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Autumn/Winter Birding in the UK 

bird watching a Brambling

It is probably fair to say that, of the two most exciting times of year for birdwatchers, autumn is the most eagerly anticipated.

It is also, arguably, the most protracted period of mass bird movement we witness on these islands. From arctic wading birds heading South in what is still summer to us, to much coveted North American and Siberian vagrants appearing as weather systems dictate and the days shorten.

We’ve mentioned the passage of wading birds but for most, Autumn migration begins with many songbirds landing on the East coast and the first skeins of geese arriving to spend the winter on these shores.

Before mid-September, and with often benign conditions, the distinctive high-pitched and squeaky ‘pink-wink’ of Pink-footed Geese can be heard in various parts of East Scotland. These represent the vanguard from Iceland which will build into the tens of thousands in the coming weeks – arguably one of the world’s great migration spectacles! Excellent places to witness this include:- RSPB Loch of Strathbeg; Scottish Wildlife Trust Montrose Basin (where numbers peak in the high tens of thousands; RSPB Loch Leven; and Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve. 

Other species of water birds arrive as the short Northern summer gives way. The very un-gooselike bark of beautiful black, white and frosty grey Barnacle Geese announces their arrival from Spitsbergen in the high arctic as they head to Islay and the Solway coast. WWT Caerlaverock is rightly famous for the large concentrations of Barnacle Geese and also for the odd vagrant goose such as the beautiful Red-breasted Goose which normally winters on the plains North and West of the Black Sea! The whistling ‘wee-oo’ of Wigeon echoes across saltmarsh and coastal grasslands.

With a mosaic of coastal wetland habitats, the East coast of the UK from the Northeast of Scotland down to the marshes in the Southeast of England, is replete with fantastic places to observe autumn migration and winter visitors.

Songbirds retreat from colder latitudes and many birds move West as the UK climate is less harsh than the continent at similar latitudes – strange to think that birds winter in the UK because it is warmer here (Edinburgh lies at the same latitude as Moscow)!

East coast hotspots such as Flamborough Head (including the magnificent RSPB Bempton Cliffs reserve which recently played host to a Black-browed Albatross has an enviable list of rare vagrant birds to its name!), Spurn point (home to the famous observatory and incredibly popular festival of migration or Migfest as it’s known), to the famous rarity hotspots in East Anglia e.g. Cley next the Sea, you’re never too far away from somewhere to witness migration!

Migration time has become synonymous with ‘rarity’ and ‘twitching’ but there is a more subtle story behind this as literally millions of songbirds follow their ancient instinct to migrate. Common species most are familiar with from the garden such as Robins, Song Thrushes, and Blackbirds will have their numbers swelled by incoming birds from the continent. Depending on food resources and weather conditions some species such as Waxwings can appear almost anywhere in the UK and, some year, in very large numbers. This is a much sought-after bird which is a bit of an urban speciality due to their diet of berries. Many town centres, supermarket car parks and city gardens throughout the UK can play host to these gorgeous birds.

Of course no one can resist a rarity and thousands of birders converge on the extremities of the UK in the hope of seeing rare birds which can appear from both North America and Siberia depending on that very British preoccupation – the weather! At each end of the UK, the Isles of Scilly and the Shetland Isles are arguably the best and most popular places to give a higher percentage chance of finding and connecting with rare vagrants. A combination of geographical location and high numbers of birdwatchers ensures that in most years visitors leave happy with their bird list satisfactorily increased!

It seems strange to talk of ‘commoner’ birds which occur from North America but wading birds including Pectoral Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper (once regarded as great rarities) are now annual in good numbers. Songbirds such as Yellow-browed warbler which breeds in the Siberian taiga and winters in Southeast Asia was once a great rarity (now annual in the hundreds!) and Pallas’s Warbler which come from the opposite direction are birds to look out for especially upon encountering a flock of recently arrived Goldcrests (another small bird which retreats from the harsh continental winter).

Whatever your birdwatching preferences few experiences can compare to witnessing migration – whether it’s flocks of geese, beautifully marked winter thrushes like Fieldfares and Redwings, to incredibly rare North American and Siberian vagrants. Get out to your favourite spot – it’s happening now! If you’re more of a garden watcher, keep an eye out on those feeders – Bramblings (a Northern relative of the Chaffinch with gorgeous black and orange markings) are arriving!


Here at Viking Optical Centres, we supply a range of spotting scopes and binoculars, ideal for bird watching this autumn. Browse our range today!