Every Spring, 16 million birds arrive in the UK. The general direction of migration is North-South and most of them come from Africa. There are 10,000 species of bird in the world and about 4000 of them are regular migrants. The total that leave Africa to fly to summer breeding grounds in Europe is 5 billion, with another 3 billion making the journey from the Caribbean and America.
In the UK, this mass Spring migration begins in March when the Wheatears arrive. They are swiftly followed by the Warblers (Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Willow) and Ospreys who fly up from Western Africa and cross England to reach their breeding grounds in Scotland in March (we are on an Osprey flight path here but I have yet to see one of these magnificent creatures fly over, or- better still- pause to take a breath on one of the Osprey resting platforms that have been built in the river valley).
Swallows arrive back in this country in early April, flying up from the far end of Africa, and Whitethroats, House Martins, Hobbys, Cuckoos and Nightingales come in from mid April, with Swifts following at the end of the month. By May things are tailing off, with the Corncrake (once common among hay meadows and now only found in the Hebrides), the Wood Warbler, the Nightjar, Turtle Dove and Spotted Flycatcher all here by the month's end. About 50 British breeding bird species are summer visitors.
There is one bird whose migratory flight takes the prize for the longest distance covered in one go: the Bar-Tailed Godwit takes off from its winter quarters in New Zealand and flies 8000 miles to its breeding grounds in Alaska in 8 days. It represents the biggest single species journey. I was lucky enough to see Bar-Tailed Godwits this year on the coast - they are very quiet and unassuming looking birds so to know they are tough enough to make that kind of journey astonishes me.
These summer breeders make the return journey back to Africa in the late summer or autumn. Some, such as swallows, take their young with them and some, like Cuckoos, leave their young to make their own way, the adults having left the UK in June.
Our winter visitors begin to arrive as the summer ones leave. These species come mainly from Northern and Eastern Europe where it's colder, to over-winter in warmer lands. Their numbers are affected by the weather so fluctuate from year to year. Species like the Waxwing (Scandinavia), Fieldfares, Redwings, Bramblings and many ducks, geese and waders. We get large flocks of Fieldfares flying over here at night (a common occurrence during migration even though it feels counter-intuitive). I often hear them calling as they go over the house.
There are some birds who live here all year round whose cousins breed in Eastern Europe and migrate here for the winter if the weather is bad or food scarce. Starlings, Robins, Chaffinches, Great Tits, Siskins, Jays, Wood Pigeons, Blue Tits, Gold Crests (from the Baltic and Russia) can all come in from the East to spend the winter. Our Goldfinches can also leave our shores in large numbers to spend the winter in Spain if the weather is bad.
Present migration routes date back to the end of the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago. When the ice melted, new food sources were revealed and if you had wings you could move to take advantage of them and then escape back to the warmth when the season began to close down and food (mainly insects) became scarce again. Most of our summer breeders are passerines (song birds) and insect feeders for that reason. But the instinct to migrate is far, far older than 12,000 years. It is thought to go back millions of years to the time of the Reptiles (the distant ancestors of birds). It can be seen among reptiles today- the Leatherback Turtle crosses the Atlantic every year in its search for Jelly Fish.
I've been much more aware of our summer breeding birds this year. The dogs and I have spent many happy hours wandering through the woods listening to them singing, noticing who's just arrived and who wasn't there the day before, and day dreaming about the places they've been and the things they've seen and marveling, quite frankly, at the enormity of their achievement in flying all that way.
There is a particular hedge on one of our walks where a Whitethroat took up residence this spring. He would perch on a branch of hazel and sing his heart out (it is only the males who sing: to attract females). We got quite used to one another and he would remain on his perch and open his throat and out would come this gentle little song while I stood on the lane a few feet away and watched and listened.
Likewise, a little further on into the wood there is a place where the Blackcaps sing, and this year, for the first time, Swallows have swooped and dipped and called regularly over the house. Cuckoos arrive here every April and sing until June and just down the road opposite Ma's house, a population of Nightjars have taken up summer residence. We went to watch them displaying one evening this summer and stood spell-bound listening to the extraordinary churring noises the males produce. They have cryptic camouflage because they are ground-nesting birds and so you don't see them by day at all - by far the best way to watch them is at dusk when they start to display.
So, I have been blessed this year with avian encounters. But there is one bird I have never seen nor heard that I would love to. A small, nondescript, buff/grey creature who you would in all likelihood overlook if you didn't know what it was you were seeing. But if you heard him sing.....well, then the hairs would stand up on the back of your neck and goosebumps would pimple across your skin.....
The UK breeding population of Nightingales fell 53% between 1995-2008 (BTO Breeding Bird Survey data) and the range continues to contract towards the far south-east corner of the UK. There is one site near here that has Nightingales. The land owner cleared it of trees and scrub after the birds left this summer, claiming he didn't know the damage it would do to the habitat required by the birds for breeding. Call my a cynic but I find that hard to believe. I'm not sure why people continue to behave in this way with all the evidence laid out before us of the damage we are doing, not just to the natural world but ultimately, through it, to ourselves. If I owned a wood where nightingales flew in from Africa to sing every spring I would hold it dear to my heart and take the guardianship of such a place seriously. I wonder sometimes why they don't feel the magnitude of what they have.
So anyway, the Nightingale's song is on my list to listen to, out in the wild, for 2016. They are famous for singing at night but they do sing during the day. The richness and complexity of the song is thought to be an indicator to the female of the attractiveness of the male as a prospective mate- the wiser and more experienced you are, the more complex the vocal arrangement of your song (note to tone-deaf husbands- get practicing :o) ).
Hope that's all of some interest/ use. If you want to know about the state of British Birds I heartily recommend Michael McCarthy's excellent book Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo.