Oct 182012

It seems as if everything you read about birds at this time of year is concentrating on “Viz Mig” a rather lazy way of saying visible migration of birds.   We decided that this Wednesday we would try for some migration sightings of our own and headed for the Isle of Thanet.

We started out at Bishopstone and the minute we got out of the car we had flocks of small birds flying overhead.   A kestrel hovered over the field behind.   In the bushes near the car park we had robin, chaffinch, wood pigeon, collared dove and starling.   As we followed the flying flocks we realised they were all going east to west along the coast, and only around the cliffs and cliff top.   Mostly swallow, with some house martin mixed in.   We then realised that there were some finches too, these all appeared to be chaffinch – although it would have been possible for the odd brambling to pass us by – the groups were up to 30-40 in number and passing through constantly.   Within minutes we had seen probably 2-300 of each species.

Blackbird enjoying berries

Robin were “ticking” from the brambles, occasionally showing themselves but generally staying out of sight.   Two stonechat perched up on a dying stalk keeping watch before dashing off into cover.   A pair of wren moved ahead of us.   Blackbirds, great tit, crow, and pied wagtail were also seen well.   As we moved into the more wooded area we were firmly into wood pigeon country with over 20 birds perched in the trees on sunny branches enjoying the autumn sunshine.

On the sea there were herring gull, great black-backed gull, great crested grebe, and Irene spotted four turnstone on the beach.   A group of 13 Jay flew over – probably part of the huge influx from the continent – the BTO are currently seeing the highest number reported in the last eight years.

We spent some time simply watching and marvelling at the vast numbers of birds flying overhead.    We realised that goldfinch flocks were also on the move – the more we watched the more we saw, amazing to think of all these birds on the move at the same time.   Thank goodness for John Buckingham’s talk on migration last week, it helped to have a bit more idea of what is actually happening around us.   House sparrow, magpie and cormorant were also seen.

Back at the car park we realised that what we had been watching on the coast was also being duplicated slightly inland, we then wondered along how much of coastline – as the birds were following the coast it was hard to see if they were coming in from the north or from the east.   So off we went to Reculver.


Here we found similar numbers of birds passing through taking a short cut inland of the towers, but still speeding east to west.   Mainly swallow with some house martin again and chaffinch.   Large flocks of goldfinch were also moving along.   Three kestrels were hunting over the fields behind the seawall, struggling to hold their hover in the strong wind.   We found 23 turnstone on the beach here, and six little egret sheltering against some bushes.  A peregrine shot past, circled below the sea defences and then almost took Irene’s head off as it came back towards us.   A small group of ringed plover flew along the shoreline feeding on the receding tide.

Brent Geese flying west

Our final stop was at Seasalter where we hoped the tide would be going out revealing some feeding areas.   Immediately we saw huge flocks of  brent geese – I love these almost-elegant winter visitors, and in their large flocks they make a great sight.   The sounds as they communicate within the flock is lovely also.    Huge numbers of them were moving west towards Oare.   Something upset a large group of golden plover that had been settled on the marshes behind the sea wall, these delightful birds made beautiful patterns in the sky as their colours caught the light, twisting and turning for many minutes as we watched and enjoyed.

Unfortunately, the brent geese were drifting  far quicker than us, and with the sky darkening and time moving inexorably on we decided to call it a day.

  5 Responses to “Visible Migration”

Comments (5)
  1. Really enjoyed this write-up Sue, thanks. One question – you have stated that many birds were flying from east to west and that this included swallows and martins – I would have expected them to be flying towards the east i.e.france, from where they can go south. Would be interested if anyone has any theories as why they are heading east.

  2. I will check further Jim, but I know that there are huge swallow roosts in reed beds along the south coast, one being in East Sussex near Rye, There are definite migration routes, so I wonder if the birds are following the line of the river inland and will then go south to feed up before they migrate in larger flocks across via Dungeness for example. Pure speculation on my part, but I’m sure someone knows better than me!

    • Not sure about the swallows but looked up chaffinches in the Big! Migration Book. The British population of chaffinches is sedentary and move only short distances from the natal site. The birds that we saw at Bishopstone were Scandinavian birds that had flown south along the coasts of Denmark, Holland, Germany, Belgium and France. From northern France they head out across the Channel – the shortest distance is across to east Kent. Here they head west keeping to the coast and form wintering flocks mainly in south and south east England. Some of the birds (mainly females) continue west and form flocks on the west coast of Wales waiting for suitable conditions to cross to Ireland. There is evidence that birds will return to the same wintering area each year. Linnaeus (Swedish) named the chaffinch Fringilla coelebs. As you will all know “coelebs” is Latin for “bachelor” – of the few chaffinches that remain in Sweden most are males. It was unlikely that Brambling were with the chaffinches as they are night migrants. The chaffinches migrate mainly in the morning so would have set off from France at dawn. A birder who was at Bishopstone in the early morning (left at 10.00) recorded 50 chaffinch. We saw them between 10.15 and 11.30. I reckon that at about 11.00 they were passing us at the rate of at least 50 per minute. We could easily have seen 5000 chaffinches. They were still passing through when we arrived at Reculver at 12.00 but I stopped noticing them in the afternoon. What was the total number of birds!
      British Chaffinches can be separated from Scandinavian birds because our birds are slightly smaller and brighter – but that may only be due to the falling standards of our examinations.

  3. So, Malcolm, if we had seen say, 5000 chaffinches, just in one morning/day, how many would there be in total? How long does the migration go on for? What does your Whatever the answer, that is an awful lot of birds – and that’s only Chaffinches, just think of all the other species that are on the move at this time of year all around the world. It’s almost beyond my comprehension and just makes me admire birds and wildlife even more.

  4. seems not all the migrating birds are doing so well:

    migrating birds lost at sea