Seize the opportunity
Take full advantage of October’s avian offerings in terms of owls and birds of prey if you need a few more ticks to complete your #My200birdyear
How many owls and raptors will you get on your ticklist?
The start of October is a great time to take stock of your #My200birdyear list – many summer visitors will be gone, some other hard-to-find species will still be going through on passage, and the first winter arrivals will be trickling in. If you haven’t already, you’ll want to double-check which species you have seen, then make a list of those that you might reasonably expect to come across in the last three months of the year. That should give you an idea of whether or not you need to do a bit of ‘twitching’, whether local or further afield, to boost the number up to the magic 200. It’s a particularly good time of year to fill in any gaps where birds of prey and owls are concerned – the shortening days and falling temperatures mean the business of finding enough food becomes more difficult, and so some species move considerable distances in search of new hunting areas, while others may stay put, but concentrate more heavily on particular parts of their territories. And there are one or two possible ‘bonus ticks’, too…
Older field guides might lead you to think that Marsh Harriers all depart these shores in autumn, but warmer winters means that many now stay in the UK, especially in breeding strongholds such as East Anglia and the Somerset Levels. And while some of our breeding birds do migrate south, others arrive here from parts of the Continent, so any visit to the coastal marshes of Norfolk and Suffolk, to the Fens, to the North Kent Marshes or the Somerset Levels, should be rewarded with the sight of at least a couple. Montagu’s Harriers are very rare breeders in the UK anyway, and will generally have left on migration before the end of September, but odd birds do linger around the south coast, while Pallid Harriers are becoming increasingly frequent vagrants from eastern Europe – carefully check any bird that doesn’t look quite right for a Monty’s or a Hen Harrier. The persecution suffered by the latter species at the hands of shooting interests in parts of England and Scotland might give you the impression that Hen Harriers will be very hard to find, but in winter they leave the uplands and head to the coast and to lowland fens. Despite the persecution, they’re our commonest harrier, so look for them in such habitats or as they move through. A male is unmistakable, while the ‘ringtails’ (females and young birds) can also be identified by their long wings, white rumps, and low-level hunting flights.
The Buzzard is now our commonest bird of prey, and stays on territory year-round. In autumn, though, they can be particularly visible, soaring in circles on warm days (often making their far-carrying mewing cry), as they look to ward off intrusions from young birds looking to establish new territories. Rough-legged Buzzards arrive from Scandinavia in small and varying numbers as autumn draws on. Plumage differences between them and Buzzards are many and often subtle (especially as Buzzards are very variable) but they’re also a little larger and longer-winged, and hover often and well. Honey Buzzards typically head south in the first half of September, but look for the odd lingering bird in southern England. In flight, the downcurved wings and long, rounded tail is a good ID pointer.
Goshawks can be extremely hard to find other than when they’re displaying (in February and March), but as autumn goes on, Sparrowhawks may be more in evidence around your garden feeders. As small birds gather to take advantage of this vital food resource, they gather to take advantage of all that extra prey.
The UK’S burgeoning Red Kite population is non-migratory, and young birds often take a long time to stray too far from where they’re born, so this is one of the easier raptors to tick, around any of its strongholds (the Chilterns, Rockingham Forest, mid-wales, and the area just north of Leeds among them). But some do wander, especially in response to bad weather, so look out for that distinctively deep-forked tail. Black Kites are migratory, and birds from Scandinavia can easily find their way here as they head south – turn to page 28 to find out how to recognise a bird that may ultimately become a British breeder.
Eagles and Osprey
The ‘bad’ news is that, if you want to see an eagle, you still pretty much have to travel up to Scotland. White-tailed Eagles do sometimes turn up on the coasts further south, but your best bet is always a trip to the Highlands or the islands of the west coast, especially Mull. If looking for Golden Eagles, keep an eye out close to herds of Red Deer – the eagles often follow them. Ospreys will have migrated south by now, for the most part, but occasionally birds hang around on southern estuaries. These are usually young birds, which may ultimately only migrate as far as Spain or Portugal.
Rough-legged Buzzard Marsh Harrier
Red Kite Sparrowhawk