Guide to wading birds

Head to estuaries, coastal marshes and lagoons this winter to catch up with some of the UK's most elegant birds

Redshank (Tringa totanus) ©Getty

In winter, Britain’s estuaries, coastal lagoons and marshes offer the perfect conditions for wading birds to thrive. But what are wading birds? Why do they have such long legs? And which species of wading birds live in the UK?

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From the ubiquitous oystercatcher to the curve-billed curlew, here’s our guide to some of the UK’s most elegant waders.

Northern lapwing ©Getty
Northern lapwing ©Getty

What is a wading bird?

A wading bird describes a waterbird with long legs that wades along the shoreline in search of food. In America, they are know as shorebirds. Waders range in size, shape and colour and usually – but not always – have a long bill. As with all animals, the physiology of wading birds is integral to their existence.

Long legs enable waders to forage is deep water, while elongated, agile toes help them to balance in fast currents and unstable mud. Their bills vary in length and shape, depending on their food preferences, but are often long and slightly curved. And powerful neck muscles allow some species – such as herons and stalks – to spear their prey.

Species guide

Black-tailed godwit, Limosa limosa

Black tailed godwit Limosa limosa ©RSPB Images

One of our largest waders, with long legs and a long bill for probing in mud for worms and snails. Orange-brown in summer, it has grey winter plumage with black-and-white wing bars noticeable in flight; 44,000 from Iceland spend winter in the UK.

Curlew, Numenius arquata

Curlew, Numenius arquata ©RSPB Images

A very large, impressive wader with a tell-tale large, downwardly curved bill for probing deep into worm burrows. Declining in number, the curlew is bolstered by winter visitors and its melancholic ‘cur-lee’ call still resonates across winter mudflats.

Dunlin, Calidris alpina

Dunlin Calidris alpina ©RSPB Images

A small, compact bird with predominantly grey plumage and a slightly down-curved bill (in summer it is brown with a black patch on the belly). Our commonest shorebird, it can form dramatic flocks of hundreds, flickering in the low light of winter.

Knot, Calidris canutus

Knot Calidris canutus ©RSPB Images

Small and dumpy with short legs, the knot graces us with grey-white plumage in winter but transforms into a bright brick-red during breeding. It forms flocks of many thousands in places such as The Wash and performs aerial acrobatics to rival the famed starling.

Lapwing, Vanellus vanellus

Lapwing, Vanellus vanellus ©RSPB Images

Found in winter fields as well as marshes and estuaries, the lapwing’s fortunes have plummetted due to changes in farming practices. Its metallic-green plumage, proud crest and stiff wingbeat in flight are telltale, as is its wheezing ‘swanny whistle’ call.

Oystercatcher, Haematopus ostralegus

Oystercatcher, Haematopus ostralegus ©RSPB Images

Stocky, unmistakable black-and-white shorebird with a huge, carrot-coloured bill that it uses for breaking and entering mussels and cockles. Relatively common, its urgent piping call echoes across rocky shores.

Redshank, Tringa totanus 

Redshank, Tringa totanus ©RSPB Images

An ever-present lurker in estuarine creeks, harbours and mudflats with a fluting call that is the soundtrack to winter on the wild coast. As its name suggests, it has long red legs but also a black-tipped red bill. Slightly smaller than a godwit or curlew.

Sanderling, Calidris alba

Sanderling, Calidris alba ©RSPB Images

A tiny scuttling sparrow of the sandy shore that seems to dance in and out as the waves lap the beach. It is a winter visitor so we only get to see its grey-white colouring and not the gorgeous tortoiseshell plumage of summer; it breeds in the Arctic.

Ringed plover, Charadrius dubius

Little ringed plover, Charadrius dubius ©RSPB Images

A smart, dumpy dove-sized bird with bandit-mask markings, a black bib and fawn cap and back. Its short bill is used for picking invertebrates from pebbles and seaweed. Resident populations are boosted by winter vistors from Europe.

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Illustrations ©RSPB Images. Find out more about the RSPB.