Once you know these coastal birds, they’ll become friends that you wish to protect. And then it becomes difficult to drop litter or not wish to help, when you realise just how we are all interlinked in nature. Also read the posts on how to give seagulls back their natural home – and meet puffins – the sea parrots of Iceland!
At the beach, keep at least 50 metres away from coastal birds (if they fly away, this is wasting energy that could be spent feeding, they need extra space during high tide). Also keep to main paths when crossing dunes (this also helps dogs and you from having invasive pirri pirri burr attaching to skin, fur, clothes or shoelaces).
Start a volunteer beach clean-up to help remove all the rubbish commonly left on our seaside shores. And whether you eat fish or go fishing, learn about how to help prevent ghost fishing waste (hooks, nets and other rubbish left in the sea from the fishing industry).
Cornish choughs are very similar to jackdaws, they are small black crows with glossy feathers, the difference being their long red legs and beaks. A real conservation success story, choughs have come back from near extinction and are now successfully breeding, as the national symbol of Cornwall.
They live on short grassland and coastal heaths, and use their long red bills to eat beetle larvae and leatherjackets. They have a loud ‘chee-ow’ song, and are mostly found on cliff faces and rock ledges, but also have been known to nest in empty buildings. He’s a good dad, who sticks around to raise the chicks! In fact, he pairs for life with his lady friend, and usually they return to the same breeding site each year.
Like most wildlife, the main threat to Cornish choughs has been modern agriculture practices. But Cornish conservationists have done a wonderful job, increasing the population by 60%, by helping to preserve habitats locally.
whimbrels (small curlews with ‘seven whistles!)
Whimbrels are smaller versions of curlews, mostly breeding on moorland and uplands, and sometimes seen at the coast when they pass by, while migrating. Known for their series of ‘seven whistles’, they eat insects, snails and slugs, or when migrating switch to shrimp, molluscs and crustaceans by the sea.
These grey-brown waders have blue-grey long legs and long downward-curving grey bills. You can distinguish them from curlews as they have shorter bills, and a white wedge on their backs and tails, which you see when they are in flight. Found all around our coasts (more commonly on Scottish islands), there used to be 8 curlew species, but it’s now believed that two have become extinct.
Curlews are highly endangered (half the breeding population has been lost in the last 25 years), and give out haunting ‘cur-lee’ calls near the sea or wet grasslands. The best to protect these tall waders (around the same size as pheasants) is to protect and restore our wetlands, most of which have been lost to industrial farming and purchase of peat in garden centres. Our high rainfall means that with help, creating new wetlands is relatively easy. As well as helping to wildlife habitats, wetlands also help to reduce the risk of flooding.
meet little egrets (small herons!)
Little egrets are small herons that feed in shallow water (or on land) eating insects, fish, crustaceans, amphibians and even ducklings. These white birds have black beaks and long black legs (and yellow feet, if in England). They’ve only been visiting these shores for the last few decades (they flew over from France, due to our warming weather) and are mostly found on the south coast. Like herons, cranes, storks and ibises, they use their long bills to catch and eat food.
Like all wildlife, little egrets have suffered due to loss of habitat, and also can be at risk from power lines (they also have been hunted in the past due to their long neck plumes, until laws were placed to protect them). Many wetlands in England have been drained for agriculture, and planting new wetlands is the best way to ensure their survival.
visiting sanderlings (from Greenland & Siberia)
Sanderlings are medium-sized sandpipers that feed in flocks at the tide edge, mostly eating insects, crustaceans, fish, worms and jellyfish. They are not native to England, arriving from Greenland and Siberia in winter (sometimes on journeys of over 20,000 miles) and also ‘pass’ by during spring/summer migrations.
They are less stocky than knot birds and you’ll often see them scampering on their three toes (due to missing a hind toe, wildlife experts say they kind of ‘run like a clockwork toy’). Currently an ‘amber’ listed species, they are common on the Solent coast, where you’ll find them probing in the mud on sandy beaches for food.
turnstones (strong & resourceful sandpipers)
Turnstones are medium-sized sandpipers, often found around rocky shores and gravel beaches. Named after their habit of ‘flipping’ large stones to find food. They are so strong, they can even lift big stones as heavy as them. They are not native to England, but migrate here at different times. So can be seen throughout the year, depending on whether they have flown from Europe (spring/summer) or Canada/Greenland (early summer or autumn).
Turnstones have beautiful chequered black/chestnut patterns on their backs, with white patches elsewhere. But in winter, they change colour to dark brown with black patterns, retaining white bellies and chins. Common sandpipers have green-brown backs (rock sandpipers have longer legs than turnstones, and much lighter plumage).
These birds eat a wide variety of food, and have been even known to eat discarded chips, washed up bodies and artificial sweeteners. So it’s really important to take beach litter with you, as this is a species at risk of eating harmful items left behind (like plastic waste or cigarette butts), believing them to be food for chicks.
cormorants (very good at fishing!)
Cormorants are spotted year-round, their feathers are not waterproof so can often be seen stretching out their wings to dry off, after using their excellent fishing skills to dive into the sea. They use their long hook-tipped bills to swim underwater to eat, and tend to nest on low coastal cliffs or more recently, have started to fly inland to roost in trees (near lakes) and flooded gravel pits.
Large and black with white patches on their thighs during summer breeding, the younger birds are dark brown. They look similar to (more numerous) shags, but the latter birds are smaller and are not seen away from coastal areas. They also have small ‘tufted crests’ dark green plumage and more narrow bills (with yellow gapes).
fantastic aerial displays of swallows
Swallows are common birds that are often found near farmland and open pasture (near water). Known for their aerial displays, they often can be seen building mud/straw nests in spring, and then leave after chicks have fledged, to return to their winter home in South Africa (feeding on insects as they fly, to keep them in calories, as they navigate often stormy weather).
You can recognise swallows by their blue-black glossy plumage, white breasts (with black bands) and dark red heads (they also have distinctive forked long tails). They are similar to swifts (which spend most time soaring high in the sky), unlike swallows that often roost in reedbeds or perch on wires. You’ll often hear them ‘chattering’ away to each other, preparing for their long journey home.
Other birds of the same species are house martins (they often build mud cup nests beneath house eaves) . Sand martins (smaller with brown chests and shorter forked tails) tend to nest in sand bank burrows, often nearer water.
Read The Swallow: A Biography by Stephen Moss (an esteemed author who teaches nature writing at Bath University). In this book, he documents a year of observing these birds close to home, and traces their lifestyle and journey, as they arrive from their long winter migration. Includes beautiful illustrations throughout.