Monday 12 August 2019

Wood Sandpipers 11th August 2019

It wasn't meant to be this way but an abortive overnight drive north in the hope of seeing a very rare Pacific Swift at Easington in East Yorkshire, on Sunday, resulted in predictable failure.

We saw hundreds of Common Swifts, heroically fighting their way into a strong northwest wind as they moved south towards Spurn Point, then flying out across the Humber Estuary to the distant Lincolnshire shore. We stood by the seawatching hide at Numpties as they came along the edge of the beach in small groups, almost at head height, some so close you could clearly see every detail of their plumage and form. From a distance they look to be moving quite slowly and it is only as they pass low over your head that you realise just how fast they are flying. A juvenile Common Cuckoo and a Hobby provided some extra spice to the excitement of watching visible migration but by nine in the morning the movement of mainly swifts had lessened to just a trickle and any wild hopes of the Pacific Swift miraculously appearing amongst them were well and truly over.

Rather than retreat south we decided to make the best of it and have a day of birding around the Spurn Peninsula. First though was the priority of a reviving breakfast at the nearby caravan site and then a very frustrating time was spent looking for a family of Marsh Warblers in a place called Syke's Field. We saw one, or was it two, but the views were fleeting and unsatisfactory with the strong wind continually blowing and making  life difficult as we tried to decipher whether the continuous flickering movement was wind stirred leaves or a Marsh Warbler flitting through the vegetation.

Giving up on the Marsh Warblers we chanced to go to Kilnsea and the definite highlight of the day was spending an hour or so in The Wetlands Hide at Kilnsea, where to our immense delight three Wood Sandpipers were feeding with other waders along the channels of water that ran between the sandy scrapes.

Wood Sandpipers always bring a thrill to a day's birding and are eagerly sought after by birders as they are far less common than the Green Sandpiper with which they can be confused.They are only present on Spring and Autumn migration with the majority being seen in the late summer and early autumn as they make their way south to spend the winter in west Africa or even further in southern Africa. Personally I have seen them wintering in both Zimbabwe and South Africa where they are not uncommon. 

A very few pairs breed in northern Scotland but it is predominantly a bird of subarctic wetlands in northern and eastern countries of Europe and then stretching further east into Asia.They nest on the ground or will sometimes utilise an old bird nest, such as a Fieldfare's, in a tree.

It is a supremely elegant wader that superficially resembles the similar looking but more dumpy and shorter legged Green Sandpiper but, despite sometimes being confused with the Green Sandpiper, it is more closely related to the Common Redshank. In contrast to the Green Sandpiper it has a more aristocratic air about it due to a slimmer body, a noticeably long neck, small head and longer legs. It's plumage is different too, being more variable in patterning with its pale brown upperparts  heavily chequered  with buff spots and a head showing very distinctive white supercila.

Wood Sandpipers have had a very good breeding year, judging by the numbers of juveniles that have appeared on our shores this year, predominantly on the east coast. The large numbers are also as a result of easterly winds that blew for quite some time recently, pushing large numbers of migrating Wood Sandpipers across the North Sea towards Britain. Normally Wood Sandpipers are seen in ones and twos but this year phenomenal numbers have occured at some locations on the east coast of England, the most notable count being over a hundred and ten at Cley Nature Reserve in Norfolk.

All three Wood Sandpipers we watched at Kilnsea were juveniles, as evidenced by their neat profusely patterned plumage, the feathers still fresh and immaculate.

We sat in the hide as they strode ceaselessly along the edge of the shoreline, picking prey from both on and below the water and never stopping for one moment in their constant quest for food. Eventually one bird tarried in the lee of some short reeds and stood for a while in a little muddy bay by the bank where it preened and then briefly tucked its bill into its feathers and slept but only for a few minutes before it was off feeding once more.

It made you weary just watching them forever searching for food to sustain them and refuel their store of energy before making another long  flight towards the southern latitudes of Africa, their winter home.

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