All change at Attenborough as birds migrate

11. November Bittern -Harry McMahon

With recent sightings of coastal waders such as curlew sandpiper, black-tailed godwit and ruff at Attenborough Nature Reserve, it is clear to see that we are in the middle of that wonderful time of year that is the autumn migration. This is the annual movement of birds from their northern breeding territories to their southern over-wintering grounds and often involves journeys of thousands of miles.

For most of Attenborough’s summer breeding birds including nine warbler species, swallows, sand martins and the common tern this long journey south would have started back in September. However, through early October, birds that have bred further north can be seen as they move through the county on passage.

The use of visual landmarks such as the River Trent is one of the many ways in which birds navigate during their remarkable migration journey. It is the proximity of the Nature Reserve to the river that makes Attenborough a perfect ‘re-fuelling’ site for passage migrants (birds that appear for a short duration between their origin and destination). During inclement weather, species not normally found on the Reserve such as black tern are forced to land or stop off and re-fuel before continuing on their migration. In extreme cases North American or Continental European species that have been blown off their usual migration course might even make an appearance. Because of this, October is one of the most exciting months of the year to be out on the Reserve.

Bird migration has fascinated naturalists since the time of Aristotle. Back then, although migration was obvious in large species such as cranes and storks, it was inconceivable to think that smaller birds were capable of making such incredible journeys. Until the early 1800’s, it was still widely believed that swallows hibernated in the mud at the bottom of ponds. Bird ringing studies have long since disproved traditional theories about migration and have provided fascinating insights into the movements of birds.

Last year a ringed common tern was regularly seen feeding around the reedbed at the front of the Nature Centre. As it came to perch on the fence posts and handrail, the ring number could be easily read. It turned out that this bird was originally ringed as a chick inOxfordin 1997! We know from previous ringing data that the common terns ringed at Attenborough migrate toSenegalinAfricafor the winter. That would mean that this bird has already flown over 90,000 miles in its lifetime!

As the common terns that have been with us for the summer leave, it is not long before wintering ducks start to arrive. Over 1% of the country’s population of shoveler reside at Attenborough for the winter. Male and female shovelers stir up the water by swimming in a tight circular formation. They then use their strange spatulate bills to filter insects from the surface. By the end of October, goosander, goldeneye, wigeon, pochard, and teal will have joined the resident mallards, gadwall and tufted ducks on the vast water-filled gravel pits.

By November you might even get a chance to glimpse the rare bittern skulking through the reeds. This scarce species of heron became extinct in theUKby the 1900’s. They returned as a breeding species some 15 years later however even now they number fewer than 100 pairs. The bittern’s cryptic camouflage enables it to blend in perfectly with its reedbed habitat as it hunts for fish. Last year up to seven could be seen over-wintering in the reedbed on Clifton Pond.

Posted on 06 October 2011
Featured author: Dale Web Marketing Officer

A Mansfield lad who likes reading, running and red wine.

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