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 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

Friday 26 October 2012

Thrushes arrive in force

Over the last few days one of the biggest natural events of the autumn has been unfolding along the east coast with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of thrushes.

Redwing by Andy Mason

By far the biggest arrival occurred at Spurn, East Yorkshire where over 21,000 Redwing, 10,000 Blackbird, 9,000 Fieldfare, 800 Song Thrush, 57 Ring Ouzel and 10 Mistle Thrush were counted on the 22nd. Until then Fieldfares were conspicuous by their absence and the BirdTrack reporting rate shows just how late they are arriving this autumn, in comparison to the previous two years.

Along with thrushes were large numbers of other typical late autumn migrants, with Robin, Goldcrest and Brambling also arriving in force. There were numerous records of Black Redstart, usually a fairly scarce migrant and winter visitor, and a mouth-watering trio of eastern rarities appeared too! Britain’s first ever Pale-legged Leaf Warbler, which breeds no nearer than southeastern Russia, was found on Portland, Dorset. The Western Palearctic’s third Chestnut-eared Bunting, a species breeding from the Western Himalayas, China to southeast Siberia, arrived on Shetland, and Britain’s tenth Siberian Rubythroat, also on the Shetland Islands, added to an incredibly exciting period.

Waxwing by Andy Mason
Swallows and House Martins are still moving through south coast sites in double figures. At Hengistbury Head, Dorset, 79 Swallows and 41 House Martins moved through on the  yesterday morning of the 24th.
Starlings also began moving this week with over 5,000 being counted moving west on the North Norfolk coast on the 20th, and around 30 Waxwings have arrived in the north.

Little Auk by Andy Mason

With the winds turning northerly and forecast to be quite strong at times the focus could well be on birds moving just offshore. An arrival of Little Auks looks like a good bet, along with good numbers of wildfowl, and possibly more Waxwings. With frosts forecast for early next week Skylark and Woodpigeon could also move in impressive numbers. With the winds coming straight out of the Arctic this weekend, the rarity value could well be in the shape of a Snowy Owl.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

A mixed bag for Migrants

As a series of weather fronts arrive from the west over the next few days, the winds will swing from west to east and back to west several times during the course of the week. Southern counties are forecast to bear the brunt of the westerly airflow, whilst the north will receive the lion’s share of the easterly winds.

This mixed bag of weather could bring something for all of us. With most of the country experiencing winds with some east in them on Wednesday afternoon/Thursday morning, this could be the time to get out and observe migrants on the move. Swallows and House Martins continue to move apace; both of have produced some late broods (see Stuart Winter's article) this year so numbers on the move might remain a little higher for a bit longer than is usual for the time of year.

Fieldfare by Jill Pakenham

During the past week Redwings have arrived in force in the north but numbers in the south still remain quite low, this could change as we go into the weekend. Fieldfares are running late, as evidenced by the BirdTrack reporting rate. However, during the relatively calmer conditions between weather fronts this could change and we could see a large arrival of these impressive thrushes. A perfect time for another walk for the BTO Winter Thrushes Survey!

Finches and buntings should begin to move, with a change in focus from Goldfinch to Chaffinch. An increase in the number of redpolls should also be evident too. Lapland and Snow Buntings will be the buntings to look out for on the east and northeast coasts, whilst Reed Buntings ought to feature in good numbers in migration counts along the east and south coasts.

 Common Nighthawk by Bryan Thomas

With the whole of the country experiencing strong onshore winds at some time during the week a seawatch could pay dividends for those so inclined. Gannet will be the main feature but Arctic, Pomarine and Great Skuas, along with late Common, Arctic, and Sandwich Terns could move through. Red-throated Diver numbers will continue to build, and smaller numbers of Black-throated and Great Northern Divers can be expected as well. Regarding rarities, birds from both the west and east should be on the cards. Common Nighthawk from the west and Siberian Thrush from the east would fit the bill nicely.

Friday 12 October 2012

Migration stalls a little

After the rush of American birds in the west last weekend, things have quietened down somewhat.

Right now finches should be keeping ‘vis miggers’ (visible migration watchers) very busy but for the most part visible migration has been fairly disappointing for them. There has been the occasional busy period mixed in amongst almost birdless days at some migration watchpoints.

Goldfinch by John Harding

The finch counts at Spurn Bird Observatory illustrate this perfectly. On 8 October, around 2,000 finches were counted flying over, including 1,411 Goldfinches. The finch count for the very next day couldn’t have been more different with only five Bramblings and no goldfinches counted, and very little else on the move. With reports of a failure in the beech mast crop in Scandinavia, we could be in for a large arrival of Bramblings any day. The BirdTrack reporting rate shows the peak arrival time for this beautiful finch well.

At this time of the year a bit of east in the wind generally triggers common migrants to get moving, couple this with the odd shower or two and any birds moving overhead can be grounded. These were just the conditions that Portland Bird Observatory experienced on the same day that Spurn had its large finch movement. On 8 October around 200 Robins were grounded at the Bill, and were much more numerous around the centre of the island. The weather also grounded the first noticeable movement of thrushes, which included 50 Blackbirds, 40 Song Thrushes and 25 Redwings.

The easterly winds from the early part of this week will turn westerly as we go into the weekend, bringing heavy rain to the south west. However, on Sunday the winds will again turn easterly for a short time and maybe prompt a large movement of finches and the first big movement of thrushes, (this weekend could be a good one to take part in the Winter Thrushes Survey) and possibly Skylarks.

Gannets by Edmund Fellowes

If you are looking at the sea this weekend then the south west will be the place to be on Saturday but east coast seawatchers might get higher returns for their efforts on Sunday. Common Scoter traditionally begin to move in large numbers around mid-October and there is always a chance of the odd Velvet Scoter mixed in with them. Gannets should feature highly and Red-throated Diver numbers should increase and include the odd Black-throated and Great Northern Divers.

As for rarities? We are just coming in to the peak period for the rarity mecca that is the Isle of Scilly and with a low pressure system arriving from across the Atlantic tomorrow morning an American passerine has to be on the cards for the islands. Whilst I still fancy Black-billed Cuckoo for this autumn, the first American Redstart for the archipelago would set pulses racing.

Friday 5 October 2012

Get ready to welcome some winter visitors

As the low pressure to the south of us moves away to the east, high pressure will take its place over the weekend, bringing with it much lighter winds and a change in the direction of those winds, from westerly to south easterly, at least for the latter part of the weekend.

Redwing by John Harding

These lighter winds and the direction change could result in the largest arrivals of some of our winter visitors so far this autumn. Bramblings, Redwings, Fieldfares, Song Thrushes and Blackbirds should all feature. So, this weekend could be a good weekend to take part in the BTO Winter Thrushes Survey.
Pink-footed Goose numbers should also build this weekend and anyone with access to the east coast could see Red-throated Divers on the move. 

Jays are still on the move, at least 278 were reported over Cley, Norfolk, on 4 October, and birds continue to be seen in unusual numbers and in unusual places. The BirdTrack reporting rate for Jay routinely climbs at this time of year. However, the reporting rate for the first week of October was the highest in 8 years of BirdTrack records. The majority are likely to be native birds dispersing from breeding areas in search of food.

Blue Tit by Liz Cutting

Across the North Sea, Blue Tits have been on the move in unprecedented numbers. On 1 October, 87,400 were counted migrating from Nabben, Falsterbo, Sweden. To get a taste of this take a look at this short video. It seems that the Beech seed crop has failed in northern Europe, so this year could see a Brambling winter. Perhaps a sign of things to come, was a flock of 90 Brambling on Fair Isle, Shetland, last week.

Brambling by John Harding

With news of the Western Palearctic’s first ever Eastern Kingbird at Inishmore, Galway, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler on Dursey Island, Cork, who knows what other North American birds are waiting to be found. Whether looking for lost waifs and strays or counting visible migration, this weekend promises to be an interesting one.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Black-billed Cuckoo - not quite!

The depression that tracked across the Atlantic and arrived on the west coast this weekend didn't bring the predicted Black-billed Cuckoo with it. It is twenty-two years since the last Black-billed Cuckoo graced our shores; that bird was found on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly on 10 October 1990.

There have been fourteen accepted records of the species in Britain and Ireland, with the dates ranging from August 29 to November 8. It is thought that the population is declining in North America but their populations vary considerably from year to year as they follow fluctuations in the abundance of their caterpillar prey. The fifteenth record is long overdue; will this be the year?

Black-billed Cuckoo (Ontario) by Luke Delve

The low pressure system did bring a few other North American birds with it, however. Three more Buff-bellied Pipits were found on Shetland, four American Golden Plovers arrived, one on Orkney, one on Shetland and two in Ireland, and a new Buff-breasted Sandpiper was seen on the Isles of Scilly.

Common migrants were also in evidence, with the general exodus of Swallows and martins still underway. Finches began to move, with Bramblings, redpolls, Siskins, Linnets, Goldfinches and Chaffinches well represented at migration watchpoints.

Rather curiously, Jays seem to be on the move and there is some debate as to whether these might involve continental birds or whether they are our own birds that are moving in search of food. The latter might explain the steady westerly movement out of Thetford Forest, on the Norfolk/Suffolk border on Saturday morning. The acorn crop here is patchy at best this year. However, there is also evidence of birds arriving from the continent. During a large movement of Jays on 29 September at Bockhill, Kent, a group of thirty-four were observed arriving in off the sea. The BirdTrack weekly reporting rate for Jay shows this upsurge in observations well.

Jay by Tommy Holden

The winds will be largely from the west and southwest this week but they will be fairly light midweek, so Wednesday morning could see the first big finch movements of the autumn.

Friday 28 September 2012

The perfect storm

Having been stuck in a westerly airflow for what has seemed like forever, the weather forecast, with the promise of a depression swinging south of the UK and heading north into Scandinavia looked too good to be true. The resultant easterly winds, coming straight out of Scandinavia and western Russia, just had to bring some eastern birds with them.

Birders were not to be disappointed. In fact the storm headed north earlier than was predicted and crossed right over Britain and Ireland, initially producing strong westerlies that turned into strong easterlies as it moved on north and west, as predicted eastern birds seemed to drop out of the sky. Weighing around 6g, over 100 diminutive Yellow-browed Warblers were found from Shetland to the Isles of Scilly. Yellow-browed Warbler breeds no closer to Britain than eastern Russia, with the majority breeding much further east. Rather than heading west into Europe these birds should have been making their way south and east into south and eastern Asia.  Joining these were one or two other eastern delights, up to four Lanceolated Warblers that should have been on their way to a similar area, and a couple of Booted Warblers that winter in India were two. However, pride of place must go the White’s Thrush that was found on the Farne Islands, this amazing thrush winters in China. As the storm tracked towards Scandinavia it also brought birds from there too. Around 100 Red-breasted Flycatchers and over fifty Barred Warblers graced our shores over the weekend.

Yellow-browed Warbler by Joe Graham

The westerly theme of the last few weeks was not to be left out completely. As the storm left American shores and crossed the Atlantic it brought with it Britain’s second ever Magnolia Warbler, and a Swainson’s Thrush, both to Shetland.

Common migrants also abounded with the largest fall of Goldcrests, Redstarts and Robins of the autumn so far. The BirdTrack weekly reporting rate for Redstart shows this nicely. Thrushes were also on the move with the first noticeable arrival of Redwings, Fieldfares and Song Thrushes. As more birds arrive and more people take part in the Winter Thrushes Survey, it will be interesting to see how they move through the country.

Redstart by Edmund Fellowes

So what will this weekend bring? The focus will once again turn to the west and north-west, where the next transatlantic storm will arrive, maybe bringing with it more goodies from North America. A Black-billed Cuckoo is long-overdue and would prompt many a birder to head west.

Friday 21 September 2012

Look to the east this weekend

With the UK seemingly stuck in a westerly airflow it is not surprising that the focus has very much been on birds from that direction. Over the last week there have been impressive numbers of transatlantic waders found on this side of the pond. Up to 16 American Golden Plovers, 75 Pectoral Sandpipers and at least 30 Buff-breasted Sandpipers provided the backdrop to the two juvenile Short-billed Dowitchers, still present from last week, and a scattering of Baird’s, White-rumped, Semi-palmated and Spotted Sandpipers.

Spotted Sandpiper by Peter M Wilson

With the strong westerly winds, movements of common migrants have been patchy with most coastal watchpoints experiencing some very quiet days. However, during periods of relatively calm winds hirundines made their move. On the 19th, an estimated 3,000 House Martins, 2,300 Swallows and 210 Sand Martins were in the skies over Christchurch Harbour. Slightly smaller numbers of the same species were counted at Spurn Point, East Yorkshire on the same day. Meadow Pipits have also begun to move with similar numbers reported from several sites along the east and south coasts.

With the promise of easterly winds for the latter part of this weekend, the focus ought to be on birds from that direction. With a Blyth’s Reed Warbler arriving on Orkney and an Arctic Warbler on Fair Isle this morning, things look good for migration watchers along the east coast.

Blyth's Reed Warbler by Andy Mason

As the wind turns, more easterly showers are forecast to move through during Saturday so ‘vis migging’ (observing visible migration) should be the order of the day. Meadow Pipits and Siskins should begin to move overhead in good numbers, accompanied by smaller numbers of redpolls and Goldfinches, along with a possible large movement of Swallows and House Martins. Showers overnight Saturday and early on Sunday morning could also ‘ground’ good numbers of other migrants that ought to include Whinchats and Stonechats. It will be worth checking out the latter for Siberian Stonechat.  An intriguing report from the bird observatory at Falsterbo, Sweden, tells of a very early movement of Nutcrackers through the site. We can dream!

Nutcracker by Stephen Menzie

We could also see the first noticeable arrival of Goldcrests to the east coast, and, if Goldcrests turn up then the first Yellow-browed Warbler of the Autumn is always a possibility. At this time of year a ‘fall’ of migrants is likely to contain a wide variety of birds that will include flycatchers, warblers and a few early moving thrushes. The first few Redwings were reported to BirdTrack earlier this week.

 So if you’re anywhere near the east and south coasts this weekend, particularly on Sunday morning, get out and enjoy what could be one of the busiest days of the autumn so far.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Autumn migration steaming ahead

Autumn migration is well under way and many summer migrants are now on the move. The main thrust this week has largely involved hirundines, with decent movements being observed of Sand Martin, House Martin and Swallow, particularly through the Pennines and along the east coast. Passerines have been thin on the ground at coastal observatories though,  with the exception of Chiffchaff and Blackcap, and to a lesser extent Wheatear, probably as a consequence of the strong westerly and north westerly winds we have been experiencing. The BirdTrack reporting rates for these species reflects this nicely. However, many species have been notable by their absence at coastal watchpoints.

Blackcap by Tommy Holden

This strong westerly airflow has brought American birds with it though, the most notable being two Short-billed Dowitchers, the second and third ever to be seen in Britain! One was found in Dorset and the other on the Isles of Scilly, whilst Britain's third Semipalmated Plover was found on the Western Isles. These American waders have had a good supporting cast of at least fifteen Buff-breasted Sandpipers from eleven different counties, and a Monarch butterfly on Portland, Dorset.

Fieldfare by Tommy Holden

Winter visitors have also been on the move with the first push of Pink-footed Geese into the north and east, and a record movement of Teal off Spurn Point, East Yorkshire, where 2,600 were counted passing south on the 10th. The first Whooper Swans arrived at the Ouse Washes on the 11th and small numbers of Fieldfare have been seen in at least five east coast counties.

The first arrival of Redwing could happen any day now. In some winters almost three-quarters of a million Redwings and Fieldfares spend the winter months in the UK. Clearly Britain is important for wintering thrushes. This winter the BTO are hoping to find out how our winter thrushes use the British countryside and are asking people that see these birds to report their sighting through the Winter Thrush Survey.

Red-eyed Vireo by Joe Pender

With the wind stubbornly set in the west what can we expect over the next few days? Well, more of the same, really! Northwestern Britain might be the place to be as the winds crossing the Atlantic will be at their strongest here, but the whole of the UK will be in this westerly airflow. With conditions like this a North American wader could turn up almost anywhere.  What might prove to be the vanguard over the next few days, the first American passerine of the autumn, a Red-eyed Vireo, was found on Unst, Shetland this morning.

Thursday 14 June 2012

With migration pretty much over (it never truly stops altogether) now is a good time to reflect on what kind of a migration season it has been.
The most obvious feature has been the weather. Migrant birds heading back to the UK from their winter in Africa and southern Europe have had to battle against some horrific conditions. Strong winds, heavy rain, hail and even snow have all featured and less than ideal conditions have dominated pretty much throughout the migration period.

So, what effect has this had on our summer visitors? The first and most obvious effect was to delay the arrival of a number of them, as evidenced by the BirdTrack reporting rates. Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat illustrate this well.

Initially it looked like the numbers of many of our summer migrants were going to be quite low this year, and indeed early evidence for Swallow, Swift and House Martin suggest that this might be the case. However, it is interesting to note that Portland Bird Observatory, Dorset have had one of their best springs for numbers of common migrants for many years. At Portland, Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat showed an increase of 138% and 137% above the 2007-11 average. The BirdTrack results also indicate that both of these species are at or near their normal levels.

It is too early to know for sure whether there are fewer birds here or not. We will have to wait until later in the year when all of the data that BTO volunteers collect through surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, the Constant Effort Ringing Scheme, BirdTrack and the Nest Record Scheme has been analysed to know how out birds coped with a very abnormal spring and early summer.

Anyone can take part in these surveys and help contribute to the bigger picture. For more information, please visit the survey pages on the BTO website.

Friday 18 May 2012

A far from normal spring

It has been anything but a normal spring. March, with its early spring Mediterranean overshoots, at times felt like May. April, with its heavy rain, snow and hail, resembled November, and so far May has felt very unspring-like.

Swallows and House Martins sheltering from the Rain
in Mevagissey, Cornwall, by David Jackson. May 2012

What effect has this had on our migrant birds?

March 2012 became the third warmest March on record, with temperatures often exceeding those in southern Europe.  As a consequence, early March saw higher than average arrivals, for the time of the year, of Wheatears and Swallows. As the month progressed and the temperatures held, it felt more and more like southern Europe and the arrival of over thirty Hoopoes, a couple of Purple Herons, Baillon’s Crake, Woodchat Shrike and Scops Owl only served to reinforce this.

Just as it seemed like spring migration was about to step up a gear the weather turned. April will be remembered as one of the wettest on record, overturning drought warnings in some counties to flood warnings. It wasn’t only in the UK that this weather pattern dominated, southern Europe suffered too.  On 16 April, the mid-morning temperature at Aiguamolls de L’Emporda, northern Spain, was 5 degrees, forcing migrating Swallows to seek shelter in the hides of the nature reserve.

Swallows at Aiguamolls de L'Emporda by Rod Leslie

Further south, gale force winds whipped up huge sandstorms over the northern Sahara and out into the southern Mediterranean Sea, forcing migrants into the water and providing a bonanza for feeding Lesser Black-backed Gulls. The March rush slowed down as rapidly as it had begun, and many of our migrants began to look like they were going to be late back this year. Whitethroats didn’t start to arrive in earnest until late April/early May, two to three weeks later than the norm.

BirdTrack results show that it was a similar pattern for several other species that normally arrive in mid-April, notably Hobby, Cuckoo, Turtle Dove and warblers including Grasshopper, Reed, Sedge and Garden Warblers. BirdTrack reporting rates for all these species are striking, as are those of both Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat.

Hobby by Jill Pakenham

So, here we are, mid-May and the weather is decidedly cool and wet. The winds are in the main coming from the north, and for the most part are quite strong. Even though most of our summer migrants are now represented, there are parts of the country in which many are still to arrive. When conditions allow, there are still some impressive movements of birds at coastal watchpoints, so migration is far from over yet and will almost certainly still have some surprises up its sleeve.

This coming weekend the northerly winds are due to turn more southerly, then south-easterly and eventually easterly. If this is the case, migration watchers on the east coast could be in for a bonanza, and as we are moving into the latter half of May, anything could turn up. I know that I’ll be out in search of a Red-footed Falcon or two.

Friday 11 May 2012

Migration slows a little.

With the mass arrival of many of our common migrants last week, Whitethroats, Garden Warblers, Swifts and Swallows poured in, it is hardly surprising that this week has been a little slower. That said, migration has been steady, with more Swifts, Swallows and House Martins arriving, along with Spotted Flycatchers, Turtle Doves and the first Nightjars.

Nightjar by Neil Calbrade

It has been the rarities that have grabbed the headlines, with both Calandra and Crested Larks turning up, both in Kent. At least three Pallid Harriers graced the east coast and, what continues to be one of the best springs for a long time for Black-winged Stilt continued with the appearance of four birds together in Kent. Red-rumped Swallows reached double figures, with at least fourteen birds being found, from the Isles of Scilly to North Yorkshire.

Will it be a good weekend for migrants?

It looks like it is going to be a largely dry but windy weekend. The wind will come from the north and north west on Saturday, dropping during the afternoon, and turning south westerly overnight and through to Sunday morning, only to increase in strength again. So, it looks like Sunday morning might be the best time to be out watching visible migration, or in search of grounded migrants.It is hard to say what might turn up. The light northerlies of Saturday afternoon and evening might coax something like a Great Reed Warbler this far north.

Friday 4 May 2012

The floodgates open

As soon as the wind turned south-easterly and dropped they began to arrive in their hundreds and thousands. Many sites had their largest falls of the spring so far and some hinted at their largest falls ever, but what was sure was that the migrant floodgates opened at last.

As the week progressed the wind turned northerly but for the most part remained light, perfect conditions to observe visible migration. At Portland Bill, Dorset over 10,000 Swallows were estimated to have flown through on the 3 May, whilst in previous days there were at times too many to count.

On the Isles of Scilly, flocks of warblers, largely Blackcaps and Willow Warblers but also containing Garden Warblers and Common Whitethroats, were seemingly everywhere. This is reflected nicely in the BirdTrack reporting rate.

Common Whitethroat by Amy Lewis

With Swifts and Spotted Flycatchers also making it back, the first Nightjar won’t be too far behind them. Two of the BTO satellite tagged Cuckoo’s also took advantage of the weather and arrived back in the UK after spending the winter in the Congo Rainforest, for more information and to see their full migration routes.

Cuckoo by Steve Ashton

Southern overshoots have also been well represented. Five new Cattle Egrets arrived, along with the first Squacco Heron of the year, five Black Kites, three Short-toed Larks and at least seven Red-rumped Swallows. Whilst from the east a Citrine Wagtail and Red-breasted Flycatcher were found in Norfolk, and a Black-winged Pratincole arrived in Cheshire.

The wind is due to stay in the north-east and remain fairly light throughout the weekend, turning southerly on Monday, perfect conditions for further arrivals of common migrants and vagrants from the south and east. So if you haven’t heard a Cuckoo this weekend could be the time to get out and listen, and if you do hear one you can support the BTO Cuckoo project by texting a donation to CKOO12 £2/£5/£10 to 70070, and  if you’re out looking for vagrants, a Rock Thrush might just be on the cards.

Friday 27 April 2012

North and west, east and south divide.

It has very much been a week in which migration has been a game of two halves, with south and east coast watchpoints having had a fairly quiet time as far as visible migration and grounded migrants are concerned.  In contrast, during the early part of the week, Fair Isle, Shetland, and Bardsey, Gwynedd, had their busiest days of the spring so far.

Some birds have been getting through the heavy rainstorms south of the UK. In the south, more Nightingales arrived back on territory, birds could be heard throughout southern Britain. Cuckoos continued to trickle in, along with a small number of Whitethroats and Grasshopper Warblers. Hirundines continued to arrive too but the numbers for the time of the year are low. Seawatchers in the south did experience a good passage of Great and Arctic Skuas, along with a small number of Pomarine Skuas. Arctic Terns were also still much in evidence and were joined at many sites by Little Gulls and the odd Black Tern.

Pomarine Skua by Joe Pender

Migration in the north and the west has been much more in evidence. At the beginning of the week a large number of Robins, Dunnocks, Song Thrushes and Ring Ouzels arrived on Fair Isle, along with three Tree Pipits, a Blue Headed Wagtail, ninety-one Wheatears, four Swallows, Two Wrynecks and singles of Hoopoe and Common Crane. At the same time Bardsey was teeming with migrants, which included over two-hundred Willow Warblers, over one-hundred Swallows, around eighty Blackcaps and eleven Grasshopper Warblers.

Wryneck by Jill Pakenham

Wales also held the lion’s share of southern European migrants. A Little Bittern was found in Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion hosted a Kentish Plover and six White Storks were seen over Colwyn Bay.
It is interesting to look at the distribution of migrants this week and relate them to the weather we have been experiencing. The birds that arrived on Fair Isle did so when the wind turned east/south-easterly, and those on Bardsey when the wind was from the north.

 It could be that these migrants drifted east in the westerly airflow that southern Europe have been experiencing as weather fronts arrived from the Atlantic. Having drifted east it is likely that they then made their way north on the wrong side of the North Sea, the weather here has been more settled at times. 
As they made their way north the anti-cyclonic weather fronts would find them in a more easterly airflow and by utilising this they would make their way back across the North Sea to the UK, arriving much further north than they might have been aiming for. This might help to explain a busy north and a quiet south migration-wise this week.

Looking at the weather forecast for this weekend, Saturday morning looks like the time to be out and about in search of migrants, as the winds south of the UK will be lighter than they have been for a week or so. By Saturday afternoon a low pressure system is due to cross central France, bringing heavy rain and fairly strong winds with it. It could be that Sunday will see a repeat performance of earlier in the week with the north and west again being the place to be.

Friday 20 April 2012

Arctic Terns aplenty.

Even though the weather has been challenging for northward bound migrants, particularly in southern Europe, small numbers have still trickled in in during the week, with the exception of Ring Ouzel and Arctic Tern, which arrived in force.

Arctic Tern by Andy Mason

The early part of the week saw the continued Ring Ouzel arrival but as it tailed off towards the middle of the week, Arctic Terns took over. Flocks of this marine tern were seen migrating through the Midlands, with one flock of eighty birds lingering on Wednesday afternoon at Attenborough Nature Reserve, Nottinghamshire. Accompanying these were a small number of Little Gulls and the first Black Terns of the spring.

Arctic and Common Tern can be difficult to separate. See the BTO identification video for some useful tips.

As expected, most of the migrant action has been in the south, however Fair Isle, Shetland, saw its first Swallow and Tree Pipit of the spring.

Two Turtle Doves were found in Cambridgeshire, a few Whitethroats arrived and Reed Warblers can be heard in most southern reedbeds, albeit still in small numbers.

Despite the north and westerly airflow and very stormmy weather around the Mediterranean, southern overshoots have been well represented this week. With a Kentish Plover, Little Bittern and Black Kite, Wales was the place to be. Five new Hoopoes were found in southern Britain, along with two more Black kites, in Devon and Hertfordshire, and the two Black-winged Stilts from last week still putting in appearances.

Black-winged Stilt by Neil Calbrade

Common Sandpipers also put in an appearance with small groups seen at a few south coast sites. In general though it has been a fairly quiet week for the time of the year. However, it looks like there might be a small window in the weather in Europe on Saturday afternoon/Sunday morning, which could  open the floodgates for those birds that are held-up further south, before stormy Atlantic weather returns on Monday to perhaps close them again.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Ring Ouzels arrive in force

This weekend’s cold north-easterly airflow wasn’t ideal for summer migrants heading back to the UK. However, birds did arrive, with Ring Ouzel being the most notable. Most of these were seen in the south but birds reached as far north as Glen Strathfarrar, Highland. In several counties flocks of Ring Ouzels reached into double figures, with fourteen being seen together at Pegsdon, Beds. This arrival is reflected nicely in the BirdTrack reporting rate.

Ring Ouzel by Tommy Holden

At this time of the year, Ring Ouzels can turn up on migration almost anywhere. Check-out the latest BTO identification video to listen to the differences between Ring Ouzel and Blackbird song, and other tips on identifying this enigmatic thrush.

South coast visible migration watchers were also rewarded with a steady arrival of Swallows and Willow Warblers, whilst smaller numbers of Redstarts, Yellow Wagtails and Grasshopper Warblers also made landfall. Some migrants are being held-up though, as illustrated in an email we received from Rod Leslie in the Pyrenees

"I was at Aiguamolls de l'Emporda just south of the Pyrenees yesterday (16 April) in a howling westerly gale & temperatures down to 5 degrees C. Migrants completely pinned down with large flocks of Hirundines looking very tired. In several hides where leeward windows had been left open large numbers of Swallows were sheltering - see the attached photo. They were so tired it was possible to quietly share the hide with them."

Hide full of sheltering Swallows
Aiguamolls de l'Emporda

The first multiple arrival of Nightingale was also obvious, with five singing males together in one Hampshire woodland. This spring the BTO is conducting a Nightingale survey to map all singing males.

With northerly winds dominating it is hardly surprising that Mediterranean overshoots were thin on the ground. However, at least two Hoopoes were reported, in Norfolk and Worcestershire, and two Black-winged Stilts braved the unseasonable spring chill in Dorset and Lincolnshire.

Migration across the North Sea finally got underway. Stephen Menzie reports.

Wind, rain and cool weather had put a dampener on migration at Falsterbo over the previous week or so. The last 5 days have seen a change in the weather — southeasterly winds and warmer temperatures — and with the change in weather has come a wave of migrating birds. Robins are still the most obvious (we ringed 250 on Saturday) but we've also trapped our first trans-Saharan migrants; our first Willow Warbler on Thursday and our first Lesser Whitethroat on Sunday. Moreover, we finally got our first (and so far only) Blackcap of the spring.

Lesser Whitethroat by Stephen Menzie

Swallows, Wheatears, Ring Ouzels, Tree Pipits and Ospreys have all been seen with increasing frequency over the last few days. Falsterbo has already hosted a male Redstart — an early bird by Swedish standards. Sandwich Terns have become a constant background presence as they pass along the shore close to the lighthouse. Sunday saw a Pallid Harrier passing over the peninsular — one of the birds seen here last autumn on its way back north?

Scarce short-distance migrants ringed in the lighthouse garden have included a Hawfinch and several Firecrests (it's been an exceptionally good spring for Firecrests here in southern Sweden). 3,000 Eiders passing Sweden's most southerly point was a spectacle worth seeing — migration in action!

For more see Stephen's blog.

Friday 13 April 2012

Migration hits a wall

Having spent the last week or so on the south coast of Kent, full of anticipation for the wonderful spectacle of visible spring migration that I was going to enjoy, the final result was rather disappointing.

Clear blue skies and very light winds for ten consecutive days meant that any migrants that were arriving were too high to see, and the absence of moderate wind, cloud cover and drizzle (I must have been one of the few parents over the Easter break praying for these conditions, at least for a couple of days) meant there was also very few grounded migrants. On the plus side, those migrants that did arrive were presumably able to continue on their journeys directly to their breeding grounds.

Willow Warbler by Neil Calbrade

So what did happen? Further west along the south coast the weather conditions were much more mixed. Under thick cloud cover and moderate north-westerly wind, Portland Bird Observatory experienced its biggest falls this spring so far. On the last day of March there was a fall of around 3,000 Phylloscs (Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs), 500 Blackcaps, 75 Wheatears, 12 Redstarts, 6 Ring Ouzels and 4 Pied Flycatchers, along with a steady arrival of small numbers of hirundines (Swallows, House Martins and Sand Martins).

One hundred and fifty miles to the east the picture was very different. On the same day under clear blue skies and no wind, I counted 5 Willow Warblers, 15 Chiffchaffs, 12 Wheatears, two Ring Ouzels and no Redstarts or hirundines.

So, migrants have been arriving, some such as Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff and Blackcap, in large numbers, However, for other species the arrival has been very light. For the time of year many of our summer visitors are worryingly absent. There are very few Swallows and Sand Martins around. Whitethroats and Sedge Warblers are also conspicuous by their absence too. This is probably down to southern Europe experiencing poor weather during the last week. Southern Spain and Portugal have had hailstorms, heavy rain and cool northerly winds. These conditions would be more than enough to bring migration to a halt.

With unsettled weather and a northerly airflow forecast for the next few days, migration will be slow. Birds will still arrive in small numbers and coastal watchpoints could see moderate falls as tired bird make landfall. The winds are due to be lighter on Sunday, so this could be the day to be out and about.

Friday 30 March 2012

Amazing week for migration

This week has been amazing for migrants. At times it has felt more like early May than late March, both in terms of the weather and the birds.

Around thirty Hoopoes arrived, mainly in the south and west, along with the first Purple Heron of the year.

Common migrants have also taken advantage of the continuing good weather conditions and the first Cuckoos, Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers arrived.

Birds arriving ahead of schedule included a Reed Warbler in Norfolk and a Common Swift in Dorset. Grasshopper Warblers were found at several sites, along with a few Sedge Warblers and the first Garden Warbler.

As March turns into April migration should step up a gear, and with cloudy skies and light winds forecast fort this weekend visible migration watchers could be in for a busy time. The first large arrival of Willow Warblers is on the cards.

Monday 26 March 2012

A taste of the Mediterranean

The weekend's predicted Great Spotted Cuckoo didn't turn up but there was a multiple arrival of Mediterranean overshoots. At least half-a-dozen Hoopoes were found, predictably all in the south-west, where there was also a very early Wryneck and Scops Owl. Three Alpine Swifts were seen; one making it as far north as the Butt of Lewis, Outer Hebrides. A Woodchat Shrike was found in Waterford, Ireland but the pick of the bunch, also in Ireland, was a Baillon's Crake, found on Great Saltee, Wexford. The nearest breeding area for this species is in northern central France.

Wryneck by Jill Pakenham

Common migrants didn't disappoint either, Chiffchaffs arrived en-masse and made it as far north as Shetland. Swallows and Sand Martins became more widespread, and there was a further arrival of House Martins. A handful of Tree Pipits were seen, two weeks ahead of their average arrival date of April 6, whilst the Turtle Dove seen in West Sussex is almost a month ahead of its average arrival date of April 20.The Sedge Warbler, Seen in Oxon on Sunday, is the first of the spring, and twenty-one days ahead of its average arrival date.

Sedge Warbler by Dawn Balmer

There were a couple of reports of Cuckoo over the weekend but none were pinned down or reported subsequently. The BTO satellite tagged birds are all still south of the Sahara desert, three are in Ivory Coast and one in Ghana. Presumably these birds are using this part of West Africa to prepare for the long journey north back to the UK. Having spent most of the winter in Congo, these birds could make their move across the Sahara in the next week or so. You can follow their journey .

The weather for the coming week is set to change very little, so we should see the arrival of more common migrants and more overshoots from the Med, all taking advantage of the light winds over southern Europe and the UK.

One of our partners at BirdGuides will be spending the next three months studying migration at Falsterbo, Sweden, and keeping us up to date with movements there.

Judging by the snowdrops and crocus, spring here at Falsterbo (southern Sweden) is a good few weeks behind what it was when I left northwest England. Migration has been noticeable here over the past four days — but the bulk of the species caught perhaps weren't what we in the British Isles would associate with being typical spring migrants. Of the 176 birds ringed on Friday, 117 were Robins.

Black Redstart by Stephen Menzie

Chiffchaffs are passing through — as are Wrens, Dunnocks, finches and thrushes. The last few days have seen an increase in numbers of White Wagtail, while on Sunday two Black Redstarts were seen on the peninsular including a stunning adult male ringed at the lighthouse garden. A Sparrowhawk carrying a Danish ring hinted that there might be some movement of raptors from 'across the water', while up on the heath buzzards were moving — a dozen of so Common and two Rough-legged. An Osprey was seen over the weekend and a number of Common Cranes have passed through but we're still waiting on our first Blackcaps, Wheatears, Swallows and Sand Martins.

I'll be in Falsterbo for the next three months and will be providing regular updates of how the spring is progressing over here. I'll also be updating my own blog each day with ringing news and sightings.

Friday 23 March 2012

Migration picking up speed

With a settled high pressure weather system over most of southern Europe, conditions have been looking ideal for migration to take place. It came as no surprise then, when migrants began to turn up. Chiffchaffs have been the most noticeable this week, with singing birds heard overlarge parts of the country. The BirdTrack map shows this nicely.

Meadow Pipit by Nigel Clark/BTO

Although the first large movement of Wheatears and Swallows is still to happen, a few individuals of both species have made it as far north as Highland, Scotland. A handful of Willow Warblers arrived last week too, as expected, mainly in the south. Meadow Pipits finally started to move; 1650 were counted during a visible migration watch at Hengistbury Head, Dorset on the 22nd, along with a smaller number of ‘alba’ Wagtails (Pied / White). The first Stone Curlews arrived back on their breeding grounds in the Norfolk and Suffolk Brecks, and the first House Martins were seen on the Isles of Scilly and in Northumberland.

Sand Martins arrived in sufficient numbers to form small flocks; 32 together in Lancashire was amongst the largest. At least eight Ospreys were logged, with sightings from Surrey to North Yorkshire, and an Alpine Swift spent the weekend on the Lizard, Cornwall, joining the three or four Night Herons that have arrived in the south-west.
With the weather set to continue in a similar vein, early migrants that have made it into southern Europe should begin to pour north. The high pressure system that is now over the UK stretches all the way from northern England to the northern shores of the Mediterranean, with the whole area experiencing light winds.

Serin by Su Delve

With a singing male Serin being found on the Isles of Scilly, and a Hoopoe in Cornwall in the last few days, other southern European overshooting migrants could be on the cards. A Great Spotted Cuckoo – a classic early-spring overshoot – would be a nice find!

Thursday 15 March 2012

Migrants hit by Saharan storm

In yesterday's blog, I was surprised by how few early migrants have arrived and thought that they might be facing problems much further south. We have since received an email from Andy Williams, who is working on a survey vessel just off the coast of Libya, that might help explain the hold-up.

I'm currently offshore Libya- about 15-30 nm north of Tripoli undertaking some seabird/cetacean survey work for an Italian client. I have seen a smattering of migrants- white wagtails, stonechat, black redstart, chiffchaff, blackcap, hoopoe, lesser kestrel etc over the past couple of weeks but all in very small numbers. (maybe a tad early or wrong location for big numbers?) Anyway the central and western med. has just had a significant storm over the last 4 days or so with F10 (storm force) winds and huge quantities of airborne sand and dust from the sahara.

This morning I observed yellow-legged gulls and lesser-black backs feeding on the sea surface- I initially thought they were taking squid or small fish then realised with some horror that the sea was littered with the corpses of passerines- all pretty unidentifiable as they have been waterlogged and thrashed about by the sea. I counted at least 11 corpses that were not actually eaten by the gulls. I could only observe the very small bodies out to about 20 metres from my vessel but the gulls were busy scavenging over a much wider area- impossible for me to quantify the number of dead migrants but certainly scores if not hundreds! I have never actually witnessed this before or heard of
similar accounts so though it would be pertinent to let you and the BTO know as there is currently so much interest in the 'out of Africa' program. (I have previously witnessed 'weak flyer' species such as quail crash into the sea before but have not seen anything like this previously).

To see some photographs, please see Andy's blog.