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November 2011: Winter Migrants

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A witness to nature's drama of migration

A witness to nature's drama of migration

Wildlife artist Robert E Fuller returns from his African adventure to witness the drama of a natural migration closer to home as featured in the Gazette and Herald November 2011.

I HAVE just returned from taking a group to Kenya to see the world's most spectacular migration. More than two million animals, more than half of them wildebeest, trek some 1,000 miles in a continuous circuit from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara and back. To see the force of nature that drives these animals to take on such a formidable journey is always breathtaking and I am so hooked by my African experiences that I shall be leading another safari there next year. But you don't have to travel so far to witness the drama of migration. Here in Yorkshire you only have to look up in the sky to see an annual migration greater in quantity than these mass movements of wildebeest.

Around 17 million birds use the UK for migrations, either feeding as they pass through or arriving here from further north to spend the winter. Spurn Point, a narrow strip of land across the mouth of the Humber estuary, is one of the best spots in Britain to see them coming and going and was featured on BBC Autumnwatch recently. On a good day you can see 15,000 birds either out at sea or on the shore, including knot, arctic, sandwich and common terns, shearwaters and sanderlings. Meanwhile some of the birds, like swallows and house martins, have now undertaken epic journeys away from our country and back to Africa.

Waxwings, fieldfares, bramblings and redwings arrive in flocks to escape the icy cold of a Scandinavian winter, especially if the berry harvest has failed there. They come here to gorge on our berries. The unique shape of Spurn Point means the birds don't disperse as quickly as they would if they landed on the mainland. There is also cover and food for them to stay as they recover from the long flight across the North Sea from Scandinavia. I've watched redwings and fieldfares feeding on berries to build up their strength before venturing further inland. Even one of Europe's smallest birds - the goldcrest - flies across the north sea in huge numbers. They hide in the dune grasses while they recover.

Even birds that are also resident here migrate to escape the harsh Northern European winters. They tend to be so tired when they arrive that you can get up very close. I remember watching a chaffinch land. She flew in off the sea and collapsed exhausted onto the middle of road with her wings out. I was worried for her safety. But she didn't flinch when I picked her up and put her onto the verge, but just sat where I had laid her until she was able to fly off into a nearby bush. And I got within five feet of a bullfinch as it fed on nettle seeds. It was great to get a close look at its beautiful feathers.

Even regionally, mini migrations occur. Skylarks are resident in the UK all year round but will often leave open moorland, such as the North Yorkshire Moors and Pennines, when temperatures drop. They usually head for low-lying areas where they can be assured of less punishing weather and more food. Meadow pippits also leave the moors in search of warmth - many travelling as far as the continent.

As with the African migration, when the herds move on, some of the predators follow.
So, as the migratory birds travel, the birds of prey that depend on them also follow suit. Merlin usually leave their moorland habitat at this time of year to follow the food - their main diet is the meadow pippit. And short-eared owls are also in abundance along the East Coast as they too escape the bitter northern winters and find easier prey on our shores.

During my last trip to Spurn Point I watched one hunter make the most of the opportunity afforded by the influx of exhausted winter migrants. A trap used by the British Trust of Ornithology to catch and ring migrating birds is marked by a wily sparrowhawk. I watched as the hawk rushed into the trap and as it did so all the birds scattered and got trapped by the wire. She then picked off a brambling and headed out again with her prize. Bramblings are the Scandinavian equivalent of our chaffinch. I felt sorry for the brambling, which had just made it across the North Sea.

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