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 15 November 2013

Look out for Greenland White-fronts this week

The light westerly winds and clear days of the last week prompted the predicted huge movement of Woodpigeons, 50,800 were counted flying over Swanscombe Marshes, Kent in a single morning. Woodcock arrived in small numbers along the east coast and Fieldfares finally arrived in number; 20,000 were counted coming in off the sea in one hour on the 11th at Snettisham, Norfolk, along with 50,000 Starlings.

Starlings by Tommy Holden

So, what might happen this week.?

Greenland White-fronted Goose by Chris Mills

The weather over the weekend promises to be a mixed bag. For most of us Saturday looks like the better day and, with light westerly winds, at least in the southern half of the country and the North Sea, Redwings, Starlings and Fieldfares could be on the move again. But it is the early part of next week when things might get a little more exciting. Cold north-westerly winds straight from Greenland and Iceland look like they could bring snow to parts of the UK, along with Greenland White-fronted Geese, Icelandic Redwings and a few white-winged gulls, Glaucous and Iceland are the most obvious but a Ross’s Gull would be much appreciated.

Glaucous Gull by Peter M Wilson

As the week progresses it is forecast to get colder, and if this results in frost ground we might see the first cold weather movement of Skylarks and Lapwings.

Friday 8 November 2013

Migration not over yet

There are a few overwintering species that are obvious by their absence.  Fieldfares are still very thin on the ground, and the BirdTrack reporting rate shows this well. Woodcock is another species that should by now be building up, and Starlings have still not reached their peak. However, with the temperature dropping and light winds forecast for Saturday into Sunday, maybe this weekend will see them catch-up.

BirdTrack reporting rate for Fieldfare

BirdTrack reporting rate for Woodcock

Whooper Swans have continued to arrive, whilst Bewick’s Swans are still very thin on the ground. It might be that with lighter winds, albeit westerly, across the North Sea for part of this weekend will see Bewick’s Swans arriving too, and if we are going to experience what can be one of the most impressive movements of the autumn, the Woodpigeon migration, Saturday, into Sunday could well be the time they choose to get moving.

Bewick's Swan by Andy Mason

Waxwings have been arriving in small numbers in the north, and whilst on paper it doesn’t look like this winter will be a Waxwing winter, there are so many variables that make it difficult to predict. The berry crop might be good on the continent and hold them there, but if the temperature plummets and snow and ice make the berries impossible to get at the birds will have to move in search of new supplies. How far they go will be dependent on the extent of the freezing conditions. So, whilst it might not look like we are in for a Waxwing winter, it can never be fully ruled out.

Waxwing by Andy Mason

A cold snap on the continent will also push what has to be two of my favourite winter birds to our shores; Goldeneye and Smew. Again this will very much depend on the weather across the North Sea.

So, whilst we might be heading for mid-November, migration still has a lot to offer and, if we do get an arrival of wildfowl there is always a chance of something interesting arriving with them; King Eider is always a favourite but an accessible Steller’s Eider would draw the crowds.

Friday 25 October 2013

West might be best

The southerly airflow of the last week or so resulted in a small influx of Pallid Swifts and Hoopoes, and during the periods when the wind was light the first large movement of Starlings across the North Sea, accompanied by smaller numbers of Chaffinches, Bramblings and thrushes.

Brambling by Tommy Holden

This week things are going to be very different indeed. A fast moving low pressure system is due to hit us on Monday, bringing very stormy weather with it. This will firmly put the brakes on any movement across the North Sea, and indeed anything trying to leave the UK too.

Upland Sandpiper by Joe Pender

So, it will be all eyes to the west this weekend and into the early part of next week, with the chances of North American birds turning up being high. Chimney Swift, Cliff Swallow, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Upland Sandpiper are all possible. We may see something even more exciting from that direction, with Britain’s second ever Cape May Warbler currently on the Shetland, perhaps we might see Britain’s second ever Yellow-throated Vireo too.

Golden Plover by Tommy Holden

Once the storm leaves our shores the north of the UK will for a short while be bathed in a north-westerly airflow. This could result in the first large arrival of Whooper Swans, Icelandic Redwings and any laggardly Golden Plovers that are still left that far north.

Friday 18 October 2013

Look to the south, and the south-west, and possibly the north and north-east!

The weather forecast over the next few days puts us largely in warm air from the south, from as far south as central Spain, and so we might expect one or two birds from that direction. During the last few days there has already been a Pallid Swift in Cleveland, a new Purple Heron in Shetland and a Hoopoe on the Farnes, and more of this is on the cards. We could see one or two more Hoopoes, Woodchat Shrike and maybe a Red-rumped Swallow.

Swainson's Thrush by Bryan Thomas

The weather forecast is a little more complicated than it seems; as the next couple of days unfold a low pressure system will cross the Atlantic bringing south westerlies with it and, although it isn’t a very deep low, or particularly fast moving, it could bring a North American bird or two to the Isles of Scilly; my money would be on a thrush, possibly Swainson’s. As the low spins across the UK, Shetland and the north-east will be bathed in an easterly airflow, just as high-pressure begins to build over Scandinavia. This should definitely result in a fresh arrival of birds; although for Shetland we are now quite late in the season, easterlies at this time of the year have the capacity to bring something very rare with them – Rufous-tailed Robin, Yellow-browed Bunting sort of rare!

Reed Bunting by John Harding

What will this mean for the common migrants still making their way south and west? In between this mix of weather there will be times when the winds become light, from whichever direction they originate. During these spells of lighter winds, migrants will move and we could see finches (mainly Linnet and Goldfinch but Redpoll should also feature), Reed Buntings, Skylarks and thrushes (mainly Redwing, Song Thrush and Blackbird), and Starlings moving in good numbers. Now would be a great time to start the BTO Winter Thrush Survey to help us find out where they go and what these birds do, when they get here.

Brent Geese on the move by Andy Mason

Offshore, the number of Brent Geese on the move will increase and we should also see Red-throated Divers too, and, if we look at the BirdTrack reporting rate, the Whooper Swan arrival should peak in the next week.

Whooper Swan BirdTrack reporting rate

So, even though the weather doesn’t look ideal for a large arrival of birds from the east, or the west, or even the north, there should definitely be birds of a southern flavour, and there ought to be something for everyone this weekend.

Paul Stancliffe

Friday 11 October 2013

What a difference a week makes

I spent last weekend with BTO’s Head of Membership & Volunteering Ieuan Evans, at the Dorset Birdfair, in the spectacular setting of Durlston Country Park. As we left our accommodation there was light drizzle in the air and lowish cloud and a light, warm south-westerly breeze blowing but on arrival at the park, the ‘rain’ had stopped and the cloud lifted and the day turned very summer-like. Setting up our stand, overlooking the sea, hundreds of Swallows were pouring over our heads, interspersed with flocks of Goldfinches.

Linnets by Martin Cade, Portland Bird Observatory

As the morning progressed the Swallows continued to move and were joined by smaller numbers of House Martins and a few Sand Martins. The finches became more varied with flocks of Chaffinches and Linnets joining the Goldfinches. During the early afternoon, Skylarks began to move, in flocks 20-30 birds strong, and three Woodlarks arrived from the east. The movement continued all day, and involved around 2-3,000 Swallows, 3-400 House Martins, 500 Goldfinches, 100 Linnets and 2-300 Chaffinches. A small number of Mediterranean Gulls were  moving offshore. 

We were also treated to some fantastic southern insects, the highlight of which had to be nine Convolvulus Hawkmoths, two Crimson-speckled Footmen and a Bloxworth Snout. The bonus was that one of the BTO guided walks  coincided with a swim-past by a pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins that were moving east close inshore.

Ieuan photographing Convolvulus Hawkmoths

Fast forward a week and we are back in Norfolk, the temperature has dropped around 10 degrees, the wind is storm-force and coming from the north-east. With high-pressure over Scandinavia and easterly airflow across the North Sea, Redwings have begun to move in force – over 33,000 were counted moving over the Pinnacle, Sandy, Beds during the morning of the 10th. The high-pressure is forecast to settle over Scandinavia for the next few days, so this figure could be eclipsed as more Redwings make the move south. It is estimated that around three-quarters of a million Redwings spend the winter here, so there are plenty more to come. Blackbirds and Starlings should also begin to arrive in number, along with the first real flush of Fieldfares. The finches will continue to move but there could be some good sized flocks of Brambling and Siskin to count.

Little Auk by Andy Mason

Along the east coast a seawatch should also prove fruitful. Skuas; Great, Arctic and the odd Pomarine should weigh-in, and we could see an arrival of Little Auks in the north-east. On the duck front, Wigeon and Teal could put on an impressive show this weekend as they arrive from the continent.
If I were to predict a rarity, Red-flanked Bluetail would be favourite, although nowadays it is more a scarcity than a rarity. There could be one-or-two Radde’s Warblers found and although it is a little early, Pallas’s Warblers could put in reasonable showing. Ieuan has suggested Nutcracker, and he is definitely in with a shout. 

Paul Stancliffe

Friday 4 October 2013

It's all happening out there!

Sitting behind a desk, gazing at a computer screen, it can be hard to get a handle on what's happening outside the window, let alone further afield! However, having immediate access to the powerful combination of BirdTrack, Twitter, the bird news services and a range of weather websites – not to mention the plethora of BTO staff 'bird brains' and thousands of volunteers ready to share their observations – does have its advantages. This week's news has been as interesting and varied as ever, ranging from tales of House Martin chicks still in the nest in north Cumbria and Ireland to the first Radde's Warbler of the autumn, on the Isle of May in Fife.

House Martin chicks still in a nest in Co. Fermanagh, Ireland on 2 October
David Morrow

High pressure was settled over the continent to the east and north of Britain into the early part of this week, with light easterly winds continuing to drift scarce passage migrants like Yellow-browed Warbler and Red-breasted Flycatcher in our direction. Conditions were also reasonable for the departure of hirundines, warblers and other small passerines at the start of the week, though the wind increased in strength as the week wore on and is forecast to swing to the southwest, offering less conducive conditions for birds departing across the Channel. However, as the high pressure to the east meets the low pressure from the west and creates more unsettled weather, it may ground any migrants that have left the continent onto the east coast of UK, and the conditions may still be good enough for some slightly bigger Redwing arrivals.

BirdTrack reporting rate for Redwing... due any day now!

It is worth looking out for White Wagtail too; they should also be on the move and can often migrate with thrushes. With Song Thrush and Redwing already beginning to appear and Fieldfare not too far behind, now is a great time to plan your first BTO Winter Thrushes Survey visit of the autumn.

A couple of low pressure systems are moving east across the Atlantic over the weekend and whilst they aren't particularly deep, could still bring a nearctic vagrant or two with them. Friday saw the discovery of a mega-rarity on Shetland, a Thick-billed Warbler, a species that breeds no nearer than the banks of the river Ob' in Russia, along with belated news of an equally rare species from at least as far to the west, a Cedar Waxwing that spent the last week of September in a garden on Tiree. On the basis that predictions are only remembered if they come true – and spurred on by Shetland's rare warbler (not to mention Norfolk's false alarm about a Rufous-tailed Robin) – I'll stick my neck out and say Siberian Blue Robin on Spurn and on the back of those low pressure systems crossing the Atlantic, a Least Sandpiper (or two) in Cornwall.

Friday 27 September 2013

Look to the east this week

This week has seen migration step-up a pace. Swallows have been pouring out of the country. On the south coast they were on the move in what was described as ‘biblical proportions’. 34,000 were counted moving through Christchurch Harbour alone on the 22nd, accompanied by 2-3,000 House Martins. Pink-footed Goose flocks increased throughout the week, the first Redwing flocks began to arrive and finches also started to move, mainly involving Goldfinch and Linnet, albeit in small numbers. Bramblings and Lapland Buntings also began arriving bang on cue.

Lapland Bunting by Dawn Balmer

On the rarity front it really was a case of east meets west, with top drawer birds arriving from both directions. Top billing has to go to the North American Eastern Kingbird on Inishbofin, Galway, shared with the Wilson’s Warbler on Dursey Island, Cork? Whilst from the east the White’s Thrush on Fair Isle, Shetland, and the two Brown Shrikes, in Hampshire and on Orkney were not too far behind.

Almost putting these in the shade, however, was the sheer number of Yellow-Browed Warblers that arrived. On Unst, Shetland, 80 were counted on 26 September alone, and birds made it as far south as Kent. With 40 on Fair Isle, Shetland and double figure counts from other sites too, there could be as many as a thousand in the country, surely one of, if not the, biggest arrival of these fantastic little birds ever.

So what of the weather over the next few days? High pressure is pretty much settled over the continent east of the UK, putting us in a fairly constant easterly airflow, at least for the next three or four days. So, this is where most of the action should come from. It is hard to believe that more Yellow-browed Warblers could arrive but a further arrival is definitely on the cards, and it is inevitable that they will bring something rarer with them. A showy mainland, east coast Lanceolated Warbler would be too much to ask of this supreme skulker but it is one to look out for.

Brent Geese by Andy Mason

Brent Geese should really begin to move this week, along with Wigeon and Red-Throated Diver, particularly for those seawatching from the east coast, and for visible migration watchers, Meadow Pipit could put on quite a show, whilst finch numbers should also build through the week.

Black-billed Cuckoo by Su Gough

With everything pointing to arrivals from the east it would be easy to forget the west, and, although the lows tracking across the Atlantic won’t be quite as deep as those of last week, they could still quite easily bring the odd North American bird with them. Black-billed Cuckoo is long-overdue and would be guaranteed a lot of attention if one did arrive.

Friday 20 September 2013

East meets west

Westerly airflow and Atlantic storms have dominated the weather this week, as have birds that would be expected during these conditions. Leach’s Petrels have been seen in good numbers off north-western coasts, American waders, such as Buff-breasted Sandpiper, American Golden Plover, Baird’s Sandpiper and Wilson’s Phalarope have all been found, along with the second North American landbird of the autumn so far, a Baltimore Oriole on Shetland. Shetland also hosted the first North American landbird this autumn, a Black-and-white Warbler. The north and west have had the lion’s share of the action, which is not that surprising as the Atlantic storms have arrived to the north of the UK. What is a little more surprising is the arrival of birds from the east.

Yellow-browed Warbler by Joe Graham

Despite the almost continuous westerly airflow at least a dozen Yellow-browed Warblers arrived during the week and a couple of Arctic Warblers and a Little Bunting on the northern isles added to the eastern them. New Red-backed Shrikes and Wrynecks were also found but for rarity hunters, these were overshadowed by the Brown Shrike found in Hampshire on the 20th.

The strong westerlies disrupted migration a little but Meadow Pipits did move when conditions allowed, 5,700 were counted moving through Spurn on 17th. Bang on cue, 2,610 Pink-footed Geese also passed over the same site on the 18th, probably on their way to North Norfolk. Swallows and House Martins moved through in good numbers over the same couple of days.

The weather forecast for the weekend promises much of the same. A low will track across the Atlantic and will be stopped in its tracks just off the west coast of Ireland as it comes up against high pressure that extends from Eastern Europe all the way to Ireland. The perfect recipe for more east meets west birding, only this time the action could be much further south. I wouldn’t place any bets but American Redstart in the South west and a Bimaculated Lark in Norfolk would definitely fit the bill but Red-eyed Vireo and more Yellow-browed Warblers might be more likely.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Celebrating migration

A week is a long time in migration, and things are moving on apace. The summery weather of late August and the first few days of September has been replaced by much more autumnal conditions, and the birds being recorded have changed accordingly. In this week's strong northwesterlies – particularly in the North Sea – migrating seabirds have featured prominently. Arctic Skua passage has been impressive and the timing has been remarkably faithful to the long-term average in BirdTrack:

Pale-phase Arctic Skua. Problems identifying this tricky group?
Help is at hand in the BTO Bird ID video - Skuas.
Edmund Fellowes

Sooty Shearwater is a true 'global citizen', breeding in the sub-antarctic then moving into temperate zones of the North Atlantic, with numbers in British and Irish waters peaking at this time of year. Birds seen by sea-watchers here in September and October are thought likely to be non-breeding birds, since large-scale passage of birds returning to their breeding colonies occurs off South America in late August. There just wouldn't be long enough for the birds that are still in the seas around our coasts now to get to the breeding grounds in time.

Sea-watchers hoping for a Sooty Shearwater
at the Spurn Migration Festival, 6–8 September 2013.
Nick Moran

Amazing migrations are worthy of celebration, and that's exactly what the Spurn Migration Festival that took place last weekend was all about. Packed with exciting events, there were lots of ways for visitors to sample the marvels of migration. Guided migrant walks, wader- and sea-watching sessions and ringing demonstrations offered the chance to experience migrants first-hand. A programme of instructive talks and workshops helped to put the birds' journeys – and the importance of Spurn itself to these birds – into context. If the event runs again in future, it comes highly recommended!

It was great to see so many people using the BirdTrack App as they enjoyed and recorded the scattering of scarce migrants that were refuelling at Spurn over the weekend: a Red-backed Shrike, a couple of Common Rosefinch and an elusive Wryneck, among others. There were plenty of waders too, including Curlew Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank and some loose flocks of Snipe, seen arriving over the sea.

A recently-arrived Snipe at Spurn – perhaps a bird that was in one of
the small groups seen coming 'in-off' during the Sea-watching event!
Nick Moran

Ahead of time? This year's autumn arrival of Snipe has been
slightly earlier than the long-term average in BirdTrack.

The Spurn Migration Festival also offered unique opportunities to witness the astounding radar patterns recorded at Spurn during the phenomenal fall of thrushes in late October 2012, and to get a migrant's-eye view of the whole area from the top of the lighthouse. The latter gave an insight – from the perspective of a migratory bird – into the reasons why locations like this are such important stop-over sites. Surrounded by sea and mudflats, the habitat provides an oasis for land birds arriving from across the North Sea or moving south along the east coast, as well as a vital landmark for navigating raptors and other day-flying migrants.

Migrant-magnet: a unique view of Spurn Point from the top of the lighthouse,
highlighting the site's attractiveness to migratory birds.

Heading south: the view greeting diurnal migrants like raptors as they reach
the tip of Spurn Point and prepare to cross the mouth of the Humber estuary.
Nick Moran

Talking of migratory thrushes, the BTO Winter Thrushes Survey will launch for its second winter on Sunday 15 September, in time to catch the earliest-arriving Redwing in the next week or so. Even so-called 'resident' species like Blackbird will be on the move, as illustrated by the reporting patterns in both Garden BirdWatch and BirdTrack.

Last week's predictions came to fruition as the bad weather grounded a few more migrants, including a handful of Red-backed Shrike, along the east coast, and the westerly airflow did indeed produce a North American land bird in the form of a stunning – if fleeting – Black-and-white Warbler on Shetland! With north and northwesterly winds forecast to continue until the weekend, it's time to turn our attention to birds arriving from Iceland. Pink-footed Goose numbers should increase rapidly, and we can expect arrivals of other waterfowl like Wigeon and Pintail. Also coming from the same area are many of our wintering Merlin and Snow Bunting, sightings of which should begin increasing too. The first few Lapland Bunting have arrived in the north and west (perhaps an indication that they are from the Canadian / Greenland population) and more should be on their way soon.

Moving up the rarity stakes, the first North American Catharus thrush of the autumn – maybe a Swainson's Thrush – could be on the cards, and how about a hirundine or swift from across the Pond? There's already been a Purple Martin in Holland and a Chimney Swift in Portugal in the last week, so here's hoping!

Friday 6 September 2013

Autumn migration hits its peak - for some species

The peak period for autumn migration, as measured by large movements of a particular species at a bird observatory, or migration watchpoint, is often thought to run from mid September to mid October. However, for some species the peak has already passed, the last of the satellite tagged BTO Cuckoos left the UK on 26 July.  For others, it is right now, as is the case for Whinchat, and it will be a few weeks away until Meadow Pipits peak. So there is plenty to look forward to.

Meadow Pipit by

Of course, migration is influenced by the vagaries of the weather and birds can either be held up, or leave early, depending on the conditions.  BirdTrack is a good indicator as to what is happening as the autumn unfolds. The BirdTrack reporting rate for Whinchat illustrates this perfectly, and shows that unless things change Whinchat migration is bang on cue.

Whinchat reporting rate graph.

So, how might the weather influence migration this weekend?

Met Office pressure map - - 0100 Saturday 7 Sept

Low pressure is centred over the UK from Friday afternoon into Saturday morning and as a consequence of this the weather is going to be unsettled for most of us. On the face of it it doesn’t look like there will be much movement from the east, however, depending on the timing of rain on the west coast of Norway, migrants here might be tempted to leave and be drifted across the North Sea in a short window of easterly airflow. So with poor weather on the east coast, particularly from Shetland down to Yorkshire, we might see a fall of migrants that should include Whinchats, and possibly a few Red-backed Shrikes. And, who knows? Maybe something altogether more exciting, I’m hoping for a Norfolk Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler  but will be just as happy with a small fall of Spotted Flycatchers.

Saturday morning looks best for the east coast, whilst on Sunday, interest could turn to the west and perhaps an early North American land bird.

Friday 30 August 2013

Migration steps up a gear

Autumn migration moved on with a bang during the Bank Holiday weekend. The conditions on Saturday into Sunday looked good for an arrival of birds from across the North Sea but nothing could have prepared us for the spectacle that unfolded.

Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts arrived in force at many east coast sites, as shown by the BirdTrack reporting rate graphs below. Whinchat migration also got underway, however, the majority of the birds seen at the weekend would be continental breeders on the move; ninety-two were counted on Saturday at Spurn Point, and over twenty Red-backed Shrikes were found.

But it was the scale of scarce and rare migrants that was most astounding. Over sixty Wrynecks were found during Saturday and Sunday, with twenty-seven being found at Spurn alone on Sunday. Over twenty Greenish and Icterine Warblers were found from Shetland to Dorset, along with as many as ten Booted Warblers.  Add to the mix, up to six Citrine Wagtails, two Short-toed Larks, a Bluethroat and a single Rose-coloured Starling and it was a very special weekend indeed.

Wryneck by Jill Pakenham

Waders were well represented too. Curlew Sandpipers flooded in. Over two-hundred were reported over the weekend, and as many as thirty Wood Sandpipers, and up to sixty Little Stints were found.

So, what can we expect this weekend? A westerly/north-westerly airflow will dominate, and with low pressure centred over Iceland any birds migrating south from there could well get pushed closer to our west coast. Waders such as Whimbrel, Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank and Golden Pover, should arrive. with the majority being juveniles. Amongst these look out for colour ringed Black-tailed Godwits, and if you do see any, report them to These waders could be found anywhere, so don’t despair if a visit to the west coast is not possible. A few Buff-breasted Sandpipers arrived in Britain and Ireland over the last couple of days and we could see a few more of these over the weekend, with maybe one or two more Wilson’s Phalaropes to add to the one currently in Northern Ireland.

Sabine's Gull by Joe Pender

Terns and skuas will also be on the move, now is a good time to look out for Long-tailed Skuas amongst the Arctics, see our latest Bird ID video for help with Skuas. Sabine’s Gull is also a strong possibility on the west coast this weekend.

Friday 23 August 2013

Autumn migration

Whilst the weather still feels quite summery, for some of our birds the summer is well and truly over. Migration has begun in earnest and already flocks of terns, mainly Arctic, are being recorded moving down the west coast. This is a sure sign that skua passage is about to start too, and the next couple of weeks should see this take place.

Waders have been on the move for over a month but with juveniles now joining the adult birds, this is probably the best time of the year to get out and enjoy these global wanderers. Gravel pits and the muddy fringes of inland lakes can just as easily turn up passage waders as coastal sites, so don't be disheartened if you live a long way from the sea. Green Sandpipers are currently well represented but during the next week or so, these will be joined by more Wood and Curlew Sandpipers. Little Stints are also beginning to turn up and if we get a bit of east in the wind, Temminck's Stints could also feature.

Whimbrels have started to leave their northerly breeding grounds and flocks have been seen migrating far out to see, passing a survey vessel 100 miles southwest of the Irish coast. For more birding news from the survey vessel read the Pelagic Birder blog here.   

Above: Whimbrels by Andy Williams 

Passerines are popping up at coastal watchpoints with Redstart, Spotted and Pied Flycatchers all being found. Swifts are pouring out of the country and House Martins and Swallows are also beginning to move is smaller numbers.

The warm southerly airflow that we are in at the moment has resulted in a couple of Woodchat Shrikes, a Short-toed Lark and a Black Stork already, but we could see more arriving from the continent over the next couple of days. Wryneck and Hoopoe might well be on the cards, and perhaps an autumn Bee-eater or Alpine Swift too.

Saturday and Sunday are forecast to have an easterly element in the wind and this could bring a few birds from the east. Greenish Warbler and Rose-coloured Starling are favourites, and Aquatic Warbler might be expected too. Aquatic Warbler is now much rarer than it used to be as a passage bird in the UK but it is still worth looking out for in mid to late August when easterly winds occur.

Monday 5 August 2013

There and back again

Two months have snuck by since our last update. It's been anything but quiet for migrant birds during that period though. June will be remembered by some as the Month of the Rare Swift, with long-distance (and very lost) travellers in the form of a Pacific Swift and a Needle-tailed Swift reaching our shores. Rare seabirds soon got in on the action when an exquisite Bridled Tern appeared on the Farne Islands in early July, quickly followed by an even more astounding sight: an Ascension Frigatebird found resting on a harbour wall on Islay on 5 July!

Lots has been happening amongst our more familiar species too. All our satellite-tagged Cuckoos have departed, with several already south of the Sahara! Some juvenile Cuckoos will still be in the country but the vast majority of these are also expected to leave in the next couple of weeks. (Common) Swift numbers are starting to drop off too, though as of last week they were still being recorded on about 30% of BirdTrack complete lists.

Arctic-breeding waders, restricted as they are to a short breeding season, are already heading south again. Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint and Spotted Redshank are amongst the many wader species that can be encountered at this time of year, and certainly spice up late summer birding trips.

Spotted Redshank by Chris Mills
Some Spotted Redshank retain their breeding finery into early August.
Chris Mills

In some years, July sees an influx of Common Crossbill, presumably involving a high proportion of Scandinavian-bred birds. This July certainly lived up to its (cross)billing, as the BirdTrack reporting rate below shows. Furthermore, it wasn't just the more familiar Common Crossbill that arrived but also unusually large numbers of their much rarer cousin, Two-barred Crossbill. This species breeds in Scandinavia and eastwards, lending weight to the suggestion of a Scandinavian origin to these influxes. The geographic spread of the Two-barred Crossbill arrival was noteworthy: whilst influxes are often confined to or at least concentrated on the Shetland and Orkney islands, this year's arrival featured multiple records down the English east coast, from Spurn to East Anglia. 4 birds even had the good grace to spend a few days less than 15 minutes' drive from the Nunnery, providing a nice lunchtime distraction for many BTO staff members!

BirdTrack reporting rate: Common Crossbill
The Common Crossbill influx as reflected in the BirdTrack reporting rate.

A round-up of migration activity in early August wouldn't be complete without a mention of the seabirds passing through British and Irish waters at this time of year. Whilst southern Ireland has had the lions share of goodies (including up to 3 individual Fea's Petrel in one day, plus an even rarer Bulwer's Petrel), counts of several thousand Manx Shearwater have already been recorded from southwest Cornwall on several dates. Whilst this species breeds on offshore islands in Britain and Ireland, some of the other species already logged by seawatchers in the southwest have come from much further afield. At the end of July I was lucky enough to see a scarce Great Shearwater whilst on a 'pelagic' (a boat trip in search of pelagic seabirds). This species breeds no nearer than the island of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic, one of only a very few species to migrate north to winter in the North Atlantic.

Great Shearwater by Martin Elliott, Mermaid II pelagic
'My' Great Shearwater, a few miles south of Land's End.
Martin Elliott

Friday 7 June 2013

Migration ends with a bang?

It’s not quite the end of the spring migration season – there is still plenty of time for a few surprises yet – but the remarkable sight of over 1,000 Spotted Flycatchers at Portland, Dorset, last weekend probably marks the beginning of the end for visible migration this spring.

Light northerlies here, coupled with a break in the weather further south, provided perfect conditions for those birds still held up on the continent to head north. Accompanying the Spotted Flycatchers were a few Wheatears, Willow Warblers, Whinchats, Reed Warblers and Garden Warblers in what must have been a true natural spectacle.

Whinchat by Ron Marshall

Late-spring rarities were also well represented in the shape of a very short-staying Crested Lark in Kent, a Black-headed Bunting on the Farnes, a new Savi’s Warbler in Devon, three Subalpine Warblers, one Eastern (Portland, Dorset) and two western (Fair Isle, Shetland and Bardsey Island, Gwynedd) and 2013’s first River Warbler (also on Fair Isle, Shetland). Add to this Hoopoe, Short-toed Lark, Red-spotted and White-spotted Bluethroat, Wryneck and a scattering of Bee-eaters and Red-backed Shrikes, it was amongst one of the best weeks this spring for overshooting/drift migrants.

Crested Lark by John Harding

With easterly airflow forecast until at least the early part of next week we could see more of the same but perhaps a top-drawer rarity might accompany them. The east coast ought to be the place to be and a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater would certainly draw a lot of birdwatchers that way.

Friday 31 May 2013

The last few days of spring?

The last few days of May and diminishing returns from visible migration watchers usually marks the beginning of the end for spring migration. However, right now spring migration is still well under way.

House Martins are still being seen arriving in the low hundreds; 226 were counted passing overhead during a 90 minute sample count at Portland Bill, Dorset on 29 May;  these birds were also accompanied by good numbers of Swifts. The number of Spotted Flycatchers is more in keeping with mid-May than the end of May; looking at the BirdTrack reporting rate we can expect a few more yet.

BirdTrack reporting rate for Spotted Flycatcher

Southern and eastern overshoots have been much in evidence this week. Red-backed Shrike led the way with over fifty being reported, followed by Common Rosefinch, which were reported from Devon to Shetland, involving as many as twenty individuals.  A supporting cast of four each of Woodchat Shrike and Short-toed Lark, three Hoopoe and several Wrynecks were upstaged by a European Roller in Hampshire, the first there since 1987.

Red-backed Shrike by N. E. Wildlife

Top-drawer rarity value was added by a White-throated Sparrow in a private garden in Lincolnshire and a Balearic Woodchat Shrike in Orkney.

With high-pressure set to dominate over the weekend and into at least the early part of next week, the resultant relatively light northerlies and warmer temperatures could mean more of the same bird-wise, perhaps with the addition of some bird of prey movement that could include Honey-buzzards and maybe a Black Kite or two.

Friday 24 May 2013

Eastern delights

The easterly airflow earlier in the week didn’t disappoint and there was a real flavour of the east. Around 100 Red-backed Shrikes were found, along with at least 15 Red-spotted Bluethroats and a handful of Ortolan Buntings. Other highlights included a Citirine Wagtail on the Outer Hebrides, a Paddyfield Warbler on Orkney and a Lesser Grey Shrike in Northumberland. Even with this supporting cast no-one could have foretold the finding of Britain’s first ever spring Dusky Thrush, found in the cemetery in Margate, Kent, an event which attracted over one thousand birders the day after its discovery.

Bluethroat by Edmund Fellowes

As the winds turned to the north-west mid-week, so did the attention and an impressive movement of Long-tailed Skuas began, an amazing 1,125 passed Aird an Runair, Outer Hebrides in two-and-a-half hours on the 22nd.

BirdTrack reporting rate for Spotted Flycatcher

On the common migrants front, Spotted Flycatcher, Swift and House Martin are still below the norm for this time of the year, as shown by the BirdTrack reporting rate. However, with warmer weather and lighter winds forecast for next week maybe we will see them catch-up.
With that in mind, next week could see the arrival of more overshooting migrants from the south and east, with Monday/Tuesday looking the best time for this. A showy Calandra Lark would fit the bill nicely.

Friday 17 May 2013

Spring not so Swift

To report that Swifts have arrived en masse might not seem that unusual for mid-May but their arrival this year has been far from the norm. The first arrivals were particularly early, Shetland recorded its earliest ever Swift on Fair Isle on 16 April, with the first in the country being on 23 March on St Agnes, Isle of Scilly. It wasn’t until the first few days of May that they became more widespread, however. But, when they did arrive it was in much smaller numbers; when Swifts arrive they normally arrive everywhere at once. That didn’t happen and it took a second wave of arrivals on 15 May for them to become truly widespread this spring.

The topsy-turvy weather has also held back Spotted Flycatchers, which are now running over a week later than normal.

So, where are we at so far this spring? Many of the early migrants that were running two to three weeks late have now caught up, Sand Martin is one of these that was very thin on the ground a few weeks ago. For some ID tips to separate these and other hirundines, take a look at the latest ID Video: Hirundines and Swift.  The warblers have pretty much caught up as far as arrival is concerned but are running a bit late when it comes to breeding, while for terns it is pretty much business as usual.
Turtle Doves are still very difficult to find but that might be more a sign of the times than a late arrival.
Turtle Dove by Jill Pakenham

It has been a reasonable spring so far for rarer migrants, the early part might be remembered for the influx of White-spotted Bluethroats, Subalpine Warblers and Woodchat Shrikes, whilst the Rock Thrush at Spurn will undoubtedly be a highlight for many. It is far from over yet though and the last half of May and first half of June can often host top-drawer rarities. We should also see the arrival of more of those late common migrants like Spotted Flycatcher, Nightjar and hopefully Turtle Dove.
So what does the weather promise this weekend? The forecast is for the weather to remain unsettled for at least the next few days but the winds will, at least on Sunday, have an easterly element in them, originating from Scandinavia.  Birds trying to head north through Northern Europe might get pushed west into the UK so there is a possibility of Red-backed Shrikes, Wryneck and possibly the odd Marsh Warbler.