HOW TO WATCH MIGRATION IN ACTION
Visible migration (or vis mig) watching can sound daunting to many birdwatchers, but follow these 10 tips to ensure a great haul of species this autumn…
1 Check the records
If you subscribe to any birding news services, or the Twitter feeds of local birding groups, you can get a good idea of which birds are passing through in large numbers at the time – remember that migrating birds can move fast, though. But check your own past records, too, or old UKBS reports from Bird Watching, as some species migrate on pretty much exactly the same date each year.
2 Watch the weather
Birds will tend to move in good weather, with easterly winds bringing the best chance of migrants from Scandinavia and central and eastern Europe, and westerlies the best chance of transatlantic vagrants. Strong southerly winds can mean migrants pause for several days on or near the south coast. And at all times, heavy rain can ground migrants, sometimes for just an hour or two, so take advantage of the window of opportunity!
3 Start early, finish late
First thing in the morning is the best time to look, as birds migrating overnight will have sought safe places to feed and roost, but dusk can be a good time, too, as daytime migrants do the same, and the night-time migrants prepare to resume their journeys. If you can’t do those sort of hours for whatever reason, then use your lunchbreak, migration happens throughout the day, too.
4 Let the birds come to you
Standing silhouetted against the skyline can ensure that any migrating birds give you a wide berth, so sit down and stay still. Not only will this give you a steadier base, it might even help overcome the shyness of some grounded birds and ensure they come in close. Many juvenile Arctic breeders, such as Knot or Ruff, can seem very tame, as they may have seen few if any humans.
5 Choose your spots
A good reserve is a good reserve at any time of year, and one which contains plenty of different habitats, such as Minsmere RSPB, will give you a greater chance of logging a wide range of species – seawatching in particular will add a whole new world of birds to your list. But higher ground (even if it’s only a small hillock or bank in otherwise flat country) is always a great place to watch from. It gives you a wider view all around you, and flyover birds will pass over lower, as migrants don’t waste energy maintaining a constant altitude over the landscape.
6 Be prepared
The weather changes fast in autumn, and vis-migging involves you remaining stationary for long periods, so take plenty of warm clothing and waterproofs. You’ll also need a good field guide, food and drink, perhaps a folding stool, and of course, your trusty copy of Bird Watching magazine.
7 Learn your flight calls
From the ‘chisit’ of Pied Wagtails, to the mournful ‘peeooo’ of the Golden Plover, these are often the first indication that migrants are about, especially in those early morning autumn mists – swot up on them before leaving home, and you’ll find twice as many birds. And don’t be daunted by the prospect by the prospect of learning flight calls – it’s far easier to pick up than bird song, which is a different skill altogether!
8 Get the right optics
A scope is often a must for vis-migging – many of the birds you see will be distant fly-bys, while you’ll also want to be able to pick out detail on grounded birds, to separate that elusive Pectoral Sandpiper from a Ruff, for example. Where binoculars are concerned, don’t assume extra magnification is necessary, though – your standard 8x bins may well be the best bet, as they also offer a good field of view.
9 Look up!
Our own David Lindo is right – don’t get so engrossed in what’s in front of you that you forget that many migrants pass over quietly and quickly. Watch the skies closely for soaring raptors, such as Honey Buzzard.
10 Expect the unexpected
Always remember that a field guide is just that – a guide. Distribution maps and the arrows showing migration routes are only approximate, and both bad weather and inexperience or mistakes on the part of the birds can push migrants into areas where they ‘shouldn’t’ be. And that’s what makes migration watching so endlessly fascinating.