In fermenting seaweed banks along the shoreline moves a flock of birds here and there. They bore their long beaks deep into the mud in search of treats. The fairly intrepid birds turns out on a closer inspection to be a true motley crew. They are of different sizes and have different color, shape and length of the beaks and legs. Small details separate the species and to distinguish them is a challenge for any birder.
Öland is in many respects the province of the waders. As many as 67 different wader species are encountered on the island, more than in any other of the Swedish provinces. Most of them do not breed here, but passes Öland during the migration. Many have their breeding grounds in the Siberia taiga- and tundra belts, and the majority are pronounced with long-distance migrations with wintering areas, sometimes as far away as South Africa.
Waders are known to make extremely long nonstop flights on several thousands of kilometers. This ability enables individual stray flown birds to suddenly be seen resting on a beach on Öland. Among the more extreme examples include findings of Hudsonian Godwit from Alaska and Little Curlew and Grey-tailed Tattler from the easternmost part of Asia.
Öland meadows, “Alvar” (the unique moor of Öland) and wetlands offer attractive breeding environments for waders. The province can count 16 resident species. Half of these also occur here in the country’s largest concentrations avocet, as Pied Avocet, Black-tailed Godwit, Red Knot and Golden Plover, which further underlines the province special status for these birds.
The two far the most common waders are Northern Lapwing and Common Redshank, both with populations of thousands of couples. Then follows Oystercatcher, Pied Avocet, Ringed Plover, Golden Plover, Common Snipe, Eurasian Woodcock and Eurasian Curlew. Species with fewer than one hundred pairs include Dunlin, Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit, Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone. Most unusual is Little Ringed Plover that nests only with a few couples, though it has in return a larger range in the rest of the country.
The Northern Lapwing is scattered throughout all kinds of open ground, but most of the other nesting waders are mostly on the coastal meadows along the east coast. The “Alvar” land that previously housed a rich life of waders is now much poorer, and the waders that remain are concentrated to the wetlands. The underlying causes for the decline at the “Alvar” is not fully understood, but above all should overgrowth, ceased pasture and increasing pressure from the nest-plundering mammals and birds may be contributing factors. The exception is the Golden Plover which, as a limited inventory in the early 2010s suggests, still holding the position at the most arid and barren parts.
Although the changes in land use on coastal meadows and “Alvar” have resulted in harsher living conditions, are most coastal nesting waders holding up their populations well. The exception is the Oystercatcher, Eurasian Curlew, Ruff and Ruddy Turnstone all of which decreases alarmingly fast.
Although Öland is important for a number of nesting waders is the island perhaps even more important as a resting place for migratory waders. On their way to and from the Arctic breeding areas, they are totally dependent on a number of safe rest areas where they can replenish their fat reserves. In many parts of Europe, there is a shortage of such areas, often because of human exploitation.
During the spring there are rarely large amounts of waders resting on Öland, especially among the species that have a long distance to go before they reach their arctic breeding grounds. During the return migration periods though, which are often considerably longer, then the whole of Öland coast are functioning as one big resting area. This applies particularly to the north and northeast species within the genus Calidris as Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Red Knot and the Little Stint, but also for others as Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit. Although they can rest almost everywhere along the coast, concentrations anyway occurs to a range of places that stand out as particularly important. In addition to the Ottenby area, on the east side “Högby Hamn(Harbour)”, “Kapelludden”, “Stora Ören” and “Gammalsbyören” south of “Seby läge” have a particular attraction. On the west side of the island are only two resting places of ranking, “Beijershamn” and “Västerstadsviken”, but they are more important. Thousands of waders can be seen here daily from late July to well into October, often at a comfortable distance, platforms on the two sites, and in “Beijershamn” two observation towers, further facilitates wader studies.
Timetable – Spring
The waders that nest on Öland come as early as they can, it is important to be the first to get the best territory. Already in late February can the first Ringed Plover be in place during winters with little snow, and Northern Lapwings and Golden Plovers sometimes both come here and return to the south several times in January and February before the spring comes in earnest.
The arctic waders pass Öland much later to meet the spring at their northern breeding grounds. Although some early individuals can be seen already in early May, it is first in the second half the migration culminates. The migration takes place mainly during the day with beautiful weather and at high altitudes, and often as part of a single long non-stop migration to northern Finland or Norway. It concerns therefore not Öland other than that some years, large flocks of mainly Red Knots are seen passing the southern tip of Öland at high altitude in the very last days of May, or even at the beginning of June. Spring migration can be considered to go fairly unnoticed. Single individuals can certainly rest, but rarely in any significant number.
Autumn starts in June
When spring on Öland passes to summer in early June and birdsong silent, then it is mostly about feeding the kids in the bird world. But already in the middle of the month and just two weeks after the last Red Knots passed to the north, the first waders comes back to Öland, but now heading for winter quarters in the south. Among the earliest returnees we find Eurasian Curlews, Green Sandpipers and, not least, Spotted Redshank.
Timetable – Autumn
Although some waders begin autumn migration by the end of June, most will not start in earnest until well into July. From this time and into October large amounts of arctic waders appears on Öland beaches. These are hundreds of thousands of birds, and they add undeniably both life and color to the summer’s birding.
Everything follows a precise timetable. Depending on the various breeding strategies of the waders, whether now it is common or split parental responsibilities or, depending on the distances from the breeding areas, the arrival times at Öland vary. The first to come is to large extent adult females of species where the male alone takes care of the kids. Then comes the adult males and females of the species with more evenly distributed parental responsibility between the sexes.
The older dominates
The adult birds mastered the scene for over a month. They now carry the remains of their breeding plumage and are now in full process of moulting, which can make determination of the species difficult. Every individual is different from the others, and the migrating flocks often include several species, which can further confuse. Add to that, that the flocks anytime can nervously take to escape for some unknown reason to us for to the best return again after a few minutes. This time of year waders stops on average much longer on the island than during the hectic spring migration. They are now not as busy as during the spring migration when it is crucial for the continued breeding success to be first to lay claim to territory. Several studies of waders rest in the Ottenby area has shown that rates of their weight gain match the highest recorded in the world. An almost unlimited supply of food in the seaweed banks and the long, bright late summer days make this achievement possible.
Time for the younger
A week into August, it’s time for this year’s young birds to arrive. Visually, they differ from the old ones, in some species quite essentially. Fortunately usually young bird plumage of waders is described in most bird books. Yet there are many old birds still remaining, and it will take up to the end of August before clean flocks of young birds are to be seen. First in mid-October have most of the waders left Öland for their winter quarters down in Africa. Juveniles have no adult who shows the way, their migration routes are imprinted in their genes.
Large and small sandpipers
As the distribution of old and young birds varies over time, the composition of species also does. To the early migratory species are those that mainly breed in the country or relatively close. Large sandpipers of the genus Tringa, with species like Wood Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, Common Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Common Redshank and Common Sandpiper is very common throughout July. They usually don’t form regular flocks, but tend to accumulate at the rich feeding grounds. “Beijershamn” with its vast wetlands in this context is an extremely important area for these species, even on a European level.
To the early species are also Curlews and Godwits, with the Black-tailed Godwit as something of a specialty of Öland. They can usually be seen in relatively large numbers at the southern tip of Öland in early July. And they are later on joined by others like Eurasian Curlew and Whimbrel.
From the middle of July, the Arctic waders arrive, mainly from the genus Calidris. The species that dominates is the Dunlin. From this time onwards the species composition is very diverse, and with luck you can along a good stretch of coastline see up to fifteen species. The adult waders have now begun to moult their body feathers to winter plumage. The formerly so beautiful rust-colored Black-tailed Godwits, Bar-tailed Godwits, Red Knots and Curlew Sandpipers are now week to week to become paler, and as if this didn’t make the determination of the species difficult enough, they are joined by an increasing number of juveniles, many times with a fresh plumage that differs a lot from their parents.
In late autumn, it is primarily straggling young birds that linger. Some wader species tend to appear later than the others, as Grey Plovers, Red Knots and Sanderlings, although they have a long way to their wintering areas. Those who do not have as far like Northern Lapwings and Golden Plovers, can even in November form large flocks on the fields in the southern parts of Öland.
As the year draws to a close there are only a few Dunlins and Purple Sandpipers left at the southern tip of Öland. Mild winters it also occasionally happens, that some single individual of Common Snipe, Eurasian Woodcock, Sanderling, Red Knot, Ruddy Turnstone and Eurasian Curlew endures to the last.