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November birds and insects

Other November pages: Leaf fall and autumn coloursBushes, berries and seedsFlowersWeather

Picture: red admiral butterfly. Click here for autumn and winter bird photos. For more information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website.

Once the foliage falls away it is much easier to see birds – though not very easy, as they are still nervous and liable to fly off if they see any human watching them. Bird noises give you little help in locating them, as they are very quiet at this time of year. The only organised song comes from robins – though even they are fairly quiet in November, making just occasional forays into song. They also sometimes make a clicking noise which sounds a bit like a ratchet turning. This is supposed to be an alarm call but sometimes seems to be simply territorial.

Otherwise the main sounds are contact calls between sociable birds. Most active in this respect are great tits, one of whose characteristic calls is a double cheep followed by a churring sound, another being a kind of “see-choo-choo”. You may also hear them make occasional bursts of their see-saw mating song, though these never last long. The explanation for this and other snatches of mating songs that you hear at this time of year, is that it is first year males practising. By instinct they only know part of their song, and need to learn and perfect the rest before the next mating season.

Blue tits also make a churring sound to each other as they feed (rising in note at the end, while that of the great tit does not), and very occasionally burst into a snatch of their mating song - a single note, rapidly repeated. In addition you can hear the chaotic babbling of goldfinches - usually high up in the tree tops, where they are surprisingly hard to see as they peck away at the bark - or the minute squeaks and rasps of long-tailed tits (almost unaudible unless you have young ears), which look like hyperactive balls of fluff as they flit restlessly among the branches.

Among more solitary birds, dunnocks give the odd high-pitched tseep or (very rarely) sing a brief snatch of their squeaky mating song. You can get the occasional sudden outburst from a wren, recognisable as a flurry of notes with a trill in the middle, though sometimes in November you don't hear the trill, proving that it is a first year male practising. Nuthatches can fairly often be heard making their "wit wit wit" (or "de-dit de-dit") call. Much more rarely you may hear the chik...chik... call of the great spotted woodpecker, or a loud outburst from a green woodpecker - sometimes a full spring "yaffle", but usually a flat-toned version of it.

Near buildings sparrows cheep (often from inside a bush), as they do all year, while at dusk blackbirds may make a repetitive "tup tup tup" sound to ward off predators or rivals, the latter possibly including birds from the continent flying to the UK to take advantage of our milder winters.

From 2009 to 2011 song thrushes were also in full voice throughout November, to the bafflement of scientists. That has not been repeated, but it is quite usual to hear one or two song thrushes practising their riffs quietly (or not so quietly) towards the end of the month. Again, these are most almost certainly first year males honing their repertoire for the spring mating season, when the more variations they can do, the more attractive they will be to females.

It is also just possible to hear a mistle thrush singing in the second half of the month: they traditionally sung from December onwards, but are fairly rare these days. In 2017 and 2018 I also heard collared doves (once each year) and once in 2019 a stock dove. In 2020 I heard collared doves on four occasions and stock doves twice, while wood pigeons started singing quite widely towards the end of the month.

If you see flocks of larger birds they might well be starlings, jackdaws or rooks. Enormous flocks of starlings (many of them winter migrants from Eastern Europe) can collect at dusk and if you are lucky you can see them wheeling in unison in the sky - a manoeuvre called a "murmuration": Brighton Pier is especially good for this, with an estimated 25,000 starlings roosting there. You can also sometimes see flocks of starlings stripping berries off bushes or chattering away to each other in tree tops. Jackdaws and rooks, meanwhile, feed in huge (200 birds or more) mixed flocks on arable fields and also gather at dusk to roost in favoured trees in big noisy colonies (for example by Lewes station).

There are also migrants from Scandinavia who arrive in late October to winter with us, such as the fieldfare and redwing – both colourful relatives of the thrush, the giveaway being that they feed in flocks, while domestic thrushes are solitary. They are easier to spot later in the winter when they become more adventurous in their feeding habits, however. In woodland (and particularly on alder trees) you may also see siskins (a yellow finch: but do not confuse these with yellowhammers, which also live in flocks at this time of year, as in theory do chaffinches, though this seems to be a rare sight these days.)

At night in or near woods this is a good time of year to hear tawny owls, which are finding mates and establishing territories - including driving away their now grown-up young. Apparently both sexes can make the "kewik" noise as well as the characteristic "hoo-hoo-hoo hoo", but a kewik followed by a hoo-hoo-hoo hoo (always with a four second gap between them) is a female answered by a male. Towards dusk you can also hear the clucking of pheasants as they settle down for the night, something which they do all the year round but which is more noticable as the nights draw in.

Insects

You may think that there are no insects around in November but you would be wrong. Look carefully on windless days (particularly late in the afternoon in the light of the setting sun) and you can see swarms of winter gnats. If can fix them with binoculars or other magnifying instruments (not easy!), you will see that they are rather amazing creatures, like miniature crane flies or mayflies. There are in fact ten different species of them in the UK, and they are doing their mating dance, the males swooping up and down to attract the females, having evolved to do so at this time of year to avoid predators.

Every other species also has to have a strategy to get through the cold months and populate the world anew in spring and summer. Some - for example, woodlice, spiders, crane flies, ladybirds and shield bugs - lie dormant in a cosy place, such as under a log or in leaf litter. They are not actually hibernating, a term which only applies to mammals. Instead what they are doing is known as "diapause": they shut off their metabolism entirely, though if they are disturbed it instantly starts up again. With all these insects, if you disturb them, or unusually warm weather wakes them up, simply leave them alone they will soon go back to their state of suspended animation.

Some butterflies - peacock, small tortoiseshell, brimstone, comma and some red admirals - also diapause as adults: Second World War pillboxes are apparently one favoured spot. It is not impossible to see one still flying around in early November - particularly for some reason a red admiral. Quite a few other butterfly and moth species spend the winter as diapaused caterpillars - one of the things the great and blue tits are looking for as they feed.

Insects also overwinter as eggs, larvae or pupae - or as a fertilised queen as is the case with bumble bees and wasps. Honeybees remain closeted in their hives, living off the stores of honey they have built up over the summer. It is just possible that on a mild sunny day you might see any of these on the wing, or perhaps one of the solitary bee species. Now and then, if the weather is sunny or mild, you might see a fly or a late surviving worker wasp.

More November pages:


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