Ex-smokers, vegans and the weight of Piping Plovers.

Great he’s stopped banging on about Ringed Plovers. There is only so much you can take from someone who has just discovered something ‘new’. It’s a bit like ex-smokers continually telling people how important fresh air is. Or that joke, ‘How do you know there’s a vegan on the bus you’re on?’ ‘They tell you!’

But Ringed Plovers? Just give it a rest, they are not globally threatened. There’s enough to go around and I can get them on my year list easily.

Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus). Now that’s different. They are ‘near threatened’ with a global population about 8000. They are exotic, breeding on sparsely vegetated shorelines of the Atlantic coast of Canada and the United States; the Great Lakes; and the U.S. Great Plains and Canadian Prairies. They winter along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States and Mexico, as well as in the Caribbean.

Image-1 (1)

This is a bit of a leap, three Ringed Plover posts for the UKs 30,000 wintering population, fine. Then a pond jump, to a global treat, what’s the story?

Piping Plovers are considered cute little birds, scurrying along shorelines with their precocial (and adorable) young. This has helped muster large numbers of dedicated workers and volunteers to come to the aid of these vulnerable birds.


However, they are not universally loved. Management can involve seasonal closures of prime recreational beaches to vehicles, dogs, humans even on 4th July. Reactions to closures often reach the media resulting in negative backlash.

hey audubon

Oh, I see, if things are too good to be true, they usually are. He is trying to argue that Piping Plovers are like Ringed Plovers. Slow up there that’s some stretch. Just tell the story of the bird and be done.

It was early in September 2017. If there was any chance of seeing Piping Plover it was going to be on the broad sandy stretches south of Stone Harbour, north of Cape May, but even then it was a slim chance. Having earlier bumped into a couple down from Canada in their SUV to photograph birds, there was not going to be a sharing of gen. They had shown themselves, the day before, to be able to peel an orange in their pocket without anyone smelling it.

Walking south over the last ridge of dunes a vast expanse of sandy beach opened up, and even though the tide was rising there was a lot of sand. In the distance there were some American Oystercatchers, they were not, ‘just like ours but different’. In the swirl of pink legs and sand blowing from the dunes there was one Piping Plover, as unexpected as it was beautiful. Then it was gone. Smitten. The oystercatchers moved not because of us or the rising tide, but a runner was going along the shoreline.

A month earlier, a paper on Piping Plover had been submitted for publication. It described the impact of habitat loss on shorebirds and how this is made worse by human recreational use. This further reduces the amount of coastal habitat that is functionally available for feeding and roosting. This has consequences for the condition of individual birds and for a plover’s lifecycle.

Piping Plovers in disturbed sites were 7% lighter than those in less disturbed sites during this non-breeding season review. Additionally, annual survival was lower from birds using more disturbed areas. Site fidelity though, appeared to be the same whether birds wintered on disturbed or less disturbed beaches. Plovers do not readily relocate, they may use valuable resources and find somewhere less suitable -better the devil you know.
These associations among non-breeding circumstances, body condition, and demography highlight the importance of nonbreeding habitats to annual population dynamics of migratory species. Is this true for other Charadrius or is it just Piping Plovers? We may never know as birds generally become rare before they attract funding to do the research. So, we may never know if Ringed Plovers behave like this. But let’s just guess.

Piping Plovers are at the lower end of the biometrics for Ringed Plover and could be considered small Ringed Plovers as there is no indication that they are any more specialist in their habits or requirements. It’s their habitat that restricts them not a behaviour or food item. So, what conclusion can be drawn?

Most if not all Ringed Plovers on County Durham’s beaches in the non-breeding season will not try to breed here. The beaches are either not suitable -not sandy with pebbles, or they are highly disturbed during the breeding season. Most plovers will move back to their breeding grounds from March*. Based on this research it would be rare for a Ringed Plover to leave County Durham and reach its breeding ground in optimum breeding condition.

So here is the challenge to the nagging voice in this commentary who is bored with Ringed Plovers. Given we are going to have to wait for them to become rare before we do something it is unlikely, anytime soon that the plight of the Ringed Plover will get any attention. It is almost by accident that protection is given to Ringed Plovers -the few that nest inside the fence of a tern colony. Little Terns are after all already rare and worthy of consideration.

So yes, perhaps stop banging on about Ringed Plovers is the best thing to do. Most counties that border the North Sea had Ringed Plovers on their Bio-diversity Action Plan (BAP) and breeding success got worse. Not only that, we are sending birds back to northern Europe in poor condition so a decline in the species is guaranteed. And to the nagging voice there is no appetite to change this.

* It is suggested that most Ringed Plovers in the UK come from the North West -Greenland, Iceland and Canada. This does not hold true for County Durham (or for that matter Northumberland or Cleveland). The ringing recoveries for the County show a north-east/south-west direction of travel with birds returning to northern Europe and getting as far as France suggesting that mainly ssp hiaticula is involved.
However, the records of birds from Iceland suggest ssp psammodroma move through the region and records from Norway and Senegal suggest ssp tundrae also can be found in the North East and are worth looking for.

Gibson D, Chaplin M K, Hunt K L, Friedrich M J, Weithman C E, et. al. (2018) The Condor, 120(3) : 566-580

Gratto-Trevor C L and Abbott S. (2011) Conservation of Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) in North America: science, successes, and challenge. Can. J. Zool. 89: 401–418.

BTO Ringed Plover Ringing Recoveries, County Durham

Following on from the last post it is interesting to see some of the County Durham Ringed Plover ringing records.  the link below lists all species for County Durham but it can be changed for any county records.

It is suggested that most Ringed Plovers in the UK come from the North West -Greenland, Iceland and Canada.  This does not hold true for County Durham (or for that matter Northumberland or Cleveland). The ringing recoveries for the County show a north-east/south-west direction of travel with birds returning to northern Europe and getting as far as France suggesting that mainly ssp hiaticula is involved.

However, the records of birds from Iceland suggest ssp psammodroma move through the region and records from Norway and Senegal suggest ssp tundrae also can be found in the North East and are worth looking for.

The photo is of a German ringed bird (ssp hiaticula) at Seaton during February 2019 by @Emmas_artworks.  It had been seen in December in Hartlepool so is assumed to be wintering in the County.

german ringed plover

A selection of interesting recoveries:
The longevity record for this species is: 21 years 11 months 12 days set in 2015.

The following birds are the oldest reported from Durham
BV29882 Full-grown 05-10-1974 near Washington: 54°54’N 1°29’W (Tyne and Wear)
Dead 05-06-1991 Seal Sands, Teesmouth: 54°36’N 1°11’W (Stockton-on-Tees) 38km SSE 16y 8m 0d

PLG Age Unknown Male 16-08-1988 Molozew, Jablonna Lacka: 52°27’N 22°31’E (Mazowieckie) Poland
JN25807 Caught by ringer 05-08-1998 Seal Sands, Teesmouth: 54°37’N 1°10’W (Hartlepool) 1,583km W 9y 11m 20d

NV19581 Adult Female 14-05-1983 Waterfoot, Annan: 54°58’N 3°16’W (Dumfries and Galloway)
Caught by ringer 22-04-1992 Seal Sands, Teesmouth: 54°36’N 1°9’W (Stockton-on-Tees) 142km ESE 8y 11m 8d

BV86058 Adult 25-05-1979 Seal Sands: 54°36’N 1°10’W (Stockton-on-Tees)
Freshly dead (shot) 08-08-1987 Reserve Naturelle, Charron: 46°16’N 1°6’W (Charente-Maritime) France 926km S 8y 2m 14d

BV86878 Adult 19-05-1980 Seal Sands: 54°36’N 1°10’W (Stockton-on-Tees)
Freshly dead (shot) 04-09-1987 Merlimont: 50°27’N 1°37’E (Pas-de-Calais) France 501km SSE 7y 3m 16d

The following birds moved the greatest distance within Britain & Ireland (more than 100km):
BV52947 First-year Male 13-09-1980 Copperhouse Creek: 50°9’N 5°24’W (Cornwall)
Caught by ringer 14-08-1985 Seal Sands, Teesmouth: 54°36’N 1°9’W (Stockton-on-Tees) 573km NNE 4y 11m 1d

BV52928 Adult Female 28-08-1980 Rock, Wadebridge: 50°32’N 4°53’W (Cornwall)
Caught by ringer 23-05-1983 North Gare: 54°37’N 1°10’W (Hartlepool) 519km NNE 2y 8m 25d

NV01578 Juvenile 24-08-1990 North Ronaldsay: 59°22’N 2°26’W (Orkney)
Caught by ringer 28-08-1990 Souter Point, Whitburn: 54°56’N 1°21’W (Tyne and Wear) 495km S 0y 0m 4d

BV86898 Adult Male 26-05-1980 North Gare: 54°37’N 1°10’W (Hartlepool)
Caught by ringer 25-08-1980 Horsea Island, Portsmouth Harbour: 50°49’N 1°4’W (Portsmouth) 423km S 0y 2m 30d

BV86851 Full-grown 17-03-1980 North Gare, Teesmouth: 54°37’N 1°9’W (Hartlepool)
Caught by ringer 07-02-1981 Angle Bay: 51°41’N 5°2’W (Pembrokeshire) 417km SW 0y 10m 21d

The following birds moved particularly quickly (more than 500km in two weeks):
NOS Adult Male 16-08-2016 Makkevika, Giske: 62°30’N 6°1’E (More og Romsdal) Norway
8B80150 Alive (colour rings seen) 23-08-2016 Whitburn: c. 54°56’N 1°21’W (Tyne and Wear) 941km SSW 0y 0m 7d

The following birds ringed in Durham have been found abroad (countries with 5 or fewer such recoveries):
NV72991 First-year Female 30-08-1998 Seal Sands,teesmouth: c. 54°37’N 1°11’W (Stockton-on-Tees)
Caught by ringer 12-08-2000 Nidingen, Onsala: 57°18’N 11°54’E (Halland) Sweden 867km ENE 1y 11m 13d

NV00377 Adult Female 11-05-1983 North Gare: 54°37’N 1°10’W (Hartlepool)
Unknown 01-01-1984 No Name on Sites Table: 13°55’N 16°36’W (Senegal) Senegal 4,723km SSW 0y 7m 21d

NV54944 Adult Male 22-04-1992 Seal Sands: 54°36’N 1°10’W (Stockton-on-Tees)
Caught by ringer 11-11-1994 Montenegro, Faro: 37°1’N 7°58’W (Faro) Portugal 2,022km SSW 2y 6m 20d

NV45102 Adult Female 01-06-1988 Seal Sands, Teesmouth: 54°36’N 1°9’W (Stockton-on-Tees)
Caught by ringer 13-08-1990 Makkevika, Giske: 62°30’N 6°1’E (More og Romsdal) Norway 970km NNE 2y 2m 12d

NV74681 Adult Female 24-05-1994 Seal Sands, Teesmouth: 54°37’N 1°10’W (Hartlepool)
Freshly dead (on ship) 18-08-1994 Heimdalriggen: 59°34’N 2°13’E (North Sea) North Sea 587km NNE 0y 2m 25d

NV17180 Adult Male 14-05-1984 Seal Sands, Teesmouth: 54°36’N 1°9’W (Stockton-on-Tees)
Freshly dead (in net or cage) 22-05-1987 Leirulaekur, Myrar, Myra: 64°31’N 22°3’W (Mýrasýsla) Iceland 1,604km NW 3y 0m 8d

NV00280 Adult 02-06-1982 Seal Sands: 54°36’N 1°10’W (Stockton-on-Tees)
Freshly dead (shot) 01-08-1984 Fort Mahon: 50°21’N 1°34’E (Somme) France 510km SSE 2y 1m 30d

BV70158 Adult 18-05-1977 Seal Sands: 54°36’N 1°10’W (Stockton-on-Tees)
Freshly dead (shot) 25-08-1979 No Name on Sites Table: 49°1’N 1°33’W (Manche) France 623km S 2y 3m 7d

NV00358 Adult Male 11-05-1983 North Gare: 54°37’N 1°10’W (Hartlepool)
Freshly dead (shot) 04-08-1987 Fermanville: 49°40’N 1°27’W (Manche) France 551km S 4y 2m 24d

BV86878 Adult 19-05-1980 Seal Sands: 54°36’N 1°10’W (Stockton-on-Tees)
Freshly dead (shot) 04-09-1987 Merlimont: 50°27’N 1°37’E (Pas-de-Calais) France 501km SSE 7y 3m 16d

BV86058 Adult 25-05-1979 Seal Sands: 54°36’N 1°10’W (Stockton-on-Tees)
Freshly dead (shot) 08-08-1987 Reserve Naturelle, Charron: 46°16’N 1°6’W (Charente-Maritime) France 926km S 8y 2m 14d

The following birds ringed abroad have been found in Durham (countries with 5 or fewer such records):
SVS Nestling 18-08-1980 Nidingen, Onsala: 57°18’N 11°54’E (Halland) Sweden
3337761 Caught by ringer 22-10-1984 Seal Sands, Teesmouth: 54°36’N 1°9’W (Stockton-on-Tees) 866km WSW 4y 2m 4d

ESI Full-grown Male 24-04-1998 la Puebla Del Rio: 37°16’N 6°4’W (Sevilla) Spain
T012081 Caught by ringer 15-05-2000 Seal Sands, Teesmouth: 54°37’N 1°10’W (Hartlepool) 1,964km N 2y 0m 21d

PLG Age Unknown Male 16-08-1988 Molozew, Jablonna Lacka: 52°27’N 22°31’E (Mazowieckie) Poland
JN25807 Caught by ringer 05-08-1998 Seal Sands, Teesmouth: 54°37’N 1°10’W (Hartlepool) 1,583km W 9y 11m 20d

NOS Adult Male 16-08-2016 Makkevika, Giske: 62°30’N 6°1’E (More og Romsdal) Norway
8B80150 Alive (colour rings seen) 23-08-2016 Whitburn: c. 54°56’N 1°21’W (Tyne and Wear) 941km SSW 0y 0m 7d

NOO Adult Male 02-09-1992 Makkevika, Giske: 62°30’N 6°1’E (More og Romsdal) Norway
EA13162 Caught by ringer 17-05-1993 Seal Sands, Teesmouth: 54°37’N 1°10’W (Hartlepool) 970km SSW 0y 8m 15d

NOS First-year 24-08-2014 Makkevika, Giske: 62°30’N 6°1’E (More og Romsdal) Norway
8B45130 Alive (colour rings seen) 15-08-2016 Whitburn Steel: 54°55’N 1°20’W (Tyne and Wear) 942km SSW 1y 11m 22d

NOS First-year Male 28-08-1990 Makkevika, Giske: 62°30’N 6°1’E (More og Romsdal) Norway
8203997 Caught by ringer 17-05-1993 Seal Sands, Teesmouth: 54°37’N 1°10’W (Hartlepool) 970km SSW 2y 8m 19d

NOS First-year Male 26-08-1976 Makkevika, Giske: 62°30’N 6°1’E (More og Romsdal) Norway
8120741 Caught by ringer 23-05-1979 Seal Sands: 54°36’N 1°10’W (Stockton-on-Tees) 970km SSW 2y 8m 27d

FRP Adult Male 10-05-1987 Fouras: 45°58’N 1°6’W (Charente-Maritime) France
SA767479 Caught by ringer 20-05-1993 North Gare Sands, Teesmouth: 54°37’N 1°9’W (Hartlepool) 962km N 6y 0m 10d
Caught by ringer 21-05-1993 Seal Sands, Teesmouth: 54°37’N 1°10’W (Hartlepool) 960km N 6y 0m 11d

SFH First-year Male 11-09-1988 Siilinjarvi: 63°9’N 27°43’E (Kuopio) Finland
KT19357 Caught by ringer 05-05-1993 Seal Sands: 54°36’N 1°10’W (Stockton-on-Tees) 1,903km WSW 4y 7m 24d
Caught by ringer 05-05-1993 Seal Sands, Teesmouth: 54°37’N 1°10’W (Hartlepool) 1,903km WSW 4y 7m 24d

DKC Adult Female 28-05-1981 Agger Tange, Vestervig: 56°43’N 8°15’E (Viborg) Denmark
8121667 Caught by ringer 25-08-1981 Seal Sands: 54°36’N 1°10’W (Stockton-on-Tees) 636km WSW 0y 2m 28d
Caught by ringer 30-07-1984 Seal Sands, Teesmouth: 54°36’N 1°9’W (Stockton-on-Tees) 635km WSW 3y 2m 2d


Where do Ringed Plovers come from? And go to?

ringed plover btoIn December 2018 I found a colour-ringed Ringed Plover from Germany on Hartlepool Headland, NE England.  This was the first time I had really given any thought to Ringed Plovers.  Two months later 58 on a beach North of Sunderland could not be local birds as there are so few breeding opportunities on the Durham coast.  So began a month long obsession with these plucky little birds.

The Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) nests in the Arctic and northern temperate zone. The breeding distribution is largely restricted to coastal areas but in Eastern Europe the species breeds along some of the major river systems of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. The main wintering grounds of the species extend from the British Isles to southern Africa and to the east to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.

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The Ringed Plover has one of the classic examples of leap-frog migration in which birds from more southerly populations winter close to the breeding grounds and those from northernmost parts of the breeding range make long flights to more distant wintering grounds.

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Fig 2 BTO ringing information.

Three subspecies are recognized C. h. hiaticula is generally larger and paler than C. h. tundrae, but this division is unsatisfactory, because the variation in distinguishing features, i.e. size and the colour of the upperparts (C. h. tundrae being smaller and darker) is rather clinal. Furthermore, C. h. tundrae from Central Siberia are again larger, approaching C. h. hiaticula in size.

The nominate subspecies C. h. hiaticula breeds in the area from the British Isles to the Baltic; around the Scandinavian coast; and in inland areas in Central and Eastern Europe. Subspecies C. h. tundrae inhabits the northern parts of Eurasia from the Scandinavian mountain range to the Chukotka peninsula. The third subspecies is C. h. psammodroma, it has breeding grounds in NE Canada, Greenland, Iceland and the Faeroes.

C. h. hiaticula moves towards W European and N African wintering grounds mainly along the coasts. C. h. tundrae is a long-distance migrant in autumn it migrates across the continental land masses of Eurasia and Africa, with wintering grounds mainly in sub-Saharan Africa as far as South Africa e.g.  (c. 70º 15’ N, 30º 40’ E) C. h. tundrae from Finnmark, NE Norway have been tracked to Mauritania; Sierra Leone; and the Gulf of Guinea.


C. h. psammodroma is thought to winter mainly in S Europe and NW Africa. It is likely that in winter Iberia and NW Africa play host to all three subspecies.

In Central Europe, C. h. hiaticula migrate earlier, with many local breeders usually leaving the breeding grounds in mid July, and the vast majority of adults observed from the beginning of August belong to C. h. tundrae. In the case of juveniles, the proportion of these two subspecies change more gradually in August. A similar pattern was found along the Iberian Atlantic coast.

While ring recoveries link the breeding grounds of the C. h. tundrae in northernmost Europe with wintering areas in W Europe, W Africa and South Africa Much less is currently known about the migration of birds from the Asian part of Russia. Using geolocators ornithologists have tracked and described annual migration routes of Ringed Plovers breeding in Chukotka (62.53°N, 177.05°E), Russia -the north-eastern limit of the species breeding range.

The wintering grounds of five males were scattered from the Persian Gulf to the Nile Delta and south to Somalia. During the wintering period three birds made only local movements, whereas two others moved 1,100 and 3,200 km northward in the second half of March, before embarking on pre-breeding migration in April. During post-breeding migration, the birds used a ‘hopping’ strategy, following the inland West Asian–East African Flyway and making hundreds of stops of various lengths, as recorded by their geolocators’. Three main regional stopover areas during southward and northward migration were identified. These were -N and W Kazakhstan together with the neighbouring southernmost areas of W Siberia.


The pathways of each bird were rather similar in autumn and spring in the southwestern half of the routes, while a loop migration was evident in Siberia, and although the distances covered were longer, the migration speed was faster on the northbound route than on the southbound one. The migration tracks likely reflect a historical eastward expansion of the breeding grounds of this species in the late Pleistocene. Here Ringed Plovers may have had a largely W Palearctic breeding distribution with migration south to Africa; then as the ice melted and large areas of suitable habitat became available, the breeding distribution may have expanded eastwards with eastern breeders continuing to winter in Africa. The same scenario is thought to have led to similar breeding and wintering distributions in other species, e.g. Northern Wheatear and Willow Warbler. Based on migration routes there may be other subspecies to find, but to date genetic markers confirm C. h. tundrae to be a subspecies that expanded rapidly as ice retreated.


Meissner W and Chylarecki P. (2010) Ageing and sexing the Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula. Wader Study Group Bulletin • January 2010

Pinchuk P, Karlionova N and Meissner W (2016) Biometry indicates sexual differences in spring migration strategy in Ringed Plovers Charadrius hiaticula tundrae captured in the southern Belarus. North-Western Journal of Zoology 12 (2): 319-324.

Thies L., Tomkovich P., dos Remedios N., Lislevand T., Pinchuk P., Wallander J.,
Dänhardt J., Þórisson B., Blomqvist D. & Küpper C. 2018. Population and sub –
species differentiation in a high latitude breeding wader, the Common Ringed
Plover Charadrius hiaticula. Ardea 106: 163–176. doi:10.5253/arde.v106i2.a8

Thorisson, B., Eyjólfsson, V., Gardarsson, A., Albertsdóttir, H.B. & Gunnarsson, T.G. 2012. The non-breeding distribution of Icelandic Common Ringed Plovers. Wader Study Group Bull. 119(2): 97–101.

Tomkovich P.S., R. Porter, E.Y. Loktionov & E.E. Syroechkovskiy. 2017. Transcontinental pathways and seasonal movements of an Asian migrant, the Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula tundrae. Wader Study 124(3): 175–184.

May Bank Holidays, public beaches and the death of Ringed Plovers.

If Beatrix Potter had lived near the coast I am sure Ringed Plover would have featured in her animated tales. A small, dumpy, short-legged wading bird with dapper markings, they would easily fold into her pocket-sized children’s books. With their rock pool gazing vanity they would have fitted well amongst the neighbours she parodied in her work. Perhaps then things would be different. As it is Ringed Plovers barely even feature, even amongst birders tales. By the end of January anyone living near the coast will have it on their list as numbers are swelled by 30,000 northern birds mainly from Canada, Greenland, Iceland in the west and to a lesser extent Scandinavia. After that, apart from the odd ‘bird-racer’, it receives little attention. Even the tundrae race generates less interest than Greenland Wheatears with whom they share their summer home.

The lack of attention in the summer has seen the population drop both considerably and invisibly from 8,540 pairs (1984) to 5,438 pairs (2007) (BTO, 2007). 25% nest on the machair of the Western Isles, where nests of shorebirds are predated by the introduced Hedgehog. It is the marked increase in nest failures, at the egg stage. that has earned Ringed Plover a place on the concern list where it has recently gone from amber to red.

The RSPB draws attention to their plight ‘Red Alert: helping Ringed Plover’. They say, ‘Sadly, they were recently added to the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern due to declines in their wintering numbers. The reasons [for the decline] are currently unknown. Breeding birds are also in decline.’


In a cheery summary the RSPB assures us that, ‘[The RSPB are] currently pulling together all our information on ringed plover declines so that we can best plan our next steps to conserve this engaging bird. We’ll keep you updated on our next steps.

Fairly innocuous -bird X in decline, we are doing our best, they are safe on our reserves, send us some money and we will do more good work.  At face value it ends there.

Unsurprisingly, Ringed Plovers aren’t species X, they are complicated. Their issues will not be resolved by flag waving and money and there is enough literature to describe the problems:
1) Climate change –fewer birds arrive due to milder winters so we need to assess the decline in a European context; summer storms impact the beaches on which they nest; Britain is at the limit of their breeding range and warmer summers will mean the southern nests will be less productive.
2) Disturbance –most of the potential nesting habitat lies outside of nature reserves and Ringed Plover parents are sensitive to humans, particularly humans with dogs. The two May Bank Holidays right in the middle of the nesting season are when there is a big influx of people and dogs to beaches.
3) Low breeding productivity –nest failure rate at the egg stage has been steadily increasing since 1970s.
The reality does not fit with these RSPB public facing statements as these do not address the issues above:
• all of the key estuaries for Ringed Plovers are protected under national and international legislation
• 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.

The reality is much less reassuring. Climate change aside, the future for Ringed Plovers will feature increasing amounts of disturbance even in the protected areas. The control of dogs off leads is not influenced by the RSPB’s good wishes.

The few studies that have investigated the effects of human disturbance on breeding densities of ground-nesting bird species, indicate that breeding density is substantially reduced by recreational disturbances. Such reduced breeding density, or lack of breeding success within otherwise potentially suitable habitat, may be the main consequence of human disturbance.

A small number of mostly observational studies suggest that responses to a walker with a dog tended to be stronger than a person approaching without one; displacement of incubating or brooding birds led to increased predation risk from opportunistic predators, especially larger gulls and corvids.

Human disturbance influences territory choice, territories were established where disturbance is relatively low. In a second study human disturbance, largely attributable to holiday makers, was especially concentrated around car parks (points of beach access) over two weekends in May (extended weekend holiday periods), and during July and August (school holidays) at the end of the plover breeding season. Disturbance came mostly from walkers (with or without dogs), sun-bathers and occasional picnickers, anglers and bait-diggers.

Highly disturbed sections of beach were avoided by most nesting pairs (with the exception of those with no prior experience of breeding on the site) despite presence of otherwise suitable habitat. Where nesting occurred, density of territories and nests was less along more disturbed sections. Of all nests found, 8.5% were lost due to people, mostly though accidental trampling of the well camouflaged eggs, with a higher proportion of losses occurring closer to footpaths.

Disturbance did not affect incubation length, proportion of nests that hatched, or chicks fledged, although only low disturbance areas were considered. Chick foraging time was reduced in areas with more people but this had no effect on growth or survival to fledging. A model was constructed that predicted that if human activity was restricted (e.g. through fencing of sections of beach with nests) then the ringed plover breeding population size would increase by about 8%, whilst if people were absent altogether the population would increase by around 85%.

10 Ringed Plover nests on the north Norfolk coast over three days (the May Bank Holiday period) on a beach which traditionally experiences high numbers of tourists. When a person approached to within 100 m most plovers reacted by leaving the nest. For long periods there were constantly people within 100 m of all 10 nests.

Earlier on Lindesfarne unintentional disturbance by visitors and their dogs was considered more serious than direct loss (e.g. through trampling) as incubating birds normally ran from nests when approached, giving opportunities for carrion crows and other avian predators, watching for plover movement, to locate and predate the eggs. It was noted that increased movement to and from nests by ringed plovers due to disturbance, left tracks on sandy substrate leading to the nest scrape, and also possibly scent trails that mammalian predators (e.g. Fox ) might exploit.

So for more than 30 years we have known of the problems that face Ringed Plovers. The RSPB do not need to wait for new data. If we want to save the Ringed Plover as a breeding bird in England we know what we have to do. Restrict people on beaches where Ringed Plovers could nest. County Durham has about 40 miles of coast about 11 miles of which would be suitable for Ringed Plover to nest.

I don’t see any organisation coming forward to take on this challenge any time soon.  Bye-bye Ringed Plover.

Say goodbye to the Ringed Plover.

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.

Bait Digger

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.


683AD36E-2D37-445E-BB08-01A533762825A 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.


214 species (minus two).

What is it about Shorebirds? The stories they bring of distant lands I will never visit –north or south. Or maybe it’s their untamed wildness –never contained within the square of a garden hedge, they remain elusive, distant and untouchable flyovers. Whatever does it for you; in the mix will be the calls of wild places that provide that emotional attachment. The coldness of Grey Plovers as they struggle into the icy air over exposed mud; the Spring sunshine of Little Ringed Plovers; the urgency of Common Sandpipers and the three notes of Greenshanks landing on a beach, they all contain the essence of the bird.

So this year’s challenge will be to spend more time looking at Shorebirds and deliberately choosing to pick places where they hide. This does include keeping a list and it may involve me being twitchier than I have been in years. This will be the only way to get up to a target of 40 species when some birds are ‘one-day wonders’.

After a brief cold January day on Teesside when it was all about ‘the list’ –I had gone for the wintering Spotted Redshank, but also found a Greenshank, the year started to take on a different pace. For the first time in a long time I need to know tide times, without going all ‘Shipping Forecast’. Also for the first time I have become a WEBS counter. Everyone has to start somewhere, but I am quite happy with the downstream of the Scotswood Bridge as it takes me back to 2015 and Morethankittiwakes. Here winter numbers build from August, but breeding opportunities are few and far between. The first visit held 270 Lapwing and 151 Redshank at high tide.

It’s more than this though. It’s an excuse to go back through my bookshelves-Carson, Jonsson, Lewington, Crossley, Nethersole-Thompson and others. Internet contemporary research articles are helping to build a new image of these birds. Each week there is also a search of Twitter for the best pics to represent a species or group for #waderwednesday. So far this has been Jack Snipe; Lapwing; a wisp of Gallinago’s –Common and faroensis, Wilson’s and Great; Sanderling; and Purple Sandpipers.

By the end of January the list stands at 18 species*, decent, but four others are also locally available –Green Sandpiper, Ruff, Knot and Little Stint. The last of the 18 was Woodcock, two flew from a wood at dusk to feed on a cloudless, freezing evening. These were chocolate-brown dumpy puddings flying silently past my head. It was the silence of this close encounter that sticks with me. The more usual roding birds; flushed birds; or even feeding flights have previously included sound.

Amongst this 18 I have started to see individuals. The male Curlew left behind when 26 left a field, only to run to be part of their group when they returned. The colour ringed female Ringed Plover –first marked in Germany, but wintering on Hartlepool Headland. Conversely, going to get more details on a colour ringed Purple Sandpiper at Seaham helped me find 5 others –up from the usual two I see there. And the WEBS count, who would have thought there would be 151 Redshank in a high tide roost near Scotswood Bridge? From the literature I should have known Jack Snipe was not a Gallinago, but it is a single species genus –Lymnocrytes with a wide reach.

This new way of looking though is against the backdrop of globally declining species numbers and the literature has been consistently depressing. Land drained, coasts developed and forests march across breeding habitats, fragmenting them -increasing opportunities for predators. Being long distance migrants global politics plays a key part in their survival as they fly across lines on maps we create -let’s hope France bans the hunting of Curlew when they get to vote in July.

This global picture makes grim reading. A far cry from my first introduction to this beautiful group through Hayman, Marchant and Prater all those years back in 1986.  Then we thought that Greater Sandplovers would become regular in the UK and we would see another Little Curlew (nee Whimbrel).  There were also two species of curlew that will never fly again.


*18 species up to 31st January 2019.

1. Lapwing
2. Curlew
3. Snipe
4. Jack Snipe
5. Redshank
6. Spotted Redshank
7. Golden Plover
8. Greenshank
9. Black-tailed Godwit
10. Grey Plover
11. Oystercatcher
12. Dunlin
13. Bar-tailed Godwit
14. Turnstone
15. Sanderling
16. Purple Sandpiper
17. Ringed Plover
18. Woodcock