Watching Waders

PUBLISHED: 16:09 28 July 2009 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013

A flock of sanderling Photo: David Chapman

A flock of sanderling Photo: David Chapman

Watching Waders<br/>Late summer and early autumn is a good time to see waders around the county. In this August issue, Cornwall Life reveals where and how.

Watching Waders

Late summer and early autumn is a good time to see waders around the county. Cornwall Life reveals where and how. Words and pictures by David Chapman

As far as birds are concerned, we are now well past the middle of summer and those birds that we would describe as migrants are beginning to move south and west again for the winter. The return of wading birds to our estuaries, beaches and reservoirs is usually the first sign of this autumnal migration. We often think of waders as winter visitors to Cornwall, but though it is true that some of these birds over-winter in the county, many are far more numerous in autumn.

So, when you are sitting and relaxing on a Cornish beach in August take a careful look around to see who is sharing the beach with you. Here are four waders you may see during August and September.

SANDERLING (Calidris alba)

The sanderling is truly one of our most charismatic and distinctive wading birds. As its name suggests, the sanderling shows a distinct preference for sandy beaches, a fact which immediately makes it more accessible to human observers. In fact its name also hints at the stature of this bird. The term 'ling' added to the end of a word often implies that something is diminutive; in much the same way as a duckling is a small duck and a gosling is a small goose, the sanderling is a small creature of the sand.

The sanderling doesn't appear to run: the problem for our eyes is that its legs move faster than we can perceive, so its body seems to levitate across the beach. Many observers liken the movement of a sanderling to that of a clockwork toy, but I have yet to see a clockwork toy that can move at this speed.

It is sometimes possible to find sanderlings away from the sea, in the middle of a sandy beach probing for crustacea and small worms, but most of their time is spent at the edge of the sea. It is here that the sanderling finds most of its food, disturbed by the vigour of the waves as they break onto the beach.

I haven't yet described a sanderling but make no apologies for placing a lesser emphasis on the physical description because their identification is often best determined by their behaviour. Outside the breeding season the sanderling is pure white underneath and pale grey above; so pale is this bird that its black eye, legs and bill are all the more obvious. Birds in breeding plumage are transformed by a brick-red upper breast, which we see only vestiges of occasionally in Cornwall, usually during August. Juvenile sanderlings can be identified by a distinctive dark 'shoulder' patch.

RINGED PLOVER (Charadrius hiaticula)

The ringed plover has many similarities to the sanderling: it is similar in size; is most common on beaches and is very active. The sanderling shows a distinct liking for sandy beaches, whereas the ringed plover is not as fussy, often being found on pebbles, stones and occasionally on rocks. We are more likely to encounter the ringed plover at the back of a beach than down by the waves' edge and it is quite possible to find them inland on moorland. Like the sanderling it will run rather than take flight to avoid danger and to find food, but its regular bursts of speed are well broken by long pauses so its motion is very much more stop-start than the fluid sanderling.

The ringed plover gets its name from its plumage, which at all times of year consists of a distinct dark ring around its neck. In summer this ring is black, whilst in winter it fades to dark brown. Above this ring is a white band and another dark ring through its eye, while it is plain brown on its back and white underneath.

CURLEW SANDPIPER (Calidris ferruginea)

The curlew sandpiper is another wading bird which is similar in size to both the ringed plover and the sanderling. It belongs to the family of sandpipers and its closest relative in Cornwall is the dunlin, which is far more common. The one feature that helps to distinguish the curlew sandpiper from the rest of its family is its relatively long down-curving bill, like that of the curlew.

As with the sanderling, the curlew sandpiper has red in its plumage during the summer and we might be lucky enough to see some remnants of this if we find one during August. Unfortunately, most of the birds we see in Cornwall are juvenile birds or winter-plumaged adults. In these plumages their identification is slightly more difficult. Compared to a dunlin the curlew sandpiper is slightly larger, has a longer, more down-curving bill and has clean white underparts, a regular scaly pattern on its back and a prominent white supercilium (line over the eye). The juvenile curlew sandpiper also has a peach or buff wash on its neck.

LITTLE STINT (Calidris minuta)

Completing this set of four waders is the smallest of the lot at somewhere between 14-15cm long. This is sometimes the most approachable of all of these wading birds. I once had a group of them trotting around my tripod legs as I was trying to photograph them. However, where little stints associate with other birds they usually move with them so a close approach is not always guaranteed.

The little stint is like a small sanderling, with similar plumage variation in summer and winter. When seen close up, the little stint has two pairs of clear white lines along its back, but identification between these two species is best done on size and behaviour. The little stint is much smaller and is not likely to be found chasing the waves; instead it's more often seen on estuaries and occasionally on beaches and the banks of lakes.

The birds featured can be approached quite closely, though it would probably be more accurate to say that all of these birds are prepared to approach us closely! If we tried to walk up to a bird it would move away; however, if we are prepared to sit and watch, then many of these birds come quite close once you have gained their trust.

For sanderling the best beaches are at Mounts Bay, Hayle, the beaches of St Martin's (Isles of Scilly) and around the Camel estuary. Ringed plovers can also be found on moorland, with Davidstow being a particularly good place for them, and the fringes of moorland reservoirs such as Crowdy and Colliford. Curlew sandpipers and little stints are never common but occur most frequently at the Hayle estuary, though they can be seen at any beach, estuary or reservoir in the county.

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