Nature Quest: Spotting spring migrants

Common ChiffchaffWhat’s your favourite thing about spring? I asked that back in March in my blog about the first signs of spring. Since then, spring has well and truly sprung, and already it feels like summer is just around the corner.

One of the things I’ve most enjoyed over the last couple of months is looking out for migrant birds that are arriving here after their long journeys from Europe and Africa. Perhaps it’s because I’ve made an extra effort to note their arrival, or maybe moving out of the city centre has given me more opportunity to spot them, but one thing I’ve really noticed this year is the sequence of the migrants arriving. They don’t all come at once – first the blackcaps and chiffchaffs arrive, then the first willow warblers, and a bit later the reed and sedge warblers, whitethroats, wheatears and of course the swallows, martins and cuckoos.

Male blackcap Male wheatear

Fantastic firsts

For a bird lover, there’s nothing quite like the moment you hear the first singing chiffchaff of the year, or see the first swallow, or (although it’s sadly becoming a rarer thing these days) hear the first cuckoo. This year, I anxiously listened out for an entire two weeks for my first chiffchaff, before hearing it through a car window while driving along at 40mph. Even such a brief snatch of song was enough to make me jump up in my seat and immediately log on to social media just to tell everyone. (I wasn’t driving at the time!)

Whitethroat, RSPB DungenessMy first swallow this year was so early I did a double take and thought I was seeing things. I made a special trip to the Somerset Levels just to find the first willow warbler, and hearing one gave me an instant feeling of elation. My first cuckoo of the year was at Rye Harbour (a trip which also gave me the first wheatear, sedge warbler, lesser whitethroat and house martin), and finally my first swift was just last week – I may have actually whooped out loud for that one! I’ve still got a few yet to see – flycatchers, redstarts, nightjars, hobbies and wood warblers are on my list – so I’m keeping my eyes and ears peeled. You never know when you’re going to spot something interesting (perhaps that’s half the fun)… just last weekend a sunny walk in my home town produced at least two singing nightingales!

Bird bingo?

While eagerly awaiting each new arrival, I couldn’t help wondering what it is about these birds appearing that gets me so excited. Is it that they give me hope that spring is here and summer is on its way? Is it a competitive desire to spot the new arrivals before anyone else, or the novelty of seeing a particular species after not having seen it all winter? Might it be amazement at the incredible journeys these tiny birds have undertaken? The mystery and magic of their sudden appearance, almost out of nowhere? Or is it simply a sort of ‘bird bingo’, where I can tick each species off until I’ve got the full set?

Sedge warbler Swallows Reed warbler

One of things that has really struck me is how I become almost obsessed with seeing or hearing the first individual of each species, but then once I’ve spotted them the new arrivals almost immediately start to feel commonplace. The first willow warbler, for example – I stopped in my tracks and almost danced with joy. Half an hour later after I’d heard three or four? Still finding them beautiful, but the novelty had already worn off. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy them and find them wonderful to see and listen to, but I have to confess that nothing beats that first one.

Spotted flycatcherI think perhaps that, for me, what makes the migrants’ arrival special is that I feel like I’m welcoming back old friends. They’ve been away for several months and I’ve missed their presence. I eagerly await their return because, well, I’ve missed them and I long to have them back. Once they’re back I soon accept their presence, and simply enjoy having them around, but I’m not metaphorically rushing towards them to scoop them up in a welcome-back hug every time I see them.

I always feel that I wait ages for spring and summer to arrive, only for them to whizz by far too quickly. Looking out for and taking time to notice each species is one way I can try and make the most of them while they are still here.

Remarkable migrants

I’ve only touched on it here, but the journeys undertaken by our migrant birds are truly remarkable. Perhaps surprisingly, there’s still a huge amount we don’t know about where many species go during the winter months, but new research and technology are beginning to shed light on these incredible migrations. In the process, they will hopefully help conservationists in the fight to save some of our most iconic, but sadly disappearing, species.

You can find out more about some of the BTO’s tracking studies – as well as see where their satellite-tagged cuckoos have got to – on the BTO website.


What migrant birds have you seen so far this spring? Why not set yourself the challenge of getting out and spotting one that’s new to you, or simply making an extra effort to notice what’s arriving and when?

I asked my followers on Twitter what the return of summer migrants meant to them. I’d love to hear your thoughts too!

@TheLilacGrove: the wonderment of how something so small can travel so far under it’s own power!

@TigerGaret: I love the House Martins that nest on our house, dont love the amount of poo or the smell by the end of summer 😉

@beccastweet: screeching swifts! My fav bit of summer. A starling at my parent’s does a good impression so it’s nice to hear the real thing.


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