There's a great difference in seasons between us humans and the
natural world. We still regard it as late summer but to our plants,
trees, birds and insects I'm afraid that it's already autumn.
There's an old saying in that the birdwatcher's autumn begins on
August 1st and as far as the birds are concerned it's perfectly
Although the seemingly never-ending stream of human summer
visitors just keep arriving whenever the tide is down, all around us
are signs of the onset of autumn.
Prime examples are the village Rowan trees laden with their
bunches of orange berries bringing down hordes of hungry Starlings,
pushing aside the resident Blackbirds and Song Thrushes in the
scramble to feed.
Swallow numbers are declining as birds move off towards their
wintering grounds in South Africa and, if past years are a guide, by
the time you're reading this the first Brent Geese will be back from
their breeding grounds in the Arctic Ocean archipelago of
Spitzbergen, usually referred to these days by its Nordic name of
Out in the dunes where the orchids are now brown and withered is
another sure sign of the coming of autumn, thousands of silvery
white cupped flowers of Grass of Parnassus. When I see them I know
that I should be starting to look out for the first small migrant
birds from Scandinavia, northern Europe and, if we're lucky, from
By mid-August with these little flowers studding the ground we'd
already had rarities including Barred Warbler from central Europe
and Greenish Warbler from Scandinavia as well as a host of more
common species, including Pied Flycatchers, Willow Warblers and
smart and colourful Whinchats flickering from walls and fence wires
to take passing insects.
Also settled in were our smallest wintering falcons, dashing
little Merlins, down from the hills. Over the village during the
same period another much rarer falcon, a Hobby, made several
appearances to cause panic among the Swallows and Starlings.
While all these species are the main attraction for birders,
they're always heavily outnumbers at this stage of the year by the
mass return southwards of waders back from their short and frenetic
breeding season on the Arctic tundra and other wild habitats of
Scandinavia Russia,, Iceland and Greenland.
One of the delights of September is that many of them are still
in summering breeding plumage which is often very different from
their appearance around the island and the flats in winter.
Anyone walking around the island recently has probably seen the
huge flock of Golden Plover gathering regularly in the short grass
of fields where the hay crop has been taken. Their wonderful
trilling calls as they fly in en masse and settle to rest is one of
my favourite sounds of the season.
I came across one gathering of around 1,500 at Chare Ends the
other day. Many of them were still in their golden and black
breeding plumage, the extensive areas of black showing them to be
birds of the Northern race rather than southern Golden Plovers which
breed in Britain. These Northern birds have probably flown in from
Similarly, their cousins, Grey Plovers, are also arriving back at
this stage. During winter they live up to their description and
really are a rather drab grey. But just for a short period now some
are still in the breeding dress and in the sunlight have a wonderful
silver and black appearance.
Also prominent with numbers seeming to increase daily are
Bar-tailed Godwits from breeding zones in northern areas of
Scandinavia and from Russia with some coming from as far away as
Each summer small numbers of these long-billed waders remain
around the island. These young non-breeders have no reason to
migrate and sit out the summer months on the flats, often roosting
on St Cuthbert's Island alongside our summer terns which also like
to use the rocky outcrop as a safe resting area. These non-breeders
remain in their rather dowdy brown plumage.
|Grass of Parnassus: always a sign that autumn is
Photo: Ian Kerr
The first returning godwits really do stand out like proverbial
sore thumbs among the dull summering birds as they are still
resplendent in their vivid and rich dark red breeding dress.
Similarly, Knot which are also passing through are, depending on
the light, in shades of red and orange, so unlike the boring
brown and grey we are accustomed to seeing them in winter. It's the
one short time of year for us when they really live up to their
North American name of Red Knot.
Anyone who walks our beaches in winter in places like Sandham Bay
and the North Shore will have come across Sanderlings, the little
grey and white waders which run up and down, a bit like mechanical
toys, feeding on the very edge of the water. Those now
arriving, mainly from Greenland, look different. Most are still in
their rich brown mottled breeding dress.
Again, we see them in this plumage for such short periods that I
often find myself looking twice just to make sure they are
Sanderling and not something else and potentially rarer.
Over the next few weeks the flow of waders through the area will
go on increasing, some settling down to spend the winter with us but
others merely resting and feeding before moving on. Some of these
waders, including many Sanderlings, move down the west coast of
Africa to winter in places very different from our island.
A few years ago a Sanderling recorded in spring on the island was
seen to be carrying a coloured tag on one of its legs. It transpired
that it had been fitted in West Africa during the previous winter by
a team of researchers from Greenland. A few weeks later it was
reported again, this time back in Greenland, probably the place it
Waders are always fascinating. Their appearance in huge numbers
enlivens many a winter days around the island and for that reason
they're one of my favourite groups of birds. Whether they're
peacefully feeding or rising in panic when a hunting Peregrine
passes overhead, they are the very spirit of the flats during autumn