Caption competition – And the winner is…

Sadly there were not sufficient entries to merit a prize, despite extending the deadline and really pushing it. But the entries we did have were high quality, and you can remind yourselves of them with a trip to the original page.

So, thanks to Lynn, Lynn, Elaine, and Notso for the attempts. All were excellent.

In the end I’ve opted for…


“It can take months to train a Robin to recognise a blue badge, but it really helps us cut down on illegal parking” – Notso


Congratulations to Notso for the winning entry, and I’m very sorry the good people of the world couldn’t get their act together to get enough entries in to prompt a prize. You’ll have to settle for the honour.




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RSPB Loch Leven 17 October 2015

Another belated post this one as a month has disappeared in a flash.

Loch Leven

Loch Leven

A trip to Edinburgh allowed us a day at Loch Leven NNR, including the RSPB site there.

The morning walking around the RSPB reserve was hampered by poor light and slightly drizzly weather, so while there was plenty to be seen out across the waters, taking any kind of decent photo was pretty much impossible. As I’ll now prove…

DSC01608 DSC01634There were several buzzards around the site, but they were barely active. At one stage a very tasty looking rabbit strolled past the post a buzzard was occupying, but there wasn’t even a flinch of the wing.

DSC01571There were plenty of birds across the loch, but mainly at a distance or in light that made them hard to really see. But pochard, wigeon, little grebe, garganey, tufted duck and others were present.

DSC01697 DSC01698Flocks of lapwing were whirling about with the usual accompanying cacophany of weirdly electronic whees and whistles.

At this time of year, Loch Leven has several species of wintering wildfowl, including thousands of Pink-Footed Geese. But on this day the geese were staying on distant fields.

DSC01686Closer to our vantage point in the RSPB hides there were a few moorhen and the odd stalking Grey Heron.

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Scanning the loch. All apparent bulk is padding for warmth. Really.

Scanning the loch.
All apparent bulk is padding for warmth. Really.


So we headed back to the centre, had a bite to eat and a warming cup of tea, and headed East along the heritage trail towards the River Leven. Typically, walking out of the centre we were fortunate enough to see a red squirrel scampering along the fence, but cameras had all been put away.

The walk along the trail was a little more productive as the weather brightened and rewarded scanning the loch a little more.

There were several groups of duck, including pochard and goldeneye.


Loch Leven

Loch Leven, swans as white blobs on the water



There were rumours of Scaup and Slavonian Grebe too, but I saw neither. What we did see, probably newly arrived from Iceland, was a speciality for this time of year; Whooper Swans.

Adult and juvenile Whooper Swans with background Pochard and Tufted Duck Loch Leven, October 2015

Adult and juvenile Whooper Swans with background Pochard and Tufted Duck
Loch Leven, October 2015

Several hundred of these elegant birds arrive from Iceland and Scandinavia on Loch Leven every autumn as part of their winter migration, and these birds had probably arrived within the past 24 hours.

There are three species of swan we see in the UK: Whooper, Mute, and Bewick’s. I’m exempting Black Swans as they don’t occur here naturally.

It’s easy to distinguish Mute as their bills are nothing like that of the others, as you can see here:

Mute Swans Loch Leven, Oct 2015

Mute Swans
Loch Leven, Oct 2015

The shape of the bill, and in the adult the colour, is completely different. I think Whoopers have a much more elegant head.

Bewick’s look much more similar to Whoopers, and are distinguished by the yellow patch on the bill, descending to a point in Whooper’s, shorter and rounded on Bewick’s. No Bewick’s here for comparison though.

More young Whoopers on Loch Leven

More young Whoopers on Loch Leven

Walking along the River Leven there were several more species to be spotted, including Great-Spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Grey Wagtail, and Dipper.

Dipper and Grey wagtail

Dipper and Grey wagtail



Great-Spotted Woodpecker

Great-Spotted Woodpecker

Grey Wagtail

Grey Wagtail

I’ve undoubtedly said before that Dippers are one of my favourite birds. They look slightly comical, slightly tubby with a vaguely dapper, be-suited appearance. But that belies one of the toughest little birds, nesting and living in fast-flowing streams, braving currents that would knock a grown person off their feet to catch underwater invertebrates. They’ve also got a beautiful little song, and a call that can carry over the same rushing waters.

On the subject of bird calls, I confidently announced “I can hear a Curlew”. Well, yes. More than one in fact.

DSC01905 DSC01936At a quick count, I reckon there were at least seventy of them in the field.

Curlew have been a bird in trouble across the last couple of decades, but in the last two two years it’s felt anecdotally that things are really improving, and the RSPB State of the UK Birds seems to support this. A post will follow on SUKB by the way.

DSC02004 DSC02011It wasn’t just birds though, and in addition to the Red Squirrel mentioned earlier these Roe Deer were also spotted in the reed beds. That’s plural by the way as there are two deer in the second picture. Can you spot the second one?

As a final note from this trip, we head for a Grey Heron in a tree. Now, this isn’t unusual. Herons roost in trees. They nest in trees. They are happy in trees. But generally, during the day, they leave the tree and feed by the water. Then there was this one.

DSC01824From speaking to a couple of other birders, and from timing our own walk, this heron was in the tree, middle of the day, for well over two hours. Same spot. Why?

As far as I could tell, he was eating the berries around him. A vegan heron?

Forget fish, I'm going vegan. Nuts and berries all the way.

Forget fish, I’m going vegan. Nuts and berries all the way.

I’m sure this was just a bit of opportunism that was paying off for a good protein hit. For sure the blackbirds and thrushes that would normally eat these berries weren’t getting close.

But there was something in this Heron’s eye… something unhinged…

Crazy eyes? Me?

Crazy eyes? Me?

Anyway, there we have it. Swans. A very rare picture of myself. A mad heron. What more do you want? Fungi you say? Okay, well, it is autumn, season of mists and mellow fungi fruitfulness.

IMG_1098 IMG_1102 IMG_1103 IMG_1109

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Caption competition! It’s a caption competition!

When I took this photo at Fairburn Ings yesterday, my first thought was “Well, the caption writes itself”. But then I realised there were too many options.

So I thought I’d see what happens if I open it up to any and all.

The rules are simjple. This is open till Wednesday 18th November at 5pm. At that point, the best caption suggested in the comments section on this page (not via social media etc), will win. You can enter as many times as you like.

If there are more than ten individual entries (i.e. ten different people, not one person having ten attempts), I’ll even spring for a prize. A very nice nature-themed book. It’ll be a new copy of something I really love (Wildwood by Roger Deakin).

I don’t think any post I’ve made has ever had ten comments, so if you want to win, you’ll need to make sure other people have a go too!

So here is the picture. Honestly, it’s a gift:

Your words here!

Your words here!

Whatever I judge to be the best wins, be it the funniest, the smartest, the wittiest, or whatever. Good luck!

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RSPB Fairburn Ings 12 September 2015

Yesterday, with a well earned day off work, I decided to take a trip to RSPB Fairburn Ings.

An aerial view of the site

An aerial view of the site

This is a reserve just near Castleford, and despite being half-an-hour from York, it’s a site I’ve never got round to visiting before. Fortunately, it was a lovely day and there was plenty going on.

We started out by walking East from the RSPB shop, along the South edge of the big lake, parallel with the river.

The scrub before the lake opened out was full of smaller birds, including Blue, Great and Coal Tits, Goldfinches, Robins, Goldcrests, and Greenfinches. There were also good sized flocks of Long-tailed Tits roaming the place.

Long-tailed Tit Fairburn Ings, November 2015

Long-tailed Tit
Fairburn Ings, November 2015

The lake itself had a wide range of waterbirds present. The first thing that leapt out were the sheer numbers of Coot, with hundreds of adults and juveniles spread across the body of water.


DSC02130There were also plenty of Mute Swans, and more Shoveler in one place than I’ve seen in a while.

Most of the waterfowl you’d expect from this sort of location in winter were about, and Goldeneye, Pochard, Teal, and Wigeon were all spotted. There were also significant numbers of Great-crested Grebe.

Juvenile Great-crested Grebe

Juvenile Great-crested Grebe

I’m always happy to see Tufted Ducks, and they were another bird in significant numbers on the lake. At this time of year, many are moulting into winter plumage and can look grey, and often be mistaken for Scaup.

DSC02298All the islands were providing a home to lots of cormorants, along with Greylag and Canada Goose. There were also one or two kingfishers flying up and down the lakeside and channels.

Also, for the first time this Autumn/Winter, a small group of 15-20 Fieldfare passed overhead, but they weren’t stopping anywhere nearby.

The other bird that was moving about was a lone female Goosander. Sadly, she just wouldn’t come into decent light. Or rather, she was in bright sun, but backlit. Meaning all the photos look like this:

DSC02265 DSC02264If you are curious, you can tell this is a female as she has an orange head. The male’s head is irridescent green. In winter you are far more likely to see females than males, as the males tend to migrate while the females stay on site with this years young. So the ratio of female to male can be 2:1.

In that bottom picture, she’s doing something called ‘snorkelling’. This is how they find fish, swimming around spotting prey, then diving and catching it underwater. This female caught a perch just after this, but it escaped her before I could get a photo. Or before she could get the meal.

Back at the shop/cafe for lunch, we had a stroll around the feeders and saw Tree Sparrows and a Willow Tit.

DSC02381There were also plenty of ‘Mugger Robins’ around the reserve. By which I mean those Robins that have learned that birdwatchers tend to have snacks and are kindly disposed towards a friendly and photogenic bird. Quid pro quo, I shared a bit of flapjack from the hand, and several Robins posed for this years calendar and christmas cards!

DSC02333 DSC02371 DSC02212Also cleaning up around the feeders were those perennial rubbish bins, Pheasants and Grey Squirrels.

I have mixed emotions about both these species. On the one hand, they are attractive and charismatic (well, the squirrels are). But on the other, as introduced non-native species they can cause quite a bit of damage. That’s not their fault, we introduced them. But it still raises a question.

DSC02350 (1024x682) DSC02363 (1024x681)

We finally moved down to the flashes on the West of the site in the hope of seeing a Short-Eared Owl. No such luck, in fact barring a single Kestrel and Sparrowhawk, there were no birds of prey seen. But there were Curlew, more waterfowl, and lapwings. Also, the kestrel at one point flushed a Snipe from the reedbeds.

DSC02422 (1024x569) DSC02404 (1024x286) DSC02416 (1024x668)There were also several Little Egrets present.

I still find it weird that just ten years ago this would be a rarity and the source of much excitement, whereas now it would seem more unusual not to see one. Unlike the Pheasants, the Egrets have made this move of their own accord.

DSC02433 (1024x618) DSC02396 (1024x652)That’s all from Fairburn. I’ll leave you with a few more pictures, just because I can!

Later today there will be one more picture from Fairburn Ings, and it will be the basis of a caption competition with an actual prize. So tell your friends!


Willow Tit Note the solid cap, an easy way to distinguish from Coal Tits


Another Long-tailed Tit


Great-crested Grebe juvenile




Willow Tit. Almost identical to Marsh Tit.

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September on Heslington Lake, University of York

I’ve not had the time to spend editting and then sharing images, writing posts, and that means a couple of posts now that are a little behind the times. I hope you forgive me…

It’s been a while since I posted anything from Heslington Lake at the University of York, so here are a few images from 10 September. It’s mainly Great-Crested Grebes.

The behaviour of the grebes has been a real contrast to last year. In 2014 the same pair lost three of four chicks in the first brood, and largely abandoned the fourth chick to his own devices. I have to assume he/she didn’t make it. By June they were on a second brood, which did better with two seemingly making it through. By September they were even fussing around the nest as if they were considering a third brood. Basically, they seemed like an inexperienced pair and it showed.

2015 has been a different matter. They’ve had one brood, but they’ve been all business. Totally focused on raising their single brood. The result is that nearly four months on from hatching that brood, all four are alive and hanging around with one or other parent, usually two per adult.

Young Great Crested Grebe Heslington Lake, Sept 2015

Young Great Crested Grebe
Heslington Lake, Sept 2015

The most difficult bit of trying to photograph them is getting them when they are not preening. Being a grebe, needing to be in top condition and efficient in the water, means your feathers need a lot of attention. Something they take very seriously.

Grebe preening

Grebe preening

Grebes. Preening.

Grebes. Preening.

The young don’t need to preen anyhere near as much, but this means they spend a lot of time waiting for Mum/Dad to stop and get them food.

Waiting patiently

Waiting patiently

Will I ever get the attention I deserve?

Will I ever get the attention I deserve?

Of course, like any youngsters, they don’t have a lot of patience. So they start pestering their beleagured parent.

Gimmee gimmee gimmee!

Gimmee gimmee gimmee!

But the parent does occasionally sit up, reminding us all what glorious birds they are (and instrumental in the history of the RSPB – a post for another day).

DSC01510 DSC01399Incidentally you can still see the last vestiges of the ‘red spot’ on the juveniles, and if that means nothing to you, please check out this old post: The Red Spot.

RedSpotAlso a lovely look in that image at the adult’s plumage where they are preening their wing.

It’s not just grebes, there are plenty of geese, with Snow, Barnacle, Greylag and Canada all still present.

Barnacle Goose Heslington Lake, York, Sept 2015

Barnacle Goose
Heslington Lake, York, Sept 2015

Snow Goose

Snow Goose

I love Barnacle Geese, they are a really pretty, delicately marked little goose. Their facial markings are unique to each individual, meaning they can identify each other.

Sadly though, they are currently facing a really unnecessary threat thanks to the Scottish government. There are around 80,000 Barnacle Geese in the world, and in winter about 40,000 of these head for the island of Islay (maybe drawn to the world’s greatest whiskies?). This is a problem for locals as the geese take up grazing land, but other tactics have been doing the job. So it’s inexplicable that the Scottish government have decided to cull 10,000 birds this year. That’s 12.5% of the world population if you don’t want to do the maths yourself. A shocking over-reaction.

Juvenile Moorhen Heslington Lake, Sept 2015

Juvenile Moorhen
Heslington Lake, Sept 2015

Plenty of young moorhen and coot around too, along with the mallards that are ever-present.

Belated, but as of last week (early November), the first Siskins had appeared.

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Video – Pied Wagtails making their presence felt

We often talk about ‘birdwatching’, but this isn’t the only way to spot birds. This year I’ve been on a bit of mission talking about listening as much as looking, and I’ve had another great illustration of that this week.

Parliament Street in York is a great example of a winter roost for Pied Wagtails. When you get later in the year they are very obvious, with hundreds of them filling the bare trees. But when you are still in Autumn with leaves on the trees, how do you know they are there?

Here’s how (be ready on your volume control…):

Bear in mind when watching that, there is currently a load of joiners putting up the wooden huts for the St Nicholas Fayre. You hear the drills a few times. But the overwhelming, near-deafening, sound is that of hundreds of Pied Wagtails chattering as they jostle for their place in the roost.

So what’s the roost for? There are several benefits. Most obviously, more bodies means more warmth. Thermal cameras have shown the birds at the centre of a roost can be several degrees warmer, critical on a cold night.

You are also safer, as numbers actually make loife more difficult for predators. This may seem counter-intuitive, but actually the more there are on a flock, the harder it is for a hunter to single one individual out to track.

Finally, and this is what we hear above, it’s about exchanging local knowledge. In the morning this flock will break up and go off in ones and twos all over the city, travelling many miles to feeding sites. For a bird that’s maybe had a few bad days, it’s a chance to pick up on the vocal and healthy birds, then follow them the next day. In this way, the whole population benefits.

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An active lifestyle – It doesn’t just mean sport

Two recent statements from ministers have set me thinking.

Environment Minister Liz Truss has said she wants children to learn the proper names for animals and plants. While she has been mocked for this, it’s not a bad point. Engagement with the natural world matters, it fosters a sense of connection to nature.

Meanwhile, the Health Minister Jeremy Hunt has been talking about the impact obesity has on health services, and the need to address this in children in particular. He has been focusing on sport, but I can’t help but think there are other routes.

The problem with forcing children into sport is that it can put them off participation later in life. Personally, it was a good ten years out of school before I started to derive pleasure from any form of sporting activity.

However, if we combine the issues raised by both Mr Hunt and Ms Truss, there is another solution that presents itself.

Green Exercise is something we have touched on many times before. It has proven benefits for both physical and mental wellbeing. And if you are out walking in the world, it presents the perfect opportunity to learn those animal and tree names.

If we really want to make the next generation more physically active, we must escape the very 1950s notion that this means sport, running around on the playing fields playing football, rugby and hockey. This only ends up turning a large proportion off an active lifestyle.

Instead, we must embrace the idea that most interests can be given an outdoor component, then partner schools with bodies that can provide opportunities.

You have kids interested in history? Field archaeology (something I was involved in from the age of ten).

Science and nature? Naturalists clubs and field trips.

Mathematics? Plenty of mathematical principles are testable, and indeed expressed, in nature.

Languages, economics, geography, art, all can lend themselves readily to outdoor learning.

We must start to see the outdoors as an extension of the classroom, not just a compartmentalised place for sport. By doing so, we can inculcate physical activity into everyday life.

It requires inter-departmental cooperation from government, and it requires will from all concerned. But it’s not expensive. The beauty of the natural world is that it is just there.

If we want an active population, we must do it in more subtle ways. The very word ‘exercise’ puts a lot of people off. But by embedding an active lifestyle into day-to-day working, almost incidentally, we can address the problem.

Thanks, by the way, go to Rebekah Higgitt, Alison Atkin, and Cat Rushmore for a degree of inspiration in a twitter conversation a couple of weeks back.

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Migratory holding patterns and an undead goldfinch

While interesting things are happening where migration is monitored around the coast, locally at least we seem to be in a holding pattern. The garden remains full of goldfinches, with good numbers of Great, Blue and Coal Tits about too.

What will winter hold? Will it throw in redpolls, siskins and waxwings? When will the fieldfare and redwing arrive? Or will it be a milder, quieter winter? We’ll see.

The sheer number of goldfinches has made life easy for at least one local cat, and I’ve had to dispose of a few dead bodies already. When 20-30 birds squabble over three feeders, some inevitably end up on the ground and distracted, and that makes them easy prey. Sad is it is, that’s why birds have these numbers of young, because it allows for ‘redundancy’.
The pattern of destruction has had at least one magical moment though. Spotting the main culprit stalking around near the feeders, I headed out to scare it off, only to spot another dead goldfinch on the ground.

Looking a little closer, I quickly realised it was still alive. This is always a worrying moment as the bird may well be alive, in pain, with no prospect of a healthy recovery. But after picking it up and examining it, it was a little bloodied and battered, but fundamentally intact.

We moved it to a safe spot and kept an eye out. The cat kept returning, certain it had left its prey behind, but the bird had gone.

For nearly an hour the goldfinch laid on its side, barely moving, breathing heavily, and not even opening its eyes. I wasn’t optimistic. But then, its eyes opened and it lifted its head a little. When it heard other goldfinches flying over, it even moved its bill.

After sitting head raised for another 15-20 minutes, with no real warning, it jumped up, ruffled its feathers, flapped its wings, then hopped about the plant pots. We didn’t see it fly off, but given its wings and legs were obviously intact and working there is no reason to think it didn’t set off safely later on.

A great illustration of how long it can take a traumatised bird to shake off shock, and how quickly it will then recover.  Sadly I was so focused on saving it that I didn’t take any photos. If it happens again I will.

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Summer? It’s over-rated. Give me a long and lustrous winter.


“I can’t wait for summer, I’m sick of being stuck indoors…”

Ever heard this, or something like it?

As we enter Autumn here in the UK, it seems an appropriate time to stress that you can, and should, get outside every week of the year.

In many ways, Summer is the most over-rated of seasons. We may get peak temperatures, but average rainfall in June/July is the same as for February, and months like April, May and September tend to be drier than August, supposedly the sunniest and hottest month.

This argument is based on the assumption lots of heat and sun is what you want. But if you are reading this blog, you are probably interested in the natural world, and in the natural world the British summer can be the most boring of times.


On the upside, you get plenty of insect action. But birds, mammals, and many other groups are much harder to spot. They are not necessarily fans of excessive heat and go into hiding.

Spring and Autumn are when the migrants are more populous. Winter is when your feeders are more likely to be heavily used by a greater range of species.

In Spring, Autumn and Winter many species are far more visible. Sunshine may be more limited, but the subtler qualities of the light outside of the summer are more beautiful, and better for visibility. Low golden light dappling through bronze leaves, is there anything the summer offers that rivals that?

As we know, it’s good for our bodies and minds to go walking outside. This does not go up and down with the seasons; green exercise is good all year round. As such, you should embrace seasonality.


Culturally we are conditioned to think of Spring and Summer as good, and Winter in particular as bad. The imagery of our language and literature drives home the idea that “cold”, “dark”, “damp” are negative things, “hot”, “bright”, “dry” are positive. But this is only ever subjective. What is beneficial for one species is damaging for another.

We need to break our conditioning and embrace the beauty in the cold, dark, and even the damp. A wise person once said:

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing”

In the UK at least, this is fairly accurate. As long as you dress in warm and waterproof clothes, you should be able to go out once a week for walk around your local park, woodland, lakeside, or wherever else the fancy takes you. Your mind and body will thank you for it.

As a final thought I will leave off not in my own words, but in these words spoken by the great Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I join him in embracing a long and lustrous winter.



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Is it Autumn yet? – Signs of the season


When is Autumn?

I’m starting to notice changes around me. When I wake for work, it’s still quite dark out. When I get home, it’s not long before the sun is setting. Does this mean it’s Autumn?

Meteorologists divide the seasons pretty evenly into three month chunks. From their perspective, Autumn is September, October and November. So on that basis Autumn started 1 September.

There is also an ‘Astronomical Autumn’. This starts from the point where the day and night are of exactly even length, which this year fell on 23 September. Autumn by this measure lasts till the Winter Equinox on 21 December.

There is a more organic way of considering Autumn though, and that’s ‘Phenological Autumn’.

Redwing, Moorlands, York, 2012

Redwing, Moorlands, York, 2012

We’ve discussed phenology before here. It is the way we use natural events to track the seasons. Tracking these over time can indicate changing response of the natural world to broader events, such as climate change.

This can include migrant species such as swallows, warblers, and thrushes coming in or out of the country.

Recent trends have put Phenological Autumn around the middle of the month, so now on 23 September we can probably say, by all methods, we are indeed in Autumn.

Phenological Signs

Swifts went ages ago, in August, still summer by anyone’s measure. But the likes of Swallows, House Martins, and Chiffchaffs may still be hanging on. Meanwhile, the first autumn influx of smaller finches like Siskin and Redpoll, and thrushes like Redwing and Fieldfare are underway.

Yellow Stags-horn, Calocera viscosa

Yellow Stags-horn fungus, Calocera viscosa

It can also include the appearance of many species of fungi, usually most bountiful in Autumn, and the really obvious changing of the colour of leaves on trees from greens to a firework riot of oranges, golds, reds and browns.

Some of the changes can be subtler, harder to spot. We actually get movement of birds that we see all year round. So for example, the Blackbirds you see in winter are not necessarily the same ones you saw in Spring.

You may also see familiar species moving into larger, mixed flocks. This is particularly the case for Tits who, having spent the summer as pairs feeding young, now mix freely to roam between food sources. It’s not uncommon to wake and discover Blue, Great, Coal and Long-Tailed in one big bunch invading your feeders. Similarly Goldfinches and Greenfinches may mix, and may even be joined by the likes of Chaffinch, Siskin and Redpoll.

Lapwings in Bolton

Lapwings in Bolton

Soon, urban winter roosts for Pied Wagtail will fill, along with the rarer Plover roosts in places around Greater Manchester, where Lapwing and Golden Plover will spend the night on the roofs of buildings.

These big flocks may seem counter-intuitive. After all, if you move into a period where food is more limited, aren’t you better alone?

There are a few reasons why flocks work. Firstly, more sets of senses give a better chance of finding food. A denser flock is better for defence, and that’s valuable when plenty of hungry predators are on the lookout. Even more crucially, numbers mean body heat, and in a roost on a cold night that can be the difference between life and death.

One of my personal favourite signs of Autumn comes most mornings, and ties back to the image at the top of the page; singing Robins.

RobinWe think of birdsong as a Spring thing for attracting mates. But Robins sing extensively in Autumn and Winter, proclaiming a territory as theirs. This can be a territory a female is holding after breeding, or a territory a bird is new to and trying to occupy, even if only for the colder seasons.

Considering it’s purpose is technically menacing, it’s one of the most beautiful sounds in British wildlife.

So what are your favourite signs of Autumn? What have I missed?

One other note on Autumn, for birders the speculation begins about irruptive migrants. After all, don’t we all live in hope of a ‘Waxwing Winter’?

Waxwing Flock, Bolton, 2011

Waxwing Flock, Bolton, 2011

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