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Look out for the migrating birds

September 2016

birds on power lines at sunset

There may have been a lovely late spell of sunshine for many of us, but we can’t ignore the fact that autumn is coming.

All around us there are signs of approaching cooler weather from empty fields to golden leaves. But nothing confirms the approach of darker nights and winter than the groups of birds gathering on telephone wires and other places, getting ready for their long flight south to warmer climates.

Migration is normal for the majority of birds who have evolved chasing bountiful food; insects thrive in warmer weather.  Many birds migrate from our shores as winter is approaching, including swallows and martins, warblers, flycatchers, wheatears, whinchats, redstarts, nightingales, yellow wagtails, tree pipits, cuckoos, swifts, nightjars, turtle doves, hobbies, ospreys, terns and Manx shearwaters.

Birds use a variety of different techniques when they are migrating. A lot of songbirds from the UK eat more to dramatically increase their body weight and reserves before leaving – a sedge warbler, for instance, puts on an additional level of fat equal to 10 per cent of its normal body weight. This means it can continue to fly long periods without stopping for food...often three or four days. Large birds like storks and cranes usually seek hot winds and heat thermals to help carry them as then can’t rely on flapping their wings to carry them vast distances.

Swallows are probably the most famous and easily to spot migrating birds at this time of year as they will be fluttering around and gathering in groups. Many will have already left. They travel to different destinations and manage significant migration distances. A common route for British swallows is to travel down through western France and eastern Spain into Morocco before crossing the Sahara Desert and the Congo rainforest before reaching South Africa or Namibia to enjoy the summer months there. Swallows only fly daylight and cover around 100 miles a day, often roosting in huge flocks at night.

Nightingales migrate far further than most people realise. One that was fitted with a recording device was tracked leaving Norfolk and ending up in Guinea Bissau in West Africa, again a route that involves crossing the treacherous water lacking Sahara.

Blackbirds are usually around all year, but every so often we may suddenly miss a blackbird that has been our friend all summer. This is because some do actually migrate in winter. Usually they don’t travel far, one has been recorded travelling from Thetford in Norfolk to a garden in Devon for each winter and then returning to Norfolk for the summer months. Some blackbirds that live further north such as in the Scandinavian countries travel quite a bit further south each winter to ensure their food supply.

If we think our little birds covering enormous distances is good going, spare some thought for the Sooty Shearwater. They are not British birds although some skirt our regions as they cross the vast distances from the Falkland Islands to Norway every spring. 

But the champion migrant of all has to go to the Arctic Tern. This little bird makes the longest migration in the world, travelling from areas within and around the Arctic circle right down to the Antarctic, an amazing 44,000 mile round trip. Living so far north and so far south means he is living in continual summer and probably sees more daylight than anything else.

If you are interested in finding out more about the migration of British birds, or the subject as a whole, a good starting point is the information on the RSPB website.

Another interesting site to visit is Bird Track that has some fascinating information on bird migration.


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