Posted by: Ross Gardner | August 28, 2012

Across a continent’s divide

Having just spent four days sailing along the Essex coast (plus a bit of Kent) on our annual young carers sailing trip, I frequently found myself well positioned to view the birdlife and perhaps some signs of the autumn migration (autumn is August/September for birds on the move).  I did see plenty of birds, but it wasn’t the 100 or so Avocet gathered on the mud off of Mersea Island that most inspired the subject for this post, nor the Little Tern flitting over the waters in the Colne Estuary, as much of a pleasure it is to see these now scarce birds.  It was  in fact, a dumpy little wader, hardly with any of the grace possessed by these more elegant birds, but one that is welcomed all the same and remarkable in its own right.

Turnstone (Arenaria interpres). Ross Gardner

Everywhere we sailed, whether out of the busy Harwich port, the quieter backwaters of the North Kent marshlands or the open sea of the gaping Thames Estuary, there seemed to be a Turnstone.  They are small waders, about the size of a Song Thrush (21-24cm from tip to tail), which earn their name from feeding habits that involve lifting stones, shells, seaweed and such like, with their short bill in search invertebrate prey beneath.

They are a bird I know well along the coast near where I live, but mostly as a winter visitor and one of the many species that crowd the estuaries and sheltered coastlines in their thousands.  These I saw would be different birds to those that spend the winter with us.  The autumn migrants have flown down from Scandinavia, heading on for wintering grounds further south in Africa.  Our winter flocks will travel down from further afield, as far off as Greenland or Canada.  We see an endearing, an often confiding little bird (I have watched them scrounging with Starlings whilst enjoying a beer outside a pub by the seawall), entertaining with its busy-body antics and seemingly ceaseless activity.  Yet at the same time here is a creature that flies thousands of miles in a lifetime, spanning hemispheres and continents.  I love the fact the those birds that I see skimming over the North Sea waves off the Essex coast in August, not so long ago were foraging to feed chicks raised on the Arctic tundra, and that those that will brighten up some bleak winter’s day to come might have been rubbing shoulders with the likes of Wilson’s Phalarope or Harlequin Duck.

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