Lang-leggedy Beasties

Or, more correctly, wading birds. Thousands of these come to Forvie every year as the Ythan estuary is an internationally-important service-station stopover, especially in the spring, autumn and winter. It’s all that glorious mud, you see, and most ‘waders’ are long-legged birds, often with long beaks, that wade (hence the name) to find food. For the most part, this is small shrimps, shellfish, worms and other invertebrates that thrive in the mud. In fact, until you look closely at Ythan mud, it’s hard to get your head around just how much life there is in it. Skim the surface off the mud into a tray then rinse the worst of the sediment away, and you’ll be left with a wriggling, writhing mass of invertebrates – or ‘food’, as the birds call it.

Mud, glorious mud!

And the birds come in their thousands to dine here. Some will overwinter here, while some will only drop in on their way to or from their breeding grounds. Others will breed locally and use the estuary as part of their daily commute. Our wader numbers usually peak in the autumn, but different species will peak at different times of year – all depends on what they are using the estuary for.

Waders on the estuary at sunrise

In early winter, there are often high numbers (3-4000) of Golden Plover on the estuary. From a distance, they can appear as a gold smear on the mud, but look closer – there are thousands of birds, all tightly packed together. They are quite a small wader, and therefore very edible to raptors, so they stick together for defence. Their other form of defence is to feed at night, often in neighbouring fields (if you ever see a golden plover up close, they have a big eyes to help them see in low light). Because they feed overnight, they spend most of the day using the estuary as a safe place to roost and most of the time we see them, they are asleep – or have been startled into the air by something.

Golden plover
Golden Plover: note the big eye – photo (c) Ron Macdonald

Their cousin, the Lapwing, is a familiar sight – and sound – to many country dwellers. They have lots of local names – green plover, teuchit, peesie, peewit – the last two after their mewling call. But their scientific name Vanellus means ‘little fan’, after the sound and flapping of their wings. They are a fantastic sight in flight, flickering black and white, as the flocks rise up into the air.

Lapwings in flight
Lapwing up close

Another familiar sight and sound is that of the Curlew. They have one of the most evocative calls in nature, a bubbling, drawn-out rendition of their common name, while their scientific name calls them the ‘bird with the new-moon, bow-shaped bill’. They are the largest of all our waders and the female usually has the longer beak, up to 16cm long. That’s a good tool for getting worms out of deep mud! They defend small feeding territories on the estuary and can look quite ridiculous, having a spat with a neighbour when there isn’t another Curlew for miles around. It almost never comes to a fight, but favoured posturing techniques are:

Shaking some seaweed around in a provocative kind of way…

Wrack and ruin for you if you come any closer…

Parallel pacing…

Walk this way….

And the Hard Stare.

Crossed swords – well, beaks.

Our other commonest wader species are Redshanks and Oystercatchers. Redshanks, named for their bright orange legs, are perhaps a little overlooked with their grey plumage and middling size, but are present in large numbers. Their ‘teu-hu-hu‘ call is one of the signature sounds of the estuary.

Redshank

And, in among the Redshank, it’s easy to overlook the Godwits. These are a bit larger than the Redshanks but have long, straight beaks rather than curved like a Curlew. We get two kinds here – Bar-tailed and Black-tailed – and they look a very different bird in summer and winter. In summer, they have brick-red plumage, while in winter, they are a non-descript grey colour. Their name comes from Anglo-Saxon, meaning ‘good eating’, from a time when wild birds were far more frequently on the menu.

Black-tailed godwit

You’re never in any danger of overlooking Oystercatchers. These are large black and white waders, with pinky legs and a big orange beak. Come springtime, they’re probably the noisiest wader around, as pairs compete with one another in what are known as ‘piping ceremonies’. Unusually for waders, they carry food for their young (most baby waders feed themselves after hatching) which has allowed them to colonise rooftops in cities. There were several pairs on the university buildings at one time and my memories of exams there are of stomach-churning fear and Oystercatchers yelling at one another!

Oystercatchers displaying

Whereas it’s easy to miss one of our smaller waders, the dunlin. Some of these birds breed in the uplands of Scotland, but most come here from their high-Arctic breeding grounds. There can be a few thousand of them out there but, with their small size, they are easy to miss until they take flight. Then they make for a lovely spectacle as they flash white and dark, turning and dodging in the air. It’s thought this may help confuse predators like falcons and hawks. They can be surprisingly confiding with humans if you stay still though, and it’s entirely possible some of these birds have never seen people before.

Dunlin flock in flight
Close-up dunlin

Sanderling, too, can be very confiding. Walk on Forvie beach and you’ll see them, forever racing and chasing the waves, up and down and along the beach. These are another bird of the high Arctic, fleeing the cold winter. When they go north again in the spring, their first tundra meal may well be insects frozen by the ice from the previous autumn.

Sanderling

Turnstone, too, spend the winter here. As their name suggests, they are likely to be found on rockier shores and do indeed turn stones over in a quest for food. They are quite eclectic and unfussy in their tastes though, and we’ve seen them scavenging dead seals – or from the barrels of fat that washed ashore one winter, which must have been in the sea for over 50 years.

Turnstone

One wader that does stay to breed, often in with the terns, is the Ringed Plover. ‘Ringos’, as they are affectionately know to the staff, are an rather smart wader with broad black breast band and a typically dot-dash form of locomotion. Their stop-start running often makes them look like a clockwork toy but is often the only way you see them – they blend into a rocky background very well.

Ringed plover

And these aren’t even all the waders we’ll get here in a year. The estuary will also hold small numbers of Greenshank, various Sandpipers on passage in spring, Knot and Ruff as well as rarer waders like Spotted Redshank or Little Stint. You never quite know what’s going to turn up and, while waders aren’t the easiest group of birds to identify and separate, in some ways it doesn’t matter. You’re often just best appreciating the sight and sound of them on the estuary.

Little Stint with Dunlin
Redshank flock

What better way to start the New Year than taking in the sights and sounds of an estuary full of waders? Happy 2023 folks – here’s wishing our readers all the very best for the year ahead.