Stock Dove, by Liz Cutting / BTO

BirdTrack migration blog (end of October to mid November)

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Even as we reach the beginning of November, autumn migration is still very evident. Birds continue to arrive in the UK from more northerly regions to spend the next few months here in our warmer winters, before departing again next spring.

The influx of Waxwings that started at the beginning of October shows no signs of slowing as more and more flocks of this delightful winter visitor are reported across the country. Initially, reports were mostly confined to the Shetland Islands and some parts of northern mainland Scotland, but in the past week, increasing numbers of birds have moved down through the UK with some reported as far south as the Isles of Scilly.

Around 450 Waxwings were reported in total, with the biggest flocks still seen in Scotland – 200 in one flock in Moray and Nairn, and a flock of over 100 in Aberdeenshire. However, a flock of over 90 in Northumberland showed it wasn’t just the odd individual heading south. In Norway, Sweden, and Finland birds are still pushing south and east – so with luck, more flocks will cross the North Sea and arrive here over the next few weeks.

In Norway, Sweden, and Finland Waxwings are still pushing south and east – so with luck, more flocks will cross the North Sea and arrive here over the next few weeks.

While the peak of Redwing migration has passed, that of another Fennoscandian visitor is still in full swing: Fieldfares continue to arrive, with birds widely reported across the country. Groups arriving along the east coast tend to head straight inland, only stopping for a few minutes to feed before taking flight again in garrulous flocks. Their loud “black jack” call is a good indicator of their presence, and when they form mixed-species flocks, is often accompanied by the Redwings’ high-pitched “zeeep” and Blackbirds’ scolding “pink pwink pwink”.

The BirdTrack reporting rate for Woodcock in 2023 (green) compared to historical data from 1927–2022 (red) shows the usual autumnal influx of this species to the UK.

Woodcocks continue their steady arrival as birds depart their core breeding range of Russia and Fennoscandia and head west to winter across Britain, Ireland, and western Europe. Birds have been known to migrate to the UK from as far east as central Russia. The most recent data suggest that almost one and a half million birds winter here, but we also know that the total number fell by around 16% between 1996 and 2004. The cause of this decline is not well known but could be related to the changing management of woodland and scrub

Each autumn, flocks of Woodpigeons heading south are a common sight all across the UK – a great example of visible migration or ‘vismig’, bird migration that is visible during daylight hours. Where these Woodpigeons have come from and where they are going is still not fully understood. However, it’s thought that some birds arrive in the UK from north-west Europe, and some of ‘our’ breeding birds head south to winter in the oak forests of Portugal.

In the past few weeks, flocks of Woodpigeons have been widely reported, and among these, increasing numbers of Stock Doves – closely related to Woodpigeons – have also been noted. Their smaller size and lack of a white bar in the wing help birders pick them out from the commoner Woodpigeons.

Snow Buntings arrive from both Iceland and Fennoscandia to spend the winter in the UK.

A spike in Snow Bunting records was bang on time, corresponding with the annual arrival that is expected around the end of October. These wintering birds can often be found along coastal areas, where they will sometimes mix with Linnets, Twites, Lapland Buntings and Skylarks.

Snow Buntings that breed in Scotland have been joined by birds from Iceland, Fennoscandia and north-west Russia.

Snow Buntings breed across a wide swath of arctic, high alpine, and tundra regions, and within these areas, there are a few different subspecies. The 75 or so pairs that breed in Scotland are of the Plectrophenax nivalis insulae subspecies, and in winter, these are joined by birds of the same subspecies that breed in Iceland. The P. nivalis nivalis subspecies breeds in Fennoscandia and north-west Russia and migrates to the UK to join the insulae subspecies over the winter. Separating nivalis and insulae in the field is possible, but can be very tricky.

Water Pipits prefer reed-edged pools and flooded grasslands in the winter months.

The last week has also seen an increase in reports of Water Pipit. This species is a scarce but regular winter visitor from central and southern Europe where it prefers to breed in alpine areas, descending from the higher altitudes in autumn. During the winter, as their name suggests, Water Pipits have a preference for damp habitats, with reed-edged pools and flooded grasslands being particular favourites.

During the winter, Water Pipits move from their alpine breeding grounds to lower-altitude, damp habitats like reed-edged pools and flooded grasslands.

The greyer plumage and bold eyestripe of Water Pipits are helpful identification features which separate them from Meadow and Rock Pipits. You can brush up on your pipit identification skills with our Bird ID video, Identifying Water Pipit and Rock Pipit

Great Grey Shrikes are regular but scarce winter visitors to the UK. Numbers vary each year, but some sites see birds returning each winter.

A late flurry of scarce migrants was mostly concentrated in the north-east, but some birds were found further south and west as they filtered down the country, probably having arrived a few days earlier. The bulk of these reports was made up of Pallid Swift, Dusky Warbler, Pallas’s Warbler, and the odd Great Grey Shrike. Many will be hoping that it is a good year for the latter species, which is a firm winter favourite for plenty of birders.

Many will be hoping that it is a good year for Great Grey Shrike – this handsome species is a firm winter favourite of many birders.

The highlight in terms of rarities was a Two-barred Greenish Warbler that took up temporary residence at Flamborough; this species is usually found in Asia, across Mongolia, southern Siberia and north-east China. A Solitary Sandpiper, the American cousin of our more familiar Green Sandpiper, played hard to get in Kent with many keen birders searching for it – it has been 12 years since the last record of this species in mainland Britain.

Looking ahead

Bewick’s Swans are slightly smaller than Whooper Swans, and have a rounded yellow patch on the bill. This patch is sharply triangular in Whooper Swans.

Although the peak of autumn migration has passed, birds will still be arriving over the coming weeks ahead of the colder temperatures of winter. Starlings, as mentioned in the previous migration blog, migrate here from all across north-eastern Europe and more will arrive in the coming weeks, especially if we get any easterly winds. 

Bewick’s Swans, the Whooper Swans’ smaller cousins, begin arriving in larger numbers throughout November from their breeding areas across the Arctic and north-eastern Russia. Family groups migrate together and will stay in groups for much of the winter before they head back north and east in late February. 

Like Bewick’s Swans, Tundra Bean Geese tend to arrive later in the year than other wintering wildfowl and breed across the Arctic and north-eastern Russia. Look out for their orange legs and the orange band on their bill which helps to distinguish them from similar-looking Pink-footed Geese.

Look out for Tundra Bean Geese – their orange legs and the orange band on their bill helps differentiate them from Pink-footed Geese.
Look out for Red-throated Divers feeding amongst Great Crested Grebes just offshore.

A visit to the coast at this time of year can be rewarding, with flocks of sea ducks, divers and grebes gathering offshore. It can be surprising to see flocks of Great Crested Grebes sitting on the sea, but during the winter they are just as at home there as they are on freshwater. In some places, you can see good numbers feeding offshore amongst groups of Red-throated Divers

If we get any strong northerly winds in the next few weeks, a visit to the coast could also be rewarded with a sighting of a Little Auk. This diminutive relative of the Guillemot breeds much further north and, although small in size, is a robust bird that spends much of its life at sea. During storms, large numbers can be seen passing headlands and can sometimes turn up inland. They even have a habit of mixing in with flocks of Starlings crossing the sea.

 Any flock of scoters is worth checking for a vagrant Surf Scoter. Small numbers are found each winter off the UK’s coast, and the males – with their distinctive bill and white nape patch – stand out from the plainer-looking Common and Velvet Scoters.

Large flocks or ‘rafts’ of sea ducks, especially Common Scoters, will be worth checking for Velvet Scoters – these are surprisingly easy to spot thanks to their slightly stockier build, a white spot behind the eye and an obvious white wing flash, all of which make them stand out in large rafts of birds. The occasional Surf Scoter may also join these, particularly in flocks off the east coast. 

The forecast for the next week is for more low-pressure systems to bring wet and windy conditions to most parts, which may well bring some more American vagrants to our shores. Fast-moving systems that originate along the eastern seaboard of the USA and cross the Atlantic in a couple of days tend to be the most productive for birdwatchers – sadly, systems that take longer to move over the ocean see fewer of the migrant birds caught up in the winds survive the epic crossing.

Similarly, the most likely species to make it across the Atlantic at this time of year are larger birds, such as wildfowl and gulls, as smaller birds are less able to withstand the stormy conditions and extended periods over open water. Species such as Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, and Green-winged Teal all have a history of arriving off the back of these weather systems. Bonaparte’s, Laughing, and Ring-billed Gulls are also likely, and maybe even a Franklin’s Gull.

In terms of smaller transatlantic vagrants, Chimney Swift, Mourning Dove, Blackpoll Warbler and American Robin are all possible, so keep your eyes peeled.

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