Bird migration

Where to watch migrating birds

© Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Bird migration

Whether flying from the south to breed in the spring, or from the north in the winter in search of food and milder climes, or simply passing through on their journey, bird migration is one of the UK’s most impressive natural events. Witness the comings and goings of flocks over the year, while remembering to look out for those preferring to fly solo. Cuckoos in April, Arctic wading birds in July, and Europe’s smallest bird in October, the goldcrest, weighing the same as a ten pence piece yet, incredibly, able to journey across the North Sea to spend its winter here. 

There are few more awe-inspiring wildlife experiences than watching migrating birds pass by, marvelling at the distances they’ve travelled, and how far they still have to go

Where to see migratory birds

Do a little research in advance and find some of the best Wildlife Trust reserves to see migratory birds. Flocking birds are highly mobile and don’t always turn up when you hope! It's worth contacting the reserves or regional Wildlife Trust in advance to find out which visitors are around, and remember to bear in mind the time of year - we've shared some seasonal highlights below this list of reserves!

North

Cheshire Wildlife Trust

Red Rocks Marsh - The reserve and surrounding area is a well-known stopping point for migratory birds in spring and autumn, with regular visitors like redstarts, ring ouzels and wheatears sometimes joined by spectacular rarities such as bee-eaters, red-backed shrikes and Richard's pipits.

Cumbria Wildlife Trust

South Walney - On the southern tip of a shingle island at the end of the Furness Peninsula you can see gull colonies in spring, plus breeding oystercatcher, shelduck and eider. Big numbers of migrant wheatear, redstart, willow warbler and goldcrest also gather. In winter, look out for huge numbers of waders and wildfowl.

Northumberland Wildlife Trust

East Chevington - One of four Druridge Bay reserves (including Cresswell Foreshore and Pond, Druridge Pools, and Hauxley – all great for birds). Wigeon, teal, and greylag and pink-footed geese over-winter in large numbers, as can 6000-8000 starlings. Wading birds are a regular feature during migration periods, with a number of rarities recorded including greater yellowlegs and Pacific golden plover. Grebes, seaducks and divers are also regular visitors.

Grindon Lough - This natural lough, not far from Hadrian's Wall, is great for wildfowl, particularly during winter. A number of geese can regularly be seen, including greylag, pink-footed, bean and white-fronted. Rarer visitors have included red-necked phalarope and American wigeon.

The Wildlife Trust for Lancs, Manchester & N Merseyside

Wigan Flashes - The Flashes (lakes) are a legacy of Wigan’s industrial past and were formed as a result of mining subsidence. Over 200 species of bird have been recorded here. Visit for overwintering grey heron, tufted duck, coot, pochard, goldeneye, gadwall and great crested grebe.

Yorkshire Wildlife Trust

Flamborough Cliffs - In summer the cliffs are packed with tens of thousands of breeding auks, gannets and gulls creating a memorable experience, while in autumn birdwatching interest switches to migration. Out at sea, all four skuas may be seen plus large numbers of common seabirds, divers, grebes and wildfowl. Clifftop fields attract short-eared owl, wheatear and whinchat, whilst berry-laden scrub and wooded areas in Holmes Gut attracts hordes of migrant thrushes, warblers and finches. Scarce migrants are also frequently seen, including yellow-browed warbler. 

Wheldrake Ings - Winter floods attract tens of thousands of wigeon, teal, pintail and mallard, plus Icelandic whooper swans. Large flocks of greylag geese often hold pink-footed and white-fronted geese and the occasional bean goose. Hordes of golden plover and lapwing make an awe-inspiring spectacle when they are buzzed by a hunting peregrine.

Spurn - A curving spit of land, which stretches for three-and-a-half miles across the mouth of the River Humber, Spurn is one of the best sites in the UK for seeing migrant birds. Autumn and spring spectacles of visible migration can see thousands of birds passing overhead - in one day 22,000 swallows were recorded flying through the site, with 7,000 house martins logged the following day! Many birds stop to refuel, offering great views of migrants such as ring ouzel, whinchat and a variety of warblers, and rare birds are regularly recorded. A dedicated seawatching hide offers a sheltered spot to scan the waves: divers, terns, wildfowl, waders and seabirds are regularly recorded, with rarities including black-browed albatross.

Midlands

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust

Carr Vale - The mixture of wetlands, grassland and trees attracts a rich variety of birds throughout the year, with a number of rare species recorded such as Caspian tern and Sabine's gull. In September, swallows gather in a pre-migration roost of 1-2,000 birds, often attracting hunting hobbies. In winter, large numbers of wildfowl feed on the wetlands and grassland.

Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust

Rutland Water - One of the most famous inland locations for birdwatching, Rutland is rewarding at any time of year. In winter, up to 28 species of wildfowl are recorded including rarer species such as scaup and smew. Passage waders are a big feature of spring and autumn, with 21 species recorded in a single day, and other regular migrants include terns and wheatears. Up to 70 species breed over summer, including the famous ospreys.

Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust

Donna Nook - The reserve consists of dunes, slacks and inter-tidal areas. Snow buntings are regularly seen in winter, when the sea-buckthorn berries attract large numbers of fieldfare, redwing and starling.

Gibraltar Point - This dynamic stretch of East Lincolnshire coastline is a hotspot for bird migration. Flocks of birds can be seen year round, including impressive movements of migrants during spring and autumn, which often include rarities. The autumn and winter wader flocks here are one of the wonders of the natural world. Pushed off their feeding and roosting grounds during the highest tides of the year, up to 100,000 knot, dunlin, oystercatcher and sanderling congregate in vast whirling patterns. 

Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust

Attenborough - A complex of former gravel pits that attract large numbers of wintering wildfowl, as well as a variety of waders during spring and autumn migration, including little ringed plover, greenshank and rarer visitors such as Temminck's stint and curlew sandpiper. Other migrant birds that regularly pass through the reserve include whinchat, wheatear, osprey, black tern and little gull.

Idle Valley - One of the richest birding sites in the region, Idle Valley boasts an impressive species list including many local or national rarities such as killdeer, whiskered tern and long-billed dowitcher. Spring and autumn migration bring good numbers of waders and terns, with black tern regularly seen, as well as migrant passerines such as wheater, whinchat and yellow wagtail. The water holds large numbers of wildfowl in winter, including goldeneye and the occasional smew.

Shropshire Wildlife Trust

Wood Lane - This disused industrial site is now a haven for birds, including hundreds of pairs of breeding sand martin in summer. During spring and autumn migration, passage waders are commonly seen on the lagoons' islands and muddy fringes, including greenshank and curlew.

Staffordshire Wildlife Trust

Doxey Marshes - This wetland oasis near the centre of Stafford is important for breeding and passage wading birds, with significant populations of lapwing, snipe and redshank. Rare birds are regularly recorded during migration periods, including the Midlands' first river warbler. Water pipits are sometimes present over winter. 

Worcestershire Wildlife Trust

Upton Warren - Spring and autumn passage often brings marsh harrier, osprey, black tern and a variety of waders, including greenshank, dunlin and green and common sandpipers. These are sometimes joined by scarcer species, such as little stint or wood sandpiper, or even a rarity - past records have included least sandpiper and Wilson's phalarope! Winter brings bittern, water rail, and common and jack snipe.

East

Essex Wildlife Trust

Gunners Park and Shoebury Ranges - Due to its proximity to the Thames Estuary, Gunners has always been a site which provides ideal habitat for migrating birds including Ring Ouzel, Spotted Flycatcher, Wheatear, Whinchat and even Yellow-browed Warbler. This October, Gunners really showed its capacity to attract birds on the move when a vagrant from the east, an Olive-backed Pipit, took refuge, heralding an influx of twitchers into Southend.

The Naze - Late autumn migration brings the Dark-Bellied Brent Geese, which have flocked to the area from far to the north and east of the British Isles; some as far as Russia. They typically stick around until March/April. 

Thurrock Thameside Nature ParkOpened in 2012, this huge, state-of-the-art park has a spectacular hide looking down onto Mucking Flats, used by thousands of dunlin and knot in autumn and winter. Also present in large numbers are other waders, ducks and gulls including bar-tailed godwit, teal, gadwall, pintail and avocet.

Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust

Tring Reservoirs - These four spring-fed reservoirs have some of the best birdwatching in southern England: flocks of lapwing, golden plover, goldeneye, wigeon, shoveler, tufted duck, goosander, gadwall and pintail in autumn and winter.

Stocker’s Lake - A large lake in the Colne Valley, which attracts huge numbers of wintering wildfowl including spectacular mandarin ducks as well as shoveler, smew, gadwall, pochard, wigeon and gadwall.

Amwell - This reserve is internationally important on account of the numbers of water birds that visit. In winter there are huge numbers of gadwall and shoveler and also tufted duck, pochard, teal and little grebe. Look out for flocks of lapwing.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Cley Marshes was purchased in 1926, making it the first Wildlife Trust reserve in the country. It is one of the best in Europe for birdwatching with many rare visitors. The shingle beach, saline lagoons, grazing marsh and reed bed support large numbers of wintering and migrating wildfowl and waders, as well as bittern, marsh harrier and bearded tit.

Hickling Broad - From October to March the raptor roost at Hickling Broad provides excellent views of raptors as they fly in to roost. You can see hundreds of marsh harriers – a bird which remains rarer than golden eagles as a British breeding species - hen harriers, merlin and barn owl. It is also possibly the best place in Britain to view wild common cranes.

Suffolk Wildlife Trust

Lackford LakesA former gravel pit complex by the river Lark, consisting of meadows, woodland, reedbeds and streams. Superb for wildfowl in both winter and summer, Lackford attracts tufted duck, teal, pochard, gadwall, shoveler and goosander. The large winter gull roost can number 28,000.

South

Devon Wildlife Trust

Dawlish Inner Warren - A long spit of sand, which curves like a huge question mark across the mouth of the River Exe towards Exmouth on the opposite bank. It is an arrival and departure point for countless migrant birds including dunlin, ringed plover, curlew and black-tailed godwit amongst many others. As the sea rises the birds edge closer to the hide giving the visitor good close views.

Dorset Wildlife Trust

Brownsea Island - Open via boat from Sandbanks and Poole between April and October, you can expect to see up to 10,000 wading birds close-up. The largest single avocet flock in Britain was recorded here, and in autumn there are regularly up to 2,500 black-tailed godwits, plus curlew, grey plover, dunlin and oystercatcher. National Trust landing charges may apply - see Dorset Wildlife Trust's website for details.

Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust

Blashford Lakes - A series of former gravel pits surrounded by grassland and woodland, the lakes attract large numbers of wildfowl during the winter. Gadwall can number over 900 and there is a roost of up to 65 goosander each evening. Herons, little egret and in recent years great white egret are regular, with bittern seen in some winters. Kingfishers are present all year round.

Farlington Marshes - One of the Trust's oldest reserves and a species-rich grazing marsh of international importance for the waders and wildfowl that it supports, such as bearded tit, sedge and reed warblers. Many flowering plants have also been recorded here, including unusual species such as sea barley and corky-fruited water dropwort.

Kent Wildlife Trust

Oare Marshes - Grazing marsh with freshwater dykes, open water ‘scrapes’, seawall and saltmarsh. An important site for migratory, over-wintering and breeding wetland birds, amongst the breeding species found here are avocet, redshank, snipe and common tern. Migratory species seen here include sandpiper and whimbrel.

The Isles of Scilly

Scilly - a paradise for birdwatchers, regularly hosting exciting and rare visitors during both spring and autumn migration. Scilly is one of the few places in the UK where rare birds from the east (such as citrine wagtail) can occasionally be seen alongside those from the west (especially waders, such as buff-breasted sandpiper). For a taste of what you might see, take a look at this spring migration round-up.

Somerset Wildlife Trust

Catcott ComplexA great reserve for watching wintering waterfowl and waders. Directly in front of the main hide, internationally important numbers of ducks including wigeon, pintail, shoveler and teal rub up against each other on the flooded fields while waders such as lapwing and snipe pick their way around the drier land. Also watch for Bewick’s swans, golden plover and whimbrel.

Sussex Wildlife Trust

Rye Harbour - Shingle, saltmarsh, sand dunes, rivers, pits, grazing marsh, reedbeds and farmland make this one of the most important conservation sites on the Sussex coast. Always good for birds - 279 species have been recorded here - including large winter flocks of ducks such as smew, and waders.

Wiltshire Wildlife Trust

Langford Lakes - Birds visiting on migration include waders, terns, and osprey which can occasionally be seen in early autumn. Winter is the best time to experience the wildfowl spectacle - many ducks, including tufted duck, pochard, gadwall and great crested grebe use the lakes as wintering grounds. As winter advances shoveler and wigeon add to the growing ranks of species.

Lower Moor Farm - This wetland wonderland is linked by ancient hedges, woods and meadows. Fantastic aerial displays of starlings can be seen around 4pm between December and March as they gather to roost. Watch near the Heronry Hide and also look out for large flocks of redwing, fieldfare, plus teal, goosander, red crested pochard and gadwall.

Wales

North Wales Wildlife Trust

Cemlyn - During the summer, Cemlyn is home to one of Wales' most important tern colonies, with hundreds of pairs of Sandwich tern joined by smaller numbers of Arctic and common tern. Spring and autumn can produce passage waders and other migrant birds, such as whinchat and wheater - rarer visitors to the area have included woodchat shrike and black-headed bunting. Between July and October a westerly or north-westerly wind can lead to excellent seawatching, with storm petrels, skuas and shearwaters often recorded.

Radnorshire Wildlife Trust

Llanbwchllyn - From the thatched roof of the bird hide, large flocks of coot can be viewed in winter. There have been occasional sightings of great northern diver and bittern, but more likely sightings are large numbers of tufted duck and goosander as well as rarer birds like gadwall and goldeneye.

Pwllpatti - A bird hide overlooking an old ox-bow of the River Wye which floods in winter. It is home to the largest wigeon roost in Powys and also a good place for teal. Species also likely to be seen are common sandpiper, redshank, oystercatcher, little egret, tufted duck and mallard.

The Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales

Skomer Island - a spectacular summer seabird colony, Skomer is also a great place to see migrant birds passing through in spring and autumn. Regulars such as spotted flycatcher and redstart are often joined by more unusual visitors. Recent highlights have included woodchat shrike, eastern subalpine warbler and dark-eyed junco - a real rarity from North America.

Teifi Marshes - One of the best wetland sites in Wales, attracting large numbers of wintering wildfowl like teal and wigeon. Water rail, snipe, curlew and lapwing are all regular winter visitors, and passage can bring other waders such as ruff and green sandpiper, as well as songbirds stopping off to feed before completing their migration - a white wagtail ringed on the reserve was found in Vidvikursveit, Iceland, 1730km away, 76 days later.

Scotland

Scottish Wildlife Trust

Montrose Basin - Tidal basin with mud, fresh and salt water, saltmarsh, reedbed and grassland. Pink-footed geese numbers peak in October, with a record count of 90,000, before trailing off in November, though some are present throughout winter. There are also usually about 2,000 overwintering redshank and eider, 3,000 wigeon, 4,000 oystercatchers and perhaps even more knot.

Northern Ireland

Ulster Wildlife Trust)

Isle of Muck - This impressive island nature reserve, off Islandmagee in Co. Antrim, contains the third largest colony of cliff-nesting seabirds in Northern Ireland. Kittiwake, guillemot, fulmar and razorbill all breed here in large numbers and there’s a chance of spotting puffin, peregrine, otter and cetaceans on a visit.

The Channel Islands

Alderney Wildlife Trust

Les Etacs and Ortac - Alderney is a haven for seabirds as well as a hotspot for migrating birds in spring and autumn. The spectacular Les Etacs and Ortac rocks support more than 2% of the world’s northern gannet population. These colonies are some of the most southerly found within the gannet’s range, with over 7,000 breeding pairs recorded.

What to look out for

Be prepared for an early start, as the first few hours of the day are often the busiest. Bring some sandwiches! You won’t want to miss a moment of the action whilst looking for some lunch.

The major migration hotspots are around our coasts, especially during the spring, but autumn migration can be seen almost anywhere in the country. Compared to the great rush north, when all the birds are arriving at the same time, in a hurry to get on with the vital task of breeding, birds take the journey south in stages, stopping to refuel and socialise on the way. Here are some of our highlights to watch out for:

Spring

Spring migration is known as the great rush north, as birds race back to their more northerly breeding grounds having spent the winter in milder regions further south. There's an air of urgency, each bird eager to claim the best territory or find the best mate, so most spring migrants rarely pause in one place for long until they've reached their final destination.

Spring sees the return of many of our summer visitors, birds that breed in the UK but winter in southern Europe, Africa or even further afield. Many of these are insect-eaters that can't find enough food here in winter. They can appear as early as March, with wheatears, chiffchaffs, sand martins and ring ouzels often the first to arrive.

Things heat up in April, with more birds arriving all the time. Swallows, willow warblers, blackcaps, redstarts, tree pipits, yellow wagtails and house martins are often spotted early in the month, with later arrivals including garden warblers, whinchats, turtle doves, swifts and pied and spotted flycatchers. April also sees the return of the cuckoo, whose call is widely regarded as the classic sign of spring.

Breeding seabirds also arrive on our shores in spring. Arctic, Sandwich and little terns can sometimes be seen flying over inland lakes as they head for their coastal nesting areas, whilst common terns will return to these freshwater sites for the summer. Puffins, guillemots, razorbills and gannets all reappear at their breeding grounds on rocky cliffs or islands after spending the winter out at sea. Birds of prey are another feature of spring migration, with summer visitors including ospreys, hobbies and the rarely seen honey buzzard.

Spring is also a good time to find rarer migrants that don't typically breed in the UK. Easterly winds can push migrating birds off-course, resulting in scarcely-seen species like wrynecks and bluethroats being found on our shores. Southerly winds and favourable conditions can cause birds that usually breed further south to fly too far, hitting the UK instead. Hoopoes, bee-eaters and black-winged stilts are some of the most commonly encountered, with pairs occasionally remaining here over summer and nesting!

Summer

In early summer most birds are busily raising chicks, but with no parental duties to worry about adult cuckoos are already heading south in June. By July they can be back in the Sahel, feasting on the caterpillars of African moths and planning the next leg of their journey to the rainforests of central Africa.

July sees the first migratory wading birds returning to our coasts and wetlands, busily feeding and re-stocking their fat reserves for the last push of their journey down to Africa or beyond. Wader migration steps up a gear in August, and with luck scarcer species like little stint and curlew sandpiper can be spotted.

July is also when terns start to spread out from their breeding colonies and can be found scattered around our coasts, preparing for their own journey south. For Arctic terns, this journey could take them as far as Antarctica. They make the longest migration ever recorded, clocking up over 59,000 miles; an incredible distance equivalent to flying twice around the planet!

During August, swifts start out on their non-stop flight down to South Africa. Swallows and house martins start gathering in August and September, forming large flocks at reedbeds and famously lining up along telegraph wires before they too decide it’s time to leave, flying their way back down across Europe and the Mediterranean, heading for Africa.

Autumn

Autumn migration has a very different feel to the great northerly rush of spring. The urgency is gone, birds slowly working their way south towards their wintering grounds, often stopping off for days or even weeks to refuel for the rest of their journey. 

As our own summer visitors gradually disappear, birds that spent the summer in more northerly countries start to pass through on their way south. Huge numbers of flycatchers, chats and warblers arrive on our coasts from Scandinavia, all with one thing on their mind: the journey to Africa.

This is often the best time to find rare birds amongst the more common migrants. Inexperienced young birds making their first journey south are more likely to stray off-course, so species that would normally not be seen in the UK sometimes turn up. Weather is the key: westerly fronts moving across the Atlantic can bring American waders and songbirds, whilst easterly winds could carry Siberian gems like the beautiful red-flanked bluetail.

Late summer into autumn is also a great time for seawatching - wrap up warm, find a comfortable spot on a headland and scan for migrating seabirds. Thousands of auks, kittiwakes and gannets leave their colonies and head out into the Bay of Biscay and the North Atlantic for the winter. Search through flocks of Manx shearwater for their rarer cousins, including Balearic, great and Cory's shearwaters, and look for marauding skuas  - Arctic and great skuas are the most common, but with luck you can spot pomarine and sometimes long-tailed skuas, too.

The tiny red-necked phalarope, a sparrow-sized wader that breeds on pools in Shetland, has the Herculean task ahead of not only flying right across the Atlantic but then crossing the Americas to spend the winter months in the equatorial Pacific, bobbing around on the sea between Ecuador and the Galapagos islands.

In October, it’s the turn of thrushes, finches and buntings to make the journey across the North Sea to the UK. If the conditions are right, spectacular movements can occur involving thousands of birds. It's a delight for the senses, vast clouds of finches and thrushes passing overhead in endless flocks, accompanied by the nasal croak of bramblings, the laughing rattle of fieldfares and the piercing call of redwings. In foggy or rainy conditions, these birds can be grounded in an event known as a 'fall', where birds seem to cover the ground and any vegetation. On one such October day in 2012, observers at Yorkshire's Spurn Point recorded over 38,000 birds!

October also sees the return of thousands of swans and geese, flying in their famous V-formations. Pink-footed geese pour in from Greenland and Iceland, stopping off at favoured sites in Scotland, such as the Montrose Basin where over 90,000 have been recorded on a single day. As autumn progresses, the geese filter south into England. 

Waxwings arrive for the winter from Scandinavia, and you might also see large numbers of the delicate goldcrest, Europe’s smallest bird weighing the same as a ten pence piece and yet able to make its way across the North Sea to spend its winter here with us.

Winter

Many of the birds that winter in the UK arrive in autumn, but cold weather or a lack of food in northern Europe can drive large numbers of birds to cross the North Sea during winter itself. 

Waxwings are the most eagerly anticipated winter arrivals, their colourful plumage making them a favourite of many UK birdwatchers. Some winters only see a handful of these beautiful birds making the journey to our shores, but in other years they appear in huge numbers. These mass influxes are known as irruptions, and occur when the weather in Scandinavia and northern Russia is particularly harsh, or if there has been a poor crop of their favourite food, berries. Waxwings are often found in supermarket carparks, feasting on berry-laden trees.

Late December into January also tends to be when the highest number of smews can be seen in the UK. The striking black and white males don't stray far from their continental breeding grounds, so most individuals seen here are either females or young birds, known as red-heads thanks to the auburn feathers on their crown and nape. Smew favour gravel pits, but can be found on almost any large body of freshwater. 

If you can't get to these places

Don’t worry if you can’t make it to one of these migration hotspots, as large flocks of migratory birds can be seen all across the UK. In summer, screaming flocks of swifts gather above towns and cites, whilst in October large numbers of redwings and fieldfares arrive from Scandinavia. On a dark night, stand quietly and listen for the high pitched ‘seep’ of redwings flying over in the dark. 

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