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Swallows in a summer sky

While we’ve waved farewell to our winter wading birds and wildfowl, there are plenty of summer visitors to listen for and watch.

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Spring heralds the arrival of terns in the Solent from their over-wintering grounds in West Africa to breed along our shores. Terns are like gulls but more pointy and, dare we say it, more stylish, with sharp, slender bills, angular wingtips, and swallow-like forked tails. Most also have sharply defined black caps.

Common tern in flight

Common terns will have spent the winter in areas stretching from the coast of Spain and around Africa’s western seaboard.

With a distinctive shrill kyar-kyar-kyar call you’ll likely hear a colony of common terns before you see them. They have a long-forked tail and a distinctive black tip to its red bill.  Hirundo – the second half of its scientific name – is the Latin word for swallow and indeed these graceful birds are often referred to as sea swallows.

Sandwich tern above a colony of other sandwich terns

Sandwich terns return here in early March from their winter home in West Africa, mainly along the coast of Ghana and Senegal.

The have a long black pointed bill with a yellow tip.

Their courtship is both elaborate and noisy with pairs lifting high into the sky, often accompanied by several other birds, before executing a fast, downward dive flying very close to each other, or even on occasion touching.

Sandwich tern in flight

Little terns also winter in West Africa and migrate thousands of miles to nest on our beaches from April to August. They have a bright yellow bill with a black tip and a distinctive white brow.

Living up to its name, the little tern is the UK’s smallest tern and can be seen nesting on shingle or gravelly beaches in small colonies. They’re instantly recognisable by their tiny size, feeding just offshore, hovering above the water before diving in to catch its small prey.

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Swallows, sand martins, swifts

These darting and diving airborne acrobats are another sign that summer is on its way. It used to be thought they hibernated in mud at the bottom of ponds during the winter. Here’s some of their migratory stories.


Swallow in flight

Swallows spend winter across sub-Saharan Africa, as far as the Cape, then migrate back to the UK for breeding – a journey of more than 6,000 miles.

They usually leave Africa in February or March, heading north to reach Europe a few weeks later, and arrive in the UK in late March or early April.

Swift in flight

Swifts are the dawdlers of spring: late to arrive (around the start of May) and early to leave us (in August). They fly to and from Equatorial and Sub-Equatorial Africa using largely unknown routes.

They spend about three to three-and-a-half months in Africa and a similar time in their northerly breeding areas – and the rest of their time is spent on the wing, flying between the two areas.

Sand martin at its sandy nest

Sand martins are our smallest hirundines  – the collective name for martins and swallows – and are one of our first summer migrants to return.

Having wintered south of the Sahara, these tiny birds cross desert and sea, arriving on our shores by early March. They form dense colonies in sandy banks and cliffs, feeding their young on tiny flying insects.

House martins build their clay-mud nests in the eaves of buildings

We still don’t know the exact range of house martins in the winter, although we do know they migrate to Africa, arriving back here in April.

They spend much of their time in flight, collecting insect prey and they usually construct their clay-mud nests below the eaves of buildings.

Not sure how to tell swifts, swallows and martins apart? Find out how the tell the difference between swifts, swallows and martins.

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A fascinating study conducted by the BTO, shows that only 15% of their time is spent in the UK, 47% is spent in the African Congo while 38% is spent en route. Find out more about the BTO Cuckoo Project.


The fabled herald of the spring, cuckoos actually spend very little time in the UK. More than half head back south as early as June, having only arrived on our shores towards the end of April or the beginning of May.

A fascinating study conducted by the BTO, shows that only 15% of their time is spent in the UK, 47% is spent in the African Congo while 38% is spent en route.

Find out more about the BTO Cuckoo Project.

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Nightingales, nightjars and turtle doves are three more summer visitors who travel thousands of miles north to reach our shores – and all are on the red list for conservation concern. Numbers of each of these species have declined worryingly and we feel very fortunate when we hear or, even more rarely, see these signs of summer.

Known for their famously melodic song, nightingales arrive in April and set off back to Africa any time from July onwards, while nightjars, looking like a cross between a toad and an old wooden log,  arrive a little later and set off southwards in August or September. Turtle doves, with their delicate terracotta and black scalloped plumage, follow a similar pattern: arriving in April/May and setting off again any time from July to September.

A nightingale sings in a tree


A nightjar in a tree


A turtle dove

Turtle dove

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Plenty of butterflies, moths and other insects are summer migrants to the UK.

We’re lucky enough to know a little of the extraordinary migration story of the painted lady which travels up to 7,500 miles over 3 or more quickly-reproducing generations.

A painted lady butterfly

Starting out as caterpillars in sub-Saharan Africa, they set off as butterflies as spring begins, over the Sahara, laying eggs for the next generation to continue the northwards journey.

With the summer on the way, the butterflies’ offspring continue the journey north – some arriving directly in the UK in one hop, with others stopping off in Europe and getting to the UK across multiple generations.

At the end of the summer, as days begin to shorten, it’s been known for painted ladies to fly 5000 miles back south to Africa in a single generation.

Find out more about the astonishing migratory journeys of painted ladies or visit our blog about butterflies you’ll find along the Solent’s countryside.

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