September is one of the biggest months of the year for bird migration in the UK. Not only are hundreds of thousands of birds making their way past, over and through the UK, they’re arriving from all corners of the globe. To help you get ready for this magic month, I've picked out five star September species to look for, with a few tips on how to find them. Good luck!
1.Wryneck – a cryptic, Scandinavian head turner
Wrynecks are scarce migrants to the UK - April and May and August-October are the times to search (Mike Langman rspb-images.com)
Easterly winds are a good thing in autumn. They “drift” birds across the North Sea to the UK that are migrating slightly to the east of us. Such birds include species that are rare here such as the rather fantastic wryneck. This cryptically-marked bird is actually a woodpecker (but it doesn’t look much like the great spotted woodpeckers that bang away on branches in spring or the green woodpeckers that cackle and laugh before flying past to display their golden-yellow rumps). The wryneck, or Eurasian wryneck to give it the proper name, is one of two species of wrynecks in the world. The other one, red-throated wryneck is African. I saw some in Kenya several years ago, but it is the Eurasian one that I love the most. Unlike many rare birds, wrynecks are not just found at the coast. Admittedly most make first landfall there – and naturally the East Coast claims the most – but lots are found inland, too. Gardens are real hotspots for them. They eat ants, so mown lawns and patios with colonies of ants underneath them are perfect for the probing tongue of the wryneck. Our birds probably come from eastern Europe and Scandinavia and they’ll soon be on their way again to Africa, none the worse for their slight detour. Oh, and they get their name form their ability to turn their heads and necks at all sorts of angles!
2. Glossy ibis - Spanish beauties
Glossy Ibis are occurring much more regularly in the UK - September brings Spanish juveniles to the UK (Mike Langman rspb-images.com)
Glossy ibis was one of those birds I longed to see and I first managed to clap eyes on this purple and green-glossed beauty in Spain’s Coto Donana many years ago. Since that time, the Glossy Ibis has become a regular visitor, has attempted to breed and some are pretty much year-round residents, finding the UK’s wetlands an adequate swap for southern Europe’s wetlands. In some Septembers, a fresh wave of birds arrives on our shores. They tend to be juvenile birds and some have had rings on their legs. I read the number from such a ring on the leg of one in a flock close to me and managed to trace it to… Would you believe it, the Coto Donana! This has shown to be the source of many of the birds we get in an unusual September migration that brings birds south to north as they disperse.
3. Pectoral sandpiper – where east meets west
Pectoral sandpipers are smart waders - the ones you see may have come from North America, or Siberia (Mike Langman rspb-images.com)
The pectoral sandpiper is an American wader with a smart breast band that gives it its name. It would be wrong to assume though that all the birds we get in September (the best month for seeing one) come “across the pond”. They also breed in eastern Siberia so there is a good chance that many of the birds on the west coast come from America and the ones down the east coast have come from the east. Watch any muddy margins for this crouching, probing 'piper with it smart yellow legs.
4. Pink-footed goose – from the Land of Fire and Ice
Pink-footed geese leave their Icelandic breeding rounds in September and make for various parts of Scotland, Norfolk and Lancashire (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
I associate the “wink-wink” calls of the pink-footed goose with winter days on the Norfolk Coast, but the first birds arrive in September. Hearing that unmistakable call coming from the sky is a sign that summer is over and heralds several weeks of arrivals from the north of the UK. Our pink-feet come from Iceland. Scotland, Lancashire and Norfolk’s coast are the key wintering areas and you can see flocks heading south throughout northern England and down the east coast in September. They seem to be arriving earlier now. Maybe they are just keen to get here?
5. Sooty shearwater – Ocean wanderer from the southern seas
Sooty shearwaters disperse to UK waters in September from the southern seas (Mike Langman rspb-images.com)
Staring out to sea as an onshore wind blows into your face is a good idea in September. Seabirds are on the move. The sooty shearwater breeds in the southern ocean on islands in Australasia and off South America. It is a super smart, jet-black, stiff-winged seabird with a silvery lining to each wing. You’ll most likely see one as it arcs up over a crashing wave and then drops back down for a few seconds before repeating the feat. It’s epic journey takes it form its breeding grounds, into UK waters for a very short period before starting to head back again. Why do they do it? I’m afraid I don’t know, but the mysteries of migration that remain unsolved are what make it such a fascinating subject.
Good luck this September and keep your eyes to the skies, and the seas, and the wetlands and your patio and… You get the idea!