What to look for in November


Long-billed Murrelet (Photo: Graham Catley)

November can be an exciting month. We don't need reminding that autumn has got longer, and milder, during recent times and as a consequence the arrival dates of many 'sibes' comfortably extend through to November, giving rarity-hunters even longer to search out their prey. The early part of the month also presents opportunities for 'megas', originating from any point on the compass, though more typically involving 'sibes' or Nearctic vagrants. Long gone are the days when birders hung up their bins on the 31st October after an autumn of bush-, or island-bashing.

Green Heron (Photo: Mike Atkinson)

In recent years November megas have included the mass-twitched Long-billed Murrelet in Devon in 2006, Green Heron on Anglesey in 2005 (a year that also produced the moribund Magnificent Frigatebird in Shropshire) and Masked Shrike in Fife in 2004. Those with longer memories will recall that it was also the month in which the Varied Thrush enticed observers to Cornwall in 1982 - a repeat performance of that one would prove popular indeed! You don't have to be in a traditional area for rarities to chance upon something special, as it is also time for the unexpected: for example the Grey-cheeked Thrush in Hertfordshire in 2005. It is also worth scanning those Collared Dove flocks, as four of the recent Oriental Turtle Doves to be found were seen during November.

Pallas's Warbler (Photo: John Miller)

Rarities more in keeping with the month usually involve Hume's Leaf Warblers, while Dusky Warblers and Pallas's Warblers can often be relied upon for a late arrival, as can Yellow-browed Warblers. In influx years, the first notable presence of Waxwings will be detected during November. Other species such as Great Grey Shrikes and Rough-legged Buzzards can often be tracked down at this time, and some will go on to winter at their chosen location. Clifftop stubble and fields are the place to scour for Lapland Buntings and Shore Larks, and Snow Bunting and Twite can be found at this time.

Lapland Bunting (Photo: Paul Hill)

Milder conditions have also ensured that a number of summer migrants can still be found, most typically in the south and southwest, but nowadays late Swallows and House Martins can be anticipated anywhere, while scarcer species such as Firecrest and Black Redstart are eagerly sought by local patch birders. Global warming will no doubt continue to change the composition of species on offer at this time of year and our 'typical' summer visitors will doubtless be encountered later and later, extending 'last date' statistics in many local bird reports in years to come.

Firecrest (Photo: John Robinson)

November is not all about 'small birds'; the month is a good one for those seeking larger fare. After the summer lull, gull enthusiasts begin to search with renewed vigour at this time of year for scarcer species as gull flocks and roosts start to build up. White-wingers rarely arrive in force much before the New Year, but some early birds can be found among their commoner congeners. Tip-watchers can busy themselves seeking out Caspian Gulls among the throng of their commoner compatriots and returning Ring-billed Gulls install themselves back at favoured sites for the winter. Expanding gull roosts are also worthy of scrutiny, the hoped-for rarity always the reward for the eye-strain and frozen fingers!

American Wigeon (Photo: R. L. Brown)

Wildfowl arrive in force during the month, offering good opportunities for picking out Green-winged Teal and American Wigeon among the dabbling ducks and Ring-necked Ducks and Lesser Scaup among the diving ducks. Geese numbers increase too, and sifting through Pinkfeet for vagrant Canada Geese and Brent Geese flocks for Black Brants are good ways to spend your time, though the thrill of seeing large flights of geese does not have to include the quest for a rarity to ensure a fulfilling day out.

Little Auk (Photo: Steve Seal)

Brisk northerlies will ensure a good movement of wildfowl for seawatchers, with seawatches at this time of year often delivering an appetising mix of wildfowl, skuas (particularly Pomarine Skuas) and auks. The most sought-after of the latter are the diminutive Little Auks. For these delightful waifs, pay heed to the weather charts and look for a strong westerly airflow over the top of Britain followed by northwesterlies, then head to the east coast in the hope of witnessing these superb birds battling back north against the backdrop of the pounding surf. Flamborough Head in East Yorkshire is the premier site for the species, though anywhere within sight of the east coast should deliver if the conditions are right. During such conditions small numbers of Grey Phalaropes can be found, as might Sabine's Gulls. Inland watchers scrutinizing their local waters at this time of year often detect displaced divers and seaduck such as Long-tailed Ducks.

Wood Pigeon (Photo: Richard Bedford)

Daylight may be in increasingly short supply during November, but there is no doubting that it is rapidly emerging from the shadow of October as a fine month in which to find extreme rarities and to enjoy the spectacle of birds on the move. There is much to be extracted from the month, and not just rarities, be it Woodpigeons passing over on a crisp November morning, the turnover of wildfowl through your local patch or the discovery of wintering warblers at new local sites. Whatever you do though - don't hang up those binoculars at the end of October!

Written by: Russell Slack