It is at this time of the year that many birdwatchers turn their eyes towards the coast and the first passage waders, heading south following the breeding season.
Many of these birds will still be in their breeding finery, with plumage more richly coloured and patterned than is the case when encountered during the winter months. In with the dunlin, redshank and godwits will be smaller numbers of spotted redshank, a striking looking bird in full breeding plumage.
Although spotted redshanks can be found in Britain throughout the year, it is during August and September that peak records are noted by surveys like BirdTrack (www.birdtrack.net) and WeBS (www.bto.org/webs). Many will be seen singly, or in small groups, at sites like Minsmere, the Alde estuary or on the Deben. A few individuals may be encountered further inland, visiting the exposed fringes of larger waterbodies, such as old gravel workings. These birds are part of a breeding population that stretches from northern Finland, east across Siberia to the Chukotskiy Peninsula. Birds from our end of the breeding range winter within Western Europe and Africa, reaching as far south as equatorial Africa. Interestingly, it is the female spotted redshanks that depart the breeding grounds first, leaving their mates to continue incubating the eggs and rearing the chicks. The first breeding females reach western Europe as early as June, the passage of males and juvenile birds happening from the second half of July. Individuals may spend some time at favoured ‘stop-over’ sites, including those along Suffolk’s east coast, fuelling up before the next leg of their migration. They may also use this opportunity to undergo their annual moult. Like a number of other long-distance migrants, the spotted redshank population faces the threat of habitat loss within its wintering range and while on migration. Changes to the nature of our estuaries, perhaps through development, may reduce the quality of stop-over sites, while wetland sites within the African wintering range may be degraded through land reclamation, coastal erosion or drainage schemes.
The arrival of spotted redshank on some of our coastal sites provides an excellent opportunity for birdwatchers wishing to improve their identification skills. Being able to see this bird alongside redshank and greenshank allows you to pick out some of the key features by which the three species can be distinguished. This is something that Su Gough explores in the excellent BTO bird ID video, freely available online (see www.bto.org/about-birds/bird-id/bto-bird-id-common-shanks). It might seem a little early to be thinking about autumn, but for many of the birds that breed on the northern fringes of Europe it is already time to head south ahead of the approaching winter. To see these birds passing through underlines the extent to which birds are international travellers, crossing both borders and continents with consummate ease.