Monday, 22 March 2021

An Introduction to Vis-Mig Part One - Equipment



So 'Vis-Migging' what is it? The art of watching migration as it happens , counting and identifying birds as they fly overhead on their migration. It is the most enjoyable type of birding I do and if you live on the coast it gives you a great chance of finding the unexpected whilst enjoying migration. 


Vis-Migging has always been a big part of my birding life and it seems to be gaining in popularity as it loses it's status as one of the 'dark arts of birding', often seen as an impossible skill to master, people are realising it isn't! In the first part of a series on Vis-Migging coming to the Blog in 2021 we will look at how to get started and what equipment you will need. Although concise I hope it inspires people to get out and give it a go for themselves and enjoy the rewards that are out there for everybody with this style of birding. 

Happily Vis-Migging on the Cornish coast doesn't get much better for me in birding, even if I have work later it sets me off in a good mood for the rest of the day and in the course of a year produces great results. 



Learning the skills of identifying birds in flight or by sound can seem daunting at first but having the right mindset is key to enjoying this type of birding. Remember that most 'difficult' birds are far easier to identify by sound than any visual subtle field character. Just think of Meadow Pipit and Tree Pipit, two species remarkably similar in a casual view on the ground but they sound strikingly different as soon as they take flight.Some larger birds are often much easier to identify in flight once we learn their distinctive flight style or jizz (such as raptors) or need the specific wing pattern detail of a large gull, the possible Caspian Gull picture posted online as it roosts on a large lake will often get the response ' do you have a flight shot', 'We would need a photo of the bird in flight to be certain' by the experts. Finally in Vis-Mig birds come to you and a patient birder with an hour to spare may be better off standing still and waiting than rushing around their local patch when they know deep down they aren't doing it justice.  

So lets look at the equipment we need to get started with Vis-migging and also a brief look at some items that will enhance your Vis-Migging. So what do we need to Vis Mig? The honest answer here is nothing special, nearly everybody will already have the tools for productive Vis-Migging and if you own a pair of binoculars and a pencil and paper you are off to a flying start. There are several other pieces of equipment you can use to enhance the experience or improve your results but none are essiential to begin with. 

Below in rough order of importance is a list of the items you may choose to use, without going into too much detail and assuming you own a pair of binoculars already. 

Pencil and Notepad: This may appear to be a little old school but having the ability to record and remember what you are seeing and hearing as it happens is so important to Vis Mig. I find counting the birds as they move overhead keeps my concentration levels up and these records will also be welcomed by local bird clubs or perhaps the BTO through their Bird Track App ( More Info on BTO Bird Track Click Here).  Any mystery birds you see or hear can be described in real time with flight styles, plumage details or even sounds onomatopeiacally written for further research later. Important features of any scarce or rare birds can be jotted down at the time before they are quickly forgetten (often sooner than you think!). Keeping these notebooks will form a valuable reference to look back on if you add dates, times and weather conditions to your records. 

Sound recording Equipment: Although it is not necessary to own sound recording equipment there are now recorders available for all budgets that will produce good results should you want to invest in one. The obvious bonus to recording what you are hearing means that mystery calls may get identified at a later date and several rarer species may need a sound recording to be identified with certainty ( such as Eastern Yellow Wagtail or famously the Paddyfield Pipit at Sennen). However it is worth remembering that there will still always be birds that are  too far away to record just like there are sometimes birds that are too distant in a telescope. Whilst I embrace the technology and possibilities that sound recording open up in the world of birding I hope that 'evidence' isn't always needed for Vis-Mig records. For birders finding their hearing isn't what it used to be, a sound recording set up with a set of headphones will reopen a world of bird sound that may once have been lost to ageing ears.Read more on recording bird sound during the day here

A sound recorder with a Shotgun Mic can be attached to your backpack and it will pick up calls overhead very well. Alternatively you can place the microphone a few paces in front of you to cut out background noise that you or fellow birders create.




 Camera: Capturing Vis-Mig through photography is a rewarding thing to do and having a decent camera to document that hoped for rarity may help the record get accepted.Like sound recording equipment it will no doubt enhance your experience but it isn't really an essential piece of equipment. A camera with a fast shutter speed such as an SLR is the best type to use if you are hoping to photograph passerines or want detailed images of raptors or gulls. Large lenses aren't always needed and a 300mm lens with extra light gathering and often faster focusing speed can be preferable. Also it's worth bearing in mind the weight around your neck if you are stood still for an hour or two when choosing your set up. For up to date Camera info & reviews Click Here

Telescope: A spotting scope set up in readiness can be handy for birds passing at greater distances or if you need to scrutinize a larger bird , I have mine set up when I Vis-Mig at certain places that have a sea view for instance as during quieter moments I can scan for seabirds or larger birds coming 'in off' the sea. Click here for South West Optics. You will get excellent service and advice from Steve Rogers


Having a scope set up certainly doesn't hurt and it will pay off with a distant raptor ID or if you have a sea view to scan in quieter times. 




Bird Sound App: Having an app on your phone with bird sounds on can be really helpful when you've just heard a call that you can't quite put a name to. It may sound similar to a normal call of a species you are used to and often listening to different recordings will unveil the mystery call. I use the Sunbird Bird Songs of Europe app which is very good and also a free app called Bird Call Xeno is very good but it does need an internet connection to work. If you are searching or learning new calls at home then Xeno Canto (Click here for Xeno Canto) has an amazing database of bird calls to search through and the Sound Approach Team do excellent articles & podcasts on the topic of bird sound.(Click here for Sound Approach official website)

 Fieldguide: A good field guide will describe the flight style and flight calls of a particular species and is an essiential part of the learning process. I would recommend the Colins Bird Guide to get started with (For a review from Birdguides Website click here). Recently a new Wildguide has been published on flight identification ' Flight Identification of European Passerines and select landbirds'  and it is thoroughly recommended by myself. In fact it is pretty groundbreaking work and has helped me sharpen up my own skills on how to describe and judge the flight styles of certain species. It also comes with an app enabling you to listen to the flight calls of all species in the book. (Click here for More info on Flight Identification of European Passerines)

Other Birders: I can hardly describe a fellow birder as a piece of equipment(!) but having extra pairs of eyes and ears scanning different parts of the sky will produce more birds for you all. Remember to keep quiet and chat in whispers as you'd be amazed at what you miss if you are too loud and not concentrating. Calling out the birds you all see and enjoying the spectacle make it a great group exercise. Finally if  you are new to Vis-migging and eager to learn calls try and get out with someone experienced, I wouldn't be anywhere near as competent with bird sounds and the ID of birds overhead had it not been spending years on end with birders more experienced than me who were happy to teach me at the time. If you live in Cornwall feel free to send us a message and we are always happy for people to join us if you are keen to give Vis- Migging a try.




In part two we will look at where and how to choose your Vis-Mig spots , weather conditions and target species for spring. 

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