October/November can be a great time to take stock of your #My200BirdYear list – many summer visitors will be gone, some other hard-to-find species will still be going through on passage, and the first winter arrivals will be trickling in.
If you haven’t already, you’ll want to double-check which species you have seen, then make a list of those that you might reasonably expect to come across in the last three months of the year. That should give you an idea of whether or not you need to do a bit of ‘twitching’, whether local or further afield, to boost the number up to the magic 200.
It’s a particularly good time of year to fill in any gaps where birds of prey and owls are concerned – the shortening days and falling temperatures mean the business of finding enough food becomes more difficult, and so some species move considerable distances in search of new hunting areas, while others may stay put, but concentrate more heavily on particular parts of their territories. And there are one or two possible ‘bonus ticks’, too…
To start with, in many parts of the UK you could reasonably expect to complete a full set of our breeding falcons – Hobby, Kestrel, Merlin and Peregrine. You’ll need to be quick off the mark to get the former, as many will already be well on the way to Africa by the end of September, but some will still be present in the south of the UK well into October.
Check gravel pits, lakes and ponds where there are plenty of dragonflies, while roosts and gathering points for House Martins and late Swallows will also attract them.
Kestrels are easier – just look for their distinctive dead-still hovering while hunting, often alongside roads, as well as birds looking for food from perches atop streetlights and telegraph poles.
Merlins will be on the move from their moorland breeding sites to lowland wintering areas (usually coastal marshes, but some inland fens, too), and can turn up just about anywhere as they do.
Their low, dashing hunting flight is sometimes varied with a ‘bouncy’ flight seemingly calculated to look like a thrush’s, and potential prey includes thrushes, chats, and gatherings of small birds such as Sky Larks and Meadow Pipits on stubble fields and similar habitats.
Most field guides will tell you that Peregrines also wander at this time of year (their name means ‘wanderer’, in fact), moving to similar areas as are used by Merlins.
And indeed many do, particularly those from the species’ traditional upland strongholds. But in recent years, of course, many have established themselves in towns and cities, as well as in lowland quarries, and these often stay put during winter.
The Buzzard is now our commonest bird of prey, and stays on territory year-round. In autumn, though, they can be particularly visible, soaring in circles on warm days (often making their far-carrying mewing cry), as they look to ward off intrusions from young birds looking to establish new territories.
Rough-legged Buzzards arrive from Scandinavia in small and varying numbers as autumn draws on. Plumage differences between them and Buzzards are many and often subtle (especially as Buzzards are very variable) but they’re also a little larger and longer-winged, and hover often and well.
Honey Buzzards typically head south in the first half of September, but look for the odd lingering bird in southern England. In flight, the downcurved wings and long, rounded tail is a good ID pointer.
Older field guides might lead you to think that Marsh Harriers all depart these shores in autumn, but warmer winters means that many now stay in the UK, especially in breeding strongholds such as East Anglia and the Somerset Levels. And while some of our breeding birds do migrate south, others arrive here from parts of the Continent, so any visit to the coastal marshes of Norfolk and Suffolk, to the Fens, to the North Kent Marshes or the Somerset Levels, should be rewarded with the sight of at least a couple.
Montagu’s Harriers are very rare breeders in the UK anyway, and will generally have left on migration before the end of September, but odd birds do linger around the south coast, while Pallid Harriers are becoming increasingly frequent vagrants from eastern Europe – carefully check any bird that doesn’t look quite right for a Monty’s or a Hen Harrier.
The persecution suffered by the latter species at the hands of shooting interests in parts of England and Scotland might give you the impression that Hen Harriers will be very hard to find, but in winter they leave the uplands and head to the coast and to lowland fens. Despite the persecution, they’re our commonest harrier, so look for them in such habitats or as they move through. A male is unmistakable, while the ‘ringtails’ (females and young birds) can also be identified by their long wings, white rumps, and low-level hunting flights.
The UK’s burgeoning Red Kite population is non-migratory, and young birds often take a long time to stray too far from where they’re born, so this is one of the easier raptors to tick, around any of its strongholds (the Chilterns, Rockingham Forest, mid-Wales, and the area just north of Leeds among them). But some do wander, especially in response to bad weather, so look out for that distinctively deep-forked tail.
Black Kites are migratory, and birds from Scandinavia can easily find their way here as they head south – turn to page 28 to find out how to recognise a bird that may ultimately become a British breeder.
Goshawks can be extremely hard to find other than when they’re displaying (in February and March), but as autumn goes on, Sparrowhawks may be more in evidence around your garden feeders. As small birds gather to take advantage of this vital food resource, they gather to take advantage of all that extra prey.
Eagles and Osprey
The ‘bad’ news is that, if you want to see an eagle, you still pretty much have to travel up to Scotland. White-tailed Eagles do sometimes turn up on the coasts further south, but your best bet is always a trip to the Highlands or the islands of the west coast, especially Mull. If looking for Golden Eagles, keep an eye out close to herds of Red Deer – the eagles often follow them.
Ospreys will have migrated south by now, for the most part, but occasionally birds hang around on southern estuaries. These are usually young birds, which may ultimately only migrate as far as Spain or Portugal.
Tawny Owls can be very vocal at this time of year, and we’re going to be generous – hear that ‘kewick’/’tu-whoo’ interplay between male and female and you can tick it, because these are nocturnal birds that are very difficult to see.
Barn Owls, on the other hand, hunt at dusk and sometimes well before, and at this time of year can be seen everywhere from coastal saltmarshes to roadside verges and pastureland. If it’s been rainy the previous night, they’re particularly likely to be out early, making up for lost time. Poor waterproofing on their feathers means they can’t fly well in the rain.
Little Owls are also best looked for at dusk, although on warm afternoons they may also be found basking in sunny spots, keeping one eye out for large insects.
Short-eared Owls behave rather similarly to Hen Harriers at this time of year, moving from upland moors to coastal sites and marshes, where they can be seen quartering the land in search of rodent prey.
Long-eared Owls remain as secretive as ever, but they too pop up at coastal marshes, and also form roosts in dense hedges and thickets. Even there, they can be incredibly hard to make out, but a dawn or dusk stake-out should pay dividends.