Saturday, 2 February 2019

Unreal Cold Weather Movement - 1st February

Winter can be a bit of a long, slow and sometimes dull season for the patch birder, this winter especially so on the Axe. There's not been much other than the usual fare so far, and numbers in general have been pretty poor.  But like any patch birder, whispers of snow in the forecast early last week raised my excitement levels, and Thursday night delivered a fine but widespread covering of the white-stuff...

Looking west over the valley

Major snow events often deliver some impressive bird movements on/over the Axe, but I really wasn't expecting much when I woke up on Friday morning.  It was only a fine covering of snow, it wasn't country-wide and I knew it wasn't going to be in any way a prolonged spell of cold. 

I spent the first hour of the day looking out from the house and garden, and what I saw seemed to confirm my thoughts; a couple of small groups of Lapwing, one Golden Plover and a flock of 15 Redwing flew over.  I then had a look around the Estuary, and other than a group of about 40 Fieldfare on Bridge Marsh - nothing else was where it isn't usually...

But then I went to the seafront....  and saw the most mind-blowing bird movement I have ever witnessed in my entire life. Just take a look at these two short videos. Make them full screen and turn the sound up...

Thousands upon thousands of thrushes!

I wish I could have just stayed there all day, but the only way I could quantify this movement in any way was by counting 'Portland-style' (a selection of 'sample counts').  Between 10:00 and 15:00 I carried out one 15 minute count, one ten minute count, two five minute counts and three two minute counts.  The last one at 15:00 showed that the passage had slowed a bit, but all previous counts gave an absolutely astonishing figure of between 400-500 thrushes passing PER MINUTE! Huge flocks were passing over, almost constantly - gaps often of only 20-30 seconds between flocks.  This statistic is staggering on its own, but when it's multiplied up it becomes really mind destroying.... Even if we take the lowest figure, 400, this suggests that somewhere in the region of 120,000 thrushes flew over Seaton on 1st February! As staggering as this number is, I am certain it's  an under estimation, especially as they were clearly passing in these numbers prior to 10am, and I've included nothing that may have passed after 15:00.  

Looking at the species break down, Redwings were by far the most abundant species, with an estimation of 80% of the all thrushes seen/heard being this species. This would make the Redwing day total somewhere in the region of 96,000! Unreal.  I did hear the occasional Song Thrush call emitting from the chaos and Fieldfare made up the remaining 20%.

James Mc at Lyme was also seeing this passage, as was Dan over at Sidmouth and Kev in Beer.  What I can't believe though is that was it.  No reports of this massive movement west of Sidmouth, in fact Dawlish Warren reported virtually no thrush movement at all! And the only reports east of us were from Portland where up to 10.000 Redwing were seen to leave north west over Ferrybridge (  What on earth is that about!? Where did they all come from and where did they all go!?

Skylark were also moving in good numbers (I noted a couple of hundred, so 1000+ probably passed during the day), with a calling Woodlark over Seafield Garden at 10:45 being a nice highlight. Kev had a second one over Beer an hour or so later.  I also logged a couple of small flocks of Lapwing and the odd Linnet, Chaffinch and Siskin, but in general variety was poor and it was all about thrushes and Skylarks

As I'm typing this my mind is still blown to be honest.  Feels almost a bit like space, involving numbers that only people like Brian Cox can truly comprehend.  Just so so so many birds. 

About mid afternoon I had another look around the valley, and by now ground was starting to thaw and birds were congregating in these spots.  The slope just to the east of the Estuary was like a rolling carpet of Redwing, 500+ birds here (at the same time as the passage was still  happening over the seafront by the way!).  Bridge Marsh also showed lots of thrushes along with a flock of 60+ Skylark.  Then just up the road, the field north of Colyford WTW was again full of thrushes, a flock of Skylark, 300+ Lapwing and c60 Golden Plover.  Here's a few pics...

One of the above Redwing!
A Skylark
Meadow Pipit
Golden Plover with a Lapwing background

Best of all about this amazing influx of birds was that none of them looked to be struggling in any obvious way.  Everything I saw on the ground appeared to be finding plenty of food, and all the birds passing overhead were flying strongly and with purpose - not something weak birds can do.  It was really nice to witness a cold weather movement without feeling that sadness usually associated with snowy spells. I am really surprised this relatively small amount of snow caused such a drastic response from the birds - we had far less snow than last Feb/March but way more overhead passage.  Do they know something that we don't? 

And now to today...

The weather this morning (2nd) was completely different.  Still pretty cold, but crystal clear blue skies and most of the snow had melted away.  There were still lots of birds about, with thrushes flying around everywhere, but they were flying in all directions.  It was nice to catch up with two waders on the Estuary that Phil saw the previous day, a Bar-tailed Godwit and this Avocet...

Avocet and Black-headed Gull
Got to love an Avocet in flight!

There were also 47 Dunlin here which isn't a bad mid-winter count for us.  And that's it for this somewhat mammoth blog post.  Truly unforgettable stuff though.


  1. Hi Steve, I thoroughly enjoyed your video clips specifically, and your enthusiasm for nature in general. Someone with a better understanding of current weather on the continent might contradict me, but my guess is that the thrushes were moving west from France. It would be interesting to know if numbers have increased in Wales or Ireland as a consequence.

    1. Hi Doug! Many thanks for the comments. I'm not sure France had this dumping of snow, so I reckon this movement was from UK wintering birds, maybe birds already in the southern half of the UK? They could have just flew south, hit the coast and then carried on flying west away from the snow (which seems to be an inbuilt response, they must know south and west usually means warmer). As with most 'vis mig' it will remain an unanswered question though I'm sure....such a mystery! All the best, Steve.

  2. That should have read north-west from France...

  3. Hi Steve, I saw your post a few days ago. I'm currently living in East Sussex. Thrush numbers before your encounter were average in Redwing. Reading the posts above, there may have been some in Hampshire or Dorset, but what you saw amazes me. Doug might be right as some may have crossed from the continent because there wasn't much happening here. Your videos are incredible and brought a lot of joy to me. It's so nice that these birds didn't suffer like the spectacular and awful March last year. Happy birding