Is there anything more appealing than fluffy shorebird chicks scampering around the Solent coastline at this time of year?
Newly hatched ringed plovers were described by one of our rangers as like ‘cotton wool balls with legs’.
This is a perilous life stage for our coastal birds. It’s good to know that we can do our part to help them thrive.
If you ask most people where birds nest, they’ll probably guess in a tree, a hedge or a nest box.
But over half of England’s most threatened breeding bird species nest on or near to the ground, including curlew, little tern and lapwing.
Birds nesting on the ground are at higher risk from predators, which is why their nests and eggs are so well camouflaged.
Unfortunately this makes them very hard to see and avoid.
While some of our Solent species, such as dark-bellied brent geese, fly north to isolated breeding grounds, others just move inland and some stick to the shore.
Here’s where some of the UK’s year-round residents will be nesting:
The New Forest is one of the only areas of south east England where this iconic species still breeds. Here they are widespread but uncommon with less than 40 pairs.
Like most UK birds, they usually start nesting in late April and May with incubation lasting about a month.
The young tend to stay close to the nest until they fledge: that is, until they’ve grown their proper flight feathers and can fly.
For curlew chicks, this happens about five weeks after hatching and means that curlews need to be relatively undisturbed from mid-April to early July to ensure they breed successfully.
After they’ve finished breeding, they head for the coast, choosing large areas of mudflats and saltmarsh, which the Solent provides in abundance.
Did you know you can watch live coverage of a pair of nesting curlew? Curlew Cam Live is a wonderful insight into the life of this beautiful species. Update – Curlew Cam Live’s brooding pair successfully hatched four chicks on 12/13 June.
We’re very lucky to have resident nesting ringed plovers on the Solent – many of them head further north in the UK or to places like Scandinavia. However ringed plover which nest on shingle beaches on Hayling Island, Hook Spit and along the New Forest coast rarely have successful breeding seasons on these busy stretches of coastline. This is because their nests are super camouflaged among pebbles on shingle beaches so are very vulnerable to disturbance before and after the eggs have hatched.
There’s been much work done to protect these determined breeding birds. For example, the Hayling Plover Project at Gunner Point has created a small sanctuary around the area in which they nest. A fence is used to separate the nesting plovers from the main bits of the beach that people use. Over the summer while the birds are nesting, temporary signage asks visitors to avoid crossing the area. Dog walkers are helping by keeping dogs alongside them since, whether they mean to or not, dogs can disturb nesting birds.
Conservationist and bird expert Trevor Codlin MCIEEM, who leads the Hayling Plover Project recently reported that two pairs of ringed plovers had been seen with chicks – what a success for the hard work of Trevor and his supporters.
Now that the chicks are on the move, they’re unlikely to stay safely within the boundaries of the protective fence. By sticking to the back path on the beach at Gunner Point, people can help to keep them safe.
This familiar coastal bird will nest well inland including on ploughed farmland. A colleague of ours has seen nests for the past two years in the fields around his house near Winchester.
Lapwing lay clutches of 4 stone-coloured eggs from late March to early June with both parents taking a turn to keep the eggs warm. When the chicks hatch a few weeks later, they’re covered in fluffy down and are able to walk and feed within hours.
Male lapwing put on dramatic aerial displays to intimidate rival males and to impress potential mates, tumbling through the air and diving, often looking like they’re about to crash to the ground. Research shows the more energetically demanding the song-flight, the more successful the male will be at finding a mate. Their displays are accompanied by their weird electronic ‘pee-wit’ call, which gives them their other common name: peewit.
While lapwing nests are in open areas to give them the best all-round view, they move their families soon after hatching to a location with damp ground or wetland edges where there’s plenty to eat and low vegetation.
The journey between the nesting and chick-rearing habitats can be dangerous, especially if they need to travel far.⠀
These birds are very much tied to the coast at only a handful of locations around the Solent, including Titchfield Haven and Farlington Marshes. They tend to nest in groups on coastal lagoons.
Avocet are familiar to us as the emblem of the RSPB. The species was extinct in this country as a breeding bird from the 19th century but began nesting again in Suffolk on beaches that had been flooded and closed during the Second World War. The avocets’ presence was initially surrounded in secrecy. A dedicated team kept up a protective watch over them with the RSPB taking responsibility for this first flourishing colony. ⠀
The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust recently announced that one of the avocet chicks that hatched last year at Farlington Marshes had just been spotted at Chichester.
This is great news as surviving a first year is always a big challenge for young wading birds.⠀
In some areas of the country oystercatcher will nest inland but here on the Solent they tend to keep to the coast, with only occasional nesting within inland wetlands and river valleys.
Mum and dad duties include bringing food back to the chicks: behaviour not seen in most other wading birds. This is one of the reasons oystercatchers are able to nest on roofs of buildings – we’ve spotted nests on flat roofs in Totton before.
Oystercatcher pairs often bond for life and will frequently return to same breeding spot year after year, making a shallow scrape on bare ground for a nest, which both parents help build.
Oystercatcher lay between 1 and 4 eggs which are glossy with regular dark specks or blotches. The female oystercatcher is the main incubator though both parents help to keep the eggs warm.
Young oystercatchers are looked after by their parents for much longer than most other wading birds. The offspring of other waders can usually feed themselves soon after hatching (known as ‘precocial’). Oystercatcher chicks on the other hand, are what is known as ‘semi-precocial’ which is why they largely rely on their parent to bring food to them.
You can sometimes see young oystercatchers being fed by their parents months after they have fledged. Take a look at the clip filmed by one of our rangers last year. It shows an adolescent oystercatcher patiently following behind its long-suffering parent, with the older oystercatcher pulling out tasty morsels for the younger bird to snaffle up.
We think it was probably the dad since male oystercatchers have a reputation for being hands-on fathers. They tend to provide parental care for longer than the mother bird since female oystercatchers frequently leave just before the chicks fledge.
Like the ringed plover, oystercatcher with nests on the ground are particularly vulnerable to disturbance. At this time of year, people can make a difference to a successful breeding season by looking out for these birds, giving them space, keeping dogs alongside them and following requests on signs.
Not all of the Solent’s redshank set off for northern breeding grounds in the summer. While many journey as far as Iceland, some are year-round residents, breeding in wet coastal grassland and river valleys further inland.
The rangers spotted quite a few at Titchfield Haven National Nature Reserve recently. They’ll be nesting and raising their chicks nearby and will be re-joined by their migratory fellows in the autumn.⠀
Redshank feed on insects, worms, molluscs and crustaceans at the edges of pools and ditches and like to breed on saltmarshes and wet grasslands, typically returning to the same nesting area year after year. There’s been a significant decline in their numbers in the UK and they’re on the amber list for conservation concern.⠀
Their nests are shallow scrapes at tussocks of grass, keeping them well-hidden but able to see out and keep watch for predators.
They generally lay 4 eggs from mid-April to the beginning of June, with the male and female birds sharing the job of keeping them warm until they hatch just under a month after they’ve been laid.
It takes almost another month for the chicks to have grown some flight feathers and be ready to leave the nest and care for themselves.
The magnificent cormorant is another year-round resident of the Solent. With its gothic black silhouette, it has a primitive, almost reptile-like appearance with its wings described as ‘like a broken umbrella hung out to dry’.
Cormorants nest on low cliffs near the coast, or in colonies in trees. In 2006, one island colony off the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine recorded nearly 15,000 nests. They lay 3-4 eggs which take about a month to hatch and then it’s another couple of months before the chicks fledge.
You’ll often spot them around the coast perched on a bank or post, wings out-stretched to dry off after fishing. Cormorant plumage isn’t waterproofed which makes it easier for them to dive deep and fast in the water – as far as 40 metres down. They feed on fish which they catch with their long, hook-tipped bills.⠀
With their nests clear of the beach, cormorant eggs and youngsters are slightly better protected from disturbance.⠀
This species forms mixed colonies with terns and other gulls on shingle banks and islands in numbers varying from just a few to over 10,000. It’ll also breed inland on islands in gravel pits. Between 2 to 3 eggs are laid in a rough nest on the ground, with the male and female taking it in turns to keep them warm.
Up until the 1940s, black-headed gull breeding colonies were plundered by commercial food organisations for eggs and bird meat. This was a sizeable industry: almost 300,000 eggs a year were sold at Leadenhall Market in London during the 1930s.
There are increasing numbers of breeding Mediterranean gulls in Langstone Harbour, Titchfield Haven and on islands along the New Forest coast.
It’s the most recent addition to seabirds breeding in the UK. As recently as 2000, its population was only around 100 pairs.
Just 10 years later, there were over 600 nesting pairs, mostly on the south and south-east coasts of England.
Not sure how to tell apart a black-headed gull from a Mediterranean gull?
Black-headed gulls have dark brown caps in the summer while Mediterranean gulls have a jet black head. Mediterranean gulls have a distinctive ‘meeeow’ call while the black-headed gull has a harsh and scolding ‘kree-aa’ screech call.
And finally the Med gull has a paler grey upper and bright red legs and bill, while the black-headed gull’s legs and bill are a darker red.
Telling the difference between a black-headed gull and a Mediterranean gull
Like other terns, these are a summer visitor, arriving in April from their southern wintering grounds to nest on gravelly beaches and islands around the coast. You’ll also find them inland at gravel pits.
They are noisy in their colonies and will attack intruders that threaten their nests. They have long tails and a graceful flight – its Latin second name (Sterna hirundo) is the same as the swallow (Hirundo rustica) and refers to the tern’s superficial likeness with its light build and long forked tail. The two birds are, of course, completely different species. You’ll see tern hovering over the water before plunging down to catch a fish.
Another summer visitor, the sandwich tern is a relatively large tern, and breeds in colonies on sand and shingle banks, islands and spits.
It lays only between 1 to 2 eggs, but, if these chicks can survive their early years, they’re likely to have a typical lifespan of 12 years or more: one ringed Sandwich tern was found to be over 30 years old.
This species is one of the rarest breeding sea birds in the UK, with a distinctive ‘creeking’ call. They generally only breed on shingle banks in highly protected coastal lagoons.
Their courtship process starts with an aerial display with males trying to entice females by offering them a fish. If she accepts the offering, they’ll then mate and choose a nesting site which will just be a shallow scrape on a sand or shingle beach, spit or inshore islet.
She’ll normally lay 2-3 camouflaged eggs which take around 20 days for the chicks to hatch: within a few days they’ll be scampering around the beach.
Chicks will carry on being fed by their parents for several weeks while they polish up their hunting skills before heading back to Western African in the late summer with the rest of the colony.
The parents will abandon the nest if they’re disturbed, leaving their eggs and chicks vulnerable to the cold and predators. Eggs and chicks are also incredibly well camouflaged so fencing reduces the risk of them being trampled by accident.⠀
You’ll hear colonies of gulls and terns before you see them!
Take care to keep your distance when you’re walking around colony nesting birds on shingle bars and banks at places like Hayling Oyster Beds, and keep dogs alongside you to avoid disturbing them.
We’re grateful to watersports enthusiasts who avoid landing on small islands in the Solent, particularly along the New Forest coastline and eastern harbours, and who take care to give them space to breed successfully.