The fascinating world of UK Migratory birds

//The fascinating world of UK Migratory birds

I have written before about how to attract birds into your garden. I am always inspired by migration. Hopefully you will be inspired to buy bird friendly plants and keep topping up your bird feeder!


There are over 4,000 species of birds that are regular migrants to the UK, which is 40% of the world’s total. These travellers cross vast distances to find suitable breeding and feeding grounds, navigating through inherited instincts and learned behaviours. The UK is situated at a crossroads of diverse migration routes, and therefore we constantly witness migratory birds’ arrival and departure.

But how do birds know when it is time for them to migrate? Most birds inherit ‘clock and compass’ information from their parents, meaning instinct tells them when it’s time to move. Other migrators can use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate.Scientists have discovered a spot on the beak of pigeons and some other birds that contains magnetite. This is a magnetized rock, which may act as a tiny GPS unit for the homing pigeon by giving it information about its position relative to Earth’s poles. Some birds use the sun’s position, and nocturnal birds can even use the patterns of stars!

Birds will also experience a hormone release into their system at the same time every year. This hormone makes them gather in flocks and increases their hunger, signalling it’s time to go to their summer locations for a food search.

In the UK, the arrival of migratory birds is a seasonal phenomenon that both birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts eagerly anticipate. Spring witnesses the influx of summer migrants returning from their wintering grounds in Africa, Southern Europe, and other regions. These birds take advantage of the abundant food resources and ideal breeding conditions during the UK’s warmer months.

Conversely, in the autumn months, we see a reverse migration. Birds that have bred in the UK prepare to migrate south for the winter, seeking milder climates and more accessible food sources.

The UK’s geography places it along several major migration routes, each hosting different species. The Eastern Atlantic flyway sees birds from Scandinavia and Russia pass over and stop in the UK during migration. Birds such as Swallows, martins, and warblers follow this route. The North Sea flyway witnesses the arrival of ducks, geese, and waders that breed in northern Europe and reach their wintering grounds in the UK. The Western European flyway brings thrushes and finches from continental Europe.

Migratory birds can be categorized into three main groups: summer visitors, winter visitors, and passage migrants. Summer visitors arrive from the south to breed, and they are primarily insect eaters. This group includes iconic species like swallows, martins, warblers, flycatchers, and cuckoos. Winter visitors, on the other hand, come from the north and east in autumn to spend the winter in the UK, where the weather is milder and food is more abundant. This group includes fieldfares, redwings, bramblings, and many species of ducks and geese.

Additionally, passage migrants use the UK as a stopover point during their journeys north or south. They may rest and refuel before continuing their migration.

Some species involve partial migrants, where a species will migrate in some places but not in others. For example, most starlings that breed in the UK stay for winter, but starlings that breed in Eastern Europe migrate to the UK in the winter months. This is heavily dependent on the weather however, so the amount of partial migrants significantly changes from one year to the next.

Here are a few examples of British migratory birds to look out for:

  1. Robin (Erithacus rubecula): Robins are considered resident birds in the UK, meaning they stay throughout the year. However, some individuals may migrate short distances during colder months to find more favourable feeding areas. Robins are commonly found in gardens, woodlands, and parks.


  1. Swallow (Hirundo rustica): Swallows are a classic example of long-distance migrants. They arrive in the UK during spring after traveling all the way from Africa, where they spend their winter. Swallows build their nests in barns, outbuildings, and under eaves, making them a familiar sight in rural and suburban areas.


  1. Blackbird (Turdus merula): Blackbirds are mostly resident birds in the UK, but some individuals from northern regions may migrate southwards during winter, making them partially migratory birds in the UK. They are adaptable birds, commonly found in gardens, parks, and woodland edges.


  1. Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita): Chiffchaffs are migratory birds that travel from southern Europe and North Africa to the UK for breeding during spring. They prefer woodland habitats, parks, and gardens with dense vegetation.


  1. Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis): Goldfinches are resident birds in the UK, but their populations increase during winter as migrants from northern Europe join them. They frequent gardens, hedgerows, and open countryside.


  1. House Sparrow (Passer domesticus): House sparrows are largely sedentary birds, although some northern populations may migrate southward (sometimes as far as Spain) during winter. They are well-adapted to urban environments and can be seen in gardens, city centers, and agricultural areas.


  1. Starling (Sturnus vulgaris): Starlings are highly gregarious birds that form large flocks. Many UK starlings migrate from northern Europe to the country during winter, significantly boosting their numbers, returning home during February and March. They inhabit a wide range of habitats, including gardens, farmlands, and urban areas.


  1. Redwing (Turdus iliacus): Redwings are winter migrants to the UK, arriving from Scandinavia and Russia to escape harsher conditions in their breeding areas. They leave the UK in spring for their northern breeding territories. They are often spotted in gardens with berry-bearing shrubs, open fields, and hedgerows.


  1. Greenfinch (Chloris chloris): Greenfinches are resident birds in the UK, although some individuals may disperse during winter in search of food. They frequent gardens, parks, and woodland edges.


The UK’s role as a migration crossroads gives us a unique opportunity to observe the comings and goings of these bird species. Whether they’re summer visitors, winter migrants, or just stopping on their longer journey, these birds are a great reminder of the great interconnectivity of the world’s ecosystems.


What to do in your Garden in June

Dead head roses and give them their Summer feed

Divide spent bulbs

Water any new plants you have put in this Spring

Pinch out Fuchias to help them flower in bushy sprays

Cut back old geranium foliage right back to the ground as they will grow again

Plant out seed potatoes and tomatoes, the latter in the sunniest place you have

Believe it or not it is still not too late to plant runner Beans


Where to Visit in June

Every year Parham resists its borders and transforms them with new themes.

The whole place has an intimate and timeless quality.

Opening times

House | 14:00 – 17:00

Gardens | 12:00 – 17:00

Big Kitchen Restaurant | 12:00 – 17:00

Last Admission | 16:30

Parham Park, Pulborough RH20 4HS

By |2024-05-10T09:42:36+01:00May 10th, 2024|Articles|Comments Off on The fascinating world of UK Migratory birds

About the Author:

In 2006 I formed Glorious Gardens, gathering together skilled practitioners to offer not just design but implementation of these designs and maintenance packages where we could look after the gardens once we had created them. Throughout my career I have designed gardens to inspire people with the heart aching beauty of nature, with shapes, colours, moods and proportions to pleasure the body and calm and delight the mind. I am also an artist who works with colour and abstract shapes and I bring this sensitivity to the 4 dimensions of a garden. I am very good at listening to clients and I’m able to draw out the essence of what a client wants for their outdoor space.