Go down to the woods in August and it’s easy to get the impression that the birds, like so many of us, are on holiday. The woodland highways, which only a month ago were crowded with birds commuting from feeding site to nest, are oddly silent, and the atmosphere has dropped from feverish to lethargic. Birdwatchers find woods in August disappointing, and tend to go to more open, less challenging places at this time of year.
The birds are here, though. Many are in quiet mode, moulting behind the safety of the tired leaves and avoiding excessive external effort while their bodies work hard on plumage change. They have no need for song or display and are not yet stressed by food shortage, so, overall, they can be difficult to locate.
But the wood is not in slumber, and there are birds hereabouts that are feverishly active. Some of them are even on ‘holiday’ – or at least as near as a bird can get to one. These are the young birds of the year, and they are going through a rite of passage known as post-juvenile dispersal. Having left their parents’ territory, they have begun a period of wandering – not necessarily travelling very far, but at least avoiding the immediate neighbourhood of where they were born. As they move, they gather into parties with other wandering birds – of the same age but not necessarily the same species – and follow a beat along paths or woodland edges each day, familiarising themselves with places that might one day be breeding territory. Many do not travel more than a few kilometres away from where they were hatched, but this, even for the most sedentary of birds, such as marsh tits and nuthatches (species that, once settled, never leave their territory), is nevertheless a formal time of travel and movement.
Many of these wandering species are attracted at the beginning of each August day by the calls of the flocking ‘carrier species’ – birds, such as blue tits
or long-tailed tits, that form the nucleus of the gatherings and guide the movement along, acting like gurus to hippies. Their calls are readily answered, as flocking can be highly beneficial. For example, as they move, members of the flock watch their peers feeding and learn novel foraging techniques or rich places to search. More eyes are also better for predator detection. The members of the flock each have their eyes opened a little wider to their world; one might equate the month of August to a young bird’s gap year.
For some woodland birds, much longer and less informal travels have begun in earnest. Several migrant species go through a rapid moult after breeding and are already on their way south towards their wintering grounds by August; the majority leave the country before the month is out. One of these is the garden warbler, a bird that seems to be a perpetual migrant. It is on the road for up to six months a year, travelling slowly between Europe and Africa and never settling down. Some of spring’s most famous players are also notable for their * early departures, including Beethoven’s Pastoral stars, the nightingale and cuckoo. Nightingales stop singing in June and, no longer holding our rapt attention, melt away from our consciousness like faded pop stars. In common with many migrants, they can fly long distances, so it is possible that we may wake up one August morning to find they’ve gone. Cuckoos, also silent now, depart with equal surety.