Header image: Pink footed geese, Dee Estuary, Cheshire. Credit: Paul Jubb

From the whoosh of wings to the twirls, turns and swoops of birds overhead, waders across the country are putting on a show. Enjoy the delights of magically swirling birds such as lapwingsknots and black-tailed godwits as they dazzle predators (and onlookers!) with their sensational shapes, and cast an eye over a mudflat, estuary, saltmarsh or wet grassland near you for a glimpse of wildfowl too.  

This autumn, many birds are arriving en masse from overseas to take advantage of our milder winters. Large numbers of waders and wildfowl migrate to our shores, either stopping off briefly before continuing longer journeys, or choosing nature reserves and beyond to call home over the colder months, before returning to their breeding grounds in places like Scandinavia, Russia, the Arctic, and parts of Europe. 

What are waders and wildfowl?  

Waders are birds that often walk (wade) along shorelines searching for food in the mud. Mud might not sound particularly appetising to us, but it draws in millions of birds to England’s shores each year. To them, it is a canteen packed full of cockles, shrimp, lugworms, insects and other tasty morsels to feed a variety of appetites. The birds’ differing beak lengths and shapes allow them all to find the right invertebrate food within the mud layers. 

Ducks, geese and swans are all wildfowl – that is, medium to large birds with rather long necks. They have mostly short, broad bills, short legs, and their front three toes joined by webs. Wildfowl are found near or on bodies of water or you may catch them flying noisily, and often in formation, overhead. 

To identify the waders and wildfowl near you, why not come along to one of our fascinating reserve events for top tips on how to identify species and an insight into their amazing migration stories? Find your nearest event here. 

Image: Lapwing, dunlin and golden plover gather on mudflats. Credit: Paul Jubb

Where can I see waders and wildfowl? 

It’s not just the arrival of birds that creates a spectacle; at mudflats across the country, as tides shift and rise, birds such as knots swirl together in a hasty retreat to drier land, or lapwings rise up together to confuse a predator.   

Some of our best RSPB nature reserves to feast your senses on these swirling birds are:  

RSPB Bowling Green Marsh, Exe Estuary, DevonWatch from the lookout as the marsh comes alive with flocks of redshanksgreenshanks and dunlins, together with hundreds of curlews, as they all gather for the high tide roost. Be sure to pop into the RSPB shop at Dart’s Farm on your way, to learn the latest from our knowledgeable staff about what can be spotted out on the estuary. 

RSPB Pagham Harbour and nearby RSPB Medmerry, West Sussex: Head to RSPB Pagham Harbour at dusk for the chance to spot hundreds of brent geese and wigeons pass overhead to graze in the fields north of the reserve. The sound of beating wings can be heard over their honks and whistles, as their sheer numbers fill the sky.  

Image: Knot gathering at the shore. Credit: Andy Hay, rspb-images.com

RSPB Snettisham, Norfolk: A seen on BBC’s Autumnwatch, clouds of tens of thousands of knotsdunlins and oystercatchers shimmer as the tide pushes them off the vast mudflats at Snettisham, with the commotion of thousands of wingbeats, excited calls and swirling flocks creating an exhilarating nature spectacle for all. 

Meanwhile, up to 40,000 pink footed geese assemble from mid-October right through to February, taking flight at first light in close V-shaped formations across the dawn sky.  

As both of these spectacles are dependent on the tide or moon movements at the reserve, we highly recommend checking this 2021 spectacle guide and 2022's guide for the best times to view

RSPB Frampton Marsh, Lincolnshire: As an internationally important place for wintering wildfowl and waders, Frampton Marsh’s high tides force thousands of waders and ducks into the air in search of a roosting spot on the wet grasslands and freshwater scrapes. Birds such as wigeonsteals, brent geeselapwings and golden plovers all form large flocks on the wet grasslands, and in winter thousands of whooper swans also roost on the reedbed each night. 

Image: Pink footed geese and lapwing evade a hen harrier on the Dee Estuary. Credit: Paul Jubb

RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands, Cheshire: Arriving at the Dee Estuary in their thousands, pink footed geese, with their sweet “wink-wink-wink-wink” call are a fantastic spectacle at this time of year, filling the skies as peak counts reach 20,000 birds across the estuary. Head to Burton Mere Wetlands to spot them flying overhead as flocks of black-tailed godwitslapwings, wigeons and golden plovers can also be seen on the pools in front of the visitor centre.   

RSPB Leighton Moss, Lancashire: Cast your eye over Leighton Moss’ pools to spot the large numbers of ducks and waders gathering, including the chatterings of hundreds of black tailed godwits at Lilian’s Pool. Meanwhile flocks of wigeons and greylag geese graze the saltmarsh and are regularly disturbed by hunting peregrines and merlins. The coastal saltmarsh lagoons also attract large numbers of wading birds, including oystercatchers, curlewsredshanks and dunlins. 

RSPB Saltholme, Middlesbrough: Here you’ll find many hundreds of wildfowl grazing the wet grasslands, with birds such as lapwings gathering at pool edges and huge, shimmering flocks of golden plovers, with their twinkling wingbeats, flying in tight formations overhead. 

Image: A golden plover blends into the shoreline. Credit: Paul Chesterfield, rspb-images.com

How can I help waders and wildfowl? 

Many of these birds have flown thousands of miles from their breeding grounds to spend the winter months here. Some stay the whole season and others stop off like a service station, to re-fuel on their migration further south. 

At high tide, birds need to roost (settle together) in order to rest and conserve energy. Winter is the most risky time for these birds, some of which have lost half their body weight during migration. They need to feed, get in good condition and put on enough weight to survive the winter and make the migration back to their breeding grounds in spring. 

Unfortunately, these birds are very well camouflaged and are often unintentionally scared off by human activity such as dog walking, drones, model airplanes and watersports. The birds perceive these to be predators and so the effect of this disturbance is great.  

Disturbing birds does more than simply causing them to fly away; it uses up vital energy reserves, decreasing their chance of survival. Once frightened away, birds take a long time to settle and remain alert afterwards. This means they cannot rest or relax enough to feed properly after a disturbance event.  

You can really help these birds in a few simple ways to avoid disturbing them: 

  • Be aware of any large flocks, particularly around our shores before and after high tide.  
  • Keep a respectful distance away from them. 
  • Keep your dog on a lead to avoid the birds becoming spooked and taking off. 
  • Don’t fly model aircraft, drones or kites over the saltmarsh around high tide. Drones are not permitted on RSPB nature reserves. 
  • Keep away from river banks, quiet coastlines and islands when enjoying paddleboarding, canoeing or kayaking activities.