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The following identification guide covers some of the waders you are likely to find on Irish wetlands, between 25-25 species visit our wetlands each winter. Also included is the Little Egret that is strictly a Heron, but is being seen more and more on estuaries with waders around the country.
Note: All lengths below are from the tip of the beak to the tip of the tail. The beak lengths on waders can be very long, so bear this in mind when comparing size.
Length 39-44 cm
One of the easiest waders to identify. It is black and white, with pink legs and an orange beak. It can be found almost anywhere from mudflats to rocky shore and fields. Often very noisy and rarely seen alone.
Length 48-57 cm
If you get a good look at its long curved beak of this bird, you will not mistake it for any other Irish wader. It has one of the longest beaks of any Irish bird. On the ground it looks all brown, but in flight there is a white triangle on the back.
Length 17-21 cm
One of our smallest waders. Usually seen in flocks of 100 or more, and sometimes as many as 5,000 or more. Thin white stripe on the wing. Black patch on the belly in summer plumage.
Sanderling (Laidhrín geal)
Length 18 - 21 cm
A small wader, about the same size as a Dunlin. Looks very pale in winter with black legs and beak. Usually seen in small flocks on sandy beaches, running very quickly following the waves in and out while feeding. In flight the wings are dark with a long white wing stripe.
Redshank (Ladhrán trá)
Length 24-27 cm
A wader with long red/orange legs. The straight beak is also red/orange with a dark tip. Usually very noisy when taking off. In flight, you can see a broad white trailing edge to the wings, and a white triangle on the back. When alarmed it will bob its head up and down.
Turnstone (Piardálaí trá)
Length 21-24 cm
A small wader. Usually seen in small flocks. In flight, it has a complex pattern of white and dark brown above, white below, with a dark "bib". Orange legs. Can be quite tame. Usually found on rocky shores but also on seaweed on the high tide line, and on fishing piers where it feeds on fish scraps. Gets its name from its unusual feeding habit of turning over stones to look for food with its short dark wedge shaped beak. Also turns over seaweed.
Length 55-65 cm
In the last twenty years, this small heron has gone from a national rarity to a regular feature on many estuaries, and has bred in the last few years in increasing numbers. May only be superficially confused with a Black-headed Gull at a distance. This pure white heron also has a straight black dagger shaped beak, long black legs with bright yellow feet. Unlike its cousin, the Grey Heron, it often feeds by running after the small fish and crustaceans that it hunts in shallow water. It also shuffles its feet to disturb prey that may be hiding under seaweed or staying very still.
Greenshank (Laidhrín glas)
Length 30-34 cm
Like the Redshank it gets its name from the colour of its legs. They are dull olive green. The beak is slightly up turned and is slightly bigger than a Redshank. It is also much paler than a Redshank in winter. Unlike the redshank its wings have no white on the trailing edge. Its rump and tail form a large pale triangle visible in flight.
Snipe (Mionnán aeir)
Length 23-28 cm
A small wader with a long straight beak. Rarely seen in the open. Its clever camouflage makes it very difficult to find on the ground. Usually only seen when disturbed from wet ground or boggy areas. Flies fast in a zigzag movement when taking off and usually makes a harsh dry call. Once high up in the air it flies fast and straight.
One of our most numerous waders and also the one with one of the most distinctive sillhouttes. The tuft of feathers standing up at the back if its head is distinctive. Often seen in large flocks, these waders have very round black and white wings and a short beak. Large numbers come here during cold snaps on the continent when flocks of over 10,000 have been seen. It is a member of the plover family and is sometimes referred to as the Green Plover because of the green sheen on feathers of the back and wings or the Peewit, describing is squeaking call.
Bar-tailed Godwit (Guilbneach stríocearrach)Black-tailed Godwit (Guilbneach earrdubh)
Length 37-42 cm
A large wader with long legs and a long straight beak. On the ground in winter they are brown above and on the breast and the belly is white. In spring, summer and autumn they become rusty red-orange below. In flight the have a broad black band on the end of a white tail and bright white stripes on the wings. Rarely seen alone, Black-tailed Godwits can be found on estuaries and in fields. Most are seen on the south and east coast. Large numbers gather in early spring in the Little Brosna Callows and the Shannon & Fergus estuary before heading for Iceland where they breed.
Length 33-41 cm
A large wader. In flight it looks like a small Curlew, with a white triangle on the back, a long, very slightly upturned beak and no other obvious features. Similar to the Black-tailed Godwit in size and appearance on the ground but is more streaked on the back. Unlike the Black-tailed Godwit it usually prefers sandier, open beaches.
Ringed Plover (Feadóg an Fháinne)
Length 17 - 19 cm
A very distinctive wader with its complete white collar, sandy brown back, black and white head pattern and orange legs. Often feeds away from the waters edge, further up the beach or mudflat. Like many plovers the Ringed Plover often uses a stop-run-peck feeding pattern. Usually nests on sand and shingle where it is difficult to locate and pretends to have a broken wing to distract you from finding the nest and then flies off when you are far enough away from the nest.
Grey Plover (Feadóg ghlas)
Length 26-29 cm
A fairly big wader with long dark legs and short thick beak. Usually seen in small groups well spread out over the mud or sand. Its large eyes help it locate its food on or just below the surface of the mud or sand. As the name suggests in winter it is a very grey wader on the ground. In flight you can see its white rump and wing stripe. Unlike any other wader it has black "arm pits". These feathers are called the axillaries and are found at the base of the underwing, seen clearly in flight. In summer, like its close relative the Golden Plover, it has a black face, breast and belly. Unlike the Grey Plover the Golden Plover is usually seen in large flocks and prefers to feed in fields.
What is a wader?
The term wader is used by birdwatchers to describe closely related species which share features such as relatively long legs, long beaks and spend most of their time in wetland areas in winter. There are a few exceptions such as the Grey Phalarope, which spends the winter on the open sea! The term wader is also sometimes used to describe some members of the Heron family as they hunt for food by wading in shallow water.
Waders can be described as birds that live on the edge. The edge referring to that area of ground between dry land and salt or fresh water. Most avoid swimming and so are pushed back and forth by coming and going of the tide
Where to look for waders
Waders can be found all around our coast especially on estuaries and sandy beaches but also on rocky areas. Some species such as the Oystercatcher and Black-tailed Godwit will also feed on wet and damp grassland. One of our most abundant winter visitors, the Golden Plover, rarely feed on estuaries, spending almost all their time feeding in fields. The distinctive black and white form of the Oystercatcher is a familiar sight on playing fields in winter. Waders such as Snipe prefer boggy areas and Turnstone and Purple Sandpipers like rocky shores.
Where do they come from?
To give an idea of how important Ireland is for waders the table below, click on the links below to illustrate the number of countries whose breeding waders depend on Ireland during the winter and on migration.
As well as these regular visitors there is always the chance of a rare visitor. These birds usually appear in the autumn or spring, at the height of the migration period but also turn up at any other time of the year.
Most are blown off course by strong winds and come from North America and Asia. When trying to identify a wader always eliminates the common species before considering what you have seen is a rarity.
All images and text © Jim Wilson 2001.