Saturday 13 June 2015

Hudsonian Whimbrel at Church Norton 11th June 2015

Hudsonian Whimbrel c Matt Eade

Two in the morning, awake and alert and I am feeling good about life. Quietly exiting from the still of the house, rural darkness surrounds me, unsullied by any artificial light. The Black Audi purrs along the country roads heading south for the Motorway and Sussex.

Two hours later I pass the county boundary sign for West Sussex. My spirits lift and I feel at home. Traffic is increasing and the eastern sky is lightening rapidly. It is going to be a fine day. Four thirty in the morning and I come to rest in the car park at Church Norton. Alone in the dawn I walk down the familiar track to the harbour. A brisk easterly wind scours my face and there are open skies before me. The tide is visiting the horizon, leaving a harbour glistening wet and grey from exposed mud. The light is sullen and dull. The sun still below the horizon.

I scan the grey folds of mud but there are just a few birds. Pairs of Oystercatchers mainly. Then two Curlew. Then two Whimbrel. I am joined by other birders and we watch the two Whimbrel. Could one of these be the Hudsonian Whimbrel? The light is still too low to discern any plumage detail. We watch the two Whimbrel. Feeding constantly on small crabs, whelks and worms, the birds show no preference for their prey which they prise from the mud. Delicately held in decurved bills the victim is washed free of mud in sea pools before being consumed.  

We wait for the Whimbrel to fly or shake their feathers so we can see the colour of their backs and rumps. It takes an hour of intense silent observation before we ascertain that both show white on their backs and rumps. Not the Hudsonian Whimbrel then. It has an all brown back and rump.


Now what to do? Stand here, wait and hope? A crowd of around thirty birders are now assembled on the sloping shingle, one heroically in a wheelchair and all of us waiting as the tide comes in. The mud flats decrease from fat ovals to narrow slivers of grey. Optimism turns to forlorn hope which subsides to mute resignation. Maybe it has gone. No other whimbrels can be found.

A huge blood orange orb rises through the trees on the other side of the harbour. Sunrise.

Another thirty minutes pass. I leave the throng. Last night I did some research. The Hudsonian Whimbrel was last seen yesterday much further east in the harbour. I know this area intimately. Why not? Two chances. Let's go.

I head along the footpath, narrowed now by the lushness of early summer growth, skirting the harbour. I walk for almost half a mile. East. Alone in a solitude of saltmarsh and seascape. Most of Sussex is still asleep. I look again. Far out to a middle harbour mud bank. Another Whimbrel! Not a Curlew. Definitely a Whimbrel. This one is subtly different from the previous two Whimbrel. Its bill longer than 'our' Whimbrel. Almost Curlew like in dimension. Its body though is slender and definitely that of a Whimbrel. Excited, I hurry further to get closer and opposite. It is distant. The sun now illuminating the bird which is backlit from the East.

I find two other birders. Confirmation comes with thumbs up. They have seen it fly already.They say it has a dark brown back and rump. The Hudsonian Whimbrel. Here it is. At last! We know it is 'the bird'. Even so we watch it for some time just to make absolutely sure. Doubly sure. Trebly sure. We will have to tell the others. Doubts? Ninety nine per cent sure, which is good enough but still we hesitate.

We really should alert the others. Now! Go for it! Reputations on the line! One of us goes to spread the news. I remain watching the Hudsonian Whimbrel. It turns its head to the sun showing a  pale face accentuating alternate black and white lines across its head. Yes. We are right. There is no reason for doubt.

The 'throng' arrive. Some look at the wrong bird. A Curlew. They claim we have got it wrong but are sheepish once they are directed to the correct bird. Discomfited by the rising tide it flies. Dark brown upperparts all over. Not a trace of white. Diagnostic. Cinnamon brown underwings also. It pitches down in the saltmarsh and is gone from sight.

Hudsonian Whimbrel c Matt Eade
A Cuckoo calls from an Oak behind us. Swaying and swinging on a bough as it calls. Hypnotic in sound and movement.

We walk on a little way East. Opposite to where we think the Hudsonian Whimbrel is. We hope. We wait as minutes pass into eternity. We find it roosting by a gully of sea water. It wakes. Unsettled. Slithers about on the mud. Uncertain. Sidles into the saltmarsh vegetation and is now invisible. It flies once more. but only briefly before it is lost in the saltmarsh, again!  More hope.  More waiting. The sun is now warm and the wind chill finally subdued.

The Hudsonian Whimbrel flies once more and back into visibility. Just a short way, only to disappear yet again into the enveloping security of the saltmarsh vegetation. Occasionally it becomes visible feeding. Tantalising. Giving brief views as it leaves the ditches and channels to rise and look about. I watch it for one last time and depart at nine. 

Five hours. Enough is enough.

It was not seen again until four in the afternoon.

A Lesser Whitethroat rattled from the hedgerow. A ratchety rhythmical song from the reeds betrays a Reed Warbler. A family of Long tailed Tits, slurring their baby rattle alarm calls, fly ahead of my progress back to the car.

Many thanks to Matt Eade for allowing me to use two of his excellent images to illustrate this blog

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