Life's a beach

Throughout the summer months, weather permitting, our beaches throng with holidaymakers enjoying the sand between their toes but, as the days shorten and temperatures fall, our beaches come into their own for birds. During the long summer days, many of our beaches are cleaned; any rubbish that has accumulated is removed and, importantly for our wildlife, accumulations of seaweed are sometimes removed, too. Once the summer is over, the tideline is largely left to its own devices and becomes an important food resource as the tidewrack builds.

Image by Trevor Codlin

Bounty for birds

Lots of invertebrate life takes advantage of the decomposing plant matter, and it can abound with insects and crustaceans. Turning over a clump of tideline seaweed can result in a burst of life as hundreds of sandhoppers and flies that have been sheltering make their escape. A closer look will reveal the tiny larvae of several species of fly, midge and beetle. All of this provides a bounty for our birds at this time of the year, whether they are on their way to some distant land or just locals enjoying the abundance of food. Tortoiseshell-coloured turnstones are perfectly designed to bulldoze their way into banks of seaweed in search of a tasty morsel or two. It has been said that turnstones can be found on any beach in the world, and the birds that are enjoying our beaches right now will have spent the summer in the high-Arctic and could well be making their way to a West African beach for the winter. Other waders to look out for include the curlew with its long, down-curved bill, the small, dark-legged dunlin and the short-billed, dumpy ringed plover.

Fuel for the journey

It’s not just waders that use this resource: migrating swallows and house martins will gorge themselves on the flying insects that will help to fuel their long journeys south to Africa. Tidewrack can hold invertebrate life throughout the autumn, and indeed even through the winter months. A few hardy swallows have successfully overwintered in Britain in recent years, feeding on this insect powerhouse even on the coldest of days. Robins, pied wagtails and meadow and rock pipits will all gather to feed on the seaweed left at the high-tide mark, and it is worth looking carefully for redstarts and black redstarts, two red-tailed birds that will also be fattening up for onwards travel. Our sandy beaches are among the best places to search for autumn wildlife but anywhere seaweed gathers will be good. My favourites include the beaches of Hengistbury Head in Dorset, Old Town Bay and Porthcressa beaches on the Isles of Scilly, Fidden Farm on the Isle of Mull, the beaches of Sea Palling and Waxham on the Norfolk coast, the beautiful beach at Carnsore Point, County Wexford, and Camber Sands in East Sussex. All of them have provided me with some great walks and some great birds too. A walk along a beach, be it sand, stone or shingle, will definitely reap rewards during the autumn months. Who says Britain’s beaches are just for the summer?

Paul Stancliffe is media manager for the British Trust for Ornithology. For more avian insight, follow @_BTO on Twitter

Magazine of the Ramblers