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Call of the Wild

July 17, 2019

Waders are a great favourite among birdwatchers. Everything about them is right: they often have beautiful plumages, well-proportioned birds giving them a sense of elegance: they have evocative, atmospheric calls, the epitome of wild places and they travel huge distances from the freezing Arctic tundra to the sub-Saharan tropics.

You don’t have to travel far to see good numbers of waders. From about the middle of June to the end of October inland wetlands, reservoirs, gravel pits or if you can stomach the smell, your local sewage farm are all good places to find these most attractive birds. At this time of year, large numbers of northern waders pass through Europe on their way south to distant wintering grounds and many freshwater and even some more typical coastal species are commonly found inland.

 One of the problems of being a birdwatcher is that “summer” is reduced to two or three weeks in the middle of June. Spring migration lasts, roughly speaking until about the end of May and then there is a frustrating interlude in which to catch up with domestic chores before the first migrant waders will be heading south at the end of June! Small flocks of Lapwings, the odd Redshank or Curlew may start to appear at local wetland areas. These species all breed in Britain so it is not until the more northerly Green Sandpipers arrive that one feels that autumn migration has really begun. 

Most waders which pass through in July and early August are typically non-breeding or failed breeding adults in moult and will, therefore, show a blotchy mixture of the worn summer plumage and their drab, functional, winter feathers. August is the time when migration really switches into top gear with the first waves of juvenile birds arriving. Unlike their moulting parents, the juveniles will be in fresh, neat, pristine plumage. From about the middle of July, a much greater variety of waders may be encountered inland. Peak numbers generally occur from mid-August until the end of September. The earlier sandpipers are gradually replaced by Ruffs, Greenshanks, Ringed Plovers, Dunlins, Spotted Redshanks, Whimbrel and a particular favourite of mine, the handsome Black-tailed Godwit.

Large numbers of waders regularly cross the North Atlantic from Greenland to winter in Europe and Africa, but what really gets the birdwatcher’s pulse rate soaring is the discovery of a real American vagrant picking its way through the waders on his or her local patch. The American waders which turn up here are usually the ones with the ability to fly enormous distances in one hop. Many species put on large fat reserves in north-east Canada and then fly out to sea and down the western Atlantic nonstop all the way to the West Indies or South America in one huge trans-oceanic flight. If these birds hit a rapidly moving depression, they are liable to become disorientated and swept out into the Atlantic, either to drop exhausted into the sea or, if they have sufficient fat reserves, to make a landfall in Western Europe.

It is these amazing feats of endurance, as well as the bird’s own inherent attractiveness, that makes waders so popular among birdwatchers and makes autumn such an exciting time to be out and about at your local wetland sites.  

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