Birdwatching: When to See Birds
Birds are present in almost any type of habitat throughout the year. Seasonally, their abundance may well vary and these changes should be of interest to the birdwatcher-naturalist. He will want to know why birds are absent or why there has been a change, so even an empty habitat is not devoid of interest. In the ‘bird-year’ the seasons seem to merge imperceptively into each other. For instance, spring, for me begins in March but many birds have already established their nesting territories. Our familiar Robin, for example, has probably been singing since January or even late December. Early spring is a good time to search for birds as the swelling leaf buds do not yet make an effective barrier. It is now that you should watch out for the first Chiffchaffs, while they search continuously for early insects amongst the taller deciduous trees. On the days immediately after their arrival they will sing a quiet subsong which is very different from their usual song which for many birdwatchers is the first sign that our summer migrants are on their way. Shortly after the arrival of the Chiffchaff, the Willow Warbler can be heard sometimes singing in the same trees as the former bird, but also from the lower shrub layer.
On the coastal cliffs and shingle banks and the bare heavily grazed links and dunes, the first Wheatears will have begun to appear. Arriving earliest on the westernmost peninsulas of Cornwall and Wales, they seem to penetrate through to the eastern parts of England a week or so later. In Pembrokeshire the first large influx appears to average about the 29th of March, although the first birds might have arrived three weeks earlier.
Along the laneside hedges and gardens birds are returning from their winter wandering to nest. By mid-March in my village in Cambridgeshire the first Greenfinches and Linnets are beginning to settle down. These birds are largely absent during the winter, appearing at the bird table only after cold weather or a snowfall. Our Goldfinches, which winter south of Britain, arrive later in April, and nest in the old pear and apple trees which are no longer pruned or sprayed.
On the islands and seabird cliffs the auks come and go. Guillemots may have visited the ledges for brief periods from November onwards and now in late March and early April they have been joined by Razorbills and Puffins and sit, bobbing about, on the sea. Then early one morning the Razorbills and Guillemots paddle rapidly over the water, lift off and circle upwards and in towards the cliffs, landing finally with a thump on their ledges. Usually the Puffins remain on the water until around midday when the two other species are going back to sea again. Suddenly thousands of these clown-like birds will circle up over the clifftops. Some return to the sea again but others alight and either rush at once into a burrow or stand on the sward, waddling around, peering into others’ burrows. Masses of them, too, just circle overhead.
In April and May the later migrants arrive and establish their breeding territories. Others are passing on to their breeding grounds further north. Birds seeking shelter for their nests and food for their young gradually return to habitats which have been empty throughout the winter. On the other hand, estuaries which have been teeming with bird-life during the winter months are now empty as there is nowhere for the birds to breed. During June the last of the summer migrants will have arrived and those which have been successful in obtaining mates will be well on with their nesting. By now the young of the first Wheatears to arrive will be leaving their nests and from then on the numbers of young birds launching themselves into the world will be increasing enormously. May and June are wonderful months to travel in Britain whether it is to the mountains and moorlands, or to the sea with its cliffs and islands or to the northern forests and lakes. The island cliffs are beautiful with their huge drifts of Sea Campion, Thrift and the occasional Spring Squill.
As summer creeps up the hills many species of bird such as the Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Wheatear, Curlew and Golden Plover, together with the occasional Dunlin, can be found nesting amongst the heather, rushes, sedge and bog cotton. On the Orkney moors the Arctic Skuas, Common Gulls and even the Great Skua have come to nest.
By mid-June the breeding season has finished for some species. Some of the waders have failed to find mates or have lost their eggs or young and from this time onwards small flocks of Lapwings can be seen dispersing as they fly across England towards Wales, or even Ireland. In the arable counties of England the cereal crop has not been harvested and there are few places for the Lapwing to rest. In Cambridgeshire, the Lapwing numbers build up after the harvest, when the ground has been ploughed or burned. The Curlews also move west, but in much smaller numbers, at this time. The Green Sandpiper appears in smaller numbers still and can be found, interestingly, foraging along the edges of quite small streams and ponds, even in gardens.
In July some of the earlier migrants are already beginning their return journey. The bulk of the Swifts leave after a short breeding season. In the woods the singing has stopped and the thick foliage make birds difficult to find. It is also the time of year when birds are difficult to identify too. Many of the drakes are in eclipse plumage and look like the ducks and as a result of losing their flight feathers are barely able to fly. The juvenile plumages of many like Starlings, Robins and gulls, for example, are sufficiently different from the adult plumage to be confusing.
August is the ‘betwixt and between’ month, the first half of which is not particularly good for birds. Most of them have finished breeding, the adults are moulting and their young have dispersed from the nesting sites, some are also busy fattening themselves up in readiness for their long and sometimes hazardous journey to their winter quarters. When I was staying on Alderney, in the Channel Islands, I always expected to see a large movement of small warblers from the 20th to the 25th of August. Also in the last half of August such birds as the Dunlin, Turnstone, Ringed Plover, Redshank and Curlew begin to re-appear in large numbers on our shores. Some will move on but a few will be staying with us. This is the season for change: birds are moving from one part of the world to another and from one habitat to another. Some of the most noticeable visible migration is provided by the Swallows moving south along the coast towards the shortest sea crossing in the southeast.
Later in the autumn, the movement can become spectacular when the Swallows are joined by Meadow Pipits, Starlings, Lapwings, Chaffinches and Bramblings, all tending to move in a roughly westerly or southwesterly direction but occasionally being directed away from their main course by some geographical feature. The observation of visible migration has tended to become a little unfashionable because the use of radar techniques has solved so many problems. However, in order to experience the pure thrill of birds, there is nothing like the rush of migrants an hour or so after sunrise on a calm bright morning. Although you can see large numbers migrating in some parts of Britain, the spectacular movements take place on the continent. Visible migration has been studied at inland sites. However, it would be very valuable to study it again in many parts of the country, comparing the results of the past surveys with more recent information. Many species migrate at night and radar is needed to detect their direction of flight and the times of the movement. Redwings, Fieldfares and other thrushes which move at night often reveal their presence as they fly over by their calls.
Finally, during winter from December to March, most birds have left their breeding habitats to find the places where food is more abundant. The moorlands and cliffs are now empty while the estuaries are full of birds, and some fields, particularly those that are grazed by sheep, now hold masses of Lapwings and Golden Plover and various species of thrush. Fields, hedges, rick yards and even small wooded villages with mature gardens which have the aspect of rather open woodland, can support large numbers of birds, although the woods themselves hold fewer birds in winter. Strangers from the far north may winter here, such as the Rough-legged Buzzard, the Great Grey Shrike and northern duck like the Smew and Long-tailed Duck appear around our coast.
If the weather should harden and snow and ice come in from the east you may see spectacular foul-weather movements with thousands of birds heading west, and in the west itself you may see them leaving the Pembrokeshire headlands to cross the sea to Ireland.
January and February can be cold and harsh but after the mid-winter solstice the Robin and the Skylark begin to sing again. During the following months they are joined by other hedgerow birds bringing us back to March and the beginning of spring.