For many of us, October is the very best birding month. The last of summer’s birds are leaving, the winterers are arriving and there is a wealth of migrating birds passing through, including scarcities and rarities in profusion. These five are not the rarest birds, but all have potential to be seen in October. Enjoy!
Lesser Redpoll (above)
The British breeding Lesser Redpoll is aptly named as the smallest of the redpoll complex. October sees birds move away from the breeding grounds, and they are frequently encountered during ’visible migration’ watches as fly-overs. They are tiny, tit-like finches with black on the bib, through the eye and just above the bill, before the red splash on the forecrown which gives the bird its name. Adult males are flushed pink on the breast, otherwise they are brown- and buff-streaked birds. Through the winter they will feed on the seeds from Birch and Alder catkins.
Rock Pipits are widely distributed birds, mainly found around the rocky coasts of England. In September and October birds turn up inland. Most, if not all, of these are of the Scandinavian subspecies littoralis, rather than local British birds from the coast. Rock Pipits are larger and darker than Meadow Pipits, with stronger darker bills and usually dark legs. The breast streaks are much heavier than Meadow Pipits’ and smudge together to form dark lines, giving the bird an almost ‘dirty’ look.
Inland passage birds can be found near water bodies, often on rocky or concrete shores. Unlike the closely related Water Pipit, Rock Pipits are relatively bold birds, often allowing reasonably close approach.
Sabine’s Gulls are very much ‘sea gulls’, spending much of their time out to sea. However, strong winds in autumn (especially from the north-west) blow southward migrating Atlantic birds in to our coasts and even inland, turning up at reservoirs, lakes and gravel pits. In the extreme, during the Great Storm of mid-October 1987, record numbers turned up across the UK. Seen well, Sabine’s Gulls are distinctive, with ‘triangles’ of black white and grey/brown on the wing. Seen distantly on seawatches, they can be confused with first-winter Kittiwakes.
Surely up there in the top 10 of every birdwatcher’s favourite bird, the Bearded Tit is a real charmer. Even the ‘ping ping’ calls are cute. Small, long-tailed and with stupidly short, rounded wings, they are not the sort of bird which you would expect to fly far. However, in the early autumn, Bearded Tits can rise up vertically in family groups and flocks and head off for reedbeds new. October is one of the best times for finding a Beaded Tit turning up at an ‘unexpected’ place (usually a reedbed or reedmace bed), where you may never have seen one before, at least not this year.
October sees the first returning Whooper Swans arriving from their breeding grounds in the north, particularly Iceland (birds often arrive with plumage stained from certain upland lakes). Whoopers are the size of Mute Swans, with a distinctive yellow triangle on the bill which leads up to the eye. They are vocal birds, with a pleasing deep ‘honk’ call. Whooper Swans are mainly wintering birds of northern England and Scotland, as well as Ireland; with a few localised wintering populations around the Wash, North Wales and the Severn Estuary.