As soon as we caught sight of a camouflage-jacketed photographer crouched down on the foreshore, we knew we were in luck. Sure enough, his telephoto lens was firmly focused on Nore Barn’s famed spotted redshank (Tringa erythropus) as it plucked tiny crabs from the seaweed-fringed banks of the tidal stream.
This elegant wader has been overwintering in Emsworth since 2004 and has become something of a local celebrity, regularly appearing on YouTube and featuring in birding blogs. It’s impossible to be certain that it’s the same individual returning year on year – it’s not ringed – but its confiding behaviour and the timing of its annual arrival and departure have me convinced.
The average life expectancy of T erythropus is suggested to be 7-10 years; however British Trust for Ornithology longevity records show related species living to 16 (greenshank) and 20 (common redshank), so it’s reasonable to conclude that a spotshank could have a similar lifespan.
Predominantly passage migrants, overwintering spotted redshanks are relatively scarce in Britain, with more than half the population – estimated to be around 100 birds – found at fewer than 10 sites.
During the summer months they sport smoky-black plumage, their wings speckled with white spots, but at this time of year they have mottled grey backs with paler underparts, making them difficult to distinguish from the more prolific common redshank (T totanus).
With the two species feeding side by side, I could see that the spotshank’s bill and luminous orangey-red legs were longer than those of its companion. There are subtle differences in bill shape and colouration too: the redshank’s is straight and orange with a black tip, as though it has been dipped in ink, while the spotshank’s has a slightly down-curved tip and is predominantly black, with orange restricted to the base of the lower mandible.
While the redshank kept a low profile, its form melding into the mud as it probed for molluscs and bristle worms, the spotshank waded into the stream, water lapping at its flanks as it rapidly swept its bill from side to side in a scything motion. Unfazed by the growing crowd of onlookers, the bird approached within a couple of yards, upending in front of us with a duck-esque flourish.