Autumn migration

Did you know?

Every hour enough plastic to fill two bin bags is washed into our oceans from canals and rivers.

Autumn migration takes place as soon as the temperature starts to dip and it's a great time to spot birds on the move.


We know that one of the reasons that people are happier and healthier by our canals and rivers is the wildlife they are home to. Autumn is one of the most exciting times in the wildlife calendar on our waterways as millions of birds find themselves a new home for the colder months.

During autumn migration the majority of birds will be travelling back to where they overwinter. However, they aren't in a hurry and may hang around at watering holes and rest points a little longer, allowing us to see them better.

This time of year different weather conditions appear over the Atlantic and the continent and these conditions can force rare birds to end up in the UK and also aid/restrict general migration. The parents also have their young in tow, still teaching them to hunt and feed before the flight to their wintering grounds.

External migration

By early October cuckoos and swifts will have already left the UK and are heading to Africa via mainland Europe, warblers – such as common whitethroat and sedge warbler are preparing to go and house martins and swallows are feeding up for the long flight.

The hedgerows along the canals and rivers will start to empty with the warblers going but soon they will start to be replaced by fieldfares and redwings, coming in from Scandanavia, and also more common species – blackbird, robin, bullfinch – will all be swelled in numbers by birds coming from abroad to winter in the 'warm' UK.

Internal migration

There is also an internal migration, birds such as meadow pipits have bred on moorlands but will seek lower ground to winter. Golden plovers, curlew and oystercatchers breed inland on moors and gravel pits but will migrate to the coast to winter with thousands of their own species. 

Where to look for migration on our canals and rivers

Look for birds in the trees and hedgerows. Sounds obvious but birds are moving through and they still need to eat, searching for insects and seeds as they go. Bird numbers will be multiplied by the juveniles which also have to migrate and they will be wanting as much food as possible to build their strength and stamina for, in some cases, a very long flight. Juvenile redstarts, whinchats and spotted flycatchers can turn up almost anywhere.

One family of birds easy to see during migration are waders. These are birds of varying size that generally tend to favour the muddy estuaries during the winter months however whilst on passage (the movement during migration) birds can end up anywhere were there are mud flats, even canals and rivers.

Green sandpipers are generally the first birds to return, a small browny green wader with a striking sharp blast for a call, these can easily occur on rivers and canal banks. So can common sandpiper, very similar to green sandpipers but these birds bob as they walk around hunting food. Redshanks are also easily seen on rivers and canals and are obvious birds with their bright red legs.

Places near to canals and rivers that are good for looking for waders

Last date edited: 23 August 2018

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The environment team

The Canal & River Trust has top team of committed experts and enthusiasts, who help to protect our waterway environment and improve it for both people and nature. Follow this blog to find out more about the hugely varied work they carry out.

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