Autumn birds on the wing

Simon Foster is a Policy & Advice officer with Scottish Natural Heritage. In his spare time he is a member of the Highland Raptor Study Group, Highland Ringing Group (Chairman), Scottish Ornithologists Club, British Trust for Ornithology, and the Seabird Group. Moreover, he is also a licenced bird ringer including cannon net endorsement (waders, wildfowl (all species), gulls and terns) and trainer of other ringers. Here he takes a ‘swift’ look at what is happening in the Scottish bird world in a typical autumn.

What does autumn mean for our birds?  Well simply it’s the time of year when our summer visitors can be seen mixing with the winter ones.  By the middle of October most of our summer migrants have left for their southern warmer wintering areas.  But there are still some holding on, chiffchaffs can often be heard singing in the autumn as they migrate.  Swallows and house martins are now in low numbers but odd ones can still be seen.  A walk along a coast can reveal a wheatear, flicking from rock to rock as it moves southwards towards it’s African wintering ground.


The wheatear, well known to Scottish summer hillwalkers, but distinctly coastal in autumn

Telephone wires

Telephone wires attracts swallows and martins as they prepare for their long haul south

The coast can also be the place to see some more unfamiliar birds as migrants are blown off course and arrive on our shores.  These ‘falls’ of migrants can be spectacular and places like Shetland and around Aberdeen can turn up unusual visitors to Scotland.  But even common birds can be seen in unusual places, goldcrests are often blown off course, moving over on an easterly wind from Scandinavia and turning up almost anywhere along the coast.  If you listen closely you can often hear their high pitched call, or spot them flicking quickly from bush to bush.

The tiny goldcrest

The tiny goldcrest can turn up along our coasts (image copyright David Whitaker)

Our winter birds are also coming in, from the familiar “wink-wink” call of the pink-footed goose, heard nearly everywhere as they arrive on our shores ready for the winter. To the high pitched “tsew” call of redwings moving through at night.  Listen outside of your window at night you can often hear redwing migration in action.


Feasting on berries, the redwing is a popular migrant visitor (Image (c) David Whitaker)

Scotland’s estuaries become alive in the autumn with the bustle of waders, which have returned from their Arctic breeding grounds. Wheeling flocks of knot, oystercatchers noisily calling away “kleep-kleep” and redshank are all regular sights on Scotland’s estuaries.    Wigeon start to arrive in big numbers from their Russian wintering areas – their whistling call heard in almost every big estuary throughout Scotland.

Wigeon feeding  (c) Niall Benvie

Wigeon feeding- (Image copyright Niall Benvie)


Flocks of waders are an autumn highlight on the coast – (Image copyright Laurie Campbell)

Waders.jpg So the autumn is when you can see it all, not just all the seasons in one day but the birds from summer to winter as well.

Images courtesy of :  Laurie Campbell, Niall Benvie, and David Whitaker.

The SNH website has a number of pages that explore in greater detail some of Scotland’s favourite and most interseting birds at

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