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The challenge of watching wader migration

At the time ‘the general public’ are enjoying their summer holidays, birders are watching their local nature reserves with eager anticipation for the arrival of waders. July and August is the start of the autumn migration and every day is special when birds are on the move. Birds will move from the north on clear nights with a favourable wind so getting out there as early as possible can help you find something unusual on your local patch; either a scarce species, such as curlew sandpiper, or a large flock of a more common species, such as golden plover, refueling on a stretch of open mud.

Numbers of migrating birds increase into September and October and, as more and more birds arrive, even the most experienced birder can find wader identification challenging.

The reason why the autumn migration presents a challenge? Well, not only do we have the dispersal of thousands of juveniles, but many of the adult birds passing through are in the process of moulting all their feathers. Adult wading birds are especially difficult to identify during this time as they are changing from breeding to non-breeding plumage.

Don’t be disheartened. While presenting a challenge, it is also a great learning opportunity and, providing there isn’t a raptor about, wading birds will hang around long enough for you to practise your identification skills in the field. There are also some great resources for you to use at home.

The most important tool is a good field guide. Choose one that has a range of helpful illustrations rather than photographs. You’ll need representations of males and females (if there is a difference); breeding and non-breeding plumage; juveniles and birds in flight. Make sure that the illustrations are annotated with helpful identification tips highlighting difference rather than similarity and, most importantly, don’t leave it at home!

Learning subtle differences in markings and anatomy also helps, for instance, whether a bird shows a wing panel when flying or whether it has a particular tail marking; whether its legs are longer between its body and its ‘knee’ (which is really its ankle) or whether it has a straight or slightly curved beak etc. This is very important for separating wader species but you’ll also need to learn about the ‘jizz’ or characteristics of individual species. Positive identification often requires waiting patiently until the bird shows you the exact body part or behaviour you need to be sure of the species.

The BTO Bird ID guides on YouTube are fantastic for learning at home and preparing yourself for a birding trip. There are quite a few videos dedicated to wader ID and comparing similar species.

Start with the most common waders first and learn them well. Watch how they move and know exactly what their plumage looks like in flight. That way, you’ll know when something different is visiting your favourite reserve. When a small flock of waders arrives, each bird showing a different stage of moult or sporting juvenile plumage, you’ll be able to tell whether they are all the same species or whether you’re looking at a mixed flock.

Reading bird books is a great alternative to watching TV and will help you prepare but there’s nothing better than getting outdoors and practising in the field. We are so lucky to have some great places to watch waders in Yorkshire. St Aidan’s and Fairburn are probably the best places in Leeds and we have Nosterfield, Staveley, North Cave Wetlands, Paull Holme Strays, Blacktoft Sands, Old Moor, Kilnsea Wetlands and Spurn Point in Yorkshire. Waders can also turn up when water levels are low on local park lakes and reservoirs so keep looking and don’t forget to take your binoculars out with you.

I’ll be focusing on wader ID during all my autumn and winter classes. Do get in touch if you need some help.

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