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Winter Migrants

During the winter months many species of bird leave their breeding grounds and travel to the UK, it is reckoned around 5 million waterfowl use the UK in the winter. Most are coming from colder climates and come here for the warmer weather!, I know it doesn't feel that warm to us, but to many of the birds such as wild geese who are coming down from the Arctic and Greenland it is warmer. There are others who come across from Scandinavia, Europe and the south to feast on our fallen fruit and berries in the hedgerows. This annual and seasonal activity is referred to as Winter Migration.


Definition: Migration - an activity taken on by the worlds bird population. Bird migration refers to the regular seasonal journeys undertaken by many species of birds and this can be caused by changes in food availability, habitat or weather. Some migration by some species is irregular or in only one direction however Migration is used to identify that it is an annual event.

There are many wildfowl and wetland birds who make epic journeys to get here and some may not make it here at all. When they arrive, their main aim is to feed up during the winter months on our grasslands, salt marshes and lagoons to give them strength to make the return journey in the Spring so that they can rear their next brood. Winter migration starts to take place from September and some of the birds stop off in Scotland before making their way to their favourite feeding grounds. It is believed that some return to the same sites each year. Many of them then stay around until March or April the following year.

The spectacular thing about these migrations is that the birds get here at all. They have to battle against all the weathers and some do get thrown off course, and when they get here they have to identify their favourite feeding ground and hope they don't get picked off by one of our native predator birds on the way. Probably the most spectacular sight is the large numbers of birds in the sky as they travel in large flocks or skeins together, and different species have different ways and formats of doing this.

So what types of birds visit us during the winter

Well the largest of them is the Swan and two breeds are regular visitors to the UK these are the Bewicks' Swans and the Whooper Swans and these can been seen in large numbers at places such as Slimbridge WWT (Wildfowl and Wetland Trust) in Gloucestershire, around 9,000 visit Welney WWT in Cambridgeshire, and a reasonable number can be seen at Abberton Reservoir, Essex .

Then there are the different species of geese, a group of geese on the ground is known as a 'gaggle' and a group in the air is known as a 'skein'. So what visits and where can we see them:

Species Where to See Them in flocks
Barnacle Goose

25,000 visit Caerlaverock WWT, Scotland

Ynys Hir Nature Reserve, Machynlleth, Powys

Brent Goose

The Light-Bellied Brent Geese at .............

Abbots Hall Farm, Essex

Old Hall Marshes, Essex

Castle Espie WWT, Northern Ireland

Holkham Estate, Norfolk

Pink Footed Goose

18,000 are known to visit Martin Mere WWT

RSPB Snettisham Nature Reserve, Norfolk

Vane Farm, Scotland

Holkham Estate, Norfolk

Greenland White Fronted Goose Ynys Hir Nature Reserve, Machynlleth, Powys

Slimbridge WWT  

Greylag Goose (mainly resident in the UK but numbers are boosted during the winter migration with over 91,000 visitors RSPB Vane Farm, Loch Leven, Scotland
Canada Goose (are now considered a resident of the UK after being brought in during the 17th Century by King Charles the II)

Abberton Reservoir, Essex

At wetland areas and WWT centres throughout the UK.

As well as these many other smaller wildfowl and ducks also visit us during the winter including, Pochard, Wigeons (426,000 adults), Goosander (161,000 adults), Tufted Ducks visit from Iceland and Northern Europe and there are many many more - too many to mention all of them.

Many of these birds settle all over the UK in different locations either in groups or individually. Visiting a wetland, grassland, salt marsh, coastal location you are likely to see them. However sometimes just a pond or lake in your local park or the banks of your local river may have a visitor or two. Birds and particularly wild or feral birds do move about, they do not stay in a single location. Even those that do come into the places we have location guides for and similar move about during the day from the feeding grounds to their roosts. Some places are used as stop-overs, so you may see something in the early part of the migration period but later they will be elsewhere. For this reason it is difficult to pinpoint exactly where you will see something. We have a list of places where you can photograph wild birds which identifies some locations. Prior to making a long distance drive for a visit, it is probably worth taking a look at birding websites such as those of the RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT) where you can look for a particular reserve and then check the latest sightings that have been recorded by staff and visitors. Being wild it is not always possible to get up close to the birds however there are some locations which have positioned hides quite close or at least within range, if you want to definitely snap a close up of particular breed it is then probably worth checking out the WWT centres to see what they have amongst their captive population.

As well as the wetland and wildfowl species there are also woodland bird visitors. Many of these birds are small and elusive and many will hide in the woodlands around the UK in the type of woodland that they like to frequent. However there are a couple that you are likely to see in the countryside on our hedgerows feeding on the berries and fruits. If you are lucky enough to have an orchard, or living the country with fruit tress in your garden then you may also see them, and if patient may be able to get close up. Two of the birds which are synonymous with the UK winter is the Fieldfare and Redwing, both are members of the Thrush family, and because of this it can sometimes be difficult to tell them apart. It doesn't help that they do sometimes travel in the same flock. However, if you get to see them close up the significant difference is that the Fieldfare has a grey head, while the redwing has a brown head and cream/white stripe, which looks like an eyebrow above it's eyes. A colourful bird that also visits us and you may come across in town/city parks as well as the countryside is the Waxwing.

For those that are not into birding identifying which bird you are photographing or have photographed can be a challenge, especially when they belong to the same family, like the thrushes. However we have partly solved this by having a comprehensive index of all British birds and visitors to the UK, we have been able to identify. This Bird Index is not only organised by type, but for each type we provide links either to our own wildlife pages and/or to other websites where you will be able to get access to detailed descriptions and photographs/drawings to compare yours against.


By: Tracey Park Section: Wildlife Key:
Page Ref: winter_migrants Topic: Birds  Last Updated: 03/2010

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