Where do birds go in winter?

In the autumn months, millions of migrant birds leave the British Isles before winter sets in – but where do they go?

Roseate tern
As the days get shorter, millions of birds take flight and leave the UK ahead of winter.
Here’s our guide to some of the more impressive bird migration routes, from swallows and swifts to Arctic terns.

Black cap

Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)
Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) ©Getty

This common warbler is a short-range migrant that winters in southern Spain and Morocco. But in recent years, breeders from Germany and Austria have been flying west to spend the winter with us in Britain, and these birds often visit garden feeders.



an osprey flying overhead with full eye contact and great feather detail
An osprey flying overhead ©Getty

 Now thriving in Britain, these fish-eating raptors make a leisurely migration to the coasts of West Africa. Tourists visiting Gambia or Senegal for some winter sun might well see Scottish ospreys fishing along the beach.



Common cuckoo male in flight against blue sky.
Common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) male ©Getty

Adult cuckoos don’t have to rear their young so leave Britain as early as June, with the juveniles following in autumn. They head to the forests of central Africa via three routes, crossing the Mediterranean at Gibraltar, the Balearic Islands or Italy.



Common Swift (Apus apus) in flight Wirral Merseyside UK July52042
Common Swift (Apus apus) ©Getty

Young swifts that fledge in Britain will be entirely airborne for the next two or three years – feeding, drinking and sleeping on the wing. They head to tropical skies over central and south-west Africa, before finally returning to breed. 



Atlantic Puffin in flight
Atlantic Puffin in flight ©Getty

What puffins did in winter was a mystery until recently. By tagging these tough little members of the auk family with geolocators, scientists have shown that they head far out to sea, braving several months in the stormy North Atlantic.



Swallow, Hirundo rustica
Swallow (Hirundo rustic) ©Getty

Until the 19th century, many people still thought swallows hibernated in mud at the bottom of ponds. We now know they migrate to South Africa, a trip of up to 9,500km. Most cross the fearsome Sahara Desert, while others skirt around it.



Male Common Whitethroat (Mannetje Grasmus) in song flight
Male common whitethroat (Mannetje Grasmus) in song flight ©Getty

In the weeks before it migrates, this hedgerow warbler switches from insects to sugary berries to rapidly put on weight as fuel. It spends the winter in the arid, scrubby region known as the Sahel, to the south of the Sahara.


Arctic tern

Arctic tern in flight
Arctic tern in flight ©Getty

Nicknamed ‘sea swallows’, these graceful, long-winged seabirds are true globetrotters. They swap our northern winter for the permanent daylight of the Antarctic summer, looping around the Atlantic Ocean to get there in an epic journey up to 35,000km long.

Bird migration routes map

Where do birds go in winter map

Words: Ben Hoare


Main image: ©Getty