Breeding waders

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Of the species that breed around the Essex coast, both avocet and oystercatcher are unmistakable black-and white birds, avocet with a blue upturned bill and oystercatcher with red bill and red legs.

Before the last war avocet had ceased to breed in England but recolonised flooded areas in Suffolk. They now winter in good numbers in our estuaries, usually seen at the edge of the water as the tide drops, and have started to breed in Essex again.

Oystercatchers can be seen in winter, often in large numbers, probing the mud on coastal shores and mudflats. They breed in much smaller numbers mainly around the coast, notably in Hamford Water and on Foulness Island, and also inland around reservoirs.

The other coastal breeding species is the much smaller ringed plover. Recognisable by its 'robbers mask' face markings, it too is much commoner in winter.

Three species – redshank, snipe and little ringed plover – breed inland. Redshank, with red bill and legs, nest on freshwater marshes and in winter are the watchmen of our estuaries, rising up with a noisy alarm call when disturbed.

Snipe are very well camouflaged and feed by probing in deep mud or wet marshy areas. Once very common, they have suffered a huge decline due to the draining of wet fields and margins.

Little ringed plover prefers inland gravel pits and reservoirs. It often seems to dance as it feeds, using its feet to stir up a pool to disturb prey.

These days only a few lapwing, recognisable by their wispy crest, breed on wet farmed fields such as at Blue House Farm on the Crouch – they too are a casualty of modern drainage. Many more arrive from the north in winter, forming large flocks on coastal fields.

© David Harrison