The Avocets have returned to the North Tees Marshes – a good sign that winter is nearly over and spring is beginning.

When I was a young birder (40 years ago – eek) the Avocet was an almost mythical bird to me. I knew what they looked like, thanks to them having been the official symbol of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) since 1970, but they were so rare that I thought I would never see one.

At that time the only breeding Avocets in this country were at a few sites on the east coast – most notably the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve, in Suffolk – at least a full day’s drive, at the time, from my home in Liverpool. Although increasing numbers were starting to spend the winter in estuaries on the south and east coasts of England, I didn’t know that at the time and, in any case, that was almost as far from my home as Minsmere was.

Unlike many birds in the Order Charadriiformes – more commonly known as Waders (Shorebirds, in North America) – the Avocet is absolutely unmistakable. There is no other British bird which looks even remotely like it. It is a slender, black-and-white bird with long blue-grey legs. The most remarkable thing about it, however, is its long upturned bill which it drags from side to side through the water and mud to catch the insects, crustaceans and worms on which it largely feeds.

They nest on bare ground near shallow pools and brackish lagoons, and for the past several years a few pairs have nested successfully at scattered locations in the marshes north of the River Tees, including the RSPB’s amazing Saltholme reserve.

March and April are really good times to look for Avocets on Teesside. As well as the flooded fields and pools at Saltholme, the area around Greatham Creek and Seal Sands often holds small flocks. These can be viewed from either of the two new metal bird hides or from the path that goes down the Creek towards the mudflats of Seal Sands (all accessible from the ‘Seal Sands Car Park’ on Seaton Carew Road). This is also a good area to see many other waterbirds as well as both species of seal (Grey and Harbour) that give Seal Sands its name.

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All photos © Dave Barlow – used with permission