The timing of annual life-history events affects survival and reproduction of all organisms. A changing environment can perturb phenological adaptations and an important question is if populations can evolve fast enough to track the environmental changes. Yet, little is known about selection and evolutionary potential of traits determining the timing of crucial annual events. Migratory species, which travel between different climatic regions, are particularly affected by global environmental changes. To increase our understanding of evolutionary potential and selection of timing traits, we investigated the quantitative genetics of arrival date at the breeding ground using a multigenerational pedigree of a natural great reed warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) population. We found significant heritability of 16.4% for arrival date and directional selection for earlier arrival in both sexes acting through reproductive success, but not through lifespan. Mean arrival date advanced with 6days over 20years, which is in exact accordance with our predicted evolutionary response based on the breeder's equation. However, this phenotypic change is unlikely to be caused by microevolution, because selection seems mainly to act on the nongenetic component of the trait. Furthermore, demographical changes could also not account for the advancing arrival date. Instead, a strong correlation between spring temperatures and population mean arrival date suggests that phenotypic plasticity best explains the advancement of arrival date in our study population. Our study dissects the evolutionary and environmental forces that shape timing traits and thereby increases knowledge of how populations cope with rapidly changing environments.