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, 27 November 2015

Late Season Seabirds

It has been an interesting week, both weather-wise and in the birds that are on the move. The last few days have been dominated by front after front coming across the Atlantic, bringing unsettled conditions with them. Rough seas at this time of year will always stir up some seaduck movement and that appears to have been the case this week.

Goldeneye, Scaup, Eider, Long-tailed Duck and Common Scoter have all been well represented past coastal watchpoints. The BirdTrack reporting rates for all five of these of these species, as well as Velvet Scoter showed a noticeable increase.

BirdTrack reporting rate for Velvet Scoter

Velvet Scoter in flight showing distinctive white secondaries (Photographer: Sam Creighton)

The weather also stirred up a few skuas, particularly Great Skua and to a lesser extent, Pomarine too. The best count was of 105 Great Skuas past Titchwell, Norfolk on 21 November and very good count of 73 "Poms" past Spurn, East Yorkshire on the same day.

Having predicted an arrival of Little Auks into the North Sea in last week's blog, we were not to be disappointed. While it wasn't one of the largest movements of Little Auks ever recorded, there were still impressive counts at some sites. The 602 seen passing the Farne Islands, Northumberland last Saturday were particularly noteworthy. Virtually every site along the east coast of Britain recorded at least one or two, with a handful noted on the west coast and in Ireland.

Little Auk (Dawn Balmer)
Further seabirds of note included Grey Phalarope, Long-tailed Skua and Sabine's Gull. Several of the former were noted at inland sites, with one particularly obliging individual on Farmoor Reservoir, Oxfordshire present in the last few days.

Moving away from seabirds, Swallows haven't quite disappeared just yet, with around 20 reports from all around the country in the last week. Keeping on the summer migrants theme, three Lesser Whitethroats were also found - only time will tell if these are birds that have settled into their chosen site for the winter.

Lesser Whitethroat (Stephen McAvoy)

The surface pressure charts for the next few days show that we will still be in the middle of westerly airflow. However, on Saturday, the winds will be pretty much uninterrupted from the east coast of North America to the west coasts of Britain and Ireland. Is the American Bittern found in County Cork a herald for other vagrants from the west? Killdeer and American Robin seem likely candidate species for this time of year.

Paul Stancliffe and Stephen McAvoy

Friday, 20 November 2015

It's getting late

Even though we have now passed the mid-November mark, there is still a feel of autumn in the air and many birds are still on the move.

Woodpigeons were the biggest surprise of the week, with large numbers recorded in the west and along the south coast. A total of 25,00 were logged at Portland, Dorset on the 16th and almost 50,000 in Gwent on the 20th. The latter figure pales in comparison to the 210,000 counted at the latter site on the 5th of November 2014.

Woodpigeon thinking about migrating (Nick Stacey)

Finches were also still on the move, mostly represented by Goldfinches. It feels a little late for hundreds still to be moving over coastal watchpoints, but that has been the case at several sites this week. 399 Goldfinches and 278 Siskin passed Spurn, East Yorkshire last Tuesday for example.

The latter site also had 154 Whooper Swans flying south two days latter and the species is being reported in above average numbers so far on BirdTrack this week.

Reporting rate of Whooper Swan on BirdTrack

Woodcock have finally made their presence felt too; 69 were counted in a small area on Fair Isle, Shetland on the 17th of November, which was the highest count of the autumn. The wardens estimated there could well have been a triple-figure count with better coverage.

It has gone a bit quiet again on the Waxwing front following the arrival of birds earlier this month. The only reports were of two two in Argyll on Saturday and another three on Shetland on Wednesday. Any excuse to post more Waxwing photos though!

Waxwing by Steven Mcgrath

Looking at the weather for the next few days, Saturday appears to be the most interesting day. Strong northerly winds are forecasted for the western North Sea bringing an arctic chill to the east coast of Britain. Similar conditions in the past have resulted in good counts of Little Auk and small flocks have been reported in the last few days. Ducks, swans and geese are likely to be on the move as well, as will the last remaining Swallows (two at Spurn on 20th) and House Martins.

Paul Stancliffe and Stephen McAvoy

Friday, 13 November 2015

"Plague Birds" bring joy

It might be the fact that we are in the middle of a prolonged spell of westerly weather, or that we are now approaching mid-November, but migration has been pretty slow during the last week.

Finches have had their moments with some respectable counts from coastal watchpoints. This included 1,078 Siskin, 771 Goldfinch, 113 Chaffinch, 202 Linnet, 79 Twite, 169 Lesser Redpolls, 15 Brambling and 18 Greenfinch counted moving through Spurn, East Yorkshire on 10 November. A couple of days previously around 2,500 finches (mainly Goldfinch) moved over Portland, Dorset. Thrushes have been less spectacular and it seems that there might still be a large movement of Starlings across the North Sea in the wings; we don't seem to have had any large arrivals so far this autumn.

Goldfinch by Stephen McAvoy

Woodpigeons are an often overlooked migrant, but autumn passage can be spectacular for the sheer number of birds involved. Several thousand were observed flying over Bristol on Thursday, as well as over Portland, Dorset on the same day.

Last week also saw the first reports of Waxwings* from Britain and Ireland this autumn. Given its proximity to Scandinavia, it was no surprise that the first birds appeared on Shetland, with at least two present on Mainland on 5 November. Over the next few days, Waxwings were found in Durham and Aberdeenshire and two birds even made it as far west as Northern Ireland on Wednesday. Hopefully this is only the start of a good winter for these amazing birds!

Waxwing by Adrian Dancy
The spell of very mild conditions associated with the southerly winds might have contributed to a late run of hirundines and swifts. This included several more reports of Pallid, Common and unidentified Common/Pallid Swifts from Kent, Northumberland and Warwickshire amongst others. Late Swallows and Sand Martins were reported as well, including one House Martin on the Outer Hebrides.

After a spectacular couple of weeks, the Yellow-browed Warbler invasion is slowly petering out, but the species was still being reported on a respectable 0.3% of all Complete Lists reported on BirdTrack.

Yellow-browed Warbler reporting rate on BirdTrack

Rarity of the week was undoubtedly the very unexpected Crag Martin in Chesterfield, Derbyshire present from last Sunday onwards. Giving great views flying around the centre of the town, this would only be the 8th or 9th confirmed record for Britain.

Looking ahead, migration is starting to slow down, but it is not quite over yet. Bewick's Swan, Bean Goose, Goldeneye, Pochard and Tufted Duck all peak in mid-November. The weather looks set to remain stormy with the remnants of Hurricane "Kate" likely to pass NW Ireland and Scotland on Sunday, with more low-pressure systems crossing the Atlantic close behind it. For Sunday, the charts look remarkably similar to the one on the 10 November 2012 when a Cedar Waxwing was found on Belmullet in western Ireland.

*The Dutch name for Waxwing is Pestvogel, which translates as "Plague Bird".

Paul Stancliffe & Stephen McAvoy

Friday, 6 November 2015

Birds still on the move

Wet westerly weather and the lateness of the date mean that migration has been a little slow this week. However, light finch movement has been observed on the east coast on most days and mostly involving Goldfinch and Chaffinch but with an increasing number of Siskin, Redpoll and Brambling, along with a smaller number of Twite. There was also a decent arrival of thrushes in the north, 4,983 Fieldfare, 1,009 Blackbird and 1,521 Redwing arrived on Fair Isle, Shetland on 4 November. Reed Buntings have also been a feature of the week.  Whooper Swans have also continued to arrive in small numbers and push south through the country, along with small numbers of Pink-footed Geese. A small arrival of Pochard was also noted along the east coast.

Pochard by Neil Calbrade

Migrants on the move at the moment include Black Redstart with groups of two or three reported from many coastal sites in Britain and Ireland. There were noteworthy counts of five at Spurn (East Yorkshire) last Friday and six at Rosslare (Wexford), with single birds also noted at a few inland sites. Most unusual record was of two roosting on the Pont Aven ferry ( sailing between Spain and Plymouth - unfortunately for the birds, the boat was going in the wrong direction! Looking at the weather charts, a possible explanation for this influx were the light to moderate south-easterly winds last week pushing the birds across the North Sea and Channel to our coasts. 
Black Redstart BirdTrack reporting rate

Firecrest BirdTrack reporting rate

Similarly, it has been a good autumn for Firecrests, with current records well above the historical average on BirdTrack. Like Black Redstart, there were sightings along all coasts and even as far as north as Shetland, where the species is quite a scarce migrant. These birds are almost certainly birds moving away from their breeding grounds in central Europe and displaced by the southerly winds. 

Firecrest by Rachel Barber

Most interesting rarity of the week was the small number of Pallid Swifts along the north-east coast of England. Single birds were reported from Flamborough Head (East Yorkshire), Marsden (Durham) and Newbiggin (Northumberland), as well as from Boulby (Cleveland) on Sunday. Additionally, several late Common Swifts and unidentified Common/Pallid Swifts were observed in the same areas. It seems likely these birds were displaced by the same weather pattern as the Black Redstarts.

Grey Phalarope by Joe Pender

Looking ahead, the weather looks very unsettled for the weekend and through next week with strong south-westerlies expected. Seabirds, especially juveniles may find the  prolonged nature of the strong winds exhausting and may end up getting pushed inland. Likely species at inland reservoirs and lakes include Gannet, Kittiwake and Grey Phalarope. There is always the possibility of something much rarer like a skua, shearwater or Leach's Petrel turning up.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Migration slowing down

Short-eared Owl by Amy Lewis

Migration is slowly winding down, but there are still a few birds on the move. There were a few reports of House Martin, Swallow and Wheatear and a few of all three species may well linger into November or even later given adequate food supplies and favourable weather. Finches will still be on the move, especially during quieter spells in the weather - Linnets, Redpolls, Chaffinches and Bramblings are the ones to look out for in particular. Reports of Yellow-browed and Pallas's Warblers are starting to tail off after a great autumn for both species, reaching 4% and 2% of all submitted lists into BirdTrack this month. There were also good numbers of Short-eared Owl reported around Britain.

Short-eared Owl BirdTrack reporting rate

Yellow-browed Warbler BirdTrack reporting rate

The mystery bunting on Orkney was relocated earlier this week and the identification confirmed as Chestnut Bunting. Showing incredibly well at times, this could well be accepted as the first (wild) record for Britain after a series of records currently listed in Category E. One of the species predicted last week did turn up, with a Chimney Swift seen briefly in Cork on Monday.

Grey-cheeked Thrush by Bryan Thomas

The weather looks distinctly mixed for the week ahead, with south to south-easterly winds for southern Britain and continued south-westerlies for Ireland and Scotland. During spells of light winds and clear conditions we might see Woodpigeons move, possibly in large numbers. A series of fast moving low-pressure systems look set to cross the Atlantic later in the first week of November, which may well bring some Nearctic vagrants (Grey-cheeked Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler and Cedar Waxwing). From the east, Asian Desert Warbler or Desert Wheatear are typical late October - early November rarities.

Stephen McAvoy and Paul Stancliffe

Friday, 23 October 2015

Migration continuing apace

Starlings by Jill Pakenham

As is to be expected at this time of the year, it has been a busy time on the migration front.
Redwings have continued to arrive and have been seen across most of the country, the BirdTrack reporting rate shows this strong arrival well. Compare this to the reporting rate for Fieldfare which historically has a later peak time of arrival – there is still plenty of time to them to flood in too.
Song Thrushes and Blackbirds have been more obvious in the last week, along with Starling but all three of these should peak in the next week or so and we could see big arrivals of all three during breaks in the weather, particularly during periods of lighter winds.

Fieldfare BirdTrack reporting rate

Redwing BirdTrack reporting rate

Goldcrests continue to arrive in incredible numbers and at times the Norfolk coast, at least, seemed to be inundated with these incredible little migrants. Robin numbers also continued to impress at some east coast sites. On the finch side, Redpolls began to appear at migration watchpoints and following on from the incredible Yellow-browed Warbler autumn that we have experienced so far, Pallas’s Warblers have shown a slight return to form, having been quite scarce for a few years.

Great Grey Shrike by Trevor Codlin

As mentioned in our previous blog post (, Great Grey Shrike was one of the species to look out for this month and they certainly turned up. The reporting rate for this week was well over 2% of all BirdTrack lists, which dwarfs the historical average of around 0.5%. Most records so far have been from the east and south-east, with a few reports from Wales as well.

Great Grey Shrike BirdTrack reporting rate

Generally, wildfowl numbers are still on the low side, with the exception of Teal, but with low temperatures in Eastern Europe and western Russia this could change as and when waterbodies start to freeze.

The rare migrant highlight of the week is the Chestnut Bunting on Papa Westray, Orkney which was seen very briefly on Monday and Tuesday. There have been several previous records of this species, but so far all have been placed in Category E as escapes/releases from captivity could not be ruled out. Given the prevailing weather conditions in recent weeks and associated movements of birds with similar breeding ranges, it is possible this individual may be accepted as a first for Britain if the identification is confirmed.

Ovenbird by Bryan Thomas

 Looking ahead to next week, the weather at the moment looks set to be dominated by several low-pressure systems sweeping across the Atlantic. Grey-cheeked Thrush and Blackpoll Warbler are very typical late October vagrants from North America and SW Ireland and the Isles of Scilly look like the best places to find them. Outside bets include Chimney Swift, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Ovenbird, all of which have multiple records in late October.

Paul Stancliffe and Stephen McAvoy

Friday, 16 October 2015

Look to the east

Everything was in place this week for there to be a large arrival of winter visitors to the UK. With high-pressure and settled weather over Scandinavia, and high-pressure extending from the North Sea to central Russia, the resulting east-north easterly airflow, accompanied by showers on the east coast of Britain, ensured that we would not be disappointed.

Goldcrest by Jill Pakenham

Redwings poured into the country and smaller numbers of Fieldfare arrived too, moving rapidly south; the Isles of Scilly saw its first small flocks. Finches continued to move and the Goldfinches, Linnets and Chaffinches included a few more Bramblings. However, the week was dominated by the arrival of Goldcrests on the east coast. The BirdTrack reporting rate shows this arrival well. Equally impressive was the number of Great Grey Shrikes that arrived with them, no doubt taking advantage of the abundant supply of crests. As expected with the arrival of the Goldcrests a few Woodcock were also seen. Robins crossed the North Sea in force, along with the first noticeable arrival of Blackbirds.

Goldcrest BirdTrack reporting rate

A number of Pink-footed Geese made it to their wintering locations in north Norfolk, and wildfowl were on the move too. Several hundred Shoveler were observed arriving in off the sea at Burnham Overy, Norfolk on 15 October and a Bewick’s Swan that arrived at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire on 11 October was the earliest - by twenty-five days - to have ever arrived at the site since a study on this species began in 1963.

Shoveler by John Harding

With easterly airflow dominant throughout the week it was no surprise that many of the scarce and rare birds came from this direction, and around fifty Richards Pipits were found from Shetland to the Isles of Scilly. There was also a multiple arrival of Red-flanked Bluetails, with at least seven being seen. However, the biggest surprise, given the direction the winds were coming from, came from North America in the shape of Britain’s second ever Wilson’s Warbler that was found on Lewis, Outer Hebrides.

So, what to look out for during the next week?

Woodlark by Derek Belsey

Mid October is the peak time for two migrating passerines: Woodlark and Brambling. The former breeds in southern Britain and East Anglia, as well as more locally in the Midlands and East Yorkshire. At least part of the population moves away from breeding sites, some even to continental Europe and now is a good time to listen out for their distinctive flight calls (

Woodlark BirdTrack reporting rate

The first Brambling are beginning to arrive in Britain including one or two at our Nunnery Lakes reserve. The numbers of Brambling wintering in Britain fluctuate every year, most likely in response to the availability of beechmast in southern Scandinavia and eastern Europe. Several million birds can gather in areas with a high beechmast productivity and spectacular numbers can reach Britain and Ireland if it is a poor year for beech - for example an estimated 150,000 were noted near Liverpool in 1981. Could this be one of those years?

Arctic Tern by Andy Mason

With the wind likely to stay east to north east over the weekend, this may be a good opportunity for a late seawatch on the east coast of Britain. Scarcer migrants likely to be seen include Sooty Shearwater, a late Arctic Tern and Pomarine Skua. Reporting rates for the latter to BirdTrack peak in September, but October still sees a good number of records. There were also several of inland Gannets from Cambridgeshire, Derbyshire and Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland so even if you are not on the coast it is well worth checking local lakes and reservoirs for displaced seabirds.

The hands-down rarity of the week is the stunning Wilson's Warbler found on the Western Isles during the week. With the winds staying easterly for now, we are sticking with our guns in predicting a Siberian mega for the days ahead: another Chestnut-eared Bunting on Shetland perhaps? Or Britain's first Grey-necked Bunting on the Norfolk coast?

Paul Stancliffe and Stephen McAvoy