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Autumn bird migration news: Full of eastern promise

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Nick Moran & Paul Stancliffe (BTO) Nick Moran & Paul Stancliffe (BTO) | 22:34 UK time, Wednesday, 12 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 hawfinch, arriving this week © Edmund Fellowes/BTO

Strong westerly winds have dominated the weather this week. As a consequence songbird migration has been very slow. The strong winds did, however, blow Leach's petrels into coastal waters along the west coast. Reasonable numbers were seen at several locations - particularly in the northwest - over the weekend.

When the wind has dropped slightly birds have taken the opportunity to move. With the majority of the swallows having left already it's been the finches that have been the most obvious and of these the goldfinch has lead the way, 1,325 moved south over Spurn in East Yorkshire, on Monday.


The fieldfare: a herald of autumn © John Harding/BTO

These finch movements have included a smaller number of linnets, redpolls, siskins, the first few bramblings and, of particular note, crossbills and a handful of hawfinches. Judging by the rise in the number of these birds spotted on the east coast, these are like to have an origin further north and east of the UK. [Editor's note: Autumnwatch was at Spurn in full force earlier this week. Watch Friday's show to see why it's such a Mecca for bird lovers.]

House martins now dominate the hirundine movement. As the winds drop over the next few days we should see a big exodus of this species.

The last few days has also seen the arrival of more redwings and a smaller number of fieldfares. No doubt this is a result of the conditions that also brought the hawfinches and crossbills. The thrushes have been very quick to push inland and many counties have recorded their first of the autumn in the last few days.

What to look out for this weekend

The wind is due to turn south and southeasterly over the weekend. While it will be moderate in the south, it's going to be quite strong in the north. This will mean that it could be quiet few days on the wildfowl front but we could see the first large influx of winter thrushes, goldcrests and the first movement of woodcock, particularly on the east coast.

Question of the week: Why do birds sing in autumn?

It might seem illogical for birds to sing in autumn; after all, very few of our songbirds will be nest- building or egg-laying over the next four months or so, so why would males bother trying to attract attention now? There are, however, some interesting ecological and physiological explanations.

robin singing

Why do robins sing in the autumn? © Jill Pakenham/BTO

Some species, like robins, sing to establish and defend winter territories. This ensures that individuals have somewhere to feed during the difficult months ahead, and are in the best possible condition come the start of the breeding season. From a physiological perspective, it seems that the post-breeding moult of some of our songbirds, such as starlings, causes increased testosterone levels, which may in turn trigger autumnal singing.

This effectively means that autumn is the start of the breeding season for these species, but inclement weather and shortening day-length then suppress further breeding activity until spring. Research into autumn-singing robins, however, suggests that their testosterone levels are not particularly high at this time of year, so testosterone is not the only answer. Furthermore, autumn robin song is quieter and of a different quality to that of spring.

A number of migratory and flocking species also sing in the autumn. There is even some evidence that female and juvenile birds of some migratory species also sing at this time. One possible explanation is that these birds are singing to maintain social status within the flock. A weak, quiet song, termed 'subsong', can also be given by lone migrants; its role isn't entirely clear but could be part of the song-learning process for young males, prior to their first breeding season the following spring.

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


  • Comment number 1.

    Interesting comment about the robin. By coincidence, I heard two robins singing this morning shortly after 7.00 am. One from the tree at the end of my garden and one from two or three gardens further down. It was basically a call and response thing and I assume they were giving each other a gentle warning of their territorial presence. The song was, as you say, fairly quiet but melodic. I'm a relatively new bird watcher, but from my observations robins seem to go through three post-breeding stages: (i) during the summer they moult, go quiet and act rather furtively if you spot them in bushes etc; (ii) then they make a comeback with the warning call which always sounds to me like a (pre-digital) clock being wound up. I've heard plenty of those calls in the last few weeks; (iii) then during the first month of autumn, they venture into song, albeit rather subdued. Is that roughly accurate?

  • Comment number 2.

    i saw ten house-martins yesterday twelth of october in catforth preston i thought they should have gone by now

  • Comment number 3.

    I noticed the Fieldfares showing up at the bottom of the garden I live in Angus Scotland. I also have 4 Tree Sparrows back at the feeder and two of them look like young ones? Last week there were two Wheatear in the field beside me. My robins are in full song there are two of them in the garden they eat one at the feeder the other on the ground.

  • Comment number 4.

    I had a walk around my local pond last week and noticed a female Mallard sat on the island and she looked to be laying very flat and at first glance i thought she was lame or injured, she did not move for several hours and as it was getting dark i left her alone, I visited the pond again the next day and noticed she was no longer there, on closer inspection i saw her again in the longer grass and to my suprise she was tendering to 11 yes 11 baby chicks a day old, I have never seen Mallard chicks this late on the pond having lived locally for 32 years, Does any know if this is common or is this a one off. The male was no were to be seen

  • Comment number 5.

    we saw our first swallow for at least 2 months this afternoon, just outside Settle, North Yorkshire - is this the first of summer or the last?

  • Comment number 6.

    im not sure wat birds i have but do have birds comin to feed in my garden would love to no wat kind of habittat rinbins like as i have never seen one only on tv

  • Comment number 7.

    i saw about 40 swallows this morning flying over sherwood forest near mansfield, should they still be here.
    Great show best program on tele.
    Terry Reid

  • Comment number 8.

    wat birds would i find in my garden have a bird table have a few small birds not sure wat they r can anyone help me love the show


  • Comment number 9.

    Friends of ours witnessed two Red Kites kill a blackbird and take it away. Never known them kill before - is this normal?

  • Comment number 10.

    We have just seen hundreds of what sounded like geese flying north ish accross selly oak in birmingham, can you tell us what they might be as it surprised us as its quite dark. Emma and Andy.

  • Comment number 11.

    I saw a redwing a few days ago in Norfolk, sadly no shot as very nervous!

  • Comment number 12.

    A Grey Wagtail visited our garden yesterday - a first. Are they common in the Midlands?

  • Comment number 13.

    Also the Goldfincehes are gathering in larger groups, last year It was a wonderful sight over the autumn/winter and the Tits are grouping together more now.

  • Comment number 14.

    My parents in West Sussex have had a visit from a purple heron for the third year running - where does it come from and where does he/she go to?
    PS. Can we have more stoats on Autumnwatch?! :)

  • Comment number 15.

    We saw several long-tailed tits

  • Comment number 16.

    30 Fieldfare over Halesowen this morning (14/10/11) heading in a SE direction also Hummingbird Hawk Moth in the garden at 09:00 yesterday morning feeding on geranium flowers.

  • Comment number 17.

    I saw and heard about 10 redwings feeding on berries around Loch Affric yesterday. Lovely to see :)

  • Comment number 18.

    Still no starlings in my garden or my residents that nest in roof first time in 8 years that they have gone is this a sence of a bad winter

  • Comment number 19.

    Also we saw our first red-wing today

  • Comment number 20.

    thurs 13th oct 12 red wings were seen eating my holly berriers in the garden mid morning, at st.albans herts, from linda lusby

  • Comment number 21.

    Today, we were telephoned by an excited neighbour who had spotted a large white bird in the field behind our house. Closer investigation, revealed it to be a White Stork, apparently feeding. We contacted our local RSPB centre at Fairburn Ings, who confirmed that a stork had been sighted in our area. Our village in North Yorks is surrounded by soggy arable farmland, intersected with water-filled dykes. Our identification book indicated that storks will be seen in this type of habitat in summer but on the continent. So why are we seeing it here at this time of year? Would love to know more.

  • Comment number 22.

    I spotted a Hoopoe in my garden on 18/09/11. I took 30 or photos and got some really clear ones. Very rare sight to see one up in the North East of Scotland. Lovely looking bird though. Was feeding for about 2 hours before some pigeons spooked it and it flew off.

  • Comment number 23.

    This afternoon I have been watching a Red Flanked Bluetail at Whitburn, Tyne & Wear Short Eared Owls coming in off the sea and a Yellow Browed Warbler.

  • Comment number 24.

    a sparrowhawk visited our garden around a week ago in south wales

  • Comment number 25.

    i saw a grey wagtail around my area in peckham

  • Comment number 26.

    My garden is absolutely chock a block with sparrows. Since neighbours chopped down beautiful old yew tree last month??? which i imagine kept many of them warm last winter and provided nests this spring I am totally inundated with them. My conifer hedge sounds like I have my very own finch aviary. Amazing Hope I have enough hedge to house and protect them all this winter.

  • Comment number 27.

    We had a pair of Gold Finches in our garden on 11th of May 2011. They were absolutely beautiful - we managed to take some photos

  • Comment number 28.

    Flock of redwing passed over this evening here in Alfreton Derbyshire

  • Comment number 29.

    Heavy movement of birds coming in along the Norfolk coast this weekend. Several Yellow-browed and Barred Warblers, Red-flanked Bluetails and at Warham Greens today a Rufous-tailed Robin.

  • Comment number 30.

    Early this morning on Embleton Beach in Northumberland, we saw a large flock of pink feet geese on the sand flats, there must have been approx 30 of them.

  • Comment number 31.

    two dozen swallows seen at caramel in the lake district this week, should they not have left long since?

  • Comment number 32.

    a - Barnacle Goose
    b - Eel
    c - Leatherback Turtle
    d - Manx Shearwater

  • Comment number 33.

    Re Goldfinches. I had a solitary goldfinch visit my garden in Carlisle three weeks ago looking for breakfast.

  • Comment number 34.

    100 plus Redwing arrived on the farm this evening at dusk Bibury Gloucestershire so chris you r right about the sightings this weekend

  • Comment number 35.

    Having just watched a little more of Autumn watch my sighting of pink feet geese on Embleton beach this morning, they could in fact have been barnacle geese. Any one better informed?

  • Comment number 36.

    Watched redwings pecking through the leaf litter in the garden and catching worms. Also saw a migrant blackcap finding and eating a large worm.

  • Comment number 37.

    Saw a flock of Redwings today- they were flying to and fro all day so I saw (and heard) them a few times. I live in South Yorkshire.

  • Comment number 38.

    To No.8 Leigh, I'd be happy to help you figure out what birds you have. I'm a female birdwatcher and I sort of help out with the BTO and RSPB. I also take photos of birds. I don't know how to contact you or reply to your question. If you only want help from the Autumnwatch guys then I won't bother. It would take time to figure them all out because obviously I can't see them. Tell me if you would like my help and I'll tell you my email address.
    Liz Gonzalez

  • Comment number 39.

    Saw a few Redwings/Redstarts and a large group of starlings around as the autumn sun was begin to rise, when I went on an early morning Kayaking this morning.

  • Comment number 40.

    Watched Autumnwatch last night and we were told to look out for redwings and fieldfares and sure enough I saw a flock of fieldfares this morning right on schedule. I am in South Warwickshire if that helps with records.

  • Comment number 41.

    I was interested to see the osprey feature with Roy Dennis on Autumwatch last night. Whilst on holiday near Nimes southern France in the last week of September I saw two ospreys flying along the River Gardon at the 2,000 year oldroman aqueduct Pont du Gard. This would be alot further inland than the Bay of Biscay.

  • Comment number 42.

    On the subject of Goldfinches we have had them all summer and they are still feeding on Niger seed now

  • Comment number 43.

    My wife and I were out walking along the Lenwade Marriott Way, Norwich, to day at 3:30pm when a flock of Redwings passed by at tree top height; it's the first time we have heard their flight whisper but what a treat

  • Comment number 44.

    Just yesterday morning I spotted some Redwing on the Holly bush just outside our house along the lower Bann in Northern Ireland. They are the first of visitors that I have spotted this autumn, though we may have a few extra Goldfinch in the back garden now but we have had them in our back garden since last winter on a daily basis. A couple of improvement's to the feeder setup has seen a lot more activity from the Finches and Tits over the last couple of weeks.

  • Comment number 45.

    At the WWT National Centre of Wales today, 1x Wryneck, 1x Great White Egret, 1x Swallow, this mild weather must be keeping these late swallows back, must be near the record of the latest swallow. Also numbers of wildfowl and small birds (thrushes and garden birds) increasing.

  • Comment number 46.

    I was walking at South Molten Sands & Thurlestone on the south Devon coast today and saw a huge flock of Fieldfares congregating on the telephone wires. As we drove back to Plymouth we witnessed numerous other flocks of Fieldfares. A real treat to behold!

  • Comment number 47.

    A woodcock in Wapping ..!!! Chris was right .. as ever!! Amazing! More later when time permits ... Best regards, TB and co.

  • Comment number 48.

    First snow bunting spotted in North Devon today.

  • Comment number 49.

    We go to southend reguarly to walk our dog and last time we watched canadian geese fly around the sea front. When will they leave?

  • Comment number 50.

    Today we saw flashes of red and gold flying around our garden it turned out that it 5 gold finhes. We thought we heard them earlier but what it there song like please ?

  • Comment number 51.

    sorry about spelling

  • Comment number 52.

    Malham Cove in The Yorkshire Dales early this morning. The resident Peregrines were both present, also spent some time watching a Green Woodpecker, they successfully bred there this year, a Dipper in the stream and a solitary Fieldfare calling from the top of an Ash tree. The Filedfare being the first I have seen this autumn.

  • Comment number 53.

    At 16:45 on Saturday (15th) I spotted a group of eight large birds of prey flying at several hundred feet followed almost immediately by a further seven. They were majestic in the clear sky with the sun illuminating them but what were they likely to be? Underwing was light in colour. This was on the coast on the Hampshire/Sussex border. Next land mass France, Spain?

  • Comment number 54.

    On Saturday 15/10/2011 i spotted 100+ redwing feeding up on Dartmoor , Devon

  • Comment number 55.

    On Friday 14th October my husband noticed a bird swimming round and round in circles first one way and then the other at Cudmore Grove Nature Park at West Mersea. On Sunday we found out from more experienced bird watchers that this was a Grey Phalarope which is quite rare inland. Unfortunately we did not see the two Black Ibis which had also been around at this time. Even for us novice twitters it was a great experience.

  • Comment number 56.

    On Thursday 13th October I was on the charter boat Prospector 111 out of Southwold Bass fishing over the Greater Gabbard sandbanks. The bird life was prolific, on the way out to Greater Gabbard a Storm Petrel was seen flying low over the water. We soon had a tired Redwing sitting on the Cabin roof. Panther - another Southwold charter boat fishing with us reported a Goldcrest on board - it actually went into the cabin. Not long after this a Redwing landed on one of the fishing rods and sat for over 5 minutes resting. We also had 3 Robins and a Brambling pay us a visit. Another Goldcrest landed a foot away from me on the side of the boat. During the day a Short Eared Owl was seen flying towards the UK shore. To top it all a Redwing tried to land on Panther but was so exhausted it hit the boat and dropped into the sea. Mark, the skipper, caught it in the landing net and put it in the cabin. This bird then sat quietly in the cabin all of the afternoon (even though the door was always open) and stayed in whilst Panther returned to Southwold Harbour. It left the boat when Mark moored up. It was a great day birdwatching (but a very poor day Bass fishing!!)

  • Comment number 57.

    I have just witnessed a sparrow hawk take a bird down to the ground with such grace and ease. I was close enough to see the yellow ring of the hawks eye while it was down on the ground. what an awesome sight, amazing!!

  • Comment number 58.

    Loads of redwings and some fieldfares in the grounds of Scone Palace today!

  • Comment number 59.

    Woodcock sighting
    I was out for a walk on the Begwyns near Hay on Wye in the Black Mountains. The hillside there is open and a shallow gradient. Grassy slopes with bracken that is now brown and dying back. The weather was bright clear and sunny a lovely day to be out.
    A bird fled out from the bracken as I approached it. I was quite close to where it was hiding. It was well hidden. I saw it just as it took off.
    Definately the size, shape and straight bill. If it wasn't a woodcock what was it? But I'm pretty sure it was one.

  • Comment number 60.

    granybarbara. On13th October a flock of around 30 Fieldfare landed in our garden in Clowne nr Chesterfield, fed on the different red berries for ten minutes then flew off.

  • Comment number 61.

    Today at 3pm, i saw a flock of Pink Footed Geese flying North to Strathbeg nature reserve.

  • Comment number 62.

    I spotted a single swallow today flying over Bristol at 4.20pm 17/10/2011.

  • Comment number 63.

    Last 2 mornings in our garden in Stafford have had 20+ Goldfinches on table, feeders, ground etc. They are regular visitors all year round but never as many as now.

  • Comment number 64.

    We have not had any Goldfinches until this year, in our garden near Selby, Yorkshire, when I fed niger seed for the first time. Had small numbers of adults and juveniles all through summer, increased durung the last 3 weeks have counted 30. Today 18 at one time, more agitated as if they need to feed more urgently. Because of impending bad weather?

  • Comment number 65.

    On a recent visit to Cornwall and walking along the coastal path near Crantock there were two Cornish Choughs feeding on the path. My 1st ever sighting in 50 years of birdwatching

  • Comment number 66.

    Red wings have arrived in North Cornwall over the weekend. Also had 4 Red Admirils and a Comma. Near by at Godreavy we counted over 100 Canada Geese and more were arriving. Very poor year for Painted Ladies, but our Grass hopper Warblers fleged well and sat sunning themselfs on our tin shed.
    Love the new girl on Autumnwatch but whats Kate up to??

  • Comment number 67.

    Have not seen a starling since late spring when they all left my garden - I have just seen about four small flocks all join up together to make a short but spectacular flying display over the river Camel just outside Wadebridge, Cornwall. I assume they have just come from somewhere for our winter, but where?

  • Comment number 68.

    I have noticed, over the last 4 or 5 days, that the geese that normally fly south for winter at this time are flying north. I have noticed about 6 or 7 flocks doing this - what is the reason for it, does anyone know?


  • Comment number 69.

    I haven't seen any migrating birds but, suddenly, my garden is full of greenfinches, blackbirds, chaffinches, bluetits, robin, great tit, wren and the ubiquitous woodpigeon. There have obviously been quite a few birds over the last few weeks as all the feeders have been emptied regularly, but, apart from seeing a little flock of long-tailed tits a few days ago, I haven't really noticed what's been going on - then this morning, all that activity - perhaps it's the strong winds have brought them in from the fields and woods around. I live in South Cambs.

  • Comment number 70.

    In mid Anglesey, Nth Wales, we are having Blue tits, Greenfinches, Great Tit, Chaffinch, Sparrows, and on a Daily basis we have a pair of Red-Legged Partridges, are these common on Anglesey, beautiful birds, feed off us with no problems, last week we had the full family of male, female, and smaller partridge, and been in the sticks we get a lot of Pheasants.

  • Comment number 71.

    Also have a Robin, and have had Geese flying over towards the Irish Sea this morning, and around 5ish this evening, flying back inland towards Mid Anglesey.

  • Comment number 72.

    Rare bird alert! Spotted a Tawny Pipit on Saturday afternoon near the Golden Cap on the Dorset coast.

  • Comment number 73.

    Young Osprey migrating spotted on our Rig 120 km east of Aberdeen.

    We ahve pic available, no visible tagging. May be on route to Africa ?

  • Comment number 74.

    Still seeing swallows down here in Cornwall. Three last evening at Chapel Point and one today whilst doing a dolphin survey at Black Head. Both sites in St Austell Bay.

  • Comment number 75.

    We saw three Whooper swans on our walk around Rother Valley Country Park near Sheffield today.


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