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Autumn bird migration news: Waxwings, finches and skylarks

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Nick Moran & Paul Stancliffe (BTO) Nick Moran & Paul Stancliffe (BTO) | 14:53 UK time, Friday, 11 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.

starling roost

Starlings are on the move, so we'll soon see more of these spectacular sights © Jill Pakenham

It’s been a week of ups and downs. During the early part the winds had once again turned westerly and slowed migration down, and any movements involved small numbers of birds. After the weekend of easterlies waxwings continued to arrive. Around one hundred birds have now been seen on the east coast from Shetland to Kent.


Although most wildfowl failed to arrive, the first smew did © Edmund Fellowes

Wildfowl again failed to show. It’s still warm enough on the continent for them not to have to move. However, as always there will be individual birds that move no matter what and the first smew of the winter duly turned up, with single birds being seen in Cambridgeshire, Nottinghamshire, East Yorkshire and Lancashire.

By mid-week the winds turned southerly and promise to remain light and from this direction throughout the coming weekend and into early next week. There is also the promise of clearer skies for most of us.

This change immediately got finches on the move again, mainly goldfinches and chaffinches but also prompted skylark migration. Although the largest numbers were observed on the east coast, skylarks also migrate overhead further inland and can be seen moving in any county, particularly when the winds are light. This is definitely something to look out for this weekend. The clearer skies should also prompt the long-awaited woodpigeon migration.

During Saturday the winds might just turn south-easterly and provide the conditions for an arrival of black redstarts, particularly in the south and east. However, these birds can turn up almost anywhere even in land-locked gardens.

The last few weeks have seen a pretty steady arrival of siskins and redpolls. Both of these finches feed on the cones of alder and pines. With the wetter conditions earlier in the week a lot of cones will have closed and the seeds become harder to get at. In these conditions siskins and, more recently, redpolls turn to garden feeders, migrating from the wider countryside in search of food.

So what can we expect this weekend?

The last few days have seen more starlings on the move and this should continue through the weekend. As more and more of these birds arrive from Eastern Europe, so the size of the winter roosts will increase and the nightly spectacle of the pre-roost waves of birds become more impressive.

black redstart

Could there be an arrival of black redstarts this weekend? © Jill Pakenham

Along with the black redstarts, robins could also be a feature with a noticeable increase in both the countryside and gardens. Although the movement of largely freshwater wildfowl has been pretty slow, that of seaducks has been quite impressive and anyone out by the coast this weekend should look out for lines of common scoter flying just above the waves, these are often accompanied by the rarer velvet scoter, whose white wing flashes give away their presence amongst their all dark cousins.

Question of the week: Why do some individual migrants stay further north whilst other individuals of the same species migrate much further south?

Using blackcap as an example, the majority of European blackcaps leave their breeding quarters and head south to North Africa where the winters are much warmer. However, there is an increasing number that undertake a very short movement and remain in northern Europe all winter long. For these birds this is a real gamble. If they experience a very hard winter with prolonged ice and snow many of them will likely perish. However, if the winter is mild and they survive they then have the advantage of being much closer to their breeding grounds next spring.

Being closer to the breeding grounds at the start of the breeding season means that they will undertake a much less arduous and hazardous migration, arriving back in good condition and earlier than those from further south. This allows them to take up the best territories with the consequent probability of a more successful breeding season.


  • Comment number 1.

    Hmm.... "Wildfowl again failed to show". 10 White-fronted Geese are at RSPB Frampton Marsh, along with 700 Brent Geese. 20 Whooper Swans arrived a couple of weeks ago. Further afield, at least 100 other White-fronts have been reported in East Yorks, Northumberland and County Durham. A few Scaup and Long-tailed Duck have been reported on BirdGuides. Not a numerous influx, but still, they're coming....

  • Comment number 2.

    I've been seeing influxes of skylark, redpoll, goldfinch, chaffinch, winter thrushes and wildfowl. This evening wigeon were up to about 40 birds, shoveler, teal and gadwall are also in. Mute swan numbers are up to 15 and raven activity has increased.

    This morning saw the first woodcock sighting so bring on the winter!

  • Comment number 3.

    noticed a few large flocks of cushie doo's in perthshire this week

  • Comment number 4.

    chris is wrong about being wrong?? re wood pigen huge flocks up here in the east of scotland.

  • Comment number 5.

    The Woodcock Network have been monitoring the arrival of woodcock this autumn, Autumn watch reported that this week birds had started to turn up on the east coast, but we have reports of a major passage of woodcock passing through Orkney and the Hebrides. Last week has also saw good numbers of woodcock turning up in West Wales with a steady passage through the Bardsey Bird Observatory of birds heading for Ireland.

  • Comment number 6.

    Whilst walking by the coast (Bridgwater Bay south of Slimbridge) we noticed this Bird


    From the information we have managed to locate it appears to be to beige in colour to be a Curlew, and looks more like a Whimbrel - although they are not normally found in the south - are they. Of course it could be something else.
    Apologies for the quality of the picture, but it was quite a long way away and this is a crop from a 30x zoom.

    Anyone any thoughts?

  • Comment number 7.

    At 1300hrs 12/11 I was parked in a layby at Bromyard when small a number of both Fieldfares and Redwings came into a hawthorne tree 12' from the car and feasted on the berries - unusual or commonplace?

  • Comment number 8.

    This morning Surrey/Sussex border we saw hundreds and hundreds of birds moving South in the bright sunshine. Even with binoculars it was tricky to identify. There was no noise, they were flying pretty high, and seemed as big as a small dove. Can you suggest what they might be?

  • Comment number 9.

    Hello, very much enjoy reading the weekly updates, and am very excited to see smew moving in! I hope they come back near me this year too!
    After seeing lots of gulls flying in a big skein like geese yesterday, I'd like to ask if gulls migrate too, or do they just head inland/a little further south?
    I didn't realise they also flew like this. Still i suppose saving energy is very important this time of year!

  • Comment number 10.

    About 11:30am today 13/11/11 around 1000 birds flew over my house in west sussex they were a little smaller than a pigeon light brown with a lot of creamy white under the tail. Can anyone tell me what they may have been?

  • Comment number 11.

    Hi can you identify a bird I saw in my garden this morning? It had a black beak, black head dark grey body and when it flew there were reddish brown markings on the underside of it's wings. It was about 4 to 4 1/2 inches long. I have never seen anything like it before.

  • Comment number 12.

    I saw my first fieldfare yesterday feeding on an apple in my garden, is there anything else I can put out to help them? There is seed etc but they only like the apples this is there third year coming beautiful birds. Last year I had 1 waxwing never seen 1 here before how could i help them? They also like the apples.
    I also seen an Osprey yesterday while walking up the hill it was amazing just heard the wings flapping as it flew by me and it had a fish in it's mouth most amazing sight ever! Should I report this sighting and where? I live in West Scotland :)

  • Comment number 13.

    Possibly already pointed out as I have only just registered but in last week's program (1) The 'Spotted Flycatcher' photographed on the oil rig was actually a Red-breasted Flycatcher (a much rarer bird which could be a new species for the observer). (2) Some of your film of White-tailed Eagle was actually a juvenile Golden Eagle (3) The note on Turnstones eating a human corpse was not actually one of Bernard King's many notes but came from A J Mercer during the late 1960's.

  • Comment number 14.

    Dear Peweuk Your bird is definitely a Whimbrel as it shows the distinct pale supercillium. They only breed in the far north but can occur anywhere in Britain on Migration, many goinhg south to winter on the Atlantic coast of Southern Europe and NW Africa.
    Jenny, your large flock could well be Golden Plover particularly if they flew in a fairly dense flock and with rapid wingbeats. In summer they have black underparts but in winter are very pare beneath. Also have very short tail.
    I am hoping to see the Eastern Black Redstart near Margate this weekend.

  • Comment number 15.

    #6 peweuk / #14 Child of Herne - the bird is definitely a Curlew; the bill is too long for a Whimbrel and curves progressively towards the tip, rather than abruptly as in Whimbrel. It also lacks the central crown stripe of a Whimbrel. I think the (apparently) pale supercilium is at least in part an artefact of the photo (ie overexposure in the strong sunlight). If you'd like more opinions on its ID, submit it to www.iSpot.org.uk. Cheers, Nick Moran

  • Comment number 16.

    #7 Al G - Fieldfares and Redwings are very fond of hawthorn berries so it is not unusually to see them feasting in the way you describe. Most birds don't associate cars with danger and will often approach very close, even if there are people inside. It is a different story if you open the door and get out, though! Nick Moran

  • Comment number 17.

    #8 Jenny / #10 Shaun - difficult to say without seeing the birds themselves (or photos) but my guess would be Woodpigeons, which are on the move in large numbers at this time of year. Shaun's birds sound more like Collared Doves BUT the record UK count of that species is 52... so perhaps thrushes?

  • Comment number 18.

    #9 Wandering_Albatross - gulls do migrate; Britain and Ireland is a very important wintering area for several species so many are arriving at this time of year. If you live inland, it is more likely that you saw gulls moving to/from a roost, rather than actually migrating. Nick Moran

  • Comment number 19.

    Great to see Bill again. Hearing of possible winter WAXWING over stayers, my wife and I saw two waxwings on May 11th. here in Beverley. I pointed out at the time that I thought they should have left us long before. So, I wondered as Bill proposed that some waxwings do stay ( especially after a hard winter ) and that they may in fact vbe breeding.
    Beverley East Yorkshire



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