Dawn rose in Witney as Clackers boarded the Audi to be transported to the exotic West where the beautiful go to die. A Sharp-tailed Sandpiper had been found on Blagdon Lake in Somerset the day before and having been alerted by Badger that same afternoon I arranged with Keith Clack (Clackers) that evening to go and see it the following day.
Clackers was in morose mood as we headed for the M4 as the night had been clear and he was convinced the sandpiper would have flown away. He also filled me with a sense of doom as in inimitable Clacker speak he regaled me about how he had never had much success twitching at Blagdon Lake or nearby Chew Valley Lake for that matter. My head spun from lack of sleep and all that crap stuff that life sometimes brings in the wee hours of the morning. With Clackers on board there is no need for a radio to keep one awake so I listened to his stories which sufficed to keep me conscious and the car on the road. We persisted heading West into a beautiful sunrise and approaching Bristol Clacker’s pager predictably announced there was no sign of the sandpiper. Why was I not surprised? We were negotiating a roundabout at the time and I was all for doing 360 degrees and heading for home but for some reason decided to drive on, figuring there may be a chance it had just moved to another part of the large lake that is Blagdon and someone would cover themselves in glory by re-finding it.
The pager, by way of regular updates, made it clear that it wasn’t to be and after taking a detour through some pleasant golden leafed lanes due to our original route being blocked by road-works, we arrived not at
The usual impossible hope in such situations came into my head. What if the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper is here? I have had these longings and impossible hopes many times before in similar situations and they have never been realised and it looked like I was not to be disappointed this time either. Clackers located a distant, large, grey wader in his bins. “What’s that one?” It’s a Black-tailed Godwit - there’s another one to the right of it. “OK.” The Lapwings took off and I could see a flock of small waders in amongst the whirling black and white mass which quickly returned from whence they had risen. Scope on them. Dunlin! Oh well.
I scanned the now settled Lapwing flock again. Hang on what is that grey bird with a very long beak and sewing machine probing action? It’s too small for a godwit - it’s a Long-billed Dowitcher! Actually there are two of them. Undoubtedly the Blagdon birds. Normally this would be cause for some satisfaction but our main prize and the reason for our journey was missing. Nothing but nothing could make up for that. What if we saw these and then by some miracle we saw our main target? Wouldn’t that be nice?
I scanned the shoreline again. When does hope exceed all expectation? In situations like these, sadly. I despondently counted the Lapwing with the Dunlin pottering around amongst them. Funny, that one looks a lot smaller. It’s smaller because it’s a stint. I looked at it again and it was grey with no pale braces on the mantle/scapulars and its movements were unlike a Little Stint being slower and almost sluggish. The bill looked slightly thicker and blunt ended although I was attempting this delicate identification process at extreme range with full zoom. Another birder asked me what it was and I said it might be a Semi-palmated Sandpiper but there was no way I could be absolutely certain from the range we were looking at and I was calling it as a stint or small peep of some nature and leaving it at that. A local then said there had been a Little Stint around and this was probably the same bird. Because of the distance and the alleged presence of a Little Stint there ensued only a subsequent mild discussion about the identity of the small wader we were now looking at and I left it as unproven due to the extreme range we were viewing at. Both myself and Clackers were tempted to err in favour of Semi-palmated Sandpiper but regrettably in such situations one just has to accept that it is not always possible to make a positive identification**
I looked again at the assembled waders, hope all but gone, feeding on the shoreline where there were some old tree stumps in the shallow water and almost missed a small brown wader, standing motionless, sheltering in front of one of the stumps. Hmmm. Zooming the eyepiece once again to maximum revealed it to have a rusty orange cap, a large, flared white supercilium, a dark patch on the ear coverts, rich brown upperparts with scaly scapulars, an unstreaked orange-buff breast band contrasting with white underparts and yellow-green legs. My insides screamed YEEEEESSSSSSS. I remained outwardly calm. 'Have a look at this Clackers'. He duly looked through my scope. “Is that what I think it is?" 'Yes Clackers I think it is'. “I will go get my scope. Keep an eye on it there’s a good fellow”. 'No problem'. Clackers returned with his scope. Clackers grilled it too. I announced to our fellow birders that we have re-found the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. Discreetly I do not ask what the f**k have you all been doing before we arrived. We are congratulated and thanked by the small number of other birders present. We assist some of them to locate it on the mud. Some of them ask to look through my scope. “Please go ahead”. 'I can only see some Dunlin'. “It’s the brown one with the rusty orange cap and big white supercilium that is not grey and white like the Dunlin”. 'Are you sure, I thought it would be bigger?' “No, they are the about the same size as a Dunlin but with slightly longer legs and bill”. I apply the coup de grace. “I have seen quite a few in
Twenty minutes later the vanguard of pager alerted birders arrive. We are surrounded by an increasing throng of anxious birders. “Where is it mate?” 'It’s flown out of view but it always comes back, usually with the Dunlin flock to that area of mud with all the Lapwings on it. By the way there are two Long-billed Dowitchers out there also'. Clackers regales anyone who will listen on how the sequence of chance events led to us finding the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. For a tense twenty minutes there is no sign of it, the birders present reach three figures and then as predicted it flies back in with the Dunlin. Everyone gets to see it.
We hang around for an hour or so getting some really good but distant views as we are at the front. We also find a drake Goosander and a couple of Bewick’s Swans. Eventually we decide we have had enough and leave them to it. Oh yes. Life can be good.
This is only the second juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpiper to be found in
** It turns out that our suspicions about ‘the stint’ were correct. It was a Semi-palmated Sandpiper, as a local birder managed to get much closer to the waders and this particular individual and took some conclusive photos which were published on www.cvlbirding.co.uk and a link was put on Birdforum on 03 December. So an already brilliant day in retrospect just got a whole lot better
Twitchers at Chew Valley Lake