We’re coming up on one of the most exciting times of the year, when our spring and summer visitors begin to return from the south. Throughout history we have been fascinated by the migration of birds. In this blog, Allie McGregor introduces some of our Scotland migrants. 

Scotland's spectacular spring visitors

First to arrive

The very first of our visitors can make their way to the UK as early as February, but generally will start to arrive in March. Two of Scotland’s early arrivals are sand martins and wheatears.

Most sand martins will arrive between mid-March and mid-April. When they arrive, they nest in colonies along rivers or other bodies of water, undertaking some excavation work making tunnels to host their nests in.

Wheatear in field
Northern wheatear adult standing on meadow amongst flowers, Isle of Mull, Scotland

Wheatears also usually arrive in March seeking out rocky and stony habitats including pastures, moorland, coastal grassland, and farmland.

Long-distance flying

The arctic tern travels the longest distance of all our breeding birds, travelling up to 20,000 miles in a year. The arctic tern travels between the Arctic and the Antarctic summers, likely seeing more daylight than any other animal on earth!

Arctic terns nest on beaches and offshore islands in shallow scrapes in the ground. Scotland is one of the main places they breed in the UK.

Travelling ospreys

The ospreys' main UK stronghold is in Scotland. Ospreys generally start to arrive back in the UK from late march onwards, travelling up to 5,000 miles on their journey. Males will usually arrive first to set up their breeding territory. Ospreys are mainly faithful to specific sites and some nests have been in use for some 20 years, with the birds adding to it each year.

Osprey adult female on eyrie in morning light
Osprey on eyrie in morning light

Summer Seabirds

Scotland’s seabirds are truly spectacular, and in spring and summer we welcome back vibrant and bustling seabird colonies along the coasts of Scotland. While some seabirds have stuck around in winter, many are returning to breed from all over the world.

Puffins have spent their winters out across the oceans, while gannets might travel as far as the coasts of West Africa. Other seabirds make even longer journeys – as mentioned the arctic tern is our migrant that travels the farthest, and manx shearwaters also go the distance, making journeys of over 6,000 miles to South America.


Arctic tern

The movements of other species

Birds are not the only species that migrate, although they are perhaps the most commonly thought of migrators. There are other species that migrate to and from Scotland.

Some insects travel impressive distances – the painted lady butterfly, which weighs less than a gram, has been found to migrate from as far away as North Africa.


Painted lady

The magnificent basking shark has been found to do some travel south during winter as well. A tracking study found that some basking shark left the UK in late summer or autumn visiting French, Spanish, Portugese, or North African seas before returning in spring or early summer.

If you would like to learn more in the lead up to spring, find out all about bird migrations on our website

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