Fieldfare, Edmund Fellowes

Migration blog (mid-January – mid-February)

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.

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As December progressed into January, the weather remained wet for most of us with temperatures taking a tumble early in the new year resulting in covering of snow for some.

This cold weather saw an increase in the reporting rates for BirdTrack and Garden BirdWatch for both Redwing and Fieldfare. These are most likely birds moving around to avoid the colder weather, or escaping areas covered in snow and using gardens to find food. The reporting rates for many wildfowl remained around the historical average. A spike in the reporting rate of White-fronted Goose seen at the start of December fell back down to near average as flocks joined up and more localised restrictions meant less coverage of suitable habitat by birdwatchers. The anticipated influx of Iceland Gulls never materialised and, unless colder weather in the Faroe Islands arrives, it is unlikely that many more birds will reach us. With the country going into a national lockdown shortly after the new year it is difficult to get a handle on which species are being seen more or less frequently due to the restrictions in travelling. The majority of records coming from observers' gardens or close to their homes. This same effect was seen in the first lockdown when the reporting rates for species associated with urban areas and gardens, such as House Sparrow and Collared Dove, increased during lockdown, whilst for species using habitats away from housing, such as estuaries, the reporting rates for those species fell (Redshank being a good example). You can read more about this here.

Species Focus - Lapwing

Around 100,000 pairs of Lapwings breed in the UK but during the winter months large numbers arrive from Iceland, Fennoscandia and Russia and the Lapwing population swells to around 600,000 birds.

Lapwings spend the winter in the UK in a variety of habitats and can be found on coastal marshes, inland wetlands and in farmland, often mixing with Golden Plovers. The Lapwing’s main diet consists of ground-living invertebrates; during periods of prolonged snow cover and freezing conditions, Lapwings are forced to move in search of unfrozen soils. Right now, with the UK showing a largely north-south split in cold conditions, Lapwings will begin to move south and west and during the next week or so. Flocks of them could be seen almost anywhere.

Lapwing is red-listed as a Bird of Conservation Concern and has shown a 54% decline in the UK during the last 50 years, making it one of the most strongly declining birds in Europe. Lapwing is quite a long-lived bird and the oldest known (from the British and Irish Ringing Scheme) lived for 21 years, 1 month and fifteen days. The bird was ringed as a chick on Skokholm, Pembrokeshire and found dead on Skokholm over 21 years later. The longest distance recorded was by a Lapwing that was ringed as a chick at Ullswater, Cumbria and found just over a year later in Newfoundland, Canada, 3,453km from where it was ringed.

During the winter months large numbers arrive from Iceland, Fennoscandia and Russia, and the Lapwing population swells to around 600,000 birds. 
We could see an arrival of wildfowl as ducks, swans and geese are forced to find unfrozen feeding areas and head westwards.  

Looking ahead

With the national lockdown likely to be in place until the next review period, for many the main focus will be on what species can see from our homes or whilst out doing exercise. The short-range forecast is set for a run of rain bands crossing Britain and Ireland that may turn wintery for some. However, the focus should probably be more on what is happening across Europe. During the next week, a mass of freezing air will push southwards across Russia which also moves westwards towards Eastern Europe, bringing freezing temperatures. This colder weather looks to last several days and could result in a cold weather movement of several species. We could see an arrival of wildfowl as ducks, swans and geese are forced to find unfrozen feeding areas and head westwards. Species that could arrive include Smew, Pochard, Bewick’s Swan, White-fronted Goose and Bean Goose. If you are lucky enough to live near a lake or reservoir, keep an eye on the numbers of wildfowl present. They may well increase during the coming weeks and there could even be a scarcity amongst them. Even if you don’t live near suitable habitat it is worth keeping an ear out for them as they migrate overhead; if you do any nocturnal migration recording you may hear them during the night. Frozen ground can also drive thrushes across the North Sea to Britain and Ireland and these flocks of Redwing, Fieldfare, and Blackbirds could include a rarity or two such as Black-throated Thrush. This influx of thrushes can even be seen in our gardens and parks as numbers increase as they search for feeding areas. Putting apples out in your garden is a great way to attract them, and look for them feeding on berry bushes.  Lapwing, Snipe and Woodcock are also prone to cold weather movements with the latter two species needing unfrozen ground to probe for their food. Woodcocks can even be found in towns and gardens when they first arrive, relying on their superb camouflage to keep them hidden under brambles or in dense cover.

Reed Buntings can sometimes visit gardens during colder weather as they search for food. 

Over the coming weeks it is worth checking the birds that are using your garden or nearby green space, especially if food and water are provided. Both Blackcap and Reed Bunting will occur with more regularity in the coming weeks. A good way of attracting Blackcaps is to provide fat balls and/or apples for them to feed on; you may even attract multiple birds, although they can become territorial around food. The females have a gingery/rusty coloured patch on the top of their head, whilst the males sport the black cap that gives them their name. Reed Buntings can be a secretive bird when visiting gardens and their brown streaked plumage can make them difficult to pick out from female House Sparrows, but their head pattern can be a good way of picking them out. As we get closer to spring the males will moult into their distinctive breeding plumage and the distinctive black hood and throat will develop. You can find out how to identify Reed Buntings here. How about joining the free BTO Garden BirdWatch and record the species that use your garden?

Scott Mayson, 20 January 2021

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