Waders at the Wash

February 26, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

The last port of call for my week off work was a trip to Norfolk to join the Wash Wader Ringing Group (WWRG) for the weekend. WWRG comprises a group of bird ringers dedicated to studying the wading birds that frequent The Wash, a large estuary on the east coast of England. The Group uses both cannon netting and mist netting techniques to try to catch and ring birds.

The scientific aim of the Group is 'to provide a better understanding of the waders using the Wash so that decisions can be taken in the light of factual information.' Work primarily looks at eleven target species: oystercatcher, ringed plover, grey plover, knot, sanderling, dunlin, black-tailed godwit, bar-tailed godwit, curlew, redshank and turnstone, with particular importance given to the study of:

  • the pattern of migration and origins of each species;
  • the importance to waders of the Wash as a whole;
  • the importance to waders of sub-areas of the Wash;
  • changes in populations of the waders using the Wash.

The Group formed in 1959 and currently meets approximately once a month throughout the year. For most of the year, the fieldwork is predominantly based in Norfolk, but in the summer the remit is extended and the birds on both the Norfolk and Lincolnshire side of the Wash are studied. I have been a member and regular attendee since autumn 2010. More information about WWRG can be found on their website: http://wwrg.org.uk/new/ and information about bird ringing in general can be found on the BTO website: http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/ringing/ringing-scheme

And so it was that I found myself battling high winds and driving rain to reach Norfolk a couple of Fridays ago. We had received an email early in the day telling us not to rush to arrive early on Friday evening as the weather wasn't going to be suitable to catch on Saturday so we wouldn't need to go and set any nets on Friday night. Unfortunately, the whole weekend was affected by the unusually windy conditions but thankfully the rain was only really a problem on the Friday.

On Saturday morning, we split into groups to go and visit some of the local beaches and reserves (Holme, Snettisham, Heacham) looking for birds with colour rings and colour flags. The idea of these leg markings is that birds can be 're-sighted' in the field without needing to be re-caught. This allows many more sightings of the birds to be made and helps to increase the amount of information we can gather about the birds (movements of individual birds and lifespan for instance). 

If you spot a bird with colour rings or a flag on it, please make a note of it and report the sighting to http://ring.ac Flag sightings should note the colour of the flag, the colour of the writing and what the code on the flag is (if there is one). For example, WWRG uses white flags with black lettering and two letter codes as on the bar-tailed godwit below. 

Bar-tailed godwit flagged by the Wash Wader Ringing Group

For colour rings, the combination needs to be recorded in the order that it is placed on the bird. So, you would need to record what was above and below the knee (if you can see above the knee) and ensure you get the rings in the correct order and on the correct leg. When referring to legs, we refer to the bird's left leg, not the left leg as you see the bird (which would be the bird's right leg if you were looking from the front). For example, the combination for the turnstone below would be as follows: Left leg - black above the knee, red over black below the knee. Right leg - metal above the knee (not visible in this picture), lime over yellow below the knee. 

Colour ringed turnstone

So, on that blustery (understatement of the century) Saturday morning I joined a group going to the RSPB reserve at Snettisham Pits. One of the reasons I chose to go there was to see how the reserve was recovering from the tidal surge that had caused so much damage along the east coast back in early December. The answer is slowly and I was saddened and a little shocked to see the devastation that was still so plainly evident. Three of the four hides were destroyed, the lagoons are now one big lagoon, tracks were destroyed and so on. It will clearly take a considerable amount of time, money and effort to restore this wonderful reserve to its former glory. After battling the winds to reach the far end of the reserve and not finding very many birds there, we decided to retreat to the hide that was left standing to try to see some flagged birds. We managed to locate a couple of grey plovers and a bar-tailed godwit with flags on but unfortunately, they were out of range of our telescopes and we couldn't read them.

The following morning the wind had dropped sufficiently for us to attempt to catch some oystercatchers but unfortunately, we were unsuccessful this time. Instead, we headed down to the northern end of Heacham beach to look for colour ringed birds again. Now, if you want to see colour ringed birds at close range (close enough to read flags or colour ring combinations through binoculars rather than needing a telescope) then Heacham beach at high tide is the place to go. I did not have my telescope with me so I decided to make full use of the stunning light and take some photographs instead (which I later used to identify colour ringed birds).

The birds at Heacham are used to walkers, dog walkers, joggers, boot camp training sessions etc. taking place on the beach and so will tolerate human presence at a much closer range than on many beaches. I made full use of this fact by sitting on the beach about 15 meters from the tide edge and just waiting for the birds to come to me...which they soon did. I spent a thoroughly pleasant (if slightly chilly) hour or so taking numerous photographs of waders, including the two shots above. Species photographed included turnstone, bar-tailed godwit, knot, sanderling, oystercatcher, black-headed gull and even some golden plovers that flew over just as we were leaving. A few of the best shots can be found in my Birds - Waders gallery.

Some of the photographs show birds with rings and/or colour rings or flags on. Many photographers don't like taking photos of ringed birds. I can understand their desire to portray wildlife in as natural a state as possible, but as a bird ringer myself I obviously understand the reasons behind ringing and the scientific benefits that ringing brings and therefore am happy to tell this story through my photographs. Ringing the birds on the Wash not only helps us to gain a greater understanding of the birds but also helps to monitor the health of the estuary itself and helps to inform management decisions relating to the Wash. Many scientific papers have been written on the back of the research that the Group has undertaken over the past 50+ years. I consider myself extremely lucky and privileged to be a bird ringer and to be able to contribute in some small way to the research being carried out on such important areas like the Wash. 

Location tip - undoubtedly the easiest place on the Norfolk side of the Wash to see and photograph waders on the tide edge is at Heacham beach. You will need to go around high tide though or the birds will be too far out to photograph. There is a car park which is free in winter but charges during the main tourist season. RSPB Snettisham Pits reserve is the place to go to photograph huge flocks of knot (although Holme beach can also be good for this). The RSPB has details on their website of the dates when the most spectacular flocks are likely to be seen. You will need to allow approximately 30 minutes to walk from the car park to the wader viewing area. If you are short of time and want to see lots of species in a couple of hours then the RSPB's Titchwell reserve, just along the coast road past Hunstanton, is the place to go. Although WWRG does not ring there, colour ringed and flagged birds can be seen there so it is always worth checking their legs!


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