There are three key points in the year when some unusual faces (of the birdy kind) can turn up in your garden:

  • The first is during bouts of harsh weather, which can force some birds to abandon their usual haunts and overcome their natural nervousness in their desperate search for food;
  • The second is in spring when many birds are migrating north and a few might briefly drop into your garden as they pass through;
  • And the third is right now, during the autumn migration, as those same migratory birds head south, only now their numbers are swollen by all their offspring making their first long-distance journeys.

With all those extra youngsters on the move, finding their way with only their instincts to guide them, it means that now more than any other time is perhaps your best chance of spotting something out of the ordinary in your garden.

In the last two weeks, I've had a number of the commoner migrants passing through - Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Whitethroats and Blackcaps. But I've also had two that I've never seen before in my garden.

The first gave me a start as a flash of red dashed across the pond. Which can only add up to one thing - a Redstart. The 'start' in the name is actually from the Old English 'steort', meaning 'tail', which is where the colour is brightest, although I was only able to grab a shot of it front on in my Cornus kousa tree, looking rather like a Robin but with a greyish hood. You'll have to trust me that the tail was as if on fire!

I suspect it was the reddish breast that agitated my resident Robins so much, who gave chase, but the Redstart is a speedy flyer well able to evade them.

(Regarding the word origins of 'start', you might be interested to know that Steart Point in Somerset, such a fine location for birds, is named because it looks like a tail jutting into the Severn Estuary. And 'stark naked' is from the same root, as in 'tail naked' or, as we might call it, 'butt naked').

Bird Surprise Number 2 wasn't quite so colourful, but was rather neat, sat in a tree outside my bedroom window.

It is a Tree Pipit, visually very similar to a Meadow Pipit, but the streaks on its sides are rather fine, it only has a relatively short hind-claw (yes, indeed, that is an identification feature!), and it is much more prone to perching in trees as the name suggests.

Only a very few Redstarts and Tree Pipits breed in my home county of Sussex, and none within a radius of perhaps 10 miles of my house, so it is far more likely that these are birds from maybe northern England, Scotland or Wales having done one leg of their journey to Africa. Isn't it amazing to think that a bird in your garden might a few days before have been somewhere in the glorious uplands of the UK, and yet within another few weeks will be hopping around the savannahs and bush south of the Sahara?

What was especially encouraging that both my Redstart and my Tree Pipit made use of my pond, popping down for a drink and to find insects around its margins. Had my garden been without its trees, shrubs and pond, it is unlikely they would have visited.

So keep your eyes peeled, for now is the time when nature is on the move, and anything is possible.

[PS A learned reader has subsequently emailed me to point out that Start Point in Devon is also so-called because of its tail-like shape]

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