For many birdwatchers things are just hotting up! We might be reaching the end of summer, but this is when a group of birds known as waders start to appear on our shores. Here are ten waders to watch out for.

What are waders?

Waders can be a tough group to define. The term is used to describe members of a number of bird families, all from the order Charadriiformes (which also includes gulls, terns, skuas, and auks). As the name suggests, most waders are usually found wading through shallow water, or along its muddy margins. They normally have fairly long legs, are often largely brown (but not always!) and tend to gather in groups. In other parts of the world, they are known as shorebirds.

An early autumn

Waders are birds in a hurry. Many of those we see in the UK breed far to the north, in the Arctic, or at least close to it. Summer is short there, so it doesn’t pay to hang around. They head north in spring, try to raise some chicks and are on their way south again by ‘our’ summer.

The first birds to return are usually adults that failed to breed – perhaps their nest was predated, or they couldn’t find a partner to begin with. They’re soon followed by more successful adults, who leave their young to fend for themselves at an early age. Finally, the young birds start to arrive, making their very first migration.

Where to see them?

Away from their breeding grounds, most waders gather around water. Some nature reserves are famous for attracting large numbers, but during autumn migration they can turn up almost anywhere. You could find them on coastal mudflats, inland gravel pits, and even stone-lined reservoirs. They migrate both night and day, so the cast of characters is always changing. A visit at dawn and another in the evening could reveal completely different birds. New arrivals are especially likely after a period of bad weather, forced to land by the rain.

Six to spot

Green sandpiper

Green sandpiperCredit: Tom Hibbert

One of the first waders to return to the UK. Some arrive as early as June, whilst other birds are still making their way north! They breed in Russia and Scandinavia, though occasionally a pair or two nests in Scotland. Most summer and autumn visitors just stop off on their way to southern Europe or northern Africa, but some stay for the winter.

Green sandpipers have a very dark, blackish-brown back, speckled with faint, fine white spots. The head and breast are a slightly paler, streakier brown. The belly is very white, with a sharp distinction between it and the streaky brown breast. The long legs and fairly long bill are greyish green. In flight it shows a white rump and a white tail with thick black bars, as well as very dark underwings.

They’re often found on inland waterbodies, picking their way around the muddy margins. They can turn up on surprisingly small, muddy puddles. They’re usually on their own, rather than in flocks. Like other sandpipers, they bob their body up and down as they walk.

Common sandpiper

Common sandpiperCredit: Mark Hamblin 2020VISION

Common sandpipers breed in the UK, on upland rivers and reservoirs in the north and west. They migrate south for the winter, heading to coastal West Africa. As they head south in late summer and autumn, they make pit stops in other parts of the UK, as do migrants from continental Europe.

They look similar to green sandpipers but are slightly smaller and not as dark on top. The upperparts are a warm brown, whilst the underparts are white. A useful feature is that the white feathers reach up the sides of the body, forming a spur between the brown feathers of the breast and the wings.

Common sandpipers usually look like they’re crouching down, and often bob the rear of their body. In flight they have a bold white bar on each wing, and the brown of their back extends down onto the tail. They have a distinctive flight style, low over the water with rapid bursts of wingbeats and short glides. Listen out for their high-pitched ‘swee swee swee’ call.

Black-tailed godwit

Black tailed godwitCredit: Tom Hibbert

A small number of black-tailed godwits nest in the UK, but many more come for the winter from Iceland, or stop off on their journey to southwest Europe or West Africa. They tend to spend the winter on coastal wetlands, but on migration can drop in on inland sites. They form flocks and wade out into belly-deep water to feed.

They are large, elegant waders with long dark legs and a long beak. The beak is orange or pinkish at the base and darker at the tip. In summer their head, neck and breast are a rusty orange colour. The breast has some dark barring that extends down onto the whiter belly. Males have black feathers on their back, edged with orange brown, mixed with some plainer grey-brown feathers. Females have more of the grey-brown feathers. Young birds have a buff wash to the neck and breast. As autumn progresses, black-tailed godwits replace their colourful feathers with a plainer, grey-brown winter plumage.

They can be confused with the similar bar-tailed godwit, which has a shorter, more up-turned beak. The two species are most easily separated in flight, when it becomes clear how they got their names. Black-tailed godwits have a white tail with a thick black band at the end. Bar-tailed godwits have dark barring over their whole tail, with a white wedge extending up onto the back.

Ruff

ruffCredit: Tom Hibbert

Ruffs once nested across Britain, but their wetland habitats were drained for farmland and the birds themselves hunted for feathers. Now nesting attempts are rare. Fortunately, they’re still commonly seen passing through on migration from Scandinavia and Russia to Africa. Some stay in the UK for the winter.

Ruffs are incredibly variable birds, in size as well as plumage! They have a plump body, a long neck, and a head that looks too small for them. The legs are yellowish-orange and the medium-length beak curves down slightly. For most of the year, adult ruffs are fairly plain with a scaly-looking grey-brown back and paler belly. Young birds have duller legs and a buff wash to the head, neck, and breast.

In spring, males develop an incredible new look, with plumes on their head and a huge feathery ruff around their neck. Some of the early returning males in summer may still have traces of this plumage. Ruffs will feed in both freshwater and saltwater marshes and often turn up inland. You can sometimes find them feeding on wet grassland, too.

Greenshank

greenshankCredit: Bertie Gregory 2020VISION

Around 1,000 pairs of greenshank nest in Scotland, with many of these wintering around the coasts of the UK and Ireland. Autumn sees larger numbers passing through on their way from Russia and Scandinavia to West Africa. These passage birds often stop off at inland wetlands as well as coastal pools, creeks, and mudflats.

Greenshanks are fairly large waders with long greenish-yellow legs and a stout, slightly upcurved beak. The beak is thick and greyish at the base, tapering slightly to a darker tip. Young birds and adults in winter plumage are greyish, with some streaking on the head, neck, and breast. The streaking is more extensive on young birds. They all have a white belly. In their summer plumage, adults have some white-fringed black feathers on their back. They also have more streaking on the breast, including dark chevrons stretching down the flanks.

In flight they show a white wedge extending from the tail up to the centre of the back. The tail itself is white with dark barring, which is boldest in the centre. They often give a loud, ‘tyu-tyu-tyu’ call.

Dunlin

dunlinCredit: John Bridges

Dunlins nest in boggy uplands in northern parts of the UK, heading to West Africa for the winter. Birds nesting in Iceland and Greenland also stop off here to refuel on their route south. Other dunlins spend the winter in the UK, arriving from breeding grounds in Scandinavia and Russia.

They are small, plump waders with black legs and a medium length, slightly downcurved, black beak. In summer, adults have a reddish-brown back and distinctive black belly patch. In their winter plumage, they’re grey on top and white underneath. Young birds have a scaly-looking brown and black back, with black spots on the breast and belly.

Dunlins are usually found in flocks. Huge numbers gather at coastal sites, but small flocks are often found inland. They’re active birds that run around pecking at the mud. Rarer waders sometimes tag along with flocks of dunlin, but careful study is needed to pick them out.  

Fancy a challenge?

Then take a look for these four rarer waders, sometimes spotted both at coastal sites and inland.

Wood sandpiper

wood sandpiperCredit: Pete Richman

Although a few pairs nest in Scotland, most breed in Russia and Scandinavia. Small numbers stop off in the UK on their way to Africa. They’re most common in coastal southeast England, but can be found at inland sites across Britain.

They look similar to the more common green sandpiper, but aren’t as dark. They have a paler brown back with larger pale spots, giving them a spangled look. The streaking on their breast blends into the white belly, without the sharp demarcation shown by green sandpipers. One of the best features for telling them apart is that wood sandpipers have a bold, pale line above the eye (called a supercilium).

Curlew sandpiper

curlew sandpiperCredit: Tom Hibbert

Curlew sandpipers sometimes pass through the UK on their way from breeding grounds in the Arctic to wintering grounds in southern and West Africa. The numbers that stop off here vary from year to year. They’re mostly seen on coastal mud but do turn up inland. They’re often found hanging out with flocks of dunlin, who they resemble – but are more elegant!

They have longer legs and a longer, smoothly downcurved black beak. Adults in summer plumage stand out thanks to their brick-red underparts. In their winter plumage they are grey above and white below, with a prominent white supercilium (the line above the eye). Young curlew sandpipers have a scaly looking back, pale bellies and peach washed face and breast. In flight, they have an obvious bright white rump – dunlins have a black line running down their rump.

Little stint

little stintCredit: Tom Hibbert

Little stints breed in the Arctic and winter in Africa, with some stopping off in the UK on their way south. They’re most common on the east coast, but can also be seen on the west coast and at inland waterbodies. They’re often found with flocks of dunlin.

They are tiny waders, even smaller than a dunlin. They have short black legs, a squat body, and a short, straight beak with a very fine tip. Adults have reddish-brown or grey-brown upperparts and white underparts, with some smudgy streaking at the breast sides. They turn greyer in winter. Young birds have a scaly looking grey, brown and black back, with two prominent white stripes on each side. They also have a white supercilium that splits into two lines.

Spotted redshank

spotted redshankCredit: David Tipling 2020VISION

Spotted redshanks are another wader that occasionally calls in whilst travelling from the Arctic to Africa. They’re usually found on coastal marshes, sometimes in very small flocks. They wade out into open water and pick food from the surface.

They are slightly slimmer and more elegant than the more familiar common redshank. They have longer legs and a much longer, finer beak. Adults are unmistakable in summer plumage as they are jet black with some fine white speckling and barring. They soon lose the black feathers and become grey on the upperparts, with paler whitish underparts. Young birds are a duskier grey-brown. Both young birds and winter-plumaged adults have a bold white line in front of the eye.  

Suggested spotlight at bottom of blog

Don't risk spreading bird flu

Bird flu is having a devastating effect on many of our wild bird populations. Whilst you're out wader watching, help prevent the spread by following government advice:

  • Keep dogs on leads
  • Do not pick up or touch dead or sick wild birds
  • Do not touch wild bird feathers or surfaces contaminated with droppings
  • Report dead wild waterfowl or other dead birds, such as gulls or birds of prey, to Defra's GB helpline: 03459 335577 (for Northern Ireland, see advice here)

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