Ruff

The Ruff, even more than the Dunlin, is a confusing wader of many colours and plumages. It is mainly a summer visitor to marshes and wetlands, though a few now stay here. Long ago, Ruffs were trapped for food in large numbers. On one occasion, 2,400 were served at Archbishop Neville's enthronement banquet in 1465. The heavy toll on breeding birds, together with loss of habitat through drainage, meant Ruffs almost became extinct in England by the 1880s. Thankfully, they are now slowly recovering.

It is a medium-sized wader with a long neck and legs, a small head and a relatively short bill. There is often a white ring at the base of the bill. The distinctive feature in all their varieties is a heavily scalloped, brown back. The male ruff in breeding plumage has an exotic black or white 'ruff' and white underparts with large black spots. When not in breeding plumage it is has a blotchy buff breast and white belly. Their legs can be anything from orange to dark green. The female is similar but smaller and the juvenile is like the female but has a cleaner buff breast. In autumn and spring, they can be any mix of the two! In flight, Ruffs show a narrow white wing bar and oval patches on either side of the tail. They look long winged with their loose, lazy flapping. They are generally silent but can make a low "tu-wit" when disturbed.

Ruffs forage on wet grassland and soft mud, mainly searching by sight for edible items. They feed on insects, larvae and small shellfish that they pick from the surface (which is why they don't need particularly long bills). They will also eat plant material when on migration and hungry in the winter.

Male Ruffs return to their breeding ground in mid-March and assemble a display area called a 'lek'. The females, called 'reeves', arrive a few weeks later as the males start their 'lekking' by prancing about in their fancy breeding plumage and sometimes having mock battles with other males. The ones with darker ruffs are the most fancied and the female mates with the most successful 'lekking' male. Males with white ruffs are known as 'satellites' and are not usually dominant enough to mate, but will sneak in and couple with a female when the dark ruffed males aren't looking. All the prancing about in the same spot is what made them so easy to catch and eat.

The nest is a shallow scrape on the ground into which 4 eggs are laid that hatch after 20 days. The youngsters leave the nest soon after hatching. Mum does all the child rearing as dad doesn't want to get his fancy feathers dirty and is too busy doing his moult. She feeds the chicks for the first few days, after which they can feed themselves and can fly 25 days later. Dad leaves to go back to Africa in late June and mum and the kids follow on in July.

The Ruff is specially protected as they were nearly extinct and have slowly been recovering since the 1960s, mainly through the management of bird reserves. Fewer than ten pairs nest here each year. They are mainly here in the summer, though about 800 now remain over winter.

Their Latin name is 'calidris pugnax' where 'calidris' comes from the Ancient Greek 'kalidris' for a grey-coloured waterside bird and 'pugnax' refers to the aggressive behaviour of the bird in its 'lek' from the Latin 'pugnax' for 'combat'. The English name 'Ruff' was first recorded in 1634, and is from the exaggerated frilly collar fashionable with the Elizabethans called ‘a ruff’.

Greenshank

The Greenshank is a tall, elegant wader, usually seen singly or in small groups on the edges of lakes, rivers, reservoirs, estuaries and coastal marshes. Greenshank means 'green legs' where 'shank' is an old word for leg (as in the phrase 'going on shank's pony' for walking). It is a summer visitor usually found on moors and bogs in Scotland, but during migration you can often see them on lakes, reservoirs and coastal wetlands.

They have an upright stance with a green-grey back, a white breast, white underparts that become spotted in summer and, of course, green legs. Their bill is long, dark, and slightly upturned, which can help to distinguish it from other waders. They have plain grey wings and a white 'V' on their back and rump, which is visible when they do their rapid, twisty flying. Their flight call is a ringing, triple note "tew-tew-tew", similar in sound to a Redshank but with each note being identical.

The Greenshank feeds in shallow waters by probing wet mud, using a prod-walk-prod action, or sweeping its bill from side to side. It eats crustaceans, insects, worms and small fish.

Greenshank nesting begins in late April. The male makes several scrapes on the open, wild moorland ground, proclaiming his territory with a song flight by flying to a great height before 'tumbling' down to the ground. Miss ‘picky’ female then chooses one she likes and lays 4 eggs which hatch after 24 days. The youngsters can feed themselves, while both parents care for them, and can fly 25 days later. Mum often leaves first in June, ahead of dad and the rest of the family who set off in August. Some Northern European birds will overwinter on the south coast of Britain, though the majority go to Africa.

About 1,000 Greenshanks breed in Scotland, though their moorland breeding areas are threatened by forestry tree planting schemes, grouse shooting and other leisure activities. They are consequently Amber listed. The oldest known Greenshank was 11 years old.

Their Latin name is 'tringa nebularia' where 'tringa' is from the Ancient Greek 'trungas' for a thrush-sized, white-rumped, tail-bobbing wading bird mentioned by Aristotle and 'nebularia' is from the Latin 'nebula' for 'mist'. A misty, white-rumped wading bird. I suppose the white 'V' on its rear and its grey colour sort of fits. In Norwegian, the Greenshank is called 'Skoddefoll' from its habit of loving damp marshy places.

Sanderling

The Sanderling is a small beach sandpiper that mainly passes through in spring and autumn, though some non-breeding birds can stay here all summer. Most often seen in small groups, it is extremely active and restless, sprinting along sandy shorelines like a mad clockwork toy.

The Sanderling looks plump on skinny black legs and is larger than a Dunlin. In summer, it has a reddish-brown mottled back, head and breast, and white underparts. In winter and the rest of the year, it has a pale grey back and clean white underparts. Its head is mostly white and there is often a black mark on the front of the wings. It has a short, straight black bill, about the same length as its head, and black legs with no hind toe. It is an easy wader to identify, as it is one of the whitest in winter. When flying, the dark wings have a broad white wing bar and there are white sides to its rump. Their call is a short, quiet "plik, plik".

Sanderlings feed on invertebrates like sand-hoppers, crabs, shrimps, and shellfish, catching their food by running amazingly fast along the beach in a 'wave chase', snatching food as it is washed ashore or by probing pools in the sand left by the retreating tide. On their breeding grounds they will eat insects and plants.

The Sanderling only breeds in the Arctic, returning to their breeding grounds in May or June. The female, as opposed to the male, makes the nest scrape and lays 4 eggs. She often makes a second and lays 4 more eggs for the male to incubate, so she can keep an eye on him. The eggs hatch after 24 days and the young can fly 17 days later, soon becoming independent. Sanderlings will often have two broods. The adults leave the breeding grounds in mid-August with the young following soon after. The distance they travel varies, but some have been known to make 32,000km round-trips to South Africa for their winter holidays.

Peak numbers of Sanderling occur in May or August, when there are about 40,000, and up to 16,000 will overwinter here. The ones we see come from Greenland and Siberia. Although the population trend of Sanderling is unknown, it is not believed to be decreasing sufficiently rapidly to be of concern, though climate change might be a problem for them in the future. The oldest ringed Sanderling lived to be 17.

Their Latin name is 'calidris alba' from the Greek 'kalidris' for a grey-coloured waterside bird and 'alba' for 'white'. The English name derives from Old English ’sand-yroling’ meaning 'sand-ploughman'. Both are excellent descriptions. Sandpipers of the genus 'calidris' are often called “peeps” because of their calls.

Purple Sandpiper

The purple bit of Purple Sandpiper is a little misleading, as you can only see the purple colour when very close up, on some of its back feathers. Plain Grey Sandpiper would have been much closer. They are a winter visitor, mainly seen along the north-eastern coasts, liking rocky shorelines by the sea often mixed in with their Turnstone mates. They are unusual for a wader in that you can get quite close to them before they run away.

The Purple Sandpiper is a medium-sized dumpy looking bird, larger, stockier and darker than a Dunlin, looking scaly grey with just a hint of purple. It has a dark head with white streaks, a white eye ring, a heavily streaked breast and sides, and a pale belly. Their bill is dark and down curved with a yellow base, and their short legs are also yellow. In flight, they look dark as they fly low over the sea. Their dark tail has white sides and there is a very faint wing bar. Although generally silent, they sometimes make a Swallow like twittering "wee-wit" call on take-off.

Purple Sandpipers feed on small fish and invertebrates, which they pick up from the water’s edge as they are washed ashore or found amongst newly exposed seaweed on flat rocks that project into the sea. They are masters at dodging the waves by jumping.

They are a 'hard as nails' sandpiper, nesting in the Arctic and Subarctic regions of Europe such as the Scandinavian uplands and Greenland. Nesting starts in June and the male makes several scrapes on open ground. The female chooses one and lays 4 eggs which hatch after 21 days. Dad does most of the incubation with mum often leaving before the eggs even hatch! Like most girls, she doesn’t like the cold. The young can feed themselves, which is just as well, while dad cares for them for the 4 weeks until they can fly. Purple Sandpipers moult completely between July and September, while near their breeding grounds, going to their dark winter colours before arriving here. Birds in the High Arctic migrate furthest while birds in Northern Europe rarely move far, many staying put after breeding.

About 13,000 Purple Sandpipers overwinter in Britain, arriving in September and staying until as late as May. Only three pairs have ever nested in Scotland, with the breeding areas kept strictly secret to protect the birds from egg thieves and disturbance. The oldest Purple Sandpiper lived for 13 years.

Their Latin name is 'calidris maritima' where 'calidris' is from the Ancient Greek 'kalidris' for a grey-coloured waterside bird, and 'maritima' is from Latin for 'of the sea' (from which we get the word 'maritime'). Purple Sandpipers are closely related to the Sanderling (’calidris alba’) and the Dunlin (’calidris alpina’).

Common Sandpiper

The Common Sandpiper, sadly, is not that common. You are more likely to see a Green Sandpiper than a Common Sandpiper. They are summer visitors and like fast-flowing rivers and upland streams with stony edges, though they can also be seen at marshes and lakes during their migration in July and August. You usually see them in ones or twos as they don't like crowds.

The Common Sandpiper is similar in size to a Green Sandpiper, but is smaller and shorter-legged with contrasting plain brown upperparts, white underparts, and a distinctive white crescent shoulder patch. It has a medium length brown bill, brown smudges on the side of its breast with a neat division between the breast and pure white underparts, and a pale eye stripe and eye ring. It does a funny, bobbing walk, known as 'teetering', on its short yellow-grey legs. When flying, the wings look 'stiff' and flicker below the level of the body, looking bowed, and you can see a white wing bar and white sides to the tail. Their call is a sharp, three-note, "willy-wicket".

Common Sandpipers feed by eyesight on insects which they pick from the surface rather than probing into the sand or mud. Their food includes flies, beetles, earwigs and grasshoppers.

The males arrive first in March, and they begin breeding in April once the females show up. If she comes back to the same site as the male from the previous year, they will usually pair up again. If they don’t, it is because she was ridiculously late or because she spotted a better territory, having found last year's site a bit rubbish. Between them, they make several scrapes, then the female selects one and lines it before laying her 4 eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs, with dad doing the night-shift, until the eggs hatch 21 days later. Both mum and dad look after the young. When threatened, the young may cling to their parent's body to be lifted away to safety (a bit like being rescued by a helicopter)! The youngsters can manage weak flight themselves after 15 days and full flight after 25 days.

There are 15,000 breeding pairs in Britain with most being in Scotland as pollution of English rivers has reduced the food they need. Their low numbers make them Amber listed. Most Common Sandpipers migrate to Africa for the winter, though about 100 stay here. The oldest ringed Common Sandpiper lived to be 12 years old.

Their Latin name is 'actitis hypoleucos' where 'actitis' is from Ancient Greek 'aktites' meaning 'coast-dweller' and 'hypoleucos' is a combination of the Ancient Greek 'hupo' meaning 'beneath' and 'leukos' meaning 'white'. A coast-dweller with white underneath. Close enough.

Green Sandpiper

The Green Sandpiper is more common than a Common Sandpiper. It is a shy, plump wader that frequently bobs on the ground and is seen singly or in small groups. Because they are so shy, we know little about them. They are a migrant visitor, passing through, and are mainly seen in March or between July and September.

The Green Sandpiper is a smallish wader, which looks like a large House Martin in flight. It has dark green-brown, almost black, fine speckled upperparts with very contrasting pale underparts, a distinctive white rump, and a dark underwing. It has white above and in front of the eye, but not behind it. The bill is dark and medium length. Its legs are greenish, giving it the 'Green' name. In flight, there is no wing bar, only the obvious white rump as it zig-zags erratically, making a "weet-a-weet-weet" call.

They feed on insects, shrimps and snails in shallow water where there is vegetation nearby, often bobbing along, in a typical sandpiper fashion. Their favourite places to dine are marshes, flooded gravel pits, rivers, and even sewage works!

Green Sandpipers pass though in March and arrive at their breeding grounds in Northern Europe by mid-May. Unusually for a wader, they nest in trees, using old nests of other birds in woodlands, near flowing water. Their 4 eggs hatch after 20 days with both parents sharing the incubation. Although the youngsters can feed themselves, mum and dad care for them until they can fly 28 days later. The return journey to Africa begins in June, with mum going first and dad following a little later with the kids. Not all Green Sandpipers return to Africa with between 500-1000 overwintering in Southern Britain.

The European breeding population is between 330,000 and 800,000 pairs and in the past, the Green Sandpiper has only bred in Britain on a couple of occasions. Their Latin name is 'tringa ochropus' where 'tringa' is from the Ancient Greek 'trungas' for a thrush-sized, white-rumped, tail-bobbing wading bird mentioned by Aristotle, and 'ochropus' is from 'okhros' meaning 'ochre coloured' with 'pous' for 'foot'. A thrush-sized, white rumped bobbing bird with browny-yellow feet. So... nearly right - apart from the feet.

Dunlin

The Dunlin is our smallest common wader. Outside the breeding season, they gather in large flocks on the coast, sometimes thousands in size, and fly in compact formations showing alternate white and grey as they twist and turn.

A Dunlin is a small, plump, Starling sized bird with a droopy down-turned black bill and a short neck that makes it look round-shouldered. Apart from their black legs, they have a confusingly variable plumage. In the summer, they have a reddish-brown spotted back, grey head and neck and a noticeable black belly patch. While in the winter, they have a grey-brown back, head and neck with a white belly. In between, it can be any mixture of the two - which is why it is a good bird to learn to recognise, as this helps eliminate it from something more unusual. In flight, there is a faint white wing bar and white sides to the rump. Their call is a hoarse "zreep".

A Dunlin feeds by taking insects, such as beetles and fly larvae, crustaceans and worms from the surface of the ground by picking and probing with its bill. It usually feeds in groups, typically doing several jabbing probes before scurrying on. A 'sewing machine' feeding action.

Dunlins breed on upland moors and coastal marshes. The male puts on an aerobatic display by climbing steeply, hovering against the wind and then fluttering or gliding down to the ground with his wings held above his back in a 'V'. The shallow, simple scrape nests are lined with leaves and grass. In May, the female lays 4 eggs which hatch after 21 days. The male usually incubates during the day and the female at night. On the breeding grounds, Dunlin often mix with Golden Plovers who help give warning of danger as their ground level nests are vulnerable to predators. As soon as they hatch, the chicks can feed themselves and are independent of mum and dad. They can fly 20 days later and quickly move out to the coast.

Although some remain here all year, the Dunlin is mainly a winter migrant coming from Northern Europe and Iceland. About 10,000 pairs breed here, mainly in Scotland, and a further 350,000 arrive to overwinter here. The Dunlin is Red listed as numbers have declined dramatically, mainly because of changes in agriculture and loss of breeding moorland to forestry. The dumpy Dunlin can live for up to 19 years.

Their Latin name is 'calidris alpina' where 'calidris' is from the Ancient Greek 'kalidris' for a grey-coloured waterside bird and 'alpina' is from the Latin for 'of high mountains', in this case referring to the Alps - which they have never been near - though they do go to upland moors. The English name 'Dunlin' comes from 'dun' for dull brown, so dull brown-ish. A little more accurate.

Turnstone

You guessed it, a Turnstone actually turns stones when searching for food along the shore. It is a beach comber that is most at home on rocky, seaweed covered coasts and mussel beds. Turnstones can frequently be found on piers and promenades, where tourists drop chips and other morsels. They can become incredibly tame, often running in between people’s feet when feeding!

Turnstones look like scruffy, oversized Ringed Plovers and are well camouflaged amongst the stones. They are a chunky, low slung looking wader with a chestnut and black back, white belly, and a black and white head and breast. They have a short, stout black bill that tapers to a point and orange legs. In flight, they have striking white marks on the wings, back and rump. Their call is a rippling, metallic triple "kit-it-it".

They often search for insects in small groups, by turning stones or probing seaweed with their bill while dodging the waves. They can even lift rocks as big as their own body! By hunting this way, Turnstones find food other waders can't reach. They are seldom stationary, running about the rocks, being opportunist feeders and enjoying a wide variety of food, including mussels, barnacles, periwinkles and crabs.

Turnstones breed on the Northern Europe and Greenland coasts, returning to their breeding grounds in pairs as they are monogamous and pairs may remain together for several breeding seasons. The nest is a scrape in the ground into which 4 eggs are laid which hatch after 22 days. The youngsters can feed themselves but are still cared for by both parents, though mum may leave before they can fly, about 20 days later.

The 50,000 Turnstones seen here in the winter breed in Northern Europe and Greenland. The ones that come from Europe are passage migrants on their way to Africa and the ones from Greenland usually stay, doing their moult before going back again in May. Turnstones are one of the longest lived waders with an average lifespan of 9 years, though they can live for up to 19 years.

Their Latin name is 'arenaria interpres' where 'arenaria' is from the Latin 'arenarius' meaning 'inhabiting sand' and 'interpres' means 'messenger' as the man that named them (Linnaeus) thought that the Swedish word 'tolk' for 'interpreter' was what they used to describe them. In fact, the dialect word they were actually using means 'legs' and they were describing a Redshank. It is funny how scientists in the past wrongly named so many birds. Turnstones in North America are called 'Ruddy Turnstones' as there is a second species, the 'Black Turnstone', which lives on the Pacific coast of North America.

Grey Plover

The Grey Plover is a bit of a loner, preferring his own company or being with a few friends when feeding along the beach, only joining others when coming together in a large flock to roost at night. Although a few birds stay during summer, the Grey Plover is really a winter migrant, arriving here from July, peaking in autumn, and leaving from April onwards. You find them along the coast as they prefer sandy or muddy estuaries.

The Grey Plover is a chunky, black, white and grey wader, plumper than the similar Golden Plover. In summer, it has a black belly, neck and face with a silver and black spangled back, a short black bill, and dark grey legs. A white line separates the speckled back and black front, quite the trendy goth about town. In winter, it loses most of its black feathers and has grey spotted upperparts and pale grey underparts. It has easy to see black armpits in flight, a white wing bar and white rump. Their call is a mournful "pee-oo-ee".

They eat insects, worms, and crustaceans, mainly dining alone, often at night, and will defend their area of the shore. They feed by picking food from the surface using the plover run-stop-tilt-stand action - standing and watching, running forward, pecking, then standing still again.

The Grey Plover is the only plover that doesn't breed here. It nests in the Arctic on the northern coasts of Alaska, Canada, and Russia, returning to its breeding ground in May. The nest is a shallow scrape on the ground made by both birds. The female lays 4 eggs in early June, which hatch after 26 days. She leaves the young when they are 12 days old and poor dad has to do all the child-care. The youngsters can fly 45 days later.

About 44,000 Grey Plovers overwinter here between August and April and as many as 70,000 pass through in spring. Their favourite stopping place is the Wash. Males overwinter farther north than females as ladies always moan about being cold, so a high proportion seen in Britain are males with females travelling on to Southern Europe and Africa for a bit of sun. The oldest Grey Plover was over 21, which is amazingly old for such a small bird.

Their Latin name is 'pulvialis squatarola' from the Latin 'pluvia' for 'rain', as people believed they flocked when rain was imminent and because their backs looked like raindrops. The 'squatarola' comes from 'sgatarola' which was a Venetian name for a plover. A chic, Italian, gothic bird then.

Golden Plover

The Golden Plover is a medium-sized plover with distinctive gold and black summer plumage. In winter, when the black plumage is replaced by buff, they form large flocks. They fly in a fairly tight formation with rapid, twinkling wingbeats, sparkling white and golden brown, over grazing marshes in the low winter sun.

Golden Plovers are a medium-sized, upright wader with a small round head and short black bill. In summer, a broad white line separates their gold spangled back from their black face, neck and belly. While in winter, they have a duller buff breast and back with a white belly. In flight, they have noticeable white ‘armpits’. There is a very faint wing bar and the wings are slightly longer than the tail. The flight action is rapid and powerful, with regular wingbeats. Their call is a lonely sounding, murmuring "too-ee". Golden Plovers can be confused with Grey Plovers, but in flight the Golden Plover has white armpits whereas the Grey Plover has black armpits. Golden Plovers differ from Lapwings by their sharp, pointed wings (Lapwings have bluntly rounded wings).

They feed on beetles, worms, caterpillars, ants, earwigs, spiders, snails and plant material, often foraging at night with the plover run-stop-tilt-stand action as they chase things on the ground.

Golden Plovers breed on the bleak northern uplands and tundra. In Icelandic folklore, the appearance of the first plover in the country means that spring has arrived. The males display over the heather moorland, chasing each other or doing a switchback flight over their territories, issuing a plaintive display call. In mid-April, both male and female prepare a shallow scrape nest on the ground. The 4 eggs hatch after 26 days and the young are cared for by both parents even though they can feed themselves. They can fly 25 days later and are soon independent. If danger threatens, mum or did will run towards the danger then runaway, sometimes dragging a wing to pretend injury and lure the intruder away from the nest.

Golden Plovers migrate south in winter. The 50,000 pairs that breed in northern Britain move to coastal marshes in large flocks, often mixing with Lapwings. They are joined by Golden Plovers from Iceland on the west coast and by up to a third of the Northern European Plovers on the east coast. As many as 420,000 can be here over winter. The number of Golden Plovers breeding in northern Britain has been declining, mainly from the loss of their moorland breeding grounds by over grazing or planting of forests. Golden Plovers can live for 12 years.

Their Latin name is 'pluvialis apricaria' from the Latin 'pluvia' for 'rain' and 'apricaria' meaning 'to bask in the sun'. People believed that Golden Plovers flocked when rain was imminent. They were also the origin of the Guinness Book of World Records. On 10 November 1951, Sir Hugh Beaver, then the managing director of the Guinness Breweries, went on a shooting party in County Wexford, Ireland. After missing a shot at a Golden Plover, he became involved in an argument over which was the fastest game bird in Europe, the Golden Plover or the Red Grouse. He soon found that it was impossible to confirm this in reference books and that there must be lots of similar questions, so the Guinness Book of World Records was born. It became a best seller within months.

There are two other species of Golden Plover: the American Golden Plover (which breeds in Canada and Alaska and winters in South America), and the Pacific Golden Plover (which breeds in northern Asia and winters in South Asia and Australia). Both species are extremely rare visitors to the UK. They vary in the amount of speckling on their backs and the width of the stripe that borders their summer black.