Welcome to my Identification Guide to Small Winter Waders.
I was busy feeding some Turnstones at Walcott in Norfolk a few weeks ago, where they will happily take scraps left on the sea wall, when a lady approached the car and asked in an incredulous voice “what are those lovely little birds?” I explained that they were Turnstones, so named because when they are not being handed out seed and bread etc, they would naturally eke a living by turning over stones and seaweed with their slightly upturned beak in search of small crustaceans and invertebrates. I went on to tell her they were almost certainly visiting us for the winter from their summer home in the Arctic tundra. She was quite astounded because she had never noticed these birds before. The episode emphasised to me that although I take these things for granted, that is by no means the case with most people. That pleases me because it validates the need for simple, uncluttered guidance.
Waders as a group of birds are quite fascinating. They undertake immense migratory journeys, occupy just about every geographic niche and come in a colourful array of shapes and sizes. Of the 210 or so species worldwide, the UK hosts a little over 20 breeding species, but is fortunate to be visited by many more during spring and autumn migration, as well as providing refuge for huge numbers during winter. Waders are accessible birds, not for them skulking around in deep woodland, instead they generally love wide open expanses which provides them with the necessary food, roosting and nesting sites. For the casual observer, they are most easily encountered during winter when they will flock to coastal locations to probe amongst the mud and foreshore in search of choice morsels, or like those Turnstones will scurry around your feet picking up scraps. For the beginner, they can be a daunting group to identify, but with practice you will easily be able to narrow a sighting down to a small number of candidates and, more often than not, nail the identification by applying a few visual clues. That’s what this guide is all about. We will break species down into simple, manageable chunks based on size and comparable plumage, habits and habitats.
I will produce further guides to the medium and large winter waders in due course, but for now we’re going to cover five species in some detail: Knot, Dunlin, Sanderling, Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper. We’ll split them into two smaller groups to allow close comparison of similar species. Let’s look at the first three species which are superficially alike.
Knot. The largest of the three. Rotund and grey toned, it can be seen in large swirling flocks around the Wash and other estuaries. Essential features: 1) medium length, straight, black beak, 2) grey flecks and streaks on breast and flanks, and 3) yellow/green legs.
Dunlin. A common brownish wader of muddy marshes, estuarine creeks and foreshore. Points to note: 1) Black decurved beak, 2) brown streaked breast band with clean white belly, and 3) very dark/blackish legs
Sanderling. The smallest of the group. Two tone white/grey, it generally scurries along the tide line pecking at morsels washed up by the waves. Main features: 1) small, straight, black beak, 2) bright white underparts, 3) black legs and at close range note 4) absence of hind toe.
Knot in flight. The overall impression is of a chunky grey bird. More often than not you will see them in flocks which can be large and impressive as they swirl over an estuary. Points to note: 1) Medium, straight, dark beak, 2) Sometimes shows a dark patch on the outer leading edge of the wing. 3) thin white wing stripe, and 4) grey mottled rump with grey tail.
Dunlin in Flight. Small, dark wader, generally seen singly or in small groups. Points to note: 1) Medium length, dark, decurved bill, 2) narrow white wing bar against dark wing, and 3) a most distinctive dark central area along the rump which is bordered by bright white.
Sanderling in Flight. A very small, compact wader with bright white face and underside. Points to note: 1) very short, dark bill, 2) Broad white wing bar bordered by dark feathering, and 3) grey tail.
A few more images for comparison purposes.
Now for the Turnstone and Purple Sandpiper. Of this pair, the Turnstone is by far the most numerous around our shores and is certainly much more obvious. They are extremely confiding even to the extent of happily sharing your fish & chips or bread intended for the gulls. By comparison, Purple Sandpipers are unobtrusive, restricting their activities to picking tiny morsels from rocks and seaweed encrusted groynes where they blend in superbly well and are easily overlooked. They occasionally venture onto the foreshore, but in my experience not very often. However, the two species do associate with one another and can often be found feeding together when they will play chicken with the incoming breakers. They can look alike in poor light, but they are in fact completely different.
Turnstone. Strictly coastal, this jaunty, confiding little wader will happily feed on any proffered scraps. Erstwhile it will poke amongst seaweed encrusted rocks, strandlines and pebble strewn beaches, living up to its name in turning over stones to seek hidden invertebrates. Points to note: 1) Small, slightly upturned beak, 2) Broad black breast band, 3) Bright white underparts, 4) Short, stout bright orange legs, 5) Mottled plumage on back of various shades of brown and black, and 6) patchy, streaked head markings of brown and white
Purple Sandpiper. Nowhere near as common or confiding as the Turnstone, this wallflower amongst waders will often be found in the same habitat. It is another strictly coastal winter visitor. Points to note in comparison with Turnstone: 1) Longer, orange coloured, decurved beak, 2) smoky grey breast band, 3) grey streaked underparts, 4) longer, pale orange legs and 5) More uniform grey toned upperparts, and 6) smooth, smoky grey head
Turnstone in Flight. Points to note: 1) Short white wing bar against otherwise dark wing, 2) White shoulder patches, and 3) White central patch and white base to tail.
Purple Sandpiper in Flight. Overall smoky grey plumage with 1) White wing bar against dark grey wing, and 2) dark central patch on rump and tail with white on sides.
Some further images for comparison.
For completeness we can also have a brief look at Ringed Plover which is really quite unmistakable although never common: 1) bold black bands on the head and breast, 2) bright orange legs and 3) uniform brown back.
In flight the bold head and chest patterning are very obvious as is the bright white wing bar and clean white underbelly.
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