Breeding waders

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Of the waders that breed around the Essex coast, both avocet and oystercatcher are unmistakable black-and-white birds, avocet with a blue upturned bill and oystercatcher with red bill and red legs. Avocet had ceased to breed in England but recolonised flooded areas in Suffolk. They now winter in good numbers in our estuaries, usually seen at the edge of the water as the tide drops, and recently started to breed in Essex again.

Oystercatchers can be seen in winter, often in large numbers, probing the mud on coastal shores and mudflats. They breed in much smaller numbers mainly around the coast, notably in Hamford Water and on Foulness Island, and also inland around reservoirs. The other coastal breeding species is the much smaller ringed plover. Recognisable by its 'robbers mask' face markings, it too is much commoner in winter.

Two species, redshank and little ringed plover – breed inland. Redshank, with red bill and legs, nest on freshwater marshes and in winter are the watchmen of our estuaries, rising up with a noisy alarm call when disturbed. Little ringed plovers prefer inland gravel pits and reservoirs. They often seems to dance as they feed, using their feet to disturb prey in the water.

These days only a few lapwing, recognisable by their wispy crest, breed on wet farmed fields such as at Blue House Farm on the Crouch – they too are a casualty of modern drainage. Many more arrive from the north in winter, forming large flocks on coastal fields.

Both snipe and woodcock are cryptic birds with long bills that feed by probing wet ground, and also former game birds. Once very common, snipe have suffered a huge decline due to the draining of wet fields and margins.

Woodcock, as their name suggests, breed in woods, and are most often seen flying off when disturbed. Large numbers of birds from northern Europe join the residents in autumn.

© David Harrison