Redshank Tringa totanus, in breeding plumage, Geltsdale RSPB reserve, Cumbria,

Estuaries and mudflats

Estuaries are always changing. Not just the tides, but the birds and other wildlife. Watch shimmering flocks of wading birds flying like strange, fast-moving clouds and it'll blow your mind.

What makes this habitat different?

  • Estuaries are where rivers meet the sea and are filled with weird and interesting creatures.
  • Massive flocks of wading birds come to the UK's shores to feed up on their migrations.
  • In the mud, millions of tiny animals lurk and provide food for the birds.
  • Nearby, saltmarshes have their own special plants.
  • They can seem bleak and windswept, but there's always something interesting to see at all times of the year. 
  • The smell of the mud when the tide goes out is always a distinctive feature, it's a bit like rotten eggs! This comes from the bacteria that live in the squishy peat being exposed by the tide going out and is perfectly natural. 

What lives there?

Estuaries are fabulous places for seeing lots of birds. There's nowhere for them to hide - they have to feed and sleep out there in the open. They're all there to make the most of the mud.

Wading birds can be seen at any time of year. Many will be in their bright breeding feathers as they pass through on their way north. It's important not to disturb birds while they 'refuel' as they only have a short amount of time. The tides mean that it won't be long before their feeding grounds are covered with water again.

You can't miss shelducks, big ducks with red bills that dabble in the mud. Curlews and bar-tailed godwits use their long bills to probe into the goo, and oystercatchers dig for worms or smash open shellfish. If all the birds fly into a panic and whizz around together, there could be a peregrine nearby, trying to pick out a single victim from the swirling cloud of birds.

There's more wildlife here than you can see straightaway. Beneath the mud are millions of worms, tiny shellfish and creepy-crawly things - that's what birds like about estuaries. Estuaries are important for fish - seahorses have even been found in the Thames Estuary recently! 

Saltmarshes, closer to dry land, are covered with their own very special plant species, such as the fleshy-leaved glasswort.

When planning a visit, find out when high tide is, as that's when the birds will be closest to the land. Ask at one of our estuary reserves and find out the best time to visit and where to go.

Why are they in trouble?

Building and climate change  

Human need for more houses means that towns are built closer to the sea. As the sea level rises due to global warming these special places get flooded and there is nowhere further inland for the plants and animals that live here to go. 

Pollution  

Because this habitat forms at the end of our rivers where they reach the sea, they can get clogged up by all stuff the rubbish we wash down the drain. They also get polluted by the chemicals that run off our fields and are discarded by factories. If these chemicals build up they can kill the plants and animals which live here. 

See it for yourself!

Estuaries are wild places where you can really get away from it all. As the tide advances to cover the mudflats, a breathtaking spectacle will unfold before your eyes. Thousands of wading birds are forced to take to the air and wheel around in the sky like clouds of smoke.

Estuary reserves

To find out more, pick a marker from the map or zoom in.
    • Arne

      Arne

      This is an unusual and special landscape where you can enjoy a vast expanse of open heathland and old oak woodland. Arne is a fantastic place for family walks at any time of year and we have regular children's days.

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    • Adur Estuary

      Adur Estuary

      The small reserve is composed of saltmarsh and mudflats that afford a good feeding and roosting site for waders and wildfowl. The reserve has no facilities as such, but it can be viewed from surrounding footpaths and Coronation Green.

      Find out more
    • Blacktoft Sands

      Blacktoft Sands

      Come to Blacktoft Sands throughout the year and see how many of our 270 species of birds you can see! The tidal reedbed is the largest in England and is important for its breeding bearded tits, bitterns and marsh harriers.

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    • Bowling Green and Goosemoor

      Bowling Green and Goosemoor

      This is on the east bank of the Exe Estuary, within easy walking distance of both Topsham High Street and our shop at Darts Farm. It overlooks the Clyst and allows over-wintering birds a choice of safe roosting sites.

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    • Boyton and Hollesley Marshes

      Boyton and Hollesley Marshes

      Situated between the Butley river and Ore estuary, Boyton Marshes attracts breeding wading birds in spring and ducks, geese and swans in winter. It's also great for watching owls, butterflies and dragonflies.

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    • Campfield Marsh

      Campfield Marsh

      The reserve is made up of a mosaic of saltmarsh, peatbogs, farmland and wet grassland providing homes for a great variety of native wildlife. Trails lead to a wheelchair accessible hide looking out over the main wet grassland area.

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    • Conwy

      Conwy

      Situated on the banks of the Conwy estuary, with magnificent views of Snowdonia and Conwy Castle, this reserve is delightful at any time of year.

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    • Crook of Baldoon

      Crook of Baldoon

      The view that opens up in front of you is breathtaking. Cairnsmore of Fleet and the Galloway Hills act as a backdrop to wild saltmarsh and mudflats which positively ooze with birdlife.

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    • Hayle Estuary

      Hayle Estuary

      In cold winters, as many as 18,000 birds have been seen here, because this most south westerly estuary in the UK never freezes. During spring and autumn, it is an ideal place to see migrant wading birds, gulls and terns.

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    • Morecambe Bay - Hest Bank

      Morecambe Bay - Hest Bank

      The sandflats and saltmarshes of Morecambe Bay are vital feeding grounds for a quarter of a million wading birds, ducks and geese. During the hour before high tide, spectacular flocks of waders gather to roost at Hest Bank.

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    • Hodbarrow

      Hodbarrow

      The great crested grebe was hunted almost to extinction in the UK for its ornate head plumes. At Hodbarrow in the spring you can see their amazing courtship dance. You can also watch three species of tern in astonishing close-up.

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    • Isley Marsh

      Isley Marsh

      Isley Marsh is made up of saltmarsh and intertidal mudflats on the southern edge of the Taw Torridge estuary. It is an important haven in the busy estuary for undisturbed feeding and resting birds.

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    • Langstone Harbour

      Langstone Harbour

      A muddy estuary that attracts large numbers of birds all year-round. Terns, gulls and wading birds descend to breed on the islands in spring and summer, while thousands of waders and brent geese migrate from the Arctic.

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    • Marshside

      Marshside

      There's something for everyone all year round at this delightful coastal reserve. In the spring you can see brown hares boxing in the fields, while in the early summer you'll spot nesting birds like avocets and lapwings.

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    • Mersehead

      Mersehead

      Discover the breathtaking scenery and wildlife that's typical of this region. Stroll along the nature trails and use the viewing hides to explore at your own pace.

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    • Nor Marsh and Motney Hill

      Nor Marsh and Motney Hill

      A saltmarsh island in the Medway Estuary. To the east is Motney Hill, another area of mud and saltmarsh. In winter at both sites, large numbers of wildfowl can be seen. In spring and autumn, look out for black-tailed godwits.

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    • Old Hall Marshes

      Old Hall Marshes

      Our reserve here comprises extensive grazing marshes with brackish water fleets, reedbeds, saltmarsh and two offshore islands. In winter, thousands of wildfowl come here and summer sees breeding waders.

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    • Pilsey Island

      Pilsey Island

      This small reserve comprises a wide range of coastal habitats. As well as large numbers of roosting birds, an impressive variety of unusual plants, spiders and insects exist on the reserve, thriving in the undisturbed habitats.

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    • Ribble Discovery Centre

      Ribble Discovery Centre

      Come to our visitor centre on the edge of Fairhaven Lake. It's the gateway to the north side of the Ribble Estuary - the most important single river estuary in the UK - which attracts over 270,000 birds each year.

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    • Snape

      Snape

      Snape is an exciting new reserve where we're recreating important wetland and heathland areas.

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    • Snettisham

      Snettisham

      This is the place to witness two of the UK's great wildlife spectacles: tens of thousands of wading birds wheeling over the mudflats, or packed onto banks and islands in front of our hides at high tide.

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    • Stanford Wharf

      Stanford Wharf

      This site has been created to provide a home for wildlife, in particular wintering wading birds. The mudflats here forms one part of the internationally important Thames estuary. Enjoy a walk with superb views towards Cliffe Pools.

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    • Stour Estuary

      Stour Estuary

      Enjoy trails up to five miles long as you stroll through a wood and watch wading birds, ducks and geese on the estuary. In spring, nightingales and other birds fill the woods with song. The spring flowers are also particularly beautiful.

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    • Wallasea Island Wild Coast project

      Wallasea Island Wild Coast project

      This is a landmark conservation and engineering scheme for the 21st century, on a scale never before attempted in the UK and the largest of its type in Europe.

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    Visitor tips

    These tips will help you to make the most of your visit:

    • Consult a tide table before you go – try to be in position at least an hour before high tide
    • Find a spot with a clear view over the estuary, sit back and enjoy the show as the advancing tide slowly pushes the birds closer
    • The tide can go out a very long way at some estuaries and so do the birds - avoid the low tide period if you are hoping to see waders
    • Look for saltmarsh and mudflat plants which are specially adapted to survive in salty environments and a colourful attraction on summer walks