Monday 19 August 2019

The Remarkable Sanderling 17th August 2019

After three hours sitting in the Shrike Meadow hide waiting for a Kingfisher which failed to put in an appearance I was just a bit downhearted so made my way back to the reservoir causeway to try and find the two juvenile Sanderlings. They at least would be certain to be more co-operative if I could only locate them.

Sanderlings are remarkable birds in that they, along with just a select few species have appeared in more countries than almost any other bird species. They are true wanderers of the world, their constant and restless demeanour when feeding on the sea shore or indeed Farmoor Reservoir's unlikely concrete shores is  replicated and magnified to grand proportions by their heroic migrations. 

A Sanderling born in Arctic Russia, and, when fully grown, weighing no more than 100 grammes, will migrate to western Europe and then fly onwards to South Africa, which may well be the case with the two juveniles currently here at Farmoor. A Sanderling breeding on Ellesmere Island may spend the winter in Tierra del Fuego and others cross Asia to fly to Tasmanian or New Zealand beaches, a round trip of thirty thousand kilometres. Peter Matthiessen wrote 'One only has to consider the life force packed right into that puff of feathers to lay the mind wide open to the mysteries - the order of things, the why and the beginning.' Indeed.

Farmoor's central causeway in the early afternoon was not an unpleasant place to be. Admittedly a blustery wind was churning the waters into waves that beat against the concrete in a pale imitation of the real thing one would find at the seashore but the sun was warm and bright in a blue sky and sparkling off the wave tops. All one felt that was needed now was a beach but the next best thing for a Sanderling was Farmoor's concrete edges which, with a current slight drop in water levels, had become more exposed than is usual.

I walked half way down the causeway, the wind whipping around my legs  and scattering moulted goose, duck and gull feathers, which whirled in eccentric spirals ahead of me, driven into the air by the relentless wind. The sun's brightness became almost too intense, a glare reflecting off the whitened exposed concrete by the water. Of a Sanderling there was initially no sign but in the distance there came into sight a small bird, a wader resolutely hugging the shoreline, almost running in constant  rapid movement, heading inexorably towards me. The speed at which it moved and its feeding action enabled me to identify it at long range. No other small wader behaves in quite such a frenetic way when feeding. A constant picking at the surface whilst forever progressing 'fast forward' as if in some hurry to reach an unknown destination. It was a juvenile Sanderling, what else, its underparts a dazzle of pristine whiteness.

As usual it was totally indifferent to me or anyone else, moving ever nearer, sometimes running up the concrete to search the tiny nooks and crannies underneath the retaining wall but then descending on twinkling black legs to once again follow the water's edge. 

It has been called a 'tireless toy bird' due to its almost comical and rhythmic clockwork like motion as it follows the tide back and forth but here it was impossible for it to run in and out after the waves, as the waves here are not tidal but form an endless lapping that neither moves in or out but beats on the concrete in mini explosions of white water. 

Today was different to the preceding day's encounters with the Sanderlings. The sun's bright light put the Sanderling in a context unknown to me since I last saw them in Africa, shining a similar luminescent white in the brilliant light of the tropics.

The Sanderling approached closer and paused when almost upon me and even then it was for just a few seconds. A brief look to see what my intentions were, a slight hesitation, a shake of its feathers and then it was back to perpetual motion, running onwards past me, picking at the ground as it went.

I have noticed this about many waders here. Carry on walking past them at a normal pace  and they cease to worry, but stop and make eye contact and it is a different matter, as they become edgy and anxious and eventually, if you continue to look at them and follow them, they will fly, although not very far. Just enough to put a reasonable distance between you and them.

I never did locate the second Sanderling which from my experiences of the past few days was usually  to be found in close attendance. Had it gone or fallen victim to the local Sparrowhawk which finds good hunting patrolling the causeway and surprising one of the many juvenile Pied Wagtails? Another small wader approached along the same shoreline but it was a juvenile Dunlin, smaller than the Sanderling but only just and with a markedly slower, relaxed feeding style.

This will probably be the Sanderling's last day here. Its departure will take with it the undoubted glamour and romance of  its all too brief presence and I will remember with affection this diminutive wader and the joy it brought me with its stopover at Farmoor. Along with countless others of its kind it is bound for southern lands of almost constant sun, far from these prosaic surroundings.

I wish I too could follow.

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