Now that the Leeds Birdfair is over I’m looking forward to enjoying the summer months although, as a birder, my July and August is spent watching the beginning of the outward migration, when birds begin to move away from their breeding grounds in the north. For a birder, autumn has already started and we can expect to see some lovely birds passing through our area on their way to southern Europe and Africa. We’re also seeing the arrival of some of our first winter visiting wetland birds and wader species.
You may have noticed that, since the middle of June, your garden and local woodland have become quieter and only a few birds are still singing. This is because our birds are undergoing an important physiological and anatomical change. Once a parent bird has said goodbye to its brood, and we move past the longest day, the hormonal cycle changes in both the male and the female. Their sexual organs shrivel up to a fraction of their breeding size and a full body moult begins. Every bit of food is channelled to making new feathers and laying down fat. This fat storage enables the bird to stay warm, if it spends the winter in the UK, or provides the energy it needs to migrate south.
There is evidence all around that this stage has begun. The air is filled with contact calls from newly fledged birds and there are lots of scruffy adults around, desperately needing to renew their feathers. Both chicks and adults are vulnerable at this time but the dark, lush vegetation of the summer months provides them with some valuable cover. You’ll notice that birds become shy and difficult to see. If you do manage to see a bird, identification may be a challenge if it is an adult in moult or a juvenile. One thing’s for sure, you’ll have a lot of fun watching young birds learning how to use your feeders.
Here are some tips for watching and identifying birds in your garden at this time of year.
- Make sure that your bird feeders are close to shrubs and trees so that your birds will feel safe and relaxed. Remember, adult feathers are not very efficient at this time and juveniles are very inexperienced flyers. Your local sparrowhawk will have timed its own nesting to coincide with this very productive time of year.
- Arm yourself with a good fieldguide. Choose illustrations rather than photos (I’ll explain that in another article) and it will need to show males, females and juveniles of each species and birds in flight.
- Start learning about the jizz of a bird. That is the general size, shape and behaviour – the essence of each species if you like. Use the text in your fieldguide to help you with this and study the commonest birds. You’ll then know when you have something different.
- Pick out the markings or characteristics that adults and juveniles share. Don’t focus on colour, try shape and markings. For instance, look at an adult and a juvenile blue tit or great tit in your fieldguide. You’ll see that they share the facial pattern even if the juvenile colouring is yellow where the adult is white.
The most common birdwatching faux pas for beginners at this time of year is misidentifying a juvenile great spotted woodpecker. Young birds show a bright red cap. The novice birdwatcher, possibly armed with a poor fieldguide, will skip past the great spotted woodpecker and stop at the first bird that shows a bright red cap, a male lesser spotted woodpecker. In this case, look at the long, white patch on a great spotted woodpecker’s wing. Both adults and the juvenile share this. The lesser spotted woodpecker is about the size of a sparrow and has no such marking. It is very speckled rather than patchy.