RSPB Scotland's Allie McGregor introduces some of our arriving spring migrants and tips for identifying them.

A brief guide to Scotland's spring migrants


Swallows arrive from around April each year, making the journey from South Africa. They cover 200 miles a day, mainly during daylight hours.


They have dark, glossy blue backs, wings and heads, with a reddish patch under the chin. They have a particularly distinctive forked tail.


Cuckoos have one of the most distinguishing calls when we listen for birdsong in spring. They are one of our first migrants to leave, as they don’t need to rear their young.


Cuckoos blue grey upper parts, head and chest with dark barred white under parts.


Ospreys travel to the UK from North West Africa to breed. This is an epic journey which can take between 1-2 months.


In the early 1900s, ospreys became extinct as a breeding bird in the UK. When a pair began making nesting attempts at Loch Garten in the 1950s, ‘Operation Osprey’ was set up and in 1959 the first chicks were hatched and fledged since 1916.


Sand martins will begin arriving as early as mid-March while house martins return to Scotland from April and May.

left sand martin, right house martin

Martins are smaller than swifts or swallows, with sand martins being the smaller of the two. House martins have a pure white underside, blue black undersides and a distinctive white rump. Sand martins are dark brown with pale underparts.

Willow warbler

Each year willow warblers fly all the way to the UK from Africa, travelling more than 5,000 miles to arrive in time for spring.

willow warbler

Willow warblers have greyish-green backs and a pale yellow throat and breast, with off-white underparts. They also have a pale stripe above the eye. They look very similar to chiffchaffs, but can be distinguished by their song. Willow warblers also usually have paler legs and a longer eye-stripe.

Arctic terns

Arctic terns have the longest migration of all, making a round trip of up to 22,000 miles each year but all terns are migratory and several species of tern visit our coasts in summer.

arctic tern

Arctic terns have a dark red bill, white upper throat and cheeks, and grey breast. It also has a black cap and long tail streamers.


Swifts arrive in the UK in the last week of April or early May. Swifts have a piercing call which has earned them many nicknames such as shriek owl and screecher.


While swifts often appear black from a distance, they are actually a dark brown. They have a crescent shaped wingspan and a short forked tail. They spend their lives in the air sleeping, mating and drinking on the wing and won’t land, avoiding coming anywhere near the ground. 

Learn more about migration and some of our summer visitors here:

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