Waders are such special birds and their evocative calls can take us back to the wild places where we first heard them: the peewit of the Lapwing, the curluu of the Curlew, the di-di-di-di-di-di-di of the Whimbrel, the drumming of the Common Snipe, the Tu-Tu-Tu of the Greenshank and the to-loo-loo-loo-loo of the Redshank.
I have been fascinated by wading birds since I trained to ring birds in 1976 and caught a Green Sandpiper. I vividly remember holding that bird and I was hooked and went on to study Redshank, Greenshank and Red-necked Phalaropes in the north and very far north of Britain. More recently I have managed habitats for the breeding and feeding waders at Rye Harbour. Since the nature reserve was established in 1970 there have been 49 species of wading bird recorded here.
Waders are generally long-lived and long-legged wetland birds that travel great distances in their annual cycle. During July, August and September the variety and number of wading birds on the Sussex coast increases as birds stop off to refuel on their journeys south. The longest known non-stop flight of any bird was a Bar-tailed Godwit that flew 11,026km in 9 days. For these long flights they need lots of food to lay down fat as fuel and put on considerable weight (for example a Sanderling (below) in spring increased 27% in 4 days from 55 to 70g).
Many waders winter in Africa and breed in the Arctic where there is 24 hours of daylight to feed with few competitors and few predators to eat their eggs and young. Most lay 4 large eggs that hatch into chicks that are “precocial” (well developed and active) and most have to feed themselves from day 1 (but not Oystercatcher) and are cared for and warmed up by the parents. The eggs and chicks are well camouflaged, so many animals would like those little packages of food - like this Ringed Plover nest below, can you find it?
We have six regular breeding waders at Rye Harbour: Avocet, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover and Redshank. The one that has done very well following the wetland habitat creation on Rye Harbour Farm that started in 2005 is the Avocet.
Among our breeding Avocets is a colour ringed individual that started as a chick in 2007 on the French coast 470km southwest of Rye Harbour. It was first seen here in June 2010, and has been sighted locally from March to August in most years since, but it returns to its birthplace for the winter. By the end of July most Avocets have left Rye Harbour. This year no Avocet chicks were raised! The cold wet weather of most of June meant that the chicks had little time to feed because they were being kept warm by the adults - see video below. This is no problem for the Avocet population here since adults are long lived and we now have more pairs than there is space for chick rearing habitat.
However, Lapwing and Redshank populations here are struggling and despite our efforts to reduce predation with our electric fencing, very few chicks, if any, were raised this year. Their preferred marshland habitat has become dominated by the non-native invasive plant Australian Swampweed, that makes the margins of ponds and scrapes unsuitable for most waders and most plants and most invertebrates (biocontrol should be available to us soon). Also, some of the Redshank and Lapwing chick habitat is preferred by Avocet families, which repeatedly chase other birds away - see video below. So, wader management is complicated.
Some waders come here in their hundreds to the Sussex coast to moult their flight feathers in late summer and/or to over-winter in our mild coastal climate. The three most numerous are Lapwing, Golden Plover and Curlew (see below). Most of the food that these three species exploit is earthworms from the tightly grazed sheep pasture all around Rye, but they will also have been enjoying the recent mass emergence of ants!
Places for waders are special and need to be carefully managed. They cannot exist in isolation because waders are global travelers. That’s why it’s so important to have a global network of sites and these are called Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance - see here for our designation https://sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/news/ramsar-at-rye-harbour
A good blog about wading birds is https://wadertales.wordpress.com/