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.

Let's Talk - - Contents - Jamie Wyver takes up the story...

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.

Black-tailed god­wit

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

Brent geese

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.

Golden plover

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.

Dun­lin by Chris Gom­er­sall.

Black-tailed god­wits pic­tured by Gor­don Langs­bury.

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