Purple Sandpiper © Mark Lewis

Early March is usually just that little bit too early to be thinking about the first spring migrants of the year, unless southerly (or more likely, south easterly) winds deposit something that was hoping to arrive somewhere further south.

Instead, let’s think about what remains of the winter. It’s around the beginning of March that many of our winter visitors start to think about departing towards their breeding grounds, or at least making progress towards a first staging point. It can be a good time to catch departing Redwings or Blackbirds. They sometimes gather on eastern coasts when the weather puts them off making the long sea crossing, but they can also be heard moving overhead during the night all over Scotland. These movements are likely to happen on a clearer night so listen out for the hard ‘zeeep’ of the Redwing or the slightly softer ‘tsweep’ of Blackbirds passing overhead. You can hear examples of their calls here: Redwing and Blackbird

Something else that will be thinking of heading back towards wilder landscapes will be some of our wintering wildfowl. Both Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans may start to move around at this time of year. Pink-footed Geese may be especially prominent on the eastern side of Scotland as they make their way towards sites like Loch of Strathbeg. Here, numbers of wintering birds will be swollen by an influx of Pink-footed Geese that have spent the winter elsewhere in the UK, most likely Norfolk or Lancashire. From here, they will move on towards their breeding grounds, most likely in Iceland or Greenland. You can also hear these species as they migrate by night.

Starling songs may feel less wintery and certainly a less nocturnal thing, but there is a connection to nocturnal sound here. Starlings are all over the place and are famously good mimics of other bird species. Early March is when that mimicry really starts to appear, and starlings are more likely to mimic the sounds they hear around them here and now, rather than delve into the memory banks and repeat things they heard last June. A great one you can hear Starlings doing right now is the calls of displaying Buzzards, but they might also mimic some sounds they hear by night. As we sleep, waders such as Oystercatchers, Golden plovers and Curlews will be nocturnally migrating over our towns and cities, and you can hear this reflected in Starlings songs, if you can pick out the mimicry. See if you can pick out the Curlew mimicry in this recording (as well as the mimicry of the screaming children! Not as sinister as it sounds, I promise…) or for some lovely Buzzard mimicry, have a listen here

By mid March, we can let the floodgates open! Now, at last, we can finally start talking about our returning spring migrants. We’re beginning to see the first of the earlier arriving species in Scotland, and we may even be able to raise the excitement levels beyond ‘mild anticipation’!

Usually by mid March there have already been several reports of Chiffchaff in song in Scotland. It’s hard to know whether these birds are genuine newly arriving migrants, or perhaps birds that have wintered not too far away. It’s still early for Chiffchaff, and they are becoming more numerous as a wintering bird in Scotland – but some of these reports could refer to the first vanguard of arrivals. Keep an ear out for their obvious ‘chiff chaff chiff chaff’ song, or their ‘hweet’ call, and enjoy the brief few weeks before you need to start separating them from Willow Warblers! With the weather the way it is, eastern coasts might get the bulk of the new birds first – generally the western half of the country gets this species first, but perhaps the wind will up the odds on the east coast.

Something else much more likely in numbers on the western side of the country is the White Wagtail. This is the ‘continental’ version of our own Pied Wagtail, and it migrates through (mainly) western Scotland en route towards its breeding grounds in Iceland. It has quite a prolonged passage period but is traditionally one of the earliest migrants we see passing through Scotland, and mid March tends to be when we start seeing them. They can be quite tricky to separate from female Pied Wagtails, but look out for lovely neat, crips, pale backed and crucially, pale rumped birds among the Pieds. Cleaner white flanks can be another good indicator. If you’re in Western Scotland and start seeing more wagtails feeding on shorelines, seaweed, coastal golf courses etc, there’s a good chance that some of these birds will be involved. They do occasionally stay on to breed, most often in the northern isles, so do keep an eye out for lingering birds too.

There will be other migrants to be aware of too. Scotland’s first Sandwich Terns will have arrived, a Sand Martin or two isn’t out of the question, and we may get the odd Wheatear arriving as well. However, for the last species we’ll look at a slightly longer shot. Mid March can be a good time for Black Redstarts to arrive – especially on eastern and northern coasts. They tend to like derelict buildings,  harbours, rocky shores, and for some reason, coastal allotments! So, if you’re out planting carrots, or whatever it is that gardeners do at this time of the year, keep an eye out for the distinctive combination of smoky grey with a rusty red tail.

Let’s think about things we might see walking or hopping around in the grass (without forgetting the aforementioned White Wagtail, too). One of the most popular early arrivals is that of the Wheatear, a pretty and charismatic little thing, and one of the most remarkable migrants on earth. Birds that breed in Scotland will have started arriving already, like other species, in western areas first. Later in the year we see the peak passage of Wheatears that will use Scotland as a stepping stone towards higher latitude breeding grounds, such as Iceland, Greenland, or even Canada’s Atlantic coast. These birds will potentially make a non-stop transatlantic crossing on their return in Autumn, which is not bad for a 20 - 25 gram bird. But that’s not even the most impressive thing they do! Wheatears breeding in Alaska winter in Sub Saharan Africa, a journey of around 15,000 km. It takes them up to three months to do this, meaning they spend half of every year migrating, covering a distance that would comfortably take them once around the globe. Remarkable.

Also on the move are Lapwings, Curlews, and Oystercatchers. These tend to be the first wader species that we see migrating, or whose numbers build up first at preferred staging grounds. The simple reason for this is that they are (relatively) lowland and low latitude breeders. The door is open to them long before it is open to high altitude specialist such as Dotterel, or high Arctic breeders such as Sanderling or Turnstone. Look out for gatherings of all three species at wetlands, or even in fields for Curlew and Lapwing. Counts of staging waders are just the sort of thing that your local recorder would be interested in – as are breeding behaviours for any wader species.

Finally, something perhaps a little more esoteric. Rock Pipits are not really considered as migrants in the same way as Swallows, Willow Warblers and Wheatears. However, Scandinavian breeding Rock Pipits spend the winter further south and west in Europe, including many in the UK. During the winter they are generally considered to be inseparable from their resident relatives, but in the spring they can acquire colours that a British Rock Pipit could only dream of. They can be variable, but look out for rock pipits that look paler, a lovely grey/blue colour on the back, and have a pinkish wash to the throat. Birders refer to these as ‘littoralis’ (that’s the name of the Scandinavian/eastern subspecies) and enjoy the challenge of finding or picking out this subtly pretty, under the radar migrant. It doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of the Wheatears accomplishments, but it’s just the sort of thing your Local Bird Recorder would welcome records of.

 While much of the focus is on the species that arrive from African or southern European wintering grounds at this time of year, there are all sorts of other birds moving around. These may be more local movements, but they are still migrations, and of course will still mean turnover and arrivals of birds wherever you do your birding. One little studied aspect of bird migration is the northward passage of corvids (crows etc) in the early spring.

This becomes most apparent in places where certain species don’t occur (for example, when you look at April occurrences of Rooks in the northern isles away from the places where they usually occur) but it can also be seen over much more of Scotland. On my little golf-course-next-the-sea here in Aberdeen, I’ll be looking out for sudden increases of crows (Where I usually see a handful of crows, at this time of year I sometimes see larger groups of 20 to 30 birds) – or, high flying flocks of birds heading purposefully northwards. Another big giveaway is when these groups have lovely, pure, hooded crows among them, where these birds are not normally found. I love seeing these movements, as they serve as reminders that very few birds are completely sedentary, and as such, anything can happen!

Anything can happen, but what about those good old reliable things that almost certainly will. Soon, we will find ourselves serenaded by the song of the Willow Warbler. The first birds will be arriving in Scotland at the very end of March (in Western areas first), with the males usually arriving before the females in a race to establish territories. The wonderful thing about Willow Warbler territories is that they mean Willow Warbler song. Nightingales, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes might be more technically adept, but for me there is no song more beautiful than that of this little green visitor. It fills me with nostalgia, hope, and the anticipation of the spring ahead, and sounds an awful lot better than it looks! See what it makes you feel here

For those interested in seeing something a little rarer, late March can be good for Garganey. They could turn up anywhere wet really – lurking around the edges of a large loch, hiding in a reedbed, or swimming around in the open in a flooded field – I guess they will take what they can find! They are rare breeding species in Scotland but do breed every year – so should you find Garganey in suitable breeding habitat, or displaying, do consider whether it would be wise to publicize the location – but also, please pass details on to your local recorder.