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.
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.