A medium wading bird, named after its brightly coloured legs, the greenshank breeds in northern Scotland, as well as further to the east across Scandinavia and Russia. In winter, an influx of greenshanks descends upon wetlands and marshes and along the coast of south-west England, Wales, Ireland and north-east Scotland. Tens of thousands of birds migrate significantly further afield, reaching the coasts of Australia, Indonesia and South Africa.
Male and female greenshanks are alike in plumage, although females are usually noticeably larger than males. During the breeding season, they have dark brown upperparts that are spotted and streaked with white. Their rump and back are white and can be clearly seen in flight. The upper tail is white and barred with dark brown. Their neck, breast, and flanks are mainly white but densely marked with black-brown spots and streaks.
Greenshanks have slender bills that are greyish-green at the base and tipped with black. The bill is long and curves slightly upwards. They have dark brown eyes and pale green to yellow legs and feet.
Post-breeding, greenshanks moult into a basic plumage with mainly grey upperparts, a white breast, throat, and face, and contrasting dark upper wings.
Juvenile greenshanks are similar to non-breeding adults, but their upperparts are browner and edged with pale buff, giving a scaled appearance. Their neck and breast are heavily streaked with brown and white.
Greenshank, breeding plumage
Greenshank, winter plumage
Greenshanks are one of the largest members of the Tringa family, which consists of sandpipers, shanks and tattlers. Females are slightly larger and heavier than males.
Pair of Greenshanks standing on the bank
Greenshanks have a loud call that is easily recognised among wading birds. A series of up to three ringing ‘tyu-tyu-tyu’ notes are repeated in flight and when leaving the nest, both during the day and night.
Worms, insects, snails and fish are among the main foods of greenshanks. They feed in shallow water, and forage in flocks, pecking beneath the water’s surface for crustaceans, molluscs, small fish and amphibians. Larvae of beetles and other insects are also popular, and rodents may occasionally be eaten. In winter, crabs are particularly important.
Greenshank chicks are able to forage for themselves from birth and follow the same diet as adult birds, preying mainly on insects, larvae, snails and worms.
Greenshank feeding in the marshland
Greenshanks breed throughout the taiga zone, where they live in forest clearings, marshes, and boggy moorlands with some patchy tree cover.
During migration, greenshanks appear inland as well as in coastal regions, with sandbars, marshes, flooded meadows and dried-up lakes among the common sites for passage sightings.
Greenshanks spend winters at both marine and freshwater wetlands, and can commonly be found at estuaries, beaches, lagoons and mangroves, as well as along muddy river banks.
Greenshanks breed at northern latitudes, with their main range extending from northern Scotland, Scandinavia, through Central Asia to Siberia and far-eastern Russia.
In winter, greenshanks can be found across western Europe, particularly around the Mediterranean coast, along Africa’s northern, western, and eastern coasts, and along the River Nile, as well as being widespread across the entire sub-Saharan African continent and the Middle East. In Asia, greenshanks are present in south and south-east Asia, Indonesia, and in parts of Australia, particularly the south west, north east and south east.
Of the European breeding population of greenshanks, more than 1,000 pairs are found in Scotland, 15,000 to 20,000 pairs in Sweden, 15,000 to 30,000 pairs in Norway and 25,000 to 40,000 pairs in Finland.
Up to 100,000 greenshanks are estimated to spend winters in East Africa and south-west Asia, with a further 20,000 individuals in each of Australia, east Asia and South East Asia.
Greenshank foraging on the beach
There is no exact figure for the worldwide population of greenshanks, but it is thought to be in the hundreds of thousands. They are not globally threatened and considered a species of least concern. In the UK, there are upwards of 1,000 breeding pairs, and a further 900+ individuals arrive for the winter. With additional passage sightings each year, they are not uncommon birds at coastal wetlands and estuaries.
Australia has no breeding greenshanks, but up to 20,000 individuals spend the winter there every year. Around a quarter of these settle until spring in the north-western region of the country, and sightings are relatively common.
The UK’s breeding greenshanks are found on boggy wetlands in northern and western Scotland and are present between April and August. Sightings of birds in passage reach a peak in April to May and from July to September, en-route to and from breeding grounds in Scandinavia, and are reported at inland wetlands and freshwater marshes across the UK.
The UK’s winter population of greenshanks arrive from October onwards and remain until March, with the most sightings reported at estuaries around the coast of south-west England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and western Scotland.
The Australian winter population of greenshanks is estimated at around 20,000 individuals, of which about 5,000 are temporarily resident in north-western Australia.
Greenshank walking in the marshes
The average life expectancy for greenshanks is around 9 years, although some individuals do live much longer. From ringing records, the oldest redshank reached 24 years and 5 months.
Breeding is thought to occur for the first time at two years of age, although some year-old birds arrive on breeding grounds in the spring the year after hatching.
Foxes, badgers and birds of prey are among the leading predators of greenshanks, and corvids raid nests for young birds and unhatched eggs.
Greenshanks in the UK are protected as Schedule I birds under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981. This legislation makes it illegal to disturb nesting birds or their eggs and young, as well as it is an offence to kill, injure or take a greenshank into captivity.
Across Europe and their wider global range, greenshanks are considered a species of least concern and are widespread and locally common. In the UK they have Amber status on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list, due to breeding being limited to a small geographic area.
Greenshank standing on one leg in a shallow pool, stretching its wings
Nest scrapes, shallow depressions in open boggy landscapes, are created by male greenshanks and lined with a few leaves and feathers. Nests are commonly crafted next to logs, rocks or fallen trees, and it’s not uncommon for birds to reuse nest spots in subsequent years.
Eggs are laid from late April onwards, and one sole brood is raised each year. The latest eggs are laid in mid-June, with breeding usually complete by late July. Some females arrive on wintering grounds as early as June, with most arriving in July and juveniles appearing from August onwards.
Greenshanks lay three to four pale cream-buff eggs, flecked with dark brown spots, measuring 51 mm by 34 mm (2 in by 1.3 in). Both adults share incubation duties for 23 to 26 days; however, if the male has two mates (see below) the female will take a much larger share.
Greenshanks are mainly a monogamous species, remaining with the same mate throughout the breeding season, but usually pair up with a different mate the following year although occasionally previous pairs may reunite. Some males may mate with two females in the same season, and actively participate in raising the different broods.
Greenshank foraging in boggy habitat
A relatively peaceful species, greenshanks do occasionally engage in aggressive clashes at foraging grounds if food is in short supply. These encounters are usually a short-lived physical bill-to-bill challenge, with frantic wing flapping.
Greenshanks are active both at night and during the day, feeding on shorelines depending on tide patterns rather than daylight. They roost communally in shallow water, with their heads tucked into their wings.
Greenshank resting in shallow water
Greenshanks are fully migratory birds, with distinct and separate breeding and wintering territories. Breeding occurs in the northern hemisphere only, at northerly latitudes from Scotland across Scandinavia and throughout northern Russia.
Winters are spent further south, for some subpopulations only as far south as southern England and northern France and around the Mediterranean, but largely deeper into sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, South and South East Asia and into Australia.
After the breeding season ends, greenshanks move south, with some populations reaching as far as Australia and South Africa.
Not all migrations are long distance, however, with some movement to the UK and France from northern Scandinavia, and Scottish breeders identified in southern England and northern France. Migrations take place across the land, with frequent stopovers at inland lakes and freshwater wetlands along the way.
In winter months, northern wetland habitats become colder and inhospitable, with frozen lakes and a declining availability of prey. Moving south to foraging grounds with more abundant food enables greenshanks to survive during winter, with a return to northern breeding grounds possible when local conditions improve in spring.
Greenshank, breeding plumage, in-flight
Greenshanks and green sandpipers are similar in appearance and may be easily confused. A few key features enable us to tell them apart, including the greenshank’s slightly upcurved bill, which contrasts with the slightly shorter, downturned bill of a green sandpiper.
Greenshanks are generally longer, slimmer and more elegant than green sandpipers, and have more white on their throat, while green sandpipers are stockier and their face and throat are more grey than white.
Family:Sandpipers, snipes and phalaropes
30cm to 35cm
125g to 300g
The Eurasian woodcock spends days roosting in dense, damp woodland undergrowth, and evenings and nights foraging in open fields as well as woods for worms and beetles.
The UKs breeding population of Wood Sandpipers are limited to an area of swampy marshland in the Highlands of northern Scotland, although they are far more commonly sighted in passage during their spring and autumn migrations as they make brief stopovers in southern and eastern England.
A long-legged wader, closely related to the curlew, the Eurasian whimbrel, has small breeding populations established on the Scottish islands of Shetland and Orkney. Migrating whimbrels may be spotted along Britain’s coastlines as they undertake long-distance migration flights between Arctic tundra breeding grounds and wintering territories in Africa.
The Ruddy Turnstone is an attractive shorebird, frequently seen flipping stones in search of small creatures sheltering beneath. These long-distance migrants visit temperate and tropical coastlines across the globe but return to the Arctic each year to nest.
One of the smallest wading bird species to visit British shores, the Temminck’s stint is now classed as a ‘former breeder’ in the UK, with breeding pairs no longer regularly observed. Passage migrants may still be seen, particularly on the eastern coast in May.
Spotted redshanks have a distinctive black spotted summer plumage that UK residents are unlikely to see in birds on British shores, as the species is only a rare winter visitor or spotted in migration passage. Several hundred spotted redshanks make brief stopovers on British coastal wetlands each year, en-route to and from breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.
The Snipe is a common but shy wader seen throughout the United Kingdom. These cryptic birds make a living by probing marshy ground for invertebrates in the mud below.
Sanderlings run tirelessly along sandy beaches, rushing down to feed as the waves recede and sprinting back, seemingly hoping to keep their feet dry. Their comical antics and non-descript looks belie an impressive avian that makes remarkable migrations between Arctic nesting grounds and overwintering grounds as distant as the southern tips of South America and South Africa.
A rare breeding wading bird in the UK, ruffs are among the most intriguing bird species on Earth, due to the diversity not just between males and females, but also between the three distinctly different types of males that occur.
Named for its red-orange legs, the Redshank is a common and noisy wader of the United Kingdom. These wary birds are present throughout the year, although they are most numerous in the winter non-breeding season.
Unlike many wading bird species, in red-necked phalaropes the traditional roles are reversed. The female is larger, brighter and leaves parental care of the young to the drabber, smaller male. Also, unusual for waders, red-necked phalaropes spend up to 9 months at sea once breeding in the upper northern hemisphere is complete.
A hardy wading bird that thrives in the bleak Arctic tundra landscapes of northeastern Canada, Greenland and Iceland, purple sandpipers arrive on wintering grounds along the northeastern coast of the United States and the UK each autumn, to forage for molluscs and crustaceans on rocky shores and coastal headlands.
Pectoral Sandpipers are mid-sized waders that breed on wet tundra landscapes across the northernmost extremes of North America and the Siberian Arctic. Their epic annual migration return trips of up to 30,000 km are one of the most lengthy of any bird species, similar to those undertaken by the Arctic tern.
One of the world’s smallest wading birds, little stints cover enormous distances on their annual migrations between breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle and winter territories in southern Africa and South Asia. A handful of individual birds spend winter in the UK, and records of vagrant birds reaching North America are occasionally reported.
Red knots, known simply as ‘knots’ in the UK are medium-sized shorebirds that undertake impressive annual migrations of up to 30,000 km (18,000 mi) each year between Arctic breeding grounds and southern coastal wintering habitats.
Highly camouflaged and elusive, the jack snipe is a small wading bird that spends winters on mudflats and freshwater wetlands across Britain. Smaller and less common than the UK’s other native snipe, the common snipe, jack snipes are harder to spot due to their tendency to crouch low and remain hidden among reeds.
The grey phalarope’s winter and summer plumage are so distinctly different that the species is known by an entirely different name in the US. In the UK, the bird’s name reflects its post-breeding plumage, which is dominated by light grey and white. However, in the US, it is known as the red phalarope, after the more vibrant orange-red plumage seen during the breeding season.
Green sandpipers are stocky shorebirds similar to the common sandpiper. They spend winters at inland freshwater wetlands in southern Europe and northern and central Africa after raising their young in swampy forests and wet woodland landscapes across northern Europe.
The Dunlin is a small wading bird from the sandpiper family Scolopacidae. Dunlins breed across North America and northern Europe, and Asia and are one of the most widely distributed wading birds, with ten subspecies.
Identified as being from a group of birds known as Waders, within North America they are generally referred to as Shorebirds. This monotypic species, a long distance migrant, is considered to have an Amber Conservation Status otherwise known as Near Threatened.
The largest European wading bird, the Eurasian curlew is easy to identify with its elongated bow-shaped bill and spindly legs. In winter groups of curlews known as ‘curfews’ forage together in coastal wetlands, and up to 66,000 pairs breed in the UK and are resident all year round.
Belonging to a group of birds generally called waders or shorebirds, the common sandpiper prefers freshwater habitats as opposed to saltwater locations.
An impressive, proud looking wader with particularly fine summer plumage which migrates south from its northern breeding grounds from July to October, returning for the summer from late February through April.
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