Enjoy the skies and scrapes
It might be getting cooler here as time marches on, but wildfowl and waders will have arrived from even colder places such as Iceland, Siberia, Scandinavia, Canada and Russia.
Spectacular. Awesome. Breathtaking. These are words often used to describe a natural wonder you can see all over the region right now, huge numbers of winter visiting birds in our estuaries, lakes and marshes.
You don’t have to be a keen birdwatcher to enjoy the sight of thousands of them swirling and wheeling in the sky.
The movement of these massive flocks makes exhilarating viewing, and this, combined with the sound of thousands of birds calling, must be one of the wildlife highlights of the year.
For most of these birds, the
UK is far enough south to fly to reach relatively mild weather and plentiful food. We have a very long coastline, plenty of estuaries and mudflats, and, thanks to conservation efforts, a range of healthy wetland habitats.
Our huge expanses of mud are rich in insects and crustaceans, enough to sustain waders like dunlin and black-tailed godwit through the winter. Other birds feed in fields and wet meadows.
Numbers of many of our autumn and winter visitors peak in October, as birds move through the country. Some will carry on into southern Europe and Africa. Many will settle here, with large numbers of birds such as dunlin sticking around until March.
Winter might well be the greatest season of all for wildlife spectaculars, if you’re a walker with an eye on the skies.
Many of the birds you’ll see on winter wetlands benefit from a particular feature known as a ‘scrape’. But what is a scrape?
A scrape is a very shallow patch of water. The word ‘scrape’ fairly accurately describes how this can be created, with a digger just scraping a thin layer of soil from the surface of the land. The water is usually fresh, but there are brackish scrapes too.
Water levels will fluctuate naturally, depending on rainfall and the drying effects of the wind and sun. We can also manage these levels by pumping water to create the right conditions.
In spring, as water levels drop there will be bare mud, which is important for many kinds of wading birds. A number of plants and insects depend on these varying conditions. In summer, some scrapes may dry out completely, allowing annual plants to grow, providing nectar for pollinators and seeds for small birds. They add organic matter to the scrape, feeding mud-dwelling invertebrates when it re-floods in winter.
These are large, elegant waders with long bills evolved to probe for food in soft mud. Many of the black-tailed godwits that spend the winter here will have nested in Iceland. A small number of the limosa subspecies nest in the UK, and are currently the subject of a major conservation effort, Project Godwit. This is a partnership between the RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust
( WWT), funded by EU Life Nature, Natural England, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the HSBC 150th Anniversary Fund. The aim is to help the birds’ population recover in the Nene and Ouse Washes. Find out more at projectgodwit.org.uk
Two races of these small, ducksized geese visit the UK in winter, light-bellied and dark-bellied. The dark-bellied birds breed in northern Russia and spend the winter in southern and eastern England. Pale-bellied brent geese breed mostly in Canada and Greenland and usually overwinter in Ireland. Although they might come to roost on mudflats and inland scrapes, they’ll spend the day feeding on eelgrass, which grows in salty water. Brent geese can be seen in good numbers along the Essex coast.
Dunlins are the commonest small waders you’ll see on the coast, in fact there will be around 360,000 of them here during winter. Some breed here but the majority will have come from Scandinavia and Russia. An old name for dunlin in Scotland is the ‘Plover’s Page’ as these birds often join with flocks of golden plovers.
These waders, in their buff and white winter plumage, gather in huge flocks, often alongside lapwings. Their high-pitched piping call magnified by huge numbers of plovers is an impressive sound. They’re speedy in flight, and whether they are actually the fastest flying gamebird was the subject of a debate that led to the founding of the Guinness Book of Records.
Impressive during the breeding season, where the males sport elaborate and colourful ruffs of feathers around their necks, these birds have more muted plumage in winter. They’ll have bred in Scandinavia, and while some will fly almost 1,000 miles to spend the colder months with us, others will journey even further south to Africa. Female ruffs, smaller than the males, are known as ‘reeves’.
It’s always rewarding to find these beautiful long-billed birds, as they are very well camouflaged against mud and waterside vegetation. Curiously, many traditional names for the snipe, in the UK and other parts of Europe, refer to it as a goat or horse in the sky. That’s because its breeding display in spring involves tumbling through the air, making an extraordinary bleating noise as air rushes through its spread-out tail feathers.
Black-tailed godwits pictured by Gordon Langsbury.