The great Autumn migration

The great Autumn migration


Posted 12th September


Lead image courtesy of Jon Hawkins

Compared to the great rush north, when all the birds are arriving at the same time to grab as much of the spring as they can and proceed with the vital task of breeding, the southbound autumn migration is a much more leisurely and drawn out affair

Birds will take the journey in stages, stopping to refuel and socialise on the way.

"Autumn" for a migrating bird will not have the same meaning as it does to us. For a cuckoo, 'autumn' will start in June, as soon as she has finished breeding. By July, she is already back in the Sahel, feeding on the caterpillars of African moths and planning the next leg of her journey to central Africa's rainforests. Wading birds from the Arctic also have a short season, and by July, large numbers will already be back on our wetlands, feeding and restocking their reserves for the last push down to West Africa and beyond. August will see the swifts scream their last over our towns and villages, disappearing from our skies, for the non-stop flight to South Africa.

Swallows and house martins will start gathering together in August and September, forming large flocks at reedbeds before deciding it's time to fly back down across Europe and the Mediterranean, towards Botswana.

Out to sea, thousands of auks, kittiwakes and gannets will be leaving their colonies, heading out into the Bay of Biscay and the North Atlantic for the winter. Arctic terns and Manx shearwaters will have longer journeys in mind, heading down to the southern oceans, while tiny, red-necked phalarope, a sparrow-sized wader that breeds on pools in Shetland, has the Herculean task of not only flying across the Atlantic, but of flying across Central America to spend the winter months in the equatorial Pacific, bobbing around on the seas surrounding the Galapagos islands.

September will see the peak of the migration, a period when thousands of flycatchers, chats, warblers and even wrynecks, arrive on our coasts from Scandinavia, all with one thing in mind - the journey to Africa.

Once October has arrived, it's the turn of thousands of swans and geese, thrushes and buntings and large numbers of delicate goldcrest, Europe's smallest bird, weighing the same as a ten pence piece, yet able to make its away across the North Sea to winter here with us.

The journeys made by ours birds are awe-inspiring, and there are few more mind-blowing wildlife experiences that to watch them pass by, marvelling at how far they've come, and how far they have to go.

How to do it

While the major migration hotspots are around our coasts, autumn migration can be seen nearly anywhere in the country. If you head to the coast, be prepared for an early start, as sometimes it's the first few hours of the day which are the busiest.

If you can't get to any of the special places listed below...During October, large numbers of winter thrushes, redwings and fieldfares arrive from Scandinavia. On a dark night, stand quietly for a while, listening. You could hear the high pitched 'seep' of redwings flying over in the dark.

Special spots

Autumn migration on the east coast can be an exciting time. Often overshadowed by its more popular ‘neighbours’ in Yorkshire and Norfolk, if you want to experience autumn migration without the crowds of other birdwatchers, why not head to Gibraltar Point in Lincolnshire.

Devon, Dawlish Inner Warren

Dorset, Brownsea Island

Essex, The Naze and Gunners Park (wryneck and pied flycatcher are seen annually)

Hampshire, Farlington Marshes

Isles of Scilly

Lincolnshire, Donna Nook

Norfolk, Cley Marshes

Northumberland, East Chevington

Sussex, Rye Harbour

Yorkshire, Spurn National Nature Reserve

Yorkshire, Flamborough Cliffs

Text and information courtesy of The Wildlife Trusts





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