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Nature and Weather in South East England

August birds

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

Photo: Herring gulls at the seaside. Click here for more August bird photos. For more 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. Note also the twittering of goldfinches. Early in the month this may still 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 trilling in the first week, though they are no longer doing their nasal "squeezh".

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. (Its ponderous repetition can get a bit irritating after all the varied birdsong we have enjoyed since February.) Collared doves - "hoo-hooo hoo" (with a slight emphasis on the second hoo) - are also sometimes heard. They tend to be found (and seen) on the roofs of houses, while wood pigeons can be found both in woodland and amongst houses. Less common, but still possible throughout August, is the throaty "woo" of the stock dove, entirely a woodland bird.

A much more common sound this month is a repetitive hweet...hweet...hweet…hweet (recording), 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. The call seems to be at least partly territorial because you can sometimes hear two birds calling in competition. Even without a rival the call can go on for extended periods. Having said that, chaffinches make a somewhat similar repeated call earlier in the year, which I have once or twice identified 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 the second week (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, each trying to carve out an exclusive feeding ground that will keep them alive through the winter. 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 an occasional call which sounds like a ratchet turning: supposedly this is an alarm call, but I have observed a robin doing it while calmly eating blackberries.

Right from the start of the month you can occasionally 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 it is very tentative and hushed. Great tits churr in August too, their version remaining constant in tone, while the blue tit one rises 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 even more rarely a blue tit male doing its breeding call, a repeated single note. These outbursts, which rarely last for long, are fledgling males practising for the next mating season, which starts in January.

You may also hear the high-pitched squeaks of long-tailed tits as they hop from branch to branch (though you need relatively young ears for this), or the occasional trilling outburst from a wren: they also make clicking noise they make which sounds like two stones being banged together. In the first week of the month you can still hear a yellowhammer singing its mating song.

Other possible sounds include the high pitched "tseep" of a dunnock or the "wit wit wit" call of a nuthatch. Green woodpeckers 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, and you can occasionally hear the "chik...chik..." call of a great spotted woodpecker. 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.

Once a common summer sight, but getting worryingly rarer in recent years, are swallows or house martins swooping over fields or downland to feed. One way to tell them apart is by their calls - the house martins' have a 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 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. But by August you also have groups of juvenile swallows (with a shorter tail and a lighter throat patch), while adults may congregate too now they have finished breeding. Perhaps this is just human fancy, but the juveniles seem to behave just like teenagers, chatting, sitting on fences, flying about and feeding, and generally enjoying life.

Eventually, in late August or early September, you may come across a large flock of swallows sat on a telephone wire or fence, chattering and swooping for insects, or - a particular sign this - resting up and preening their feathers as dusk approaches. When this happens they are getting ready to migrate. They depart at night so one never sees them go, and as recently as the 18th century the renowned naturalist Gilbert White thought they hibernated. Some even reckoned they spent the winter at the bottom of ponds, since it was often by ponds that they were first seen in spring. Even after most have gone, you can still see some along the south coast - probably juveniles (who leave a bit later, to give them more time to feed up) or birds who have spent the summer further north and are now in transit towards their wintering grounds in South Africa.

In seaside towns in August, particularly in the second half of the month, one sees lots of juvenile herring gulls - distinguishable by their grey-brown 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 grey-brown feathers 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.

Later in the month you may also see wheatears - identifiable by their dark eye stripe, but usually without their full mating plumage (many are first year adults) - on the South Downs or south coast. These are migrating southwards after breeding further north,

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:

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