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 21 October 2011

Fair Isle mini blog: a great way to end the week

Our last day on Shetland saw dawn break under leaden skies and heavy rain. However, during breakfast the weather improved and by the time we were out in the field the rain had stopped and the even tried to come out. There was really only one thing we all wanted to do; to go back and see more of the Siberian Rubythroat.

So by 08.30 we back at the wonderful garden in Gulberwick that this mythical bird has chosen as a temporary home, again we were not disappointed but the bird was much harder to see today, this did however, give us time to check out the local area for migrants. It has to be said that by this time the wind had picked up and was blowing strongly from the south-west, ensuring that there was going to be no overhead migration. It did mean that there ought to be grounded migrants though and sure enough there was three Chiffchaff and half-a-dozen Goldcrest in the rubythroat garden that weren't there yesterday, and as we began to search it became clear that Redwings, Fieldfares and Blackbirds had also arrived in the light overnight wind and were unable to continue south in the now gale force southerlies.

We also heard that the situation was the same on Fair Isle, where there were no thrushes yesterday there were lots today. It also became clear that had we waited for our afternoon flight off the island today, we would still be there this evening, the wind had increased to such a strength it grounded the Fair Isle flights too.

We rounded off the day with a seawatch and were rewarded with the arrival of Little Auks and a small movement of Long-tailed Ducks, a great way to end a great week.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Fair Isle mini blog: gale force winds, snow showers and a birdrace

We awoke this morning to epic weather. The wind was blowing gale force 8-9 from the northwest, as if this wasn't bad enough there were frequent snow showers. We needed something to motivate us to get out in the field and do some birding; what we needed was a birdrace. So it was decided that the six of us would make up three teams of two. Andy Clements teamed up with Rick Goater, Nick Moran teamed up with John Marchant and Paul Stancliffe with Andy Mason. With the gauntlet cast and the rules decided (each member of the team had to see or hear every bird) we all headed off into the teeth of the storm.
It became immediately clear that despite the incredibly strong wind, Greylag Geese were on the move. Flocks of these garrulous birds were to become a feature of the day, with small skeins still going over at dusk. Flocks could be seen coming in over the sea, some stopping to rest on the island, whilst others continued on their way; all of them presumably fresh from Iceland.

Over the last few days, Redshank has been quite a scarce bird, however, this was not the case today. Redshank seemed to be everywhere around the crofts, with a single flock of seven birds in one small tatty-rig.

Beyond this, the conditions made finding birds very difficult and all three teams had a tough time. So how did it all finish. Andy Clement's team came first with 62 species, Nick Moran's team came second with 57 species and Paul Stancliffe's team came third with 54 species. All three teams had a great time in some of the wildest of weathers on one of the most remote of the british islands. Between us we managed 66 species - the wardens were impressed.
We also had a flavour of what might be, with the news of a male Siberian Rubythroat on Shetland, some thirty miles north of where we are. With the wind dropping overnight, we will be out in the field with renewed enthusiasm. There is a saying here; "If there's a rare bird on the mainland, there's something even better on Fair Isle." Tomorrow could be a very big day indeed".

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Fair Isle mini blog: or should that be the Shetland mini blog?

What a difference a day makes, at least weather-wise. After yesterday's gale force winds and wintry showers, today dawned still and sunny. So still in fact that the island wind generator came to a standstill.

So, after rushing breakfast, it was time to get out and chart today's migration and find that mega-rarity; remember, there is always something better on Fair Isle. We were all very excited about what today might bring, but it seems the summer-like conditions put migration on hold. Greylag geese were the only birds visibly migrating but in much smaller numbers than yesterday. The Fieldfares and Redwings all but moved out overnight and Brambling was a rare bird.

By lunchtime it was looking like the Siberian Rubythroat on mainland Shetland wasn't going to be eclipsed by anything on Fair Isle, at least today anyway. So on meeting back at the observatory for lunch, and having completed our migration counts, it was decided that if we could possibly get off Fair Isle for the Rubythroat today, we would. After a few telephone calls it was on, by 3.00pm we would be on Mainland Shetland and on our way to what if we saw it, would be a new british bird for all of us.

By 3.50pm the stunning male Siberian Rubythroat, the ninth for Britain, didn't disappoint. It hopped up onto a garden fence and took everyone's breath away.

So our change of plan will see us birding on mainland Shetland tomorrow, checking out the ditches and counting visible migrants. Will the last day bring us any more surprises? Only time will tell.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Fair Isle mini blog: Resplendent Great Northern Diver

This, our fifth day on the island has had the feel of the quietest day so far. The thrushes that arrived on Friday have largely moved off, continuing their migration further south. Brambling numbers have also fallen and there seemed to be little evidence of migration. However, between us we have pretty much covered the whole of the island, and even though it is approximately three miles long by one-and-a-half miles wide it is no mean feat.

Despite there being no real indication of migration, the Hen Harrier have doubled from two to four, along with the Short-eared Owls, rising from four to eight. A small flock of Barnacle Geese headed south and four Whooper Swans visited the island briefly.

The surprise of the day was a full summer plumaged Great Northern Diver giving close views in the harbour by the observatory.

So what of the mystery warbler from yesterday? Despite extensive searching, it has not been seen again. Unless it pops up again over the next day or so it will be the one that got away.

The forecast for tomorrow is for gale force north-westerly winds with some snow and hail. We will have to don several more layers and go in search of any arctic waifs that might get blown this way.

Andy Clements

Monday 17 October 2011

Fair Isle mini blog: rain, rare ducks and a mystery warbler

Early this morning we received news that the east coast was experiencing a huge finch movement, with Goldfinch being the most numerous, flocks of 2-300 birds were being recorded, with smaller numbers of Siskin, redpoll and Brambling, also on the move.

The news came just after breakfast and before we had ventured out into the field; would there be an arrival of finches here too. It seemed unlikely, the small trees in the observatory garden were almost horizontal and the rain was definitely horizontal. Whilst most us headed out into what felt like an epic storm, two of the group had risen before dawn and headed out to the south light for a seawatch (John Marchant and Nick Moran). They must have been feeling pretty miserable by the time we had seen our first bird, a male Gadwall (a very rare bird on Fair Isle), actually they had been invited into the lighthouse for tea and cake whilst the rest of us had the biggest soaking of our lives.

The rare duck theme continued throughout the morning with the arrival of a Pintail, a female Scaup and two Velvet Scoter, joining the Shoveler from yesterday on this auspicious list.

Rare birds are what most birders come to Fair Isle hoping to find, but for most of us today didn't quite feel like a day when one might be found (Andy Clements excepted, he predicted the finding of a good bird just after lunch). Just after lunch Andy's prediction was realised when an Olive-backed Pipit was found in the garden of a croft in the middle of the island. This beautiful pipit breeds no closer to Britain that central Siberia, spending the winter in India; a very special bird indeed.

The excitement didn't stop there. Mid-afternoon saw Paul Stancliffe on the trail of a very skulking warbler that had been seen briefly amongst some cabbages. It was seen twice in flight and once running on the ground beneath the cabbages, and even though it was seen by the five observers present, it defied identification. Something to look forward to tomorrow.

Paul Stancliffe

Sunday 16 October 2011

Skylark and Starling on the move

The north Norfolk coast at dawn is a magical place, particularly so in October. A favourite haunt at this time of the year is the narrow lane that runs from Kelling down to the sea. The thick hedgerows here have the potential to hold newly-arrived migrants and the occasional gaps in this berry-laden screen afford views over the surrounding fields. At the bottom of the lane things open up, a small expanse of water attracts waders and duck, while short cattle-grazed turf is great for wheatears, finches and buntings.

This morning looked promising, even though the wind had moved round and there had been clear skies overnight. The numbers of less common migrants reported along the coast over recent days, including dozens of Short-eared Owls, several Bluethroat and a Radde's Warbler, not to mention that Rufous-tailed Robin, were more than enough to give the local patch some added allure.

A tit flock feeding in the upper part of the lane held at least one Blackcap but there was no sign of of Chiffchaff or Goldcrest, both of which can be encountered here in numbers on some autumn days. What was particularly evident, however, was the large number of Starlings and Skylarks passing overhead. Small groups of Skylark peppered the soundscape with their calls, while the Starlings whooshed by on hundreds of noisy wings. Trailing off the back of one of the smaller Starling flocks were two Redwing.

The numbers of Chaffinches either passing overhead or dropping into the hedgerows also suggested a movement of some size, my highest count for the patch at any time of the year according to my BirdTrack records. There were also good numbers of Goldfinches, with fewer Greenfinch and no sign of the Linnet flock that had been engaging a fortnight ago.

While the pool held 28 Teal and 4 Snipe, it was the short-turf behind the sea wall that was busy with birds. Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails were here in reasonable numbers, feeding alongside Egyptian Geese and a solitary Little Egret that stalked the wetter ground. Also present were three Wheatears, still moving through from northern breeding grounds.

It did feel like things were on the moving, the crossover between summer (Wheatear and Blackcap) and winter (the arriving Starlings and Redwing), and this is one of the reasons why patch birding in autumn is so rewarding. The combination of your familiarity with the site, the sense of arrivals and departures, and the chance that something rare might be about to pop out of the bramble, make for exciting birdwatching.

39 species in total, not bad for a couple of hours on this particular patch.

Mike Toms

Fair Isle mini-blog: Migration waxes and wanes

Even though it is mid-October and migration is at its peak, there are still days when nothing much seems to be moving at all. That was definitely the case on Fair Isle today, with generally fewer birds around, or so it seemed. The Redwings and Fieldfare were confined to the south-west of the island and had dropped in number. Despite the lack of anything moving overhead, there were lots of Blackcaps on the island and a few more Chiffchaffs. Brambling numbers have definitely increased, with Andy Clements and Rick Goater finding a flock of twenty-six birds in a oat crop in the south of the island.

New birds found today, included a tailless Barred Warbler (perhaps the result of a close escape with a local cat), a Shoveler (a rare bird here) and two Iceland Gulls. Nick Moran also added a Sooty Shearwater during a dawn seawatch.

Searching the dykes was very much the order of the day, with all of us getting very wet feet. We have been told to be careful not to get trench foot. Perhaps dyke foot might be more appropriate.

The forecast for tomorrow is for strong south-westerly winds and heavy showers, maybe the change in the weather will mean a change in the birds.

Paul Stancliffe

Saturday 15 October 2011

Fair Isle mini blog: an unexpected rarity

We awoke this morning full of anticipation, there had definitely been an arrival of birds yesterday and there must be more to find. On getting out in the field though it immediately became clear that a lot of yesterdays birds had left overnnight, or at least the Fieldfare had, numbers were down by half. However, as we moved further away from the observatory it also became clear that Snipe were everywhere where you might expect Snipe to be, a big increase on yesterday, there also seemed to be more Skylark and, for the first time Brambling were feeding in double figures and Snow Bunting trebled. 

Whilst this is a sure indication that winter is just around the corner, there are still summer visitors to be seen. At least two Whinchat, a Whitethroat, three or four Chiffchaff, including a fantastic grey and white Siberian Chiffchaff, and a small number of Blackcaps and Wheatears still give a taste of summer.

New birds in have included a Grey Phalarope, a Yellowhammer, apparently rarer than Lanceolated Warbler here, half a dozen Crossbills, a couple of Common Rosefinches and three or four Short-eared Owls.

The wind this morning was blowing very strong from a southerly direction and by mid-afternoon it began to rain, quite heavily by late afternoon, curtailing any further determined searching.

The rarity value today came in the shape of yesterday's Bluethroat, which only showed to a third of the group (PAS and Andy Mason), if you don't count the Yellowhammer, which only showed to the same third of the group.

The forecast for tomorrow is mostly bright with a few showers, and the wind a brisk south-westerly. It feels like there are still birds to be found.

Andy Clements

Friday 14 October 2011

Fair Isle mini blog: an awesome reputation

We all arrived on Fair Isle this morning after a 6.30am start and a fruitless search for the Buff-bellied Pipit. On stepping from the plane we were immediately greeted by a ringtail Hen Harrier and a large number of Redwings and Fieldfares, apparently fresh in today. There had only been a small number of these winter thrushes here during the previous week, which shows that things are now happening.

For  most of the day today it has been difficult to contain our excitement; it is Fair Isle in mid-October after all! We are here to experience migration and we have not been disappointed. Both summer and winter migrants are present. A Whinchat shared a fence with three Brambling at the island shop and just up the road from here was our first Yellow-browed Warbler of the day. The nearest this sprite breeds to the UK is eastern Russia. Although it is mid-October there are still a few warblers about and we caught up with several Blackcaps, two Chiffchaffs and a Reed Warbler, but none of these could beat the Blyth's Reed Warbler that was trapped and ringed early afternoon.

While there is still a taste of summer, the winter visitors outnumber the summer migrants and we found a flock of fifty Snow Buntings, several small groups of Bramblings, one Short-eared Owl and experienced a small arrival of Woodcock.

So even though we are here to enjoy autumn migration, Fair Isle has an awesome reputation for rare birds and it upheld this today. Alongside the Blyth's Reed Warbler, Common Rosefinch, Bluethroat, Little Bunting and Olive-backed Pipit were all found, unsurprisingly given the wind has quite a bit of east in it, all these birds have an origin from that direction.

As darkness falls the wind is still in the east - what will tomorrow bring - no doubt even more excitement.

Andy Clements

Fair Isle mini-blog: The long road north

Several BTO staff are spending a few days on Fair Isle, hoping that the weather sends some interesting migrants their way.

Most of our first day was spent in the car, leaving Norfolk and 4.15am and arriving on Shetland at 3.00pm. That doesn't mean we didn't see any birds though. Soon after first light it became apparent that there was a major migration event unravelling. Flocks of Redwings were a constant feature from South Yorkshire to the Scottish border, along with smaller numbers of Fieldfares.

Once on Shetland we went in search of a Buff-bellied Pipit, a stray from North America. This was partly successful, in as much as a third of the party saw the bird (John Marchant and Paul Stancliffe).

The field that the bird was in, eventually, was also a magnet  for migrants. 12 Swallows hawked over it, four Bramblings fed with the local Twite, a Whinchat sat on the fencewire, 25 Redwings joined the 10 or so migrant Blackbirds, and 2 Goldcrests fed in the adjacent ditch, sharing it with 3 Jack Snipe. And then it got dark

Tomorrow we leave for Fair Isle, weather willing. There is a strong southerly wind at the moment and it is around 9 degrees.

Paul Stancliffe

Here come the nomads

Over the last few days we have seen an arrival of Short-eared Owls at many East Coast sites, suggesting these are birds arriving from elsewhere in Europe. We receive a substantial influx of Short-eared Owls most autumns, with numbers increasing from August through to November. Information gleaned from ringed individuals suggests that many of these birds will be from Finland, Norway, Sweden and the Low Countries. Interestingly, the BTO ringing database also holds records of one from Iceland and one to the Faeroes, highlighting the wider origins of some birds.

Wintering Short-eared Owl, by Amy Lewis

Short-eared Owls have a reputation for being wanderers, avian nomads that seek out the opportunities offered by prey populations whose numbers can change dramatically from one year to the next. This nomadic behaviour is not restricted to the autumn and winter but can also be seen in breeding birds. The numbers breeding on favoured moorland sites across northern Britain may vary considerably between years as the birds respond to the availability of small mammal prey, particularly Field (or Short-tailed) Voles.

Birds that breed on our moorland will move to lower ground come autumn, favouring downland, rough grazing land and coastal marshes, where they may mix with individuals that have arrived from further afield. Some of our breeding Short-eared Owls will themselves make a sea-crossing, choosing to winter in France and Spain, again highlighting the fluid nature of this wandering owl.

Thursday 13 October 2011

East meets west

Most of the focus during the early part of the week was in the west, with Leach’s Petrels being the stars of the show, good numbers of which moved down the west coast in stormy conditions. Now that the wind in the North Sea has dropped the migratory focus has switched the east.  
Goldfinches have dominated, with some impressive day counts at migration watchpoints. At this stage of the autumn it is the finch movement that will be most obvious, and this has been very much the case over the last couple of days. Linnets, Redpolls, Siskins, Crossbills, Bramblings and a small number of Hawfinches have all been in evidence, particularly on the east coast. Some of these finches will move into gardens in search of food as the wetter conditions cause the pine and alder cones to close, making the seeds difficult to access, others will continue on their journey south and could also provide a visible migration spectacular on the south coast.
Linnet by Jill Pakenham

Flocks of Redwings and smaller numbers of Fieldfare have also begun arriving with these birds moving inland very quickly in search of food, so garden birdwatchers will also be able to see this migration in action. Goldcrests have also been a feature of the last day or so.
With the wind forecast to turn south and south-easterly for the weekend, we can expect a migration spectacle. The winter thrushes should arrive in large numbers and most of us should catch-up with our first birds of the autumn. The finches will be on the move and more Goldcrests, along with a few Woodcock should feature.

Woodcock by Herbert and Howells

The east coast will be the place to be, particularly on Saturday, and the vanguard of this movement has already begun. Double figures of Short-eared Owl have arrived on the Norfolk/Suffolk coast today, and flocks of Crossbills have been moving overhead.
Light rain on Sunday could result in the first falls of the autumn, with the east coast again being the place to be, but with thrushes on the move and finches turning up in gardens there is the promise of something for all in what could be the biggest movement of birds of the autumn so far.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Migrants not fooled by the heat

The unseasonably hot weather coupled with southerly winds has made for interesting times. The last few days have felt more like August than September/October, at least here in East Anglia, and it is easy to think that migrant birds feel the same. Visible migration has been quiet, with the large movements of Swallows and pipits of the previous week largely absent. However, this doesn't mean that the birds have been lulled into a false sense of security and have stopped moving; far from it. Where migrants have been visible there have still been relatively good numbers of both of these, along with finches, but for those of us birding under clear blue skies these are almost impossible to see as they will be migrating at a greater height than they would under less opportune conditions.
Redwing by Jill Pakenham

So, what has been happening? Swallow numbers have been much reduced, which is to be expected at this time in the season, the majority having already departed the country. However, as the Swallow numbers fall the House Martin numbers are growing as these wonderful birds now begin to get a move on. There have been good numbers of wagtails on the move, predominantly Pied, or to be correct, ‘alba’ wagtails; Pied and White Wagtails are very difficult to separate with fly-over views, and the first real autumn movement of Skylarks has also begun.
The Northern Isles received their first fall of winter thrushes, hard to imagine when the temperature in the south is 29°C; over a thousand Redwings arrived on Fair Isle on Saturday alone. Goose numbers continue to build, with some flocks of Pink-footed Geese in the low hundreds recorded over the weekend. Ducks have also started to arrive with some impressive movements of Wigeon, also over the weekend.

Glossy Ibis by Edward Charles Photography

As was to be expected with the warm southerly airflow, birds from that direction arrived, and the first of the now annual flocks of Glossy Ibis turned up; seven were found together on the Isle of White, with three settling nearby on Stanpit Marsh, Dorset, and a flock of eleven were seen at Courtmacsherry, Cork.
Just when it seemed that things were quietening down from the west, the Sandhill Crane from North America, possibly a left-over from Hurricane Katia, decided to leave its temporary home in Aberdeenshire and become the first ever of its species to be seen in England. Previously there have been two records in Shetland and one in Ireland, the latter in 1805. This sudden appearance south of the border, and not too far from the BTO headquarters, prompted a good number of BTO staff to abandon their Sunday lunchtime activities in favour of a mega-twitch.

Sandhill Crane by Andy Mason

With the end of the heat-wave and the return to strong westerly gales forecast to hit the north of the country on Saturday, there could be another arrival of birds from North America with the Northern Isles being the place to be.