Ominous steely grey clouds were converging on the horizon across the marsh. The wispy white, puffy clouds over head were building, merging, growing, encroaching on the bright blue sky and beginning to block out the warm sun. In the pool just below my feet spots of rain soon began to ripple across the grey surface, sending out miniature concentric circles that soon dissipated. But it was not only the rain causing ripples in the water’s surface. A dozen or more small waders were frenetically dipping their bills into the water creating more ripples. Their plumage is so variable it is hard to believe sometimes you are looking at the same species. Some have reddish brown feathers on their backs, streaks down their chests and the odd spot of black on their bellies; the remnants of a striking breeding plumage. Others are much more plain grey having donned their winter cloaks already. Both are adults. Then there are juveniles, more buffy ginger on the head and chest, some black spots and a back that is reddish brown with whitish stripes. But these too are beginning to fade as they become greyer for winter. They all have relatively short bills. A sweeping, deceptive statement, as there is so much variation. Some are short, stubby, others are distinctly longer, ever so slightly curving down. But like I said they are all the same species; the Dunlin. A regular sight around our coast during winter, feeding with that rapid motion on tidal mudflats, estuaries, marshy lagoons, often in vast numbers. It is by becoming familiar with the variability of Dunlin that helps pick out ‘something different’.
Of course there were the usual ‘something different’ feeding in the pool in the vicinity of the Dunlin. The distinctive and unmistakable black and white Avocet, the equally variable Ruff with its beguiling variability of plumage and tall Black-tailed Godwits in their smooth grey winter plumage with their lovely long bills. But then there was a bird that at first glance may well have seemed just to be another juvenile Dunlin. However a closer look revealed a noticeably longer bill with a fine tip and an elegant downward curve. The sweep of white over the eye, known as the supercillium, was much brighter and more prominent. The chest had more of a delicate peach wash about it with no black spots. The belly was clean and white also. It is in fact a Curlew Sandpiper. Unlike the Dunlin this bird will not be staying for the winter, and is merely passing through from Arctic Siberia heading to Africa. There are two more on the pool today, another juvenile bird and then one with the odd spot of rufous red on its belly; an adult moulting from its bright breeding plumage into its soft grey winter plumage.
For a long while we watch these little birds moving around the pool, foraging hard. It is a shallow little cul-de-sac of the main pool. Two edges of our cul-de-sac is created by the main bank, sloping up to the walkway where we stand. The other edges are created by little banks of sandy mud with tufts of green vegetation atop. Here running around on the muddy little beach created by the bank are two even smaller waders than our Curlew Sandpiper and Dunlin. They rush with an even more rapid pecking motion around the feet of the larger waders or along the edge of the water. A delicate little wader with clean white underparts, the back has dark centred feathers with rusty red fringes and a prominent white V. They are juvenile Little Stints.
The rest of the pool is filled with geese, gulls, ducks and waders. Starlings and Pied Wagtails can be seen moving amongst the birds on the small islands within the pool. At the back, along the far bank, more Ruff feed. But there is one more wader that catches the eye. It too has soft grey feathers and an unmarked belly. But it is tall, with red legs, and a long, slender and elegant bill that is all dark except for a pale red base. Standing huddled at the back of the pool, surrounded by feeding Ruff it could easily have been missed, but it is an excellent Spotted Redshank.
The split splat of rain comes and goes, as the clouds continue to build overhead we push on to the beach at the end of the footpath. Sea and sky merges into a murky greyness as the weather closes in. At the very edge of the outgoing tide more waders continue feeding and preening, oblivious to the weather. Turnstones and Oystercatchers rummage amongst the black rocks, a Greenshank ruffles its feathers while preening, striking Grey Plover still in breeding plumage and Bar-tailed Godwits, with their streaky backs that distinguish them from the plain Black-tailed Godwits we had encountered on the lagoon, stride along the water’s edge. The forecast for the afternoon is not looking good and so we beat a hasty retreat back to the car.