It won’t be long before the Solent’s winter wading birds are back with us, and we are so excited to see them return. In fact, some early birds are already here! In this blog, we share our top tips for identifying the Solent’s smaller migratory species.
The Solent’s scampering sanderlings are one of our smallest wading birds. They are around 20cm long and weigh between 50 and 60 grams (the same as one tennis ball or two AA batteries).
Here in the Solent, we only see sanderlings in their winter plumage, when their backs are a beautiful silver and their underparts snowy white. They have a short, straight, black bill and black legs which are nearly always working overtime as they scuttle around searching for food.
Sanderlings are part of the sandpiper family, and while many birds in this group have four toes (three pointing forward and a smaller hind-toe), sanderlings have only the front three. This allows them to run very quickly and gives them their characteristic ‘clockwork toy’ movement.
Their preferred habitats are sand and shingle beaches, and they feed at low tide in the crashing waves, where the sand is churned up and insects are brought to the surface. So, if you see a small, silvery bird running back and forth in the waves, you are very likely looking at a sanderling!
Dunlins and sanderlings are similar in size and shape and are often seen sharing the same habitat, so the easiest ways to tell them apart are by observing their colouring and behaviour.
Dunlins have pale, brownish-grey upperparts and white underparts – if you look closely through binoculars or a telescope, you may spot their subtle, light-grey breastband. Their bill is black (a little longer and more hooked than the sanderling’s) and they have legs and eyes to match.
At low tide you will find flocks of dunlins foraging energetically on the Solent’s mudflats, using their bills to take insects, molluscs and worms from the surface.
At high tide, when it’s time to find a safe place to rest, dunlins can sometimes be seen swirling through the sky in spectacular murmurations – a group aerobatic display they use to confuse predators. As they turn, they alternately show the white of their bellies and the brown of their backs.
Turnstones are about the same size as blackbirds, with bright orange legs, mottled brown upperparts and white underparts. They have a black band on their chests and a pointed, wedge-shaped bill which they use to flip over stones and large clumps of seaweed.
This unmistakeable behaviour makes them one of our easiest coastal birds to identify, and you will often find them on the tideline busily turning stones in search of the insects and shellfish hiding underneath.
Turnstones are not fussy eaters and are infamous among birders for their strange eating habits – one bird was spotted tucking into a washed-up human corpse, while others have been seen eating household scraps, including artificial sweetener!
Ringed plovers are stout little birds with distinctive markings – as adults, they wear a black scarf around their neck which is very useful for identifying them from other small waders. They have an orange bill with a black tip, orange legs, and light brown feathers on their back and wings.
They have short little legs which may seem like a disadvantage as they’re unable to wade up to the same depths as other species, but this feature actually benefits them. Being restricted to very shallow water means that they aren’t competing for food in the same places as other, longer-legged species.
They feed by sight on a variety of small insects, worms, crustaceans, snails, shrimps, and even small fish, picking them off with their dainty beaks.
Masters of camouflage
All these birds are masters of camouflage and can be very tricky to spot, so it’s important to keep an eye out for them over the winter months to avoid disturbing them. They generally feed and rest near the water’s edge, so sticking to footpaths or at the top of the beach is an easy way to ensure that you’re giving them the space they need to thrive.