Wednesday 9 August 2017

Yet more from the Black Audi Archives - Sharp tailed and Bristol Fashion 19th November 2011

Library photo
This was one of the first ever twitches I made with Keith Clack (Clackers) and we did not know each other that well then but were united by a common interest in seeing rare birds. A lot of driving and rare birds have gone under the metaphorical bridge since then and we are now used to sharing each others company and thoroughly enjoying ourselves whenever the opportunity arises to race off at some unsociable hour to see something rare.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Chew Valley Lake Somerset

19th November 2011

Dawn rose in Witney as Clackers boarded the Black Audi to be transported to the exotic West where the beautiful go to die. A very rare Sharp-tailed Sandpiper had been found on Blagdon Lake in Somerset the day before and, having been alerted to its presence by Badger that same afternoon, I arranged with the Clackmeister, that evening, to go and see it the following day.

Clackers was in morose mood as we headed for the M4 Motorway as the night before had been clear and starry and he was convinced the sandpiper would have flown away. He also filled me with a sense of foreboding as in inimitable Clacker speak he reeled off a string of rare birds he had failed to see at Blagdon Lake or nearby Chew Valley Lake.

My head spun from lack of sleep, having being kept awake by all that crap stuff that life sometimes brings in the wee hours. However, with Clackers on board there was no need for a radio to keep me awake, as I listened to his stories of past birding exploits which sufficed to keep me conscious and consequently the car on the road. 

We persisted in heading West into a beautiful late autumn sunrise and on approaching Bristol Clacker's until now silent pager predictably announced there was no sign of the sandpiper at Blagdon Lake. Why was I not surprised? We were negotiating a roundabout at the time and I was all for doing a complete circuit and heading for home but we were persuaded by blind hope and sheer stubborness to carry on, figuring there just might be a chance the sandpiper had moved to another part of the huge lake that is Blagdon and someone might cover themselves in glory by re-finding the bird. It has happened but not very often!

Clacker's pager, with annoyingly regular updates made it abundantly clear it was not going to happen today and, after having to take a detour due to our route being blocked by road works, we arrived not at Blagdon Lake but at Chew Valley Lake and Herriot's Bridge which crosses one end of the lake. 'Let's stop here Clackers and ask this birder if there is anything about'. We drew to a stop on the bridge and asked the question of our Wurzel friend. 'Bain't be nuffin' here my lovely' he responded. 'OK. Thanks anyway.' 

I turned to  Clackers and commented, 'Clackers old boy, Badger was here only a few weeks ago and he had a Spotted Sandpiper on this side of the bridge although it was hard to see and he had to jump the fence to see it.' Clackers will not mind me saying his fence jumping days are long gone so I took a speculative look over the fence on behalf of both of us and to my total surprise the Spotted Sandpiper hove into view, feeding along the muddy margin by the fence. We both subsequently watched it for a few minutes. So at least we had now seen a worthwhile North American wader, albeit, as it was in winter plumage, almost identical to our Common Sandpiper, and I suppose now we could claim the journey was not completely wasted. Clackers called over the few other birders present, including the one who told us nothing was around, and they watched it too. It then wandered out of sight. 'Well that was good' I said, trying to be cheerful, but it wasn't really as we had come to see something so much rarer but it had gone and nothing could compensate for that. 'Come on Clackers, as we are here anyway let's have a look at the main part of the lake on the other side of the road'. Clackers went 'lightweight' with just a pair of bins whilst I took my bins and scope and joined him on the other side of the road.

There were an awful lot of ducks on the lake but we dismissed them and concentrated on a distant and small muddy margin of the lake, beyond the reeds, which had some waders on it, although they seemed to be predominantly Lapwings. The usual impossible craving in such situations came into my head. What if the Sharp tailed Sandpiper was here? I have had these crazed longings and impossible dreams many times in similar situations and they have never been realised and it looked pretty certain I was going to be disappointed this time as well.

Clackers located a distant, large and greyish wader in his bins.'What's that one' he enquired of me.I looked through my scope. 'It's a Black tailed Godwit-there's another one to the right of it' I responded. 'OK. Thanks'. The Lapwings then rose from the mud and I could see a group of smaller waders flying amongst the whirling black and white throng of Lapwings, all of which quickly returned to the mud from whence they had arisen

I put the scope on the smaller waders. Dunlin.

I scanned the now settled Lapwings and Dunlin. 'Hang on Clackers, what is that grey bird with a very long beak and a probing action like a demented sewing machine? It's too small to be a godwit. It's a Long billed Dowitcher! Actually there are two of them!'. Undoubtedly these birds were the two that had been regularly reported from Blagdon Lake for some days prior. Normally this would be a cause for some celebration as they are really good birds to see, being rare and from the USA. but our celebrations were muted as our main prize and the reason for us being here was missing.Nothing but nothing could make up for that.

A ridiculous speculative longing came upon me once more. What if we saw these dowitchers and then by some miracle we saw our main target. Wouldn't that be nice? I scanned the shoreline again. When does blind hope exceed all reasonable expectation? Well  now sadly. There was nothing remotely resembling a Sharp tailed Sandpiper. 

Just for something to do I despondently counted the Lapwings yet again whilst the Dunlin ran around between them. Funny, that wader looks a lot smaller than a Dunlin. It was smaller because it was a stint. I looked at it again and there was something not quite right. It was very grey with no trace of the two pale lines on its back that are present on juvenile Little Stints and its movements were unlike a Little Stint, being slower almost sluggish. Its bill looked slightly thicker and blunt ended although I was attempting this intricate and complicated identification at extreme range with full zoom employed on my scope's eyepiece. Another birder next to me asked me what it was and I said it might be a Semi-palmated Sandpiper but there was no way I could be certain at the range we were looking from and I was calling it as a stint or small peep of some nature and leaving it at that.

Another local birder then said there had been a juvenile  Little Stint around in the last few days and this was probably the bird in question. Because of the distance and the alleged presence of a Little Stint there ensued only a mild discussion amongst us about the identity of the small wader we were looking at and we left it as unproven but both Clackers and myself were minded to err in favour of it being a Semi-palmated Sandpiper but regrettably in such situations one just has to accept that it is not always possible to make a positive identification. A pity as this would  be a really good bird to have found.    

It transpired our suspicions about the stint were correct. It was a Semi-palmated Sandpiper as a local birder managed to get a much closer view of the waders a few days later and this individual stint in particular, and took some conclusive photos which confirmed the identification as a Semi-palmated Sandpiper.

I looked through my scope once more at the muddy shore line, all hope gone now about finding any more unusual waders, least of all a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. We had done pretty well finding two, possibly three species of American waders. There were some old  cut tree stumps standing in the shallow water by the muddy strand and I almost missed a small, brown coloured wader standing motionless, sheltering in front of one of the stumps and rendered almost invisible due to its plumage almost matching the colour of the stump. It moved slightly out from the stump. Hmmmm. A female Ruff? Too small surely? I zoomed the eyepiece of my scope up to its maximum magnification. This revealed a small wader sporting a rusty brown cap, large, flared white supercilia, a dark patch on each ear covert, rich brown upperparts with scaly scapulars and an ill defined orange brown breast band with no streaks contrasting with white underparts, and yellowish green legs. My insides screamed YEEEEEEEESSSSSSSS!! but I held it together, remained outwardly calm and said nothing. I had to be absolutely sure. 

Two minutes passed. A deep breath. 'Have a look at this bird Clackers'. I said quietly. He duly looked through my scope. 'Is that what I think it is?' he said equally quietly. 'Yes Clackers, I do believe it is.' 'Oooh. I will just nip over the road to get my scope from the car. Keep an eye on it, there's a good fellow'. 'Not a problem Clackers, I'm going nowhere.' Clackers returned with his scope and grilled (twitcher speak for looking intently) the bird too. 

I took another deep breath and announced to the half dozen birders present that we had re-found the Sharp tailed Sandpiper. Diplomatically I did not ask what they had all been doing before we arrived. We were congratulated and  then thanked by the  now suddenly excited birders around us.We assisted some of them to locate it on the mud as it was still hard to see against the stumps. Some asked to look through my scope as they could not find it in theirs. 'Please go ahead.' I stood to one side. 'I can only see a Dunlin,' the first to look through my scope stated. I gently mentioned 'It's the brown one with the rusty orange cap and big white supercilium that is not grey and white like all the Dunlin.'  'Are you sure? I thought it would be bigger.'  'No, they are only slightly larger than  a Dunlin with longer legs and bill' I told him. I could not resist applying the coup de grace. 'I have seen quite a few in China you know.'  Really? 'Yes really, that is a juvenile Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. One hundred percent'

Clackers suggests he uses his pager to put the news out. He is the only birder present with one.We debate whether to immediately publicise our find. 'Give it five Clackers-we found it so let's watch and enjoy it for ourselves, just for a bit'. Both of us are now thoroughly enjoying this almost unique moment. 'There's plenty of time. It's not going anywhere soon.' I add. We watch the sandpiper for ten to fifteen minutes.'OK Clackers, get that pager out. Let's go nationwide!'

Twenty minutes later the vanguard of pager alerted birders hurtle up the road from both directions in their cars, most presumably coming from a fruitless vigil at Blagdon Lake. We are surrounded by an increasing throng of anxious birders. 'Where is it mate? Can you give us directions?' I tell them it has flown out of view with the Dunlin flock but it regularly comes back with the Dunlin to the area of mud with all the Lapwings on it. I also tell them about the two Long billed Dowitchers but they are not interested until they have seen the Sharp tailed Sandpiper.

Clackers regaled anyone who would listen about the sequence of events that had led us to find the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. For a tense twenty minutes there is no sign of it, the number of birders present have now reached three figures and I am getting nervous, then as we predicted the sandpiper flew back in with the Dunlin. Everyone gets to see it. We hang around for an hour or so getting some really good but distant views of it as we are at the front of the scrum. Heroes for one day, as David Bowie sung in one of his songs. We also find a drake Goosander and a couple of Bewick's Swans and then we leave everyone to it having decided we have seen enough. The crowd is growing by the minute but we want no part of it. We have had a very good day and it is time to depart. Triumphant.

This was only the second juvenile Sharp tailed Sandpiper to be found in Britain since 1974 and only the 29th record of this species for Britain. Three have also been seen in Ireland

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