The seashore between the windrows and the low water mark of the tide is a world beyond our experience. Subterranean, damp, cold and unseen live animals that drive shorebird migration. More stable than the changes in salinity and temperature of rock pools, a smooth skin of sand, pock-marked with tell-tale marks for those whose lives depend on reading them. Brutally, we can only break into this world through disruption -chemical or physical.
I expected to be alone, but the bleaching snow lifted. From the monotone a lone bait-digger broke the surface with his spade. The small spoil heaps he created attracted Sanderling and Redshank. They walked around his feet as though he was as much beach as they were. The birds picked at things that would not be of interest to a fisherman. To us the sand is a physical substrate on which to walk. To them the sand is a larder of hidden treasures.
Coastal wetlands are among the most productive of ecosystems holding dense populations of invertebrates. Many of these invertebrates spend much of their time deep in the substrate, either because of their physiological or feeding requirements. This attracts shorebirds, locating to temperate coastal wetlands in the non-breeding season, to feed on this invertebrate bonanza.
The digger left and the Sanderling increased to six. They fought and bickered to establish their pecking order. They had changed their behaviour. No longer the familiar clockwork toys, running in and out with each wave, they were fixed on this place until the waves returned the heap to the sea. The birds became the familiar wave-chasers again.
Further North the chunky shapes of Ringed Plovers held court on a damp patch of sand. They waited for their chance in between the lead-less dogs that moved them back to the rockpools. Here they could sometimes be caught gazing as though admiring their beauty. Jonsson captured this look, but it was though I was seeing this for the first time.
A fruitless search for Knot brought me to a beach shrinking on an incoming tide. Here Sanderling behaved as they should, but Dunlin were also chasing the waves. A Bar-tailed Godwit plunged its head under as water lapped onto the beach. A Grey Plover with a limp stayed higher up but was still regularly able to pull worms from under its feet.
By now dog walkers could not reach the preferred Ringed Plover playground as it too was now cut off by the water. 58 birds played out their strategic power games like pocket yodas. This was truly fascinating and only ceased as the water stole their dance floor.
I wanted to know more about the running staring chess game, but it appears that no-one has studied the winter arrangement. The only paper I can find is one by Pienkowski (1980). he was interested in the economics of feeding and the birds he studied were at Lindisfarne and had a huge area of foreshore to hunt.
In looking for an answer I found more questions. Ringed Plovers have recently become red listed. Unhelpfully, the RSPB on their ‘Help us to help the Ringed Plover’ page provide little information as to what my contribution would be going towards as,
‘Sadly, they were recently added to the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern due to declines in their wintering numbers. The reasons are currently unknown. All of the key estuaries for ringed plovers are protected under national and international legislation and RSPB teams work hard to ensure that coastal habitat is not lost or degraded. In particular, we seek to prevent disturbance of high tide roosts.
Breeding birds are also in decline, although to a lesser extent than wintering birds.’
My voxpop of my County Durham 58 is that their winter feeding and roosting are regularly disturbed by dogs not on leads and people using the beach more generally. My suspicions were supported by a depressing report from the North West Norfolk Ringing Group. In 1994 60-65 pairs in their study area and by 2009 they had to give up their study. The reduction being so great, largely blamed on predation and disturbance has left Norfolk with about 160 pairs in total.
So how do they fair in Northumberland and County Durham. Ring plovers feature in both Biodiversity action plans, but with Councils strapped for cash it is not clear that these remain priorities. In 2016 there were less than 10 pairs in County Durhamm and many of those will not have produced young due to the high disturbance on our beaches. And we do nothing.
As birders we complain on Twitter and FB about this new breed of birders -toggers who with their need to get close to the birds for the best photo. Some do disturb the bird -feed migrant wheatears so they no longer migrate and become easy prey to BOPs, some individual birds will die. Perhaps though it is the slow decline and disappearance of a species we don’t notice as it is not glamorous species happening on our watch that should cause us more concern. But we don’t notice those birds that pad out a list in early January. I would challenge the RSPB to change their statement, we know exactly why Ringed Plovers are declining. It’s just too difficult to reverse the trend.