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Parrot Crossbill, Scott Mayson.

Migration blog (23rd – 29th October)

Scott Mayson

BirdTrack Organiser

Scott's role includes the day-to-day running of BirdTrack: updating the application, assisting county recorders by checking records and corresponding with observers. Scott is also tasked with increasing participation in BirdTrack through a wide range of publicity media so if you are a birdwatcher reading this and you haven’t done so already, register and get started today.


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The past week has been the week that just kept on giving with migrant birds arriving throughout the week, providing opportunities for birdwatchers, both inland and at coastal locations, to get in on the action.

With a steady easterly airflow at the end of last week and into the weekend, birds arrived en masse across Britain and Ireland. Thrushes, particularly Redwing and Fieldfare, arrived in good numbers, joined by Ring Ouzel, Song Thrush and Blackbirds from the near continent. The BirdTrack reporting rate for Goldcrest also saw a significant jump as birds arrived from Europe. Seeing such small birds arriving in off the North Sea is still one of the most awe-inspiring feats of migration. Given the ever-increasing numbers of Yellow-browed Warblers migrating through Britain and Ireland each autumn, it was surprising to see only moderate (in comaprison to past years) numbers reported during the last week, especially given the weather conditions. Perhaps they have had a poor breeding season? On the flip side, one species that has been occurring in greater numbers recently is Red-flanked Bluetail and the past week was probably the best week ever! Norfolk recorded at least eight individuals, four of which were seen at Holme! A further 10 birds were scattered across Britain and Ireland with inland birds found in Bedfordshire and Derbyshire. One filmed on a camera trap at Pensthorpe in Norfolk proves that some birds must pass through totally undetected, so could one soon be found in someone's garden?

Common Crossbills were reported in good numbers, with several locations recording high double figure counts, indicating there is a bit of an invasion taking place, most likely due to a pine crop failure somewhere forcing birds to migrate and find food. Amongst these were a few Parrot Crossbills adding weight to the crop failure being in Scandinavia. This chunky finch is best found by listening for their ‘glip’ call with pine forests their favoured habitat. Lesser Redpolls continued to arrive and amongst these were a few Common (Mealy) Redpolls and on the Shetland Isles a scattering of Arctic and Northwestern-type Redpolls.

Most of the summer migrants have departed now ,but still a few Redstart, Whinchat and Pied Flycatchers were seen. These are most likely Scandinavian birds that have bred much further north. A couple of Cuckoos in Cornwall and Suffolk were a real surprise and will most likely be the last birds of the autumn. 

Winter visitors continued to arrive with more Pink-footedBarnacle and Brent Geese arriving and the first White-fronted Geese and Bewick’s Swans arriving back for the winter. Long-tailed Duck and Velvet Scoter numbers began to rise ahead of the winter often associating in loose flocks and can even be found on reservoirs. Snow Bunting, Shore Lark and Twite are all conspicuously absent or in lower numbers at regular wintering sites so far this autumn. Perhaps it has been too mild to push them further south and away from their upland breeding grounds. 

As would be expected, the easterly winds provide a wealth of rare and scarce species with reasonable numbers of Pallas’s and Dusky Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher, and Little Bunting reported. However, the stand out bird for many was the first twichable Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin (Rufous-tailed Bushchat for those that prefer its old name) for over 40 years that put on a show for the masses that travelled to Stiffkey in Norfolk. Other rarities included the fourth Taiga FLycatcher for Britain in Co. Durham, the fifth Masked Shrike in Kent, and a Pine Bunting and Blackpoll Warbler in Shetland; all in all a rather epic week.

With the forecast set for a series of low pressure systems to arrive from the Atlantic, bringing with it strong winds and rain, a major slowing of migration is highly likely.  
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With its proximity to the continent, Waxwings arrive in the northeast and can often move quite quickly south and west. 

Species focus - Waxwing

Waxwing is referred to as an eruptive species that occurs here in varying numbers, dependent on the availability of food on the continent. In winters when there is a good berry crop, we see fewer here in the UK and, conversely, in years when the berry crop fails large flocks can cross the North Sea in search of berries here. Winters when large numbers occur are often referred to as Waxwing winters and we often get an indication that we could be in for one when Waxwings begin arriving in the UK during October. So far it is difficult to say that this might be the case this winter, but we are already seeing small groups of them, so it is worth keeping an eye out.

During the breeding season Waxwings are flycatchers, leaping from perches in pursuit of insects, very much in the manner of a flycatcher. It's not until this food begins to run out that they change their diet to berries. It would seem that their favourite berries are those of the Rowan but they will also eat apples, Cotoneaster berries and Hawthorn amongst others.

Waxwings breed across northern Europe, northern Russia and North America and we often see the largest arrivals here in mid-winter, almost certainly of birds from the Fennoscandian breeding population. In Waxwing winters birds can often still be around into the early spring when they can be observed singing and flycatching.

With its proximity to the Continent, Waxwings arrive in the northeast and can often move quite quickly south and west.

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Looking through a tit flock could produce a Yellow-browed Warbler. 

Looking ahead

With the forecast set for a series of low pressures systems to arrive from the Atlantic, bringing with it strong winds and rain, a major slowing of migration is highly likely. The strong westerlies and associated rain are not the sort of conditions birds like to migrate in, so most birds will keep a low profile and hold off migrating any further until the weather improves. Any let up in the weather could allow some birds to move shorter distances, maybe just within the UK so species like Yellow-browed Warbler that arrived in the last week will filter down through the country ending up inland and along the southern coasts. Look out for any tit flocks as they may contain a Yellow-browed Warbler or Pallas’s Warbler. Strong winds from the south on Saturday could push species such as Pallid Swift to Britain and Ireland. As the wind drops in intensity, finches such as Redpoll and Crossbill may migrate short distances in these light head winds. Looking for flocks in pine woodland may even uncover a Parrot Crossbill. A warm front arriving from the Atlantic mid-week could provide an American vagrant such as Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Chimney Swift or a Double-crested Cormorant. A few birds have arrived in the Azores and off the coast of Ireland, so the South West looks best placed to receive these should one arrive.

Scott Mayson, 22 October 2020


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