Our Ringed Plover Project Officer, Wynona, answers the question 'where do the beach nesting birds go in the winter?

Nestling into October, there is a crispness in the air, skeins of geese are filling our skies and morning mists hang over our parks and gardens as we fling open the curtains to greet our day – it can only be autumn! In just a matter of months, the natural landscape changes significantly and the birds we see on our coasts changes too. Just a few months ago the beaches were filled with ground nesting birds, protecting their eggs and keeping their chicks out of trouble. Sunny days (albeit fewer and far between this year!) meant that beaches were bustling with beach loving visitors too, and fences, signs and beach rangers at sensitive sites helped to keep nesting birds safe on their journeys from the cosy warmth of the egg through to chicks first flights. Now, as the noise and commotion of this years breeding season fades and the birds disperse from their nesting sites for another year, you might find yourself asking – where do these birds go in winter?

Ringed plover, Phill Gwilliam

Many are surprised to learn that most of the birds which nest in the UK will remain here all year round. So those pairs breeding on Snettisham and Heacham South beaches will likely be spending their winter on The Wash or flying around the Norfolk coast. They can often be seen feeding or roosting in flocks with other waders like dunlin or sanderling. Next time you’re out on a beach walk, why not take your binoculars and try finding a few amongst these mixed wader flocks – like seeing a familiar face in a crowd!

Dunlin and ringed plover, Les Bunyan

Like spring, autumn is a busy time for birds as many will be on the move, this time, moving from their breeding grounds to find a warmer spot for the winter. There are a number of subspecies of ringed plovers, together occupying a wide distribution. These birds can migrate substantial distances with some birds breeding in Russia and travelling to Africa to spend the winter. Birds breeding in Europe travel to Britain to spend the winter. In autumn we also see birds from Canada and Greenland appearing on our coasts as they stop to feed on their way to their wintering grounds in West Africa.

Oystercatchers migrate too, and with many birds choosing to spend their winter here in the UK, autumn is an incredible time to watch huge numbers of these birds on The Wash. If you want to watch the impressive sight of large flocks of oystercatcher alongside the famous knot spectacle it is well worth a visit to RSPB Snettisham reserve on a high tide in autumn. To plan a visit or find out more, visit www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/snettisham.

It’s not just the landscapes that are changing. As our trees turn their leaves new shades, our birds too undergo transformations as they swap from summer to winter plumage. The birds no longer need their show stopping, breeding plumage (which is energetically costly to keep looking so splendid!) and so they moult these feathers and get a much paler look that will keep them safer from predators. Both ringed plover and oystercatcher have a much more understated look in winter. The ringed plovers’ deep black chest band and face mask becomes a much paler; the bill changes colour from orange to black and the legs from a bold orange to a paler orange/yellow. Juvenile ringed plovers from this year will look very similar but you can tell these apart by looking at the chest band – on the juvenile the band doesn’t quite join in the middle.

Ringed plover, Les Bunyan

The oystercatcher makes only a subtle change to its look, with some birds developing a white collar around the throat in winter months as well as a much duller bill.

Oystercatcher, Les Bunyan

Autumn is a beautiful time to explore the coast, get to know new birds and watch familiar ones transform for a winter landscape. When out and about please be mindful of wildlife. Below are some ways you can help waders and wildfowl this winter.

  1. To get the best experience of watching birds behave naturally - always watch from a safe distance (even better with binoculars or a spotting scope if you have them) to avoid disturbing birds when they are feeding or resting.
  2. Keep yourself and the birds safe by avoiding walking out onto mudflats or tidal areas where birds feed and roost. Mudflats can be very dangerous with tides often rise incredibly fast, leaving walkers and their dogs little time to get back to shore safely – keep safe by sticking to the shore and always consult tide times before planning your routes.
  3. Always keep dogs on leads in areas where birds are feeding or resting. Many birds have travelled great distances and arrive tired and in need of food and rest. With temperatures dropping it is crucial that birds have safe places to feed and rest undisturbed.
  4. Take your litter home with you. We all know how harmful litter can be to wildlife, even discarded food can attract predators to important roosting sites. If you can’t find a bin nearby, pop it in your bag and take it home to dispose of safely.
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