ON THE WATERFRONT
Just about all birds can be described as birds of the air. They fly. Most of them are good at it. A few, like the recently-returned SWIFTS, SWALLOWS and SANDMARTINS are absolute masters of their crafts.
But birds can be divided into more specialised groups when they land. For example, Passerines are, by definition, perching birds. When not airborne they spend much of their time balancing and clutching on to branches, wires or posts. These are positions of safety or conspicuousness depending on the needs of the species, somewhere to either hide away or be seen and heard. Their specially adapted toes allow them to perch even to the point of – and sometimes even beyond – death.
On the other hand, Waterfowl don't do this as much, choosing to spend a lot of their lives on the water. There's a clue in the name. Ducks, Geese, that kind of thing. They live, love, eat and sleep in splashy surrounding. Whatever floats your boat. Or your feathery body.
And then there are those that live on the margins between land and lake. They have evolved to spend a lot of their day nose-deep in mud. These are the waders who earn their living by snorkelling for worms and molluscs in the permanently wet edges of our lagoons, meres and ponds.
At the time of writing there are several of these wading birds in the Dearne Valley, chief birding target among which is the WOOD SANDPIPER. This is the smallest of the Sandpiper family and quite easily distinguished by it's mottled, blotchy brown back and bright supercilium stripe (that's the posh name for an eyebrow to you and me). We've had quite a few people turn up specifically to see this individual animal. We've also had a very pretty TURNSTONE turn up at Old Moor. I'm a big fan of these birds with the sparrow-brown backs and black-and-white facial masks (that's the males) but I'm much more used to seeing them in Bridlington Harbour. Perhaps this one has had enough of the slot machines and come inland for his holidays? Seriously though, neither of these wading birds are particularly common at our reserve so I hope that they're still around by the time you read this.
Even if they've flown off by then, you'll probably have a decent chance of spotting a COMMON SANDPIPER in the Valley. They're (relatively) common in this part of the country, and quite easy to distinguish from other similar waders. They're a medium brown colour on their backs and wings and have a big white letter 'C' on their shoulder. That's a big help in identification. If only others were so accommodating. 'M' and 'W' would help a lot in my Marsh and Willow Tit confusion.
Surely the simplest wader to identify is also one of the most common; the REDSHANK. It's one of those lovely birds where the clue is in the name. If you see a medium sized wader with bright red legs (shanks) and a red beak, then that's what you've found. And they're also easily distinguished from the other wader with the orange nose, the OYSTERCATCHER. These busy birds look like they've had a carrot rammed into their face, so bright and distinctive is their orange beak, and their stark black and white markings also make them stand out from other birds. Their call too is characteristic, a high pitch peep-peep that carries well.
A Redshank's legs and beak may be bright red but by comparison the same body parts of the similar GREENSHANK are very disappointing. They're not red, but they're not really green either. They're just a kind of unremarkable grey unless you manage to see one in perfect winter plumage. Then maybe, in a perfect light, the legs might have a green tinge. But that's not here or now, so... This is definitely one of those “ask an expert” birds.
On the larger (and more easily recognised) side, there have been several BLACK-TAILED GODWIT seen on the Dearne Valley sites over the last month or two. These chunky birds have huge beaks for probing straight down into the mud and in Summer their necks turn a distinctive dark orange colour. And a WHIMBREL visited last week too. This is a large grey-brown wader with a long, downward curved beak similar to its larger cousin, the Curlew.
Speaking of curved beaks, we have about half a dozen AVOCETS at Old Moor currently too, though there are many times that number over at Adwick Washlands. The chances are high that they'll have chicks down there imminently as well. Everyone loves them - the stylish monochrome birds with the snooty nose. That distinctive look is one of the reasons that the RSPB picked them as it's logo emblem. From almost dying out completely in the 1940s, there are around 1,500 pairs breeding in this country, around half of them on RSPB reserves. That's still a dangerously low number but it's a vast improvement on the pre-RSPB days. Their return from the brink of extinction is a true conservation success story, and it continues thanks to your monthly subscriptions, purchases and donations. Many thanks.
So next time you pop down to Old Moor make a point of checking out the muddy margins where the water meets the land. The birds that live ankle-deep in these areas are usually highly visible and always moving. They're also quite distinctly marked so you have a reasonable chance of a positive identification. And there's usually someone else in the hide to give you a hand if you struggle. Don't be afraid to ask.
You can always check your sightings once you get back to the Welcome Shed, with our Recent Sightings board there. Here's the current situation.
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