The great rush north: Spring migration

Sand martins © Mike Read

Spring migration is known as the great rush north, as birds race back to their more northerly breeding grounds having spent the winter in milder regions further south.

There's an air of urgency, each bird eager to claim the best territory or find the best mate, so most spring migrants rarely pause in one place for long until they've reached their final destination.

Spring sees the return of many of our summer visitors, birds that breed in the UK but winter in southern Europe, Africa or even further afield. Many of these are insect-eaters that can't find enough food here in winter. They can appear as early as March, with wheatears, chiffchaffs, sand martins and ring ouzels often the first to arrive.

Female wheatear at Blashford Lakes nature reserve

© Garry Prescott

Things heat up in April, with more birds arriving all the time. Swallows, willow warblers, blackcaps, redstarts, tree pipits, yellow wagtails and house martins are often spotted early in the month, with later arrivals including garden warblers, whinchats, turtle doves, swifts and pied and spotted flycatchers. April also sees the return of the cuckoo, whose call is widely regarded as the classic sign of spring.

Breeding seabirds also arrive on our shores in spring. Arctic, Sandwich and little terns can sometimes be seen flying over inland lakes as they head for their coastal nesting areas, whilst common terns will return to these freshwater sites for the summer. Puffins, guillemots, razorbills and gannets all reappear at their breeding grounds on rocky cliffs or islands after spending the winter out at sea. Birds of prey are another feature of spring migration, with summer visitors including ospreyshobbies and the rarely seen honey buzzard.

common tern

Spring is also a good time to find rarer migrants that don't typically breed in the UK. Easterly winds can push migrating birds off-course, resulting in scarcely-seen species like wrynecks and bluethroats being found on our shores. Southerly winds and favourable conditions can cause birds that usually breed further south to fly too far, hitting the UK instead. Hoopoes, bee-eaters and black-winged stilts are some of the most commonly encountered, with pairs occasionally remaining here over summer and nesting!