−−− BY LINDA JENKINSON −−−
After a very hot September it’s now time to prepare yourself for the seasonal chill of autumn, the most fantastic season of all. Swap your sunscreen, insect repellent and copious amounts of water for base layers, gloves, scarf and hat and you’ll be ready make the most what’s to come.
During early autumn you’ll be faced with a range of confusing plumages as birds complete their annual moult. Some species are moving from breeding to non-breeding plumage (waders, grebes and gulls etc), some from eclipsed plumage to breeding plumage (ducks) and of course there’s all those juveniles. Eventually they’ll sort themselves out to make it easier for you.
The best way to prepare is to invest in a good field guide. Choose one that has good sized illustrations rather than photographs. Well drawn illustrations will offer you representations of males and females (if there is a difference); breeding and non-breeding plumage; juveniles and birds in flight. Make sure that the illustrations are annotated with helpful identification tips highlighting difference rather than similarity and, I can’t emphasise this enough, read the text for each bird.
Another important tip is to know common birds inside out, what they look like all year round, how they move, how they feed and their size comparison with other birds. For instance, how often have you sat and observed mallards in autumn? Their courtship behaviour is truly wonderful to watch. When walking near pools where there are ducks, listen for quacks and whistles and look for the ones that are grouped together. Watch carefully and you’ll see them shaking their heads, stiffening their bodies and rearing up. That’s when they make the whistling sound. Gadwall do the same but with a slightly different quacking sound. Teal make a sound like radar instead of a whistle (‘bleep, bleep’). Wrap up well and enjoy the duck courtship ritual this autumn and winter.
I love watching wildfowl and waders but while it’s relatively easy to identify wildfowl using your field guide, with waders you really do need to observe shape, movement and the characteristics of each bird. Your field guide will help you to learn subtle differences in markings and anatomy, for instance, whether a bird shows a wing panel when flying, however, to learn about movement and characteristics you can take advantage of the excellent BTO Bird ID guides on YouTube. There are comparison videos for many species. What better way to make use of the dark autumn evenings?
Autumn is also a great time to get more birds into your garden. Roaming flocks of tits and finches and late migrating passerines will, at first, be taking advantage of the abundance of wild fruit and seeds on trees, shrubs and ground vegetation but during damp, dewy mornings they will be very appreciative of your garden feeders. Make sure your feeders are clean and contain fresh food, sensibly sourced from UK growers to help our climate. Many cut price brands contain food from China and Africa and are bulked up with wheat which most of our garden birds can’t eat. Don’t forget to provide water for your garden birds or, better still, create a water feature this season.
If you’re struggling with your identification then why not join me on my guided birdwatching classes this autumn. Choose from 2 hour, 4 hour of full day trips with lots of venues to choose from. Classroom sessions are also available. You’ll learn all about a bird’s story from breeding to migration; how and why birds sing and how birds adapt to challenging conditions. You’ll also get important tips and shortcuts to help you identify birds with confidence and how to use your binoculars with speed and accuracy. All classes include a bird list and hot drinks to warm you up in the chillier months.
Linda Jenkinson teaches people about birds in and around Leeds. For details of indoor and outdoor classes email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07778 768719. Visit www.startbirding.co.uk or Start Birding on Facebook and Twitter.