Welcome to my Identification Guide: Winter Waders Part 3, the concluding article in the current series which deals with the larger waders that are relatively easy to see in the UK during the winter period. Other guides to wintering waders can be found here (small waders), and here (medium sized waders). To support the conservation of wading birds worldwide visit Waderquest.
We’ll begin with a couple of two toned black & white birds which shouldn’t cause much difficulty.
Oystercatcher, Haematopus ostralegus (above) is a chunky, noisy and robust bird that forages along the strandline, across estuaries and amongst coastal boulders and mussel beds. UK breeders move to coastal locations in winter augmented by Scandinavian populations that choose to linger around our shores. Key features: 1) a bright orange/red bill that comes in two distinct shapes depending upon the individual’s preferred feeding habits. The bird in the image has a ‘chisel’ bill used for hammering open tough shellfish, whereas the bird shown in flight below has a much more pointed bill used for prising open shells or probing in mud/silt for tasty worms, 2) distinct red eye surround and iris, 3) jet black head with some showing a white collar outside the breeding season, 4) solid black upperparts, and 5) thick, relatively short, pinkish legs.
Avocet, Recurvirostra avosetta (below) is a much more elegant bird which in winter tends to congregate in estuaries and on larger areas of open mudflats and marsh. A relatively new overwintering species, the UK birds are joined by small numbers of continental migrants at this time. Key features: 1) very obvious, slim, long upturned bill, used for scything through silt for small crustaceans, 2) black cap which extends down the neck (note dark eye), 3) pied upperparts, largely white with black patches, and 4) long, steel grey legs.
Oystercatcher (above). Key features: 1) broad, bright white wing bar contrasting with solid black surround, 2) white underwing, and 3) feet do not project beyond tail.
Avocet (below). Key features: 1) black patch on end of wing (upper and lower wing), 2) legs extend well beyond tail, and 3) (inset) black patches on back and forewing.
Below are some general views of these birds as you may well see them on a visit to the coast.
We move now to species that may prove a little more tricky (the godwits in particular), but are well worth getting to know and spending time watching.
Black-tailed Godwit, Limosa limosa (above). The UK has a small breeding population of the main European race of this species whose scientific name is Limosa limosa limosa (I love that). These birds tend to migrate to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter, replaced by the shorter billed Icelandic population, Limosa limosa Islandica, that can now be found in substantial flocks across wetlands (some inland) mainly in the east of the country. Seperation of these races can be difficult, and is not for the faint hearted, but if you’re interested in finding out more, click the button to access an excellent and very accessible paper by Mark Golley on the finer points of identification.
Black-tailed Godwits of either race are long-legged waders that in winter shows: 1) long, straight mainly orange/pinkish bill, 2) unmottled plain brown head and neck with only a faint supercilium, 3) largely plain grey/brown upperparts (can vary depending on individual moult and time of year), and 4) a black tail.
Bar-tailed Godwit, Limosa lapponica (below). These birds do not breed in the UK, but northern populations from Scandinavia and Siberia winter around our coasts in good numbers. It is a much shorter-legged bird than the Black-tailed Godwit and overall more streaked. Key points to note: 1) long, slightly upcurved bill which is dull flesh coloured, 2) well streaked head and neck with a noticeable whitish supercilium, 3) well streaked and blotched upperparts of various browns and blacks, and 4) barred tail feathers (not always obvious on resting bird).
Black-tailed Godwit (above) is quite striking with: 1) broad, bright white wing bar, 2) obvious white rump patch, 3) solid black tail, and 4) legs protruding well beyond tail.
Bar-tailed Godwit (below) shows: 1) mottled brown wing, 2) white rump patch that extends along back in a ‘V’ shape, 3) clearly barred tail, and 4) shorter legs that hardly protrude beyond tail.
Other features to note (above) are 1) the plain white underwing of the Black-tailed Godwit as opposed to the streaked underwing of the Bar-tailed, and 2) the much longer legs, especially above the ‘knee’, of the Black-tailed Godwit.
Below – images of common encounters. Left shows a Black-tailed Godwit flock on wetlands bordering the Wash, and right a small group of Bar-tailed Godwits coasting towards newly exposed feeding areas.
The remaining large wader likely to be seen (and heard) in winter is the Curlew, Numenius arquata. This declining species breeds widely across the country. Some UK birds remain, but winter numbers are bolstered significantly with birds from Scandinavia. They can be found at inland as well as coastal locations, using their long decurved beaks to probe for worms, invertebrates and small crustaceans. The overall shape and size of this bird should make it quite easy to identify. Key features: 1) long, decurved beak. The beak of the female is significantly longer than that of the male (see below), 2) brown streaked head, neck and breast with a bright white ring around the eye, 3) heavily brown streaked and barred upperparts, and 4) long, thick legs.
In flight, Curlews show: 1) mottled brown/black wings with a dark patch on the primary coverts, 2) bright white rump extending along the back in a ‘V’ shape, 3) barred tail, 4) non-protruding legs, and 5) that diagnostic decurved beak.
In the image below you can see a typical feeding scene which shows the females beak (right) being much longer than the male.
That concludes our three part series on UK wintering waders. I hope this is all of some use to you. Any comments or feedback will be welcome.
References: The Birds of Norfolk (Taylor, Seago, Allard, Dorling)1999 for information on distribution.