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’.