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Autumn bird migration news: Garden warblers, flycatchers, chats and waders

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Nick Moran & Paul Stancliffe (BTO) Nick Moran & Paul Stancliffe (BTO) | 12:04 UK time, Friday, 26 August 2011


The intricately-patterned wryneck © Jill Pakenham/BTO

Easterly winds and drizzle dumped a scattering of migrants along the east coast this week. On a wander down the three-mile long shingle spit of Blakeney Point in Norfolk on Tuesday I was quite surprised to find that the most numerous warbler species was the usually unobtrusive garden warbler, while willow warblers and whitethroats were rather few and far between.

I was also fortunate enough to encounter some scarcer migrants from further east, including a smart greenish warbler (a species which regularly breeds no closer than eastern Scandinavia), a skittish red-backed shrike and a wryneck. The latter is an intricately-patterned and rather peculiar member of the woodpecker family, and late August/early September is a great time to look for them, particularly on the south and east coasts.


Whimbrel are at their peak right now © Ron Marshall/BTO

Flycatchers and chats are on the move too. Pied flycatchers have been in evidence at various locations, both coastal and inland, as have wheatears.

Late August is also the peak time for several migratory species of wading birds. Just last week, a flock of seven whimbrel flew over me in the unlikely location of a patch of Forestry Commission land in Thetford Forest, highlighting the broad front across which many species migrate. The BirdTrack reporting rate for whimbrel shows a really clear pattern of two peaks of sightings, the first in May and the second right now. One of the best ways to detect this curlew-like wader as it passes overhead is its piping, whistled calls, which you can listen to here.

Question of the week: How do birds find their way? (Part 1)

How migratory birds are able to navigate their way to and from their breeding grounds, often across vast distances, is one of the enduring questions posed by the natural world. We think that there are three key parts this mystery: birds' use of magnetic, celestial and visual cues. Over the next few weeks we'll take each of these in turn and try to explain a bit about how it works.

First up, magnetic cues. There's good experimental evidence that some species of bird are able to detect the Earth's magnetic field. Crystals of an iron-based mineral called magnetite have been discovered in the brains of pigeons, amongst other species, and these are thought to give the bird the ability to sense the polarity of the Earth's magnetic field.

An 'internal compass' is a pretty handy tool to have if you're a migratory bird, allowing you to migrate in roughly the right direction even if you can't see exactly where you're going. It is no good having a compass without a map though and we'll talk about the avian equivalent of a road atlas in a later post.

Have you noticed any birds leaving yet? Anything unsual or suprising? As always, we'd love to hear, so post a comment below.


  • Comment number 1.

    Today in our garden my son and husbavd spotted a kestral sat on our fence , we feed the smaller birds but have found they are not in the garden so much could this be , because we have a kestral about jackie

  • Comment number 2.

    Migration is my favourite time of year. This autumn I hope to get some good pictures of migration, if you would like to see these search my name on Flickr.


  • Comment number 3.

    I miss the UK wildlife!!!! Moved to Western Australia 2 years ago, and I still miss Sparrows, Starlings(!), Goldfinches, Robins, Nuthatch (used to visit my garden), Great-Spotted Woodpecker, and lots lots more!!! Apart from family, I miss the UK nature so much. Please keep up the good work - unable to watch Autunm/Spring watch - not allowed over here!! Can it not go on UK, or on internet for Australian viewers!! Loved it when I was living there!!!!!

  • Comment number 4.

    #1 jackie - whilst a visit from a Kestrel (or a Sparrowhawk - a bird of prey seen more regularly in gardens than Kestrels) will temporarily scare the small birds into hiding, they will quickly resume feeding once the coast is clear. A longer-term absence of birds at this time of year is more likely to be the result of birds like tits flocking together in post-breeding groups, then roaming around to take advantage of the natural food supplies that are still plentiful in late summer. For the next few weeks (until the weather gets colder) it will be quite normal to see very few birds most of the time, then sudden 'rushes' when a flock passes through your garden.

  • Comment number 5.

    For seeing migrant warbler chech out Brambles and Elders, as many species will stop off to feed on the berries. Yesterday morning had many Blackcaps, Common Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat on bushes at North end of Barton Hills NNR eating berries. Best early in morning as most of these species are nocturnal migrants so drop in at dawn then feed furiously to replace the fat used up overnight. Many species put on a lot of fat in order to migrate, Sedge Warbler can double in weight before migrating

  • Comment number 6.

    Here on our upland farm on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales I noticed that many of the swallows seem to have left today which is around 2 weeks earlier than usual - probably prompted by the wet, blustery weather.
    We were worried when they returned in Spring that there seemed to be fewer than usual but they have had a great breeding season and I counted 60-70 sitting on the wires last weekend.
    I can count just 8 left this morning, some of which look to be a very young brood of babies, just fledged.
    With the poor weather set to continue for a few days yet, there probably will not be much food around for them to build up for their long journey. . . .

  • Comment number 7.

    For the last week we have had an AZURE tit visiting our feeder. Has anyone else seen one of these?


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