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September birds

Other September pages: Berries, fruits, nuts and seeds • Leaf fall • Flowers • Insects, butterflies and animals • 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 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. Great tits make a variety of calls (for example see-see or see-choo-choo), and both they and blue tits occasionally 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.

Another bird sound in September is a metronomic (though also slightly erratic) 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. They make the call as they are feeding, moving along branches. (Chaffinches make a similar call earlier in the year, but theirs is harsher and more regular - recording.)

Just occasionally, there is also an outbreak of the full mating song of the chiffchaff in September - something that happened in 2009, 2016 and 2017. The 2009 outbreak was discussed on the BBC Autumnwatch programme, which admitted the cause was a complete mystery - perhaps males marking their territory before they migrate to the Mediterranean for the winter.

Other very infrequent 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 you 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. The cheeping of sparrows in a bush near habitation is possible at any time of the month, though far less common than it used to be.

Early in the month you may also hear a wood pigeon - a hangover from their summer breeding season: in 2017 they were heard now and then right to the end of the month. In 2014 collared doves were also vocal all month, and in 2017 the occasional one was heard.

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 fledge), 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: it takes 3-4 years for them to develop adult plumage and their full repertoire of calls.

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.

More September pages:

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