WETLANDS - WADERS

Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus) in flight at Wetland Centre, London Take-off reveals the subtle plumage in all its finery Lapwing courtship is harder to see now in lowland England
Little Ringed Plovers (Charadrius dubius) are recent colonists Redshanks (Tringa totanus) need little incentive to raise the alarm Courtship, with the female (right) seemingly ignoring the male
Greenshank (Tringa nebularia) are passage or wintering birds in the south Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago) still winter in good numbers Common Snipe can gather in sizeable groups

Various waders favour inland wetlands above those on the coast though there's a lot of interchange. Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus, wingspan 85cm), or Peewit, are one of the finest sights and sounds in nature when flying in a large group, initially staying tight together and showing black then white in quick succession while wheeling around the sky.

This is seen mainly in the winter when there is a sizeable influx from mainland Europe, but even then it is harder to find the species than formerly, largely because of the absence of stubble fields due to the modern method of sowing winter wheat instead of spring wheat. If those in authority really wished to assist wildlife by making taxpayers subsidise agriculture, sponsoring spring sowing of crops in certain areas should be one of the first moves, as this would also help finches.

The drainage of wet areas across England, and to some extent the increase in numbers of corvids led by the Carrion Crow, has made successful nesting much harder work for Lapwing, and they are now a species of medium conservation concern.

Increasing wet grassland areas with nearby cover - the chicks are vulnerable to predation in the open - would certainly help and this is indeed being effected in a number of places by conservation groups, though whether too much ground has already been lost remains to be seen.

Unlike the Ringed Plover, which is coastal, the Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius, wingspan 45cm) prefers freshwater sites. The species is relatively rare, with fewer than 1,000 pairs compared to around 8,000 for the Ringed Plover, and is a fairly recent coloniser of Britain, with the influx starting in the 1940s. The development of some temporary or new sites including sewage works and flooded gravel pits has perhaps assisted. Little Ringed Plovers feed on small invertebrates, and winter in Africa.

Wetland drainage of marshes and wet grassland inland has severelyCommon Sandpipers (Tringa hypoleucos) pass through in spring and autumn curtailed the breeding of the Redshank (Tringa totanus, wingspan 62cm) though they are still doing well on the coast - an index of there being a decent number of longstanding, sizeable and designated reserves in that area, unlike the arrangement inland with much more fragmented sites. There are roughly 30,000 breeding pairs in the UK.

Redshank are the noisiest of all waders, and arguably the most alert, a combination which can make them irritating for keen ornithologists since when alarmed a shriek flies out and the bird flies out behind it at speed, usually stirring other species to take off.

Greenshank (Tringa nebularia, wingspan 70cm) breed in northern Scotland and on the continent and are not that common even on passage around our southern coasts en route to their wintering grounds in West Africa. A thousand or so pairs nest in Scotland, the best part of 5,000 are seen on passage and perhaps 700 spend the whole of the winter here.

Greenshank are among our larger waders though still not big and can be distinguished by their long green legs (which are covered in mud in the accompanying image) and slightly upturned bill. They are seen singly or in small groups and like Redshank they call frequently.

The comments about Redshank as regards breeding inland apply with even more force to the Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago, wingspan 45cm), as this species does not nest bang on the coast, requiring instead wet grass or rushes in almost any habitat in which to build its scrape.

Agricultural 'improvements' after 1945 have had a devastating effect with the result that many fewer people have a chance in lowland England of hearing and seeing the famous drumming behaviour of the male in courtship. As a result, it is on the list of species of high conservation concern.

Admittedly, many thousands arrive in winter but this hardly makes up for the decline in breeding pairs. However many come, the prospects of finding flocks of 400 or so, which happened at Norwood and around the marshes of the River Wandle south of London in the 1880s, are nil.

Common Sandpipers (Tringa hypoleucos, wingspan 40cm) breed in upland regions but are often seen in good numbers passing through the south in the spring. They feed principally on adult invertebrates including flies, mayflies, caddis flies and water beetles.

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.