10 epic journeys of Britain’s winter migrant birds

Meet the winter arrivals who fly thousands of miles to reach Britain from Alaska, Greenland and Russia.

By Oli Reed
Published 19 Oct 2018, 21:57 BST
A flock of pink-footed geese fly over farmland, having flown 5,500km from their summer feeding grounds ...
A flock of pink-footed geese fly over farmland, having flown 5,500km from their summer feeding grounds to overwinter in the UK.
Photograph by Andy Hay

The skies above Britain come alive with the sights and sounds of millions of migrating birds during the autumn months, and in winter they settle on our shores. But who are they, and where do they come from? 

Some of Britain’s resident birds – like partridges – never move than a kilometre from their birthplace, but more than 40 per cent of the world’s bird population are migrants. Their migration journeys coincide with the changing of the seasons, with Britain’s winter residents arriving during autumn from colder countries to the north and east.

They’re attracted to Britain for its milder winter temperatures, which makes food easier to find, before returning to their breeding quarters in spring. The RSPB’s Gemma Butlin highlights ten species to look out for this autumn, some of which have travelled 6,000 miles on their epic migration journeys. 

Pink-footed goose (pictured above)

Migrates from: Greenland, Iceland  Distance flown: 3,400 miles / 5,500km

In the 1960s only 50,000 pink-footed geese overwintered in Britain, but now there are over 200,000. They don’t breed in Britain, but their numbers are on the increase – particularly in Norfolk – with around 85 per cent of the world’s population arriving each winter from Greenland and Iceland. Their name is often shortened to ‘pink-foot’ and they have pink beaks as well as feet.

A redwing, 'Turdus iliacus', adult perched on snow covered ground at The Lodge RSPB Nature Reserve in Bedfordshire.
Photograph by RSPB


Migrates from: Iceland, Scandinavia  Distance flown: 500 miles / 800km

Redwings rest in Britain between October and March, feeding on berries in trees and hedgerows. They migrate at night, calling ‘seep-seep’ to each other as they fly. As winter draws on and fruit becomes scarce, they move to more open areas like school playing fields, where they peck for worms if the ground is soft enough. The redwing is Britain’s smallest true thrush, identifiable by a creamy stripe over the eye and blush of red under the wing.

A fieldfare, Turdus pilaris, adult in freezing weather, in Norfolk.
Photograph by David Tipling


Migrates from: Iceland, Scandinavia

Distance flown: 500 miles / 800km

Last winter, as the ‘Beast from the East’ arrived, hundreds of people contacted the RSPB to report unusual birds visiting their gardens. They were fieldfares – large, handsome thrushes with blue-grey hoods, grey-brown backs, streaked breasts and white rumps. The cold snap drove them into urban areas to find food and they were seen all over the UK, hopping across lawns and eating fallen apples.

Knot, 'Calidris canutus', on the artificial lagoon; high tide wader roost at Freiston Shore RSPB reserve, The Wash, Lincolnshire.
Photograph by Andy Hay rspb-images.com



Migrates from: Arctic Circle

Distance flown: 3,440 miles / 5,500km

Knots are a scarce breeding species in Scotland, making them an Amber List species in Britain. They’re more widespread in winter in the north and east when continental birds join residents, building large flocks that can be spectacular to watch on the coast. These small waders are often found scuttling along the shoreline, as if trying to turn back the tide like their namesake King Canute.

A waxwing, 'Bombycilla garrulus', photographed in Bedfordshire.
Photograph by Andy Hay


Migrates from: Scandinavia  Distance flown: 800km

Britain only sees large ‘irruptions’ of waxwings in winters when the berry crop in their native Scandinavian countries has failed, or there are more birds than food to keep them going through the colder months. Look out for waxwings in rowan trees, often found around supermarket car parks. The trilling from a berry-raiding party of these exotic-looking birds sounds like the ringing of sleigh bells.

A beady-eyed starling, 'Sturnus vulgaris', photographed in London.
Photograph by Ben Andrew


Migrates from: Eastern Europe, Russia

Distance flown: 1,250 miles / 2,000km

The number of starlings in Britain almost doubles in winter with the arrival of thousands of migrant birds from Eastern Europe. They join resident starlings in huge, circling, whirling flocks at dusk, known as murmurations. Despite these impressive gatherings starlings in Britain are disappearing, prompting RSPB scientists to begin tracking their movements to uncover the causes of their decline.

Brent geese, 'Branta bernicla', flying low in Hampshire.
Photograph by Paul Chesterfield

Brent goose

Migrates from: Russia, Canada, Greenland  Distance flown: 3,750 miles / 6,000km

The UK welcomes two distinct races of brent geese in winter: dark-bellied and pale-bellied. The dark-bellied birds come from Northern Russia (3,750 miles, 6,000km) and can be seen on the eastern side of the country. The pale-bellied geese come mostly from Canada and Greenland (3,440 miles / 5,500km), heading for Ireland. Brent geese migrate in family groups, flying in V-formation and travelling mostly at night. These groups stay together from one breeding season to the next.

A goldcrest, 'Regulus regulus', perched on gorse, at RSPB Havergate Island.
Photograph by Ben Andrew


Migrates from: Scandinavia

Distance flown: 438 miles / 700km

Although you can see goldcrests in Britain all year, they’re joined by large numbers of relatives from the continent in winter. The goldcrest is Britain’s smallest bird, with a thin beak that is perfect for picking insects out from between pine needles. It is nicknamed the ‘Woodcock Pilot’, as it was once believed to travel on the back of the woodcock, another migratory bird.

A pair of whooper swans, 'Cygnus cygnus', swimming at Martin Mere Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Lancashire.
Photograph by Ben Hall RSPB-images.com



Whooper swan

Migrates from: Iceland

Distance flown: 940 miles / 1,500km

Britain’s resident mute swans are joined by two related species in winter: Bewick’s and whooper swans. Whooper swans announce their arrival with loud trumpeting calls, flying in to feed on aquatic plants, grass, and any leftover grain and potatoes in fields. Both have black and yellow markings on their beaks, with the whooper showing more yellow than black.

A snow bunting, 'Plectrophenax nivalis', male in breeding plumage, in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland,.
Photograph by RSPB

Snow bunting

Migrates from: Scandinavia, Alaska, Canada, Greenland Distance flown: 3,400 miles / 5,500km

Snow buntings breed further north than other land birds, but still need some winter warmth so travel south to Britain. They change colour depending on the season, arriving in Britain pale brown as they have less need to be camouflaged against the snow. During summer, snow buntings breed in the mountains and are a common sight hopping around hikers on the summit of Ben Nevis – Britain’s highest peak at 1,345m.


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