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.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Finches on the move?

The last week has seen the number of Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Siskins build in a few BTO staff member’s gardens here in Thetford. It has been a very quiet winter for all three so we are almost certainly experiencing a movement of these birds through the area. Presumably these are birds that have been wintering south and west of here and are moving north and east in preparation for the forthcoming breeding season. The BirdTrack graphs for Chaffinch and Goldfinch show the upturn of both species well. It is interesting to note that Chaffinch is well below its historical average, probably as a result of fewer birds crossing the North Sea last autumn.

All of the satellite tagged Cuckoos that we are currently following have made a move north; Selborne currently leads the pack and has moved further west in the last couple of days into Guinea. In 2017 he crossed the Sahara on 25 March, having arrived in West Africa on 2 February. It is fascinating to think that along with the Cuckoos many of our summer migrants will already be on their way back too. House Martin and Swallow have already been recorded in southern Europe.
Follow the Cuckoos here as they make their way back.

Closer to home, Red-throated Divers are on the move, with double figure counts past several coastal watchpoints and Wigeon numbers are also beginning to build at east coast sites.

Red-throated Diver by Andy Mason

With lots of birds redistributing around the country now is a great time to look for rarer geese amongst the flocks of commoner species. Flocks of Pink-footed Geese are worth checking for Tundra Bean, and Red-breasted Geese have been known to associate with them too.

Iceland Gull by Scott Mayson

White winged gulls are also on the cards as they too begin to move back north, Iceland and Glaucous Gulls can turn up almost anywhere at this time.

Scott Mayson and Paul Stancliffe

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Migration underway

It might only be the end of January and the days might still be short but some of our birds have already begun their spring migration. Fieldfare and Redwing have started moving north and east, with numbers beginning to build in eastern Britain. Siskins have started to turn up at garden feeding stations as they too make their way back north, and the first of the BTO satellite-tagged Cuckoos has begun the long journey back to the UK.

Cuckoo PJ spent most of the winter in Angola but since leaving there last week he has travelled 1,600 km (1,000 miles) north and is now in Cameroon. He should head west from here before once again turning north and crossing the mighty Sahara. You can follow him as he makes his way back home during the next couple of months.

Auks are also on the move and Guillemots and Razorbills could be back prospecting on their breeding ledges any day now. Look out for them at coastal watch points.

Guillemot by Sarah Kelman

One of the biggest surprises of the autumn 2017 migration was the unprecedented arrival of Hawfinches into Britain. The exact number is difficult to calculate as the birds are so widespread and mobile, but it is thought in excess of 1,000 birds have arrived here and that the true figure might even be as high as 5,000. The estimated breeding population is only 500 – 1,000 pairs, so this is an incredible increase. The BirdTrack graph shows how spectacular this arrival was compared to the historical average for the species, and they are still being seen across the UK. Some of the largest concentrations are currently to be found in Surrey, Sussex and Shropshire.

Hawfinch BirdTrack reporting rate 2017 almost quadrupled

It’s only a matter of time before the wintering geese and wildfowl begin to head north and east too. February is the peak month for Pintail, Goldeneye and White-fronted Goose all of which will be steadily heading to the breeding grounds in Northern and Eastern Europe. Male Goldeneyes at this time of the year can often be seen performing their display which involves throwing their heads backwards, then forwards – extending the neck as they do so – in readiness for the breeding season ahead. Other wildfowl will be getting in to flocks ready to depart when the weather is favourable, with some heading across Europe whilst others,such as Whooper Swans and Pink-footed Geese, will be heading to Iceland and Greenland for the summer months.

Scott Mayson, BirdTrack Organiser, and Paul Stancliffe, Media Manager

Friday, 27 October 2017

Hawfinches galore!

The incredible numbers of Hawfinches across southern England has dominated the migration picture this week, with thousands of birds thought to be involved and there does not appear to be any let up.  Many areas where Hawfinch would be a rare bird if a single bird appeared have seen staggering numbers, with the largest count being 115 over Steps Hill in Buckinghamshire on a single morning.

Hawfinch by Chris Knights

Possibly the most unusual record this week was a Razorbill about as far inland as it is possible for a seabird to turn up, at Draycote Water in Warwickshire, but unfortunately it was found dead the following day.

Despite a continuation of westerly winds in many areas this week, few new vagrants from North America were found, though Blackpoll Warbler on North Uist, Grey-cheeked Thrushes in Co.Cork and on Scilly, and a fly-through Cliff Swallow at Spurn Point were seen. 

Rare birds from the east as a result have been relatively few with Pallid Swift at Spurn and it or another further up the Yorkshire coast and a Black-throated Thrush on Fair Isle being the highlights.  A scattering of Dusky and Radde’s Warblers, Olive-backed Pipit and Little Buntings were found too, fairly typical birds seen at this time of the year.

Brambling by Allan Drewitt
A brief switch to much colder northerly winds this weekend will see further arrivals of Redwings and Fieldfares along with Song Thrushes and Blackbirds and finches, in particular Chaffinches and Bramblings from Scandinavia.  Wildfowl too will be on the move with more Pink-footed, Barnacle and Brent Geese and Whooper Swans arriving from their arctic breeding grounds to spend the winter in the UK. The first Little Auks of the autumn may appear, mostly in Scotland, though some may penetrate into the North Sea down the east coast of England as far as Norfolk or Suffolk.

Brent Goose by John Harding
After the brief spell of northerly winds over the weekend, westerly winds are again set to dominate next week which may curtail the arrival of many traditional migrants, though we could see further American vagrants – American Robin and Rose-breasted Grosbeak are often among the later autumn vagrants found. 

- Neil Calbrade

Friday, 20 October 2017

Bird, birds and more birds!

It seems that birds from all points of the compass have been arriving in Britain during the last week. Unsurprisingly, given the westerly storms, several species of North America landbirds were found. A White-crowned Sparrow, one each of Swainson’s and Grey Cheeked Thrushes, singles of Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Blackpoll Warbler and two Red-eyed Vireos graced our shores.

Even though westerlies have dominated the weather, a small window of northeasterly at the beginning of the week and lighter winds during the last few days have meant that birds from the east were able to cross the North Sea, most notably thrushes. Many of us will have enjoyed the first significant arrival of Redwings, along with a few Fieldfares. Accompanying these have been arrivals of Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and a few Ring Ouzels. Finches have also been on the move, most notably Chaffinches, Siskins and Hawfinches.
Hawfinch by Edmund Fellowes

On the eastern scarcity/rarity front, there have been up to ten Red-breasted Flycatchers, half-a-dozen Barred Warblers, a handful of Red-backed Shrikes and Radde’s Warblers, three Blyth’s Reed Warblers and a couple of Olive-backed Pipits and Dusky Warblers, not forgetting the first two Pallas’s Warblers of the season.

Red-breasted Flycatcher by Graham Catley

Northerly winds mid-week saw the arrival of Whooper Swans, and Pink-footed, Greylag, Barnacle and Brent Geese. More notable though was the arrival of eight Blue Tits on Fair Isle! British Blue Tits don’t move very far at all but Scandinavian birders often experience spectacular southerly movements of Blue Tits evacuating the cooling north. Presumably the eight on Fair Isle were part of this phenomenon.

The south wasn’t left out this week either. The influx of Firecrests has continued and up to three Hoopoes and at least one Bee-eater were found.

Firecrest by Graham Clarke

Westerlies are set to dominate for at least the weekend but Monday will see south-easterlies out of southern Scandinavia. So, we can expect one or two more North American landbirds to be found in the west and south-west over the weekend, with birds crossing the North Sea during the early part of the week. Northern Britain and the northern isles look likely to receive the lion’s share but the east coast should see some action too. More thrushes should arrive, in particular Redwings but with increasing numbers of Fieldfare, and finches should move too, in particular Brambling. We could see one or two more Red-eyed Vireos and maybe something a little rarer, possibly Hermit Thrush from the west over the weekend, and more Dusky and Pallas’s Warblers from the east into next week.

Paul Stancliffe

Friday, 13 October 2017

East meets west

Whilst the weather during the last week has been dominated by fast moving fronts crossing the Atlantic and westerly airflow, a short period of light north/north-easterly winds over the weekend brought an eastern flavour with them.

As eastern flavours go, the stunning male Siberian Blue Robin that was found on the Orkney island of North Ronaldsay on 8 October is deserving of three Michelin stars. The latter somewhat overshadowed the other big bird of the week, a first-year Cedar Waxwing that was found at the other end of the UK, on St Agnes, Isles of Scilly. Both have travelled over 5,000km (3,000 miles) to reach Britain.

Yellow-browed Warbler by Trevor Codlin

At the same time, Yellow-browed Warblers numbers have been building up, exceeding three figures as the week progressed, with birds being found in coastal and inland locations alike, everywhere from Shetland to Scilly.

Parrot Crossbills continue to turn up, too. We might be in for another invasion of this much sought-after bird; the next north-easterly airflow of the autumn might give us a better idea if this will happen.

On the home front, finches have begun to move with flocks of Linnets, Siskins, redpolls and Goldfinches being observed during visible migration watches on the east coast. There has also been a trickle of Redwings, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Ring Ouzels.

Blackbird by John Harding

Pink-footed and Brent Geese have pushed south and are to be seen at most of their winter haunts, while Whooper Swans have started to arrive too.

At sea, divers are on the move, along with a few skuas. Great and Arctic Skuas have been seen fairly frequently from both east and west coasts.

The forecast for the weekend is looking very interesting. Ex-hurricane Ophelia is set to arrive on British shores on Monday but before it does, it will be drawing southerly airflow all the way from southern Spain, so we could be in for a few southern arrivals. Western Orphean Warbler and Rock Thrush have both been found in the last couple of days and may well be forerunners of things to come over the next few days. Pallid Swift could well be on the cards and perhaps something as rare as a Spanish Black-eared Wheatear or a Crag Martin. Who knows, maybe even Britain’s first Black-winged Kite?  

Friday, 22 September 2017

From Russia With Love?

When it comes to pace of change in the avian world, it's hard to beat late September in western Europe. Summer visitors are departing en masse, as evidenced by the estimated 100,000 House Martins logged at Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory on 20 September, with large movements of that species and Swallow noted at several other locations. At the same time, wintering birds are starting to pour in, reflected by the rapidly rising BirdTrack reporting rates of waterfowl like Brent Goose and Shoveler.

Historical BirdTrack reporting rate for Brent Goose

The vagaries of the weather at this time of year adds to the rapidly changing picture. Whilst we were discussing American waders and passerines last week, attention is now turning towards potential arrivals from the east, as a large area of high pressure – with associated easterly airflow – is building over Russia. Two Pallas's Grasshopper Warblers, a species that breeds from central Russia eastwards and typically winters in southeast Asia, have already arrived in the UK, one in north Norfolk and one on Fair Isle, and a female Siberian Thrush made it to Shetland. Perhaps rarer still, these days at least, was a Yellow-breasted Bunting found on Out Skerries, Shetland on 20 September. This species is thought to have suffered a 90% population decline, owing mainly to trapping in its non-breeding range, and is now classed as Endangered.

More common species to look out for this week include departing Chiffchaff and passage Wheatear, both of which reach their peak autumn reporting rates on BirdTrack this week. That said, it seems to have been a poor autumn for Wheatears to date, so it will be interesting to see if this picks up in the remainder of September. It's also the best week of the year for Barred Warbler, a lumbering Syvlia warbler that breeds no closer than eastern Germany and southern Scandinavia but is seen regularly in the UK in small numbers each autumn, particularly on the Northern Isles and down the east coast. Waders will remain a feature too, with Dunlin and Snipe both expected to feature on up to 15% of complete lists this week. At the scarcer end of the spectrum, it's the best few weeks of the autumn to find a Dotterel.

Juvenile Dotterel by Nick Moran

Given that the easterly airflow is originating in the Pechora area of Russia, at the northwestern end of the Ural Mountains, it seems reasonable to think that a Pechora Pipit or two might be on the cards for those lucky enough to be birding some of Britain's more northerly outposts. For the rest of us, there'll be lots to enjoy over the next week or so, perhaps including the first big arrival of Redwings. Listen out for their 'tseeep' call over coming nights, particularly on damp, misty evenings when arriving birds will tend to be lower and therefore easier to detect.

Redwing by Nick Stacey
Redwing by Nick Stacey
Nick Moran

Friday, 15 September 2017

More waders from the West

Several more North American waders were found this week, as the westerly airflow – very strong at times – continued to dominate. A Stilt Sandpiper appeared at Lodmoor RSPB, Dorset on 11 September, where it was quickly joined by a diminutive Least Sandpiper! The same or another Least Sandpiper was retrospectively identified on the Axe estuary, Devon on 7 September, after the astute observer recognised the Lodmoor bird and scrutinised his blurry photographs of a 'peep' that looked wrong for Little Stint but was too distant to identify in the field. The Spurn Migration Festival (aka Migfest) got in on the act too, with this blog's regular author, Paul Stancliffe, locating an incoming Long-billed its call!

Spurn's Long-billed Dowitcher shortly after it touched down, by Nick Moran

The American Redstart that was found on the remote island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides last week hung on, proving popular with Barra regulars and long-distance twitchers alike. It's the sixth living individual of that species to reach the UK but the first for 32 years (a long-dead one was found on a tanker in late December 1993, the ship having travelled from Texas to Shetland via Angola!).

The westerly storms also brought seabirds that are trying to make their way southwards through the North Atlantic close to – and even over – the mainland. West coast based observers enjoyed a glut of Leach’s Petrels and Sabine’s Gulls, whilst all four species of skua have been seen from both the west and east coasts. Great Skuas were very much in evidence on the east side of the UK on 14 September, with notable observations of 170 – including one flock of 110 – flying inland from Huttoft Bank, Lincolnshire and 62 that flew south over Foul Anchor, Cambridgeshire. These birds were presumably taking the known 'short cut' between the Wash and the Severn, though the large numbers involved were probably a result of the weather conditions.

Following the movements in the last few days, the BirdTrack reporting rate for Great Skua
must surely be set to rise towards its mid September historical peak

The storms also pushed a few Manx Shearwater far inland, with a bird taken into care in Ely, Cambridgeshire on 14 September and another found dead in Stowmarket, Suffolk.

Meadow Pipits have begun to move in earnest with over 11,000 individuals counted moving over Spurn, East Yorkshire during Migfest. These were joined by an impressive movement of Swallows and House Martins over the same weekend, when around 1,500 of each were counted. A few Swifts hang on, the BTO's own Nunnery Lakes reserve hosting one as late as 15 September.

Pink-footed Geese started arriving in the first week of September but numbers on the move increased in the last few days. The weather seemed to displace some of these, too, with a skein of 31 over northwest Worcestershire on 14 September being unusual so far south this early in the year.

Migrating Pink-footed Geese by Chris Mills

A mid September BTO Bird Migration Blog post couldn't end without mention of a popular – and increasingly numerous – migrant, Yellow-browed Warbler. Shetland received its first on 9 September, whilst mainland UK had to wait until 14 September, when birds were logged in Durham, East Yorkshire, Lancashire and Norfolk. Even the briefest 'window' in the weather will see more of these spritely Phylloscopus warblers arrive.

Nick Moran