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2018-12-12 : 12:35 am : +0100

birding

The Seasons

In contrast to many other animal groups, there are always birds to see – no matter where you are or the time of year. The tropics are normally described as having just two seasons: the wet and dry season (or rainy and very rainy in some places ;-), but here in the Northern Hemisphere, we talk about four distinct seasons:

Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter.

Spring
Frühling
Summer
Sommer
Autmun
Herbst
Winter
Winter

Spring

The gradually lengthening days bring an increasing number of bird species returning from their wintering grounds. Normally, the males arrive earlier on the breeding grounds to establish and compete for the best territories. Short-distance migrants often return as early as February or March and by June all migrant species have reached their breeding grounds, stretching all the way up in to the Arctic Circle. The latest of the migrants includes Marsh Warblers and some of the Arctic tundra-breeding waders.
Spring is all about reproduction. Consequently, it provides a wealth of opportunities for field ornithologists and birders to find and document breeding populations. Breeding bird research projects are conducted throughout Austria and some have been going for many years, and in collaboration with many other European partner initiatives.
For the birder, spring is a time of beautiful songs (making the birds easier to find) and – sometimes unexpected – migrant species moving through. In Eastern Austria, you will want to look for waders along the lakes, and if you are in the mountains of Western Austria, keep your eyes open for migrating swallows and martins, Pied Flycatchers, and the Bramblings getting ready to move North.

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Summer

Summer, too, is a time of change and transition. Some nordic shorebirds (e.g. Ruff, Spotted Redshank) already start to congregate in lowland wetlands in June and begin their moult in to non-breeding/winter plumage. Many duck species also begin to congregate (e.g. Red-crested Pochard on Bodensee). The main southward migration of young shorebirds and waders happens at the end of August/early September each year and is a great time to visit the lakes and wetlands.
By the time summer sets in, the breeding season is mostly over – even in the high Alps. Many birds use this period when there is still good food availability and warmer weather to moult their feathers.

The departure of conspicuous species is oftentimes surprisingly inconspicuous: the Eurasian Swift leaves the Vienna area around the end of July. By the beginning of August, only a few individuals remain around their breeding areas in the city. Birds in transit from the north can still be seen in to September, but by this time, the shrill call of dozens of swifts hunting between the building is something of the past.

One very conspicuous migrant is the European Pied Flycatcher. Its shrill, repeated «bit» call accompanies not only every trip to the Donau (from mid-August on), but is also a notable part of a walk in our city parks and green areas.
After the feather moult is completed, there is a noticeable increase in the calling and singing activity of a few resident bird species: The Black Redstart, Great Tits and Blue Tits all begin to call/sing again – if only at a much lower level than in spring. In a few species, territories are already established in autumn. Among these are many owls, tits and raptors.

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Autumn / Fall

Meteorologically, autumn begins on 1 September, but in the mountains, the first snows can often be as early as August. Migrants have mostly left, and residents prepare for the winter; Nutcrackers and Jays spend much time hiding nuts, seeds and any other edibles they can find; and winter guests – like the Great Grey Shrike and Hen Harrier – start to arrive. But the most important birding phenomenon (at least for birders) is the through-migration. Millions of migrants move through Austria every year and it can be quite a spectacle, indeed. Results of a study of waders and shorebirds in Seewinkel/Neusiedlersee (J. Laber 2003 Egretta 46/1) suggest that:

  • adults migrate before young birds, and
  • adults of different populations begin their migration at different times, resulting in multiple peaks in shorebird numbers at the migration staging grounds.

The influx of Rooks in the Vienna area is an absolute spectacle each year beginning middle October. Before winter sets in, thrushes of all description migrate through or around the Alps, sometimes in very large numbers, and the call of migrating Redwings can become a common sound on good migration nights at the end of October/beginning of November.

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Winter

Winter birding

Winter is the most difficult time for our birds. Many species leave their breeding grounds and return to the warmer climes of the Mediterranean, the Middle East or Africa. The birds that do remain – be they resident or nomadic – are faced with dramatically reduced food resources and need to find was to both effectively find food and to reduce their energy needs (e.g. reducing body temperature overnight, and roost huddling in Firecrests and Winter Wrens).

Ornithological monitoring highlights include monthly waterbird counts, geese counts in the Neusiedlersee area and other wetlands/lakes, White-tailed Eagle counts (WWF), local raptor counts, and Northern Grey Shrike counts. Winter is also used for the assessment and management of habitats. For example, in Seewinkel, the national park maintenance team works on the eradication and/or control of the Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia)¬ and other invasive species from the steppes. It is also a good time of year to use large earth-moving equipment to create new wetland and water areas for the next spring.

Winter time in the Alps can be difficult for birders (and birds!), but the beauty and the stillness of the winter mountain landscape makes for wonderful walks and makes it all the more special when one finds a feeding flock of Crossbills (breeding?) or White-winged Snowfinches. See our Alpine Birds blog for more examples and ideas.

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