Waders – not many people notice them. Yes, you can hardly miss something the size of a Curlew with its distinctive downward curved beak or the petrol-green sheen on the back of a Lapwing sporting it’s smart pointed crest.
However, there’s an awful lot more to waders (or shorebirds as Americans call them) than most people might think although it doesn’t help that most are tiny and wary of humans. Waders make the British Isles special though – there’s something about this part of the world that suits them just fine in winter.
Areas such as Strangford Lough are especially important and can hold tens of thousands of birds during the winter months with many more making a stop-over at times of passage migration.
Part of the attraction is to do with our coastline (one of the longest in Europe as compared to landmass) which gives us sandy beaches and undisturbed inlets jam-packed with invertebrates to help keep the weight on during the cold winter months.
Most waders that winter here breed within the Arctic Circle, where the increased hours of daylight (and lack of competition from other species) provide just the right conditions for success.
It’s a different story up there in winter (almost total darkness and extremely cold!) but however cold we might feel it’s positively balmy here for most waders. One such bird is the Sanderling – distinctive both in its appearance (snow white in winter and with a brick-red breast in summer) and especially its behaviour.
Sanderling can be seen playing cat and mouse with the tide on sandy beaches – running up and down the strandline after each wave, hurriedly searching for whatever morsels have just been washed in, they really area treat to watch. As we speak migration is beginning to come into full flow and our coast sometimes seems to pulse and writhe with flocks of hundreds of small birds making their way south.
Dunlin, Turnstone, Knot, Ringed Plover, Godwits and more can all be seen together jostling for position providing the birdwatcher (or just plain watcher) with a series of natural history soap operas right before the eyes.
As well as being a feast for the eyes waders are also astounding record breakers. Bar-tailed Godwits in Alaska are able to shrink their internal organs in order to make room for more fat – so they can fly non-stop from Alaska to winter in....New Zealand?
That’s a distance of nearly 7000km without a rest over the entire length of the Pacific Ocean! Other species such as the Little Stint (aptly named as it is tiny even when compared to a Dunlin) migrates from the High Arctic to southern Africa! Waders are some of the greatest survivors and travellers of the natural world and I’m glad to live in one of the places that suit them best. Time to pick up your binoculars and head for the coast!
If you would like to report a wildlife sighting visit http://nibirding.blogspot.com - the latest online resource for nature lovers in Northern Ireland