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August birds

Other August pages: Fruits, berries, nuts and treesDownland and seaside flowersWayside flowersButterflies and insectsWeather

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

Birdsong is 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, a process that takes 12 weeks for thrushes and finches and 16 weeks for tits. During this time some of the energy they would normally use for flying is devoted to replacing their feathers.

Meanwhile newly-fledged young are learning the ropes and trying not to be eaten by predators. Overall only a third of blackbirds and half of tits survive their first winter, and most do not live to see a second one. Though birds can fly as soon as they leave the nest, it takes time to perfect all the techniques, such as landing. In the meantime they are especially vulnerable to predators.

Despite this, some bird sounds can still be heard in August. One example is sparrows, who can occasionally be heard making their cheerful communal cheeps near houses or farms, though this activity is less frenetic than earlier in the year. Note also the twittering of goldfinches. Early in the month this may just be a male singing to defend a breeding territory, but for the most part during August these birds are communal, tinkling away as they feed on thistle or teasel seeds. Greenfinches can also sometimes be heard in the first week.

The most prominent birdsong in August, however, comes from wood pigeons, whose hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo call is common for most of the month, tailing off a bit towards its end. Collared doves - "hoo-hooo hoo" (with a slight emphasis on the second hoo) - are also sometimes 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 throaty "woo" is very occasionally heard in August.

A much more common bird sound this month is 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. Theirs is a bit more regular and insistent (recording), while the chiffchaff one is 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 (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. Juveniles are also are trying to establish themselves, again competing with their parents. (They have speckled brown breasts until mature, possibly because if they had red breasts their parents would try to kill them). In addition robins 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. Great tits churr in August too, their version remaining constant in tone, while the blue tit one rises a note or two at the end. More common is to hear great tits making their characteristic "see-choo-choo"contact call. As with the blue tits it is all very quiet and shy, however.

Occasionally you may also hear both great tits or coal tits bursting into their see-saw mating song, or a blue tit male doing its breeding call, a repeated single note. 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 (you need relatively young ears to hear this, however), or the occasional trilling outburst from a wren or a clicking noise they make which sounds like two stones being banged together. Other possible sounds include the high pitched "tseep" of a dunnock or the "wit wit wit" call of a nuthatch. Green woodpeckers also occasionally utter a loud run of notes similar to their "yaffle" territorial call earlier in the year, but flat in pitch and so lacking the yaffle's "laughing" quality. A very noticeable absence from the soundscape are skylarks, 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 see swallows or house martins swooping over fields to feed. One way to tell them apart is by their calls - the house martins' have an staccato rasping quality, while swallows sound like a child's squeaky bath toy being rapidly squeezed. 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.

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 or early September, 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.

(Swallows and house martins both saw a catastrophic drop in numbers in 2018. It remains to be seen whether this is a blip due to inclement spring weather on their migration route or a more widespread population collapse. Worryingly, both species seem to be on a downward trend in the south east.)

In seaside towns in August one sees lots of juvenile herring gulls - distinguishable by their brownish plumage - following their parents around making mewing noises in the hope of being fed. But it is time for them to fend for themselves and the adults ignore them. Slightly older herring gulls also have brown plumage and make a similar noise, though have stopped pestering their parents. It takes 3-4 years for the birds to develop adult plumage and their full repertoire of piercing calls.

On newly cut arable fields large flocks of rooks or jackdaws may be seen feeding on the stubble - a sight uncomfortably reminiscent of winter.

More August pages:

© Peter Conway 2006-2018 • All Rights Reserved

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