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.

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 The summery weather of late August and the first few days of September has been replaced by much more autumnal conditions, and the birds being recorded have changed accordingly.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!

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