Wildlife photographer and conservationist, Sussex_Sara shares her insight into some of the special species she watches out for on autumn migration.
The spotted flycatcher is a summer visitor. Credit: Sussex Sara
As berries fill our bushes and leaves start to turn, it's clear that autumn is creeping closer. Where I live in Sussex, it's one of my favourite times of year to go wildlife watching.
Thousands of birds flock through English coastal counties in September, undertaking the first hundred miles of a massive migration. Most of them pause to refuel before crossing the first hurdle of the English Channel and often linger just long enough for me to grab my camera and binoculars and watch them as they depart.
When you think of migratory birds; cuckoos, swifts and swallows often spring to mind, but England is a seasonal home to an incredible number of migratory birds. Across the globe, at least 4,000 species of bird are regular migrants. That’s about 40 per cent of the world’s total!
Our English wetlands, heathlands, estuaries and peatlands hold international importance for so many migratory species all year round but if you want the best chance of seeing a variety of rare and threatened species in autumn, then heading to coastal nature reserves can reveal some amazing sights.
Most swifts have already departed but striking ring ouzels and whinchats pass through coastal areas between September and October, after breeding at Upland reserves like RSPB Haweswater and RSPB Geltsdale in Cumbria. In fact, if you see a colour‐ringed whinchat it might have started life at RSPB Geltsdale, where over 1,200 whinchats have been colour‐ringed as part of a monitoring project at this RSPB reserve!
Juvenile whinchat. Credit: Sussex Sara
Nightingales, which breed mainly in the South of England, don’t have quite as far to go to get to the coast, but they are at the start of an incredible 3,000 mile journey; not at all bad for a 'little brown job’! Threatened pied and spotted flycatchers perch around the scrub and yellow wagtails forage for insects in cattle fields, making little contact calls as they fly overhead.
Common redstarts are one of our more colourful migratory birds but can be surprisingly hard to spot; look out for them darting down to the ground to catch tasty treats before returning to a favoured perch and twitching that russet red rump!
Singing nightingale. Credit: Sussex Sara
Yet the one bird I’m always hoping to catch a last glimpse of in autumn is the stunning turtle dove. The UK’s only migratory dove, they breed here in summer before flying to Sub-Saharan Africa for winter. Although I’ve yet to spot on one migration, I’ve have been lucky enough to spend hours photographing and filming them this summer while volunteering for Operation Turtle Dove.
Turtle doves are one of England’s fastest declining bird species, fewer than 4,000 breeding pairs thought to be left in the UK. The incredible Operation Turtle Dove partnership project (led by the RSPB, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, Natural England and Fair to Nature) works with local landowners and communities to undertake habitat creation and supplementary feeding across their remaining breeding range in Eastern and Southern England. Although there’s a long journey ahead before this species can recover, they are seeing really encouraging results, with good numbers of birds returning to these key conservation sites to breed year on year.
Turtle doves are the UK's only migratory dove. Credit: Sussex Sara
The chances of seeing one of these intricately feathered turtle doves as they head back to Sub-Saharan Africa is low, as like many migratory birds, they tend fly out under the cover of darkness. Yet if you keep an eye out on overhead wires near the coast or even at the bird feeders around RSPB Pagham Harbour, (where a juvenile once lingered for several days to refuel) you might just get lucky!
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