Jenny Tweedie from RSPB Scotland tells us about autumn migration in Scotland and some of the best places to see it in action, including at the Mull of Galloway Festival on the first weekend of October.

Mass migrations

As autumn draws in the evenings and has us looking out our jumpers from under the bed, things are actually hotting up in the bird world, with mass migrations taking place right across the country.  

Some of our summer visitors, like cuckoos, are long gone, already sunning themselves in warmer climes, whilst others, like swallows, can be seen gathering in preparation for their big journey ahead.

For most of us, our experience of these migrations is one of sudden absence. One day the swifts are screaming overhead, the next, they’re gone, and you know, somehow, that you’re not going to see them again until spring. It’s sad; it’s a sign of summer ending, and colder days ahead, but it’s also tinged with expectation, as we know that when the house martins have gone, the geese can’t be far behind.

Geese are actually one of those few birds that we can pretty much all say we’ve actually seen migrating. You hear the honks, you look up, and there they are: magnificent skeins cutting across the sky. But if you know where to go, it’s actually possible to watch most species of birds on the move. It’s even got a name: visible migration. And one of the best places to try it out is at the RSPB Scotland nature reserve at the Mull of Galloway.

The Mull, is of course, the most southerly point in Scotland, and from here it’s possible to see thousands of birds flying by, hugging the coast as they follow good feeding grounds on their way south. RSPB staffer Gavin Chambers comes to the site most years to count the passage birds, and last year in just a few hours, he saw over 3,000 meadow pipits, almost 2,000 skylarks, and over 700 linnets!

 To celebrate the great migration, this year the reserve is holding a festival on October 3, offering lots of events and activities, and encouraging everyone to come along and witness one of the wonders of nature.

What they can’t offer (sadly) is a guarantee on the weather, and fog or wind in the wrong direction can affect how the birds are moving. In fact, in some conditions, the birds can actually be grounded at the reserve, and the bushes come alive with species never seen there at other times of the year!

If you do make the trip, and you’re thwarted by the weather, Dumfries and Galloway itself is still a fantastic place to visit. There are loads of other opportunities to see wildlife, including four other RSPB Scotland reserves, the Galloway Kite Trail, and plenty of other attractions, including the Wigtown Book Festival, which runs until October 4.

Even if you can’t make the journey, you can still watch the mass migration of birds taking place this autumn. The coast is a good place to go, but anywhere there are mudflats, you’re likely to see passage waders using the sites like fly-thru takeaways. Even in the busiest cities, migration will be going on all around you, and as with all types of nature watching, your best bet is simply to keep your eyes open, as you never know what you might see. 

Find out more about the Mull of Galloway Experience.