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Welcoming our Winged Summer Migrants

Most of us think of migrant birds as those that visit our shores in the winter months, to avoid harsher winters in their resident countries. In the summer months, when these winter visitors have left for home, we welcome several other species of birds that come to the UK to rear their young. Many of these birds travel from Africa, making this impressive trip to take advantage of our longer summer daylight hours, our abundance of insects in the spring and summer (ideal chick-fodder!) as well as the UK’s fewer predators.  There’s a good chance of coming across some of these summer visitors whilst out on your iFootpath rambles. Here are a few of our favourites to look and listen out for…


The Cuckoo is perhaps one of our best-known summer migrant birds and many people still associate the call of the first Cuckoo with the true arrival spring. The name is taken from its unmistakable call of Cuck – kooo. They travel from Africa, crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean before heading up through Europe, and they can be seen (or more likely heard) across most of the UK. Sadly, the Cuckoo is one of the most threatened species of birds and is on the Red List to reflect this, so the chances of hearing the classic Cuck-kooo call is reducing too.  Instead of building their own nest, Cuckoos use the nests of other birds, such as dunnocks, reed warblers and meadow pipits. The female Cuckoo removes one of the nest eggs and lays her own egg in its place. The young Cuckoo hatches after only 12 days and quickly pushes the original eggs or babies out of the nest, then receives all the food and attention from the unsuspecting foster parents. Adult Cuckoos are among the earliest of our summer visitors to leave, most leaving the UK during July, and the young Cuckoos leave about one month later, when they are fully fledged.

swallow longSwallows and Swifts make an equally impressive journey from Africa every year, travelling across the Sahara, Morocco, the Pyrenees and France to reach our shores; often covering 200 miles per day. The rules on telling them apart are quite straightforward. Swifts are almost completely black with just a small white patch on their chins. They are true birds of the sky and, aside from sitting on their nests, spend almost their entire lives on the wing. In contrast, Swallows are known for their long forked tail, red throat, white belly and blue-tinged feathers. You are most likely to spot Swifts flying high in the sky, making their distinctive screaming calls, and most likely to spot Swallows either perching on telephone wires or chasing insects across fields and water. Numbers of Swallows and Swifts are noticeably lower so far for 2018, so keep your eyes peeled.

The Nightingale is another bird that appears in plenty of cultural references in the UK, most notably in the famous song, The Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. This just goes to show how common the Nightingale song once was, but now it is a rare treat. Nightingale numbers have declined by around 91% in the last 40 years, a startling and horrifying statistic. The remaining Nightingales arrive from Sub-Saharan Africa anytime from April and can remain in the UK until September. To the eye, they are unassuming small brown birds (about robin-size) and you are unlikely to see one as they are shy and like to hide in thick bushes. To the ear, however, they are unforgettable and if you have the pleasure of a song rendition, you will never forget it. They sing both day and night, a sweet song with a fast succession of high, low and rich notes that few other species can match. In the UK they breed mainly in the south and east, with the highest densities found in Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Kent and Sussex. My parents were lucky enough to have two evening renditions this June in their garden in North Lincolnshire. Tap the listen button to share this glorious experience…


spotted flycatcherThe Spotted Flycatcher is part of the family of birds that can be dismissed as small and brown at first glance. What makes this bird particularly special, is its fly-catching ability. They fly from a perch, dash out to grab a flying insect and then return to the same perch. Their diet consists of a wide range of flying insects including moths, butterflies, damselflies and craneflies. Arriving from Africa, during the summer breeding season of May to October they can be found throughout the UK. Spotted Flycatchers are often found in woodland with open glades but churchyards, cemeteries, parks and mature gardens are good places to see them too.

yellow wagtail squareThe Yellow Wagtail is a bird that really lives up to its name, being easily recognised from its yellow plumage and its long tail that is flicks as it walks or runs along the ground. These birds visit the UK from Africa for their breeding season of April to October. They breed in a variety of habitats in the UK, including arable farmland, wet pastures and upland hay meadows. Serious declines in breeding numbers across all of these habitats place the Yellow Wagtail on the Red List of birds of conservation concern.

You may have noticed two recurring themes here – the journeys from Africa and the declining numbers of these beautiful birds. If you would like to find out more about the plight of these birds and how you can help with programmes to reverse the worrying trends, then check out the RSPB Birds Without Borders appeal. A video fronted by Chris Packham will tell you everything you need to know and is well worth the watch…

(All images courtesy of RSPB)

11 June 2018
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