Guernsey, a magnet for migrating birds and a haven for breeding species
Birdwatching in the Bailiwick of Guernsey is an increasingly popular pastime with over 200 species recorded on the islands each year. The types of birds present varies considerably with the seasons but there is always something of interest to see.
The islands come into their own during migration season, when many birds stop off en route to rest and there is always the chance of bumping into a long-distant vagrant or rarity. Spring migration starts very early here, being so far south, and even in early March the first Wheatears arrive on the beaches and cliffs. As spring progresses, the number of migrating species that stop off on the islands to refuel increases and there are many days that the islands are littered with warblers, chats, flycatchers and the like. If there is a southerly or easterly breeze there is the chance of something much rarer and recent spring sightings have included Iberian Chiffchaff, Alpine Swift, Bonelli’s Warbler, Bluethroat and Arctic Redpoll.
Approximately 80 species breed on the islands in a typical year which, although not a huge number, includes some rarer species. Despite the small size of the islands, there is quite a variety of habitats, from the high sea cliffs and wooded valleys of Guernsey’s south coast, to the low beaches, dunes, commons and marshes in the north. Due to the proximity of the French mainland there is a continental flavour to the local avifauna, especially with the Short-toed Treecreeper breeding quite commonly, a species that does not occur in the UK. Dartford Warblers are present breeding in the gorse in varying numbers, Little Egrets nest in a colony near to Herm and there are regular visits by singing Golden Orioles in the valleys. Even the rare Fan-tailed Warbler has nested a few times in recent years.
The species which breed on the Guernsey is changing rapidly. For example we have lost Mistle Thrush and Skylark but we have gained Great Spotted Woodpecker and Firecrest. One group that are doing well are the birds of prey, with Marsh Harriers, Buzzards and Peregrines all common sights soaring over the island. Seabirds have always been of great interest around the Bailiwick, especially around Alderney where you can take a boat to view the few thousand Gannets on their colonies at Les Etacs and Ortac. The more secretive Storm Petrels still best in crevices on nearby Burhou. Smaller numbers of seabirds breed around the southern islands but Fulmars are quite common on the south cliffs of Guernsey and Razorbills, Puffins and Guillemots are easily seen off Herm and Sark, and these islands are easily reached by boat trips from St. Peter Port.
During the summer, birds are already moving south away from their breeding grounds further north. Along any of the beaches and on the marshy pools, different species of waders can be observed resting and feeding. The seas offshore sometimes hold large flocks of summering shearwaters, including the globally threatened Balearic Shearwater which can number up to a thousand individuals. If there is a suitable northerly wind direction, looking out from the northern headlands one can observe seabirds passing the islands heading south including skuas, terns, gulls and shearwaters.
As August passes the migrant landbirds start moving through and the island can be swamped with migrants in suitable conditions right up until mid-November. Go to any of the headlands in the autumn and you may come across a rarity in amongst the more common species. A regular rare species in mid-August is the Aquatic Warbler which is sometimes trapped for ringing in the reedbeds. September and October ar probably the peak months for interesting migrants and one may see good numbers of warblers, finches, thrushes, waders, seabirds or birds of prey depending on the conditions. Uncommon species that the islands seem to attract regularly include Rose-coloured Starling, Short-toed Lark, Lapland Bunting, Melodious and Yellow-browed Warblers. In the last few years, some big rarities have been discovered including Penduline Tit, Pallid Swift, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Blyth’s Reed Warbler.
As autumn turns to winter, the number of birds on the islands decreases. Various divers and grebes can be found fishing in the bays but it is a quiet time of year. However, this is dependent on the weather. If there is a cold snap there may be an influx of hundreds of birds of thrushes, or plovers or gulls. Even in winter a surprising extreme rarity may appear such as the Little Swift and the Royal Tern that have been found recently.
You may bump into good birds at any place on Guernsey but it is a large enough island that one needs to focus effort at certain good locations. For land migrants, the extreme headlands like Pleinmont, Jerbourg, Icart or Fort Doyle are great, and if the tide is low enough, a trek across the causeway to Lihou Island may be worthwhile. Waders and waterbirds can be seen from hides at Claire Mare, Grand Pre and Rue des Bergers nature reserves. Woodland birds are best observed in the valleys such as Fauxquets, Talbot and Petit Bot as well as the larger parks such as Saumarez. Especially in autumn, the higher parts of the island have excellent fields to check for migrants, especially at Pleinmont where a few fields have been specifically planted for seeds for food. Seawatching generally occurs at Jaonneuse on the northern tip of Guernsey. The smaller islands have a similar selection of habitats but due to their smaller size can be covered less selectively. Herm Common is the best and quietest grassland area and the cliffs of Sark can give great views of seabirds. Alderney’s interest is focussed on the Longis Common area where there is a nature reserve and a bird observatory. The main thing to remember though is that birds can be seen anywhere on the island and if you keep a close eye out, you may see something amazing.
‘The latest Guernsey Bird List, compiled by the Island Recorder, Mark Lawlor, can be viewed or downloaded here.