For regular birders, winter consists of days on end seeing the same birds, punctuated by occasional periods of hope during unsettled weather. Towards the end of winter though, optimism builds as the arrival of spring migrants looms on the horizon. For the most optimistic of birders, garganey is the first species that comes to mind. This enigmatic little duck is generally the first of the long-distance migrants to reach the UK, and can be as early as the last few days of February. Unfortunately though, this species is fairly scarce, and London birders would be very lucky to see one. The male below was at Walthamstow Wetlands in April 2019.
Spring in the City: Spring Arrivals
More realistically for a London birder, the first migrant of spring is probably going to be one of two species. Keeping a keen eye overhead from early March can turn up a sand martin. In 2020 one was found circling above the reservoir at Woodberry Wetlands on March 12th. This picture from Walthamstow Wetlands shows the species in July, getting ready to migrate back to Africa.
The other candidate for first arriving migrant is the wheatear. This species usually favours dry areas of open land, but is also regularly seen on reservoir banks. The males generally start to appear from around March 10th, with females following a couple of weeks later. The male below was on Lockwood reservoir at Walthamstow Wetlands on March 17th 2020.
Mid-march also usually sees the first little ringed plovers arrive. They are frequently found on mud or in shallow water at the edge of reservoirs. The bird below was at Walthamstow Wetlands on March 20th 2020.
In the last few days of March or the first few days of April, it is usually possible to see the first swallow of the year, soon followed by the first willow warbler. Amongst warblers the situation is complicated as a few species can be seen in the UK all year round. Cetti’s warblers are year-round residents, and both blackcap and chiffchaff can be seen all year, though the smaller winter populations are likely to be different birds to those seen here on passage, and will have migrated only a short distance. Woodberry Wetlands is an excellent site for warblers, and the first long-distance arrival will generally be a willow warbler in the first few days of April, soon followed by sedge warbler and reed warbler in mid-April.
Whilst the three warblers above are very easy to find at both Woodberry and Walthamstow Wetlands in mid-April, there are certainly more sought-after birds during this period. Any birder out-and-about at this time is likely to have whinchat and redstart at the top of their wanted list. These species have both been seen in the last few years at both of the north-east London LWT reserves, though these species are roughly equally abundant at this time, whinchats tend to be easier to find because of their tendency to perch at the very top of a bush, whereas redstarts are more likely to be hiding in the middle of the bush!
The latter half of April is probably peak time for new species to arrive. Yellow wagtails can be difficult to find but anyone with a keen ear and knowledge of their flight call will have no trouble at all. Common Sandpipers commonly stop around the edges of reservoir as they pass through. This is also the time for whitethroat, cuckoo, pied and spotted flycatcher, hobby and lesser whitethroat. Some of these birds are harder to find than others, with nightingale being high up on the list of dream birds to find at this time.
During May, passage migrants start to dry up, whilst our summer visitors settle down to breed. Birding becomes quiet again, but it isn’t long before thoughts of the optimistic birder turn to autumn migration…