Birds are migrating all the time and autumn migration starts in June and continues through to November. There are two main peaks, August/September when lots of summer migrants head off to their wintering grounds and October/November when the winter migrants arrive in this country. These migrants cover a range of birds from ducks to gulls and smaller birds such as thrushes (including Robins), finches and warblers and our smallest bird the Goldcrest.
Our avian friends deploy different techniques for migrating, so some will travel by day and others by night. And just to confuse matters some birds will switch which between the two usually because of adverse weather conditions.
So can we witness migration as it happens in the capital? Yes we can and here’s how....
First up listening at night. During October, the UK becomes wintering home to Redwings, a thrush that breeds in northern Europe and winters across Europe including thousands in the UK. They are typically a nocturnal migrant and will fly over the capital on clear nights in October. They have a high pitched thin call, which is almost stretched out “seeip”. It can be an amazing experience to hear them calling all night long. During clear nights you can find them in parks with flocks flying over head in the morning trying to find suitable places to rest.
They will move during the day as well and a few years ago I saw 2,500 in 2 hours at a site near Heathrow.
Now let’s try some daytime action as well. Lots of birds migrate during the day as well as night. Larks are a family of bird that uses this method and it is not uncommon to find Skylarks flying over London. Skylarks have a gentle liquid rippling call “chirrup” and a buoyant flight action. Their call does not carry as far as a Redwings but nevertheless they are common over the Capital during October.
One species that most people do not associate with migration is Woodpigeons, but they do migrate in large numbers. They tend to fly at quite a height and sometimes look like clouds as they drift over in large groups hundreds strong. Typically in the second half of October but this can run into November as well. Up to fifty thousand wood pigeons have been recorded in a single day and on 22 October 2014, I counted four and half thousand flying south in half an hour on the eastern edge of London.
It can be hit and miss but try and find a high point to view from and you could be rewarded with mass migration across the capital. Places like Hampstead Heath, Alexandra Palace, Crystal Palace or any open space with a good view of the sky (the quieter the better) are your best bet. Try to get out as early as possible on a dry morning with little wind.
The winter is also a great time of year to start learning bird songs, simply because so few birds are singing. The two exceptions are Robins and Tawny Owls. Robins will sing throughout the day but noticeably at night near a lamppost or somewhere well lit.
Setting up their territory at this time of year are Tawny Owls, widespread throughout the London area and frequent visitors in parks which typically have a good supply of mature trees. They have two types of call or song, well known “HOOOOO ho ho ho ho” and also the “kewick” call.