October has arrived. For some, this is the most exciting time of the birdwatching calendar. And with some justification, as many scarce and rare birds appear among the commoner species. Summer birds cross over with winter birds in this period of abundance and change. And it is getting to the ‘last chance saloon’ with respect to some birds you may need for your #My200BirdYear list. Here are five birds to be getting on with.
Like the Dunlin featured as our Bird of the Month, the Starling comes into its own when gathered in big numbers. From late summer and throughout the winter, Starlings gather in the evening, often in flocks of many thousands of birds to roost communally. These ‘murmurations’ of thousands or even millions of Starlings swirling like ever morphing smoke are rightly renowned as one of the most wonderful natural spectacles. Starlings start to gather as the sun sets, near their favoured mass roosting sites. Over some time small flocks and individuals gather into the mass, flying round forming magnificent amoeboid shapes until the time is right. Then the whole flock appears to be sucked by a vacuum down to the reeds or bushes in which they will roost.
Our smallest falcon is a speedy jet fighter of a bird, whizzing along on relatively short wings (for a falcon) in breakneck pursuit of small birds, such as larks and pipits. Merlins are birds of open country, in winter favouring coastal marshes, fenland and other suitable areas with plentiful prey. Most birds are youngsters or females, looking cold dark brown with a prominent pale supercilium (‘eyebrow’) and a banded tail (so somewhat like the falcon equivalent of a Sparrowhawk). Adult males are even better looking in steely blue with an orange flush to the underparts.
Just as Merlins come down from the uplands in the winter, so Stonechats leave their breeding grounds to spread out over suitable wintering areas in autumn and winter. The movement is primarily inland (as much of their breeding distribution is more or less coastal), but also with a certain shift to the south. Often found in pairs, Stonechats like weedy fields with plenty of caterpillars. They usually perch on the top of weeds, fencelines and gate posts, in search of their prey.
Great White Egret
Over the last 30-odd years there has been an egret revolution in the UK. Now, it is quite possible to see more Little Egrets than Grey Herons in the average day’s birdwatching. In the last few years, a new egret has snuck in with very little fuss. Though less than 20 years ago considered a bona fide rarity, Great White Egrets are now barely noteworthy in some parts of the country. It will not be long before they are regular breeding birds across the UK. That said, they are still great birds and if you don’t have one (or more) on your #My200BirdYear, you should get out and see one (or more), this month. They are much bigger than Little Egrets, often standing taller than Grey Herons. Outside the breeding season, they have orange bills. And at all times, the long neck has a distinctive ‘kink’ in it.
Only a few British birds have a lower ‘sightings to hearings’ ratio than the Water Rail (Quail, Corn Crake and Tawny Owl come to mind). These beautiful little squealers usually scream out their piglet calls from deep in the cover of a reedbed or ditch. Unlike Quail or Corn Crake, though, they will also come out when the coast is clear and have a bit of a feed in the shallow edge of their reedy home, dashing back in at the first hint of danger. They are small, more wader-sized than Moorhen-sized and quite dark, with a blue-grey body and brown back, and black-and-white vertical stripes on the flanks. Unlike the other rails and crakes the bill is long and red.