Monday 12 May 2014

Spot the Sandpiper 11th May 2014

Spotted Sandpiper c Roger Wyatt
This story begins last week. Whilst working at my computer on the morning of May 7th and getting bored I thought I would check The Oxon Bird Log. Normally there are just the usual reports from Otmoor, Farmoor and various other likely places with maybe the odd photo but today I just stared, open mouthed as I read 'Spotted Sandpiper on East bank of Farmoor Two'. A few minutes later a text from Ian Lewington  the Oxfordshire Bird Recorder arrived, imparting the same information.

Spotted Sandpipers are nationally rare and in Oxfordshire they are extremely rare. I think only two or three have been seen before in Oxfordshire, the last being in 1990. This makes them in popular terms very much 'a county mega'. Therefore this bird had to be seen as I knew every other Oxonbirder worth their salt would be making their way, as fast as possible, to Farmoor.

It was mid morning and within five minutes I was in the car with scope and bins and making the thirty minute journey from my home to Farmoor. The weather was deteriorating rapidly with strong westerly winds, regular rain showers and more steady rain on the way. I could see the looming grey rain clouds coming from the west as I drove along the A40 above Burford.  I called Dai who checks Farmoor daily and was the finder of the Spotted Sandpiper. He told me that the bird was incredibly flighty and was spooked by just about everything and anything and kept flying from one side of the reservoir to the other. Not good news. 

Well, I thought, at least the wind and rain would make it stay put. I got to the car park at the reservoir and could already see birders running along the perimeter track by Farmoor Two as I parked. Well at least I now knew it was still here. I followed as fast as possible up the ramp to the track but not quite fast enough. I could see a distant huddle of birders that were grouped on the track intently looking down and along at the concrete apron and the waves slapping vigorously against it.  Just at that moment a Thames Water patrol vehicle came along the perimeter track and before I could get any nearer  flushed three sandpipers which flew off out over the waves and were lost to view. I just managed to see them through my rain spattered bins

I arrived a few seconds later at the huddle of birders and Gnome informed me that apparently one of the departing sandpipers they had been watching was the Spotted Sandpiper, the others being Common Sandpipers. The huddle of birders dispersed having 'properly' seen the Spotted Sandpiper. Feeling sure it would come back, as I was told this appeared to be the favoured spot, I said I would wait here but now exposed on a windswept, bleak reservoir with absolutely no protection from the elements I huddled up as best I could whilst I received a severe battering from the wind and rain. 

I waited an hour and nothing but two Common Sandpipers returned. Other birders arriving after me spread out around the reservoir and the late arriving Wickster virtually ran round both reservoirs but still failed to find it. Slowly it became apparent to one and all  it had gone. Roger Wyatt and Dai had seen it well when first it was found and indeed Roger managed some excellent photos from the cover of Dai's car but now it was nowhere to be seen. A report then came through of another summer plumaged Spotted  Sandpiper being found at Draycote Water, not many miles away to the north of us. Whether this was 'our' bird or not was now irrelevant as there was no Spotted Sandpiper currently at Farmoor. I decided that was that and gave it up as a lost cause. So close and yet so far. As I am sure you will understand I was not happy.

I returned home in the rain, philosophical about my near miss and eventually able to put it to the back of my mind. To not see such a bird was unfortunate but not the end of the world. I resigned myself to a big gap in my County List,  despite Roger's excellent pictures appearing on The Oxon Bird Log, to just rub it in a little bit more.

Fast forward if you will to Saturday the 10th May. Nothing was happening in the county birdwise so I decided to go and have a look at a long staying Serin at Gibralter Point NNR, which is near Skegness, of sun and sand and sea fame, in Lincolnshire.  Everything was going smoothly as I progressed north apart from the fact that no reports were coming through of the Serin being seen at its regular feeders in The Plantation at Gibralter Point. Up until today reports had been coming in thick and fast each and every day of its presence. It was looking dire today, however, as there were no reports so far. I surmised that I clearly had miscalculated. Regardless, I carried on and resigned myself to just having a wander around a reserve and an area I had not visited before, and then possibly going southwards to north Norfolk to see a flock of eight Dotterels in a field at Choseley. 

Twenty miles out from Skegness, at around 10.30am my world collapsed around me. A text from Gnome arrived. 

'Spotted Sandpiper back at Farmoor, this time in the northwest corner of Farmoor One'. Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat

I had to stop the car to assimilate this news and worse  had to make a decision. I sat on a  garage forecourt, my mind racing. The sensible thing would be to carry on and have a nice day's birding in Lincolnshire and Norfolk. So of course  I turned the car around there and then and headed back the one hundred and forty miles to Farmoor. Well you would - wouldn't you?

Now every car and truck that previously had been totally innocuous was seeming to go annoyingly and deliberately slowly. It was two and a half hours to get back to Farmoor but it seemed like six, the time it was taking. Slowly the miles I had covered northwards unwound backwards to the south. I was just north of Banbury when another text from Gnome came through innocently remarking that he hoped I had seen the Serin which had just been reported  on the pagers as showing well at the feeders! What the hell. I had been checking my RBA app every fifteen minutes but had given up as nothing had appeared about the Serin. Desolation, and a total collapse of morale overwhelmed me but there was nothing now but to press on to Farmoor. I had made my decision and now had to stick with it and try and mitigate the birding disasters that had unexpectedly beset me. Finally I got to the end of a particularly  tedious single carriageway road and turned onto the freedom of the three lane M40 at Banbury. The first few miles fairly whizzed by but then ominous warning signs came to my notice and then came the dreaded sight of many static car roofs shining in the sun on my side of the Motorway. A huge traffic jam confronted me. There was no escape. I tuned into the local traffic news to be informed by a cheery soul there was a five mile tailback on the M40. You can guess where I slowed to an inevitable stop.  I tried to stay calm but it was just too much and I yelled in frustration. What was worse was the fact that it was my own fault and there was no one else to blame but that did not stop me having a full  unexpurgated rant at my misfortune.

Finally I made it to the A34 turnoff and a short while later was at Farmoor car park just as the heavens opened and rain came teeming down. No matter, I was now on a mission. I ran up the ramp once again, to the reservoir. Now,  where are the birders all looking at the Spotted Sandpiper?  Not another birder was to be seen. I could not believe it. So far, I reflected, I had driven 308 miles and seen precisely nothing.  I called Gnome to get specific instructions and he told me the sandpiper had not been seen since 1130 when it was briefly in the northwest corner of Farmoor One. It was now one o' clock. My heart sank but I battled my way in the now all too familiar rain and ferocious wind to the northwest corner of Farmoor One.  Another birder was cowering there in the lee of a Hawthorn bush as the elements hurled their worst at us. I joined him, sinking almost into the bush for sanctuary as the sickly scent of May blossom enveloped me. My waterproof was spattered in white petals from the blossom. It looked like I had a terminal dose of dandruff as meanwhile the rain dribbled down my glasses and the wind viciously whipped at my clothing This was not good. The wind got stronger and stronger and reached gale force. The white crested waves hitting the concrete shore were so large they could be classed as breakers but slowly the skies cleared and the sun came out although the wind had not abated. The other birder made a bid for freedom in this weather window and I was now on my own. Andy Last joined me and I resolved to stick it out here for a couple of hours in the hope the sandpiper would return to its favourite spot. A single Common Sandpiper kept me company feeding along the concrete apron by the water's edge whilst a Grey Wagtail gathered insects for its young from under the wave wall. Two hours passed and nothing with spots on appeared.

Andy was in a dilemna as a Glossy Ibis had been reported from nearby Port Meadow and he needed this for his County List whilst the Spotted Sandpiper would be both an addition to his County List and a lifer. Eventually the lack of any sandpiper action and the lure of the Glossy Ibis proved too much and he went to Port Meadow. Half an hour later and I too had reached my limits of patience and endurance.  I too headed for Port Meadow determined to at least see one decent bird on this day of disaster.

Whilst contemplating the heaving waters of Farmoor waiting for the sandpiper to show up I had comforted myself by formulating  a plan to return to Farmoor at dawn the next day, Sunday. Dawn is currently at 4.30am, a very early start but I would at least have the place to myself as the reservoir gates do not open until 8am but most Oxonbirders know the 'unofficial' back way in. Devious I know but the only way to see this nerve wracked will o' the wisp bird was, as far as I could ascertain, to get there when no one else was around to scare it off. That however was all for tomorrow.

I arrived at Port Meadow in search of the ibis only to meet Gnome and son who told me the ibis had flown off thirty minutes ago.  Funny, as I had just called Andy who was on the other side of the flood and he told me he was currently watching it!  I informed Gnome of this and then attempted to call Andy again but the wind blowing directly into my face was so ferocious all I could hear was a roaring noise interspersed by the occasional crackling disjointed word such as field,  near lif...third tree river  Finally I cracked. This was the final straw. I went into a full Basil Fawlty and railed at my phone ffffffffffffffffg........... thing, fffffffffffffffg .......wind,  fffffffffffffffffffg......... life. Somehow, after I calmed down, Andy managed to communicate that the ibis was in a field opposite us and Gnome managed to find it in his bins.  Hanging onto my scope for dear life we managed to make bits of  it out as it was partially obscured in a fold in the field. Now having driven 325 miles just for a blurred, incomplete image of a Glossy Ibis on Port Meadow was not what I had intended when I left home in the early morning but that now seemed a lifetime ago. To make my day complete Lee Evans chose that moment to arrive and promptly went into full head swivelling, manic panic mode complaining about the wind and running down to the edge of the flood saying you cannot get close to the ibis because of the water. Yes Lee we know. Its always been like this. He disappeared into some shrubbery in the nearby Burgess Field. The final denouement

I called Andy again, as I was about to do the first sensible thing I had done all day and head for home. I told him about my carefully formulated plan for tomorrow. Andy had told me he was also going to come to the reservoir early on Sunday. Now it became clear that 'early' is a relative term. I innocently suggested we meet at  Farmoor Stores at 5.30 am. 

There was a silence. 'Hello, Hello, can you hear me?' 

A pause. 

Andy then says 'I thought more like 8 o clock'.  

'Are you serious? That's mid morning. Call yourself a birder.' I replied.  

Unknown to me Andy had  a session involving various alcoholic beverages and the Eurovision Song Contest planned for tonight. I will say no more.

'Well, I will maybe see you tomorrow sometime'. I said as I headed for the car. We left it at that. I went home and drank far too much whisky. No apologies, I had already had a right day of it and in my opinion the only way to contemplate the imminent campness and mediocrity of the Eurovision Song Contest was through a haze of whisky fumes or any other tipple that took my fancy. It all got a bit confusing when well into a bottle of single malt Old Pulteney, a person with a beard but in a dress started singing. I thought they said she was from Australia but that is not in Europe. Apparently she was from Austria and she won. Hurrah!

Fed up with the song contest and eurotrash naffness I staggered off to bed mindful of my early morning start on Sunday. I was woken from a sound sleep at 4.30am by the resident Blackbird tuning up outside my bedroom window. Dawn had arrived all too early. Fifteen minutes of stumbling around, more than a little fuzzy in the head and I was all set to go. Farmoor here I come. Again.  It's s**t or bust for the sandpiper. Five fifteen am found me skulking around in a residential estate at the back of Farmoor Reservoir trying not to wake the residents, and eventually taking the alleyway behind the houses and making my way to the 'unofficial entrance' at the northwest corner of the reservoir bank. I crept along below the skyline and came up onto the perimeter track by some Hawthorns which would give me shelter from the still strong southwest wind but more importantly would hopefully camouflage my presence from any neurotic sandpiper that happened to be lurking on the concrete apron by the water. I knelt. No, not in prayer but to keep my profile as low as possible. I pointed my scope hopefully at the designated spot and turned the focus wheel. This was it. A bird immediately came into focus. A cracking male Pied Wagtail. Ye gods, 5.30 am and I had already scored with a wagtail. Could it get any better? Well er' yes, considerably, as scanning away from the wagtail I almost immediately came across a small  bobbing wader  with a pale brown back, apparently pure white underparts and Yyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeesssssssssss a profusion of black spots scattered randomly across said white underparts. It was a Spotted Sandpiper. The Spotted Sandpiper. I cannot begin to describe the delight I took from the fact that my deductions and my planning had all come to successful fruition. The feeling is hard to describe. For me it was a sense of self worth, delight at actually seeing this bird after all that had gone before and the knowledge that I had achieved this using all my skills and intuition, gained from a lifetime of birding. It does not always work but when it does it feels really, really good.

Spotted Sandpiper c Roger Wyatt
I watched it, teetering gently in true sandpiper fashion, reasonably close to me, noting its  pink bill with black tip and pale legs and how profuse the black spots were on its underparts. I have seen a few Spotted Sandpipers in the Britain but never one in full summer plumage. Its tail was not as long as a Common Sandpiper making it appear more compact and dumpy and it looked marginally smaller. Common Sandpipers are typically wary but this one was in another class altogether. It would feed briefly but then freeze motionless as some perceived threat was noted. Just about anything seemed to un-nerve it. It made me nervous just watching it, as it seemed at any moment it would fly off. After watching it for ten minutes I had the pleasure of calling Andy at 5.30 am hahaha and told him to get himself down to Farmoor PDQ. I sent a text to as many Oxonbirders as I could remember, to spread the news. The Spotted Sandpiper flew across the water in front of me and my heart made a jump as I thought it might disappear before the others got here. I relaxed as it landed on the concrete again off to my right and promptly went into a wash and brush up routine. I noted its less extensive white wing bar compared to a Common Sandpiper. Andy joined me on the bank remarkably quickly and Justin was not long after him having hurtled down the A34 from his home in Bicester. Others were unavoidably or  temporarily detained for various reasons such as reading Toy Story to a wideawake child, leading birdwalks on Otmoor or running a half marathon. Slowly the news was disseminated amongst every Oxonbirder we knew and virtually everyone we contacted over the next four hours got to see it if they could come to Farmoor. Even Badger who had only returned from Lesvos last night managed to see it and in the end there was quite a gathering of Oxonbirders on the reservoir bank

Early morning Oxonbirders c Justin
Latterly, the Spotted Sandpiper was joined by a Common Sandpiper and the two remained together, flying regularly in front of us from one side of the northwest corner to the other. When they did the size difference was obvious as was the smaller wing bar of the Spotted Sandpiper.

c Andy Last

c Terry Sherlock
A flock of thirty plus summer plumaged Dunlin arrived whilst we were watching the Spotted Sandpiper. They wheeled around the reservoir in true co-ordinated wader fashion before settling on the concrete Causeway. Many Swifts, Swallows and House Martins appeared with a brief rain shower, flying low over the choppy water  criss-crossing the reservoir.The Swifts flew at incredible speeds low over the central Causeway and a couple of Common Terns rested on the buoys. A pair of Red crested Pochard picked food items from the surf where the waters were roughest and a Little Tern, unseen by us, flew through but did not stop.

Dunlin - top two pics c Andy Last and bottom c Terry Sherlock
By 8am the news was well and truly out nationally and once the reservoir gates opened many birders flooded in and inevitably the Spotted Sandpiper took alarm and disappeared. It was last seen just after 9am, still in the company of the Common Sandpiper but sadly many late arriving birders were disappointed. Where it goes during the day remains a mystery but it would appear it has been around for several days and comes back to the reservoir at night and stays until the reservoir opens in the morning and the fishermen, joggers, walkers and yes even birders arrive to send it flying off into the far yonder.

We ended the morning walking down the central Causeway reflecting on our triumph and meeting another extreme rarity these days, no less than Phil (Legend) Barnett, birder extraordinaire, who has had a rough time of it lately. It was good to see him back, fit and well. The morning finished for us in the sanctuary of the Yacht Club with a nice cup of tea and a bacon roll. Life can be sweet. Oh yes it can.

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