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Autumn bird migration news: A round-up of the season

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Nick Moran & Paul Stancliffe (BTO) Nick Moran & Paul Stancliffe (BTO) | 12:41 UK time, Friday, 25 November 2011

Each week Paul and Nick from the BTO are updating us on all the comings and goings of autumn's bird migration. We'd love to hear what you've been seeing too, whether in your garden or out and about.

Short-eared owl

Fifty short-eared owls were seen coming in off the sea at Titchwell, Norfolk, in October © Amy Lewis/BTO

With migration pretty much over, now is the time to reflect on what kind of autumn it has been. An autumn is often defined by the number of rare and scarce migrants that are found in the UK and as such this autumn will probably go down as one of the best ever.

Mid to late September saw two hurricanes sweep across the Atlantic, bringing North American waders and landbirds with them. A flock of 26 buff-breasted sandpipers gathered at Tacumshin, Wexford, on the 27th, whilst on the Isle of Scilly an early red-eyed vireo was joined by northern waterthrush, black and white warbler and Baltimore oriole.

Red-eyed vireo

One of the best autumns ever for scarce migrants saw a red-eyed vireo arrive on the Isle of Scilly © Joe Pender/BTO

After the storm came the calm, and with high pressure stretching all the way from the UK to North Africa, and the resulting light winds during early October, our departing summer visitors were provided with ideal conditions to move. Large numbers of hirundines, warblers, finches, chats and flycatchers were reported at coastal watchpoints, with records being broken at many sites. By the 4th 76,000 meadow pipits had been counted flying south at Spurn Point.

From the middle of October the wind turned more easterly and continued to come from this direction on and off through to the end of the month. Large numbers of finches, thrushes and geese began arriving but the most notable feature was the arrival of short-eared owls on the east coast. Fifty were seen to come in off the sea at Titchwell, Norfolk, on the 13th.

As September started, October finished, with some mouth-wateringrarities from the east and west being found. It all kicked off on the 1st when Britain's fourth Siberian blue robin was found dead on Foula, Shetland. The rest of the month saw the second eastern-crowned warbler, second rufous-tailed robin, fifth ovenbird, the ninth Siberian rubythroat and ninth and tenth scarlet tanager.

Whilst all this was happening, visible migration watchers were also kept busy as the finches just kept coming. Large numbers continued to move throughout October, mainly goldfinches, linnets, Siskins and redpolls, with a smaller but significant movement of crossbills.

white-fronted geese

Geese, like these white-fronted, were a highlight of early November © Chris Upson/BTO

As October gave way to November, geese became the highlight as pink-footed, greylag, white-fronted, tundra bean, barnacle and brent geese arrived in force. The BTO identification workshop is great for tips on how to separate grey geese in flight. Waxwings provided the first hint of what might turn out to be another waxwing winter; around two to three hundred arrived in early November.

The unseasonable temperatures may well have contributed to an impressive array of summer migrants lingering into November. Swallows, house martins, two or three redstarts, a pied flycatcher, a nightingale, several lesser and common whitethroats, at least half-a-dozen willow warblers, good numbers of wheatears, and around 30 records of swift, both common and the much rarer pallid were all still here.

As for the rarities, they keep coming too. The last week has seen blackpoll warbler, greater yellowlegs, sharp-tailed sandpiper, and at the time of writing, there is a veery on the island of Muck, Highland.

And, it's not over yet. As the temperatures fall in Eastern Europe and western Russia, we should see more of our winter visitors arrive, escaping the cold for the relative warmth of a British winter, birds like the Bewick's swan, pochard, goldeneye and smew, along with more geese and thrushes.

This week sees the 10th Conference of Parties of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals in Bergen. Populations of long-distance migratory landbirds are rapidly declining in the African-Eurasian flyway. Since 1995 and 2008, the populations of four summer-visiting birds declined by more than more than half, turtle dove (-70 per cent); wood warbler (-61 per cent); nightingale (-53 per cent); and yellow wagtail (-52 per cent), and during the last 25 years we have lost over half of our breeding cuckoos. (More on what the BTO is doing in Africa and its work on cuckoos.)


  • Comment number 1.

    Hello :)

    Once again I love the show and especially love the blogs here on the website. I have commented before and told you about Mersea Island in Essex, I think one of the best places around to see wildlife, especially birds. Check out this link http://merseawildlife.blogspot.com/ - we have had Short-Eared Owls in the Saltmarsh at the Point, East Mersea. The blog describes them as most probably just come in from the continent. Amazing !! Please check the blog it really is great !! Love the show so much can't wait for tonight :)
    Katie xxx P.S Love u Chris and Martin !!



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