Birds On The Move

hough Whiteknights is perhaps not the best spot to observe bird migration, a few species have been on the move in the last couple of weeks. Our most abundant summer visitor, the chiffchaff, is still around (though in declining numbers), still audible in the Wilderness, uttering occasional soft ‘hueets’. A few will stay for the winter, though increasingly their place in the pecking order is being taken by goldcrests, an even more diminutive and extremely attractive little bird. Goldcrests are present in Whiteknights Park all year but numbers in the winter are bolstered by migrants from the continent.

Fortunate observers often pick up one or two firecrests among them, so it’s worth getting a closer look at any tiny birds darting in and out of conifers or dense vegetation such as ivy on trees. Even the tangled masses of laurel and rhododendron in the Wilderness seem to be suitable foraging grounds for the two Regulus species, where they presumably glean for tiny invertebrates eking out a winter existence under the broad evergreen leaves. A rare example, perhaps, of an ecological benefit from those insidious invasive plants. I’ve yet to see a firecrest this season – my last on campus was a singing male next to the Harris Garden pond back in April – but I hope that they’ll be back with us before the term is out.

Firecrest, by Isidro Vila Verde on Flickr (Creative Commons license)

Firecrest, by Isidro Vila Verde on Flickr (Creative Commons license)

Jays have been particularly noticeable over the last couple of weeks, seen making distinctively floppy flights all over campus as they go about caching acorns for the winter. And more recently we’ve seen the return of redwings, perhaps the most striking of Britain’s native thrushes. There’s often a good sized flock feeding on the playing fields or on the short grass near the Student’s Union.

There are other migrants about that never or hardly ever touch Whiteknights soil, such as meadow pipits and skylarks. Single meadow pipits flew over campus early on Friday 10th and mid-morning on Thursday 16th, and at about quarter to ten on the morning of Friday 17th two skylarks were passing southwest in the vicinity of the AMS tower. The flight calls of both species are quite easy to pick out once you know them: the pipit’s is a thin repetition of the first part of its name (“Pip! Pip-pip!”), whilst the skylark’s call is a burbling cheep (listen here) that I find somewhat difficult to describe. No matter, once heard it is very distinctive, and you’ll soon see how commonly skylarks are flying overhead at this time of year.

What birders often refer to as ‘vismig’ – short for visible migration – is becoming quite popular, especially as the trend for birdwatchers to focus on the comings and goings of a local patch rather than on twitching rarities continues to gather pace. With the establishment of the Reading University Ornithological Society, interest in birds on campus has probably never been higher, so with plenty of ears and eyes to the skies we will hopefully be noticing and reporting (via the BTO’s BirdTrack site) an increasingly useful proportion of the birds flying overhead.

About Chris Foster

Lecturer in Animal Ecology in the School of Biological Sciences
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