A guide to migration hotspots in the UK

A flock of geese in flight (c) Nigel Pye

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As the temperature changes and harsher weather kicks in, it means the beginning of autumn migration for UK wildlife.

Around 17 million birds use the UK for migration, either feeding as they pass through or arriving here from the north to spend the winter.

Headlands are the best places to spot passing migrants and the coastlines around estuaries are often aflutter with migrants feeding on molluscs, worms and crustaceans in the intertidal zones.

These are the UK hotspots for watching migrants.

Migration madness

Eels
England
  • Portland Bill

Portland Bill is often the last landfall that migrating birds see before heading off to mainland Europe or Africa. Radipole Lake nature reserve is very close by. All sorts of birds from great skuas and shearwaters, spoonbills and sanderlings, to wheatear and ortolan bunting have been spotted here, fattening up before heading off to warmer climes.

Migrating butterflies and moths pass through here too, and in recent years they have had all manner of visitors. Look out for painted lady butterflies and delicate silver-striped hawk moths.

  • Poole Harbour

Poole Harbour is the second biggest natural harbour in the world, with a vast stretch of coastline and several unspoilt islands including the famous Brownsea Island. In winter the harbour is home to almost 30,000 birds from the Arctic and Europe. One of the best ways to see them is by boat. It is a nationally important area for black-tailed godwits that are in decline. It is also possible to spot brent geese arriving from Russia.

Osprey with fish Ospreys stock up on fish before migrating to Africa

The reedbeds at Arne are a great place to spot ospreys fishing as they stock up for their autumn migration to Africa. The large intertidal area of mud and sand around the harbour provides a great feeding ground for migrants, because it is rich in shellfish and lugworms. At high tide look out for waders such as avocets that have been forced up onto the mud banks and into Brownsea lagoon. They will have flown in from Canada and Greenland.

  • Spurn Head

Spurn Head is a narrow spit of land which reaches out for 3½ miles across the mouth of the Humber estuary. It is made up of sand and shingle washed down the coast. Mud flats that have formed on the landward side of the spit are perfect feeding grounds for passing birds, so Spurn Head has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

On good days 15,000 birds can be seen flying past and some days there can be many more. Look out for arctic, sandwich and common terns, knots, shearwaters and gannets.

  • Isles of Scilly

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One of the best places in Britain to see rare exotic species.”

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Twenty eight miles south-west of the mainland, the Scilly Isles have no less than 26 SSSIs. The archipelago is made up of around 140 islands and islets with a unique microclimate due to the warming affect of the sea and high exposure to Atlantic winds. The climate support diverse flora and fauna that are often rare on the mainland, and this in turn attracts rarer bird species.

Scilly is an important staging post for migrating birds and is one of the best places in Britain to see rare exotic species that have been blown off course. In particular there have been sightings of red-eyed vireo visiting in recent years.

Scotland
  • River Tweed

The River Tweed marks the border of Scotland and England on the east coast and is one of the UK's best places to see migrating Atlantic salmon.

The Tweed is 98 miles long but the salmon are visible from just a few miles upstream. The best place to see them however, is at the river Ettrick tributary where the Philiphaugh Salmon Viewing Centre has set up a viewing point with live feeds from underwater cameras. The best time to see salmon jumping is after a dry period followed by heavy rain, in October and November.

A mute swan The UK's second largest mute swan colony is found on the Tweed estuary in autumn

The Tweed estuary is also a great place for migrants. It hosts the UK's second largest mute swan colony in early autumn, with up to 800 birds gathering before they head off for the winter. Other migrants such as red-throated divers also overwinter here.

  • Isle of Skye

Skye is ideal for birdwatching as the diverse landscape provides habitats for many different species. Golden and white-tailed sea eagles can be spotted as easily as shearwaters and petrels.

The sheltered east side of the island provides good feeding grounds for migrant waders passing through, and other species arriving in large numbers to overwinter off shore, such as great northern divers and Slavonian grebes.

The island also sees huge flocks of guillemots, razorbills and Manx shearwater in autumn as they prepare to head south for the winter.

Check out this extensive birding guide to the Island of Skye.

Wales
  • Bardsey island

Bardsey and the Llyn Peninsula are recognised for their outstanding wildlife. All manner of migrants move through here and local observations have been used to show that changes in swallow migration dates are related to the effects of climate change.

A manx shearwater Bardsey is a stronghold for Manx shearwater

Bardsey is a stronghold for breeding Manx shearwater that can be seen in colonies of up to 16,000 birds. In autumn they will migrate to South America and can be seen from the coasts of the mainland.

Regular visiting migrants include pied and spotted flycatchers, warblers, wagtails, thrushes and finches and there are especially large arrivals of willow warbler, chiffchaff and goldcrest in the autumn.

Autumn is also a great time to watch grey seals pupping on Bardsey.

Visit the Bardsey Bird and Field Observatory for more information.

  • Ynys-Hir

Ynys-Hir is a reserve made up of salt marshes, grassland and woodland and offers a spectacular vantage point across the Dyfi estuary.

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There are only 60 left and the population is ageing so you may not have long left to see them!”

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Autumn sees thousands of curlews and other waders refuelling in the estuary for their migration, but Ynys-Hir is probably best known as the gathering place for the Greenland race of white-fronted geese. It's their only regular wintering site in Wales and England and they are suffering badly from being outcompeted at their breeding grounds by Canada geese. There are now only about 60 individuals left in the Greenland race (less than half the population of three years ago) and the returning population is ageing so they may not be seen here much longer.

Thousands of ducks such as wigeon and teal also overwinter here and the reserve also has many species of dragonfly and butterfly.

  • Skomer
Canada geese skein over Skomer Canada geese skein over Skomer

About a mile off the the south-west coast of Pembrokeshire, Skomer is another hotspot for breeding Manx shearwater and is a nationally important breeding site for its puffin colony. Around 6,000 pairs of puffins breed here and about 120,000 Manx shearwater pairs, possibly making it the largest Manx shearwater colony in the world.

Other migrants such as black storks, tawny pipits, skylarks and golden orioles can be seen here too, and thousands of sea birds hang around the cliffs such as fulmar, Canada geese and great black-backed gulls.

Northern Ireland
  • Strangford Lough

Strangford Lough has a diverse mix of habitats supporting a variety of marine life, which in turn attract huge flocks of overwintering birds. In particular, the mud flats and sand flats at the North End shores and around Castle Espie are rich in worms, molluscs and crustaceans, making them perfect feeding ground for birds fuelling up to survive the winter or indeed to continue their vast migrations.

Look out for the arrival of light-bellied brent geese in autumn, returning from their breeding grounds in the Arctic and Canada. Almost the entire world population is thought to overwinter around the loughs of Northern Ireland, some 30,000 birds. Brent geese, knot, bar-tailed godwit and terns will also arrive in the autumn months to spend the winter here.

  • Lough Beg

Lough Beg is situated just north of the larger Lough Neagh. The area has many nature reserves that are all carefully managed for wetland wildlife, making it a haven for migrating and resident species alike.

Whooper swans Whooper swans arrive in Lough Beg in October from Iceland

Mid-October sees the arrival of whooper swans in Lough beg from their Iceland summer grounds. The birds congregate at freshwater roosts at night and disperse to feed in the day. The abundance of food means that a range of species co-exist in this habitat and the area also sees greylag geese, greenshank, wigeon and white-fronted geese.

To see migrating birds up close or to learn more about migration head to your nearest RSPB or WWT reserve.

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