American Birding Podcast



Open Mic: Introducing Wader Quest

At the Mic: Rick Simpson

Rick Simpson of Newport Pagnell, UK, is a bird guide, illustrator, author of Confessions of a Bird Guide, and a Birdlife Species Champion. 


As if life wasn’t complicated enough when it comes to waders and shorebirds it is not just their identification that is confusing, their very definition gets the grey matter working if you start talking to someone who lives on the opposite side of the Atlantic to you. It gets a bit like explaining the rules of Cricket. In North America all shorebirds are waders, but in the UK they are not, however all waders are shorebirds which  of course is not true in the US and Canada, see what I mean?

For the purposes of this article, as this is a North American website we will use shorebird, but we mean wader…. follow?

So what is Wader Quest? In its simplest form it is a quest to see as many of the world’s shorebirds as possible, on a limited budget in a 12 month period. However, there is more to it than meets the eye.

Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica)
Bar-tailed Godwit

Wader Quest has two main aims:

1) To raise awareness about the dreadful plight of shorebirds throughout the world, especially those that rely on the inter-tidal zones during their life.

The inter-tidal zones of the world are being destroyed at an alarming rate; it is easy to understand the value of rainforests and thus engender support for saving them, but not so large expanses of mud. We urgently need to raise the profile of beaches, mud flats and other wetland areas  around the world among birders and non-birders alike and show that rather than being desolate wastes they are exciting, vibrant and productive ecosystems upon which millions upon millions of creatures depend, birds among them. In the USA you know about this only too well with the problems you are having with the beach plovers, Piping, Snowy and Wilsons and this is due to recreational use for the most part. Imagine then the problems faced where governments are set on turning these places into factories or fields for the plough and local people hunt the birds for food.

Pied Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta)
Pied Avocet

2) To raise money to support the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) Spoon-billed Sandpiper captive breeding programme.

There are probably less than 100 breeding pairs of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper left in the wild today. Their survival is in the balance and they are hurtling towards extinction. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in the UK is part of an international team set up to prevent the extinction of this amazing little bird. The captive breeding programme they are carrying out is designed to provide a safety net for the species should the attempts  to prevent its extinction in the wild fail. We would like to raise as much money as we can to assist them in this noble task.

Thus Wader Quest was born; the idea being to travel the world, visiting the six major continents on which shorebirds can be found with a view to seeing as many of them as we possibly can, whilst engaging with local communities through talks, visits and the media. Obviously our funds are limited as we are not sponsored in any way, so it was not designed as a serious attempt to set or break any records, it was merely an extravaganza  that we hoped would capture people’s imagination and get them to follow our travels and adventures and who knows? Maybe feel the urge to donate to the cause.

Naturally our quest started in the UK on November 1st 2012. We wondered what would be our first species and assumed that it would be Northern Lapwing, the UK’s most common shorebird. But we travelled for two hours across the UK to Norfolk, through some prime lapwing habitat and didn’t see a single one.

Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa  limosa)

Black-tailed Godwit

This rather underlined the whole point of Wader Quest for us. Shorebird species are in decline the world  over. It is not just these enigmatic species in far flung corners of the world that are in trouble. In the last thirty years or so, the Northern Lapwing population in the UK has halved. A lot is spoken of the decline in songbirds, but it seems to us that shorebirds are the forgotten cousins in the bird world, and they shouldn’t be.

So what then was our first bird? Well when we arrived at the Titchwell RSPB reserve in Norfolk we were further thwarted by the water levels on  the reserve being too high for shorebirds, especially the smaller Calidris types, we wondered if this was an omen, first no lapwings and now this! As we trudged up the path towards the beach eventually we came across a Common Snipe, at last the list was opened. That was quickly followed by Common Redshank, the absent Northern Lapwing and a Black-tailed Godwit, but where were all the birds?

At the end of the track one passes through a dune area and out onto the beach. As we passed between the last of the dunes it was like opening
the door to a surprise party, there were shorebirds everywhere, the beach was rippling with life; we were in heaven. Red Knot, Black-bellied Plover, Eurasian Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanderling, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Ruddy Turnstone and Dunlin were all scurrying up and down the beach going about their business.

Ruff (Philomachus pugnax)

We spent a long time enjoying this spectacle and then decided that a reviving cup of tea was required. Whilst imbibing this refreshing infusion we learned that there was a rarity in town; White-rumped Sandpiper. We couldn’t resist it and off we set in hot pursuit.

A short drive along the coast to the ley NNT reserve and some local directions and we were in the hide watching and waiting. As we did so we clocked up some more birds for the list, Pied Avocet, European Golden Plover and Ruff but where was the sandpiper? Eventually we found it,  having a preen in the middle of a group of Dunlin, we ended the day on 16 species, not bad for England in November.

The next morning and another dash for a rarity, this time Long-billed Dowitcher. It was at the home of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper captivebreeding programme at Slimbridge WWT in Gloucestershire. We saw it and also a Eurasian Whimbrel, taking our tally up to 18 for the first part of our quest in the UK.

Two days later we flew to Thailand in search of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper and much else besides. Were we successful? We’ll let you know next