On Saturday, 31st October, I took part in Wader Conservation World Watch (WCWW), an event organised by a UK based charity, WaderQuest. The event has been held annually since 2014 to celebrate the formation of the charity, whose original aim was to raise money to support the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper captive breeding programme at WWT Slimbridge.
The event is international, involving no more than the simple act of going out to look for wading birds, which fortunately abound at this time of year in Norfolk. The basic idea is to raise awareness of waders and the problems they are facing; habitat loss, disturbance of feeding grounds, encroaching human development, drainage of wetlands….the list goes on. Just as importantly, the event celebrates the people who are involved, either professionally or voluntarily, in wader conservation. It really is quite good fun, and serves to promote the beauty and diversity of these enigmatic birds and the amazing feats of migration they undertake.
Accordingly, the bright early morning saw my friend, Allan Archer, and I peering into a waterlogged field adjacent to the public footpath at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes. There, not 20 metres from where we stood, was a wader. A special wader and one that really shouldn’t have been there. The bird in question was a Lesser Yellowlegs, an inhabitant of North America that should have been wintering in the Southern USA or South America, but had somehow found its way to this marsh in North Norfolk. This elegant, long-legged creature had been delighting folk for several days and was remarkably confiding. Perhaps it has spent most of its life in remote areas where it hasn’t encountered people and has therefore not learned to fear us. Whatever, it was a delight on the eye in the early morning sunlight, with its startling bright yellow legs, mottled dark brown plumage and long bill which it used to probe amongst the grasses looking for small snails and worms. An excellent start to the proceedings, and having taken our fill of photographs and video we thought we’d better move on before the forecast storm Aiden hit hard.
Our next stop, the RSPB reserve at Titchwell, is always a great spot for waders that enjoy the range of food rich freshwater and saltwater habitats, as well as the breath-taking expanse of open beach. I love this area, especially when the waders can be seen in the full glory of a winter sun. Happily, we were able to take advantage of an hour of such rare conditions before the gathering storm engulfed us. During this time at low tide, we could revel in watching and listening to piping Oystercatchers, fluting Redshanks, scurrying Knot, Dunlin and Turnstones whilst Bar-tailed Godwits and forlorn looking Grey Plovers probed amongst the sand and mussel beds. The evocative cries of Curlew echoing across the beach served to emphasise the feeling of wildness and space this coastline of ours provides. Wonderful.
It is a sobering thought to realise most of these birds originate from foreign lands. Very few will have bred in the UK, with most having spent their summer in regions of Arctic tundra. They move around our shoreline and estuaries, seeking sustenance, avoiding predators; essentially trying to survive. They inhabit a world so different from our own, where long distance flights over hostile seas is a necessity, and competition for prime feeding spots can be fierce. The birds we were watching busily looking for morsels on exposed mussel encrusted fossilised tree stumps, would have come from Scandinavia, Siberia, Greenland and other northern territories. Some could be en route to west Africa; some may move further south into Europe. Its all fascinating and dynamic.
Sadly, even here the birds could not rest; a regular procession of people and, more worryingly, loose dogs, would force the birds off their feeding grounds to take flight further down the beach. These animals can only successfully stock up with food between tides when soft sand and mussel beds are exposed. If they are constantly disturbed it is unlikely they will be able to find sufficient sustenance. People must realise we share this world and do not own it.
We endured the gathering gloom and strengthening wind howling across the exposed beach, whipping streams of stinging sand in its wake, for as long as we could. But then the rain began to fall from leaden skies, so with a satisfying tally of 13 species logged, it was time to retreat for a hot drink and a bit of shelter before deciding how to spend the remainder of the day. No such luxury for the birds of course; they would have to weather the storm with no protection other than their feathers.
It was pretty clear that the inclement conditions were not going to abate, so we drove a couple of miles to Brancaster Staithe, where from our cars, we could munch our lunch, watch the exposed mud and enjoy whatever decided to come our way. There were a few waders on show, grey and brown plumage against the grey and brown mud, making observation and photography challenging, but we encountered nothing new. The chief source of entertainment was provided by Herring Gulls that had adopted the habit of prising a mussel from its niche, grasping it firmly in their mandibles and then rising 10 metres or so and dropping the poor shellfish onto the exposed stony slope. It generally took a few attempts, but eventually the mussel would be unlucky enough to smack against a stone and would break open allowing the cruel, efficient beak of the gull to pull it from its shell and feast. This was rather interesting behaviour I thought, although I’m sure it’s common practice. One gull seemed more accomplished than another, so presumably the less successful bird was learning this new skill by watching the master predator at work. Then with the rain continuing to cascade, banks of blue-grey clouds rolling ever closer and little prospect of adding to our list, we called time and headed home.
You will all encounter waders. Whether it’s a trip to the beach, a stroll across our marshes or maybe just sitting under a starry August sky, when Common Sandpipers will be navigating their way south and calling to one another as they fly unseen. When you find them, pause to think about the amazing journeys they undertake, the wonderful sounds they make, the visual splendour as shimmering flocks wheel around the skies. Give them space, respect their need for a peaceful time to feed, but above all treasure them as wonderful creatures that share our world.
Since its formation, Rick and Elis Simpson, the founders of WaderQuest have expanded their operations and now represent a real force for wader conservation on a global scale. Have a look at their website (linked at the top of this article), where you will find the global results of the 2020 WCWW. Support them if you can.
To find out more about this specific event have a look at the video below.