When we think of that group of birds we call waders, we generally picture elegant, well-proportioned birds with long-legs and long-bills probing the mud for food. But the family consists of a range in size from the graceful curlews and godwits down through medium sized birds such as redshanks and golden plovers to the smaller dunlins and stints.
They are a fascinating group of birds, as well as a special sight to behold on a winter’s day; flying in unison above an incoming tide to find rest and sleep, waiting for the tide to ebb exposing the mud-flats so they can continue to feed.
Some have undergone an evolutionary divergence and now occupy specialist niche habitats; lapwing and stone curlew have inhabited dry farmland, dotterel have taken to the mountain tops; phalaropes, some of our smallest waders, spend their winters at sea, many of them in the unhospitable waters of the Southern Atlantic.
One of my favourite shorebirds is the purple sandpiper, though it has not moved from the coast in winter like some I mentioned earlier, it has forsaken the ‘soft coastline’ for the rugged, rocks and crashing surf, where it survives by picking under seaweed and stones for invertebrates – a true rock star!
Purple sandpipers are medium sized, dumpy waders, whose name eludes to the colour of the upper-plumage during the breeding season. In winter it is a dull undistinguished little bird, the brightest parts being the orange/yellow base of the bill and short legs. Its most endearing quality is probably its tameness.
There are one or two waders that fall into this category, of being confiding in the presence of man; dotterels and phalaropes being outstanding examples. I recall trying to take a photograph of a purple sandpiper running unconcernedly over the rocks towards me. It was too close to focus with my camera and a 500mm lens, I had to keep stepping backwards until I had it focused in frame.
They always seem to have this trust in man and in parts of the UK where they were once a common winter visitor, it was possible to approach large flocks and watch them feeding, at close quarters, amongst the rocks.
Purple sandpipers have fared badly in recent times with a 50% reduction in numbers wintering UK; thought to be around 10,000 birds. What has caused this drastic decline? Research has shown that recruitment of young birds into the population has been insufficient to maintain their numbers. Exactly why this should be is open for debate, but climate change has been argued as a possible contributing factor, with birds preferring a colder winter climate.
Evidence would suggest that young birds are choosing to over-winter in Iceland in increasing numbers, rather than continuing on to the UK from their Arctic breeding grounds; unlike the adults that are site faithful and keep returning to their traditional wintering grounds. As the older birds die off the demographics change and the overall number of wintering birds decline.
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