit-wit" contact call and can very occasionally hear the twittering of goldfinches, though as is the case most of the year it is quite an unobtrusive noise, and I have read that 80 percent of the UK population depart for the continent as autumn approaches.
Early in the month you may also hear a wood pigeon - a hangover from their summer breeding season - and in 2014 collared doves were also vocal all month, though this has not been repeated since. The cheeping of sparrows in a bush near habitation is possible at any time of the month. By the sea you can sometimes still see and hear a juvenile herring gull fruitlessly begging its parents for food (the parents having abruptly stopped feeding them in order to make them stand on their own two feet), but by the second half this has largely ceased. The juveniles still make their plaintive calls, however, as this is the only sound they are able to make: not till they get older can they do the full range of herring gull cries.
Early in September you might still see swallows and house martins inland but as the month goes on they are mainly found near the south coast. Swallows can be seen in flocks on a telephone wire, bush or rooftop preparing to migrate - chattering, taking off and generally seeming to be in an excited mood. Some places on the coast seem to act as staging posts for birds who have bred further north. For example on 7 September 2016 I saw as many as 200 swallows on Durlston Head near Swanage and on 17 September that year a similar number of house martins over the cliffs at Fairlight near Hastings. Late in the month you may well be seeing juvenile swallows, who linger a bit longer than the adults, feeding up for the journey (and who have shorter tails than the adults and so might at a glance be mistaken for house martins). How they then find their way to their wintering grounds in South Africa without their parents to guide them is a mystery.
On bare arable fields you see big flocks of rooks feeding. Flocks of starlings also become commoner - whether this is because some are already starting to migrate over from Eastern Europe for the winter or because berry-laden bushes provide them with a tempting food source, I am not sure.
Insects fade away
Insect numbers drop markedly in September, though you can still find occasional ones right till the end of the month, especially in milder years.
Thus while honeybees, wasps, hoverflies and house flies can still be quite abundant at the start of the month, especially if the weather is fine, by mid month they are becoming quite scarce. An exception to this is when ivy flowers later in the month and attracts large numbers of all these insects. For many of the insects it is probably their last meal, though honeybees spend the winter in hives, feeding on stored honey.
Bumble bees do not seem to be so evident after mid month, though you may see the occasional one on on late flowering plants such as himalayan balsam. By the time ivy flowers only their queens seem to be left: you can also sometimes see these searching the leaf litter for a place to burrow a winter resting hole.
Dragonflies, harvestmen and crane flies (the latter two colloquially known as daddy longlegs) can be found till relatively late in the month: in the second half of September 2013 there was an absolute plague of crane flies on grassland in the south east. Look closely and there are still all sorts of other insects on the ground or on plants, particularly on sunny days - ladybirds, grasshoppers, crickets, woodlice, various bugs and beetles. But again numbers are well down on what you might see in August and increasingly such insects are looking for somewhere warm to lie dormant for the winter. Tiny flying insects likewise can be quite abundant still early in September and are much reduced by the month's end.
Snails and other garden fauna also get much scarcer as the month goes on, but can still pop up when you least expect them. Spiders wait forlornly in their webs for prey that you suspect will never come: later in the month the number of webs starts to reduce. The morning dew also reveal the threads that money spiders use to "balloon" out across fields (they attach their threads to a blade of grass and then launch into the sky to be carried by the wind).
Butterflies and day-flying months
Butterflies become very much scarcer in September too, but you can still see some when the sun shines and there are flowers for them to feed on. White butterflies can be seen until late in the month. When they stop long enough to be identified (which is rarely) they usually seem to be small whites, though large or green-veined whites are also possible. Speckled woods also reliably last till later in the month.
In theory second generation commas, peacocks and small tortoiseshells are also still around, though somehow they are rarely seen. Commas are particularly hard to see because with their wings closed they look like a dead leaf - the perfect camouflage for this time of year. All three species may surprise you by appearing on ivy flowers late in the month, long after you assume they have gone for the year. All go on to hibernate (or technically, just lie dormant in a cosy hole) over the winter as adults, emerging in February or March to mate. That is also true of the yellow brimstone: any you see at this time of year could potentially be very long lived, lasting up to ten months.
Red admirals also can be very hardy. They are another butterfly that likes ivy flowers and can also pop up in all sorts of places right up to the end of the month. Though they are migrants, some also manage to survive the winter and emerge on warmer days in January or February. There is as yet no evidence that they then go on to mate, however.
Other migrants you might see early in the month include painted ladies and clouded yellows - indeed, I have seen the latter as late as 28 September. It used to be thought that painted ladies simply died off at the end of the summer, but science has now established that they migrate back south again to their winter breeding grounds in Morocco, using high altitude winds.
On grassland you may still see meadow browns and common blues, at least early in the month, and if you are lucky enough to find a colony of them (on south facing downland slopes near the south coast) this is actually a good month for adonis blues, who produce a second generation in September. Tiny small heath butterflies can in theory be seen all month, but are most likely right at the start. You just may see a small copper in the first half of the month.
Day-flying moths are also occasionally seen, but again usually right at the start of the month. Then you can still see tiny white grass veneer (or perhaps the brown rush veneer which hides among dead bracken), and maybe a silver Y. I once saw a speckled yellow mid month.
Lambs, bullocks and the deer rut
Early in the month there are still lambs and young bullocks in the fields, but by the month's end they tend to have gone, presumably to the dinner table. When do they go? Some can still confound you by turning up later in the month, and by this time it is hard to tell this year's lambs from breeding ewes anyway. At some point when the grass stops growing or fields get too soft underfoot, dairy cattle will be taken into barns for the winter, but this may not be till October
Late September sees the beginnings of the deer rut, though it climaxes in mid October. A wonderful place to observe this is Richmond Park in London, where dominant red deer males gather harems of females (or rather the females gather round the male – it is they who choose where to be) and mate with them, while defending them against challengers. In late September all this tends to be at a fairly early stage, with the males roaring at each other and rubbing their antlers in the bracken to mark out territories. For more information on the red deer rut at its height, see the October deer rut page. For photos click here.
Red deer are not a wild species in southern England, but fallow and roe deer also have ruts. If you are lucky enough to spot signs of them in the woods, keep your distance, however. The deer in Richmond Park also need to be treated with respect, but are obviously more used to being watched by humans.
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