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.
4. Jack Snipe
6. Spotted Redshank
7. Golden Plover
9. Black-tailed Godwit
10. Grey Plover
13. Bar-tailed Godwit
16. Purple Sandpiper
17. Ringed Plover