How many waders will you see during the autumn?
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.
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.
White back and no wing-bars
Long, slightly upturned bill Stockier and shorter legged than
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.
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.