Whimbrels on the Alde Estuary

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British Wildlife

The north east wind drives in off the ugly, mud brown sea; Aldeburgh huddles on the coast. South from the town, a long gravel spit runs for miles to Orfordness and beyond. The track bumps past the sailing club, full of small craft but empty of people to the squat, Martello Tower about a mile from town. Below on the landward side, the saltmarsh is a short, waterlogged grassland dotted with dark, shallow pools where black-headed gulls swim in circles and, once in a while, up-end and pull black-silted invertebrates from the sediment. The first thrift Armeria maritima flowers are out; puffs of pink candyfloss, bobbing on short, stout stalks. Beyond the saltmarsh, the Alde Estuary glints gold in brief spells of sunlight and the grazing marshes beyond run to the distant horizon of woodlands.

Three whimbrels feed close to the track until disturbed by visitors to the Martello tower when they fly to the edge of the estuary. They return, walking and probing, and work their way to the short turf once again where they maintain their foraging routine with well-balanced and studied application, until disturbed again when the trio stand and stare then run low, hunched like scared chickens. These elegant and beautifully marked birds are stopping off en route from Africa refuelling for their journey to the boreal Arctic. They may stay some weeks to lay on the fat reserves required for a long-haul flight to Iceland of beyond. A few hundred pairs have less far to go and breed in the far north of Scotland, where they bring the windblown, blanket bogs of the Northern Isles to life, but these populations are on the southerly edge of a huge circumpolar range.

These three whimbrels have character; they forage together but occasionally chivvy one another. Perhaps the three are a pair plus a relative or an interloper. Whimbrels are long-lived with the oldest birds recorded at over 25 years old and so one suspects that these birds have learned their route and preferred stopover sites, and perhaps travel in the same flocks for years. They fly in well-patterned skeins high in the sky, their presence usually betrayed by their familiar, high-pitched, trilling call. The staccato sound of Spring on the coasts of England.

Alde Whimbrels 11

Thrift flower

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