Tuesday 21 February 2023

The White rumped Sandpiper at Slimbridge WWT 19th February 2023

On Valentine's Day a White rumped Sandpiper in winter plumage was found on the South Lake of Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Gloucestershire. This small wader breeds on the Arctic tundra of Alaska and northern Canada and migrates to spend the winter in South America. I have been fortunate to see them on a visit to Ecuador in November some years ago as well as several in Britain

About eighteen are recorded in Britain annually so they are not a huge rarity but rare enough to mean that Slimbridge, being the high profile place it is, attracted a lot more visitors than usual to view this rare bird.What is remarkable about this record is that this is probably the first  White rumped Sandpiper to be found in Britain in winter as they are usually recorded here between May and October.

The bird was content, at Slimbridge, to feed in the company of Dunlins on the muddy edges and rocky causeway of South Lake and could be viewed from the two hides, Discovery and Hogarth that overlook the lake.

I made the less than an hour long drive from my home to see it on the day after it was found.With matters other than birding occupying me in the morning it was not until lunch time that I got to Slimbridge and made my way to the Hogarth Hide, the smaller of the two hides overlooking the lake.

My heart sank on entering as the hide was crammed with birders, not a seat was to be had but no one seemed to know where the bird was and it was thought to have flown off un-noticed. This was not a good start and totally unexpected. Based on earlier reports I had assumed the bird would be immediately viewable, it would be close and photographable but it most definitely was neither. Not satisfied I  went back to my car to get my scope which I had left there, assuming it would not be needed. On returning I was informed that the sandpiper was back on the lake but fast asleep on a small and distant patch of mud and stones in the middle of the lake.  Not even the arrival of a flock of thirty restless Golden Plovers and some Lapwings could disturb it from its slumbers, the sandpiper momentarily moving out of the way if the larger birds came too close for comfort before promptly snuggling its bill into its mantle feathers and going back to sleep. 

To cut a long story short it eventually woke up after twenty minutes and commenced to feed with five Dunlins, giving good scope views. I watched it for an hour or so and satisfied I had seen it well I departed the hide for home. Both the hides overlooking the South Lake face south as the name would suggest and are for the most part not conducive to any photographic masterpieces due to light issues, so my camera remained inactive throughout the afternoon.

And that was what I thought was that.

However I  saw some superb images of the sandpiper on social media three days later. How had this been achieved? The answer was the sandpiper had for an hour deserted its favoured South Lake and repaired to the smaller lakes and muddy margins called the Rushy Pen that lie in front of the Rushy Hide, which is not far from South Lake and faces east and thus affords much better opportunities to get a reasonable photograph or two.

Enthused I decided to give the sandpiper another go at Slimbridge the next day, as no doubt would many others, it being a Sunday. There was only one thing to do and that was to get to Slimbridge as early in the morning as possible. Slimbridge opens to the public at 9.30am but being a member I am allowed to enter a part of the grounds which include the Rushy Hide at 8.15am.  Entry is made via a side gate and my early start would I hoped ensure I could secure a place in the Rushy Hide. The hide is small and has no seating so you have to stand and look out onto the Rushy Pen, a couple of small shallow lakes with a wide central dividing strip of grass and muddy shoreline between the two lakes. Despite my early arrival I was not the first and joined three other birders already in the hide.

Part of the Rushy Pen 

Of course there was no sign of the sandpiper. I had already determined to wait in this hide until or if it came to the Rushy Pen. I had all day after all. Whatever it takes.

Who was I deluding with this bravado? Willing to stand for eight hours in a hide? Really?.

It was a calculated gamble on my part as it was for the several others in the hide with me and it was by no means guaranteed that the sandpiper would repeat yesterday's visit to the Rushy.Half an hour later news came that it was, not unexpectedly, on South Lake with a flock of around a hundred Dunlin feeding on the furthest possible margin of the lake and only affording distant views.from the large Discovery Hide some ten minutes walk from the Rushy Hide. Heroically I resisted the temptation to go to the South Lake but only just!

Resigned to a long wait I rested my chin on my elbows and looked out at the Rushy Pen.There was plenty to admire and I contented myself by togging the various wildfowl, all looking an absolute picture in the early morning sunlight. It was going to be a beautiful day - weather wise at least.

Up to sixty Bewick's Swans were upending in the shallow water to filter seed from the bottom, a legacy of yesterday's evening feed, calling amongst themselves, a nasal toy trumpet sound that formed a continuous background of calls across the lake.Smaller than their larger and similar looking relative the Whooper Swan, they are demure and even when in dispute manage to impart a serene gracefulness as only an increase in the intensity of calls and much craning of long elegant necks is required to settle any potential conflict with a rival. In flight they are majestic, on the land not quite so, although they lack the ponderous actions of Whooper and Mute Swans and can walk about with some ease on enormous black paddles of feet 

Ducks too were present aplenty, the forever graceful Pintail drakes perhaps one of the most aesthetically pleasing of duck species, swam or rested on the still water, their long necks and chocolate coloured heads  counterbalanced by pencil thin central tail feathers from which their name is derived. 

The Rushy Pen this winter has also been home to a young male Scaup, a duck more usually seen at sea. It has slowly transformed from the drab, ill patterned plumage of immaturity into something akin to adulthood and has created much interest and brought great pleasure to birders and general visitors alike during its prolonged stay.

And so the morning moved on. Shelduck were present in numbers, the drakes feisty and amorous as they protected their mates from perceived competitors.

People came and went from the hide.My fellow sandpiper hopefuls in the hide, one by one grew bored and departed but I hung on.Stick to the plan Ewan.Stick to the plan.

The time reached eleven and after three hours standing in the hide, inevitably the joys of watching Bewick's Swans and Pintails began to pall. Not time totally wasted from my point of view as it presented an opportunity to reflect on diverse subjects far removed from my present situation while wild creatures created constant and beautiful images of unending variety

Meanwhile the absent sandpiper was by all accounts still on South Lake. 

My resolve weakened.I am only human, forgive me ye birding gods. If the sandpiper will not come to me then I had better go to it and.perhaps get better views than on my previous visit.

On the walk to the Discovery Hide it became very apparent just how popular Slimbridge is with families and children as they spread  around the  grounds enjoying themselves. I suppose I should not have been surprised as it was a pleasant sunny Sunday during half term holidays. Also adding to the numbers were many birders come to see the White rumped Sandpiper, most of whom seemed now to be in the Discovery Hide.

Entering I found it crammed full of birders, all looking through telescopes at the distant flock of Dunlin in which was hidden the desired subject. I stood, tired, a trifle frazzled and disoriented, non plussed at a forest of tripod legs and bodies. This was not good, so many people were too much to bear. What to do now? Retreat back to the familiarity of the Rushy seemed the answer. I walked back to the Rushy and found it empty, quiet and dark. I was on my own and resumed my vigil.

It was hardly surprising the hide was empty as there was little to see now, many of the ducks,geese and swans having departed to other parts of the grounds while those remaining were mostly asleep. Teal tucked their small stout bodies snugly under overhanging banks, Pintails and Mallard contentedly slept on grass banks with only the occasional Black tailed Godwit providing movement, striding through the shallow waters, thrusting head and long bill deep into the muddy waters.

I gave in at just after noon. Having been up and about for seven hours and not eaten I decided to go for lunch in Slimbridge's cafe just a hundred metres from the hide. Yes I know I said I was going to spend all day in the hide if necessary but the close proximity of the cafe was too convenient and tempting

Twenty minutes later I finally got to the front of the food queue and ordered a soup and roll to keep body and soul intact.There was no hurry.The sandpiper was still being reported from South Lake.I relaxed, indulging in a welcome freefall from care. It was very obvious I had been over optimistic about the sandpiper coming to the Rushy. I was now resigned to failure.

It was just after 1pm. Sipping contemplatively at my soup I decided to remain at Slimbridge for the afternoon. checking some of the other hides as there are good birds to see such as white-fronted geese and cranes to mention but two. Briefly I considered going to the Discovery Hide in case of developments. But no, I opted to go back to the nearby Rushy for a quick look. Just in case. Hope sprimgs eternal and all that and anyway it was on my route to the other hides.

Entering the now all too familiar Rushy Hide I encountered Gary fiddling with the legs of his tripod on which was mounted his enormous camera and lens combo.I assumed he too had been waiting in vain for the sandpiper and was now packing up to leave

Hi Gary

Hello mate you're just in time


The White rumped Sand has just flown in. It's out there on that muddy spit.

I looked, I saw and a joyous warm glow entered my soul.


My plan had worked after all, more by luck than judgement admittedly but here it was come to fruition.

Even better  I was in pole position, right at the front of a hide with currently only a few occupants but not for long as word would have already spread to the hordes in the Discovery Hide and matters would be about to change rapidly in the Rushy Hide.

Pointing my lens towards the sandpiper, not that far away and contentedly wandering towards us on the muddy margin of the water I  was vaguely aware of more and more people entering the hide behind me. Soon it was elbow to elbow. Bodies pressing against each other. A camera lens rested on  my shoulder.I dared not move for fear of knocking someone's tripod legs or jogging a camera.

Three deep with occupants, the hide was at full capacity but there was little rancour as somehow everyone managed to get views of the sandpiper. It fed continuously, slowly wandering about not very far in front of the hide, pulling tiny thread thin worm's from the mud at a prodigious rate.

Rarely still, it walked head down examining the mud before securing a miniscule worm which it extracted from the mud with great delicacy and care, slowly easing it out of its hole. It followed the shoreline mud from one end to the other, working back and fore, with occasional forays into the water.

I was in dreamland as I watched it meandering around.

Superficially similar to a Dunlin it differs in having longer wings, the points of which extend well beyond its tail giving an attenuated slim profile that contrasts with the dumpier form of a Dunlin. Of course the diagnostic white rump is also a giveaway but is hard to see when the bird has its wings closed. However this individual had the curious and abnormal habit of flexing its wings at regular intervals and also frequently fully stretching its wings out sideways, both actions revealing the white rump

There were other subtle differences to absorb such as the pale base to the lower mandible but not let's go there.In fact it spent so much time inserting its bill into the soft mud that it was usually covered in mud. In unremarkable grey winter plumage it was designated by persons unknown to be a first winter bird and I was happy to accept that. There was no sign I could see of any breeding plumage but others thought they could discern the odd rufous brown feather on its upperparts.I will leave it to you to judge from my photos.

For about forty minutes I watched enthralled and then something unknown and unseen spooked every bird on the lake and they all took to the air. Mallards careered in panic across the water near to the sandpiper and it too panicked and took to the air, flying around at incredible speed but not leaving the vicinity of the lake.Everyone was willing it to stay and land back in front of the hide.Eventually it settled much further away on a small rock in the water.

Here it remained briefly, tense and alert before relaxing and finally flying high and fast back in the direction of South Lake.

It was over, there was a mass exodus and the hide rapidly emptied.

It was almost 2pm when the sandpiper departed and now re-energised with adrenalin I decided to spend the rest of the day birding from various other hides. These revealed close views of the usual 'commoner' ducks such as Teal. Wigeon and Shoveler.The drakes at this time are at the peak of perfection, their various plumages so beautiful and intricate it was if one could not believe one's eyes.

I sat on a bench, relaxing and unwinding in the dark of a hide, looking out onto sunlit water and fields.The natural world was doing a number on me, casting a spell and my world seemed a very pleasant place. I knew it would not last but I have long since learned to enjoy its brief benediction while I can.

My main interest was focused on the Holden Tower which affords a panoramic view out over The Dumbles to  the distant River Severn and across an area of the reserve called the Tack Piece.

This is a favoured place of the Russian White-fronted Geese which come to spend the winter here. Currently there are around one hundred and seventy and obligingly today a couple were close to the tower and giving great views. They appeared to be an adult pair, the gander strutting around in a very male way and with that certain look in his eye. His underparts were resplendent with distinctive irregular black bars.

Further out on The Dumbles packs of Wigeon were swarming over the grass, forever cropping it vigorously, having to eat almost constantly because it is so nutrient defficient. 

Up to twelve Common Cranes were scattered distantly across the huge area that comprises The Dumbles, their bulky grey bodies, forming distinctive mounds on the flat terrain as they fed.

The hides were very busy with visitors and after an hour I felt my time at Slimbridge naturally coming to an end as mental and physical exhaustion set in. I had achieved what I had set out to do and as I walked back past the Rushy Hide I could not resist one more look inside.

To my amazement it was crammed full of birders and photographers which could only mean one thing.The White rumped Sandpiper had returned. This time I was at the back of the crowd looking out onto the lake and there was no way I could get to see out, it was that crowded. I bided my time and luckily someone vacated their space and I was able to squeeze in to indulge myself in yet more close views of the sandpiper.

Thoughts of leaving Slimbridge were immediately abandoned and I settled down for more photography with my new camera, about which during the day I had come to feel much more confident in using as I familiarised myself with the various settings. 

The late afternoon sun cast a benign golden light across the Rushy Pen and its occupants. Sooner rather than later the White rumped Sandpiper that had enthralled so many of us departed back to the South Lake and now it really was time to head for home. 

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