Wader watch

How many waders will you see dur­ing the au­tumn?

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents -

In many wader species, the spread in the tim­ing of in­di­vid­u­als mi­grat­ing can be quite ex­tended. The ear­li­est to move are failed breed­ing adults. They have ei­ther not nested or their at­tempts have been thwarted by pre­da­tion, af­ter which they gave up. If pre­da­tion hap­pens when the eggs are in the nest, they may try again, but loss of chicks usu­ally means the end of the sea­son for them.

The ear­li­est suc­cess­ful nesters will then move and, in most species, the fe­males, males and ju­ve­niles will travel at dif­fer­ent times, also ex­tend­ing the sea­son. Lastly, the late nesters and those which have had a sec­ond brood af­ter a failed at­tempt ap­pear. Weather con­di­tions and food sup­plies can also de­lay birds de­part­ing on mi­gra­tion. Our sum­mer vis­i­tors are gath­er­ing to move south if they haven’t al­ready de­parted. It is also the time when some of our win­ter­ing vis­i­tors start to ap­pear.

Jack Snipe

Very small

Dis­tinc­tive head pat­tern and stripes on back

Of­ten bobs up and down rhyth­mi­cally

‘Jack’ in a bird’s name means small; Whim­brels were of­ten called Jack Curlews in the past. Jack Snipe fit this theme very well, as they are tiny. Be­ing small and cryp­ti­cally cam­ou­flaged, they can be very hard to find. Some­times you can be within feet of one be­fore it will rise up and star­tle you. Un­like the Snipe, how­ever, it will usu­ally rise silently and have a di­rect flight, of­ten only over a short dis­tance. It does have a pe­cu­liar habit, though, that can give it away, and that is the rhyth­mic bobbing mo­tion it makes when stand­ing or walk­ing. Com­pared with the Snipe it is much smaller and the bill and legs shorter. It also has a dis­tinc­tive Grou­cho Marx eye­brow cre­ated by a dou­ble su­per­cil­ium which is lack­ing in the larger bird, which also shows a cen­tral crown stripe. The scapu­lar lines are more dis­tinc­tive and creamy-buff than in Snipe and they also have a green and pur­ple sheen to them which no other snipe shows. They feed around muddy mar­gins of reed beds and reed-fringed pools, sewage farms and other fresh­wa­ter wa­ter bod­ies. They also like salt­marshes and other boggy ar­eas with veg­e­ta­tion.


Very long bill

Dark cap with a pale cen­tral crown-stripe

Rarely in the open

This was once a more com­mon species than to­day. The dis­tinc­tive ‘drum­ming’ of ter­ri­to­rial birds is be­ing heard in fewer places as the Snipe’s breed­ing range is con­tract­ing north­wards. The Bri­tish and Ir­ish pop­u­la­tion is mainly res­i­dent, with some birds mov­ing south in the win­ter, while oth­ers re­lo­cate to dif­fer­ent ar­eas. More northerly pop­u­la­tions, how­ever, such as in Ice­land or Scan­di­navia, move south with very few re­main­ing to face the harsh, north­ern win­ter; these join our res­i­dent birds. Snipes have ex­traor­di­nar­ily long bills for the size of the body, with the fe­males hav­ing slightly longer bills than the males. They are cryp­ti­cally cam­ou­flaged and can be dif­fi­cult to see when on the ground amongst veg­e­ta­tion. If flushed they zig-zag away call­ing, a harsh, rasp­ing ‘scaap’, and may set­tle far from the spot from where they were orig­i­nally dis­turbed. They use their long bills to probe into soft mud so they are al­most al­ways found in damp ar­eas of bogs, mead­ows or the mar­gins of ponds and lakes, es­pe­cially those with muddy edges with veg­e­ta­tion. They will also visit sewage farms and, if the weather is so cold that the ground freezes, they may be en­coun­tered on coastal beaches and mud­flats.


Longish neck with a small head

Shor­tish down­curved bill

Pot-bel­lied and hunched ap­pear­ance

The spec­tac­u­lar males have now lost their court­ing colours and are al­to­gether drab­ber. Males are con­sid­er­ably larger than the fe­males due to their com­bat­ive mat­ing rit­u­als, and as a re­sult when the two sexes are side by side peo­ple of­ten think they are dif­fer­ent species. Non-breed­ing Ruffs are also very vari­able in plumage, adding to the con­fu­sion. The leg colour can vary from or­ange or yel­low­ish, when they can be con­fused with Red­shanks; to green­ish in ju­ve­niles ,when fe­males can re­sem­ble Buff-breasted Sand­pipers. Some males have or­ange bases tothe bill, so there is much room for con­fu­sion. De­spite this vari­abil­ity, they have a dis­tinc­tive shape with longish necks and small heads, short, slightly droop­ing bill and a deep-bel­lied, hunched body shape. Vir­tu­ally non-ex­is­tent as a breed­ing bird in Eng­land, it was once com­mon in the Fens be­fore they were drained. Good num­bers, how­ever, pass through the Bri­tish Isles and Europe, with a few re­main­ing to pass the win­ter, here. Usu­ally silent, they are of­ten found in large, loose flocks feed­ing ei­ther in mud or wad­ing in shal­low wa­ter. Mainly at the coast, but on mi­gra­tion can oc­cur in­land, too.


In flight, dis­tinc­tive white back and wing patches

Dis­tinc­tive call that gives its pres­ence away

Bright or­ange-red legs

Known col­lo­qui­ally as the ‘sen­tinel of the marshes’, due to its very ner­vous dis­po­si­tion, the Red­shank is usu­ally the first bird to raise the alarm at the ap­proach of peo­ple or preda­tors. Its ‘teu-hu-hu’ call, which is mostly given in flight, and a sin­gle ‘tuuu’ note add to the clas­sic sound­scape of marshes and mud­flats.

Adult birds have bright or­ange-red legs while ju­ve­niles have paler legs. The bill is or­ange at the base and dark grey to­wards the tip; again adults are brighter than ju­ve­niles. In win­ter, the Red­shank is a mainly grey-brown bird on the up­per­parts with lim­ited streak­ing and spot­ting. The un­der­parts, are pale and rel­a­tively un­marked on the belly, but fine streak­ing forms a grey band across the chest.

In all plumages the back and rump are white, form­ing a wedge shape with the point at the top of the back, and the tail is barred black and white. The wings dis­play an ob­vi­ous and dis­tinc­tive large white wedge on the trail­ing part of the wing, ow­ing to the all-white sec­on­daries and white-tipped in­ner pri­maries. Red­shanks nests in wet grasslands but in win­ter they can be found at a va­ri­ety of wet­land sites, mainly coastal, from mud­flats, es­tu­ar­ies and beaches to coastal la­goons and salt­marsh creeks.

Bar-tailed God­wit

White back and no wing-bars

Long, slightly up­turned bill Stock­ier and shorter legged than

Black-tailed God­wit

For­merly known as the May Bird by gun­ners in some parts due to its mi­gra­tion north­ward at that time of year, it also passes in good num­bers in au­tumn when head­ing south. Many win­ter in the Bri­tish Isles at es­tu­ar­ies and ar­eas with mud­flats where they will of­ten join with other species in large flocks. Con­form­ing to the clas­sic win­ter wader colour scheme of grey­ish back and paler un­der­parts these are large waders with a long, slightly up­turned bill.

Although they can of­ten be found at in­land lo­ca­tions on mi­gra­tion, they are al­most ex­clu­sively coastal in the win­ter and are most fre­quently en­coun­tered on muddy beaches and es­tu­ar­ies. They mainly for­age along the wa­ter edge fol­low­ing the tide but may also use coastal la­goons as a safe high tide roost. They main­tain con­tact with one another with a ‘kak-kak’ or ‘ kir­ruc’ call which has a bark­ing qual­ity to it. Very sim­i­lar to Black­tailed God­wit but it is shorter legged and stock­ier with a shorter bill. In flight, it shows its barred tail with a white rump and back with no ob­vi­ous wing-bars, very sim­i­lar to Whimbrel but the dif­fer­ence in the bill shape is ob­vi­ous.

Black-tailed God­wit

White wing-bars, square white rump and black-tail in flight

Tall el­e­gant wader, long straight bill

More of­ten found in fresh­wa­ter than Bar-tailed God­wit

Two sub­species of Black-tailed God­wit oc­cur in the Bri­tish Isles. Li­mosa li­mosa li­mosa was for­merly a wide­spread breeder in the Fens, be­fore drainage oc­curred, ceas­ing to breed reg­u­larly around 1830. A cen­tury later it re­turned and is now cling­ing-on in East Anglia as a breed­ing species. These birds all fly south for the win­ter to Por­tu­gal and beyond. The sub­species that can be seen in Bri­tain in the win­ter, in much larger num­bers, is L. l. is­landica, which breeds in Ice­land. They have re­cently changed their non-breed­ing range and many now re­main in the UK to over­win­ter, no longer con­tin­u­ing fur­ther south as be­fore.

They in­habit the coast like Bar-tailed God­wits and can also be found feed­ing at the tide line; but they are also to be found for­ag­ing on fresh­wa­ter and brack­ish la­goons just in­land too. Although they are very sim­i­lar to Bar-tailed God­wits, they are more el­e­gant with longer legs and a straighter bill. In flight they are im­me­di­ately recog­nis­able hav­ing very bold white wing-bars, a white rump and an all-black tail. They are soft grey-brown above and white be­low with no streaks or bar­ring. When ag­i­tated, or in flight, they ut­ter a short ‘kek’ con­tact call.

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