The tide of life has turned. Spring is on its way and it’s arriving on the wings of a million small birds. Literally hundreds of millions of birds are on the move, heading north from southern Europe and Africa, driven by the urge to set up a territory, find a mate and raise a family.
Among these hundreds of millions on the move it is estimated that around 15 million birds will arrive and breed here in the UK. Countless more millions pass along our shores and through our countryside heading to Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland
and Russia. Some of these passage migrants, as they are known, will stop here in Norfolk for a few days to feed and build up fat reserves to fuel their onward journeys. Some will find shelter in our gardens and parks, resting their wings, waiting for a clear sky and a southerly wind before moving on.
Amongst these passage migrants will be the occasional rarity: perhaps a colourful hoopoe or a bee-eater to delight the birders, or a rare wading bird among the flocks of dunlin, knot, sanderlings, godwits and plovers passing along our coast.
Migration is not random. There is a pattern to the arrival of different species. First to arrive in Norfolk, in March, come the chiffchaffs, sand martins and wheatears. In April the floodgates open! Blackcaps and willow warblers arriving in huge numbers at the start of the month; followed in mid-April by swallows, house martins, whitethroats, garden warblers and cuckoos. The end of April sees reed and sedge warblers adding their voices to the dawn chorus. This is a good time
to spot them when, at areas such as NWT Cley Marshes amongst the still winter-brown reedbeds, newly arrived male warblers sing persistently and prominently throughout the day in their urgency to find mates.
Our Norfolk coast is one of the best places to observe migration. By late April a full set of terns – common, Sandwich and little – will add their raucous calls to those of resident black-headed and herring gulls. On coastal wetlands, such as at NWT Holme Dunes, April is a brilliant time to observe passage wading birds. Birds such as godwits, knot, curlew, sandpiper and little stint have moulted from their much duller winter greys to take on brighter chestnut browns. You might be lucky enough to see a stunning spotted redshank or grey plover which in spring are extraordinarily beautiful, with a mix of black, grey and spangled silver in their breeding plumage. These waders are heading for breeding sites in the Arctic. Some will head north to the tundras of Iceland and Eastern Greenland, others take more easterly routes to find nest sites in Fenno-Scandia and northern Russia. Finally, last to come, in the first few weeks of May, arriving with a scream on dark scimitar wings, come the swifts.
Fifteenth of May, Cherry Blossom. The swifts materialise at the tip of a long scream. Look! They’re back! … They’ve made it again. Which means the globe’s still working. Ted Hughes, poet
For many migratory species the challenges of climate change, changing weather patterns, habitat loss, shooting, pesticides, and the loss of the insect life on which so many migratory species depend, means that the annual spring tide of migratory birds is weakening.
Fewer turtle doves, nightingales and wood warblers arrive on our shores each year. Fewer swifts scream down the High Streets of Wells next the Sea, Blakeney and Cley. No longer are nests newly repaired each year by arriving migratory birds. All is not well with many of our migrants.
If we care about protecting nature then the migratory birds, which so many of us love and value, have much to teach us. To protect Norfolk’s wildlife we have to protect the world’s wildlife; quite literally there are no boundaries in the sky.
Our wetlands around the coast and in the Broads are part of a necklace of protected sites between the Arctic and southern Africa; vital feeding stations and stopover sites that migratory birds have used for millennia.
By recognising how important these wetlands are for both us and our wildlife, and then by working internationally across borders to help implement their protection, we can help keep our great bird migration route (known as the East Atlantic Flyway) healthy. We must keep enough links in the precious wetland chain to enable birds to continue to make these awe-inspiring journeys.
Please add your voice to the work of Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Help us protect the sites where our spring migratory birds can find suitable places to nest at the end of these wonder-inspiring journeys between Africa and Norfolk. Help us look after some the great Norfolk wetlands that are vital stopovers and feeding areas for the millions of birds that will pass through and over Norfolk this spring and hopefully for many more springs to come.