27 February 2014 by Paul Stancliffe
Often the first to arrive, wheatears can be seen as early as late February. However the best time to connect with this handsome bird on migration is during the first half of April. The male is slightly bigger than a Robin, and is a mix of peach, blue/grey, black and white, with a striking black ‘robbers’ mask, the female is a sandy more subdued version and lacks the mask.
On migration wheatears can turn up almost anywhere. Inland golf courses, reservoir embankments and livestock fields are good places to look but short, cropped coastal grassland has to be the best. Some of these birds will remain to breed here in the UK, favouring our uplands and moorlands where the majority choose old rabbit burrows in which to raise a brood. Others will be heading much further north and west, to Iceland, Greenland and even into Alaska.
Swallows arrive a little later than wheatears. My earliest record is of a bird seen on 17 February, on the Isles of Scilly in 1998, but this is a very early date for this long distance traveller. Most of our Swallows spend the winter months in South Africa, around 10,000km (6,000 miles) away. Early to mid-April is the best time to see swallows on the move, at this time large numbers often gather over waterbodies to feed on emerging aquatic invertebrates; sailing lakes, gravel pits and reservoirs are all good places to look. Seeing these wonderful birds as they actually arrive low over the sea, before heading off inland, takes some beating. Birds can arrive anywhere along the south coast but migration watchpoints such as Portland Bill and Hengistbury Head in Dorset, and Dungeness in Kent, can often witness huge arrivals. Birds can also be seen ‘coasting’; moving north along our coastline. In the right conditions large numbers can also move along the east and west coasts too.
Looking back at the arrival dates collected by British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) volunteers over the years, 19 April jumps out as the average arrival date for the cuckoo, or at least this is when many of us hear our first cuckoo. Since 2009 the BTO have been following this enigmatic bird to and from its wintering grounds in the mighty Congo Rainforest, using ultra-light satellite tags. At the time of writing (late January) a few of them have already begun heading north, and we can now watch them as they make their way to their breeding sites in the UK.
During the last twenty-five years we have lost over half of our breeding cuckoos, with the greatest losses experienced in England; they are doing slightly better in Wales and, if anything, showing an increase in Scotland. Cuckoos can be found in a variety of habitats but individuals specialise in certain host species and so can be found in the habitats used by those species. In England one of the main host species is the reed warbler. Reedbed habitats offer a great opportunity to hear and see a cuckoo; early morning soon after dawn is the best time to be out. In Scotland and Wales the meadow pipit is favoured and upland and moorland is the place to look.
To follow the satellite-tagged cuckoos visit www.bto.org.
Seeing a nightingale is much harder than hearing one and almost certainly less satisfying. Although it is usually a dull brown colour, the rich red tail does give a view of the super-skulking nightingale some appeal. The song, however, is a very different deal. It is arguably one of the most beautiful of any British bird and spring is the best time to hear it. Dawn and dusk are favourites, but during the early part of the season (early May) unpaired males can sing during the day too.
The first birds can be heard from mid-April, and by early July it is all over until next year. This is a southern species, with its stronghold in the south-east. It is a rare bird north of a line from the Severn to the Humber. Pulborough Brooks in West Sussex is a good place to catch up with this supreme singer but it is also worth checking out any area that contains extensive scrubby habitat. Catch-up with a singing Nightingale and you won’t be disappointed. You can check-out its song here.
This is pretty much the last of our summer visitors to arrive, reaching our shores from the skies over the Congo Rainforest during the first week of May. Once they get here they don’t hang around for long before getting on with the serious business of breeding before they begin to leave again around late July and early August. So, early May is a great time to observe these birds right over our towns and cities. If you have any difficulty telling swifts from swallows there is a very simple rule to follow. Swifts are all dark and have a dark belly, Swallows are dark above, have a dark throat and, importantly, always show a white/pale belly. It is worth mentioning the house martin here. A house martin is dark above and pale below, including the throat, and always shows a white rump, just above the tail on the upperside. This is absent in the other two species.
Swifts are supreme flyers and are adapted to a life on the wing, only landing to incubate eggs and feed young. At all other times Swifts feed on the wing and even sleep on the wing, spending the hours of darkness high in the sky, closing down one half of the brain for ‘sleep’ whilst using the other to remain airborne.
So, wherever you are this spring you should be able to catch up with at least one of these top birds. Catch up with all five and you will experience the very essence of spring birdwatching.
Images: Wheater by BTO/Amy Lewis. Swallow, Cuckoo and Nightengale by BTO/Edmund Fellowes. Swift by Lauren Tucker.
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