The days may be shortening and the temperature dropping, but now's the time to enjoy one of the most exciting events in nature’s calendar. Our estuaries may look bleak and birdless at low tide, but it's a very different story once the tide turns and thousands upon thousands of waders take to the air to perform in a show of aerial agility that once seen is never forgotten.
Given the choice, these hungry, globe-trotting traavellers, that include curlews, godwits, knots, oystercatchers, dunlins and redshanks, would spend all their time feasting on the riches to be found in the gooey mud when their long beaks are put to good use to probe and pull out energy-packed, juicy delights, but time and tide wait for no man - or bird. Twice every day, their peaceful feeding routine is broken by the power of the sea as it inundates our estuaries and inadvertently gives rise to a show-stopping performance by these mega-migrants, many of which have come all the way down from the Arctic Circle for winter.
Knots and dunlins are easy to overlook when alone, but it's a different story when they join up in jostling packs thousands strong (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
Let the show commenceOnce the tide turns and water starts to swirl in the deep creeks carved across the flats, before spilling out onto the mudflats, the first evidence of the huge numbers of waders that flock to our estuaries in winter is apparent. Smoke-like "smudges" drift across the horizon - not clouds, but birds. As the tide races in, more and more of our wonderful waders' feeding grounds are covered, and their numbers swell, both in the air and on the ground as waders large and small jostle in restless packs on the still-exposed, gloopy mud.
As soon as the tide turns, a restlessness and sense of urgency builds among feeding flocks of waders (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
As the minutes tick by, the "clouds" are pushed ever closer until you can make out the pointy-winged arrow-like shapes of individual knots, dunlins and godwits and hear the sound of peeping of oysteratchers and "cor-lee" of curlews drifting across the now glistening mudflats.
The birds pack onto the still-exposed mud, continuing to feed while they can, but always watching and moving in response to the inevitable as the salty water temporarily deprives them of their bounty of food. if you've picked a really high tide (see below), the final finale comes when no more land remains and the birds move off the estuary, passing overhead in an audible whoosh of wings, filling the sky, and your senses, in a brief, but unforgettable, moment of avian action.
There's no mistaking the oystercatcher with its carrot-like orange beak and bold pied plumage (Andy Hay rspb-images.com)
Five tips for wader-watching successSo what do you need to do to be a part of the action this October? Here's our five step guide for wader-watching success:
1) First up - select your site. RSPB reserves will get you right in among the best of the action, so do your homework before you go and ensure you're in the best spot to enjoy the action.
2) It's all in the timing, Check tide tables before you go to work out when high tide is at your chosen location and make sure you're in position a good couple of hours before it peaks, so you can watch the action unfold from start to finish. Ideally choose a big one (a "spring" tide) when the sea will cover as much of the mudflats as possible and wader flocks will be forced off the mudflats - and close to you.
3) Wrap up warm! The wind can whip across an estuary, so make sure you're well protected from the elements, so you're able to enjoy the action in comfort.
4) Watch through binoculars for close ups, but soak up the atmosphere by sitting back and relaxing and take in the bigger picture as the smoke-like flocks drift across the sky.
5) Wait until the tide goes out again and you can enjoy the spectacle of the birds returning to the mudflats and also good views of the birds as they resume their feeding on the first mud that's exposed, eager to make up for lost time.
Oystercatchers take to the air in a flurry of black and white and a soundtrack of piping calls at RSPB Snettisham (Chris Gomersall rspb-images.com)
See the show at an RSPB reserveGood luck. Don't forget, you can watch waders at several RSPB coastal nature reserves, so don't delay, plan your visit today!
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