Bar-tailed godwits Limosa lapponica, flock at high tide, Firth of Forth, Scotland

Long distance migration

At this time of year, you could liken the UK’s skies to the airspace around a busy airport. Birds – and other wildlife – are coming and going in all directions.

Migration: welcome to nature’s runway!

Everyone knows that swallows fly south for winter, and so do many other birds – but they don’t all go the same way, or to the same area. Let's take a closer look at 10 species and their surprising long-distance journeys...

Juvenile swallows begging for food

Swallow

The swallow is one of our most familiar, cherished migrant birds. Because swallows feed as they fly along, there's no need for them to feed up before setting off. And in recent warm winters, small numbers of swallows have tried to survive in southern England! But most of these dainty birds, weighing less than 20 g, will cross seas and the Sahara desert to make it to South Africa, where insect food is plentiful.

Cuckoo

Since 2011, our friends at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) have been using satellite tags to find out more about that famous messenger of spring, the cuckoo.

Until this project, nobody was sure where the UK's cuckoos went for winter. It turns out that most fly south via Italy, though others cross Spain, but they all finish up in the Congo rainforests within quite a small area.

Swifts flying over rooftops

Swift

Swifts are a common sight in many villages and towns, but their numbers dropped by 47 per cent since 1995.

It’s likely that fewer places to nest here is one factor, but the BTO has helped to fill the gap in our knowledge about where they spend the rest of their lives.

A tiny geolocator ‘backpack’ recorded data which revealed a journey to west Africa, then on to central Africa for a few months, and then all the way to Mozambique on the east coast!

Find out how you can help us learn even more about swifts.

Turnstone

Turnstones can be seen around our coasts at almost any time of year.

These bold wading birds are very adaptable and are happy to look for food – including fish and chip scraps – at seaside resorts to supplement their natural diet. This seems strange when you learn that ‘our’ turnstones migrate to the wilds of Greenland or Arctic Canada to breed.

It must be a very different place from Scarborough or Cromer...

Hummingbird hawk moth

Moths

Not only is the hummingbird hawk-moth an amazing insect to look at – it does look and behave just like a hummingbird – but it undertakes a mammoth migration, too.

'Hummers' come to the UK from as far as north Africa and the Mediterranean, especially when there are southerly winds to help. Research into the silver-y moth (named for the Y-shaped markings on its forewings) has found that moths don’t just get blown long distances by accident, but that they can tell when the wind speed and direction are favourable!

Osprey

Thanks to satellite tracking technology, we now know where the famous ospreys of Loch Garten go in winter – and how they get there. The rivers and coasts of west Africa are the normal destinations, but weather and inexperience make for some hair-raising journeys.

Migration isn't easy, even when you're a big, powerful bird.

 Turtle Dove adult perched on branch with blue sky, Titchwell RSPB Nature Reserve

Turtle dove

The UK's population of turtle doves has plummeted by a shocking 93 per cent since 1995.

We need to understand more about what's happening to them, so pioneering RSPB scientists fitted a turtle dove, named Titan, with a satellite tag so we could learn more. We didn't know where he would go, so it was fascinating to follow his journey from Suffolk to Mali – and back again.

Find out more about how we're helping turtle doves in our podcast.

Blackcap

The blackcap is a common warbler which sings from the UK’s woodlands through spring. Come September, they’ll be on the move again. But while most of our birds will head south to Spain, Portugal and maybe north Africa, a different – much smaller - population of blackcaps will be on their way to us.

Some blackcaps from central Europe are making the most of our bird-feeding habits and spending winter with us. It’s adaptation in action.

Black tailed godwit Limosa limosa wading at proposed Cliffe airport site/reserve.

Black-tailed godwit

The black-tailed godwit is a long-billed, leggy wading bird which gathers in large flocks on UK estuaries from late summer through to spring.

The birds in these flocks breed in Iceland and might also visit the Netherlands, Portugal or France during winter. Pairs even manage to synchronise their return to Iceland, despite spending winter apart!

A small number of black-tailed godwits breed in England, but these birds head to western Africa for winter instead.

Basking shark

It swims around with its mouth wide-open, it’s the world’s second-biggest fish and it’s lurking in UK waters... meet the basking shark.

They may look big and scary – up to 8m (26 feet) long - but fear not, they only eat plankton and other tiny marine life. Satellite tags have shed light on the mysterious movements of basking sharks seen off Scotland and the Isle of Man. They’ve shown that the sharks range as far as Morocco, Madeira and the Canary Islands, and the findings may help make our seas safer for sharks and whales.

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See a basking shark up close.

See a basking shark up close.

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Basking shark screenshot