Thanks to volunteer Phil for his report and photos.

Recent Sightings – Tuesday 4th and Friday 7th June – Operation Redshank

In recent years careful management of the reserve has resulted in a greater number of redshanks breeding on the site.  However it is usually difficult to observe their behaviour and judge their success as they tuck their nests away in secretive locations such as dense grass or rush.

Within the last fortnight an unprecedented opportunity to study breeding redshank at the all-important time after eggs have hatched has emerged at West Mead.  I have found their behaviour fascinating and decided for reasons that will become clear later to dub this “Operation Redshank”.

In late May 4 tiny redshank chicks with 2 adults were observed for the first time on the edge of pool near the long grasses to the left.   With the pool now rapidly drying out in the long dry spell of weather, the chicks were being forced more into the open to seek the muddy pool margins where these birds usually feed.   It seems probable that the nest had been tucked away in the nearby grass and established when the pool was still quite full.

On Tuesday 4th I was in West Mead with my colleague Christine conducting our last breeding wader survey of the season.   There were no chicks to be seen but there were 3 fully grown redshanks to be seen around the pool.   Two of these seemed to be particularly interested in the area of long grass on the edge of the pool to the right but were repeatedly flying to the right and out of sight behind the line of trees that fringe the old path to Redstart Corner, usually one at a time, but occasionally both together.  Soon the birds would return to the same area of the pool.  We surmised that these birds were the parents of the 4 chicks.

After watching this for several minutes Christine left the hide to see if she could track down where they were flying to and eventually returned to report that they had perched in a small tree to the left of the old path.   Not surprisingly she remarked that she had never seen redshanks perched in a tree!  Neither had I.  Later we proceeded to Winpenny via Redstart Corner and there sure enough spotted one of the redshanks perched in a hawthorn on the left of the path. 

While this flight pattern was going on the redshanks were constantly calling, mostly in a monotonous “pip pip pip” sort of sound, occasionally interspersed with a flutier piping.  We assumed that this was either an alarm call, instructing the chicks to hide, or maybe a contact call to reassure the other parent and chicks that the bird was still nearby.  Christine reported that she had seen nesting magpies in the line of trees, and we had already seen a kestrel flying around the area so there were potential aerial predators in the area to cause alarm. 

Redshanks are well known for calling repeatedly from fenceposts and this has earned them the name “warden of the marshes”, which I think rather splendidly sums up their behaviour.

We concluded that most likely the redshanks still had chicks hidden away in the long grasses to the right of the pool but were flying away in an effort to divert attention away from them.  On later reflection however it wouldn’t surprise me if the chicks were hidden in a completely different patch of grasses and the birds were trying to give an impression that they would be to the right.  On Friday 7th I took this photo of one of the chicks quite close to the hide while both adults were nowhere near on the far side of the pool. 

I have noticed during the last 3 months that adult redshanks have a habit of frequently flying quite directly in different directions making it difficult to come to any conclusions about where nest sites might be.  Consequently I have wondered whether this all part of a strategy of concealing nests by diversionary tactics.  If so, it seems likely that redshanks would employ similar tactics to conceal the whereabouts of chicks.

I decided to return to West Mead in the afternoon where I found a much calmer scene.   Two small chicks were feeding initially near the grasses to the left of the hide and then round the back of the large “island”.  This is not really an island any more now with the water levels having dropped so much.  In the next 45 minutes I never saw any other chicks, and again only 2 chicks were visible on Friday 7th, so it seems probable that 2 of the original 4 have been lost.

However, I also spotted another fully grown redshank as per this photo.

Notice that the colour of the legs instead of being a carroty red colour is much more of an orangey yellow.  This suggests that the bird may be a juvenile and may have been the result of redshanks breeding early in the season back in March.  It’s hard to be completely sure without seeing more of the feathers on the wings and back which should be more speckled than the adults, but I have seen one such bird at West Mead recently.  Also, I have spotted other redshanks in recent weeks that appeared to be fledged juveniles while being just too distant to be completely sure.

In summary I suspect that the redshank is a master of diversionary tactics, and, to reflect on a recent topical subject in the news, this is rather like the Allies trying to fool the Germans about the invasion site before D Day. I am sure it will feel like an equally long hard road for the birds but let’s hope 'Operation Redshank' meets with similar success in due course. 

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