Which spring and summer migrant birds can you see in our region?

Ben Hall/2020VISION

While we’re jetting off to warmer climes a whole host of birds are heading straight for our shores to feed, breed and make the most of what is, for them, the perfect holiday hotspot.

The UK isn’t just perfect for migrant birds in winter – our warm, wet summers mean insects in abundance for hungry migrant birds. Add more nest sites and fewer predators than their wintering grounds in places like Africa and the Mediterranean, and these birds have the perfect place to raise a feathered family.

Here are some key migrant birds to see in our region over the coming months.

Hirundines

Hirundines are a family of birds that include house martins, sand martins and swallows, all of which migrate to the UK from Africa and are faithful to the same nest site year-on-year.

House martin

A house martin perched on the ground

Dawn Monrose

House martins are a gorgeous petrol blue-black colour with a white throat and belly, and a white patch above their tail. They usually arrive here around April and leave again in October, returning to Africa to gorge on yummy insects. House martins usually nest on the eaves of houses, so keep your eyes peeled.

Sand martin

A sand martin sitting on a telephone wire and preening

Margaret Holland

Sand martins look much duller than house martins, with dark brown feathers and a white belly, though they lack the white patch above their tail. They get here around March and busy themselves with preparing nests excavated out of sandy or muddy banks. Sand martins can nest in colonies of more than 100 pairs!

Swallow

A swallow sitting on a wooden fence post in the sunshine

Amy Lewis

Swallows usually arrive around April and are one of our most famous signs of spring. They have the same shimmering plumage and white belly as house martins, but swallows also have a gorgeous red throat and a long forked tail. These small birds have a pretty epic migration, travelling through France, the Pyrenees, Spain, Morocco and the Sahara on a journey covering 200 miles a day. Once they arrive in the UK they tend to nest in outbuildings and are known for gathering in chattering groups on telephone wires.

A swift flying across a bright blue sky

David Tipling/2020VISION

Swift

Swifts arrive here from Africa in April and May, and usually depart between July and September. There is no mistaking their long, sickle-shaped wings as they soar and dive across the sky, calling all the while. Screaming swifts provide a wonderful summer soundtrack.

Swifts are completely black save for a white patch on their chin. They are incredible fliers, spending almost their entire life on the wing. In fact, except for sitting on the nest they can always be found up in the air, even sleeping and mating in flight!

A cuckoo sitting on the ground and looking quizzically at the camera

Cuckoo by Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

Cuckoo

Is there a more iconic spring bird? Cuckoos fly to the UK during April or May and lay a single egg in the nest of another bird (most commonly the reed warbler), then fly back to Africa around July with no need to lift a single primary. When the egg hatches the young bird pushes the rest of the eggs out of the nest and is then cared for by its adoptive parent.

Cuckoos have suffered really worrying declines over the years – the British population fell by 62 per cent between 1970 and 2010. You can hear them in Lancashire if you’re lucky, but sightings aren’t reliable year-on-year. In the past we’ve had them at Brockholes and Mere Sands Wood, and our Communications Manager has seen one on Brinscall Moor.

Warblers

Lots of warblers flock here for a summer of love, with some of the most recognisable being willow and sedge warblers, chiffchaffs, blackcaps and whitethroats.

Willow warbler

A willow warbler perched on a fern with insects in its beak

Ben Hall/2020VISION

Can you believe that such delicate little birds fly here all the way from Africa? They cover a distance of more than 5,000 miles crossing oceans, deserts and mountains before landing here to refuel on insects. The best place to try and spot one is your local woodland between April and October – listen out for their rippling song.

Chiffchaff

A chiffchaff perched on a branch in a woodland

David Longshaw

You’ll hear a chiffchaff before you see one: ‘chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff’ drifting down from the tops of the trees. They arrive slightly earlier than the similar looking willow warbler, around March, and depart in August and September.

The best way to tell chiffchaffs and willow warblers apart is their song, but if you do get a look at one, try to take a peek at its legs. Chiffchaffs have black legs, whereas a willow warbler’s legs are pale.

Sedge warbler

A sedge warbler perched on a reed and singing

David Tipling/2020VISION

One of our most striking (and one of my favourite) warblers, the sedge warbler is quite small and plump with an unmistakeable cream stripe above its eye. It also has brown feathers streaked with black on its wings and back, and a white belly.

You can’t miss a sedge warbler’s song as it chatters up from its reedbed hiding place: a noisy, rambling warble that doesn’t really sound like a song at all. Keep your ears pricked throughout late spring and early summer as the males sing to pair up with eager females. Did you know that they never sing the same song twice? They add new phrases all the time to impress potential mates.

Blackcap

A male blackcap sitting on a twig with a ladybird in its mouth

Amy Lewis

Blackcaps were once just a summer visitor to the UK but we now have winter blackcaps that fly here from Germany and north-east Europe, too. Summer blackcaps tend to arrive here from southern Europe or north Africa from March to May to breed, and then leave again in October. They nest in hedges or patches of brambles and are really easy to recognise. Both males and females have beautiful smoky grey feathers, the male has a black cap and the female has a lovely chestnut cap.

Whitethroat

A whitethroat perched on a twig on a blue sky day

Amy Lewis

These little birds fly in from Africa and South Africa between April and May, leaving again in October. They are absolutely stunning, with a lovely white throat, pale brown feathers and beady hazel eyes. They are unusual in that male whitethroats exclusively build the nest – a number of nests, in fact. The female then chooses the one she likes the most.

An osprey flying with a freshly caught fish in its talons

Peter Cairns/2020VISION

Osprey

Is there anything more exciting than the first osprey of spring? After wintering in Africa these stunning raptors start to arrive from late March onwards, with females landing first. Their epic journey crosses the West African coastline, while some ospreys fly directly over the Sahara Desert. After this they travel through Spain and France and cross the English Channel.

Ospreys are often seen flying over Brockholes, Lunt Meadows and Mere Sands Wood, so watch the skies and you never know what you might see.

A female wheatear standing on a rock amongst a sea of pink heather

Ben Hall/2020VISION

Wheatear

Wheatears tend to favour upland and heathland habitats when they arrive here during spring, but they can sometimes be seen on farmland and grassland too. They usually stay from March until October, when they fly back home to central Africa.

Wheatears are about the size of a robin but are much more striking. Males have the most beautiful blue-grey feathers, black wings, a peachy chest and a black bandit mask bordered by white stripes. Females are brown with a pale orange breast and a black T-shape at the bottom of their white tail.

Where to see spring and summer migrant birds in Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside

Have you seen many spring migrant birds on your recent wanders in the wild? We’d love to see your pictures! Why not share them with us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram?

Help us keep your region special

We care for many special wild places where migrant birds set up home throughout spring and summer. From sand martins at Brockholes to whitethroats at Freshfield Dune Heath and sedge warblers at Wigan Flashes, there are so many species to see, but we can’t protect them alone. Become a member today and help us safeguard the precious wildlife refuges in your region.

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