Bird migration is in full swing

Dear birdwatchers

I’m writing this blog on a very dark, wet morning, It has been raining for about 36 hours and I’ve just heard that the River Aire has broken its banks in Leeds. We’ve currently got a “dartboard low” pressure system over Britain and the winds continue to come from a southerly direction.

So why am I sounding like Paul the weatherman (for our global audience, Paul is our local weatherman at the BBC in Yorkshire, England)? Well at this time of year, the birding community is watching the weather very closely for signs of optimal migration conditions. That is when birds set off, en mass, from the Arctic, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, Northern Russia and Scandinavia and make their journey southwards for the winter. Birds begin this outward migration after the breeding season; their journey south being a much more leisurely activity than the hurried trek northwards in the spring.

It is quite normal for some wading birds to arrive in the UK in July and August after a failed breeding attempt and visits to nature reserves with lagoons can provide a good opportunity to practise some wader identification. This year, wet and windy summer weather has meant that large numbers of waders have abandoned their breeding grounds much earlier than normal (see Unseasonal weather alters bird migration patterns) and large flocks have migrated early to feed in the UK.

Poor weather conditions will also cause many birds to lose their way and each year the UK will host some “vagrant” birds from the American and Eurasian continents. Migration picks up speed in September with a steady stream of birds, including some scarce migrants, arriving on our shores. However, southerly winds will delay the decision to move over water.

What we are looking for is an easterly/north easterly wind to facilitate migration to the UK. This weekend gave us some suitable conditions but the birdwatcher’s dream is when we have dramatic “falls” of birds on our eastern coasts due to high pressure over Scandinavia and a depression over the UK (to over-simplify this complicated interaction). This weather system provides ideal migration conditions from the breeding grounds but, as the birds reach their destination, they hit bad weather and are forced down onto the first bit of dry land they can find. Sometimes this happens over the sea and birds drop down onto boats and oil rigs (or tragically, the sea itself). Once seen, a “fall” of migrating birds will never be forgotten. Imagine thousands of goldcrests sitting on the ground, flying around your feet and past your face, landing on your telescope; large flocks of redwing and fieldfare lining the trees and bushes; and with them birds such as flycatchers, redstarts, hawfinch, shrike and who knows what else you might find!

Once here, many birds stay in the UK for the winter months but some will use Britain as a “stepping stone” on their journey to southern Europe and Africa. Some birds will travel further still and will repeat this journey back and forth for many years.

Personally, I’m really excited about thousands of swans, geese, ducks and waders arriving here for the winter and to all the lovely winter birdwatching months ahead.

Start Birding classes will teach you about migration patterns and how the weather can have a direct affect on which birds you will see in the UK. You’ll learn which birds move and which birds stay and which species you are likely to see from month to month.

Over the last week Start Birding classes have also been studying how to record bird sightings, how to make notes in the field and what to record. We’ve even had a go at some annotated sketching. Learning to record birds is a fantastic way to contribute to the science of ornithology. Once you can identify birds with confidence you can submit your records to your recorder and help us to learn more about our bird populations.

On Saturday, a few class members joined me for some birdwatching at Rodley Nature Reserve. Evidence of migration could even be seen at this small reserve on the outskirts of Leeds. Wigeon and gadwall numbers are increasing and a little egret turned up towards the end of the day. Whinchat were also present a couple of weeks ago. One of the stars of the day was a little owl.

On Sunday, Start Birding headed off to Bridlington for an early sailing on the Yorkshire Belle for the RSPB Shearwater and Skua Cruise. With favourable weather conditions, activity started early and great skua was seen when we were not long out of the harbour. We had further sightings of this predatory seabird throughout the trip with the occasional view of Arctic skua, Manx shearwater and sooty shearwater. Kittiwakes, herring gulls, black-backed gulls, guillemots, puffin, razorbills and gannets gave us ample opportunity to learn the plumage differences between winter, summer and immature birds. Some people manged to see harbour porpoise. Turnstone and purple sandpiper could be seen from the harbour walls.

Manx shearwater (courtesy Matthew Binns)
Great skua (courtesy Matthew Binns)

Once on dry land again, we headed off to Bempton where red-breasted flycatcher and yellow-browed warbler had been reported. A brambling had also been seen. The wind speed was increasing by the hour as this current weather system headed north. This made small birds difficult to find but we did see the red-breasted flycatcher. Not wanting to stand around, we left the hopeful bunch of birdwatchers and headed off to the cliffs to see whether any gannets were still around on the ledges. As you can see, there were still some chicks yet to fledge and there were also some immature birds to photograph.

The terrible weather this Monday and the rising water levels provided an ideal setting for this week’s subject matter “being ready for anything” which covers safety issues, trip planning and what to wear when birdwatching. Find out more by contacting Linda at Start Birding on or visit

If you’d like to follow migration then visit the British Trust for Ornithology sites BTO Bird Migration Blog  and BirdTrack. Local migration information can be found on your nearest bird observatory website (for Yorkshire visit the Spurn Bird Observatory site) or you subscribe to Birdguides to receive reports of birds seen in your chosen area on the web, by email or by text. You can also visit the websites for your local bird reserves for sightings or call your local Birdline number (for Yorkshire use Birdline North East 09068 700 246)

Good luck!


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