Birdwatch: the curlew sandpiper – a visit from a restless global traveller


Of the thousand-plus waders at the high tide roost, all but a handful were either asleep or standing still, patiently waiting for the waters to recede. But one bird was feeding as if its life depended on it: methodically making its way across the muddy banks of the River Brue, picking up morsels of food with its long, decurved bill.

The bird’s frantic activity and elegant appearance identified it as a scarce visitor to the Somerset coast: a juvenile curlew sandpiper – named because its bill resembles that of its much larger relative.

This slim, pale buff wader has quite a story to tell. Curlew sandpipers breed on the Siberian tundra, a quarter-span of the globe to the east of Britain. In autumn, they head south, west and east, to spend the winter as far apart as west Africa and New Zealand.

Indeed, of all the world’s 200 or so shorebird species, they have the largest wintering distribution compared with their breeding range.

A few days after I saw this bird on my home patch, an Australian birder posted a photo of two curlew sandpipers on his: a wetland near Melbourne, more than 10,000 miles from here. It was a timely reminder that, of all the world’s birds, waders are the quintessential global travellers.


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