October Almanac: Swans about

October is here and although the colourful summer wildlife is retreating into hibernation, you don’t have to. There’s plenty to see in the natural world on the Fylde Coast this month.

October can be a good opportunity to hear the trumpeting calls of whooper swans over Blackpool. They are generally making their way to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust nature reserve the other side of the Ribble Estuary at Burscough. In the autumn birds are often in family groups, whereas the return movement in spring is more concentrated in larger flocks.

If you hear birds calling overhead and confirm they are white and flying with necks outstretched they will be whoopers. Mute swans are vocally silent in flight whilst their wings make a distinctive whistling sound. Bewick’s swans, which used to be regular in winter, now ‘short stop’ their migration further east, and are essentially rare visitors to the Fylde these days. Both whoopers and Bewick’s used to winter around Blackpool – including on Lytham Moss and the waterpark at Ream Hills – but now they favour sites around the Lune Estuary instead.

Pintail duck by Daniil Komov

Other wildfowl also return in greater numbers during the month. Pintail and wigeon ducks can be seen both passing offshore and on the estuary at Fairhaven. Pintail in particular are a very elegant ducks, with their long necks and eponymous pointed rear ends, whilst wigeon are most recognisable by the almost wheezy whistling call note. As wigeon can form flocks of hundreds and even thousands of birds on the Ribble Estuary, their call is a familiar backdrop when learned. There are already good numbers of gadwall and shoveler ducks on Stanley Park, taking advantage of the widely disparaged weed growth in the lake, but these will also increase during the month.

Barnacle geese in far smaller flocks than these can be seen on the Fylde coast.

October is a good time to catch up with barnacle geese, a dainty monochrome species so named because it was once thought to grow from goose barnacles. The situation with barnacle geese in the Fylde is somewhat messy. There is a declining population which nests in the zoo but is free flying. At this time of the year they can be seen moving to roost late evening at either Marton Mere or fields at Staining Nook. Sometimes small flocks can occur, and at this time of year the origin of these is currently unclear – they may be naturalised birds from the Lake District or wild birds overshooting their Solway wintering grounds before reorienting. One or two will also be seen among the pink-footed goose flocks that fly over and feed on fields at the edge of Blackpool, Fleetwood and Lytham St Annes.

Cetti’s warbler by Michael Sway

The last of the migrant warblers will still be passing through for much of the month. On sunny days males will still be encouraged into song – blackcap have a fluty melody whilst chiffchaffs are onomatopoeically named and have a repeated ‘chiff chaff chiff chaff’ refrain. Both these species are increasingly remaining to winter in small numbers, and blackcaps in particular can become regular visitors to well-stocked garden feeding stations. Another warbler that remains into winter is the Cetti’s Warbler, which was formerly unknown in the area but has benefitted from climate change and milder winters. The best sites for Cetti’s are Marton Mere and surrounds including Staining Nook, and Fleetwood Marsh Nature Park. They are very elusive birds and the best indicator of their presence is there explosive song which is supposed to sound like ‘CETTI CETTI CETTI’ at the start, but that’s questionable. If you hear a loud small bird and catch a glimpse of warm brown upper parts then you have almost certainly found your quarry.

As gulls continue to return from breeding grounds elsewhere in Europe this presents a citizen science opportunity that everyone who visits Stanley Park can join in with. Several birds have been caught in the park and marked with blue Darvic rings that bear a unique four letter/digit code. In addition, a number of foreign birds have visited the park over the years including Denmark (white rings), Norway (green and also white rings), Poland (yellow rings) and Lithuania (black rings). There are also other schemes in the UK, the birds from which occasionally visit Blackpool and other local locations. These will all have a sequence beginning with the number 2. All sightings of these birds are welcome and can be routed through Blackpool Social Club via email.

Some of the more charismatic insects will still be on the wing, especially on calm sunny days. Migrant hawkers will be among the last of the dragonflies – like Cetti’s warblers these are animals that have come into the area with climate change. Butterflies encountered will mostly be species which are preparing to hibernate in due course, namely the vanessid group of red admiral, peacock, comma and small tortoiseshell. Less striking but also still flying in October is the speckled wood – a subtle mixture of chocolate and gold most often seen on the fringes of woodland and other areas with plenty of trees.

Main image: Bewick swan in flight

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