Monday, 21 October 2013

Semi P Saturday 19th October 2013

Friday was a hectic whirl of arrangements to go and see a true mega in the form of a Semi palmated Plover, only the fourth to be seen in the UK, and the USA equivalent of our familiar Ringed Plover. It had been found almost unbelievably, on Thursday, roosting at high tide with Ringed Plovers on a sandy spit called Black Point by the yacht club on Hayling Island. This is on the Hampshire side of the tidal channel entrance to Chichester Harbour and I had often viewed Black Point from East Head directly opposite on the Sussex side of the channel when doing my monthly WeBS count. 

I sent a text to Andy about my going first thing on Saturday as there was no point in going on Friday as the tide would have receded and it was obvious the plover would fly off to feed before we could get there. If we wanted to see it then high tide would be the only suitable time and Saturday's high tide was conveniently at just after 12 noon. It all fitted in nicely apart from the inevitable rise in anxiety in such a situation with doubts about whether it would come back, was it going to be an 'elbow job' due to the high number of birders who would undoubtedly wish to see it and as it was a weekend would there be a high rate of disturbance from dog walkers, yachts, windsurfers, fishermen, you name it. Andy sent me a text saying he was up for it and also Terry would be coming. One space left which was for Badger who has a complementary season ticket for rides in the Black Audi, so I now had a car full. Clackers then rang. "Are you going for the plover?" "Yes" "Can you give me a lift?" "Sorry Clackers I have a car full". I felt awful. Clackers is good company and a really nice person but there was nothing I could do. The day wore on and I was put at ease when Clackers rang back to say his wife would drive him down. 

Saturday dawned dark and damp. Good - hopefully that would deter the dog walkers. I collected Andy, Terry and Badger and we set off south, still in darkness. The chatter and banter in the car eased the boredom of the drive and as the grey of the dawn slowly materialised it seemed, in no time that we were turning off the Motorway and heading for Hayling Island. We followed the Satnav instructions and despite forbidding notices about private drives and authorised parking only, we came to a stop behind the impressive sized lifeboat station. On with the wet weather gear and laden down with cameras, scopes and all the paraphernalia that seems to go with contemporary birding we headed down the short distance to Black Point. Naturally we were way too early but we were still not the first to arrive. Joining some twenty other birders already lined up along the beach in front of some dunes dividing us from the yacht club we scanned the vast expanse of sand and mud before us. 

Birders waiting for the tide to come in
The sea seemed a very long way off but the tide was obviously coming in judging by the race of water coming up the channel. Another two and a half hours to high tide. There were birds, plenty of birds, distantly feeding on the exposed sand and mud. Hundreds of Dark bellied Brent Geese were feeding on the mud along with a varied selection of waders such as Bar tailed Godwits, Dunlin, Curlew and Oystercatchers. A juvenile Common Tern flew down the channel, a Mediterranean Gull floated ghost white in the distance and a Whimbrel called from the sky. There were a few Ringed Plover by the water's edge but they were so far away it was impossible to discern if one of them was our very rare plover. A particularly annoying gentleman to our left kept up a constant stream of inane comments and even worse butting in, uninvited, to our conversations. Badger normally the mildest and easiest going of souls was getting a little aggravated but somehow put up with it. Slowly, time passed, the tide inexorably came in, and the number of birders increased considerably, Clackers arrived, greeted us and most fortunately there was space for everyone along the beach, so all was well.


The small flock of Ringed Plovers were now coming close enough for more detailed scrutiny but they all looked, well, just like Ringed Plovers. More flew in and eventually they all flew closer to roost on the sandbank in front of us and were near enough now for reasonably detailed examination. I never realised quite how much variation there could be in a group of Ringed Plovers. It began to get a bit silly as every minute difference between one Ringed Plover and another prompted the suggestion from all and sundry that this may be 'the bird'. Various people commenting more in hope than conviction "It's the one asleep on the seaweed", "What about that one on the extreme left?", "I think it's the one near the wagtail". "There is a bird between two Dunlin that looks good." "It's the one on the extreme right." We were as bad as the rest so had no cause for smugness. I had never seen one. This situation went on and on. At one stage it appeared that no less than four different Ringed Plovers were potentially the target. Frankly no one knew or was prepared to stick their neck out. Just as well, for, as the numbers of Ringed Plover increased, with small flocks regularly arriving to join the others and being joined by both Dunlin and Sanderling, the scrutiny was renewed each time with the same inconclusive results and in all truth there was nothing that could honestly be said to be the Semi palmated Plover. We and everyone else were clutching at the metaphorical straws and knew it. The thought occured to me that it just might not be there and had gone for good. I hoped not. Time wore on, the birds came even closer on the sand, pushed in by the ever encroaching tide. Suddenly a group of small waders flew in and flashed around the sandbank, wheeling to join the flock on the sand.  There was a distinctive chee wiitt call similar to a Spotted Redshank but higher in pitch. It took a fraction of a second to register then I turned to the two birders behind me "That was it" we almost said in unison. "It's calling." It called twice and the Semi-palmated Plover arrived in a fast flying group of mainly Sanderling with just a few more Ringed Plover. It settled with the others and there it was, stood on the sand, just as sudden and unexpectedly as that. No wonder no one could identify it earlier, it was not there, but now it most definitely was!

Semi palmated Plover front - extreme right. Note the smaller size
c Badger 


Semi palmated Plover. Note the flared supercilium behind the eye and
the paler wing coverts
c Andy Last
Semi palmated Plover
c Terry Sherlock
The most obvious thing about it's appearance was it's smaller size. It was decidedly smaller when seen standing next to a Ringed Plover. I had been led to believe that the only way to identify it was by a series of minute and hard to see differences but the size difference alone was so obvious although this cannot be taken solely as totally conclusive. Once it was located then one could concentrate on studying the other more subtle differences. The short stubby bill, the legs, green in front and orange behind, the flared supercilium behind the eye, the white fringed wing coverts. It was now all so easy but I learnt a lot that morning. The Semi palmated Plover rested on a long piece of seaweed. Regularly the flock would be spooked by something and taking to the air would wheel and turn at great speed. Each time you could almost feel the crowd collectively willing them to settle once again on the sand, which they duly did. However the restless flock was finally disturbed once too often by the increasing activity from the yacht club. We had watched it for around fifteen minutes before the whole flock arose once more, scared off by some windsurfers and departed west never to return. However we were happy with what we had seen. Relieved that the earlier doubts had been dispelled and finally convinced that the right bird had been scrutinised and after a few minutes of contemplation and relaxing conversation, we headed back to the car. It was now beginning to rain. Other late arriving birder's, faces etched in anxiety, passed us on the causeway heading for the point. I felt sorry for them. I knew how they felt all too well. We learnt from the pager, later, that the flock had in fact relocated further west along the seafront so I assume they did eventually see it.

Rapturous at our success and with the banter now reaching ridiculous proportions we decided to head for Milford on Sea to get a look at the Red breasted Goose that was being reported regularly from there. No subtlety of plumage here. Unmistakeable if seen. What a contrast to our recent experience with the plover. We headed west in a rain storm and drove out the other side into sunshine and a strengthening southwest wind. Lyndhurst, a notorious bottleneck inflicted it's usual nightmare of traffic tailback upon us but once clear of there we were in Milford in no time but unsure of where exactly to go. Another half an hour of driving in literally circles and we finally settled on a car park by a Cafe near to the shore. It looked an unlikely spot but a bit of common sense and deduction finally led us across a nearby bridge, up the side of a grass field, creatively called saltmarsh by RBA and located between an eyesore of mobile homes and the seashore. 

Red breasted Goose
c Terry Sherlock
The Red breasted Goose was in the field with a half dozen Dark bellied Brent Geese. A glorious combination of black, white and rich chestnut peacefully plucking at the grass with it's tiny bill and impervious to us, close by, ranged along the hedge looking at it. The Brent geese did not seem so appreciative of it and would regularly harry and chivvy it away from them but it constantly remained a wary but short distance from them and for the most part was tolerated. A flock of Black headed Gulls sat nearby in the grass, basking in the sun. In amongst them were nine Mediterranean Gulls, to my eyes one of the most beautiful of their kind, with their silvery grey upperparts and coral red bill. We spent quite some time here just enjoying being so close to both the goose and the gulls.


Adult winter Mediterranean Gull
c Terry Sherlock
Adult winter Mediterranean Gull
c Andy Last
A casual conversation with another birder nearby elicited the fact that a Long billed Dowitcher was still present at Keyhaven or Pennington Marshes. This was very close by, so the opportunity to round off a top day with another good bird was too much to resist. We parked in Keyhaven and set off on the long trek along the coast footpath. The first pool we came to contained absolutely nothing. The next, which is where it was meant to be, yielded a Common Redshank, a Little Egret, some Wigeon and Teal but nothing else. We trudged on and eventually came to a third pool where according to a local birder it had been seen just a few minutes earlier. The wind was now getting quite ferocious. We scanned the water but there were only three Common Redshanks and a Curlew. It was not looking good. Standing around our attention was drawn to two young photographers some way to our right who indicated they could see the dowitcher. Indeed they could. It was hunkered down in the reeds on the edge of a small islet sheltering from the wind in the company of a Common Snipe. Bigger than the snipe it looked just like a giant, featureless grey snipe but with prominent white eyebrows, green legs and a white back. It wandered disconsolately backwards and forewards along the reed's edge until finally going to sleep.


Long billed Dowitcher  with Common Snipe
c Badger


Long billed Dowitcher with Common Snipe
c Andy Last
We left it sheltering from the wind and made the long trek back to the car at Keyhaven. A quick shandy in The Gun and then it was home to Oxfordshire. A great day out in the tremendous company of my fellow enthusiasts. This is how birding should be and why it is such an enjoyable pastime. 

Triumphant Oxonbirders after seeing the Semi palmated Plover



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