Tracking one of nature's great wonders

BirdWatch Ireland calls on public to track four species of fowl during Spring Alive campaign. By Niall Hatch.

Bird migration is one of the great wonders of the natural world.  We still don’t fully understand how migratory birds know where to go or how they navigate, but we do at least understand why they need to do it.  It’s all about finding the right kind of food.  For example, birds such as Swallows and House Martins, which are familiar summer migrants to Ireland and the rest of Europe, have a highly specialised diet: they eat flying insects, and only flying insects.

In winter, the temperature in most of Europe is too cold to support a big enough population of these insects, so the birds that rely on them have no choice but to move to where the warm summer weather is, hence the mass exodus to the southern hemisphere.

(Photo by Oran O'Sullivan)

On the other hand, birds that eat a more varied diet can often find enough food to sustain them here year-round.  A good example would be the Robin, which eats a combination of worms, caterpillars, flies, berries, seeds and other foods.  If it is too cold to catch insects, it can switch to fruit, for example, and can therefore avoid the stresses and exertions of a long migration.

Migration is not just a summer phenomenon.  In winter, many ducks, geese and wading birds flock to Ireland in their thousands from their high Arctic breeding grounds to escape the dark, freezing conditions that will prevent them feeding.  Ireland’s geographic location makes it a real migratory crossroads, with visitors coming and going to and from Canada, Greenland, Siberia, Africa and Scandinavia, and the seasonal changes in our bird populations can be quite remarkable.

Many different types of bird migrate to Ireland for the summer.  It is important for BirdWatch Ireland to keep track of when they arrive so that we can see if problems such as climate change and pollution are affecting them.  This is easier said than done, however.

CuckooThis is where Spring Alive comes in.  All across Europe, BirdWatch Ireland and its BirdLife International partners are asking the public to tell us when their birds arrive back for the summer.  It’s very easy for Politico readers to take part too: we are looking for your help in tracking three of the best known migrants, the Swallow, Swift and Cuckoo, plus another one called the White Stork that you might see if you happen to be in central or eastern Europe.

(Photo of Cuckoo by Marcin Karetta)

When you see or hear one of these birds, you can go to the Spring Alive website,, and enter your observation.  You can also use the website to check the progress of the birds as they spread across the continent on an animated map, upload your own photos and find out anything you might want to know about the four Spring Alive species and the journeys that they make.

Of course, the story doesn’t end with the birds’ lives in Europe.  In the autumn, the four Spring Alive species will migrate southwards again, heading for Africa.  We are very excited that for the first time this year Spring Alive will follow their journeys there, too, and observers in Africa will be adding their own observations of the birds as they arrive from Europe for the southern hemisphere summer.

Niall Hatch is the development officer for BirdWatch Ireland.