“For many birds, autumn started a few weeks ago…”

If I were to ask you what season we are in, I am guessing that you would say “summer, of course”, before, possibly, making some comment about how it doesn’t seem like it because of the weather. And you’d be right… but also wrong. It’s also autumn.

Purple Loosestrife in full bloom in grassland next to Ormesby Beck, Middlesbrough

So how can it be two seasons at the same time?

Many wildflowers are still in full bloom – the tall spikes of Purple Loosestrife, the two-tone yellow of Toadflax and banks of Great Willowherb flowers with their dark pink petals and creamy white centres. Some baby birds are still being fed by their parents – like the fluffy moorhen chick I saw on my local beck a few days ago. And of course people are flocking to the beach and getting sunburnt whenever the sun peeks out through the clouds, so from these perspectives, yes, it is the height of summer.

But it’s also autumn. The days are getting shorter (nearly three hours shorter now in Middlesbrough than at the beginning of July), lots of wildflowers are already dying back, blackberries are ready for picking and most birds have finished breeding.

There is one group of birds which I associate particularly with this time of year. These are the waders – sandpipers, plovers, curlews and the like. For many of them, autumn started a few weeks ago when they left their northern breeding grounds to make their way, via the beaches and estuaries of Britain, to southern Europe and Africa where they will spend the winter.

The Tees estuary area is a haven for these migrating waders, at least twenty-five species in most years. It serves as a sort of all-you-can-eat buffet for them with many different types of food on offer. Each species is equipped with the tools they need to take advantage of a different part of the buffet.

Black-tailed Godwits have long legs and long probing bills with which they can reach the worms burrowing deep in the soft mud of places like Seal Sands. Greenshanks have slightly shorter beaks and are sometimes found on the islands and pools at RSPB Saltholme, while the shallow pools around Greatham Creek are good places to see shorter legged (and billed) species like Dunlin, and perhaps a Little Stint. Finally, if you have been to the beach this week, you may have seen flocks of little whitish Sanderlings scurrying along the shoreline, or perhaps a small group of gawky-looking Bar-tailed Godwits, which seem to like the beach more than their black-tailed cousins. Most of the individual birds will only be with us for a few days while they replenish their fat stores for the next stage of the journey, but there will be a constant stream of other birds to replace them for at least the next month or so, while some species will remain with us for the whole winter before heading off north to breed again next year.

A migrating Greenshank at Saltholme, on its way from the subarctic where it breeds, to southern Africa, where it will spend the winter

So while you are enjoying the summer sun on the beach, or ice cream on the pier at Saltburn, spare a thought for the feathered friends that share the beach with you as they frantically feed up for the next part of their long autumn migration.

For more of Colin’s Ramblings, visit northormesbynaturalist.blogspot.com

All photos by Colin Conroy