Mike Dil­ger’s wildlife watch­ing

In his se­ries of great places to watch wildlife in the UK, the star of BBC One’s The One Show this month ad­vises us on how, when and where to catch a first glimpse of mi­grat­ing birds ar­riv­ing from abroad.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents -

Top tips for en­joy­ing an early sight­ing of birds mi­grat­ing to UK shores

Let’s face it, by March many of us have had enough of win­ter and are des­per­ate for spring to bring some light back into our lives. For ex­pec­tant nat­u­ral­ists, the sea­sonal sign­posts are all around us. Noth­ing says spring to a botanist, for ex­am­ple, quite like the burst of yel­low pro­vided by prim­roses, celandines and daf­fodils. How­ever, for the bird­ers out there, the ar­rival of this sea­son of re­birth is surely de­fined by the re­turn of the first of our sum­mer mi­grants af­ter a win­ter spent in warmer climes.

Data col­lated over decades, by or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the British Trust for Or­nithol­ogy, has re­vealed that ar­rival dates of our sum­mer vis­i­tors to Bri­tain seems pre­cisely con­trolled, with sur­pris­ingly lit­tle vari­a­tion, both be­tween the species and from year to year. In spring, for ex­am­ple, wheatears and chif­fchaffs are al­ways part of the ad­vanced guard when they touch down in the first half of March. A whole pro­ces­sion fol­lows on from them and will not con­clude un­til the dila­tory swifts and spot­ted fly­catch­ers fi­nally bring up the rear in late April.

Many of our sum­mer vis­i­tors are re­turn­ing from a huge arc span­ning any­where be­tween the south­ern Mediter­ranean and sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa, so if you want to be among the first to wel­come back the trail­blaz­ers, then lo­ca­tions clos­est to main­land Europe are best. Be­fore pack­ing your binoc­u­lars and head­ing off to the south coast, how­ever, you need to con­sult the me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal fore­cast, as weather plays a huge part in dic­tat­ing ex­actly when and where the early birds will be ar­riv­ing on our shores.

Now is the time to ex­pect species out of con­text, such as a ring ouzel hop­ping about the head­lands.

In par­tic­u­lar, wind is in­vari­ably the de­ter­min­ing fac­tor for any mi­gra­tory species, so con­sis­tent norther­lies in early to mid-March could re­sult in mi­gra­tion hotspots ap­pear­ing al­most bird­less. How­ever, as soon as the winds swing round to bring a warm, southerly air­flow, this will be the mi­gra­tory equiv­a­lent of turn­ing on the tap, as the first of about 15 mil­lion sum­mer vis­i­tors be­gin pour­ing in.

Usu­ally, bird­ers have a men­tal list of species they ex­pect to see in a par­tic­u­lar habi­tat, at a cer­tain time of year. But with fresh ar­rivals fleet­ingly putting on the brakes at their first land­fall, now is the time to ex­pect species out of con­text, such as a ring ouzel hop­ping about the head­lands, or a wheatear flit­ting around the beach huts.

Cer­tainly, large tracts of Eng­land’s south coast con­sist of rolling, open habitats, criss­crossed by miles of coastal foot­paths, and these well-trod­den rights of way can also be pro­duc­tive hunt­ing grounds for newly ar­rived mi­grants. How­ever, do re­mem­ber that the weather can be very change­able at this time of year so, on any walk, be pre­pared to peel off the lay­ers at one mo­ment and bat­ten down the hatches the next.

Fi­nally, sub­mit­ting records of any birds you find will not just help con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions bet­ter un­der­stand bird mi­gra­tion, but also ul­ti­mately help ef­forts to pro­tect those long-dis­tance trav­ellers for the du­ra­tion of their stay here.

In spring, bird­watch­ers on the clifftops at Beachy Head, near East­bourne, wel­come mi­grants, in­clud­ing war­blers, chats and hirundines.

Lit­tle ringed plovers can be seen from hides at Dun­geness.

The Prawle Point coast­line is a first­touch­down spot for birds cross­ing the Chan­nel.

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