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Country diary: Predator or prey? The electric redshank is both in equal measure

<span>A common redshank (<em>Tringa totanus</em>) feeding in shallows.</span><span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
A common redshank (Tringa totanus) feeding in shallows.Photograph: Alamy

Rain fell all day and black cloud turned our world prematurely dark as we walked to the hide at Kilnsea Wetland. The field in front was a temporary lake and seemed almost devoid of colour, yet at odds with all this winter dullness were 150 redshanks feeding in extraordinary fashion along the shallows.

Redshanks’ size and shape occupy a midpoint between those of the much bigger curlew and smaller dunlin. When close like this, you see how a redshank is elaborately patterned, the back and wings with refined black laddering along each feather margin, while the throat and chest are intricately barred.

At any range, however, all this complexity drains away and their upperparts just look mud brown. Then the only memorable feature, aside from the glowing orange (misnamed) legs, is the even brighter, insistent three or four‑note fluting call.

That voice is a clue to the species’ default personality, which is one of near-permanent anxiety. The call is an instrument of alarm and the bird an alarmist. In fairness to this exquisite neurotic, it is prey to any one of a dozen predators from weasels to peregrines. An old name was “watcher of the marshes”, and in mixed flocks they are the first to take offence and leave (often dragging everyone with them) and last to return. Yet in the moment they land, they pause, pull back the head like a shotgun trigger, and call, ready for further panic.

Tonight, however, they dashed over the rain-soaked turf, probing and delving, veering left or right, pulling up invertebrates, their own rhythmic pattern of trot and prod aligned to the wider thrum of the rain. Suddenly, in all this gloom, I saw an aspect of redshanks that is so easy to overlook. They are also exquisite predators, their tack-tipped nerve-packed bill-ends alert to the finest touch of any subterranean worm.

What was perhaps most wonderful was to see all the intense energy of so many redshanks, poised between their lifelong roles of prey and predator, at a moment balanced twixt day and night, the electric hue of their legs inscribing a momentary skein of motion at last light.

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