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September birds

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Picture: first year wheatear on migration. Click here for more September bird photos. For more information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website.

Bird noises increase a little bit in September after the summer silence, though robins (and wood pigeons - see below) are the only birds singing systematically. After the breeding season both male and female robins 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: in theory this is an alarm call, though I have observed a bird making it while calmly feeding on a blackberry bush.

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. These are juvenile birds practising: by instinct first year males in many species know only parts of their song and it is their ability to learn the rest that impresses the females in the mating season.

Another bird sound in September is a metronomic (though also slightly erratic) series of single notes - a repetitive "hweet...hweet...hweet...hweet" - which always seems 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 and that the noise stops once they migrate in October. 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, you also hear the full mating song of the chiffchaff in September - the characteristic "choff-chiff-chaff" that gives it its name. Science is a bit unclear about the reason for this: it may be juveniles practising, or older males marking their territory before they migrate to the Mediterranean for the winter.

Other infrequent bird sounds come from the dunnock, which utter a high tseep (sometimes repeatedly), 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 (an incomplete trill indicating that it is a juvenile practising). Once or twice I have also heard a dunnock singing its full mating song in September.

In addition nuthatches sometimes produce their "wit-wit-wit" call (an alarm?) 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 run of notes (usually an alarm call) similar to their "yaffle" territorial call earlier in the year, but flat in pitch and so lacking the yaffle's "laughing" quality. I have once or twice heard the full yaffle too. Note also the "chik...chik" call of the great spotted woodpecker.

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, more occasionally in the second. (In 2020 it was frequent throughout the month), You may also hear one or two collared doves ("hoo-hooo hoo"), usually in the first half, though in 2014 they were vocal all September. The throaty "woo" of a stock dove is just possible early in the month.

By the sea you can see and hear juvenile herring gulls fruitlessly begging their parents for food in the first two weeks of September, the adults having abruptly stopped providing in order to make junior independent. Once their parents have shaken them off, the young gulls sometimes try the same trick on humans, with equal lack of success. By the second half of the month they have largely got the message, but still make their plaintive mews, as this is the only sound they are able to make. It takes 3-4 years - if they survive that long - for them to develop adult plumage and their full repertoire of calls.

Early in September you might still see swallows and house martins inland. If you see a big flock of swallows on a telephone wire, bush or rooftop, chattering, taking off and generally seeming to be in an excited mood, then this means they are preparing to migrate - probably that night, since they leave in the dark to avoid predators.

As late as the eighteenth century, naturalists puzzled over the way they abruptly disappeared, with Gilbert White, for example, being convinced that they hibernated. Some even reckoned they spent the winter at the bottom of ponds, since they were often first seen in spring in that location. (They in fact spend the winter in South Africa). Migrating house martins also congregate, forming big flocks in the air - though sadly nothing like as big as they did in Gilbert White's day, when he reported them darkening the sky.

Swallows and house martins which have bred in the south east disappear quite early in the month, if not in late August, 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 (50-70 birds, or even as many as 200) 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. Good places for this include Beachy Head, the cliffs at Fairlight near Hastings, the South Downs above Shoreham-by-Sea or Wilmington, Bonchurch Downs or the coast around Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, and Durlston Head near Swanage. As late as 21 September in 2018, an otherwise very poor year for swallows and house martins due to migration problems in the spring, I also saw separate flocks of both near Langstone Bridge and Emsworth at the top of Hayling Island.

All sorts of other birds are migrating south inconspicuously. It is estimated that close to five billion birds of some 200 species leave Europe in September and head south, most of them ending up in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many fly at night to avoid predators. One species you may see in September on the South Downs or south coast are wheatears, recognisable from their strong dark eyestripe, which have generally bred further north. The ones you see tend to be first year adults, with somewhat lighter colourings than the mature adult bird.

On harvested or ploughed arable fields you can see enormous flocks of rooks and jackdaws (sometimes mixed together), a sight uncomfortably reminiscent of winter. All sorts of other birds combine into flocks as autumn sets in: see October birds for more on this.

More September pages:

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