Nick Baker on how to watch coastal birds

Tuesday 28th September 2010

The Wildlife Trusts' Vice President reveals his top tips

With Autumn upon us it’s the wing things that catch our eyes, they are all moving about; some are checking in, some checking out, others are forming flocks and others are lone drifters. These bird movements can be seen pretty much anywhere we care to look, from the nut feeder to the wild open estuaries.

For those who want to maximise their luck and enhance their viewing pleasure, here are a few top tips:

Estuary and coastal bird-watching

1. That winter sun is low and can be a real pain in the eyes. Reducing otherwise spectacular views out on to the wet mud to retina burning glare and mere silhouettes. Get the sun behind you and it’s a different matter, everything looks beautiful.

2. Getting the tides right is the difference between seeing loads of tiny little dots in the distance and watching a curlew swallowing a lugworm in all its glorious detail up so close you can see every feather. Check the tide timetables and plan your visit within an hour or two of high tide for the best views.

3. Do take a good field guide with you, at this time of the year many birds are wearing their winter feathers and it can be a little confusing at first.

4. Wear plenty of warm winter-proof clothing and take a flask. I know it sounds terribly ‘old man’ but you’ll get hooked and spend ages standing or sitting in one spot.

5. Plan your visit so that you take in different aspects of the estuary. They are complex places and not just a load of mud! Some parts of the mud will be wetter and silty whereas others will be gravel and sandy. Each are home to different invertebrates which, in turn, attract different birds.

6. If you are new to this sort of activity don’t get freaked out by the range of different and often unfamiliar birds. Just relax into it. Actually, watch the birds! Look for different feeding techniques; such as those that feed by randomly probing the mud, feeding by feel, those that run, dash and peck are using their eyes and those that hammer open crustaceans and molluscs.

7. Do not feel daunted sitting in a hide with other bird-watchers. Feel no shame in ear-wigging their conversations – it’s a great way to learn about new birds. Most bird-watchers will be only to happy to show off their knowledge, if you ask, and it’s a great way to meet new people and learn more than any field guide could ever tell you.

8. Take a pair of binoculars – because it’s an open habitat most birds, even at high tide, will want to keep their distance from the estuary edges and, of course, this is where you are most likely to be standing.

9. Check for nature reserves and interpretation centres in the area – these are a great place to get local information – were the best view points are as well as up-to-date information about what is doing what and where. It’s where you will hear news of anything exciting that’s about.

10. Don’t just get obsessed with the mud either! It provides food for many but other coastal habitats will turn up goodies too. Rocky shores will be favourite for turn stones and oystercatchers while cliffs will be providing vantage points for the watchful eye of peregrine. And if it’s early Autumn then south and easterly pointing headlands and other promontories will be worth checking out for migrants leaving us for the continent as here they congregate waiting for a favourable wind to help them across. These sticky-out bits of our coastline no matter what direction they point are excellent places for a bit of sea-watching. It’s an acquired taste but once you’ve found your spot you simply hunker down and scrutinize the waves. It’s the best way to see divers and sea ducks.


Story by RSWT