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Coastal birds

Little tern with chick. Photo Margaret HollandLittle tern with chick. Photo Margaret Holland

By Pete Jones

Head to Cumbria’s coast and you’ll find sea cliffs, salt marshes, shingle, mudflats and sand dunes, all of which play host to a huge number of birds.

So it’s no wonder that if you visit one of Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s coastal nature reserves, you’re in for a treat: great habitat, many different birds and, sometimes, hundreds of them.

Wading birds are often seen in huge numbers along the 200 miles of Cumbrian coast, wading in the edges of the sea, finding small marine creatures to feed on. Oystercatchers are the most common waders that we see in Cumbria. With their black and white plumage and long, bright orange bills they certainly stand out. They spend the winter in large flocks around Morecambe Bay (the most important estuary in the UK for this bird) and can be seen on most of the Trust’s coastal nature reserves. They will come back to the bay year after year; the oldest oystercatcher recorded here was 43 years old – that’s a lot of return visits!

Although smaller and duller than oystercatchers, redshanks are still easily identified by their brown and white plumage and red legs. On the beach, they are more mobile than oystercatchers, scurrying around the edges of the water as they use their narrow bill to find shrimps, small fish and worms in the shallows. Redshank nest on the saltmarsh around the Cumbrian coast, including at the Trust’s Rockcliffe Marsh Nature Reserve on the Solway Firth, making use of scrapes in the short grass, which allows them to keep an eye out for approaching predators. They’re usually the first birds to fly up, with a noisy call, if there’s disturbance, leading to their name ‘the sentinel of the marsh’.

South Walney Nature Reserve has the most southerly breeding population of eider ducks in the UK. These black and white ducks are the heaviest and fastest flying ducks and are definitely coastal birds, never straying far from the sea. They make nests in rough vegetation, and once the females are sitting on eggs they will not leave to feed for nearly a month!

However, the true sea birds that use the coast of Cumbria are the terns found at Foulney Island Nature Reserve. They spend most of their time out at sea, only really coming to land to breed. The Arctic terns will spend most of their life migrating, and the birds that spend their summer at Foulney Island will probably be spending our winter in Antarctica (where it’s summer), making the Arctic tern one of the longest migrating birds in the world! Little terns, which also nest at Foulney Island, migrate huge distances too, returning to breed in the same colony in which they were hatched. 

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