Friday 30 November 2012

Heading south for the winter?

With the main migration period well and truly over and winter very much upon us, it is easy to think that migration has finished for 2012. However, birds can be on the move at all times of the year.

Right now the temperature is plummeting in northern and eastern Europe and for the next four to five days even the daytime temperatures won’t get above freezing in those parts of the continent. This will result in many of the remaining berries dropping and waterbodies freezing over.

Birds that rely on either of these resources will have to head off in search of warmer conditions where food and unfrozen water are available. For many birds in northern and eastern Europe this often means crossing the North Sea to the relatively balmy conditions on offer in the UK.

As a result of the falling temperatures, we are already seeing a fresh arrival of thrushes on the east coast. Interestingly Blackbird seems to be leading the charge with birds arriving in large numbers from Sandinavia and the Continent. The ringing recoveries for Blackbird shows their origin well. Perhaps Blackbirds have done as well on the continent this breeding season as they have been here. The NRS preliminary results for 2012 show a very poor breeding season in the UK for many species with Black bird being an exception.

Waxwings continue to move south and west through the country and as the cold bites further north in the UK we can expect this movement to gather pace over the next few days.

Smew by Edmund Fellowes

The first Smew have begun to turn up this week and these are likely to be the vanguard of a larger movement of wildfowl over the next few days and weeks. Tufted Duck, Pochard, Pintail, and Teal will be arriving on inland waters, and scoters (both Common and Velvet), Eider, Long-tailed Duck and Goldeneye moving to inshore waters.

With Northerly winds forecast for the next few days, we could see a new movement of Little Auks with the addition of some white-winged gulls. Glaucous and Iceland Gulls are the most likely but an Ivory Gull could be on the cards too. For help with identifying Glaucous and Iceland Gulls check this bird ID video

Woodcock and Bewick’s Swan have only arrived in small numbers so far, but as conditions get harder on the continent we should see more appearing up here.

Skylark by Tommy Holden

With freezing temperature forecast in the UK over the next few days and with the lowest temperatures expected in the North, we could also see some cold weather movements within the UK. As the ground becomes frozen or buried under snow, Golden Plover and Lapwing are the most obvious to be on the move in search of better conditions. A large movement of Skylark could also occur.

Friday 16 November 2012

Autumn migration 2012

Birds migrate in their millions every autumn, leaving the UK for warmer climes, arriving in the UK to escape the colder north and east, or just passing through on their way to their winter quarters. However, no two autumns are the same. For instance, the autumn of 2011 will perhaps be remembered for the flocks of Buff-breasted Sandpipers, with a flock of 26 birds frequenting Tacumshin, Wexford. Whilst they did arrive this year it was in much smaller numbers, the largest gathering being a flock of four at Carrahane Strand, Kerry.
So how did this autumn stack up?
The last week of September saw an impressive arrival of birds from the east. Over 100 Yellow-browed Warblers and Red-breasted Flycatchers, and over 50 Barred Warblers were found. These scarce migrants were part of a larger movement of Goldcrests, Robins and Redstarts. More than 300 Redstarts were seen at Spurn, East Yorkshire during this period.

Goldcrest by John Harding
As September rolled into October it became apparent that an unusually large movement of Jays was underway. On  4 October 278 were noted flying over Cley, Norfolk, not known for being a Jay hotspot, whilst a whopping 668 were counted passing over Hunstanton cliffs, Norfolk on 6 October.

Blue Tits, not normally thought of as a migrant bird, were on the move in plague proportions on the eastern side of the North Sea. 87,400 were counted migrating over Nabben, southern Sweden and this video of 21,660 Blue Tits migrating on one day at Falsterbo, Sweden gives a great impression of what this must’ve looked like? Two of these continental birds turned up on Shetland, one of them bearing a Norwegian ring. We can only guess at how many more turned up on the east coast but were ‘lost’ amongst our resident birds.
Northerly winds during the last few days of October prompted a large movement of Little Auks. As this movement petered out, high pressure over Scandinavia and light winds over the North Sea prompted a huge arrival of thrushes. Spurn provided a good example of the scale of this, with counts as high as 21,000 Redwing, 10,000 Blackbird, 9,000 Fieldfare 800 Song Thrush and 57 Ring Ouzel on a single day, though the spectacle was spread up and down the east coast.

Ring Ouzel by Tommy Holden
Early November is Woodpigeon time but no sooner had their migration started than it was over and they haven’t moved in the numbers expected. Sometimes the migrating flocks can be 50,000 strong. The largest single migrating flock reported this autumn was of 12,000 birds moving west over Hengistbury Head, Dorset.
It has been a fantastic autumn for rare birds, both from the east and west.  North American treats included a first for the Western Palearctic in the shape of an Eastern Kingbird on Inishmore, Ireland, Britain’s second Magnolia Warbler on Fair Isle, Shetland, a Belted Kingfisher and the arrival of at least three Yellow-rumped Warblers.
The east also delivered a first for the Western Palearctic, a Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, Britain’s second Chestnut–eared Bunting and another Siberian Rubythroat, following on from the popular 2011 bird.
As the weather turns colder we are still waiting for the arrival of some of our winter visitors. Waxwings are here in force, we still await the first big arrivals of Bewick’s Swan and Woodcock.

The percentage of BirdTrack complete lists featuring Waxwing has rocketed over the last week. In a Waxwing winter the main arrival of birds often occurs during December and the Waxwing BirdTrack reporting rate illustrates this perfectly. Whether or not this will be a 'Waxwing winter' remains to be seen but the early signs are that the arrival has been on a par with the last big winter for Waxwings, 2010, and well above the 7-year average. Waxwings can be recorded as part of the BTO Winter Thrushes Survey. To find out  where Waxwings have been seen in the local area, as well as to record your Waxwing sightings, download the BirdTrack Ap here.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Woodpigeons are go!

Early November is the peak time for Woodpigeon migration. All they need are light winds and clear conditions to start migrating en-masse. The last few days have seen exactly these conditions and the Woodpigeons haven’t disappointed.

Woodpigeon by Jill Pakenham

The last couple of days have seen almost 34,000 Woodpigeons head west over one south coast watchpoint. In large movements like this there are always a few Stock Doves. On 5 November, 450 Stock Doves moved over Hengistbury Head, Dorset, along with 17,500 Woodpigeons.

Every year sees this migration spectacle but it is unclear where these birds are coming from or going to. They seem to appear along the east coast and the Pennines, but aren’t seen coming in off the sea. They travel south and upon reaching the south coast head west as far as Dorset. Once here they seem to disappear.

At present there are two schools of thought. They may be British birds heading south and west for the relatively mild conditions that this part of the UK offers, although there doesn’t seem to be a large influx of Woodpigeons into Devon and Cornwall during November. Alternatively they may be British birds that are heading south and on to France and Spain to spend the winter in southern oak woods.

That 11,000 Woodpigeons were counted migrating over Jersey during the last two days lends weight to the latter theory.

Autumn migration seems to be running on and on this year and we are still experiencing some sizeable finch movement. Bramblings are still arriving along the east coast, with many moving straight into gardens, further supporting the general feeling that the beech mast crop is poor this year. Along with the Bramblings are good numbers of Goldfinches and Chaffinches.

Blackbird is dominating the winter thrush arrivals this week. Hundreds arrived on the North Norfolk coast over the weekend and a minimum of 1,900 were counted at Spurn, East Yorkshire on 6 November.
Waxwings continue to arrive and there are now around 2,000 birds in the country. Every now and then we have a ‘Waxwing winter’ but how many do we need for this to be the case? I guess that we will have to wait and see how many more turn up and whether they stay with us for the winter months before we can say.

Small numbers of Swallows are still a feature of visible migration counts, with the highest count of 10 being seen at Portland Bill, Dorset on 6 November. A late House Martin was seen on the same day at Hengistbury Head, also in Dorset.

Bewick's Swans by Andy Mason

Woodcock are being seen in small numbers but we will have to wait for the temperature to drop on the continent for the first big arrival of these amazing birds. The first Rough-legged Buzzards of the winter are here but the relatively warm continental temperatures seem to be holding back Bewick’s Swans and many of our wintering wildfowl.

On an unseasonal note, the Bee-eater that was found on the last day of October at Seaburn, Durham is still present to date.

With the winds remaining fairly light for the rest of the week and into the weekend and the promise of some clear spells, Woodpigeons should continue to move and more Bramblings and Waxwings are likely. While the forecast westerly airflow isn’t ideal  for the arrival of birds from the east, you can’t help but dream of a Pine Grosbeak, given the record numbers that have been encountered along the west coast of Norway in the last week or so.

Paul Stancliffe