Sum­mer waders

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents -

A handy guide to help you iden­tify waders on your next coastal visit

Sum­mer is the time when many bird­ers be­lieve noth­ing much is hap­pen­ing, breed­ing is mostly over and the au­tumn mi­gra­tion has yet to be­gin. But with waders, by the time July comes around many of our fa­mil­iar shore­birds are al­ready on their way back south. In many wader species the fe­males are the first to leave. Lay­ing eggs takes a lot of en­ergy so they re­pair to the coast to feed up in prepa­ra­tion for mi­gra­tion be­fore their mates. The males leave a lit­tle later when the young are more or less in­de­pen­dent, and then the ju­ve­niles leave the breed­ing grounds and gather in flocks to fly south, of­ten un­aided by adults, write Rick and Elis Simp­son of Wader Quest (waderquest.org)

Lit­tle Stint is our smallest wader. It breeds in the Arc­tic tun­dra east from Scan­di­navia. In Bri­tain, it is a bird of pas­sage and is most of­ten en­coun­tered in au­tumn, al­though some birds do over-win­ter. This species is a fine ex­am­ple to demon­strate that not all fam­i­lies of birds travel to­gether. Ju­ve­nile birds mi­grate across a much broader front than the adults and that is why, dur­ing this late sum­mer pe­riod, it is mostly ju­ve­nile Lit­tle Stints that we see. Ju­ve­niles (below) are iden­ti­fied by a prom­i­nent pair of white ‘braces’ that form a V on their backs. The head pat­tern is dis­tinc­tive, too, with a dark cen­tre to the cap and a dou­ble su­per­cil­ium. Adults are rather ru­fous and can re­tain some of that col­oration on their south­ward mi­gra­tion. How­ever they are just as likely to be ap­proach­ing win­ter plumage, which is typ­i­cally grey above and white below like so many win­ter waders. At this time look at the small size and the short straight bill to sep­a­rate it from other Bri­tish sand­pipers. Lit­tle Stints are largely silent but do make a high pitched short ‘chit’, which is of­ten over­looked, es­pe­cially when mix­ing with other species such as Dun­lin. This species is some­thing of a rar­ity. Its nor­mal breed­ing area is in North Amer­ica and part of Siberia. How­ever they have fre­quently turned up (around 50 a year, mainly Au­gust to Oc­to­ber) so are in­cluded here. Fresh­wa­ter or grass­land lo­ca­tions are pre­ferred to mud­flats and beaches but they can oc­cur any­where, hav­ing been recorded in al­most ev­ery UK county. They tend to feed fur­ther from the water’s edge on drier ar­eas with veg­e­ta­tion but can even be found around pud­dles in fields and on tracks. Usu­ally larger than Dun­lin and al­ways recog­nis­able by the streaked chest that stops abruptly in a straight line form­ing a pec­toral band, and yel­low legs. They have a white, un­marked belly and flanks. Both the ju­ve­niles and breed­ing adults show white Vs on the scapu­lars but not in win­ter plumage when they are plain brown above. In flight they have only a very faint wing bar and show a black cen­tre to the up­per­tail and rump. They have green­ish-yel­low legs and a medium length, slightly down-curved bill that is darker at the tip. In this species the male leaves be­fore the fe­male, of­ten while she is still in­cu­bat­ing. Call is a short ‘tr­rit’ or ‘prrp’. The Dun­lin, our com­mon­est sand­piper, is al­most ex­clu­sively a coastal bird in win­ter, al­though some can be found in­land, par­tic­u­larly on pas­sage. It has a longish down-curved bill, the length vary­ing with dif­fer­ent sub­species, which also makes them vari­able in plumage and over­all size. If you come across a lone bird (Dun­lins are gre­gar­i­ous birds and rarely found alone) first de­cide if it is a Dun­lin, then, if it isn’t, look for rarer pos­si­bil­i­ties. Those with longer bills are of­ten mis­taken for Curlew Sand­pipers. Dun­lins scam­per over the mud and wade in shal­low water. In flight they form a tight flock that ma­noeu­vres with dex­ter­ity and speed as they flash back and forth look­ing for a safe place to land. At this time of year, many of the birds seen will be ju­ve­niles, which have very streaky breasts and up­per belly. Some show a faint white V on the back like Lit­tle Stint but the Dun­lin’s bill is longer and down-curved. Adults at this time can show a mix of plumages de­pend­ing on where they are from. Some still show black on the belly while oth­ers are nearly in win­ter plumage (below). The call is a quiet rasp­ing ‘treep’.

One of the rarer Tringa sand­pipers. A dainty bird that can be con­fused with ju­ve­nile Red­shanks that some­times have yel­low­ish look­ing legs and are quite well marked on the up­per­parts. Wood Sand­pipers, though, are darker above and paler below and do not have an or­angey base to the bill. In flight they have no white in the wing but show a white rump. They are also less demon­stra­tive than Red­shanks, of­ten fly­ing away when flushed rather than re­main­ing nearby and protest­ing loudly like Red­shanks. Wood Sand­pipers can also show a close re­sem­blance to Green Sand­pipers, which are darker still with less spot­ted up­per­parts and have dark green­ish-grey legs, ap­pear­ing black and white from a dis­tance. Wood Sand­pipers are slim­mer and dain­tier, have a prom­i­nent white su­per­cil­ium well be­hind the eye and are longer legged than Green Sand­pipers. The bill is medium length, straight with a green­ish yel­low base and darker tip. This is a bird of marshes and fresh­wa­ter pools, gen­er­ally avoid­ing tidal mud and sand. It feeds, of­ten up to its belly in water, by both pick­ing and prob­ing and some­times sweep­ing its bill from side to side. The call is a ‘chiff ’ re­peated two or three times. The Curlew Sand­piper is an­other pas­sage bird, which prin­ci­pally oc­curs along the coast. It is rarely seen in large num­bers to­gether here and is most com­mon in au­tumn when, first the adults, and then the ju­ve­niles, pass through. Out­side the breed­ing sea­son they are clas­sic grey and white, small waders and most re­sem­ble Dun­lins, from which they should be sep­a­rated with care. Curlew Sand­pipers are slightly larger, more ele­gant and have longer legs, en­abling them to feed in slightly deeper water. They al­ways show a white rump and lower tail in flight where Dun­lins have a dark, white-sided rump. Ju­ve­nile Curlew Sand­pipers (below) have a warm peachy glow on the sides of the breast and neatly fringed back and wing feath­ers giv­ing a scaly ef­fect. Un­like ju­ve­nile Dun­lins they show no streak­ing on the breast, belly or flanks, show­ing clear white un­der­parts. Win­ter adults are much like Dun­lins with which they of­ten mix, but they usu­ally show a prom­i­nent white su­per­cil­ium and have a longer, more evenly de­curved bill. They are usu­ally en­coun­tered on wet­lands with sparse veg­e­ta­tion and muddy fringes or in­ter­tidal flats and es­tu­ar­ies al­though they do oc­cur in­land in sim­i­lar habi­tats. The call is a quiet ‘chirrup’. Most likely to be con­fused with its close rel­a­tive the Red­shank, al­though they are more ele­gant and a lit­tle larger in size than their more com­mon con­gener. Spot­ted Red­shanks are birds of pas­sage through the UK with a small num­ber win­ter­ing here. They breed in the tun­dra from Scan­di­navia east across much of north­ern Rus­sia. If you see a re­turn­ing adult still in its smart, dusky breed­ing plumage they are un­mis­tak­able – even the bright red legs go black­ish. How­ever, ju­ve­niles and birds in win­ter plumage (below) are more sim­i­lar to Red­shanks. In these plumages, Spot­ted Red­shanks lack the white in the wing and can be dis­tin­guished by their longer, more slen­der bills, with the red re­stricted to the basal half of the lower mandible. The bill also has a sub­tle, yet dis­tinc­tive, droop to the tip. Ju­ve­nile’s bill and legs are more or­ange toned than adults. Spot­ted Red­shanks are also greyer than Red­shank and show a marked pale su­per­cil­ium with a no­tice­able dark line in front of the eye. They do fre­quent salt­wa­ter lo­ca­tions but mainly in es­tu­ar­ies rather than open beaches and can be found on a va­ri­ety of in­land fresh and brack­ish water lo­ca­tions. Call is a loud ‘chuit’.

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