Posted by: Ross Gardner | December 18, 2016

Birds in the Mist

Yesterday was not the best of days for birdwatching from the Essex shore of the Thames Estuary.  A thick and persistent fog left little more than a few dozen metres of the mudflats visible, veiling the presumed thousands of birds feeding ahead of the oncoming tide.  In fact, having walked down to the seawall from home on my way to meet friends for lunch, my binoculars had remained in my bag.  But as I approached the traditional ‘Old Town’ of Leigh-on-Sea, with its cobbled street, selection of pubs and what remains of the fishing fleet that once thronged here, I became aware of the sounds of birds close to the wall and free of the swaddling drifts of fog.

On reaching the channel, dredged to allow the fishing vessels access through the shallows, a patch of what looked like cockle shells, debris perhaps from one of the boats, had attracted the attentions of a mixture of waders and gulls.  There was clearly food to be had.   A few common and herring gulls had been drawn to it, but surrounding them was the ceaseless scampering and squabbling of small waders – turnstone and sanderling avidly inspecting the unseen nooks and crannies for the equally anonymous pickings concealed within.


Turnstone, sanderling and common gull find rich-pickings at Old Leigh. Ross Gardner 2016.

The turnstone are very much a feature here.  Present from autumn right though until the spring, they are a familar accompaniment to any who might enjoy a pint outside one of the estuary-side pubs or one of the delicacies purchased from one of the seafood vendors nearby.  They can become most abiding and to me have something of ‘the starlings of the sea’ about them.  The sanderling are a little more unusual along this particular stretch, the very pale plumage easily discerned among the darker-garbed turnstone with which they mixed.

These small waders are just two of the long-distance winter migrants that flock to British shores for the winter, both finding their breeding grounds well within the Arctic Circle.  The turnstone that stop with us for the season come from as far afield as Canada and Greenland, no small distance at all.  The sanderling however, can make one of the longest of all migrations.  They too will hark from similarly lofty breeding latitudes, but while many will spend the winter with us and other parts of the European coast, some press on further south, reaching Northwest Africa and, amazingly, the geographical extremes of the South African cape, a journey of many thousands of kilometres.

It is so very easy to take the annual appearance of such creatures for granted with so little thought for their efforts in doing so.


Sanderling (Calidris alba). Ross Gardner 2014.


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