Country diary: dazzled by the dance of the sanderlings

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Tyrella Beach, County Down: Running back and forth as the waves come ashore, the wading birds may look comical, but it’s all part of their clever feeding strategy

Those dots of waders will be kettled up the beach as the tide rises, but my time is short. So I hoist the scope and set off into an early morning sun that’s gauzed by a membrane of cloud. In front of me, the ribbed sand stretches into a haze of silver and taupe. The sea is so far out that it could be a mirage. To the south-east, the Mournes rear like a desert range in the austere light.

Oystercatchers stipple the foreshore. At the flock’s far edge, a cloud shimmers into the air. Dunlin? Knot? Too quick and deft for me to tell. I plod on, veering away from the tide’s creep to mitigate any further alarm. Then I see a huddle running with zippy calls over the sweeping cambers of sand. Their plumage segues from soft grey to gleaming white, intensifying the jet black of eyes, bills and those whirring legs, which keep such synchronous pace that the birds are a single flow. They bob into a depression. When they emerge – a little jolt of surprise – they’re coming straight for me. I lower the binoculars. No. They’re avoiding those surly-looking herring gulls. Suddenly, like flitters of foil, the sanderlings dazzle into flight.

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