As the year draws to a close, I find myself looking back on some of my birding experiences in 2021. Because of the pandemic, my birdwatching has mainly taken place in south-east Cornwall within a dozen miles of Looe, but there is one major and influential exception. My daughter and family live in Lancaster, and a couple of visits in the summer gave me the opportunity to visit some remarkable places for birds in North Lancashire, including Morecambe Bay and the extraordinary wetlands at the RSPB’s Leighton Moss reserve. In this blog I focus upon a few memorable days in Cornwall and Lancashire, all of which are concerned at least in part with the same family of birds, and one I have become increasingly fascinated by. Waders!
In autumn thousands of waders migrate through Britain from breeding grounds in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. Many stay for the winter. They feed on mudflats and in shallow water along the shoreline and in estuaries, sometimes congregating in huge flocks. In Cornwall we know them primarily as shore birds.
What is it that I like about them? No doubt I have been influenced by several summers recording the nests of the Oystercatchers which breed on Looe Island (one of few wader species that has a breeding population in Cornwall), which I described in a blog in 2020. I love their ebullience and vigilance. But there is more to it than that.
The more I learn about waders, the more I marvel at their beauty and their extraordinary lives, which may encompass huge migrations. Because of the development of tracking devices, we now know that some fly thousands of miles non-stop without a break. The record is held by Bar-tailed Godwits which fly from Alaska to New Zealand – 11000 miles without stopping. This means they fly continuously for 8 days! This is the longest known non-stop journey by any bird. Their endurance is formidable.
I love the way too that their behaviour is often determined by the state of the tide, alternating between busy, sometimes frantic, feeding activity and patient waiting. They will stand stoically in flocks for hours, waiting for the tide to go out, as in this picture I took of Dunlin on the Lancashire coast at high tide. Congregation in large flocks provides individuals with more chance of escaping predation.
But it is perhaps their association with wild places that is the key to their allure. Finding true wilderness in Britain is difficult. Nature writer Paul Evans has sagely observed that ‘something like wilderness is restricted to cliffs, estuaries and dreams’. Estuaries are quintessentially wild places, governed by the natural rhythms of the tide. Waders are attracted especially by the mudflats revealed at low tide, where they can feed (day or night) on invertebrates – worms, molluscs, crustaceans. Tracts of salt marsh are also important, providing roosting sites when the tide is high, and a mosaic of creeks where they can feed or shelter.
Moreover, the waders that are drawn to estuaries, are unequivocally wild and untamed. There is a resolute aloofness about them. J.A. Baker (author of The Peregrine, one of the most extraordinary bird books ever written) described waders as ‘birds of the forlorn edge of land’. Their mournful, plaintive, cries evoke the spirit of wild places. In winter I love to hear the melancholy ‘teu’ of the Redshank or the far-carrying ‘cour-li’ of the Curlew. The latter I hear frequently in winter along the Looe rivers, and sadly now it is a reminder that this is a bird whose breeding populations in Britain is in serious decline.
22nd May, a visit to North Lancashire.
My first wader red-letter day in 2021 came in North Lancashire in May. A short drive south from Lancaster, the river Conder flows down to the coast near Glasson Dock. This is an easily accessible place. The river here has steep banks where the mud is exposed at low tide. There is a small roadside platform where I have come with my grandsons to view some pools which often hold interesting birds. We look cautiously over the protective fence and sure enough are immediately aware of a scatter of noisy black and white birds, some of them nesting on artificial platforms installed to provide protection from predators. There are numerous Black-headed Gulls, which of course actually have chocolate-brown heads, and to my surprise a pair of Avocets! These are highly distinctive waders, with their pied livery and graceful upturned black bills.
On another platform are nesting Common Terns (a bird I rarely see in Cornwall). The black tip to the red bill is the key to identification. These are summer visitors.
We scan the edge of the pools and become aware of a wader chick picking its way among the stones. Its slightly upturned bill identifies it as an Avocet!
Then another appears, and two more with an adult.
Wader chicks are precocial, meaning that they can see very soon after hatching from the egg, are covered in down, and can walk and run straight away. They learn quickly to feed themselves, by sight and touch. They can also swim, which the young Avocets quickly demonstrate!
They wander in a grassy area above the pools. Until they can fly, they are particularly vulnerable to predation, and learn to crouch and hide. They are watched over by the parent birds which carry out the duties of sentinel, sometimes quite aggressively. The chicks will take more than a month to fledge.
I have never seen Avocet chicks before. Avocets do not breed in Cornwall or Devon. The nearest colony to Looe is in Poole Harbour in Dorset. Avocets became extinct as a breeding species in the UK in 1893, harassed by hunting and egg collecting. But since the Second World War they have been re-established, first nesting at Minsmere in Suffolk in 1947. They like brackish or saline wetlands and have now spread to many sites in Britain, with at least 1600 breeding pairs. This is a great conservation success story, and it is not surprising that the Avocet has been adopted as the emblem of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Reluctantly we tear ourselves away from the Avocet family and the Common Terns and look across the road. In the meadow is a solitary Lapwing, always a bird to savour, with its distinctive crest, the ‘peewit’ cries, the aerobatic flip-flop flight. Once such a common bird of the open countryside, but no longer. Like the Curlew, the Lapwing is highly vulnerable to changing agricultural practices, and both birds are now Red-listed birds of Conservation Concern.
In the river below there are more waders feeding on the exposed mud, including a small flock of another large, long-billed, wader, the Black-tailed Godwit, also Red-listed.
One of them flaps its wings and shows the white wing stripe which helps differentiate this species from the Bar-tailed Godwit.
Several birds are in a transient phase between summer and winter plumage. Perhaps some are non-breeding birds. Most of the Black-tailed Godwits that winter in Britain breed in Iceland; should these birds have already departed?
A couple of days later I walk by the River Lune a few miles inland. Waders breed here too – Common Sandpiper and Oystercatcher. I spot a busy Common Sandpiper on the riverbank, but the bird that really attracts my attention is not a wader. Swimming past the sandpiper is a female Goosander. This is a large ‘sawbill’ duck, which dives to feed and nests in holes in trees. In its wake is a gorgeous duckling.
As I watch it climbs on to its mother’s back and takes a ride. But where are the duckling’s siblings? I fear they may have been predated already. So many young birds meet an early death.
4th August, Sandpipers at Walmsley
My second wader red-letter day came in early August in Cornwall. Summer was already passing into autumn in the natural world. Passage migrants were already on their way south from northerly breeding grounds. For several days I was diverted by reports of a juvenile Marsh Harrier which had taken up residence at Walmsley Sanctuary near Wadebridge. Most of my birding friends had been to see it and take amazing photographs. I give in and drive across to North Cornwall. Walmsley is a superb wetland less than a mile from the Camel estuary. It is accessible to members of the Cornwall Birdwatching and Preservation Society (CBWPS) and there is an excellent tower hide for which I have a key.
I climb the stairs and enter the hide, where I find another birder, camera at the ready. I sit down and together we scan the reserve, which is a mosaic of reedbeds and pools, some with extensive muddy margins. There are a few trees. There are plenty of Mallard and a few Gadwall, a lovely family of Mute Swans with cygnets, Moorhens, Coots and Dabchicks, and a couple of Grey Herons. Swifts swirl overhead.
But there is no sign of a Marsh Harrier. I become aware of a few small waders that have flown on to the mud but have disappeared behind some reeds. I guess that they may be Green Sandpipers, which usually appear in small numbers in Cornwall on their southward migration from the boreal forests of northern Eurasia to wintering grounds in southern Europe and beyond. These are birds which prefer freshwater sites. I have seen Green Sandpipers here before.
My interest in the sandpipers is suddenly diverted as a Grey Heron lifts noisily into the air, causing a minor commotion. The juvenile Marsh Harrier is disturbed from a tree in mid-reserve, and flies into the distance before I can grab my camera. It disappears!
Disappointed, I return to the sandpipers which have now appeared from behind the reeds. One, with dark upper body plumage, is certainly a Green Sandpiper, but another bird looks different, with much lighter markings on its breast, and browner colouring. My colleague advises that it is a Wood Sandpiper, a different species. The two species aid identification by posing together as they pick their way over the mud. The differences are clear-cut.
I cannot remember whether I have seen Wood Sandpiper before. It is rarer than Green in Cornwall and appears on passage from the sub-Arctic to southern Europe or Africa. A few pairs nest in the Scottish Highlands.
Later in the day I consult my ‘life-list’ of birds, which is still lodged in my battered copy of probably the most influential identification guide of all time – A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe by Roger Peterson, Guy Mountfort and P.A.D.Hollom, (the 1964 edition). I note that I ‘ticked’ Green Sandpiper in 1989. But against Wood Sandpiper there is no tick. Never mind the Marsh Harrier, I have seen a new species!
30th November, Wacker Quay
It is the last day of November 2021. Winter is here. I gather my camera, binoculars, and telescope, and drive the eleven miles east from my home in Looe to Wacker Quay on the river Lynher.
While some waders pass through Cornwall on their migrations south, in winter others come to stay. In this season the best place to find waders is often an estuary. Of course, in Looe we have immediate access to the estuary of the Looe rivers and here we can find waders in winter, with small flocks of Redshank and Curlew, and occasional appearances by rarer visitors like Greenshank. But if I want to see waders in larger numbers and variety, I must visit one of the larger estuaries. The most accessible of these from Looe is the Tamar complex, including the Lynher. This beautiful river flows down from Bodmin Moor to join the Tamar, and below St Germans has a spacious estuary whose sheltered waters in winter are a magnet for waterfowl and waders. Wacker Quay on its southern side is the best place to access the river, but if the birds are on the north side, they can be at least a kilometre away – hence the need for a telescope. This is a big river.
Wacker Quay is a good place to see wintering Curlew, Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit and Dunlin, but the big attraction is the bird which I encountered near Lancaster in May – the Avocet. In winter the numbers in Britain more than double with an influx of continental birds. The Tamar estuary complex usually has at least 200 birds in winter.
I carefully time my arrival to coincide with high tide, when birds are not feeding but might be clustered on the salt marsh waiting for the tide to drop. There is now no working quay at Wacker, but in 2012 a riverside walk was opened, leading from the car parking area along the riverbank to the small village of Antony on the main road. The development of the quay took place in the 1880s to carry railway equipment brought back from the Sudan (and by barge along the Lynher and loaded on to railway wagons) to provide supplies to military forts close by. In 1906 the railway closed, but traces remain of the infrastructure in the sliver of woodland along the riverbank.
As I park my car, I am aware of a scattering of wildfowl on the section of the river system immediately before me, a broad side stream known as Wacker Lake; there are ‘springs’ of Teal, several smart Wigeon drakes, and a cluster of Shelduck. Redshank call as they lift from the water’s edge, a melancholy sound permeating the morning air. I set up my telescope and peer across the main river to the far bank, where I can discern a long cluster of white birds. Could these be Avocets? I focus the scope on them and realise quickly that this is a long line of Shelduck.
Out in mid-river I spot several Great Crested Grebes, regular winter visitors to the estuary. But then I realise that further upstream there is another line of smaller white birds. These are Avocets, waiting for the tide to drop. I carefully count them, and there are 80 birds. In the trees I can hear the soft, sibilant calls of wary Redwings, my first of the winter. I follow the footpath east along the edge of the estuary for several hundred metres until I reach the top of the salt marsh and set up my telescope, close to a remnant of the old railway, a concrete circular turntable.
Along the edge of the river are a mixture of roosting birds. Shelduck are prominent, but there are also plenty of Curlew and Redshank, and Wigeon are floating idly in the shallows.
The tide is beginning to drop, and then I am aware of a flock of fast-flying black and white birds heading downstream.
They land in the shallow water in a tight phalanx and appear to be surveying their options.
Some of them fly up on to the edge of the marsh to join the roosting birds. The Avocets have landed! There are nearly 30 birds, just part of the distant flock I had seen half an hour earlier.
Avocets started appearing on the Tamar in small numbers in the late 1940s, soon after the colony in Suffolk was established, though it is possible that birds starting to winter in Cornwall came from the continent and not East Anglia.
As I watch, the tide begins dropping more quickly, and the birds begin to feed. Where the water is clear they feed by sight, picking prey from the surface of water or mud. But they also forage by touch, sweeping the upcurved bill from side to side through water or loose sediment to locate their invertebrate prey.
As I watch them, I think back to previous occasions that I have encountered flocks of Avocets on this estuary complex. My first somewhat hazy recollection is of a day in the late 1960s further up the Tamar, and of a riverbank encounter with a celebrated local resident, Tony Soper, co-founder of the BBC’s Natural History Unit and its first wildlife cameraman, and a popular TV wildlife presenter. Much later I was a regular participant on the winter birdwatching cruises up the Tamar and Lynher, encountering large flocks of Avocets.
On some of these trips we encountered another spectacular and considerably larger wading bird, the Spoonbill. A few visit the Lynher in winter.
Sadly, there are no Spoonbills today, but a brief visit to Millbrook Lake, a few miles away, before I head for home brings sightings of another beautiful winter visitor, a Red-breasted Merganser drake. This is a sawbill, like the larger Goosander I saw on the river Lune. It is not a wader, but it rounds off a most satisfying morning.
By Derek Spooner
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