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.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Autumn migration 2011

With migration pretty much over, now is the time to reflect on what kind of autumn it has been. An autumn is often defined by the number of rare and scarce migrants that are found in the UK and as such this autumn will probably go down as one of the best ever. However, for those that observe the visible migration of common migrants, this autumn didn't disappoint either.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper by Joe Pender

Mid to late September saw two hurricanes sweep across the Atlantic, bringing North American waders and landbirds with them, a flock of 26 Buff-breasted Sandpipers gathered at Tacumshin, Wexford, on the 27th, whilst on the Isle of Scilly an early Red-eyed Vireo was joined by Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler and Baltimore Oriole.

Red-eyed Vireo by Joe Pender

After the storm came the calm, and with high pressure stretching all the way from the UK to North Africa, and the resulting light winds during early October, our departing summer visitors were provided with ideal conditions to move. Large numbers of hirundines, warblers, finches, chats and flycatchers were reported at coastal watchpoints, with records being broken at many sites. By the 4th 76,000 Meadow Pipits had been counted flying south at Spurn Point.

From the middle of October the wind turned more easterly and continued to come from this direction on and off through to the end of the month. Large numbers of finches, thrushes and geese began arriving but the most notable feature was the arrival of Short-eared Owls on the east coast. Fifty were seen to come in off the sea at Titchwell, Norfolk, on the 13th.

Short-eared Owl by Mark R Taylor

As September started, October finished, with some mouth-watering rarities from the east and west being found. It all kicked off on the 1st when Britain’s fourth Siberian Blue Robin was found dead on Foula, Shetland. The rest of the month saw the second Eastern-crowned Warbler, second Rufous-tailed Robin, fifth Ovenbird, the ninth Siberian Rubythroat and ninth and tenth Scarlet Tanager.

Whilst all this was happening, visible migration watchers were also kept busy as the finches just kept coming. Large numbers of finches continued to move throughout October, mainly involving Goldfinches, Linnets, Siskins and Redpolls, with a smaller but significant movement of Crossbills.

Barnacle Goose by Jill Pakenham

As October gave way to November, geese became the highlight as Pink-footed, Greylag, White-fronted, Tundra Bean, Barnacle and Brent geese arrived in force, check out the BTO identification workshop for tips on how to separate grey geese in flight Waxwings provided the first hint of what might turn out to be another Waxwing winter; around two to three hundred arrived in early November.

Waxwing by Andy Mason

The unseasonable temperatures may well have contributed to an impressive array of summer migrants lingering into November. Swallows, House Martins, two or three Redstarts, a Pied Flycatcher, a Nightingale, several Lesser and Common Whitethroats, at least half-a-dozen Willow Warblers, good numbers of Wheatears, and around thirty records of Swift, both Common and the much rarer Pallid were all still here.

Wheatear by Andy Mason

As for the rarities, they keep coming too. The last week has seen Blackpoll Warbler, Greater Yellowlegs, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and at the time of writing, there is a Veery on the island of Muck, Highland.

And, it’s not over yet. As the temperatures fall in Eastern Europe and Western Russia, we should see more of our winter visitors arrive, escaping the cold for the relative warmth of a British winter, birds like the Bewick’s Swan, Pochard, Goldeneye and Smew, along with more geese and thrushes.

Bewick's Swans by Andy Mason

This week sees the 10th Conference of Parties of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), in Bergen. Populations of long-distance migratory landbirds are rapidly declining in the African-Eurasian flyway. Between 1995 and 2008, the populations of four summer-visiting birds declined by more than half, Turtle Dove(–70%); Wood Warbler(–61%); Nightingale(–53%); and Yellow Wagtail(–52%), and during the last twenty-five years we have lost over half of our breeding Cuckoos too. For more on what the BTO is doing in Africa and it’s work on Cuckoos click on the links.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

It's far from over yet!

With the wind having a small amount of east in it on Friday afternoon (and through to at least lunchtime on Saturday), in the south-east and East Anglia at least, it was looking good for birds to arrive from across the North Sea and from further east. We were not to be disappointed.

Linnet by Jill Pakenham

Saturday morning saw a good arrival of Fieldfares, with flocks of over 1,000 birds recorded at some localities. These were accompanied by smaller numbers of Redwings and finches, mainly Linnets, Chaffinches and Goldfinches. We will have to wait a bit longer to see if this winter will be a Brambling winter; so far only a small number have arrived.

There are still a few Swallows and House Martins around, and both species were recorded on migration watches on the east coast this weekend,heading south of course.

Eastern Crowned Warbler by Mike Beatley

Although we were expecting birds from the east this weekend, it was the rarities that grabbed the headlines with the multiple arrival of Pallas’s and Yellow-browed Warblers. At least eleven of the former and around thirty of the latter were found between Shetland and Scilly. A Steppe Grey-Shrike also turned up in Shropshire but is was Hertfordshire that set rarity hunters pulses racing with the appearance in a mist net of Britain’s second ever Eastern Crowned Warbler. Sadly, upon release this bird was not seen again. Eastern Crowned Warbler breeds from eastern Siberia through to south-eastern China, Korea and Japan, and winters in south-east Asia south to Indonesia.

With the wind set to turn easterly again from mid-week we could be in for another busy weekend. With light north-easterlies forecast for Saturday Woodpigeons should begin to move across the country. This can at times be spectacular with flocks of birds tens-of thousands strong heading south-west. Nobody is quite sure where these birds are coming from but one popular theory is that the majority of these birds are continental birds that are cutting the corner on their way to France.

Goldeneye by Edmund Fellowes

Pochard and Goldeneye may well also take the conditions as a cue to get moving, although temperatures are still quite high in Eastern Europe, so we might have to wait until these drop before we see any appreciable movement of these diving ducks.

The weather conditions ought to be good for Starlings and Woodcock too, and who knows we may yet see more far-eastern waifs and strays.

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.

Monday 26 September 2011

Exciting Times

The period from mid-September to mid-October is one of the most exciting times of the year for anyone interested in bird migration. Summer visitors that have spent the breeding season here begin to head off in earnest, whilst their counterparts in mainland Europe often get blown or drifted across the North Sea and add to the migration spectacular.
During the right weather conditions, rare birds from both the extremes of west and east can also form part of these movements. So far this season has lived up to expectations and provided something for everyone.

Siskin by Edmund Fellowes
There have been record counts on the east coast of Siskins on the move. 2,129 were counted at Carnoustie, Angus, during the morning of 7 September. In Hampshire, 867 Grasshoppers Warblers have been trapped at one site and over forty thousand Swallows were counted over-flying Hengistbury Head, Dorset on 16 September.
Sabine's Gull by Joe Pender

The westerly gales have provided a seabird bonanza on the west coasts. 900 Sabine’s Gulls flew past Bridges of Ross, Clare on 17 September and birds also turned up on waterbodies in land-locked counties, with one Sabine’s Gull staying eleven days at Grafham Water in Cambridgeshire.
American waders are also widely distributed, with the largest arrival of Buff-breasted and Pectoral Sandpipers for many years. Seven species of North American landbirds have also been found in Britain and Ireland. Red-eyed vireo, Black-and-White-Warbler, Northern Waterthrush and Baltimore Oriole on the Isles of Scilly, and Buff-bellied Pipit, Swainson’s and Grey-cheeked Thrushes on the Northern Isles.
And it is far from over yet! This weekend saw a large movement of Black Terns through inland counties, involving several hundred birds. A single flock of 100 birds were seen at Standlake, Oxon. Meadow Pipits and alba wagtails (Pied and White), Swallows and House Martins were all counted in three figures at several sites along the east and south coasts and goose counts are beginning to increase.
Things should be a little quieter for visible migration watchers during thesettled weather over the next few days. Migrating birds fly over at a greater height, often not visible from the ground, during these conditions.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Autumn storms

The first autumn storms have hit and have had a big effect on migration already. During strong windy conditions, migration for smaller birds comes to a halt as they seek shelter and take the opportunity to rest and, if possible feed-up in preparation to continue their journeys.The day counts of visible migration at Spurn Point illustrate this perfectly. On Sunday 11 September, prior to the winds increasing, 2,280 Swallows were counted heading south over the Point; yesterday with gale-force south-westerly winds only 33 were seen.

Strong westerlies, particularly those associated with fast tracking storms that cross the Atlantic in a day or so often bring North American birds with them, and this weekend’s storm did just that; over thirty Buff-breasted Sandpipers arrived in the UK during the weekend. This high Arctic breeding wader leaves its breeding grounds in Alaska and western Canada during August and September, heading for the Paraguayan and Argentinian pampas. The eastern breeding birds complete this huge migration in one long flight over the sea from New England to Paraguay and Argentina, so are often prone to getting caught up in these fast tracking storms. The winds also brought the first American passerine to our shores, a Red-eyed Vireo, to the Isles of Scilly. This bird would have been making its way to northern South America or Cuba.

Red-eyed Vireo above by Joe Pender

In the UK early autumn storms also bring seabirds closer to land and provide the opportunity for observers to witness some impressive movements of these maritime birds. In the last three days, over ninety Sabine’s Gulls have been seen, from Cornwall to Dumfries and Galloway, and over thirty Grey Phalaropes have been seen from coastal headlands and a few inland reservoirs, including in the London area. Both of these are true oceanic birds.

Sabine’s Gull by Joe Pender

September and October are the most exciting months in a migration watchers calendar. Light winds at anytime during this period, particularly light southerly winds, can produce huge movements of pipits, finches and hirundines – Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins - during September, and large movement of thrushes, buntings and larks in October. Strong westerlies can bring birds from North America, whilst strong easterlies can result in birds arriving from as far away as eastern Siberia.

So what can we expect over the coming weeks?

As the weather quietens down in the next few days and with winds from the south and east we can expect large movements of finches, pipits and hirundines, as they head off to Africa and we could see the arrival of few Red-backed Shrikes.

You can follow migration as it happens by checking out the BirdTrack maps and reports.

Monday 12 September 2011

Seabird Bonanza

The westerly gales that have been battering the coasts from the Cornwall to the Outer Hebrides have resulted in some spectacular seabird counts, in particular the rarer shearwaters. During the last week, over 7,000 Sooty Shearwaters, 2,500 Great Shearwaters and 600 Balearic Shearwaters, the latter globally listed as critically endangered, were counted off south-west Cornwall, south Devon and south-west Ireland. Among these were also numerous Grey Phalaropes, Leach’s Petrels and Sabine’s Gulls. Large numbers of Gannets and, as predicted in last week’s blog Manx Shearwaters were also seen in good numbers. Some newly fledged young of the latter struggled with the stormy conditions and 491 found themselves ‘wrecked’ on Newgale beach in Pembrokeshire. The BirdTrack reporting rate shows nicely the increase of observations of this species.

Manx Shearwater by Joe Pender

All four species of Skua were also involved in this movement, with Arctic being the most numerous, again the BirdTrack reporting rate shows this increase.

As was to be expected, the fast tracking Atlantic gales brought North American Waders with them and over a dozen Buff-Breasted Sandpipers arrived on our shores, with the Isles of Scilly hosting five of them, again the west received the lion’s share but birds have been found at Rye Harbour in East Sussex and Titchwell in Norfolk.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper by Joe Pender

Despite the windy conditions Swallows and Meadow Pipits have been a feature of visible migration watches. Over 12,500 Swallows were counted heading south at Spurn Point last Saturday, with almost 8,000 Meadow Pipits heading in the same direction on Thursday.

Swallows gathering by Paul Stancliffe/BTO

The first large finch movement was also observed here on Thursday with over 600 Siskins also heading south.

With the wind set to increase again from the west yesterday, observers on the west coast should have been in for another weekend seabird fest, whilst in the east, finches and pipits should make the most of any lull in the windy conditions.

Question of the week - How do birds cope with the risks of migration?

The very act of long-distance migration has to be one of the most arduous and dangerous activities that a bird undertakes, so what can they, and indeed do they do to minimise the risks associated with long-distance migration?

For those migrants that undertake long sea or desert crossings, it is essential to store enough fat deposits to fuel these flights and many of our smaller birds spend up to three weeks feeding up and accumulating fat reserves before their departure, some will have more than doubled their normal weight.

Setting off in optimum conditions also helps to minimise the risk of being downed or blown off-course and also maximises the stored fat reserves. If birds encounter worsening conditions, many will make landfall and rest-up and feed-up until conditions improve.

Some birds migrate primarily at night, reducing the risk of predation by diurnal raptors. Flying in the cooler night air also reduces drag and minimises the use of the stored fat reserves.

Thursday 18 August 2011

Warbler watcher’s week

Sedge Warbler migration is at its peak; large numbers of this intricately-marked warbler are passing through watchpoints on the south coast right now. This was illustrated perfectly at a bird ringing site on the Pett Level in East Sussex this weekend - a team from BTO joined the regular ringers to help get a handle on the huge volume of birds leaving the country at the moment and of more than 2,000 birds caught and ringed, about 25% were Sedge Warblers. The Birdtrack reporting rate shows perfectly how this species is flooding out of the UK.

Other species that were well represented included Willow Warbler and Whitethroat, whilst Sand Martins - our earliest departing member of the swallow family - far outnumbered Swallows at the evening roosts.

Common Terns have become more obvious offshore as they make their way south in migrating flocks. 2,530 were counted past Spurn Point on 16 August. Flocks of migrating terns flying just above the waves determinedly heading south provide one of the greatest spectacles of autumn migration. However, this week the Terns at Spurn were been eclipsed by Swallows- 7,500 were counted heading south over there on the same day. Over the next few weeks the number of these two species should increase as more and more begin their migrations.

The first juvenile cuckoos are also beginning to appear at coastal watchpoints. It is interesting to think that some of these could be the youngsters of the BTO satellite-tagged cuckoos that are being followed to their wintering grounds, which are already south of the Sahara.

Question of the week - What triggers migration?

It is largely recognised that there are two types of migration. Obligate; controlled by genetics, and facultative; controlled by external factors such as local weather conditions. For birds such as Swallows, terns and cuckoos, it is obligate migration that we are interested in.

Change in day length is an important factor in the timing of migration for obligate migrants, and coupled with genetic influence, can give greater year-to-year consistency in the timing of migration in individual species. For example, British Swifts largely tend to leave the country during the first week of August.

Friday 12 August 2011

Birds are already on the move

For those following our five satellite tagged cuckoos this will come as no surprise, with four of them already south of the Sahara desert. However, lots of other birds are also leaving the UK, probably the most noticeable being the Swift.

All summer they have been screaming around our streets and houses but have disappeared during the last week. Many of these could already be well south of the Sahara and close to their winter quarters.

Willow Warblers have also been flooding out of the country with numbers in excess of one hundred birds being counted at some south coast migration watchpoints; these have often been in the company of smaller numbers of Common Whitethroats.

Another warbler, the Grasshopper Warbler, probably sneaks out of the country largely unnoticed but at one ringing site in Hampshire, 267 have been trapped and ringed during July alone, all but one of them being young birds.

Ospreys are also on the move, and now is a good time to catch up with one of these impressive raptors. Although they often still associate with waterbodies, a bird on active migration could be seen anywhere as it makes it way south. During the last week, Ospreys have been seen in 24 British and Irish counties.

Question of the week.

Why do birds migrate?

This is a very difficult question and to answer this we probably have to look back to the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago. At this time, large parts of northern Europe were under ice, which will have retreated north during the summer months only to return during the colder winter months. As the ice retreated north, uncovered habitat will have been exploited by birds from further south that themselves have retreated south as the colder months returned.
As the planet warmed and the southern edge of the ice retreated further and further north, birds will have moved further north during the summer months and flown greater distances back during the winter months; migrating.

Today, the conditions during the winter months are still unsuitable for many of our summer migrants, although we are seeing evidence of more species attempting and succeeding to stay in northern Europe during the winter months. In recent times, several species of warblers, Swallows and a few Turtle Doves have all been recorded in the UK during the winter. These pioneers stay much closer to their breeding area than those that have left the country and, in theory will have first choice of prime territories come the breeding season, ensuring that their offspring get the best start.

Thursday 9 June 2011

Migrants just keep coming

North-easterly winds and the second week of June wouldn’t ordinarily be the perfect recipe for the arrival of migrant birds.  
Common migrants continue to arrive albeit in smaller numbers and included Spotted Flycatchers, Swifts and House Martins, the notable exception to this being Common Crossbills, flocks of which have been reported as heading south from Shetland to Dorset, the likely origin of these birds being Scandinavia.
Crossbill by Andy Mason

The remarkable migration of this spring just keeps on going. At times the north-easterlies have been quite light and during these conditions it was inevitable that a few birds destined for places east of the UK would turn up, drifting west as they tried to make headway north. As predicted last week, the north and east of the UK would be the place to be, and as it turned out it is where a lot of birders had to be as the third White-throated Robin turned up in Cleveland.
Other scarce and rare birds included three Red-footed Falcons, two on the east coast but the third was found in Herefordshire, up to fourteen Common Rosefinches, several Red-backed Shrikes and Icterine Warblers, a small number of Marsh Warblers and singles of Bee-eater, on the Isles of Scilly and Hoopoe in Dorset.
The wind for the next few days will come from the west and south-west and will be strong at times, this in effect should pretty much bring migration to a halt with the exception of Manx Shearwaters which could continue their movements along the west and south coasts in particular.

Manx Shearwater by Joe Pender

What will this mean for the 5 Cuckoos we are satellite tracking? If the wind is as strong as it is forecast to be Chris will probably hang around in Sussex, with Martin, Kasper and Lyster staying put in East Anglia. Clement might be the only bird to move as the lighter westerly winds in southern France help him on his way east. Take a look at the maps to see what happens and don't forget you can help this project by sponsoring one of our Cuckoos.

A BTO project is using satellite tags to track Cuckoos to their wintering grounds

Friday 27 May 2011

Weather slows migration

It's been much quieter this week, more due to the weather than to the end of migration. Migration should continue for at least a couple more weeks yet with the focus turning to the north as some late migrants and overshoots arrive there.

Spotted Flycatchers and Quails have arrived in small numbers this week and there have been some small movements of Swifts and House Martins on the east coast.

Above: Quail by Abbie Marland
On the rarity front, six new Red-footed Falcons were found this week and East Sussex recorded its first ever Pallid Swift. Despite the weather, another three Bee-eaters were reported this week and a single Hoopoe on Lundy, Devon.
It really has been a Red-rumped Swallow spring and another four were reported this week from Scilly to East yorkshire.Putting all these in the shade a Least Sandpiper from North America was found in South Yorks yesterday.

The weather is to remain mixed for the next few days but birds will move whenever the wind drops and a rarity in the northern isles is very much on the cards, and could still prove to be a sparrow from North America.

Friday 20 May 2011

Migration slows down

It's been a much quieter week this week and it really does seem like the main thrust of migration is over. However it appears that there are still good numbers of House Martins missing from breeding colonies and these birds could arrive any time.  Rarities continue to turn up and this week has seen a Gull-billed Tern in Norfolk, Black-winged Stilt and yet another Red-rumped Swallow, this time on the Isles of Scilly. Not a day seems to have gone by this Spring without a Red-rumped Swallow or a Bee-eater somewhere in the country.  

Bee-eater by John Harding

The weather continues to come from the west and this will largely keep any movements down, particularly when the winds are of any strength.  Migrants will continue to arrive for at least another 2 weeks and we should see those tardy House Martins and Spotted Flycatchers.  We are also just coming in to the peak time for Quail.

Don't forget if you want to listen to Nightingales in song, they will only be singing for the next two weeks, going quiet at the beginning of June.   The Nightingale is one of our fastest decline summer migrants, if you would like to help us find out more about the reasons for the decline, please support our new Nightingale Appeal.

Above: Nightingale by Edmund Fellowes

Monday 16 May 2011

Extraordinary week's migration

Last week was an extraordinary week, although the predicted Sociable Plover failed to show, it was a week for rare waders, with at least three Buff-breasted Sandpipers being reported and singles of Broad-billed Sandpiper and Kentish Plover in Cumbria, Spotted Sandpiper in Buckinghamshire, and Lesser Yellowlegs and Great Snipe in Norfolk, the latter in full display for one evening and one morning only.

Above: Calandra Lark by John Harding (not the Lincs bird)

Along with the Collared Flycatcher, mentioned in the last blog, Britain’s fourth Rock Bunting, and the first since 1967, was seen and photographed in North Yorkshire and subsequently identified from the photograph. An Audouin’s Gull in Suffolk took the British total to seven. The Calandra Lark seen in Lincolnshire and The Trumpeter Finch in Devon took their respective British totals to sixteen.

Above: Swallow by Tommy Holden

With a distinct lack of common migrants at south coast watchpoints, observers there had been lamenting the end of spring migration. Nothing could be further from the truth on the east coast; Spurn recorded one of its biggest Swallow days so far this spring, on Wednesday, when 3,356 were counted flying south, along with good numbers of House Martins, this was reflected nationally by the birdtrack reporting rate. It has also been the best week of the spring for Spotted Flycatcher, and wader migration continues apace.
Things should be a little quieter this week as the weather changes and the winds come from the west. However, May is the best month of the year for an American Sparrow to turn up, and with low fronts tracking across the Atlantic, the safe money is on White-throated Sparrow, however, another Lark Sparrow would be very welcome.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Eastern birds arrived on cue

Although the predicted Sociable Plover didn't materialise, a superb 1st summer male Collared Flycatcher did; on the east coast at Holme, Norfolk, scuppering many Sunday evening dinners into the bargain, including mine.
Collared Flycatcher, Richard Thewlis

The conditions are still perfect for migration to continue and some of the highest totals so far this spring of hirundines - Swallows and Martins - were observed this weekend on the south and east coasts. Bee-eaters are still overshooting and were seen at six sites from Devon to the Outer Hebrides, along with at least ten Red-rumped Swallows along the east coast, and one on the Outer Hebrides. Britain's seventh Audouin's Gull turned up at Minsmere, Suffolk.

Audouin's Gull by Dawn Balmer

The first Red-backed Shrikes, classic May birds, were found at the weekend so it won't be long before the first Marsh Warblers are recorded. Tern passage has been impressive both at the coast and inland, where Black Terns are still a feature. With the weather staying pretty much the same for the next few days this weekend could well offer more of the same, and maybe that Sociable Plover will turn up. I'd settle for a Red-footed Falcon in the Brecks though.

Friday 6 May 2011

Swifts have arrived

Wednesday morning saw the first Swifts over the BTO headquarters here in Thetford, heralding their arrival across much of the country. Swifts are very much like this, arriving simultaneously across much of the country, normally around the end of April. They are a little late this year having been held up by the strong north and north-easterly winds experienced during the last week.

Those winds did bring lots of waders, terns and seabirds to the south and east coasts though, large numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits were seen on passage, even at many inland sites, and an unprecedented number of Wood Sandpipers turned up. Pomarine Skuas and Common and Arctic Terns have also been a regular feature for seawatchers.
Swifts are one of our last summer visitors to arrive but that doesn't mean that migration is over, far from it. The next few weeks will see more and more birds of a variety of species arriving. There haven't been too many Spotted Flycatchers and many of our breeding Nightjars will arrive in another week or so.

So, with south and south-easterly winds forecast for this weekend there is still plenty of scope for migration watching, southern overshoots are still very much on the cards, Bee-eaters could turn up almost anywhere, and we might also get a rarity from the east - Sociable Plover would fit the bill nicely.

Don't forget, that for many of our early migrants the breeding season is well underway. Check out our Migration Timeline for the nesting and egg-laying dates of a number of birds.

Above: Swift by Mike Toms

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Not so swift

The strong east/north-easterly winds that were very much a feature of the weekend put paid to the mass arrival of Swifts, it did however, ground a few migrants at south coast watchpoints. Three-hundred Willow Warblers and one-hundred Wheatears were seen on Portland, Dorset over the weekend.

The strong winds did push Bar-tailed Godwits close to the south coast. The first Pomarine Skuas were seen and unprecedented numbers of Wood Sandpipers arrived at east coast sites; there were ten together on a pool at Holme, Norfolk, with over two-hundred arriving across the country. Dotterel were also seen at several sites from the Scilly Isles to the Outer Hebrides.

Above:  Wood Sandpiper (foreground) by John Black

Above: Dotterel by Edmund Fellowes

Rarities from the south and east arrived, with up to three Red-footed Falcons in Norfolk, a White-winged Black Tern in Suffolk and several Wrynecks in the south and east. New Bee-eaters were seen in Dorset and Kent, and four Black-winged Stilts were seen in Essex.

So what have we got to look forward to over the next few days? There ought to be good seabird passage off the west coast, with tern and skua numbers beginning to build. Temminck's Stints are on the cards on the east coast, and as the winds begin to lessen and turn more southerly, we should see those Swifts arriving. A Rock Thrush on the east coast would also be nice.