Where do migratory birds go?

Where do migratory birds go?

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Summer is almost over. The nights are drawing in and before long autumn will be upon us. By now, many of the birds that arrived in the UK during the spring and summer will be heading south for the winter months. Where do these migrants go and how far do they fly? We take a look below.

Swallows, Swifts and Martins

Probably Britain's most iconic migratory bird is the Swallow. In September and October, these birds begin the long journey down to South Africa, travelling well over 5,000 miles. Some Swallows fly over the Sahara Desert, while others follow the west coast of Africa. 

According to the RSPB, the birds cover 200 miles a day, typically flying at a speed between 17 and 22 miles per hour. Once reaching their destination, they feed in the skies above South Africa's savannahs, looking down on the elephants, giraffes, lions and other exotic animals below. It's strange to think that such a small bird will take in these sights and the altogether more mundane setting of the houses and gardens of the UK all within the space of a year.

Swifts head south significantly earlier than Swallows and very few tend to be left in the UK by September. They also fly to sub-Saharan Africa, but don't usually travel quite as far, having been recorded in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania and Zambia.

Less is known about the migratory habits of House Martins. It is generally believed the birds also travel down to Africa, but exactly where they spend the winter is unknown. 

Other migrants

If you're interested in Cuckoo's migratory habits, the British Trust for Ornithology website provides daily information on the movement of 16 birds who spent the spring and part of summer in the UK this year. Most of the Cuckoos are well on their way to central Africa by now, with nearly all of the birds having left Britain by the end of June.

The Nightingale and the Nightjar both spend their winters in Africa, tending to settle in the centre-west and centre-south of the continent respectively. Some birds don't travel quite so far, such as the Chiffchaff, with many of this species wintering in the Mediterranean. Indeed, a growing number of Chiffchaffs are now staying in the UK all year round. 

How do birds know when to migrate? A number of factors are thought to play a role, including day length, temperature, wind direction and the availability of food. Birds do not fly continually while travelling south and have to stop to rest and feed. The distances such small animals cover is breathtaking, but not even they can manage it without taking a break!


Heading north?

Migration isn't all about flying south, with Puffins actually heading in the opposite direction. Many of these birds leave the UK's shores to fish in the North Sea and Northern Atlantic during the winter months, returning to nest in the spring. 

Images from iStock