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Migration round-up, autumn 2010

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Nick Moran & Paul Stancliffe (BTO) Nick Moran & Paul Stancliffe (BTO) | 14:11 UK time, Thursday, 25 November 2010

With migration pretty much coming to a close, now's a good time to reflect on what is probably the most exciting time of the year for birdwatchers and the most challenging for birds. So, how good an autumn has it been for migration?

For those of us that enjoy the pure spectacle of bird migration at this time of the year, it's been one of the best autumns for many years.

For the birds themselves, it's been a mixed bag. For some, being drifted across the North Sea whilst on their way to southern Europe shortens the journey by cutting the corner from northern Europe to France and Spain.

For others that were forcibly blown out to sea, the winds and weather proved fatal. Those that successfully crossed the Atlantic are unlikely to make the journey back. However, there is some evidence to suggest that those that come from the Far East might be able to successfully over-winter in Africa and re-orientate the next spring.

Lapland bunting ©Dawn Balmer/BTO

Lapland bunting ©Dawn Balmer/BTO

Migration began in earnest quite early this year with the arrival of hundreds of Lapland buntings in the Northern and Western Isles in the last week of August. Visible migration watchers pray for easterly winds during the autumn months in the hope that migrants will be drifted across the North Sea. This year their prayers were answered with long periods of easterly wind.

These brought some top-drawer rarities to our shores. The second rufous-tailed robin for the UK was found freshly dead on Orkney, a long way from its normal wintering grounds in China, and Britain's fourth brown flycatcher graced East Yorkshire. However, it was the supporting cast that was most impressive. Barred warblers, icterine warblers, red-backed shrikes and wrynecks turned up in higher than average numbers and large falls of common migrants were experienced.

Huge arrival of robins, thrushes, redstarts, pied and spotted flycatchers, meadow pipits and finches were seen at east coast watchpoints. The following entry on 27 September on the Spurn Bird Observatory website said it all:

Today was one of those days you wait years for, just the right weather at just the right time of year and an expectancy that it really was going to happen, and it did. There were good numbers of grounded migrants from first light but it was obvious many more birds were arriving as the day wore on, these included 115 dunnock, 1000+ robin, 86 redstart, 15 whinchat, 85 wheatear, 48 ring ouzel, 72 blackbird, 630 song thrush, 1200 redwing 107 goldcrest, 15 spotted flycatcher, 12 pied flycatcher, 110 chaffinch, 565 brambling, 206 siskin, 9 redpoll, 1 snow bunting, 8 Lapland bunting and 74 reed bunting.

Between the long bouts of easterly airflow the wind turned westerly and really blew, bringing North American birds with it. Britain's second alder flycatcher was found in Norfolk, two hermit thrushes quickened pulses on the Western Isles as did two myrtle warblers in Ireland. Cornwall hosted a green heron and an American bittern and a common nighthawk was found in the north-east.

Buff-breasted sandpiper

Buff-breasted sandpiper © Ron Marshall/BTO

However, as far as North American birds go, this autumn will be remembered for the arrival of over 70 buff-breasted sandpipers. These birds normally overfly most of North America on their way to Argentina and Paraguay from their breeding grounds in the Arctic and are a difficult species for most American birders to catch up with.

The huge movement of woodpigeons, over 400,000 were counted flying west over Poole, Dorset during the first half of November, pretty much brought migration to a close this year, although we could still experience some cold weather movements during the winter.

Now that most of our summer migrants have left and our winter visitors are here, what should we look out for over the winter period?

There are lots of winter spectacles to enjoy. Thousands of geese spend the winter here and a trip to Lady Anne's Drive, Holkham, Norfolk is not to be missed. Thousands of pink-footed geese begin to arrive from mid-afternoon, whiffling their way out of the sky to feed in the fields adjacent to the drive. Slimbridge, Gloucestershire provides a similar spectacle with white-fronted geese and there are more pink-feet to enjoy at Martin Mere in Lancashire, not forgetting the barnacle geese at Caerlaverock, on the Solway Firth.

Starling roosts will be in full swing, some of the largest are on Brighton Pier, West Sussex - Shapwick Heath, Somerset – Aberystwyth Pier, Ceredigion – and Gretna, Dumfries & Galloway. There will also be many smaller roosts in towns and cities across the country to enjoy.

During the afternoon at Stubb Mill, on the Norfolk Broads, marsh harriers begin to arrive prior to roosting on site. By dusk over fifty will have gathered, sometimes more, being joined by a small number of hen harriers and the Broads' population of common cranes (around 30). A true spectacle!

Common crane ©Neil Calbrade/BTO

Common crane ©Neil Calbrade/BTO

Let's not forget our garden birds. During prolonged periods of snow and ice our gardens provide a refuge for a wide variety of birds. Last winter lots of woodcock found shelter in our gardens, along with huge numbers of redwings and fieldfares.

On a final note, this is a waxwing winter here in the UK. Over 3,000 birds have already turned up. Arriving in the north-east waxwings move south and east in search of berries as they run out further north. Small flocks have already been seen in Hertfordshire and Kent, so this is one to look out for anywhere.


  • Comment number 1.

    I am still a member of the #notseenawaxwing club on twitter. They must be nearby but never seen any.

  • Comment number 2.

    Being one of the best years for irrupting Waxwings not one bird has been mentioned. with c 20,000 in the UK there must be a mention.

  • Comment number 3.

    Saw three waxwings on our Rowan tree in Buckley Flintshire North Wales today, so a few at least have got this far west.

  • Comment number 4.

    I've started to see increasing numbers of bramblings in my garden here in Scotland. First couple appeared three days ago and numbers seem to be going up steadily - about 15 today fighting it out with the chaffinches and a couple of robins for seeds on the ground.

  • Comment number 5.

    Hi, I have been watching starlings for the past 8-9 months in the carpark at Savacentre in Sydenham. I feed them and the crows as often as I can. But I am surprised that you say they migrate. I wonder if I should approach the Savacentre to allow spaces to feed the birds as they can cause problems with the parked cars. Have you any suggestions. The starlings are wonderful, especially the young ones, who have such beautiful coloured plumage. They are all very sad at the moment with the bad weather but I would like to know what to do for the best for them.

    Regards, Heather.

  • Comment number 6.

    On Saturday 11th December I saw around 7 or 8 waxwings in a tree next to one bearing red berries. They were making quite a distinct trilling sound which drew my attention to them. Harwell, Oxfordshire.


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