Spring migrating birds

Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

Many of our most well-known bird species are migrant birds; species such as nightingales, swallows, turtle doves and ospreys. Reserves Officer Andy Neilson gives us a run down of some of the most well-known spring migrants to be found in Leicestershire and Rutland.

Spring is one of the best times of year for bird watching. It’s the time of year where birds are setting up territories, singing away with full gusto, ready to attract a mate and produce the next generation. It’s a time of change also. Our winter visitors - those who haven’t left already, are thinking about heading back to their breeding grounds, whilst a whole other set of species are preparing to descend upon our two counties. They come here to take advantage of the excellent breeding conditions on offer in the UK during summer time. With many millions of birds on the move, inevitably a few take a wrong turn and end up somewhere where they didn’t intend. This vagrancy is what excites birdwatchers the most; the chance of a mega-rare bird appearing on their local patch is what most birders dream of!

Most of our summer migrants originate from southern Europe and west Africa, where they have spent the winter enjoying the warm climates that these places have to offer. Current estimates indicate around 2.1 billion birds migrate in this way every single year (the figure used to be much higher). But why migrate here at all, if those areas are warm and plentiful all year round? For the answers to this question, you must look at climatic and ecological factors. Firstly, the continent of Africa gets extremely hot during the spring and summer – daytime temperatures regularly top 40 degrees centigrade, which for some passerine species, is simply too hot for nestlings to survive. Secondly, the relative abundance of predators and competing species is much higher in Africa (even insects predate chicks), so it is much safer to migrate to Europe, where there are relatively fewer predators, and less species to compete with. The third main reason for birds migrating is food availability. The temperate climate of the UK makes it an ideal breeding ground for trillions of insects. It’s this richness of food that probably draws birds here more than any other, as they can take advantage of the seasonal excess of insects in Europe during spring and summer.

So what species migrate here during the spring? Many of our most well-known bird species are migrant birds; species such as nightingales, swallows, turtle doves and ospreys are interwoven into our culture and are regarded as truly “British”, and yet are only here for half of the year!

So, here is a run-down of some of the most well-known spring migrants that can be found in Leicestershire and Rutland.

Sand martin juvenile

Margaret Holland

Sand Martin

Sand martins are truly the vanguard of the spring migration period. For most birdwatchers, the first migrant bird they see each year will be a sand martin, and is always a notable occasion. The first sand martin sighting means the floodgates will soon be open, and many thousands of other birds will be following in their footsteps. Sand martins are colony nesters, favouring the exposed sandy banks found along rivers, or in quarries, to excavate their nests. Artificially created sand martin banks, like those found at Rutland Water Nature Reserve, also provide valuable breeding sites for this species. They are a dull brown in colour, looking superficially similar to house martins, but without the white rump.


Russell Savory


Another early arrival, wheatears are a bird of upland areas, nesting in drystone walls and in boulder fields in the more remote areas of the UK. Similar to sand martins, birdwatchers regard their first sightings of wheatear each year as a notable occasion, and will often refuse to declare that spring has begun until they’ve seen a wheatear! Wheatear like perching on exposed posts or rocks, but normally feed on the ground, hoovering up insects from amongst the grasses. In Leicestershire and Rutland, they no longer breed in the two counties, but look out for birds stopping off to feed on migration; normally to be found in hilly areas or sheep pasture. About the size of a starling, wheatears can often be easily identified by the large white area on their rump as they fly away, hence the old-english name “whitearse” that was given to this species!


Peter Cairns/2020VISION


Perhaps the most well-known migrant bird to be found in Leicestershire and Rutland, the osprey now breeds again in our two counties thanks to a reintroduction scheme undertaken at Rutland Water Nature Reserve during the 1990’s. This fish-eating raptor travels here each year from western Africa, and finds large wetland areas (and commercial trout farms!), very much to it’s liking. Around the size of a buzzard, ospreys hover above the water, before diving in, feet-first, to grab their prey. Without a doubt, the best place to see ospreys in Leicestershire and Rutland is our Lyndon Reserve at Rutland Water, where we have a breeding pair in Manton Bay and a purpose built hide to view the birds from. In 2019, this nest hatched the 150th osprey chick since the project began; a big milestone for the project. The Manton nest is also covered by our webcam – so can be viewed at any time of day here.


Clive Nichols


This melodic warbler has begun to over-winter in increasing numbers in the UK; lucky observers often see them feeding on apples in gardens throughout the winter period. The species must still be regarded as a summer visitor however, as the majority of blackcaps migrate here from southern Europe and west Africa. A member of the Sylvia warbler family, both male and female birds are a light grey in colour, with males having a black cap, and females a more rusty-brown colouration. Blackcaps are widely distributed across a range of habitats, but love dense shrubs and undergrowth in which to nest. Their song, which is very similar to their close relative, the garden warbler, is a tuneful mix of scratches and whistles. They mainly eat insects feeding on spiders, flies and caterpillars during the spring and summer, although they will also feed on berries throughout the autumn.


Chris Gomersall/2020VISION


Nightingales are embedded in English culture. Most people will have heard of the famous song “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, or perhaps listened to the famous radio broadcast where Beatrice Hammond and her cello performed a duet with a nightingale in her Surrey garden in 1924. The nightingale is truly a master of song – each bird learns around 180 specific notes or phrase and delivers songs that are never exactly the same. Each time it sings, it performs a different sequence of notes. The fact that nightingales largely sing at night adds to their mystique, often only singing once the other birds have gone to roost. Nightingales have suffered big declines across the UK in recent decades, and we had probably lost them as a breeding species in Leicestershire and Rutland by the early 2010’s. Happily though, the population seems to be recovering, and this master songster has re-colonised the area in small numbers. They can be heard at Rutland Water Nature Reserve during April and May.


Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography


If there was a species of bird more embedded in our culture than Nightingales, it would have to be the cuckoo. A bird almost synonymous with British summertime, this often-heard-but-rarely-seen species was widespread across much of England at the turn of the century. Dramatic declines have been linked to changing agricultural practices, increased pesticide use, and changes to habitats along their migration routes. Cuckoos can still be heard sparsely across our two counties however, with the Charnwood Forest probably the best area to hear this unique and wonderful bird.

Despite being regarded as a “British” bird, cuckoos actually spend the shortest amount of time in the UK, compared to other summer visitors. This is due to their nesting behaviour. Cuckoos don’t nest - they have evolved a technique of nest-parasitism, laying their eggs within the nests of host species such as reed warblers or meadow pipits, and leaving the bothersome business of child-rearing to someone else. So, once a cuckoo has bred and left its egg under the dutiful care of another bird, it has little reason to hang around any longer. Male cuckoos in particular, may only spend as little as 6 weeks in the UK before turning around and heading back to Africa.

Ring ouzel

Margaret Holland

Ring Ouzel

Always high on the wish-list for local birdwatchers, this alpine thrush passes through our counties in mid-April. In appearance they are very similar to blackbirds, but with a large white collar, this species can turn up almost anywhere during migration, but tends to find the exposed heathlands and rocky crags of the Charnwood Forest to its liking. Our only summer migrant thrush, this species winters in the Atlas Mountains of north-west Africa, before returning to the UK each spring to breed in upland areas.

Sedge warbler

Jim Higham

Sedge Warbler

An eclectic mix of whistles, scratches and tweets erupting at great velocity from a patch of scrub or bramble is normally a good sign that a sedge warbler has taken up residence. They often fly up several metres above their chosen territory and then parachute slowly downwards, singing madly. This small passerine species breeds widely across our two counties, favouring scrubby areas on the edge of wetland habitats, such as those found at our Cossington Meadows Nature Reserve. Often perching atop a bramble bush or reed stem, sedge warblers can be separated from the very similar-sounding reed warbler by their broad, white eye stripe (or supercillum), and more varied plumage.

Spotted flycatcher

Amy Lewis

Spotted Flycatcher

One of the classic late-arrivals, spotted flycatchers aren’t normally seen in Leicestershire and Rutland until the end of April. These delightful birds specialise in catching flies – normally taking repeated forays from a favourite perch to grab insects on the wing, before returning to the same spot. Like many other species, sadly Spotted Flycatchers have suffered huge declines over the past few decades, and this once-common breeding bird is now much fewer in number. Spotted flycatchers can be found in woodlands, gardens, parks and orchards – anywhere there is abundant vegetation to allow for nesting and fly-catching. Graveyards can often be strongholds for this species, as the less-manicured habitats present often provide good nesting and feeding spots. Secluded outbuildings in large gardens can also prove attractive for nesting flycatchers


 David Tipling/2020VISION


Swifts like to keep us waiting – often being one of the last species to arrive in early May, these masters of the sky like nesting on cliff edges, or more commonly, in the crumbling brickwork and roof spaces of our old-industrial buildings. Due to their nesting habits, swifts are truly regarded as an urban bird, often delighting observers as they scream overhead on warm summer evenings, using their sickle-shaped wings to great effect in the pursuit of catching airborne insects.

Swifts are so well adapted to life in the skies that they are quite ungainly on land and not at all comfortable using their feet. Swifts have learnt to sleep on the wing, rising high on thermals and being able to keep part of their brains “awake”, to stop them plummeting downwards. In fact, once a juvenile swift leaves its nest, it’s unlikely to land again more than a handful of times at most until it reaches breeding age at around 3 years old. Swifts are declining in the UK, due to our regeneration of old industrial areas favoured by this species, and declines in insect numbers. Some modern building practices are trying to help, by installing swift bricks in new builds, and designing voids within roof spaces of their building projects to accommodate swifts.


Andy Morffew


Our only summer migrant falcon, these delightful raptors appear in our skies from late April onwards. Looking like a miniature peregrine, but with a less bulky appearance and thin, pointy wings and red trousers, hobbies are masters of aerial manoeuvrability. They need to be so manoeuvrable in the air because their main prey items are dragonflies, which take considerable skill and agility to catch. Hobbies will also target small birds like swallows and martins, attempting to catch them on the wing.

Due to their fondness for dragonflies, hobbies can often be seen at wetland sites such as Rutland Water Nature Reserve or Cossington Meadows, hawking over the pools and reedbeds, often in hot pursuit of a dragonfly. Hobbies will nest in mature trees much like Kestrels do, which can often be some distance away from their main feeding areas.