22 September 2016 by Paul Stancliffe
Should I stay or should I go? This is the dilemma that many of our birds face during the autumn and winter months. Choosing to stay is a huge gamble but, if the winter is kind, it is one that could pay dividends the following spring: being close to the breeding territory offers the chance of securing a good one before the competition arrives from much further south. Choosing to leave could mean avoiding a fatal cold snap but present problems on the journey south.
In reality most bird species do a bit of both and, at times, something in between. In recent years a few swallows have attempted to overwinter here in the UK; in some winters they have survived and undoubtedly had a relatively short flight back to their breeding home, while other winters have proved too harsh and they have either been forced to move out or have perished.
So, whilst the autumn months are the very best to see birds on the move, there will be birds moving throughout the winter too.
During early September, birds begin to move in earnest and on some days large flocks of linnets and goldfinches can be seen on the move, being joined by chaffinches and bramblings and swallows and martins as the month progresses. The best places to enjoy this spectacle are often on the coast, but even inland on days with light winds birds can be seen on the move. Right in the middle of the country, at the southern edge of the Pennines, bird migration can be spectacular at times.
If September is the month when most of our summer visitors move out, October is the month when many of our winter visitors arrive, and wind-blown rarities from across the northern hemisphere can, and often do, turn up. If you want to catch up with a North American red-eyed vireo, an Arctic gyrfalcon, or a tiny yellow-browed warbler that should really be making its way to India, or to experience the arrival of thousands of thrushes escaping the cold north, our bird observatories are among the best places to achieve this. There are 19 spread around our coast, with many of them offering overnight accommodation and wonderful coastal walks – click here for more information.
If a journey to a far-flung observatory is out of the question, don’t despair, as November has one of the greatest of all bird migrations on offer – that of the woodpigeon. I witnessed a huge migration of woodpigeons a couple of autumns ago from the middle of a very busy Bristol city centre. When they are on the move, days with clear blue skies and light winds are best and heading out to a high point with all-round views could pay dividends. The largest flock of migrating birds I have ever seen was of a 50,000-strong flock of woodpigeons high in a blue sky on an early November morning on the outskirts of Christchurch, Dorset, and it is something I will never forget.
By December, migration has pretty much come to a halt and it is a great time to catch up with some of those birds that make Britain their home for the winter months. One of the most engaging is the snow bunting, a sparrow-sized bird with a beautiful mix of black, white, ginger and buff plumage. The call is a soft trill, mainly uttered in flight, and the sight of a flock – snow buntings are rarely seen alone – is a sight to behold. The flashing white wing patches of the male birds resemble a snowstorm. East coast beaches are the best place to catch up with snow buntings, with those in Norfolk being particularly good.
January sees many birds settled in their chosen winter sites and it is a great time to catch up with birds that breed much further north. Gravel pits and inland lakes can often hold great northern and black-throated divers; they will be in their relatively drab grey, black and white winter plumage but are still a sight to see. The great northern diver is the largest of the divers that occurs here and has a dagger-like bill and bumpy head; the black-throated diver is much more slender and clean cut. The London reservoirs, Rutland Water and Carsington Water in Derbyshire are great places to go in search of these birds.
Leaving the best till last, February is a great time to go in search of the butcher bird, a name given to the great grey shrike. This is not a shy bird and they can often be found sitting on an exposed lookout post keeping a keen eye out for small birds and rodents on which to pounce before impaling the captured prey on a thorny larder nearby, creating a stash for when prey is in short supply. The New Forest and Surrey heaths, heathland around Sherwood Forest, the Derbyshire Dales, and the Brecks of East Anglia have all held great grey shrikes in recent winters, and are well worth a visit at this time of the year.
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