The autumn and winter months are an important time for wading birds on our coastline. Species such as purple sandpiper and turnstone travel south from Scandinavia to feed along the rocky shore and sandy beaches. Both species are currently in decline and a key priority for the Coast Sunderland project; as are other important birds you can spot, such as curlew, oystercatcher, knot, sanderling, redshank and ringed plover, feeding and roosting on the coast and nearby land.

Seabirds such as terns, herring gulls and black-headed gulls can be seen flying and feeding along the coast, and smaller birds breed in the clifftop fields and scrub. Look out also for a rare glimpse of predatory species such as kestrel and peregrine falcon.

Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima)

Purple sandpiper (Calidris maritima)

This plump-bodied, medium-sized wading bird is a winter visitor to the Sunderland coast, and can be spotted examining rock fissures and beds of seaweed for food. It has a blue-grey head, breast and upper, with a darker back, a downward curving yellow beak and short bright orange/yellow legs. In flight, a thin white wing-stripe can be seen.

As a result of global warming, an increasingly plentiful food supply in the Arctic and Scandinavia means that the Purple sandpiper is currently in decline in the UK. It is therefore one of the principle species of focus for the Sunderland Coast project as we seek to record the number of birds visiting the area and protect its habitat.

*Fun fact: Purple sandpipers have adapted a distraction technique called the “Rodent run”. When faced by a potential nest invading predator, it runs low to the ground making rodent-like squeaks to distract the enemy away from the nest, and takes off in flight when at a safe distance from the nest.

Key Facts

  • Length: 20-22cm
  • Wingspan: 40-44cm
  • Spot them: January to May
  • UK Wintering population: 13,000
  • Food: Winkles, insects, crustaceans and algae.
  • Habitat: Coastal, rocky shores
  • Conservation status: Amber
Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

The Turnstone is a small, feisty, rocky shoreline grazing bird. It has a mottled appearance of brown, chestnut, white and black upperparts, white underparts and orange legs. They spend most of their time creeping along seawalls and jetties, flipping over stones (hence the name) and seaweed, or probing through the mud with their beaks. Despite it being small in size, they are capable of pushing over large objects, sometimes use their breast to do so. They have been known to forage in flocks of up to 100 or more birds. Although the UK has a wintering population of 40,000 birds, the number of Turnstone in the UK is now in decline and it is classed as a species of conservation concern.

Key Facts

  • Length: 22cm
  • Wingspan: 50-57cm
  • Spot them: Present most of the year
  • UK wintering population: 48,000
  • Food: Opportunistic feeder
  • Habitat: Rocky coastal areas
  • Conservation status: Amber

Sanderling (Calidris alba)

These small, energetic waders can be seen around the Whitburn to Hendon areas, often running at a speed alongside breaking waves. They have a short, straight black bill, medium length black legs and a white wing-bar in between delicate grey upper plumage. Similar to the Knot, the Sanderling visits each winter from its Arctic breeding grounds, feeding on the worms and crustaceans found in our mudflats and rocky shores. Sanderlings have an Amber conservation status and populations are considered very sensitive as only 16,000 individuals visit the UK each year.

*Fun fact: Adapted for fast running, Sanderlings’ hind toes are missing on each foot to minimise drag on the ground. This modification gives them an unusual running gait, similar to a clockwork toy.

Key Facts

  • Length: 20-21cm
  • Wingspan: 36-39cm
  • Spot them: August to May
  • UK wintering population: 16,000 individuals
  • Food: Insects, crustaceans, worms, fish and jellyfish
  • Habitat: Intertidal coastal zones
  • UK conservation status: Amber
Knot (Calidris canutus)

Knot (Calidris canutus)

These short legged, dumpy, grey-white wading birds are known to visit the Sunderland coastline from August onwards, travelling all the way from their Arctic breeding grounds. Although sightings are intermittent, most recently they have been spotted around the Whitburn Steel area. With a large wintering population, these birds can be seen in huge flocks that wheel and turn in flight. At ground level they can be found in estuaries on the lookout for food; probing the muddy sand with their specialised bill. Their choice of feeding ground, however, has left them particularly vulnerable to changes such as sea level rise and human disturbance. As such; they now have an Amber UK conservation status, listed as near threatened.

*Fun fact: Knots have sensory organs in their bill tips that help them detect buried prey in a similar manner to a bats echolocation. The touch receptors are so efficient, they can detect vibrations from 2cm away, so they don’t need to physically touch something to know it’s there.

Key Facts

  • Length: 23-25cm
  • Wingspan: 47-54cm
  • Spot them: August to May
  • UK wintering population: 320,000 birds
  • Food: Shellfish and worms
  • Habitat: Intertidal coastal zones
  • Conservation status: Amber
Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)

Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)

Closely related to the albatross, Fulmars are large birds, with a wingspan of 1 – 1.2m. They are distinguished from gulls by their dark tube-like nostrils, a short, hooked, grey-yellow beak, a dark smudge around the eye and stiffly held dark blue-grey wings. They nest colonially on sea-cliffs from Hendon to Ryhope but are otherwise only found offshore can often be seen gracefully gliding over the sea or buoyantly swimming by themselves; gathering in flocks only when a large food source is found.

*Fun fact: Fulmars defend their nests from intruders by spitting out foul-smelling oil. These birds can also live up to 45 years long.

Key Facts

  • Length: 45-50cm
  • Wingspan: 1-1.2m
  • Spot them: January to December during breeding season
  • UK breeding population: 500,000 pairs
  • UK wintering population:6-1.8 million birds
  • Food: Fish waste, crustaceans and sand eels
  • Habitat: Cliff habitats during breeding season; they remain out at sea outside of breeding season.
  • UK conservation status: Amber
Sand martin (Riparia riparia)

Sand martin (Riparia riparia)

A relative of the Swallow, Sand Martins are just as swift and elegant in flight, with long tapered wings, forked tails and small wide bills that are specialised for capturing insects that hover over the waters of Hendon and Ryhope. These birds are summer visitors to the Sunderland coast, arriving mid-March to mid-April to nest in the sandstone zonal area of our cliffs after spending their winter in Africa. In pairs, they work together to excavate nesting chambers up to a metre long to lay between 3 and 7 eggs. Sand Martins are sociable birds and nest in colonies that may contain more than 100 pairs. The UK currently has up to 100,000 nests, which are reused by Sparrows and Starlings once abandoned.

Key Facts

  • Length: 12cm
  • Wingspan: 26-29cm
  • Spot them: March to September
  • UK Summer breeding population: 100,000 nests
  • Food: Flying insects
  • Habitat: Nest in sandy, dry vertical banks
  • Conservation status: Green

Redshank (Tringa totanus)

The most distinctive feature of this large, noisy wader is, as the name suggests, their long, bright red legs. The Redshank’s bill is medium-length and straight with a bright orange-base and black tip. Although large numbers of Redshank migrate over each winter from Iceland, the birds are capable of breeding on the open marshes, mires and saltmarshes of Northern England and can be spotted all year round in estuaries and coastal wetland areas. They tend to breed in high densities and lay 3-5 eggs.

During summer months, the birds have mottled brown back and wings with a whiter mottling underbelly and a broad, white triangular bar across their wings. During winter, their feathers lose the mottled effect and turn pale grey above and white underneath.

*Fun fact: These birds are known as “Sentinels of the marshes” as they react very noisily and incessantly to all perceived threats, either real or imaginary.

Key Facts

  • Length: 28cm
  • Wingspan: 62cm
  • Spot them: All year-round
  • UK wintering population: 130,000
  • Breeding population: 40,000
  • Food: Insects, marine worms, molluscs, crustaceans
  • Habitat: Saltmarshes, mires, mudflats and marshes
  • Conservation status: Amber

Dunlin (Calidris alpina)

These small waders have a body size similar to a starling and are extremely common on our coastal habitats. They have a medium-long, down-curved, slightly tapered bill, the length of which is variable between birds. Their bills are black, as are their short legs, the head is a soft grey and the eyes are large, giving it a ‘cute’ look.

As Dunlin have been known to breed around our county, there are two life cycles to look out for in these birds that give them very different looks. Non-breeding Dunlin, are pale grey above with clean white bellies, although some can show black feathers on the belly in the autumn or towards spring. Breeding Dunlin have a patterned, chestnut-brown plumage on the back and wings. The head and chest is tortoiseshell and there is dark blotching on the white belly.

The birds that do choose to nest here, rather than the high Arctic, will make their nest on the ground in vegetation with 4 pale olive and dark brown spotted eggs, which are incubated by both male and female.

*Fun fact: The male Dunlin will make several nests from which the female choses her favourite. She will then help him finish building it to her liking.

Key Facts

  • Length: 16-22cm
  • Wingspan: 33-40cm
  • Spot them:
  • UK wintering population: 360,000
  • UK breeding population: 8,600-10,600 pairs
  • Food: Aquatic invertebrates, plant material and occasionally small fish
  • Habitat: Estuaries, mudflats and shorelines
  • Conservation status: Amber

Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula)

Ringed plovers are a resident species in the UK and can be found on the shoreline foraging for invertebrates and crustaceans in a peculiar, stealthy manner. They stand very still, watching and then run forward to peck up their prey; they stand still again until they spot something new.

These small, dumpy waders are easily identifiable by their distinctive head markings which include a black ring around neck and black ‘bridle’ markings across and above the eyes. They have short, pointed, orange and black bills and orange legs. Their bodies are sandy-brown above and white below.

They usually breed in shingle and sand on beaches around the coast but have recently been found breeding inland in sand and gravel pits and on former industrial sites.

*Fun fact: The Ringed plover uses the same ‘rain dance’ technique used by Common gulls when looking for underground prey.

Key Facts

  • Length: 18-20cm
  • Wingspan: 52cm
  • Spot them: All year-round
  • UK breeding population: 5,400 pairs
  • UK wintering population: 34,000
  • Food: Aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans, molluscs, flies and spiders
  • Habitat: Marine, intertidal, wetland and grassland
  • Conservation status: IUCN Red List

Curlew (Numenius arquata)

One of the largest wading birds, Curlews can be identified by their size, their long down-curved bill, long legs and evocative ‘cur-lee’ call. Although they are the largest waders, they are masters of camouflage and you can be more likely to hear them before you spot them. Their feathers are mottled brown and grey and they have long, bluish legs.

Curlew is a UK Red List species, threatened by human disturbance, shellfish harvesting (by hand in coastal intertidal habitats), changes in land use, the draining of wetlands, increased predation, and intensive farming practices on their breeding grounds.

Our UK population is internationally important, as we have about a quarter of the world’s breeding Curlews. Across the UK, these numbers have decreased by 64% in the last 45 years.

*Fun fact: Although Curlew’s diets chiefly consist of annelid worms and terrestrial insects, they are opportunistic feeders, and have been recorded consuming young birds, small rodents, amphibians, lizards and small fish, as well as berries and seeds. They are as opportunistic with their habitats as they are with food, as Curlew utilise over 16 different types of habitat in the UK.

Key Facts

  • Length: 50-60cm
  • Wingspan: 80-100cm
  • Spot them: All year-round
  • UK wintering population: 140,000
  • UK breeding population: 66,000
  • Food: Worms, shellfish and shrimp
  • Habitat: Coasts, wet grassland, moorland and farmland.
  • Conservation status: IUCN Red List & UK BAP priority species.

Eurasian Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus)

One of the easiest wading birds to identify, the Oystercatcher is large, stocky and a distinguished black and white colour. They have a long, straight, bright orange bill, medium orange/pink legs and an orange ring around their bright yellow eyes. When they are in flight, they have an obvious white wing-stripe, a black tail and a white rump that extends as a ‘V’ between the wings.

Most of our Oystercatchers are residents and can be spotted all year round. Even when not seen, Oystercatchers can be identified by their loud, sharp ‘Peep’ call.

The UK is very important for the conservation of this bird, as we have up to 45% of Europe’s population during winter.

As this species predominantly eat bivalves, their decline is thought to be linked to the shellfish industry reducing the amount of available prey.

*Fun fact: The oldest recorded Oystercatcher was 40 years old, and during all those years, it was never seen away from the site where it was first ringed as a chick. This indicates how important it is to leave their habitat undisturbed wherever possible.

Key Facts

  • Length: 40-45cm
  • Wingspan: 80-86cm
  • Spot them: All year-round
  • UK wintering population: 340,000
  • UK breeding population: 110,000 pairs
  • Food: Cockles, muscles and worms.
  • Habitat: Marine and intertidal, wetlands, farmland and grassland
  • Conservation status: Amber

We’d love to hear about the birds you spot when out enjoying the Sunderland coastline. Keep a record, take a picture if you can and click on the Report a Sighting page to submit your record. It all goes a long way to help document the biodiversity of our coastline and help us to protect the species that are most under threat.

Join the Coast Project Officers at one of our Coastal Events

You can find out what’s happening on our event page.  If you have any questions, feel free to contact us.