How to identify birds on the move in spring

Use our illustrated guide to help you spot 12 migrant and resident birds on the move in spring in the UK.

Male wheatear in Gloucestershire. © Tim Graham/Getty

On a grey, drizzly spring day, when a keen breeze is whipping the surface of a lake, you might spot dark arrowheads zoom over the water – sand martins. Though it may not feel like it, spring is here!

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Britain’s other earliest arrivals are usually chiffchaffs in willow scrub and treetops, and wheatears on coastal grassland. All three migratory species turn up here from the first week of March.

Sandwich terns and little ringed plovers are widespread by the second half of the month, also a good time to scan shallow pools for garganey. Towards the end of March, ring ouzels, fresh in from the North African mountains, appear on wind-scoured hilltops.

But not all our bird migrants are from outside the UK. Waders that wintered on our coasts now move inland to their breeding grounds. As upland moors, fells and pastures thaw, they unleash a bounty of worms and insect larvae.

Soon the air rings with the calls of returning oystercatchers, curlews, redshanks and golden plovers. Meadow pipits are on the move too, leaving coastal areas and lowlands to head back to moors and mountains to breed.

All illustrations by Mike Langman


Sand martin (Riparia riparia)

Sand Martin. Mike Langman

Migrant; early March. Lakes, gravel pits and rivers. Our smallest ‘swallow’, brown above with brown breast band.

Little ringed plover (Charadrius dubius)

Little Ringed Plover. Mike Langman

Migrant; mid-March onwards. Gravel pits and brownfield sites with pebbly areas. Neat plover with pale eye-ring.

Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)

Chiffchaff. Mike Langman

Migrants arrive early March; some birds also overwinter. Woods and scrub. Paler legs than willow warbler.

Garganey (Anas querquedula)

Garganey. Mike Langman

Migrant; mid-March onwards. Lakes, shallow pools and floods. Male has white eyestripe; female is like teal.

Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Redshank. Mike Langman

Resident; heads inland to uplands and wet meadows. Wader with bright orange-red legs and white rump.

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Wheatear. Mike Langman

Migrant; early March. Areas of short turf, especially by coast. Male has dark mask and grey back; female sandier.

Curlew (Numenius arquata)

Curlew. Mike Langman

Resident; moves inland to moors and boggy uplands. Our largest wader, with long, curved bill and white rump.

Ring ouzel (Turdus torquatus)

Ring Ouzel. Mike Langman

Migrant; from late March. Appears on rough grassland, especially on hilltops. Like blackbird, with pale bib.

Meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis)

Meadow Pipit. Mike Langman

Resident; heads inland to uplands and moors. Streaky brown bird with jerky gait. Often gives ‘seep’ calls in flight.

Golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria)

Golden Plover. Mike Langman

Resident; returns to breed on boggy moors. Golden-brown above, paler below; in spring acquires black belly.

Sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis)

Sandwich Tern. Mike Langman

Migrant; mid-March onwards. Most records are along sandy coasts. Our largest tern, with shaggy black crest.

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

Oystercatcher. Mike Langman

Resident; moves to uplands and inland rivers. Stocky, black and white wader with orange bill. Often gives ‘kleep’ calls.


Main image: Male wheatear in Gloucestershire. © Tim Graham/Getty 

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This article originally appeared in BBC Wildlife Magazine. Take a look inside the current issue and find out how to subscribe.