Birds are on the move throughout the year, but spring and autumn are the times when migration is in full flow. September and October span arguably the most exciting time of the year for birdwatching. So, this month, we recommend a few autumn specials. Most are scarce, but all are very possible, with a bit of luck...
As both parts of this wader’s name seem to imply, the Little Stint is tiny. It is so small, that you almost believe it could run through a Dunlin’s legs. As such, it is relatively easy to pick out, at least as something different, in a flock of small dumpy sandpipers. Most autumn birds are juveniles, with neat plumage, well defined pale fringes on their wing coverts and white V on the back. The legs are black and the main potential ID confusion is with the very rare North American ‘peeps’. But that is another story…
A pretty scarce autumn passage migrant, this is one of the smaller flycatchers, much smaller than, say, a Spotted Flycatcher. They are also surprisingly elusive little birds, seemingly able to disappear at will. In autumn, most birds will not have obvious orange throats and breast, but look more brown and buff. All, though, have distinctive black and white tails and pale eyerings.
Though formerly a breeder, the charismatic Red-backed Shrike is largely a passage migrant through the UK in the autumn, in quite small numbers, and mainly found along the south and east coasts. The great majority of autumn birds seen will be juveniles/first-winters, which are browner than adults and barred below and above. Scan coastal (or even inland) sites, along fence lines and bushes, which the shrikes use to search for insect and small vertebrate prey.
Essentially a North American Arctic breeder, this neat Calidris sandpiper is the commonest wader from across the Atlantic each autumn (though it is still a pretty scarce bird). Most birds we see are juveniles, with neatly patterned warm coloured feathering and obvious white lines forming Vs on the back. They are roughly Dunlin sized (some are smaller, some larger) though slimmer and longer winged with a proportionally smaller head, pale (yellow-green) legs and a well defined dark-streaked breast. They also have a more creeping gait than Dunlins. Beware confusion with larger, buffer juvenile Ruffs, and even juvenile Redshanks. Pectoral Sandpipers have a preference for freshwater habitats, and could be at suitable wader habitat well inland.
One of the most spectacular looking waders in full breeding plumage, by the autumn, most birds in the UK will be juveniles, quite unlike their infinitely variable parents. Juvenile Ruffs are neatly patterned birds infused with warm peachy buff. Concentrate on structure for ID: Ruffs, especially males, look small-headed, long-necked and pot-bellied. Females (reeves) are much smaller and more conventionally proportioned, causing potential confusion with many other medium-sized waders.