Most of my mornings at Brandon Hill over the last couple of weeks have been spent watching for migrating birds from the top of Cabot Tower. Up until recently, it was quite a lonely affair, but since the launch of the Birds over Bristol project at the beginning of this month, it’s been a bit more lively and I’ve had a lot of fun meeting some great people and seeing a bunch of birds that are Brandon Hill firsts for me. Bright and breezy on Sunday 2nd October we had our official launch, when 9 of us, including Urban Birder – David Lindo and Ed Drewitt made our way to the top level of the tower to scan the skies for birds migrating over the city. I was a little apprehensive to begin with, as conditions weren’t perfect for visible migration, but things quickly got moving and within the first hour we had seen umpteen groups of 3 or 4 pied / white wagtails, more meadow pipits than I could shake a stick at (with groups of up to 30), good numbers of migrating chaffinches and my first Brandon Hill siskins all making their way south / south-west. We also had some nice views of the local peregrines, ravens and a sparrowhawk soaring just above our heads.
Not long after the launch, the weather took a turn for the worse and low pressure combined with strong westerlies meant that a lot of migrants were grounded and feeding up – building up their energy reserves and waiting for a window of favourable conditions to push on with the next leg of their journeys. Some of the braver Scandinavian thrushes attempted to cross the North Sea early last week, but only a trickle arrived in the UK, with most of the first push ending up in the Netherlands. Towards the end of the week though, the winds started to drop and swung south-easterly and high pressure started to build over the UK and the Nordic countries, encouraging the massive flocks of fieldfares, redwings and other migratory passerines that had started to build in southern Norway to take wing and head south-west across the sea towards their winter quarters. They started to arrive in their highest numbers in the east of England on Thursday, and by Thursday night they had reached Bristol and I could hear redwings starting to pass over Brandon Hill for the first time in 7 months. Anticipating the change in weather, and the potential for an exciting visible migration watch, the Cabot Tower Bird Study Group arranged to meet for their next session on Friday morning. Things didn’t get moving until sunrise at 7:30, when we started to get our first groups of redwings – 2 or 3 to start, then building to groups of around 15. The fieldfares started to arrive too, but only in 1s and 2s, with the odd one stopping briefly at the hill (my first here), until a large flock of 70 passed just after 9am.
Other highlights from the morning were a further few BH firsts going over (skylarks and linnet), 17 straggling swallows moving south-east, a big movement of at least 85 greenfinch and a murder of 40 crows buzzing around the top of Cabot Tower.
After Friday’s success, I decided to get up early on Saturday morning to check if the influx of migrants was still going strong. Redwings were passing over but in smaller numbers (largest group of 12) and fieldfares were similar to Friday with 1 or 2 and then a group of 40. A few more skylarks went over (flying north), noticeably fewer greenfinches were moving and I had my first pair of BH bramblings passing through, calling loudly and flying low. I was 90% on 3 distant ring ouzel and a few groups of redpoll to the west too, but I won’t get too excited and add them to the list just yet until I’m positive.
My last bit of exciting news is that I have finally got myself a long-lens and over the coming weeks, hope to be getting up close and personal with some of the redwings that have decided to hang on, and of course the rest of the Brandon Hill regulars..