If you’re heading outdoors to the garden or into the countryside this weekend, keep an eye out for the birds who have arrived back on our shores for the summer. These regular summer visitors, including swifts, swallows and house martins, are all part of the sounds and sights of the UK’s summer as these feathered friends return from overwintering in Africa.
It can be difficult to tell some of these birds apart as they look quite similar, so the RSPB has put together a handy CV for the new season’s arrivals to help us recognise them.
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How to identify our summer migrants
Swallow: they have dark, glossy blue backs and a red patch under their chin. Their long, forked tails make them easy to spot and their song is more of a twitter, which they perform from a perch on a fence or building. Often to be seen in groups on telegraph wires.
Swift: True to its name, this superb flier can go months without touching the ground, eating, sleeping and breeding in flight. You’ll almost never see them stationary, but they look black against the sky and have a slightly forked tail – but not as forked as the swallow. It’s their screams that make them unmistakable – listen out for ‘screaming parties’ flying low and fast around buildings, especially in the evenings.
House martin: They build their carefully constructed, muddy little nests under the eaves of houses. They also have a forked tail but it is shorter than the swallow’s. Their song sounds like ‘jik, jik.’ If the summer is dry, we can all help house martins by creating mud for their nests – water a muddy patch in your garden or driveway, where there has previously been a puddle.
Chiffchaff: A busy, olive brown warbler, the chiffchaff flits through trees and shrubs, wagging its tail distinctively while looking for insects to pick out and snap while flying. They sometimes have a pale eye stripe, a bit like a mask. It gets its name from its song.
Nightingale: Nightingales are fairly ordinary to look at - slightly bigger than robins, with brown feathers. They're shy and can be difficult to spot but once they start to sing they turn into divas and few other birds can match their voice. Sadly, the number of nightingales in England, has declined by around 90% in the past 50 years, so their beautiful song is becoming a rare sound in the English countryside.
Turtle dove: A dainty dove, much smaller than the collared doves you may see in the garden, about the size of a blackbird. Their haunting ‘purring’ sound is one of the true signals of summer, but sadly we’ve lost 94% of them since 1995 and there’s a real threat that they could become extinct.
Big Garden Birdwatch Results
Birdwatching fans will also be interested to hear the results of this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch, announced this week. More than 420,000 people took part in the RSPB’s annual survey of the UK’s garden birds and the results put the house sparrow and starling in the top two spots again, with the blue tit and blackbird exchanging places to take the third and fourth places respectively.
It was good news for the smaller species, with long-tailed tit sightings up 16%, coal tit numbers up 15%, and goldfinch up 11%, the result of mild weather during their breeding period in May and June and a mild autumn and winter.
The information on bird numbers gathered through the birdwatch is vital for the wildlife charity and the UK, as the RSPB's Gemma Butlin explains: ‘it shows us the species that are thriving and the ones that need our help. Then we can put steps in place to put that right. We're very grateful to everyone who spent an hour watching the wildlife in their garden to take part in this year's count.’
For more information on the Big Garden Birdwatch and summer migrants visit www.rspb.org.uk