After an excellent summer for wader migration, it's great to see that there's still a wonderful selection of waders feeding on the Scrape. Most are refuelling on the long journey south, from the Arctic to West Africa, though the lapwings and snipe will spend the winter here, and the avocets are slowly departing after a successful breeding season.
The most numerous of the waders are the black-tailed godwits, with up to 300 towering above most of the other waders on their long legs. They breed in Iceland, and while many will winter in West Africa, others will remain closer to home, with the Stour Estuary on the Suffolk-Essex border being a particular hotspot.
Black-tailed godwit by Clare Carter
The other large waders are the remaining avocets, plus one or two passing curlews and the odd whimbrel or oystercatcher. Moving down through the size spectrum we come to the various medium sized waders, including common and spotted redshanks, greenshank, grey plover and ruff. These are all in a mix of plumages, including full winter, juvenile and (in a few cases) even full summer plumage, or anywhere in between, so can provide some identification challenges. As a result, at this time of year it's even more important than ever to use a mix of relative size (in direct comparison to something familiar), bill length and shape, and leg colour and length, as well as plumage to help you out.
The same applies even more with the smaller waders. Some, like turnstone, are quite distinctive. It's also easy to spot a ringed or little ringed plover, but necessarily easy to know which one you're watching. Common sandpipers are quite easy to identify, with a white "comma" up the side of the breast and distinctive bobbing action. Green sandpipers bob, too, but they are more obviously dark above and white below with the very clear-cut straight boundary.
Common sandpiper with lapwings, showing white "comma" mark, and (below) green sandpiper with straight line between dark upper and white lowerparts
Probably the most confusing group of waders are the Calidrids, of which the most frequent, and therefore "default" species, is the dunlin. A few of these still have the black bellies of their summer plumage, but most are in winter or juvenile plumages. It's always worth getting to know the varied plumages of dunlin, as this makes it easier to locate something more unusual among them. Among the dunlin on the Scrape at the moment, for example, are three other Calidrids. Of these, one is bigger, one is smaller, and one is of similar size to the dunlins, but size isn't always obvious, so use as many structural and plumage features as possible to help with the ID.
Knot are noticeably bigger and chunkier than dunlins, being closer in size to redshanks. Many birdwatchers are familiar with vast flocks of knot wheeling over the Wash at RSPB Snettisham, or Morecambe Bay at RSPB Leighton Moss, but unfamiliar with them as single birds. In summer plumage they are a lovely brick red (earning them name of red knots in North America) but in winter plumage they are pale grey. Moulting birds and juveniles can be anywhere between these two extremes, often acquiring a more mottled appearance.
Curlew sandpipers are similar in size to dunlins, but generally more slender and longer billed (as the name suggests). Beware, though, as the bill shape and length of dunlins can be very variable. Like knot, they are brick-red in summer plumage, but juveniles and winter plumage birds are trickier, with more subtle plumage differences from dunlin. The photo below shows the two species alongside each other for comparison, curlew sandpiper on the right).
Little stints are tiny, with very short bills. Juvenile birds have twin white "tramlines" running down their upperparts, as can be seen in the photo below. They are also often even more hyperactive than the dunlins.
The photo below shows both little stint and curlew sandpiper among the dunlins, but I'll leave you to work out which is which!
Of course, there's more than just waders on the Scrape. A few common and Sandwich terns and little gulls remain, and duck numbers are rapidly increasing. The latter now include several wigeons alongside the teals, gadwalls, mallards and shovelers, although all continue to present an ID challenge in their post-breeding moult plumage, as shown by this gorgeous shoveler.
Several little egrets and grey herons are usually seen feeding on the Scrape, while a very obliging bittern is often feeding in front of Wildlife Lookout. A couple of great white egrets are present, too, but they are more likely to be seen at Island Mere. Marsh harriers, hobbies and bearded tits remain in the reedbed, too.
The cooler, damp weather is less conducive to spotting insects, but despite this there is still a good mix of butterflies, dragonflies, bees and wasps around the reserve, as well as wasp spiders in the dunes. Adders continue to be seen most days by a few luck people, and common lizards are often seen near the pond.
Finally, our temporary path through the North Bushes is now open, giving you more opportunities to look for migrants, including warblers, chats, finches and thrushes, during the autumn months. Perhaps we'll even find a wryneck or shrike hiding there.
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