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Oystercatchers in flight over blue water.

For the final blog in our wading bird ID series, we’re focussing on the largest waders you will find on the shores of the Solent – oystercatchers, curlews, black-tailed godwits and lapwings.

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Oystercatcher

Haematopus Ostralegus

Oystercatchers are one of our most recognisable coastal birds because of their striking black and white plumage and bright, orange-red beak. These birds are similar in size to crows and have a very noisy call – you will often hear them before you see them.

Contrary to their name, their favourite foods are mussels and cockles. Like most other wading birds, you can see them at their most active in the shallows around the water’s edge, which is where they find their food.

Oystercatcher

That said, you may also see them inland where they will be digging with their long bills into wet mud to find worms.

At high tide they roost in high numbers, often with other bird species, waiting for the tide to go back out and expose the mudflats so they can feed. It’s possible to see oystercatchers all through the year, but many more arrive in the autumn from colder climes like Scandinavia and Iceland to spend the winter on the Solent.

The oldest known oystercatcher was almost 36 years old!

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Curlew

Numenius Arquata

The curlew is an absolute favourite among the Bird Aware Solent rangers, one of whom calls it the ‘wow bird’ because people are often wowed when seeing it for the first time.

It is our largest wading bird with a wingspan reaching almost a meter. Curlews are about the size of a pheasant, and their most striking feature has to be their long, downward curving bill, which is around 15cm long.

 

 

A curlew stands on a pile of seaweed.

Despite their size and unique bill, they can be hard to spot as they are well camouflaged and usually spend time feeding alone. So, listen out for their call, an unmistakable sound which echoes eerily across the Solent’s saltmarshes and mudflats.

The first word in their Latin name, Numenius, translates as ‘new moon’, which refers to the long, curved shape of their bill.

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Black-tailed godwits

Limosa Limosa

Black-tailed godwits have long legs and long, straight bills. They are between 40 and 44cm in length, with a wingspan of around 70-82cm and weigh between 280 and 340g, which is around the same as 6 hen’s eggs.

Female black-tailed godwits are bigger and heavier than males, with a noticeably longer bill – this helps the sexes to avoid competing for food with each other.

A black-tailed godwit stands in the mud.

Our photo shows them in their winter plumage, as this is the time of year that we see them the most. They are a plain greyish-brown colour with black legs, and their bill has an orange base and black tip.

They are a fairly common sight around the Solent with thousands visiting each winter. Most will leave us by the end of March for their breeding grounds in Iceland, and we won’t see them again until August. Usually, some stay during the summer, although they don’t breed here.

You are likely to see black-tailed godwits in large flocks, busily feeding with their bills probing down into the mud, with an action similar to that of a sewing machine needle going up and down really quickly. They feed mostly on worms, but also eat small snails and all sorts of insects.

As they can only feed in shallow waters at low tide, it is important to avoid disturbing them as every minute of feeding time counts.

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Lapwing

Vanellus

You may have heard lapwings being referred to as ‘peewits’ in imitation of their display calls – its proper name describes its wavering flight. They are around 31cm long with a wingspan of 87cm, and they weigh between 140 and 320 grams.

Their distinctive, splendid crest makes them stand out from the crowd, with males sporting a longer crest than the females. They also have very broad wings, which have been described as ‘frying pan’ wings.

A lapwing sits on a grassy bank.

Lapwings form large flocks in autumn and winter and are highly mobile – their flight appears lazy with relaxed wingbeats, and during courtship they tumble through the air in aerobatic displays.

We see them around the coast in winter in a variety of different places, from saltmarshes and wet boggy grassland where you might see cattle grazing, to ponds and lagoons. They feed on a variety of insects and invertebrates including worms, beetles, flies and snails, catching their prey in the typical plover feeding technique of ‘run, stop, peck.’

The oldest ringed lapwing lived for 21 years.

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For more information about identifying birds seen along the Solent, visit the Meet the Birds section of our website.

You can also read our feature about the Solent’s small wading birds, medium-sized wading birds or our Birds of Prey guide.