Coastal regions provide a magnificent habitat for thousands of birds, not just wildfowl and waders, though those totally dominate proceedings numerically. Unlike farmland and even woodland birds, coastal birds increased by 37 per cent from 1970 to 2003, though some species on The Wash have not done so well as in areas such as Morecambe Bay further north.
Among the waders, the Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta, wingspan 80cm), whichfeeds mainly on aquatic invertebrates caught by sweeping the curved 8cm bill from side to side, is one of the great success stories in British conservation.
After becoming extinct due to hunting, egg collection and drainage schemes in the 19th century (especially reclamation of saltmarshes), the Avocet became the symbol of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and started recolonising East Anglia in 1938.
Helped by sensitive management of such sites as Havergate Marshes and Minsmere, they are now breeding in virtually all their old area in the south-east with more than 500 pairs. The nest is always close to water. Many spend the winter in the west country, others go south in Europe.
Rising sea levels are likely to make some of the breeding areas unusable, but by the same token additional ones will almost certainly appear.
Ringed Plovers (Charadrius hiaticula, wingspan 50cm) are fairly common ground nesters, having increased by 20 per cent from 1970 to 1985, partly because with better management of coastal sites they can have up to three broods in favourable years. Their celebrated efforts to draw potential predators away from eggs and/or young include feigning injury or making fast, low zig-zag flights.
Unlike the related Little Ringed Plover, the Ringed Plover is essentially coastal. The southern England breeding birds tend to spend the winter here while those from further north across Europe migrate.
Some Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus, wingspan 85cm) breed in southern England but most go further north - there is no comparison between the numbers present from April to September and those on the premises through the rest of the year. Even when thousands take off, they fly in a much more direct and level manner than most waders.
Their food is mainly bivalve molluscs, which they either hammer on a hard surface or prise open with the powerful 9cm bill - the choice of method is strictly hereditary, or to be more precise taught by the parents.
The Dunlin (Calidris alpina, wingspan 40cm) is a bird of medium conservation concern which nests mostly further north in Europe though up to 30,000 pairs can be found here in the breeding season. As the picture shows, their plumage at this time of year is delightful. In winter Dunlin form huge flocks, with more than half a million arriving, and when taking off in bulk they can produce spectacular aerobatic displays.
Turnstones (Arenaria interpres, wingspan 50cm), which live up to their name when searching for food consisting of molluscs, crustaceans and insects, nest in Fenno-Scandia but winter in large numbers in the UK. As a rule they are readily approached.
Knot (Calidris calutus, wingspan 60cm) breed in the far north, including the Arctic, but winter to the south with the best part of 250,000 coming to Britain each year in the 1980s. The Wash, notably Snettisham Pits (RSPB), is among the best places to see them feeding, roosting packed tight, and wheeling around in flight when 'spooked'.
Grey plover (Pluvialis squatarola, wingspan 75cm) breed in northern Russia but up to 10,000 winter in the UK, with more passing through on the way south - numbers peak in August-September.
Black-tailed Godwits (Limosa limosa, wingspan 75cm) breed in significant numbers in the Netherlands, anything up to 100,000 pairs though declining. In Britain they average about 50 pairs each year, often in the Ouse Washes, where the tendency for summer floods can cuase major failures. In contrast, the Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) breeds in the far north of Europe but is commoner in Asia. Up to 60,000 arrive here to winter.
Drainage and collection for food and by naturalists resulted in the Ruff (Philomachus pugnax, wingspan 56cm) all but disappearing from its east coast strongholds in the 19th century. They did not breed in Britain at all from 1922 to 1963, but since then just a handful have returned. In the summer the breeding plumage of the male is stunning, giving rise to the name; in winter they are fairly nondescript.
One relatively rare visitor, mostly to The Wash in winter, is the Spotted Redshank (Tringa erythropus, wingspan 64cm). This differs from the Redshank not only in numbers but in looks, with the dominant colour grey rather than brown and a longer beak and legs. The species is by no means numerous, with around 30,000 pairs breeding principally in wooded tundra in the far north of Europe. They winter further south, though only a few hundred come to Britain.
One even less common visitor is an intriguing member of the sandpiper family, the Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus, wingspan 38cm), which breeds in small numbers, around 25 pairs, in Shetland but is principally a bird of the far north and Fenno-Scandia. With around 40,000 breeding pairs in western Europe, mostly in Iceland, and even larger numbers in Russia, the Red-necked Phalarope is not under any great pressure. However, in Britain it is designated of high conservation concern and must be one of those species which are far from certain to continue breeding here if global temperatures continue to rise.
Red-necked Phalaropes and others in the family offer a fascinating example of role reversal in the sexes since the female (pictured) is brighter in colouring, establishes the breeding territory, leads in courtship, and leaves the male to incubate the eggs and tend the fledglings in the early stages.
A few Red-necked Phalaropes drop in, usually to eastern coastal counties, in late July or August on their way to wintering either off the West African coast or in the Arabian Sea. They are well worth seeing, and are invariably pretty tame.
Images © Jeremy Early. All rights reserved.
In 2013 I published My Side of the Fence - the Natural History of a Surrey Garden. Details may be found, and orders placed, via this hyperlink My Side of the Fence. In November 2015 Surrey Wildlife Trust published the atlas Soldierflies, their allies and Conopidae of Surrey, jointly written by David Baldock and me. Details are on this web page: Atlas.