BTO migration blog

Spring and autumn are exciting times for anyone who watches birds. Here on this blog we will make predictions about when to expect migrant arrivals and departures, so that you know when and where to see these well-travelled birds.

Friday, 26 September 2014

East meets West

After almost a month of easterly airflow that resulted in and amazing autumn for visible migration and the arrival of large numbers of scarce migrants along the east coast, the winds became westerly earlier this week, and as if by magic a Red-eyed Vireo  was found in the garden of the Sumburgh Hotel at the southern tip of Mainland, Shetland.  The first Semi-palmated Sandpiper of the autumn added to the westerly feel of around twenty Pectoral Sandpipers and up to half-a-dozen Buff-breasted Sandpipers.

Red-eyed Vireo by Joe Pender

However, it was still scarce migrants from the east that dominated and Wrynecks and Red-breasted Flycatchers continued to arrive, along with the first multiple arrival of Bluethroats, however, these were just the supporting cast for Britain’s third ever Masked Shrike that was found at Spurn, East Yorkshire on 20 September, overshadowing the Pechora Pipit on Mainland Shetland and the Lanceolated Warbler on Fair Isle.

Common migrants continued to arrive in force but as numbers of Whinchats began to fall during the week, Stonechats began to rise. Stonechat migration tends to peak around a month later than Whinchat, so there are plenty more of them to come yet. The first real movement of Linnets began mid-week joining the increasing number of Siskins on the move, and hirundines continued to pour out of the country but as is to be expected, in lower numbers than the last couple of weeks.

BirdTrack reporting rates for Whinchat (top) and Stonechat (Bottom)

It is a sure sign that autumn is moving on apace when the first Reed Bunting movement of the autumn occurs, 50 grounded on Hengistbury Head, Dorset and 65 at Spurn on 23 September give a flavour of things to come. Alba Wagtail (Pied and White Wagtails are difficult to separate on fly-over views so are often lumped as Alba’s) is also a late September migrant and records of these picked-up this week too.

So, what does the weather promise this week? It is going to be a game of two halves, at least until early next week, where there will be westerly airflow in the north, strong at times, and very light south-easterly airflow in the south. So from the Humber north, we might see a few more American waders, and possibly the odd landbird – historically, late September has turned up a few North American wood warblers. South of the Humber we can probably expect a few more scarce migrants from the east, which might include Red-flanked Bluetail and the odd Bluethroat. Late September is also a good time for the arrival of Short-eared Owl and Great Grey Shrike.

Friday, 19 September 2014

House Martins head off.

With easterlies still dominating it is hardly surprising that birds from the east have dominated too. Two species have occurred in exceptional numbers during the week, with around ninety Red-breasted Flycatchers reported and a similar number of Yellow-browed Warblers, with at least nine on Fair Isle, Shetland on 16 September.

Yellow-browed Warbler by Joe Graham

Common migrants were also drifted across the North Sea and there have been good numbers of grounded Pied Flycatchers, Redstarts and Whinchats, and Wheatear numbers have begun to increase. Swallows and House Martins have taken advantage of the light easterly winds and have poured out of the country. During the week, visible migration watchers at Hengistbury Head, Dorset, recorded over 26,000 Swallows and over 38,000 House Martins moving through the site.
The latter half of the week saw a few Redwings and Fieldfares arrive but these were outnumbered by Song Thrushes, although the number of thrushes on the move was small in comparison to the hirundines and Meadow Pipits.

Finches have also started to move, with small flocks of Siskins moving along the east and south coast although we will have to wait until later in the month before they, and other finches begin to move in any number. Compare the two BirdTrack graphs below for Siskin and Chaffinch and note how Chaffinch observations begin to rise later than Siskin.

BirdTrack reporting rate for Siskin

BirdTrack reporting rate for Chaffinch

The winds are forecast to turn northerly through the latter part of the weekend and then westerly and south-westerly during the early part of next week. However, irrespective of the direction they are forecast to be relatively light. Birds will take advantage of this and continue to move but we should see a shift in the species composition. Hirundine numbers are likely to be less impressive but Wheatear  and Robin ought to increase. We could also see Redwing becoming more widespread and who knows, they might bring something else with them.

Friday, 12 September 2014

It could be a big weekend.

With high pressure on the continent and low cloud over much of the UK for periods of time last week, a good visible migration showing was always going to be on the cards. It was with great anticipation of the spectacle that was to unfold that myself and BTO colleague Ieuan Evans made our way to the Spurn Migration Festival this weekend, and we weren’t to be disappointed.

Thousands, well over a thousand anyway, Meadow Pipits made their way south along the Spurn Peninsula, joined by hundreds of Swallows and House Martins, with a smaller showing of Sand Martins and a single Swift with them.

Whinchat by Mike Weston

Of the grounded migrants, Whinchats seemed to be everywhere, as did Yellow Wagtails. Spotted and Pied Flycatchers occasionally shared the same lookout perch, and the odd Redstart added a splash of colour. Warblers were well represented, Whitethroats, Lesser Whitethroats, Blackcaps, Garden Warblers, Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs frequented the many hedges that criss-cross Spurn, along with a small number of Sedge and Reed Warblers.

Wryneck by Jill Pakenham

Scarce migrants were found too; at least three very showy Wrynecks were around, along with two or three Barred Warblers. Although the conditions weren’t ideal for a good seabird passage, a small number of Arctic Skuas, Sandwich and Common TernsRed-throated Divers and Gannets were on the move. However, top-billing went to the juvenile Long-tailed Skua that flew north along the beach.

So, was this a fair representation of what was happening at other migration watchpoints? Well, pretty much. Meadow Pipit migration is well underway (the BirdTrack graph shows this well), large numbers of hirundines were seen during visible migration watches on the south coast, and unprecedented numbers of Blackcaps moved through the western half of the country. There were lots of chances to catch up with Wryneck and Barred Warbler around the country, and in some east coast locations these were joined by the odd Red-backed Shrike.

BirdTrack Meadow Pipit graph

With mid September looming, the start of the peak migration period – mid September to mid October – what is on the cards for the next week? High-pressure is forecast to extend from southern Britain to northern Scandinavia, with resulting light easterly airflow. This means more of the same but it could be even more spectacular with large numbers of birds on the move. Pipits and hirundines will dominate again but we could see an increase in Wheatears and Skylarks joining in. The timing is also good for Honey-buzzards to be drifted out across the North Sea too. On the scarce migrant front, Red-backed Shrikes might outnumber Barred Warblers, and we could see a few Common Rosefinches, Icterine Warblers and the odd Bluethroat. On the rarity front, Great Snipe has to be favourite. The east coast has to be the place to be this weekend, my personal choice of venue being Blakeney Point, Norfolk.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Warblers, wagtails and a Wryneck

With easterly airflow dominating this week migration has stepped-up a gear. Good movements of Pied Flycatcher, Swallow, Chiffchaff, Whitethroat, Yellow Wagtail and Tree Pipit have been seen at several coastal watchpoints; over 3,000 Swallows moved through Hengistbury Head, Dorset, on the 2nd September alone.

BirdTrack graph showing the Autumn increase in records

From the east, Wryneck topped the bill, over a hundred were reported, from the Isles of Scilly to Shetland. Other eastern delights included up to 10 Greenish Warblers,  around forty Barred Warblers and four Citrine Wagtails. Below is a link to video footage of a Wryneck that frequented a garden in Spalding, Lincolnshire.

Wryneck by Jill Pakenham

Out in the north Sea, things were a little quiet, although a single Sparrowhawk, 3 Garden Warblers, 1 Pied Flycatcher, 2 Redstarts and2 Meadow Pipits did visit the research vessel that is stationed in the Dutch sector of the southern North Sea.

With the weather looking a little unsettled for the early part of the weekend, and high pressure building for the early part of next week we could be looking at more of the same for next week, although the numbers of common migrants on the move could increase dramatically. We can look forward to more Meadow Pipits and Yellow Wagtails, a big increase in the hirundine movement, Wheatears turning up in odd places; whilst offshore, terns and skuas are well worth looking out for.

For those attending the Spurn Migration Festival (, the BTO will have a stand and be taking part in migration walks and talks, it is also looking very promising for some good visible migration – see you there.