Caroline Mead

Fieldfare - Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Fieldfare - Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

One in five of the world’s 11,000 bird species migrates. Some migratory birds fly hundreds of thousands of kilometres in a lifetime in order to feed, nest, raise their young and survive.

But these journeys are often perilous. At any stages of their journey they may be at risk of habitat loss, unsustainable levels of hunting, illegal killing, poisoning, collisions with energy infrastructure such as power lines, wind turbines and so on, and climate change.

In winter, migrant birds from the Arctic and colder European countries are attracted to the UK for its milder winter temperatures, and where food is easier to find.

Climate and geography, on the mild maritime north-western corner of Europe, make the UK one giant “service station” on the bird motorway that is the East Atlantic Flyway, stretching from the Arctic to South Africa. We are the starting point for many migrations – our breeding birds heading south for the winter. We are a vital pit-stop for huge numbers of more northerly breeders, on their way to winter further south. And we are the destination for our winter visitors – and it is for some of these hardy birds – particularly the wading birds and wildfowl – for which the UK is globally important for the populations that visit our shores.   

However, the future of all migratory birds – whichever seasons they spend with us - can only be achieved through a co-ordinated response throughout the flyway, on a global scale, with countries working together.

The RSPB is playing a leading role in driving flyway-scale conservation, working with and supporting our BirdLife Partners all along the flyway, from Iceland to South Africa.

Closest to home

As the UK is a relatively mild place, even in winter, winter migrants tend to come from colder European countries such as Iceland, Scandinavia, the Baltic States, Germany, Poland and Russia. Look out for redwings, bramblings and waxwings in gardens, and fieldfares on open land.

Some of these visitors are obvious. Redwings arrive in October, leave in March, and feed on berries in trees and hedgerows. Waxwings tend to arrive in large numbers if the food sources in Scandinavia are poor.

Goldcrest - Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Goldcrest - Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

But other winter migrant species hide in plain sight. Whilst there is a UK resident population of robins, blackbirds, song thrushes, starlings and goldcrests, others migrate here from Russia and northern Europe – so “your” garden robin could in fact be of Viking heritage.

Migrant starlings from Eastern Europe and Russia travel around 2,000 km (1,250 miles) and the number of resident starlings doubles in winter, with thousands of migrants from Eastern Europe. Goldcrests from Scandinavia also join our resident population, and the same is true of chaffinches and coots.

How can I help winter migrant birds?

You can help winter migrant birds and winter wildlife in your own garden. Plant shrubs and small trees (or trees that can be kept small through pruning), including:

- native: dogwood, alder buckthorn, purging buckthorn, guelder rose, spindle, crab apple, rowan (grows rather large), hawthorn

- non-native: Berberis cultivars, other species of rowan (ones such as Joseph Rock and Sorbus vilmorinii tend to be much smaller than native rowan), other species of hawthorn, other types of crab apple

Redwing feeding on hawthorn - Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Redwing feeding on hawthorn - Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Birds tend to go for red and black berries first, so those shrubs or small trees with yellow, pink or white berries can hold onto berries later into the winter when winter migrants might be forced into gardens by cold weather - and that's where the non-native rowans and crab apples come into their own. Find out more about planting for wildlife

You can also put out food and water and make spaces for insects to hibernate. Plus use the winter to carry out work that will help next year’s summer migrant birds – put up swift nest boxes and house martin cups, and dig a pond.

Take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch, which takes place 29-31 January 2021 – and remember that not all the birds you see are resident here year-round! For more information, see rspb.org.uk/birdwatch

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For more on reserves, visit our Reserves A-Z and head over to our Bird A-Z for identification and behaviour information. Email: natureshome@rspb.org.uk

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