An eye on the birds
The Solway is one of the most important estuaries in the United Kingdom and Europe for migrant and wintering waders.
Ian Bainbridge, the new Scottish Ornithologists Club President and a long-standing member of the International Wader Study Group, explained to the Stewartry SOC group the value of the Solway to these wonderful birds and introduced each of the species occurring here, outlining their habits, migration and identification.
The greater Solway, from Loch Ryan in the west to Carlisle in the east, is home to more than 80,000 waders.
The inner Solway is recognised as an internationally important site for them, holding more than 70,000 individuals of more than 25 species. Some species, such as oystercatcher, redshank , lapwing and ringed plovers breed on the Solway.
Others, such as sanderling and whimbrel, pass through on migrations from their Arctic breeding grounds to wintering areas as far south as South Africa, and many more spend the winter here, feeding on the invertebrates found in the rich Solway muds.
Oystercatchers are unusual waders in that they only lay three eggs, not four, and that they feed their young for several weeks after hatching (most wader chicks feed themselves from day one).
Their diet of worms, cockles and mussels leads them to have different shaped bills, depending upon whether they stab or hammer their prey: hammerers have shorter, blunter bills.
The six plovers vary in size from the rare little ringed plover to the grey plover, a winter visitor from Siberia, and includes the dotterel, a mountain breeding bird, which had been known to lay eggs in both Scotland and Norway in the same year.
The smaller sandpipers include the knot from Greenland, Canada and Siberia, and dunlin, the commonest wader, with populations passing through from Greenland, Iceland and northern Europe en route to Africa, as well as birds from Siberia which spend the winter here. Purple sandpipers from Iceland and Norway winter on the rocky coasts, with Southerness a favourite location.
Curlews are a familiar sight – and sound – on the Solway; Scottish and Norwegian breeding birds winter here, with the smaller males feeding more on earthworms in the fields, and the longer-billed females catching lugworms on the shore, though crabs are also a favourite prey.
There is much still to learn about Solway shorebirds: increasing numbers of greenshanks winter here, but we don’t yet know whether they are breeding birds from the far north of Scotland, or from farther north in Scandinavia. In time, careful studies will unlock this mystery.
The next meeting will be on Thursday, January 17 at 7.30pm in New Galloway School.
Mick Durham, a semiprofessional photographer, will talk on the rich and varied wildlife of the Shetland Islands in the summer months.
Spotted Oystercatcher in the wild