Welcome to my Identification Guide: Winter Waders – Part 2.
Continuing with the theme of winter waders, we’ll now look at some medium sized birds that you may encounter during that season. The categorisation of waders into medium/large is somewhat arbitrary, as is the term ‘winter’. Many of these birds will be present in the country all year, but they tend to congregate in more accessible places and can therefore be more easily seen between October – March. At this time breeding is done with, and those resident birds will be joined by many more thousands that will have bred on high UK moorland or in Arctic tundra. These migrants are seeking a milder climate with plentiful food to spend the shorter days. Part 1 of this series can be found here.
Golden Plover, Pluvialis apricaria (above), a bright, innocent faced bird with a large dark eye and a body length of about 25cm. Very sociable and likely to be encountered in flocks which can number into the hundreds. A bird that breeds in the uplands of the UK, but moves south (joined by others from northern Europe) to spend the winter on coastal mudflats, and is equally likely to be encountered well inland where it will feed on arable and grassland, often associating with Lapwings. Specific points to note: 1) short, pointed bill, 2) bright golden mottling on head and mantle, and 3) liberal spotting on golden-washed breast and flanks.
Grey Plover, Pluvialis squatarola (below), same size as the Golden Plover. A dull, monochrome bird with a forlorn expression (you have to see one to know what I mean), and a mournful piping call. It does not breed in the UK, the birds we see in winter come from the high Arctic areas of Russia. It is a strictly coastal species, only likely to be found singly or in small groups of 2-3 birds. Specific points: 1) short, stout bill – thicker than Golden Plover, 2) grey toned plumage across upper parts, and 3) much less spotting on flanks and underside.
Golden Plover (above), when seen overhead these birds sparkle bright white and gold, particularly beautiful against a clear blue sky (see image below). They have specific identification features: 1) Bright white underwing, 2) spangled rump and tail, and 3) muted white wing bar.
Grey Plover (below), a bird quite easy to identify in flight thanks to its 1) very noticeable jet black ‘armpit’, 2) bright white (sometimes faintly barred) rump, and 3) much more noticeable white wing bar against black primary feathering.
The other plover of medium size commonly encountered during winter is the Lapwing, Vanellus vanellus, (30cm), a bird unlikely to be confused with any other. It is familiar, widespread and our wintering population, augmented by birds from Scandinavia and the near continent, can be found feeding or roosting on any undisturbed open space. Key identification features:
On the resting bird (above): 1) dark crown and long crest, 2) largely green upperparts, which can also show areas of purple, blues and reds depending on light (in poor light the upperparts will appear all dark), 3) russet undertail coverts (see below for clearer image), and 4) dark breast band (in summer this extends onto the throat).
The flying bird (below), will show: 1) bright white underparts and underwing lining, 2) russet undertail coverts and 3) russet upper rump patch above bright white uppertail coverts and dark tail band, and 4) broad ended, black primaries and trailing edge of wing.
The images below show (left) how the birds shine green in good light, (hence it also being known as Green Plover), and (right) how the wings of the flying birds are very broad and black, (hence the name Lapwing).
For our purposes this group comprises three species, Redshank, Spotted Redshank and Greenshank. The first is by far the most likely to be seen, the other two are scarce, but increasing winter visitors. All species are coastal in winter, feeding in tidal creeks and on the shoreline, using their long bills to probe the mud for small crustaceans, worms and molluscs.
Redshank, Tringa totanus, (25cm). Many UK Redshanks migrate south to the Mediterranean zone for winter, but some coastal breeders remain, boosted by inland breeders that choose to stay and join them. They can be noisy birds, the first to give their loud alarm calls and alerting other birds when danger approaches. They can be identified by: 1) their bright red, medium length legs, 2) plain brown upperparts, 3) plain brown head with just the hint of an supercilium (eyebrow), and 4) mid length, two tone beak of bright red and black. Beware that birds that have been actively feeding may have both legs and beak covered in mud making those appendages appear all dark (see upper right inset). In flight, Redshanks show a distinctive array of 3 bright white triangular markings, one along the back, the other two along the trailing edge of the wing. Also note that the legs do not protrude very far beyond the tail.
Spotted Redshank, Tringa erythropus, (30cm). This species breeds in Finland and Russia, migrating through Europe en-route to wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa. However, some do remain in the UK and can occasionally be encountered on coastal estuaries and mudflats. A longer legged, slimmer and more elegant bird that the Redshank showing: 1) long bright red legs, 2) more mottled upperparts with ‘notched’ feather edging, 3) quite bold white supercilium which is wider in front of the eye (see top right inset image), and 4) longer, slightly drooped beak which is red at the base only. In flight (bottom left inset), the bird shows a bright white ‘V’ extending from the rump all along the back, and no white patches on the wings. Being a longer legged bird that the Redshank, the legs extend a significant distance beyond the tail.
Greenshank, Tringa nebularia, (32cm). The birds choosing to spend their winters in lowland Britain are considered to be of the Scottish breeding population. Slightly larger than the other two species and giving an overall lighter appearance. Key points to note: 1) long pale green legs, 2) much more patterned upperparts with white feather edges, 3) lightly streaked head with no striping above the eye, and 4) long, relatively thick, dark green and black, slightly upturned bill. In flight (inset), it appears uniformly dark winged and shows a prominent white ‘V’ extending from lightly barred tail and all along the back.
Ruff, Calidris pugnax, (females 23-25cm, males 30-32cm). Without wishing to over complicate things, there is one other species, the Ruff, that can increasingly be found in winter. Being of similar size and shape, it could be confused with the Redshank, as it inhabits the same areas. This is an enigmatic species which clings on as a breeder in eastern England, but is largely a visitor from more northern territories. It exhibits extreme sexual dimorphism, whereby males are noticeably larger than females. During the breeding season, males will sport extravagant multi coloured ruffs of feathers around the neck, breast and head, displaying this at a communal lek to impress the females. In winter, males lose this plumage and become more like females, but are always larger, which in itself can cause confusion. Main points to note: 1) yellow legs (some males are more reddish), 2) boldly patterned upperparts, 3) lightly streaked head, and 4) shortish, dark bill which appears slightly downward curved at the tip. Beware that males in particular can show an orange base to the bill, (see inset). In flight (inset), the birds show a faint white wing bar and bright white areas either side of the rump which forms a dark ‘V’ shaped patch in the middle.
So there you have it! Hope this gives you a better idea of how to sort out a tricky group of species. It is not an exact science, and there are many variables with plumage, moult, lighting etc giving plenty of challenges, but with experience things get clearer. Honestly. Happy wader watching.
References: The Birds of Norfolk (Taylor, Seago, Allard, Dorling)1999 for information on distribution, Britain’s Birds (Hume, Still, Swash, Harrop & Tipling) 2016 for approx sizing data.
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