Monday, 16 July 2018

A Greater Sandplover visits Easington in Yorkshire 15th July 2018

On Saturday night, as is my custom before going to sleep, I checked my Rare Bird Alert ( RBA) app to see what birds had been seen during the day and where. July is a notoriously quiet month for rare birds arriving in Britain, so I expected little of note although waders have started to return from their Arctic breeding grounds, making their leisurely way south to spend the winter here or further still, far beyond these shores.

One entry on the list as I scrolled down on my phone immediately had my undivided attention.This was pretty sensational for this time of year, in fact for any time of year or indeed any year!

MEGA E. Yorks GREATER SAND PLOVER ad. Kilnsea on beach north of Beacon Ponds at 8.20pm 

Greater Sand Plovers breed in the semi deserts of Turkey then eastwards through central Asia. They are strongly migratory, wintering on the sandy beaches of East Africa, South Africa and Australasia. I have personally seem them, presumably on migration, in both northeastern China and The Seychelles. To date, not including this latest individual, sixteen have been accepted as occurring in Britain. It has been recorded as far west as Iceland and there are even two records for North America, the last being on 14th May 2009 at Jacksonville in Florida. 

Yikes! Here at last was a golden opportunity to see a species that I had, for far too long, been waiting to add to my British list. It was also, according to posts on Twitter from the nearby Spurn Bird Observatory, an adult male in full summer plumage, another huge incentive to make the long trip to Kilnsea, which is near to Spurn Point and lies just beyond Hull on the East Yorkshire coast.

I checked my RBA app. first thing at 5.30am the next morning. There was only one entry and it told me the Greater Sand Plover was still at Beacon Ponds.

I left the house at 6am that morning and as there was no time to inform my wife, who was currently asleep and would certainly not welcome being woken up, I left a note on the kitchen table informing her of 'developments'. She is a tennis fan whereas I am not, so my absence would probably be welcome today as she could watch the Wimbledon Men's Tennis Final on the television without interruptions from me.

Early morning on a Sunday is one of the better times to embark on a long drive as the roads are pleasantly quiet, almost free of traffic. The sun was still low in the sky but not that low that it  could not cast elongated tree shadows across the ripening fields of corn as I progressed through the rural countryside of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire towards the Motorway. The heat that would arrive later in the day was still to come but the long dry summer days we have been experiencing have already withered the grasses on the roadside to a pale brown and prematurely ripened the crops in the fields. The wide expanse of the Motorway's three lane northbound carriageway was to all extents devoid of cars and lumbering lorries and I made good time, eventually arriving on the outskirts of Hull at 9am. 

I checked my RBA app one more time. The sandplover was still there.

By now the sun had turned the sky to an eye dazzling white and the wide reaches of the mighty River Humber to my right, heading for the sea, was sparkling with glittering, dancing diamonds as the sun reflected off the water. Away in the distance the cranes in the docks at Hull stood like huge skeletal sculptures, silhouettes above the flat skyline.

Now, nearing my destination, although with an hour's driving still to go, the usual uncomfortable sensation in the pit of my stomach, brought on by anxiousness, made itself known. Dry lips and a sucking of teeth added to my discomfort as a self inflicted apprehension took hold of me. 

Having passed through the surrounds of Hull quite often on my way to Spurn Point to see various rare birds over the years, I have become familiar with the route around this oft derided city, that if you look carefully, still retains remnants of attractive and older Victorian buildings from more prosperous times. The newer buildings that have sprung up are pretty ghastly, appearing as bleak, soulless and unattractive slabs of concrete, more functional than aesthetic in their unappealing designs.

I again checked my RBA app for news on the sandplover and learned it was still on the sand at Beacon Ponds. My anxiety levels subsided a notch or two.

I drove on eastwards beyond Hull, past the docks and the huge industrial complex nearby, to find myself turning away from an urban environment into one that was more rural, but now I was on the interminable slow road that leads to Kilnsea and Spurn Point and which every birder who has travelled this route must dread, knowing what they will have to endure and how long it takes to seemingly get anywhere.

Although familiar with the road from other twitches to see rare birds it still is the most frustrating of roads to contend with. A constant procession of speed restrictions slow one's progress through the small villages it passes through and the journey time  seems to take forever, especially when all one wants to do is get to the end of it and start birding and find or see that rarity that you have travelled so far to see. The speed restrictions are however essential as otherwise everyone would speed through the villages and generally birders and everyone else do manage to curb their impetuosity and accept it is for everyone's benefit that the restrictions exist.

The landmarks that have become familiar to me over the years came and went as I wound my way in the inevitable procession of slow moving cars and even two horse boxes this morning. That unremarkable village with the strange name of Thorgumbald soon came and went and the insignificant signpost  hidden in a roadside hedge, marking The  East West Greeenwich Meridian,  arrived a little later.

After what seemed an age and with anxiety now again increasing I arrived at Kilnsea and stopped on the road opposite The Crown and Anchor pub and enquired of a birder about the sandplover. It was not good news in that he told me it had flown from Beacon Ponds, having been alarmed by a passing Peregrine and was now on the  narrow causeway, all that is left after a tidal breach in 2013, of what formerly joined the mainland to Spurn Point. It was not much further to go and I quickly drove down the lane that led to the causeway and found a space on the grass verge on which to park, got everything together, bins, scope and camera and joined other anxious birders marching purposefully down the remaining length of the lane towards, hopefully, the Greater Sand Plover. I was almost there.

I could see a crowd of birders at the end of the lane but they were milling around and seemed confused and uncertain and then many began heading towards me, which meant only one thing, the sandplover was no longer there and I soon learned from the approaching birders that it had been harassed by a pair of territorial Ringed Plovers and had flown off 'high to the north.' It had probably flown over our unsuspecting heads as we walked down the lane to see it! I had missed it by three minutes at the most. Damnation!

Hopefully the situation would resolve itself and it would be like the last time it flew off and be quickly relocated. However there was just one big problem apart from its absence. Due to the isolated location of Kilnsea and Spurn Point it is just about impossible to get a mobile phone signal and certainly accessing my RBA app is a lost cause. So here we were without recourse to any chance of updated news via the internet and we would have to resort to doing it the hard way, by word of mouth or maybe Twitter if we could get a strong enough signal, which was unlikely.

So what to do now? I spoke to another birder who was similarly troubled and he suggested, as the sandplover had flown north, that we  should walk along the beach in the direction of Beacon Ponds as it might be back where it had first been found yesterday. We returned in our cars up the lane to the small car park at Kilnsea, left them there and headed up the beach, past the Sandy Beaches cafe and caravan park. A pleasant walk of about twenty minutes through dunes and along the sandy beach with the sea and sunshine doing their best to cheer us ended with us joining a row of birders keeping an eye on some pools of water between the dunes and the sea. This was the part of Beacon Ponds that had, until heartbreakingly recently, been frequented by the Greater Sand Plover.

Of course there was no sign of it now. We waited on the sand and more birders joined us attracted by the line of birders and thinking we may be onto something but they soon learned, on joining us, that there was no sign of the sandplover. I stood utterly deflated, tired and dejected, trying to remain positive with my fellow birders as  I endlessly scoped the shallow blue waters in front of us. I found nothing more than a few Ringed Plovers and an adult Dunlin. An Oystercatcher flew past us calling loudly as they always do and shining white Sandwich Terns flew high in the blue sky over our heads and out to sea, calling loudly and excitedly. On another day it would have been idyllic but this was not 'another day.'

The sun was uncomfortably hot and being a Sunday the beach was  becoming ever more busy with not just people walking along the sand or in the surf but dog walkers and horse riders adding to the general disturbance. There was no way any bird would be coming back here surely?

An hour passed and then another. Slowly other birders, tired of standing and looking at nothing drifted off  down the beach, back to Kilnsea. I too decided it was all over and with a few others made my way back towards the caravan site and its attendant cheap and cheerful cafe. I was tired and hungry so maybe some breakfast would cheer me up or at least give me a firmer resolve with which to bear my disappointment. I ordered a vegetarian breakfast and a cup of tea and sat at a table while a small child had a screaming fit on the table behind me. Considerately the parents took him outside but my nerves were shattered. I tried to consult RBA but could not raise anything. For all I knew the sandplover could have already been re-found but if it was RBA was not going to be the ones telling me and I certainly would learn nothing while sat in the cafe with not another birder in sight.

I just wanted to leave the noisy cafe and be outside in the sun and after a very long wait my breakfast arrived and I ate it as quickly as possible and escaped outside.

It was now noon  and obvious that there was still no sign of the sandplover. Most birders had drifted away or left Kilnsea altogether, disappointed with the turn of events, while others stood in small groups discussing their options but it was a very negative atmosphere all round. I reluctantly gave it up as a lost cause and decided to drive home but resolved to regularly check my RBA app as far as Hull to see, if by some miracle, the sandplover was found again before I got to the city, and if so I would return to Kilnsea. That was the plan but RBA had other ideas and I could not raise it on my phone or get any signal whatsoever until back in Hull. I checked RBA at a garage on the outskirts of Hull and finally got a signal but the news told me that there had been no sign of the sandplover up to noon. Oh well. Home it is then.

I re-crossed the city and stopped at another garage near to the Humber Bridge, half an hour beyond the city to get some water and refuel the car. Just in case, before recommencing the drive of shame southwards, I checked RBA one more time and there was the news that I had been dreading.

E.Yorks GREATER SAND PLOVER ad. male Easington on beach by caravan park near large concrete block at 1.20pm.

And here I was on the wrong side of the Motorway heading away from Yorkshire. Thanks so much! I confronted my dilemna and made an instant decision to go back to Easington, which lies just the right side of Kilnsea, although it would be at least another hour of anxiety racked driving to get there, having to endure again the mental torture of a repeat long and slow drive out towards Spurn. There was no other route there.There was no other choice.

I drove further down the Motorway and thankfully came to a junction fairly soon which took me back over the Motorway and onto the eastbound carriageway. It seemed to take a long time to get back to Hull. Had I really driven so far beyond Hull? Eventually I was out on the other side of Hull and  now enduring the slow torture of the road to Easington.

Before I lost my signal I checked RBA and the sandplover was still at Easington. From here on there would be no signal and so no RBA updates. I would just have to pray the sandplover was not flushed by people on the very popular beach and would stay put until I could get there. I tried to remain optimistic.

Now, at two o clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the road was full of traffic, all of us driving and adhering to the various village's speed limits of 30, 40 and  even 20mph. It went on and on, village after village came and went until I arrived in Easington and following the road out of the village came to a side road leading to the beach and caravan park.There was no mistaking this was the road  I was looking for as it was lined as far as you could see with cars. Hopefully the sandplover was still on the beach which lay on the other side of the caravan park. 

I found a space for the car on the grass verge and a departing birder told me the sandplover was on the beach, confirmed this was indeed the correct place to park and told me that  five minutes walk down the road would g
et me to the beach.Thanking him, he in turn wished me luck as I got my bins and scope out of the car but left the camera, as now my one priority was to see the sandplover. The rest could come later if there was an opportunity. Priority number one was to see the sandplover which I surmised would probably be distant anyway so the camera would be irrelevant and just one more thing to weigh me down and get in the way.

Five minutes fast walking got me to the beach, a huge area of mainly sand with some rocks and sea defences and looking very busy with people enjoying a beautiful Sunday out on the beach by the sea. Who could begrudge them that?

I knew the sandplover was here a few minutes ago but I stood momentarily non plussed as I could not see either it or any birders. All I could see were lots of non birders enjoying the sun, sea and sand. 

Where were the birders? They were certainly not where the sandplover had been reported an hour ago. Had it and they moved?  A couple stopped by me. 'Looking for the sandplover?'  'Yes I am'. 'You can actually see it from here.'  'Really? Where?'  'Over there. It's a bit distant but you can still see it with your naked eyes, it's the one bigger than the Ringed Plovers.' I got my scope and looked and there, distantly was the sandplover. 'Thanks so much!' My fellow birder then helpfully pointed out a huddle of birders that had been obscured from my view by the dunes. 

I had done it! I could hardly believe my good fortune. Defeat was averted at the very last opportunity. There is no better feeling but now I wanted to see the sandplover well and enjoy watching it in its smart summer plumage. I walked along the beach to join the birders, passing bemused looking holidaymakers wondering what was going on with all these men carrying scopes and tripods.

The sandplover was feeding over an area of sand that was not currently being disturbed by the general public and in the company of three or four adult Ringed Plovers. It did not seem particularly worried even when anyone came reasonably close but just moved away by running at speed to a quieter stretch of sand.

Birders watching the Greater Sand Plover
The Greater Sand Plover was a noticeably pale, sandy buff colour above with white underparts. A pale orange band ran across its upper breast and up and around its neck forming a complete circle. Its head was typically broad, as in many plover species, with large and liquid, dark eyes. The crown of its head was mottled greyish buff with black bands masking  each eye and extending from the bill all the way to the ear coverts. Another narrow black band ran across the top of its white forehead and yet another narrow line of black ran down from the forehead to the bill, dividing the white forehead into two inverted white triangles.

Its bill was substantial and also black whilst its long legs were pale grey. In size it was larger than the Ringed Plovers, standing tall compared to them and it presented an elegant and attenuated appearance due to its long wings and legs. It fed in typical plover fashion, running a few quick steps, then standing still, looking, and finally tilting in a quick dip to seize its prey before moving on. It could cover the ground rapidly at times, running very fast across the sand when anxious and it flew once, just a short distance, showing a long white wing bar on each wing.

I watched it for thirty minutes, getting scope filling views and then, noting how comparatively close it would come to us, I decided to go back and get my camera, and returning to the beach spent another happy thirty minutes taking some images of the sandplover. It eventually flew further out onto the sand and I took this as my cue to leave. As I walked back to the car, other late arriving birders were rushing in the other direction down the lane, anxiety writ large on their features. I knew exactly how they felt, believe me, but I could at least re-assure them that they would see it, as it seemed settled and content to carry on feeding on the beach.

There was no sign of the Greater Sand Plover on the beach at Easington the next day. It had gone.

Interestingly a Greater Sand Plover was also found at Smaland in Sweden on Friday 13th July that remained there the next day but was gone on Sunday.

Please click on any of the above images to view an enlarged version

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