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Autumn bird migration news: A north/south divide

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Nick Moran & Paul Stancliffe (BTO) Nick Moran & Paul Stancliffe (BTO) | 21:33 UK time, Thursday, 27 October 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.


The blackcap, marooned on Fair Isle © Mark Taylor/BTO

There has been a north/south divide this week, and the further north you go the greater the divide. The very strong south westerly winds have remained gale force for most of the week in the very north of Scotland and the northern isles, grounding large numbers of geese and swans and effectively bringing any migration there to a complete halt. At present there are around 30 blackcaps on Fair Isle, Shetland, that will be unable to leave until the wind drops considerably.

Further south the winds have been much lighter and at time movement has been impressive. The first large arrival of starlings occurred at the beginning of the week, along with impressive numbers of finches, linnet being the most numerous of these, accompanied by smaller numbers of goldfinches and chaffinches.

ring ouzel

Ring ouzels stop over in the UK on their way to Africa © Tommy Holden/BTO

Winter thrushes continue to arrive whenever conditions allow. While the redwings and fieldfares may not go much further than the UK, the ring ouzels that have arrived with them this week will be making their way to North Africa to spend the winter months in and around the Atlas Mountains. Late October and early November can be a great time to catch up with this enigmatic thrush, some even turn up in gardens at this time.

Bewick's swans

The first of the Bewick's swans have begun to arrive © Jill Pakenham/BTO

The strong winds have held up a few of our departing summer visitors but for the 30 swallows that are still in the Christchurch Harbour area in Dorset the higher than average temperatures for the time of the year will mean that there will still be plenty of aerial insects around to feed-up on ahead of the long journey south.

The first of the Bewick's swans from the Arctic Russian tundra have begun to arrive on the east coast. If the winds are as light as they are forecast to be this weekend, we could see the arrival of more of these wild swans, along with further arrivals of starlings, goldcrests and woodcock, the latter two nearly always seem to arrive at the same time.

Question of the week: Do all birds migrate in flocks?

The simple answer to this is no.


A lonesome migrant: the corncrake © Edmund Fellowes

Many of our birds will undertake migration alone. Warblers, flycatchers, chats and birds like quail, corncrake and cuckoos undertake their huge migrations to Sub-Saharan Africa entirely alone. However, for others, flocking is the norm, thrushes, starlings, finches and pipits all migrate in loose flocks and utter contact calls to keep these flocks together.

For most wildfowl, not only is flocking the norm, migrating with the rest of your family is too, making this time of the year a good time to get an indication how good a breeding season birds like whooper and Bewick's Swans have had.

It's unclear why different birds use differing migration strategies. Warblers in the UK are mainly nocturnal migrants, whilst the North American warblers migrate during daylight hours. However, for our summer visitors that cross the Sahara, a night crossing might be much more beneficial than one undertaken during the searing heat of the day. We do know that one of our satellite tagged cuckoos did actually cross the desert during the day, so we still have quite a lot to learn about birds on migration. To see where our five cuckoos (including Martin and Chris) are now visit our special tracking website.


  • Comment number 1.

    Wonderful! Any advice as to what to watch for here on the eastern fringes of the City of London? We've been extremely lucky to happen across a stray woodcock, practically on our doorstep - but we'd still love to see more migrants, especially as our 'regular' birds have proved particularly erratic this autumn (eg.the Tower starlings, and sparrows, seem to have totally vanished ...). Incidentally, do native swans ever squabble with the incomers, eg. mutes v Bewick's? Thanks as ever and all the best for tonight's bound-to-be-wonderful shows. TB et al.
    PS - I'm also curious as to exactly what fruit was used to attract the beautiful blackcap at top ...

  • Comment number 2.

    I have a Great Spotted Woodpecker, 4 Tree Sparrows, Siskin,14 Golfinches, 2 Dunnocks, dozens of Coal Tits, 4 Blue Tits, Robins, 2 Greenfinches plus pheasants and partridges at my bird feeding areas just now. I have heard that Goldfinches migrating in?? I have Goldfinches all year round so why do they say they are arriving??

  • Comment number 3.

    Tedbun I had a Blackcap last winter at my bird feeders it loves the coconuts but also found it eating the bird seed it stayed with me all winter and into the spring. You could try that

  • Comment number 4.

    Definitely noticed an increase in Buzzard numbers here in Essex as more move in to the area during the winter!

  • Comment number 5.

    3 Richard's Pippets have been seen at Aberlady in East Lothian, Scotland last week thought a lot of you folk out there may be interested......beautiful bird!

  • Comment number 6.

    about 30 + lapwings in sunderland tyne & wear flying in formation round the sky last sunday

  • Comment number 7.

    Several large flocks of goldfinches flying along the coast today at Pevensey Bay, East Suusex. Had about 100 land on the telephone line in my garden and nibbling on our bushes. Didn't realise they travelled in such large groups, beautiful birds.

  • Comment number 8.

    My daughters, Megan aged 13, & Bethany aged 9 Is worried about the plight of dyles the bird, they wondered whether he was ok & made it on hes jorney ok, does anybody know?

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi I am in Le Horps, France and we are seeing flocks of chaffinches, Our Buzzards and kestrals are still with us.


  • Comment number 10.

    swallows seen in mid pembrokeshire 27-10-2011, unusually late?

  • Comment number 11.

    Chffichaff seen 1/10/11 . Redwings and fieldfares arrived a week ago . Seen loads of male blackbirds recently, might be migrants from Europe . :)
    From fieldfare1, 14, isle of man

  • Comment number 12.

    Sept 2011. I had been enjoying watching a buzzard riding the thermals over our house. Thought I was lucky to see one, here on the border of Derbys/Staffs.We live at the bottom of a wooded ridge, in part of the Dove Valley, so it's probably a good place to ride the thermals. Couple of weeks later, we saw 2 - hurrah a pair. And then....there were 3, all looking as if they were lazily enjoying the late summer sunshine. What a wonderful sight. Is this unusual for this area? Are they likely to stay here over the winter?

  • Comment number 13.

    During ten days recently we have had a Green Sandpiper on our pond. This is the second year running. I wonder if it is the same one?

  • Comment number 14.

    Hi Everyone. I'm brand new to this site..was looking for someone to tell me what birds we would have been seeing while we were on the Norfolk coast this weekend. There were literally hundreds at dusk last night, and again early this morning, of what I presumed to be migrating geese of some kind (as they were honking loudly), but were too high to distinguish. There were waves of roughly V shaped formation.

  • Comment number 15.

    The starlings have migrated to France. Millions of them are roosting in the trees below the cathedral in Auxerre. We watch enthralled each night as the sky is filled with them swirling around before settling down to roost. But the best bit was being up at dawn to watch them take off. I hadnt realised the trees were so weighed down by birds. They literally grew 2/3 feet as the branches sprang back upright as the birds left.

  • Comment number 16.

    #2 lyncat - whilst Goldfinches are usually considered 'resident' in the UK, many arrive from northwest Europe and Scandinavia at this time of year, to escape the worst of the winter weather (which is harsher on the Continent). Although you may see Goldfinches in your garden throughout the year, it is very likely that these are not the same individuals! At this time of year, 'your' Goldfinches (and Chaffinches, Blackbirds and Robins) may well have come from much further afield. Nick Moran

  • Comment number 17.

    #10 sian - 27 October is quite late to be seeing Swallows, although a few usually hang around into early November (particularly in the South and West, where the conditions are a little milder). Nick Moran, BTO

  • Comment number 18.

    #12 chrissie smith - Buzzards are doing really well across much of the country (they used to be irregular migrants over here in East Anglia but I now regularly see up to 8 in a day near Thetford). Whilst your birds might have moved in to the area for better feeding over the winter, they may also be local breeders that were simply taking advantage of the good weather (and were therefore easier to spot than had they been sitting on a fence post or tree). Nick Moran, BTO

  • Comment number 19.

    #14 BarterB - you were almost certainly witnessing the movements of Pink-footed Geese from the fields where they feed to the estuaries and saltmarshes where they roost. This species winters in Norfolk in large numbers and is one of the most popular and spectacular winter wildlife spectacles in this part of the world. Nick Moran, BTO

  • Comment number 20.

    Nick and Paul. Approx. 300 Golden Plover now on arable field on top of windiest, most exposed down! Near Walbury Hill, Inkpen, West Berks. Wonderful sight as they all lift off, black and white crosses in the sky.

  • Comment number 21.

    Re comment 2 above - Thanks very much Lyncat for your helpful (and very prompt!) advice re my "PS" query at top, and my apologies for this belated response. We've never seen blackcaps here on the edge of the City of London - never mind on our tiny balcony - but I live in hope and shall certainly give your suggestions a try! Thanks again and best regards, EB.
    PS - I'm also glad to report that a healthy flock of starlings was again busy grubbing in the grass beside the Tower of London last weekend - and a very handsome jay was feeding amongst the trees and rooftops opposite our balcony just this morning (not yet enticed in by my hopeful acorns!). Meanwhile, a grey wagtail continues to flit past the balcony each day, back and forth between its various watery feeding sites (the adjacent River Thames and several adjoining dock basins). We are also lucky to see many other breeds of birds in this area - although, somewhat worryingly, far fewer songbirds generally this autumn than in most other years ... and sadly very few actually visiting us ... back to that coconut idea!!
    PPS - Purely incidentally, even in the cold, damp grey weather again covering London today - our California poppy plants produced a new joyful bloom and are happily growing afresh! There are also still surprising numbers of bees and wasps etc active around here (and even the occasional passing Red Admiral butterfly) so I'm hoping for a visit or two ... and we always have loads of fast-fattening spiders (with their wonderful webs) busy amongst the plants!


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