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October birds

Other October pages: Introduction to leaf fallTree by tree - the autumn sequence Berries, nuts, seeds and shrubs Flowers and fungi Deer rut, insects and farm animalsWeather

Picture: a starling murmuration seen from Brighton Pier. Click here for more autumn and winter bird photos. For more information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website.

Bird noise is at a very low level in October - the lowest level it gets to all year - with most of them busy feeding up on the remaining berries and grubs. Robins are the only ones defending territories, with both males and females vigorously guarding their own patch, but even they are much less vocal than they were in September - just occasional brief forays into song. They also 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 there are the contact calls of sociable birds – odd cheeps and rattles that they make to each other as they hop around the branches feeding. The most audible are great tits who produce churrs, single notes, a "see-choo-choo" sound, and a "cheep cheep" call. Blue tits also churr (though with a rising note, unlike great tits), while long-tailed tits make high pitched squeaks (which you need relatively young ears to hear) or rasps in their restless journey through the tree tops.

You also sometimes hear the thin "tseep" (often repeated multiple times) of a dunnock and a "wit wit wit" call from a nuthatch. At dusk blackbirds occasionally indulge in bouts of tup-tup-tupping, perhaps to ward off winter migrants from the continent who swell our blackbird numbers at this time of year, or perhaps to warn of predators. I have also read that this behaviour indicates a communal roost.

A phenomenon that continues from September into October is that some birds break into an unseasonal burst of their mating song. Examples include the see-saw of the great tit or coal tit, the abrupt riffs of dunnocks, or the trilling outburst of a wren. Larks, collared doves and wood pigeons are also occasionally heard.

Apart from the wood pigeon, which can still be in breeding mode until quite late in September, the most likely explanation is juvenile birds practising. By instinct first year males in many species know only parts of their song and need to learn the rest to attract females in the next mating season. For example, wrens at this time of year are sometimes unable to do the trill in the middle of their song properly.

The occasional outburst from green woodpeckers is probably an alarm call. It is not the laughing "yaffle" it makes in mating season (though very rarely you do hear that) but an equally loud, flatter-toned version. Great spotted woodpeckers make a chik... chik... chik sound.

Early in the month you can still hear the repeated, almost metronomic hweet that the chiffchaff makes in late summer (see September birds). Very rarely one might produce a brief burst of song. The latter could be juveniles practising, or could be mature males marking their territory one last time before leaving it, because most - though not all - depart for the Mediterranean in early October. In 2009 and 2010 chiffchaff song was quite widespread at this time, puzzling experts, but this has not been repeated.

Most other summer migrant species have also left our shores by now, though very early in the month you may just see some juvenile swallows on the south coast (they leave after their parents), almost certainly birds from further north that are stopping off on their way to their wintering grounds in South Africa.

Meanwhile birds that bred in Scandinavia or Eastern Europe are arriving to winter in England, attracted by our milder maritime climate. This includes many wetland birds outside the scope of these pages, but also chaffinches, blackbirds, robins and blue tits. In turn some of our populations of these common garden birds head south to France or Spain.

These movements tend to go unnoticed, but you can see a definite increase in starling numbers towards the end of October as continental migrants arrive, doubling our resident population. Large flocks of them may fly at dusk in tightly packed formations before roosting - a phenomenum known as murmuration. The synchronisation is apparently simply due to all the individual starlings responding independently to the same stimuli, which can include attempts by predators, such as peregrine falcons, to eat them. Well-known spots to see murmurations include Brighton Pier and Otmoor RSPB reserve in Oxfordshire. However December or January, when numbers have built to their maximum levels, are probably a better time to go there.

Starlings can also sometimes be seen in flocks on berry bushes - you usually notice them when they fly off in alarm at your approach. In historical times winter walks would have been dominated by large mixed flocks of other birds - chaffinches or linnets, for example - but such sightings are now rare.

It is worth looking carefully at any group of birds you see on a bush or field in October, however, as they may include an interesting mix of species - yellowhammers, for example, which live communally in winter, or treecreepers and nuthatches, who may join flocks of chaffinches in colder weather. You may also come across small groups of meadow pipits, who travel from the north of the UK to overwinter in our milder southern climate.

If you see a group of thrushes, you know you are looking at redwings or fieldfares, since our native thrushes never flock together. These Scandinavian visitors, with characteristic red or russet tints on their plumage, arrive later in the month and feed unobtrusively in fields and hedges, sometimes stripping whole bushes of berries.

Bramblings also turn up, looking a bit like moulting chaffinches: they are particularly fond of rowan berries. In addition you may just see a flock of migrant siskins, yellow finches, feeding in small groups on alder and birch trees, though they prefer conifers.

Sparrows also once thronged arable fields in their thousands, but you never see that these days. However you can sometimes come across them cheeping away inside a bush near houses. Like other birds they seem to be much less vocal in October than they are at other times of the year.

In addition, you sometimes hear a flock of goldfinches making their demented twittering, usually high in a tree, where they are hard to spot. Some 80 percent of these birds supposedly migrate to the continent for the winter, but overwintering numbers have apparently been boosted recently by garden birdfeeders. I have occasionally come across flocks of 30 or 40 birds on the South Downs in October, feeding on flower seeds: possibly these are birds from further north in mid migration.

Perhaps the most obvious flocks you see in winter are those of rooks or jackdaws (not infrequently both together). As many as 200 of these can be seen feeding on arable fields or grassland, and they also gather in nearby trees. They then roost noisily in large colonies in a favoured stand of trees (for example the ones by Lewes railway station). The noise is apparently not just the birds squabbling for position or status, but an exchange of information about feeding sites.

At night in or near woods this is a good time of year to hear tawny owls, which are finding mates and establishing territories, a process which includes 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 noticeable as the nights draw in.

More October pages:

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