September is one of my favourite months because it means that our wintering wader numbers are really starting to build up. Birds that breed in the UK are joined by many more individuals from further north, filling our estuaries and saltmarshes with their bustling figures and plaintive cries. One of the most visible, and audible, of these is my bird of the month for September, the redshank. For me, their fluting calls are the sound of autumn and winter on the coast.
Redshanks are a medium-sized member of the sandpiper family, a large group of waders filling a number of ecological niches. Named after their colourful legs, they should actually be called ‘orangeshank’ because their legs are bright orange rather than red. I wonder whether red was used in the name because, as with our affectionate name for robins, the redbreast, there was no word for the colour orange in English until the early 1500s?
Unlike some waders, their summer and winter plumages aren’t dramatically different, but a summer redshank is a subtly pretty bird. A brown mottled back and wings combine with heavily speckled cream underparts. Their medium-length straight bill has an orange base and dark tip. In winter, the back and wings become a more uniform plain brown-grey colour and the underparts lose their markings. When hunched up at the roost, they can appear deceptively dumpy. Redshanks are generally easy to identify because we only see one similar looking wader with orange legs in the UK, the spotted redshank (of which more later). In flight, a white triangle is visible on the back.
Sentinel of the Marshes
In the UK, redshanks breed both inland and by the coast in saltmarshes, damp fields and on lake margins. Parts of Scotland and northern England have the largest numbers of breeding birds with current national population estimates of about 25,000 pairs. They usually lay four eggs and both parents take part in incubation. As with most waders, the chicks are precocial which means that they can leave the nest and forage for food very soon after hatching. Adults and young feed on a variety of invertebrates including worms, insect larvae and crustaceans.
In winter, many UK breeders will move to the coast to feed on estuary mudflats. Over 100,000 birds join them from breeding sites further north, many of them from Iceland. Here they often form large groups, and this is where most of us are familiar with them, feeding in shallow water on or near the coast, or roosting together on a mudbank.
One of their nicknames is ‘sentinel of the marsh’, a fitting name for two reasons. First, they are often the first wader to sound the alarm when any perceived danger approaches. They have a loud piping alarm call, and during the breeding season they often circle over the head of any intruder while calling. Another reason for the name is that they will often perch up high on a wall or fence post, especially in the summer, to keep a watch for threats. Many other regional names for the bird exist including ebb cock in Shetland dialect, watery pleep in Orkney and pool snipe elsewhere.
Although the redshank is the commonest member of the sandpiper family in Europe, there are still concerns about its numbers. In the UK, breeding redshanks have declined by 44% over the last 25 years. Historically, drainage of wet meadows on farmland contributed to declines leading up to the 1980s. Redshanks need to be able to probe beneath the surface of soil to find invertebrates, something they can’t do if it is too dry and hard. Grass-cutting earlier in the season limits the availability of hidden nesting sites and this has had an affect more recently. In addition, the increased use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers has reduced the number of invertebrates to feed on.
There have also been big losses from saltmarsh breeding sites, one of their most important breeding habitats. Whereas light grazing is useful for producing a mosaic of different vegetation heights, overgrazing has increased the risk of trampling by livestock and the reduction of cover from predators. Additionally, farming and building projects are leading to more drainage of these areas. There have been moderate declines across Europe, and it is now Amber listed as a species of conservation concern both here and in the EU.
Despite its name and the fact it is the only other sandpiper we see here with orange legs, the spotted redshank is more closely related to greenshanks and greater yellowlegs (an American breeder) than its namesake. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful wader and a real joy to see. Unlike redshanks, they don’t breed in the UK but are often seen during migration periods and a few birds winter here. They are Arctic breeders from northern Scandinavia and across Russia to eastern Siberia.
Telling them apart from redshanks is reasonably easy even in winter when they are at their most similar. They are slightly larger and taller birds. Their longer bills have a larger black area on them, with red at the base of the lower part of the bill. In winter they are paler grey than redshanks and can look almost white in some lights. They also have an obvious white eye stripe unlike their cousins. If you are lucky enough to see one in summer plumage, they are unmistakeable as their plumage is almost completely black with some small white spotting. Definitely a bird to look out for at coastal wetland sites!
You can see common redshanks throughout the year in the UK with resident birds joined on our winter coasts by those breeding in Iceland and on the continent. The fact they can be seen relatively easily, and have a somewhat plain winter plumage, means they are sometimes overlooked in favour of more glamourous and rarer waders. They are worth a second look, though, and those orange legs can brighten up the greyest autumn day. Look out for those legs and listen out for their piping calls whenever you visit the coast this autumn and winter.