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Chasing the tide

OystercatcherOystercatcher

By Dyane Silvester

Watching the tide rising or falling along one of our flat coastlines - Morecambe Bay or the mudflats on the Solway - is a delightful experience.

Not only is the lighting unique, but the flocks of birds wheeling overhead, or following the edge of the tide, provide a spectacular and varied display.

Morecambe Bay in particular is both home to many wading species, and an essential feeding spot for migratory birds on their way through. Oystercatchers - distinctive with their smart black-and-white plumage and orange beaks - feed on cockles and mussels which are so plentiful in this intertidal zone but no, they don't actually eat oysters! These birds are resident all year round, as are redshank, various plovers, curlew, snipe and turnstones. They can all be seen as a gaggle (often comprising a variety of species) at the water's edge, or as a shimmering airborne flock looking for a good place to feed or, as the tide nears high, heading for a dry spot to wait until the mudflats are exposed again. These ‘murmurations’ are mostly seen in the winter months and are usually dominated by knots.

Species such as knot, dunlin and black-tailed godwit pass through on their way to breeding grounds further north. Although we often think of these as winter visitors, in some cases (sanderling for instance) they actually only leave our shores for a short few weeks in early summer to breed in upland Greenland before coming back. Others are away for much of the summer, and some such as whimbrel pass through only briefly; for them, Morecambe Bay is a refuelling station on their journey. Did you know that black-tailed godwit are rather clever? To avoid competing for food, the males and females have different lengths of beak, so they can probe into the beach at different depths!

We think of waders in these intertidal areas but there are also large numbers of wildfowl which take advantage of the abundant food in shallow waters along the edges of the river channels. Teal, shelduck, wigeon and northern pintail can be widely seen; brent geese are restricted to areas around Roa Island, Rampside and Walney where eel grass, their main food, grows.

Even if you're not a dedicated bird fanatic, spend an hour on the shore sometime, overlooking the inter-tidal mudflat: whether the jostling tideline crowds grab your attention, or you're mesmerised by the flashing of birds wheeling overhead, or even just enjoy the challenge of trying to spot the turnstones mongst the seaweed, it's never likely to be boring!

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