Bird migration never ceases to amaze me. To think that this little tiny bird has flown all the way from Africa, a journey of 5000 miles, maybe more, and that it may already have made the journey there and back several times. It was a genuine treat to see and listen to this global traveller, my first Willow warbler of the year, at Cosmeston on Friday.
Monday was warm and sunny, at last – sunny days have been few and far between so far this month – so I decided to walk a circuit of Cardiff Bay, hoping this might be the day I would see my first Wheatear of the year.
I was already on the Barrage, bins out and scanning, when I got a message from a fellow birder that a Wheatear had just been reported. As I checked further along the Barrage, I could see someone, off their bike, camera with long lens in hand – that had to be where it was.
It only took a few minutes to reach Tate, one of our star local birders, whose keen eyes had found this stunning male Wheatear. We’re lucky that these birds sometimes stop off for an insect break on the Barrage rocks before continuing their migration flight to their breeding grounds further north. Such a treat to see!
It’s over a month since I saw my first Spotted flycatchers for 2020, the family group I encountered on my visit to Slade Wood back on 21 July. But, now I’m seeing them much more regularly, in ones and twos, as they pass through my local area on their autumn migration. I spotted my first migrant on 5 August, then had to wait a week until my second sighting on the 13th but, since then, have seen them almost every time I’ve been to Cosmeston Lakes Country Park, with 2 on the 17th, 4 on the 18th, 1 on the 20th, 3 on the 22nd, 2 on the 24th, and 3 on the 26th. In fact, I tend to go to Cosmeston much more often at this time of year specifically to see what migrants I can find, and I look especially for these stunning little birds, as I love to watch their fly-catching aerobatics.
The scientific name for the Whinchat is Saxicola rubetra which, apparently, means ‘small rock-dweller’, a reference to where this delightful little bird likes to make its home: saxicola is from the Latin saxum, meaning ‘rock’, and incola, meaning ‘dwelling’, and, also Latin, rubetra means ‘a small bird’.
In Welsh, the Whinchat is Crec yr eithin or sometimes Clep yr eithin, eithin being the Welsh word for gorse (also known as furze or whin), where the bird is often seen perching; and crec and clep both meaning clap, a reference to the bird’s call.
Here in south Wales, the Whinchat is a passage migrant, meaning I only get the chance to see it locally in autumn – it passes through in spring as well, of course, but, as it’s then in a hurry to reach its breeding grounds, it usually just flies straight over. Both the gorgeous little Whinchats in my photos stopped over at Cosmeston Lakes Country Park last week, feeding up before they set out on their long migration flight south, crossing the English Channel, western Europe, the Med, North Africa, and finally the Sahara Desert before arriving at their wintering grounds in central and southern Africa.
According to the RSPB website, Whinchat numbers in Britain declined more than 50% between 1995 and 2008, though the reason for that decline is not known. I imagine the hazards of their long migratory flight might well have something to do with it. Safe journey, little Whinchats!
While yesterday’s Clouded yellow butterfly was migrating northwards on the hot southerlies, our local birds were heading in the opposite direction, to their various wintering spots around the Mediterranean and in locations all over the African continent. They started heading south in ever-increasing numbers about three weeks ago – at least, that’s when I started noticing this year’s autumn migration. Blackcaps, Chiffchaffs, Swallows, Sand and House martins … for a lot of these little birds their long journey has already begun.
The first noteworthy bird for me was a Pied flycatcher, found by a local birder at Cosmeston one day, and I just happened to be right there he re-found it the following day. That was 22 July, the day I also began to notice how many Willow warblers there were everywhere – I’ve been seeing good numbers of these lovely little birds almost daily since then.
On 2 August, this Sedge warbler was a surprise find in the hedgerow on a local farm. With any luck, it will be well on its way to sub-Saharan Africa by now.
Also on 2 August, in that same hedgerow, I noticed a lot of Whitethroats, and they’re also passing through in small numbers every day now.
I’ve seen a Redstart at Cosmeston a few times – these photos were taken on 4 August and 16 August in almost the exact same location. Might it be the same bird that has perhaps found the place to its liking and is trying to fatten up before flying onward?
In recent days, I’ve also been seeing some of my favourite migrants, Spotted flycatchers (several now seen) and Whinchat (just one so far) but I’m going to post separate blogs about those superb little birds.
Spring migration is underway! Our county bird recorder yesterday reported seeing his first Sand martin for 2020 and today I’ve seen my first Chiffchaffs, newly arrived from overwintering in the warm countries around the Mediterranean or perhaps somewhere in west Africa. Such long migratory flights by such little birds – incredible!
I saw or heard five Chiffchaffs during my walk along the coastal path this morning and then another three at Cosmeston Lakes Country Park. Above is number three and below is number seven. Hearing them singing their ‘chiff chaff’ song made my heart spring!
The Autumn migration flow of birds continued through Cosmeston Lakes Country Park, with several species reported: a Redstart, a Whinchat, a Spotted flycatcher and several Stonechats, two of which very kindly popped up in the hedge right in front of me.
When I was in Barry earlier this week, I noticed one of the Black-headed gulls at The Knap was colour-ringed so I took its photo and reported my sighting by checking who was ringing what where on the European Colour-ring birding website.
Today I heard back from Paul Roper of the North Thames Gull Group (NTGG) and the information he supplied is fascinating. This bird was ringed as an adult (‘third calendar year or older’) at the Pitsea Landfill Site in Essex on 12 March 2016 but it doesn’t seem to spend much time in England. As Paul commented in his email, ‘This one is particularly interesting as it appears to breed in Finland and goes there via Germany’.
Another thing that intrigued me was how site faithful this bird is in its choice of where to over-winter and Paul confirmed that, from their records, many birds ‘do seem to stick to a site faithfully in the winter’. From sightings dated 11 November 2016, 15 August 2017, 5 February 2018 and my sighting on 4 February 2019, we can see that, once it’s finished breeding in Finland, this little Black-headed gull heads back to Britain to spend its winters in Barry, in south Wales. You can see a map of its movements on the NTGG website here. There must be something about the fish and chips in Barrybados that keeps bringing it back!
Watching these busy little birds scurrying back and forth along the beach at Sker last Saturday was the highlight of my day.
I had walked away a little from the group of birders I was with as I wanted to try to get better photographs of the waders moving along the water’s edge, and I’m so glad I did, as the birds weren’t as bothered about one person standing very still and silent as they would’ve been about 25 chattering people moving about, and so came up reasonably close to me.
Small flocks of Sanderlings (Calidris alba), and other small waders, were flying back and forth from the rocks to the sandy beach to feed, poking their heads right up to their eyes in the soft sand to probe for their preferred food of small crustaceans and molluscs.
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the name Sanderling is a combination of the fairly obvious ‘sand’ and ‘erling’, which probably comes from the Old English yrthling, meaning ploughman (from yrth earth and erian to plough). That certainly makes sense when you see these little birds in action.
Sanderlings are passage migrants that move through Britain in spring and autumn on their way to and from their breeding grounds in the High Arctic and their over-wintering sites in southern Europe and Africa.
The birds’ plumage changes for the breeding season, becoming much darker, with shades of reddish-brown on the head, neck and back, and you can still see hints of that on some of the birds in my photos. Also, many of my birds seem to be juveniles, with quite chequered markings on their backs and very clean white under-parts.
One fascinating factoid I discovered when reading up about these birds is that they have only three toes on each foot, with no hind toe to provide balance, and this is the reason for their scurrying motion. If you want to see Sanderlings in action, I uploaded a very short video to youtube.
One of the highlights of this week at Cosmeston Lakes Country Park has been watching the party of three Whinchats that have stopped off to feed up prior to their migration to central and southern Africa. I think they’re a family group because this one appears still to have the plumage of a juvenile.
Another (below) is still part way through the moulting process. I read recently that birds don’t usually migrate until after their moult is complete, as the lack of all their proper flight feathers, in particular, can affect their ability to fly long distances. Perhaps that’s another reason why they’ve broken their journey at Cosmeston.
This is the third Whinchat, or Saxicola rubetra, to give it its scientific name.
Their common name, as with many birds, reflects their behaviour – whin is another word for gorse, as these little birds are commonly found amongst gorse and bracken and areas of low shrubs and bushes. Chat relates to their call, which combines the sound of two stones being tapped together with a series of melodic whistles.