(Look out for) the little brown birds of autumn
PUBLISHED: 09:45 29 August 2019
One of the great delights of late summer – at least when the weather is good – is sitting in the garden watching the natural world go by. And ‘go by’ it does at this time of year as swallows and martins return south high overhead for the winter (the swifts have already gone), and a multitude of smaller ‘passerines’ feed their way through treetops and bushes: here today, gone tomorrow.
Though it would seem handy and apt at this time of year for 'passerine' to mean 'passing bird' the word is actually derived from the Latin for sparrow - passer - and refers to more than half of all bird species. Technically, the scientific order passeriformes include all perching birds - defined as those with three toes pointing forward and one pointing back, the key to balancing on a perch. If you have any trees or bushes in your garden or visit any green space at this time of year the chances are you will encounter passerines - both perching and passing.
With the more familiar garden species come a variety of scarcer birds: warblers, whitethroats, redstarts, flycatchers and, for the very lucky few, that weird and wonderful woodpecker, the wryneck. Together they make up that plethora of little brown birds or 'LBJs' (Little Brown Jobs) as they are known amongst birdwatchers, which make up much of Britain's bird population. At this time of year too the majority of passing LBJs are particularly brown, a cohort of juveniles and females, the bright-plumaged males often having left earlier.
Both the toned-down plumage and the displacement of species outside their usual habitats makes the challenge of identification that much harder but also, at least for me, that much more exciting. That little brown bird swaying atop a tall weed in the farmer's field, I would normally dismiss as "just another linnet or sparrow", but take a second look and oh! It's a whinchat, on it's way south from the high moors of northern England and Scotland.
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If there's one thing that aids the search for LBJs it is that they never cease moving - giving away their presence with flicks of the wing, looping fly-catching flights or little quiet calls and clicks of the beak as they snap up the midges and gnats.
Sitting out in the garden yesterday morning a sudden movement in the blackberry stand revealed a whitethroat picking at the ripe blackberries - the first I've seen in the garden for years. Looking up at the tall birch trees, their leaves shimmering in the breeze, one hanging drape of leaves seems to shake just that bit more. Sure enough, in the binoculars, a bright yellow willow warbler flicked and flitted, catching flies but all the while blending perfectly with the birch foliage brightened to a translucent yellow in the morning sunlight. Tomorrow they will be in someone else's garden and before long they will liven the coastal scrubland, ready to depart our shores.
How many of these Little Brown Jobs you see will depend entirely on how much time you can spend watching and waiting. At the first sign of disturbance these little birds will dive for cover but after a few moments of patience they will re-emerge and continue feeding, rewarding you with great views. Of course, a certain lack of self-consciousness helps too as it is not always obvious to others why you might have such an intense fascination with an apparently empty bush!
Of course, the bush may prove empty but, very often, usually just as you are about to give up, a sudden flash of red sets the pulse racing. A robin-sized redstart, brown apart from a flicking rust-red tail, drops down from the bush and picks an insect off the path. So regular is this pattern of discovery in some places that local birdwatchers will often dub a particular hedge as 'the redstart hedge' and scan particularly hard each autumn in the hope of maintaining its reputation.
The real bonus of this search for our 'Little Brown Jobs' is that it can be undertaken almost anywhere and your garden is one of the best places to start. Chiffchaffs, whitethroats and blackcaps are the most likely but you never know; flycatchers, redstarts or something even rarer might just choose your patch to take a break in.
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