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September birds

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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, if you like. 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, or just a single tseep), 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 (though you need relatively young ears to hear this) 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 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 a bit 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. Once for twice I have heard a dunnock singing its full mating in September. 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 it is much briefer and more occasional than in spring or summer. Green woodpeckers occasionally utter a sound 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.

Wood pigeons are still in breeding mode at the start of September, and their "hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo" call can still be heard fairly regularly in the first half of the month, more occasionally in the second. You may also hear one or two collared doves ("hoo-hooo hoo"), usually in the first half, though in 2014 they were vocal all 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 independent), 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. 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 - while house martins form big flocks in the air. Those who have bred in the south east disappear quite early in the month, though juvenile swallows linger a bit longer than the adults, feeding up for the journey. Since they have shorter tails than the adults you might at a glance mistake them 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.

Even once the local swallows and house martins have gone, however, you may be lucky enough to see a large flock of them on the south coast. These have probably bred further north in the UK and are using coastal areas as a feeding and mustering point before setting off for their wintering grounds in Africa. 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.

In 2018 I saw large flocks of both species over Bonchurch Down on the Isle of Wight on 5 September, and one flock each of 70-80 swallows and house martins near Langstone Bridge and Emsworth at the top of Hayling Island on 21 September. My latest sighting of all was a large flock of house martins on the South Downs near Upper Beeding on 27 September 2018. Interestingly these large flocks were seen in 2018 despite it being a disastrous year for swallow and house martins in the south east, with very low numbers arriving in the spring.

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