More than one author has conjured up the image of a Great Arrival, the 16 million or so migrant birds all heading north to summer on these northern breeding grounds. Most recently, in his excellent book Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo, Michael McCarthy speculated on how we would react were all these birds to arrive in a single flock. Such a flock would fill the sky; people would stop what they were doing in order to take in the spectacle and it would become an important signal that spring had reached our shores, celebrated with street parties and a public holiday.
Of course, our summer migrants do not arrive all at once in some grand flock; instead they turn up in small numbers or individually, with many arriving at night when the energetics of migration are better balanced. These overnight arrivals do provide one thing however; they deliver a sense of the unexpected to us birdwatchers, the thrill that the night just gone might have delivered some exciting find to an early morning trip to a patch of coastal scrub or waterside reedbed. Even those who would not describe themselves as a birdwatcher derive a thrill from seeing the summer’s first Swallow or hearing May’s first Cuckoo.
While these individual encounters act in some small way as a talisman for a wider arrival, the movement of this mass of birds, streaming out of Africa and up across Europe, goes largely unnoticed. Taken for granted, we find ourselves unaware of the problems faced by these many and varied travellers, problems which have resulted in dramatic population decline for some species. We only know of the changing fortunes of our summer visitors because of the work of organisations like the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), whose partnership between researchers and birdwatchers provides regular monitoring of the birds breeding across Britain and Ireland. Yet even with this information we only know that something is wrong, we don’t fully know why. Are the numbers of Wheatears, Cuckoos, Turtle Doves and flycatchers falling because of difficulties here or is it because of problems on their wintering grounds or along their migration routes?
Recently, the BTO and RSPB have launched projects in Africa to look at our migrants on their wintering grounds, seeking to understand what is happening to the habitats they use during our winter. This work is only the start of a wider process which, ultimately, will need to feed into conservation action targeted at the different species across their whole range. The scale of this work also serves to bring home the message that while we view these birds as being ‘ours’, they are only ours for part of the year.