As the temperature drops precipitously and their homelands begin to freeze over each year, flocks of birds all across the world begin their annual journey to more temperate climes. With only a few exceptions, these birds travel between the same breeding grounds and feeding grounds, from summer to winter. By the time summer begins to give way to winter, most of the breeding and chick-rearing is done for the year, and it is time for our winter migrants to head back to their home ranges. The birds usually continue to feed till the weather is just right, and the tailwind becomes favourable – after all, they have long distances to traverse! Some, like the Arctic Tern, are record-setting migrants, and make the longest known annual migration – a journey of 96,000 kilometres, from England to Antarctica. That’s a distance that would take you around the world, twice!

For a short time each year, parts of the Indian subcontinent become refuges for these birds – in some cases, it’s the marshy wetlands and low-lying lakes; in others, it’s coastal areas. In India, as in other parts of the world, we are beginning to see migrant species affected by changes in climate and habitat – the Siberian Crane, once India’s most famous winter migrant, hasn’t been spotted back here for a few years. But there are still many wonderful migrant birds to look out for before the winter is over. Here’s our handy guide to 14 of them. 

’Tis certainly the season – happy birding! 

Bar-headed Goose (Anser indicus)

IUCN Status: Least Concern

There’s the BFG, the Big Friendly Giant that Roald Dahl introduced us to. And then there’s the BHG, the Bar-headed Goose, which is just as spectacular and has earned its own stars and ‘stripes’. The highest flying birds in the world, Bar-headed Geese have adapted their physiology over time to support these high-altitude migrations, allowing them to use oxygen more efficiently in thin air.  

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Bar-headed Geese are the highest flying birds in the world – they fly higher than your average airplane, upto 23,000 feet (7000 metres) above sea level.  Photograph: Ganesh Jayaraman

The migration story: These geese breed in large colonies across Central Asia’s high-altitude lakes, including in Ladakh. They then fly across the Himalayas in the winter, to get to their favoured winter habitat – fields of rice, barley and wheat, ranging from Assam in the north-east to Tamil Nadu in the south. 

Pro-tip for birders: BHGs are one of the more common winter visitors to India, and can be spotted in Keoladeo National Park (Rajasthan), in and around Najafgarh (Delhi-NCR), Tal Chhapar (Rajasthan), Little Rann of Kutch (Gujarat), Chilika Lake (Odisha) and Magadi Lake (Karnataka). 

Demoiselle Crane (Grus virgo)

IUCN Status: Least Concern

These high fliers are the smallest species of crane. North India recognises the beauty and grace of these slender creatures – their local Hindi name ‘koonj’ refers to women as well. In ancient India, armies would study and emulate the formations that these cranes fly in.

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These migratory birds can withstand a variety of environments, including the deserts of Rajasthan. Photograph: Ganesh Jayaraman

The migration story: Demoiselle Cranes face some of the toughest migration challenges in the world. Despite the availability of lower-altitude routes, these birds are hardwired to make the treacherous journey over the Himalayas each year between August and September. Birds that breed in other parts of Asia, Mongolia and China head southwards to the Indian subcontinent to spend their winters. 

Pro-tip for birders: Go to the village of Khichan in Rajasthan, where local communities greet these birds when they arrive, often in gigantic flocks of thousands. Throughout the winter, the cranes are fed grains twice a day in what has become one of the largest winter congregations of these birds in India. As bird-lovers, our first instinct is to just let the birds be, but in Khichan, this tradition has roots in the ancient Jain principle of providing food to animals.

Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica)

IUCN Status: Least Concern

Bluethroats are small, brightly coloured, insectivorous birds, now considered part of the Old World flycatcher family, Muscicapidae. Even though the word ‘bluethroat’ would translate into ‘neelkanth’ in Hindi, that name goes to the Indian Roller or Blue Jay (Coracias benghalensis) instead. 

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Typical of chats, Bluethroats love to sing, and are excellent mimics who can give any parrot or songbird a run for their money.  Photograph: David Raju

The migration story: Since these birds are so small, they can’t really withstand the cold winter of Europe and Alaska. So as it starts to become cold, they head southwards. Bluethroats are known to winter in north Africa and the western part of the Indian subcontinent. They often travel as far as the Maldives for a warmer winter. They then head back in April as mating season approaches.  

Pro-tip for birders: Summer visitors to the northwest Himalayas, these birds are widespread in the winter as well, and can be found among scrub and tall grasses, especially in Gujarat and Rajasthan. 

Kashmir Flycatcher (Ficedula subrubra)

IUCN Status: Vulnerable

Endemic to the indian subcontinent, the Kashmir Flycatcher is an insectivorous bird. Unfortunately, it is estimated that less than 10,000 individuals remain today; habitat degradation has taken a toll on their population.

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The call of the Kashmir Flycatcher is similar to that of the Indian Robin; it can be heard calling out ‘sweet-sweet-tit-tee’ as it forages in scrub vegetation looking for insects. Photograph: Aggal Sivalingam

The migration story: These flycatchers migrate from the north-west Himalayas to the Western Ghats, breeding where few other birds will go – the mixed deciduous forests of Kashmir. They then migrate to Sri Lanka and the Western Ghats in southern India. 

Pro-tip for birders: Recently, Kashmir Flycatchers have been spotted near Kotagiri in the Nilgiris, Ooty in Tamil Nadu and Bengaluru in Karnataka.  

Common Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

IUCN Status: Least Concern

Common starlings are known to be really good at adaptation, and adapt to conditions in the wild as easily as they adapt to life among humans. They’re gregarious and noisy, and have been known to spread quickly across regions – in north America, a hundred starlings were introduced in 1890. Over the century, they’ve grown to over a million!

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Common Starlings are great imitators – they can imitate the calls of up to 20 different bird species, as well other natural and artificial sounds. Photograph of a juvenile Common Starling courtesy Flickr user Ingrid Taylar under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The migration story: Found in almost all of the world’s biogeographic regions (except the Neotropics and Antarctica), these medium-sized passerine birds are native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa, but are commonly spotted in north India during the winters.  

Pro-tip for birders: These birds can be seen across the plains of northern India, and occasionally stray south up to Gujarat. A few key sites are the Dhanauri wetlands in Noida, Najafgarh Jheel in Delhi, Jodhpur in Rajasthan and Nal Sarovar in Gujarat. 

Eurasian Wigeon (Mareca penelope)

IUCN Status: Least Concern

Eurasian Wigeons flock to wetlands in the winter – they prefer shallow freshwater marshes, lakes with mud or silt bottoms, slow-moving streams, meadow shorelines and areas with scattered trees, where they can find the aquatic plants and grasses they prefer eating. Eurasian Wigeons belong to the dabbling duck genus Mareca. Unlike diving ducks, they practice surface feeding – they feed by tipping headfirst into the water, instead of diving into it.  

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These russet-coloured birds are seasonally monogamous – around late autumn, they search for mates that can accompany them over the winter season. Photograph: Ganesh Jayaraman

The migration story: Eurasian Wigeons journey from Europe to the wetlands of west and north India. They are known for their wide range – they breed in Iceland, the British Isles, northern Europe, southern Russia and Japan, and then winter in the eastern Atlantic islands, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Malay Peninsula, southern China, the Philippines, and India.

Pro-tip for birders: There is a good chance of spotting them around November-January, especially at the Thol Wildlife Sanctuary in Gujarat, and around Yamuna Biodiversity Park/Hauz Khas/Rajghat in Delhi-NCR.

Northern Pintail (Anas acuta)

IUCN Status: Least Concern

Perhaps one of the easier winter migrants to come across in north India, these large ducks are a gregarious lot. They can be identified easily because of their slender, graceful shape – whether in the water or in flight. 

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Pintails get their name from their pointed tail feathers, especially distinctive in males. Photograph: Ganesh Jayaraman

The migration story: The journey of the Northern Pintail starts in Siberia and China. They breed in north Europe, Asia and North America, and winter in and around lakes, reservoirs and marshes of north India.

Pro-tip for birders: This species is often spotted in Odisha’s Chilika Lake and the adjacent Mangalajodi. You’ll find them around lakes, marshes and flooded paddy fields, where they roost in the day and forage at night.  

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

IUCN Status: Least Concern

Found almost everywhere except New Zealand, Peregrine Falcons are the world’s most widespread raptor. They pair for life, and are also the fastest bird on record. While hunting, they can dive to speeds of more than 320 kilometres per hour! The Peregrine Falcon has historically been prized in many ancient and modern empires – falconry is one of the oldest and most respected sports. 

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As with most birds of prey, Peregrine Falcons also display reversed sexual dimorphism, with females a little larger than males. Photograph: Ganesh Jayaraman

The migration story: Even though these raptors are found across the globe, not all the subspecies migrate. The ones that do, migrate across phenomenal distances. Peregrine Falcons the world over are now beginning to show love for cities – nesting in high towers, because of the abundance of prey in the form of pigeons.

Pro-tip for birders: So far, little is known about raptors migrating to India. Peregrine Falcons have been spotted all over the country – right from Delhi’s Asola Bhatti to the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat to the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka. 

Black Baza (Aviceda leuphotes)

IUCN Status: Least Concern

This is a small-sized bird of prey, many populations of which are migratory. It is usually hard to spot, but migrations are a good time for sighting. Black Bazas are often found in small groups, in dense forest patches in the eastern Himalayas, China and Southeast Asia.

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The Black Baza seems to enjoy spending time perching on bare branches of tall trees above the forest canopy. Photograph: Ganesh Jayaraman

The migration story: These raptors breed in north India, and winter in the south of the Indian Peninsula and Sri Lanka.

Pro-tip for birders: There are regular reports of sightings of the Black Baza from southern India in the winter, mainly around Bhimashankar, Karnataka and Pondicherry. There have been a few stray occurrences in or near metropolitan areas such as the Guindy National Park in Chennai, Point Calimere in Thanjavur, Trivandrum and Bengaluru. 

Spotted Redshank (Tringa erythropus)

IUCN Status: Least Concern

These medium-sized arctic waders, found across the Arctic Circle, are quite tiny, because of which they prefer moderate temperatures and tropical conditions. India’s monsoons are perfect for them. Female Spotted Redshanks begin the journey south in June, followed by males in July and juveniles from August to September. 

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India’s wet coniferous forests make a good site for the nests of the Spotted Redshank. Photograph: Ganesh Jayaraman

The migration story: Spotted Redshanks have a pretty interesting journey to make, from Scandinavia to Haryana. After laying their eggs, the females leave India to return to Scandinavia while the young ones hatch in India and are taken care of by the males.

Pro-tip for birders: From November onwards, they can be spotted in the wet, marshy areas of Haryana and Mangalajodi in Odisha. In the summers, they are in full breeding plumage – black all over – but in winter, they are very pale.

Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica)

IUCN Status: Near Threatened

Bar-tailed Godwits differ from their leaner cousins, the Black-tailed Godwits, in the colour of their tails (as the name would suggest) and their shorter, more upturned bills. These short-legged waders have been known to undertake the longest non-stop flight of any bird, flying over 11,000 kilometres in just under nine days. Unlike many other migratory birds, the Bar-tailed Godwit is able to fly on extremely low energy reserves, and doesn’t stop till it reaches its destination.  

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According to scientists who’ve studied this record-setting flier, the Bar-tailed Godwit’s abilities surpass those of any manmade aircraft. Photograph: Ganesh Jayaraman

The migration story: After spending their summers in Iceland or Russia, Bar-tailed Godwits head to lowland wet grasslands along the Indian coastline for a good 4-5 months. 

Pro-tip for birders: This species really enjoys muddy waters, and can often be found probing the mud with their bill, looking for insects and frogspawn in estuaries, lagoons and saltpans. Head out to the beaches of Maharashtra or to the coastal areas around Mundra and Mandvi in Kutch, Gujarat to see them.

Sociable Lapwing (Vanellus gregarius)

IUCN Status: Critically Endangered

True to its name, this is one gregarious wader. Since the Sociable Lapwing feeds by picking the ground for insects, it prefers being in grasslands and ploughed fields. Between 1960 and 1987, populations of the Sociable Lapwing suddenly took a turn for the worse – reducing by almost half – for reasons that are still poorly understood. However, with the discovery of a wintering site of 1500 birds in Syria and a superflock of 3200 individuals in Turkey in 2007, the species could potentially be downlisted from Critically Endangered to Endangered.  

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Flocks of several thousand birds gather before they take off to their wintering grounds, but the migration itself occurs in small groups of 15 to 20 individuals. Photograph: Ganesh Jayaraman

The migration story: They breed in open grasslands in Russia and Kazakhstan, and then migrate to their wintering grounds in in Israel, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and north-west India.

Pro-tip for birders: In the winters, the otherwise distinct head pattern of a crown and eyestripe becomes lesser distinct, but you should be able to recognise them by their harsh ‘kereck’. Key wintering sites for these plovers are Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand, Valmiki Tiger Reserve and Saraiyaman Lake in Bihar, Karera Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, Okhla Bird Sanctuary in Delhi-NCR, Flamingo City in Gujarat, the Greater and the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat and Keoladeo National Park in Rajasthan. 

Ruffs (Philomachus pugnax)

IUCN Status: Least Concern

These Old World birds of the sandpiper subfamily are known for their huge flocks – like a number of other migrants on this list, ruffs love company, too. The largest ever flock – numbering around a million – was reportedly spotted in Senegal. Females are known as ‘reeves’ but the males are named after the frilly tufts on their necks – ‘ruffs’. These tufts range from shades of black and reddish brown to white and speckled. However, these hues are only for courtship season. In the winters, ruffs are about as plain and grayish brown as the reeves are. 

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Ruffs are sneaky. They’ve been known to change colour and pose as females to beat the competition! Photograph: Ganesh Jayaraman

The migration story: Ruffs breed in Eurasia, and have been known to nest in Alaska as well. They winter mainly in Africa, but some Ruffs also winter in western Europe, in the Middle East and in coastal areas in India and Sri Lanka. They can be found around wet meadows, muddy fringes of pools and lakes, and brackish coastal lagoons. 

Pro-tip for birders: Head to Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary, Gujarat to spot these birds in their winter home, or Mangalajodi in Odisha. You should be able to spot large flocks around wetlands and marshy areas in many other areas, especially Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. They usually fly low and display rapid wing movements. 

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

IUCN Status: Near Threatened

This widespread winter visitor to the coastal regions of India does eat oysters, like its name suggests, but it also enjoys worms, crabs and cockles. Plover-like with black and white plumage, these birds have very distinct red beaks which they use for prising open oysters, smashing molluscs or finding earthworms. 

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These gorgeous migrants to India are the national bird of the Faroe Islands, (in)famous for the mass slaughter of pilot whales. Photograph: Ganesh Jayaraman

The migration story: They have a wide range, and breed across Iceland, Scandinavia, Russia, UK and France, to mention just a few countries in their range. In India, they can be found in Gujarat, Odisha, West Bengal, Tripura and Mizoram. 

Pro-tip for birders: Head to the beaches of Amala or Akshi in Maharashtra, and Jamnagar or Narara in Gujarat to spot these birds, which are an important indicator species signalling the health of the ecosystems they inhabit.