Monday, March 8, 2010

Migration watch

There are two sides to visible migration. One is the hard slog – standing on a windswept hilltop, freezing cold, getting a crick in your neck as you try to log huge numbers of Sky Larks, Meadow Pipits, geese or whatever passing overhead.

Despite all that, the rewards are enormous. There’s no better way to get an idea of just how many bird movements go on in these islands, even among species we often think of as essentially sedentary.

The other side of it is the happy accidents. A couple of years ago, I went along to a local reservoir at the end of March to see a Lesser Scaup that had arrived the previous day. As I set up my scope on the crowded dam, I looked up at the observation tower just as a very bedraggled Wheatear alighted on it. For 15, maybe 20 minutes, it sat there, occasionally preening, but mainly just getting its breath back. It visibly revived, before heading on its way further north, perhaps even beyond the UK.

Yesterday was a glorious, clear day, but still probably a week or 10 days too early to realistically expect the first Wheatears or Sand Martins. I went over to Willington Gravel Pits, a fine Derbyshire Wildlife Trust reserve between Derby and Burton, mainly in the hope of seeing the Water Pipits that have been there.

After parking in the village, I walked up the green lane as far as the entrance to the reserve itself, when I heard the unmistakeable ‘coor-li’ call of the Curlew. Small numbers are fairly regular visitors here in spring and autumn, but at first I struggled to locate just where the sound was coming from.

I scanned over the valley of the River Trent towards Repton, and finally, between the trees and hedges and fences, picked up some movement in the water meadows there. A flock of 30 or so Curlew were bustling along the riverbank, feeding constantly as they went. Once or twice, they were flushed into the air by dogwalkers, but they quickly returned to the same spot and resumed their lunch, joined now by a pair of Oystercatchers.

Now, I love Curlews anyway, and although we don’t have huge numbers on my inland patch, neither are they particularly difficult to find in the course of the year. This, though, was the biggest flock I can remember for a long, long time, and the sight and sound of them even overshadowed the long-staying Bittern that flapped over the reedbed a little later, or the Whooper Swan drifting through a flock of Goosanders.

I suspect they’ll be gone on their way to their breeding grounds very soon (indeed, they’re probably already gone), which makes the lucky chance of our paths crossing all the more pleasurable.

We want to hear about migration on your patch. Let us know when your first summer visitors arrive, about large-scale movements of year-round birds, or anything else you see on your travels.

Matt Merritt, features editor

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