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Winter wader wonderland

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Posted: Wednesday 19th December 2018 by WildBlog

(c) Adam Jones

By Louise Treneman, Avon Wildlife Trust Living Landscape Assistant

As the days draw in and temperatures drop, birders wrap up, grab a flask and their binoculars and head in the direction of their nearest estuary. This is because the colder days and longer nights signal the start of one of the greatest birding sights of the year - the arrival of the waders. These are birds which wade along shorelines and mudflats foraging for food such as worms in mud or sand.

Our region is lucky enough to be home to the Severn Estuary, an area designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA), because it is a wetland of international importance for the number of waterfowl it regularly supports over winter.

Though we humans may feel the cold at this time of year, for birds that breed in the Arctic the British coast is a cosy place to bed down for the winter. The estuaries around the UK are food-rich havens for millions of waders each year. The Severn attracts just shy of 100,000 individuals each winter, including Bewick’s Swan, Curlew, Redshank and Dunlin to name a few. It is also a significant site for the migration of Ringed Plover on their way south.

Once a common sight across farmland, lapwings are sadly declining, with numbers falling by 88% in the last 25 years across Avon. Despite this, you can still see large flocks of these waders at the Severn Estuary. Look for beautiful black-and-white birds with a splendid crest, and listen out for their plaintive pee-wit call which gives the bird its traditional name, the pee-wit. Also known as the green plover, its eggs were once a delicacy. Due to their decline, taking plover’s eggs is now illegal.

Avon Wildlife Trust is currently working on a project to encourage lapwings back to the Gordano valley in North Somerset, one of the largest areas of coastal wetland in England. Funded by a Biffa Award as part of the Landfill Communities Fund, our conservation staff and volunteers are working across 80 hectares between Portishead and Clevedon to create the conditions to attract and protect lapwing breeding pairs. Improving this habitat for lapwings will help many other wetland birds and other wildlife in years to come.

The curlew is another frequently spotted wader, the largest wading bird in Europe and recognisable from its long, downturned bill. The UK is of international importance for over-wintering curlew, as they, like the lapwing, have suffered concerning declines in recent years. Their long drawn-out mournful bubbling call in flight is worth a listen, and distinguishes them from the very similar (but far rarer) Whimbrel.

If you’re heading to the estuary, another wader you may be lucky enough to see is the oystercatcher. With their striking red bills and black-and-white plumage, they are hard to miss, and if you do, they are sure to draw your attention with their insistent piping call. With a bill specially adapted to open cockles and mussels, most of these birds spend their winters by the sea.

At these coldest and darkest times, there’s a wealth of winter wildlife experiences to be had.
A great place to head to is Pilning Wetlands on the Severn Estuary. The area, to the north of Bristol, was re-landscaped in 2011 to create a wetland for waders, and has since become a key site for birds and bird watchers alike. Stick to the paths to avoid disrupting the birds. High tide is the best time to visit, as the birds are pushed inland as the water rises and the area of mud on which they feed is reduced. Happy winter wader wandering!

Book on the Avon Wildlife Trust winter bird ID course at Folly Farm Fri 25 January 10am – 4pm

Bewick’s swan (c) Gillian Day, Lapwing (c) Pete Evans

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