Country & Coast: Waders invade our space on the beach

Filey Brigg photographed by Michael Burke of Rotherham.
Filey Brigg photographed by Michael Burke of Rotherham.
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WHEN THE schools go back the Yorkshire coast becomes noticeably quieter. The deckchairs are not put away just yet, of course, and they are still selling plenty of ice-creams from Whitby down to Withernsea.

But if the sun’s not out there are some beaches which now have so few people you want to start humming the late Acker Bilk’s Stranger On the Shore.

However, the sands will be increasingly occupied by new visitors. It is surely one of the great synchronised events of the human and natural world that just as we largely vacate our beaches in late summer, they are soon occupied by wading birds sweeping south from their breeding grounds to spend the winter here or as far south as West Africa.

This year, my first glimpse of this phenomenon has been at the far end of Filey Bay.

From a distance the incoming tide seemed to be washing up some small round objects which were bobbing about at the very edge of the frothy surf. When I got closer I saw they were a tiny wader called the Sanderling.

It is a plump and undeniably cute little bird that doesn’t keep still for a second.

Its upper parts are pale grey, and body white. If you get a good look at Sanderlings in your binoculars you might just be able to make out their stubby black bills and short black legs.

There were only about a dozen of them at Filey, scuttling along the sand like clockwork mice.

They seemed to be playing what looked like a game of dare, running down the few yards of beach just vacated by a receding wave then hastily sprinting a few feet up the beach with the next wave coming at their backs.

What they were doing was quickly foraging in the sand and shingle for any small marine worms, crustaceans and molluscs disturbed or left behind by the incoming waves, and then beating a quick retreat until the next wave replenished their food supply.

I have also seen them down the coast at Bridlington Bay, where they have been known to become quite tame when kiddies are on the beach with buckets and spades just a few yards away.

Although they are usually in small parties, perhaps formed from parents and young birds travelling together from their high Arctic breeding grounds, they can sometimes gather in flocks of up to 300 or 400.

A century ago they were considered a delicacy and shot.

One Victorian ornithologist wrote: “The flesh of this species is well-flavoured, and in some request for table use.

“The birds, on their arrival in autumn, are loaded with fat and are then at their best.”

These days, of course, Sanderlings are protected by law and the species’ Green list status points to it its population being stable and not currently under threat.

Around 17,000 are estimated to spend the whole winter in the UK, but most of the birds vacate our beaches for a warmer climate.

Sanderlings are best looked for where there are long, sandy beaches, around most of the coast other than in the south-west and the rocky coasts of mainland Scotland.