Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The great fall of migrants on the Suffolk coast in September 1965; we were there

Male Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica)
photographed in Moscow
(from Wikipedia**)
Last month marked the 50th anniversary of a remarkable wildlife phenomenon on the Suffolk coast in the east of England. And we were there at the time.

As we approached the coast at Benacre on foot, we suddenly noticed that there were lots of birds around and that these birds were not the usual birds one might expect to see. In short, the shrubs and bushes were full of migrants and rare migrants at that. One bush had Bluethroats on nearly every branch and a Wryneck in the middle. There were Redstarts; Pied Flycatchers were abundant and a variety of small warblers skulked in the low shrubs and bushes. It was an amazing sight. Wherever we walked there were more and more birds.

A few days later when we returned they had all gone.

The ‘fall’ of migrants made the local weekly newspaper because Lowestoft, the town to the north, had been brought to a halt as exhausted migrants landed on buildings, roads and paths. in a post on Birdforum from 2008, a correspondent quoted from Birds and Weather: A Birdwatcher’s Guide by Stephen Moss (Hamlyn, 1995):

At just after two o'clock in the afternoon of 3rd September 1965, the residents of Lowestoft looked up to see a vast cloud of small birds overhead. Birds were dropping out of the clouds like raindrops, and soon the town was alive with them, in gardens, on the beach, and even in the roads, where many fell victim to traffic. Two people, in different parts of the town, actually had Redstarts alighting on their shoulders from the sky.
     Tens of thousands of birds were involved. All along the Suffolk and Norfolk coasts, great flocks of Northern Wheatears and Whinchats, Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers, Garden and Willow Warblers were arriving exhausted from the North Sea, and landing anywhere they could find food and shelter.
     The following morning, one observer, David Pearson, walked along the coast south of Walberswick. Along a 3-km stretch, he logged a staggering total of 15,000 Redstarts, 8,000 Northern Wheatears, 3,000 Garden Warblers, 1,500 Whinchats, 1,500 Tree Pipits, and 1,000 Willow Warblers, along with smaller numbers of other migrants. Rarer migrants were seen in unprecedented numbers, too: Wrynecks and Bluethroats reached double figures in several places, with Icterine and Barred Warblers, Ortolan Buntings and Red-backed Shrikes also appearing.
     The species involved and the time of year, left the lucky observers in no doubt that they were witnessing a massive displacement of Scandinavian migrants which, heading south-south-west across the North Sea to the coasts of mainland Europe, had been diverted westwards to East Anglia by the adverse weather conditions.

British Birds (59, 353-376) in 1966 carried an article by Peter Davis, then Migration Research Officer at the British Trust for Ornithology, entitled, ‘The great immigration of early September 1963’. It describes what was being seen by observers and ringers along the east coast of the British Isles over the few days in early September together with the weather maps. During the last few weeks of August there had been cloud and rain over Scandinavia. On 2 September there was an anticyclone over Scandinavia, creating ideal conditions for the birds to leave in very large numbers; at the same time there was a vigorous depression moving from France into the North Sea, bringing a north-easterly to easterly wind together with heavy rain on the northern edge of the depression, towards the Suffolk and Norfolk coast during 3 September. The migrants were pushed westerly and arrived in the massive falls recorded during the period of heaviest rainfall.

The fall of migrants was described as by far the heaviest of its kind ever recorded in Britain.

What we did not know when we were at Benacre was that a bird ringer was at work there. Davis reports:

…at Benacre Pits, most of the birds appeared between 13.20 and 13.50 GMT, many thousands arriving along a half-mile front. Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts were the most abundant, but there were huge numbers of Wheatears, hundreds of Whinchats, Garden Warblers and Willow Warblers, smaller numbers of Spotted Flycatchers, Tree Pipits, Whitethroats and Robins, and at least 20 Wrynecks. Between the start of the arrival on the 3rd and early on the 5th (when he ran out of rings) A. G. Hurrell caught some 650 migrants there, of which half were Pied Flycatchers (a much higher proportion than was seen at other places); also included were 14 Wrynecks, two Bluethroats, three Icterine Warblers and an Ortolan Bunting. 

Benacre Pits was part of the area we explored (probably on the afternoon of the 5th; we have no record). I think the Bluethroats must have avoided his nets since we saw many tens of individuals.

I should point out that Benacre has changed markedly through coastal erosion over 50 years. We walked down the same path to the beach a few years ago and found the chunk of land containing the bushes and scrub where we had seen most of the migrants had gone. We could not remember there being the cliff line then and I have just read in a blog that there was no cliff line here at all until 1981 ‘rather a gradually descending warren which over the years has been subsumed to the sea’.

Also gone were the Suffolk Punches, surely the most attractive of the draught horses, that lived in a field to the right of the path*.

This map from a modern Google Earth view was where we walked; it lacks the land that has disappeared into the North Sea between the end of the path and the beach. The point of the arrow shows where we first noticed that the bushes were full of birds.

Having seen the result of that massive fall of migrants, completely by chance, we have turned birdwatchers green with envy over a period of 50 years.

†Later Sir Anthony Hurrell, noted amateur ornithologist and bird ringer; a civil servant in the Ministry of Education for a time he was later British Ambassador to Nepal (1983-86). He died on 19 April 2009, aged 82.

*Were these the ones reported to have been used as two teams for ploughing, harrowing and towing balers on the Benacre Estate up to 1995? There area number of references to Suffolk Punches with Benacre in the name in studbooks and pedigrees.

**By Bogomolov.PL (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons