Wales: a special place for waders

From winter beaches to summer moorland and woodland, Wales provides essential habitats for waders. This blog was originally written in 2017, to bring together WaderTales stories that were of particular relevance to Welsh birdwatchers. The publication of Birds of Conservation Concern Wales 4, in 2022, created the perfect excuse for a revamp. The first part of the blog focuses on BoCCW4. This is followed by updated sections about the birds that spend winter in Wales, pass through in spring and autumn, and breed in the country.


Birds of Conservation Concern Wales 4, published in 2022, includes ten red-listed and fourteen amber-listed waders.

There are five changes to the Red, Amber and Green lists since BoCCW3 was published in 2016. Purple Sandpiper has joined the Red list but there have been four improvements:

  • Avocet has moved from Amber to Green, reflecting the fact that the species can no longer be considered as a rare breeder.
  • Sanderling in now green-listed, due to a reassessment of the size of the species’ international population.
  • Knot has moved from Red to Amber, as the long-term decline in the number of birds wintering in Wales is measured as 22% (rather than 56%)
  • Common Sandpiper has moved to the Amber list too, with the decline in breeding numbers now estimated as 28% (rather than 51%)

Unsurprisingly, there is significant overlap between BoCCW4 and the UK red and amber lists but there are some important differences too. There is a WaderTales blog about the UK list: Into the Red.

Red-listed in Wales & UK

Curlew (right) – The decline in breeding numbers is particularly worrying in Wales and the species is now the focus of a special conservation partnership: Gylfinir Cymru / Curlew Wales. More below.

Dunlin – Very few pairs of the schinzii race still breed in Wales and there are declining numbers of wintering alpina birds on estuaries. This WaderTales blog discusses issues for schinzii in Baltic countries.

Lapwing – Breeding numbers have dropped significantly. Here’s a blog with suggestions as to how to help Lapwings and other waders breeding in lowland wet grassland: Toolkit for wader conservation.

Purple Sandpiper – Added to the UK red list in 2021 and to the Welsh list in 2022, reflecting falling numbers of wintering birds.

Ringed Plover – A significant part of the hiaticula race of Ringed Plover winters in Wales, with ringing recoveries linking the country with Baltic and mainland-Europe populations. Nesting pairs are threatened by recreational pressures, developments and rising sea-levels, as discussed in this blog about the situation in eastern England.

Woodcock – Declining as a breeding species but still present in large numbers in wintertime. More below.

Red-listed in Wales but not UK

Bar-tailed Godwit (right) – Winter visitors on Welsh estuaries are of the lapponica race, birds that breed from Scandinavia through to western Russia. Red listing in Wales reflects the relative importance of these western areas of Britain for Bar-tailed Godwits and recent declines in numbers. It is possible that young birds are now wintering further east than previous generations, on the European coast. This may reflect warmer winter conditions.

Golden Plover – Large numbers winter in Wales, with birds arriving from Iceland, northern Britain and Europe. Flocks can become particularly impressive if persistent cold weather pushes European birds further west.

Grey Plover – We don’t know enough about these Siberian visitors, as discussed in Plovers from the North but Welsh estuaries seem to be important. Numbers were much larger at the and of the twentieth century and there is a continuing decline.

Redshank – Breeding numbers have declined significantly across the whole of the UK and it will not be long until they are red-listed elsewhere. More below.

Red-listed in UK but not Wales

Dotterel Breed in the high tops of Scotland and occasionally elsewhere in the UK. Red-listing reflects low numbers and a continuing decline, as discussed in Scotland’s Dotterel: still hanging on. Welsh birdwatchers look forward to seeing passage birds on sites such as the Great Orme. Amber-listed in Wales.

Whimbrel – Red-listed in the UK because of declining Scottish population. Wales provides spring feeding for large numbers of migrant Whimbrel in spring, which explains the species’ amber-listing. More below.

Red-necked Phalarope – Red-listed in the UK because there is a very small (but stable) breeding population on Scottish islands.

Black-tailed Godwit – Red listed in UK because the small English breeding population needs all the help it can get. See England’s Black-tailed Godwits. Amber-listed in Wales because the country is a winter home to large numbers of the islandica subspecies.

Ruff – Red listed in the UK because occasional pairs breed. Amber-listed in Wales because of the small but important wintering population.

There are over one hundred WaderTales blogs so far. Here’s a selection that may well appeal to birdwatchers in Wales.

Welsh winter beaches & estuaries

Most Oystercatchers are being ringed with two letter engraved rings, along with two colour-rings: Photo Tómas Gunnarsson

Wales holds important populations of waders in the wintertime – everything from Grey Plovers from Siberia to Turnstones from Canada. There is a particularly strong link to Iceland.

Some of the Oystercatchers seen in sites such as the Burry Inlet or the Menai Strait are from Iceland, where they can be found alongside Redshanks and Golden Plover that have also arrived from the north.

Migratory decisions for Icelandic Oystercatchers describes a project to examine the costs and benefits of being a migrant. Welsh reports of Icelandic colour-ringed birds are helping to provide answers.

Not all of the Oystercatchers on Welsh estuaries come from Iceland, there are lots from Scandinavia too. When Burry Inlet shellfishers persuaded the UK government to start a programme of Oystercatcher culling in the 1970s there was a strong reaction from Norway. It has since been shown that cockle supply is more influenced by pollution and disease than by predation by birds, as discussed in When Oystercatchers can’t find food.


Turning from the open mudflat, birdwatchers may well see Snipe probing in wet patches in the saltmarsh. Interestingly, the migratory provenance of Welsh Snipe seems to be very different to that of Irish ones. A quarter of foreign-ringed Snipe reported in Ireland have been found to be wearing Icelandic rings but, so far, no Reykjavik-ringed Snipe have been spotted in Wales. Snipe & Jack Snipe in the UK and Ireland compares the migratory strategies of the two species and laments the decline of Common Snipe, as a breeding species.

You may be lucky enough to have Greenshanks wintering on a local Welsh estuary. These birds are likely to be from the Scottish breeding population, as you can read here: Migration of Scottish Greenshank.

Protecting key wintering sites is a high priority when it comes to wader conservation. A BTO and WWT project aimed to provide better information as to how species as diverse as Dunlin and Shelduck make use of the Severn Estuary. This was important work, with major relevance to discussions as to how power might be generated within the estuary. Tracking waders on the Severn urged birdwatchers to look for colour-marked birds. Initial results, shared at an International Wader Study Group conference, indicate that the home range of a Redshank is ten times as big as originally thought, with birds being particularly mobile at night.


Hundreds of Welsh birdwatchers take part in the Wetland Bird Survey and the intensive work involved in periodic Low Tide Counts. These identify and monitor key sites and establish the most important feeding areas within estuaries. Whilst mud and sand-flats are, of course, important to waders, so are roost sites. A place to roost discusses the importance of safe, high-tide roosts, especially in terms of energetics. It has been estimated that the cost of flying to and from roosts might account for up to 14% of a bird’s daily energy expenditure. That’s something to think about next time you see a dog chasing off a flock of roosting waders. A second WaderTales blog focuses upon how disturbance affects wintering Turnstone.

These blogs reveals the latest trends in numbers of Britain’s wintering waders: Do population estimates matter? and Waders on the Coast. Most species are less numerous but the Black-tailed Godwit bucks the trend. Warmer British winters may be providing easier conditions for these smart waders but this paper shows how spring conditions in Iceland are providing expanding breeding opportunities: From local warming to range expansion.

Passing through

There is exciting work going on in Wales, to understand why so many Whimbrel spend time in the country in the spring. Whimbrels on the move summarises a paper about the movements of Icelandic, ringed Whimbrel. Since its publication, a paper has shown that Whimbrel are able to fly between Iceland and west Africa in one jump but that they usually need to stop off on the way north. See Iceland to Africa non-stop. This is part of a bigger Icelandic study which is summarised in A Whimbrel’s Year.

Some waders are more mobile than others. Although both Grey Plover and Knot are ‘winter visitors’, ringing has shown that they move around the estuaries bordering the Irish Sea, during the period from October to April. Colour-ringing studies aim to help us to understand the importance of this network of sites to Knot from Canada and Greenland and Grey Plover from Siberia. Welsh birdwatchers can help by reporting birds wearing lettered flags on their legs.

Each spring, Welsh beaches see influxes of Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Turnstone and Dunlin, as birds pass through on their way from Africa to Iceland, Greenland and Canada. Some of the smart summer-plumage Sanderling could have travelled from South Africa, Senegal or Portugal but others spend the winter in Wales. This fascinating paper gives Travel advice to Sanderling.

There’s a blog on the subject of wader migration if you want a quick summary for 40 or more species: Which wader, when and why?

Breeding Waders

Wales provides homes to many breeding waders, from Ringed Plover on the coast, via Little Ringed Plover and Common Sandpiper along rivers and into the moorland for Curlew and Dunlin, passing a forest with Woodcock en route. And that’s only giving a mention to half of the country’s breeding wader species.

Starting on salt-marsh, Big-foot and the Redshank nest investigates appropriate cattle stocking levels for successful Redshank breeding. Although the work was undertaken in northwest England, there is no reason to believe that Welsh cattle are any less careful as to where they put their feet. This paper shows that salt-marsh Redshank are in trouble: Redshank -the warden of the marshes.

We are all aware of the issues facing farmland waders. The next blog is about research in Scotland but the story it tells, of declining numbers of species such as Redshank and Lapwing, could have been written about Wales. Here, you can read how farming has changed and the impacts that this has had upon breeding waders: 25 years of wader declines.

Spring sees the return of Common Sandpipers from Africa, to nest along Welsh rivers and around reservoirs. Not-so-Common Sandpipers  describes the migration and decline of this much-loved species.

Is the Curlew really near-threatened? considers the plight of breeding Curlew. It’s easy to understand why RSPB, BTO, WWT, GWCT and BirdWatch Ireland are focusing on this species. You can read about Ireland’s Curlew Crisis here. The Welsh decline is not as serious as the one in Ireland, where the number of breeding pairs has dropped from 3300 to 138 pairs, but you still have to ask: How long will it be until breeding Curlew are lost from Wales?

This blog summarises the threats to breeding Curlew across Great Britain: Curlews can’t wait for a treatment plan.

Research by RSPB in Wales has focused on specific issues relating to grazing: Sheep numbers and Welsh Curlews.

One of the potential problems for Curlews and other waders is a planned increase in tree cover. As Wales strives for carbon capture and sustainability, it will be sad if habitat loss and increased cover for predators cause more problems for threatened species. These two stories from Iceland and Estonia highlight these issues: Iceland’s waders need a strategic forestry plan and Keep away from the trees.

Predation is acknowledged as a major issue for nesting Curlew but is this a problem for Oystercatchers too? Oystercatchers: from shingle beach to roof-tops reveals a significant decline of the species in Scotland, mediated to some extent by range expansion in three dimensions.

The strangest Welsh wader has to be the Woodcock – probing about in winter fields and nesting in forestry plantations. Conserving British-breeding Woodcock focuses on worrying results from the last GWCT/BTO survey and work to reduce losses during the shooting season.

Further reading

Hopefully, this summary  gives a flavour of some of the issues being faced by Welsh waders and the research to which they are contributing. There are already over 100 blogs in the WaderTales series, with one or two new blogs being produced each month. If you want to know more about wader migration or moult, how volcanoes affect breeding waders in Iceland, why Black-tailed Godwits wear colour-rings or if there are costs to carrying a geolocator have a look here.

blog oyc godwit

GFA in Iceland

Graham (@grahamfappleton) has studied waders for over 40 years and is currently involved in wader research in the UK and in Iceland.  He was Director of Communications at The British Trust for Ornithology until 2013 and is now a freelance writer and broadcaster.

6 thoughts on “Wales: a special place for waders

  1. Not just birdwatchers in Wales, a great round-up for all wader enthusiasts (scientists, ringers and surveyors). WeBS (BTO Wetland Bird Survey) counts on Sunday and a great incentive to get out and do some wader watching and counting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Waders in Wales - Art in Nature

  3. Wonderful. We have just been watching a curlew on the shores of the Ria Formosa. Turnstones and plovers also but not the variety we used to see. Theresagreen does a good Wales blog on nature and Becky in Portugal has some good bird shots.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Waders, like so much of our other wildlife are at serious risk. I’m afraid posturing politicians and others who should know better, are not helping. Let’s hope our youngsters can achieve what our current generation seem unable to do.

      Theresa lives not far from us in North Wales – she brings a different slant on places we know quite well. Her posts, like yours, are always enjoyable.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: WaderTales blogs in 2022 | wadertales

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