The world’s greatest bird migration spectacle is happening right now. Autumn is a time when huge numbers of birds are on the move - travelling along migratory routes between the breeding and wintering sites. The UK sits in a privileged and pivotal position on one of these bird superhighways – the East Atlantic Flyway. The global phenomenon of bird migration is celebrated on World Migratory Bird Day - an international awareness-raising campaign that takes place in May and October each year. It coincides with peak bird migration periods and gives us a chance to celebrate the astonishing annual journeys undertaken by many birds around the globe. The RSPB’s Ian Barber and Guy Anderson join us today to talk more about bird migration and the importance of protecting wetlands that act as service stations for birds on the East Atlantic Flyway.

The British Isles play an important role in the bird superhighway called the East Atlantic Flyway. This flyway connects countries and continents from the Arctic right down to southern Africa. In an earlier blog we detailed just how important the UK is for migratory bird species. Put simply, here in the UK, our location and mild winter climate have produced a rich variety of habitats attractive to many different species breeding, wintering or stopping off on the way.

In autumn, birds flood into our islands, funnelling in from a vast stretch of northern breeding grounds, especially from Arctic countries. Many will stay with us over the colder winter months, taking advantage of our mild oceanic climate. Others stop, refuel and then continue their journey further south into Europe and Africa. Many carry out a much-needed costume change as they go through their annual moult – gradually replacing all their feathers with a fresh new set over a period of several weeks.

Three Whooper Swans in the foreground with long white necks and black and yellow bills.

Whooper Swans breed in the north of the flyway before heading south to the UK where they make the most of milder winter conditions © Ben Andrew (

Whether birds pass through or spend the entire winter with us, it’s vital that we provide them with the right conditions both here in the UK and further afield to aid their migration. RSPB reserves around the UK provide suitable undisturbed habitat to support thousands of birds coming from further north. But our work to support migratory birds along the East Atlantic Flyway extends far beyond this.

Back in the spring, we outlined the theme of this year’s World Migratory Bird Day – water. We highlighted the importance of aquatic habitats such as wetlands, rivers, lakes, streams and ponds that provide vital habitats for feeding, drinking or nesting throughout their annual cycles. Read on to find out more about just a few of the wetland projects that we are involved in that aim to support migratory species.

A Black-tailed Godwit stands on a muddy sediment. It has long, dark legs, a pale brown body and a long pinkish beak which is covered in mud.

Black-tailed Godwit in wintering plumage – these birds use their long bills to feed in muddy sediments. © Ben Andrew (

Partnership working to protect important breeding habitat in Iceland
Iceland is hugely important for geese, ducks and waders with its peat-rich wet grasslands and river systems supporting vast numbers of breeding birds. Many of the birds that breed in Iceland including Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Whooper Swan, Whimbrel, and Golden Plover will be heading south to spend the winter months in the UK or pass through on to their wintering grounds in other parts of Europe or Africa.

However, their Icelandic breeding areas are under threat, from factors including past (widespread) and current drainage, summer house building and afforestation with non-native trees. Along with existing support from the Ecological Restoration Fund and in collaboration with partners including Fuglavernd (BirdLife Iceland) we are aiming to protect and restore important wet grassland areas to support the migratory species and other wildlife that rely on them.

A Golden Plover perched on a rock. It has golden and black speckled plumage on its back and wings with a white border between the golden plumage and the chest/head. It has a large dark eye and short dark beak. In the background there is bright green foliage and blue/purple flowers.

Golden Plovers breed in Iceland before heading south to spend the winter with us. © Paul Turner (

A vital chain of sites for migratory birds - England’s East Coast Wetlands
Within the UK, some of our most important wetlands for migratory waterbirds are found along the east coast of England from the Humber to the Thames. These form a vital chain of sites that are internationally important for migratory waterbirds arriving from arctic breeding areas.

These English East Coast Wetland sites support significant numbers of 155 different bird species, including internationally important numbers of 29 bird species, and host over one million birds in winter. But these wetland sites are not just important for birds, they also play a wider role in capturing carbon, flood defence, fisheries and tourism.

A Redshank makes its way across a muddy sediment. It has bright orange legs and a brownish/pale body. It has a long beak which is covered in mud.

Redshanks breed in Iceland over the spring and summer before arriving in the UK in autumn. The muddy sediments of our coastal wetlands are filled with life and provide a much-needed source of food for Redshank and other waders that probe the mud with their specialised bills. © Ben Andrew (

Whilst we know a good amount about the species when they are here on our shores, we know relatively little about their journeys to and from the east coast each year. To find out more about some of our incredible migratory birds we recently satellite tagged five Bar-tailed Godwits on the Wash. Working with the Wash Wader Research Group, the aim is to shed new light on where these birds travel and the habitats that are essential to their survival. As with any chain, if we lose one essential link in the East Atlantic Flyway, the impacts on migratory bird populations could be severe. You can find out more about the project here.

The incredibly important role these wetlands play for nature and people was further celebrated earlier this year, as the east coast wetlands were added to the UK’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites, an accolade reserved for natural and historical sites that demonstrate outstanding universal value. Work is now underway with partners along the east coast to develop a full application for UNESCO consideration.

Bird migration is in full swing right now
Bird migration is a wonder of the natural world and it’s in full swing right now. Get out and witness the traffic on this bird superhighway for yourself – head to your local wetland nature reserve to see which species are arriving and departing.

A group of hundreds or even thousands of birds, some settled on the ground others taking off or landing. The group is so densely packed the ground is not even visible. The birds are grey/white and there are a few Oystercatchers with their long orange bills apparent.

Thousands of birds, including Red Knot and Oystercatcher gather at RSPB Snettisham – just one of many important sites along the English East Coast Wetlands © Ben Andrew (

And to immerse yourself even further in the wonders of bird migration, check out our video about wader spectaculars on The Wash. They truly are spectacular.

Continue reading
• Marvelling at migratory birds – our work on an avian superhighway
• Looking to the skies – the UK’s importance on a bird superhighway
• Conserving birds on a continental scale – the Pan-African Ornithological Congress

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