Monday 19 April 2021

Spot the Red 17th April 2021

If you have read my previous blogpost you will have learned that Mark and myself finished off a remarkable day of birding, on Wednesday, at Sidlesham Ferry in West Sussex. The target bird there was a Spotted Redshank that was moulting into summer plumage. We saw the bird after some effort but the views were, from my point of view, unsatisfactory in that it was distant and all in all I was a little disappointed that we could not see it better than we did.

On Friday came news of a Grasshopper Warbler, the first for the year at Farmoor, reeling its ventriloquial song at Pinkhill Lock which is on the River Thames and lies adjacent to the reservoir. I was in a quandary as I had resolved to return to Sidlesham on Saturday to try and get better views of the Spotted Redshank but here was an elusive Grasshopper Warbler right on my doorstep. Which should I go and see?

Later that evening I had solved the dilemna. 

I decided to rise at dawn on Saturday to try and see the Grasshopper Warbler at Farmoor and then drive down to Sussex to see the Spotted Redshank. I knew, if it went to plan, it would be possible to spend an hour or so with the warbler and then make the two hour drive to Sidlesham Ferry which would mean arriving at just after low tide. The state of the tide meant that the redshank would, with luck, be closer to me than before as the channel it was inhabiting would be reduced to a thin line of water surrounded by mud and the redshank would be feeding at the water's edge and, as a consequence be closer. You will note a lot of speculation but birding involves just that. 

Six am found me at Pinkhill Lock but my hopes were dashed as there was no reeling song from the Grasshopper Warbler. I stood overlooking the area of scrub it had been heard from but there was nothing. The sun was rising and taking the chill off the air but the river remained wreathed in low lying mist that would only burn off once the sun rose further.

Frankly getting bored, I decided to walk the reservoir causeway to see if any waders had put down there which regularly happens at migration times. I would then return to see if the Grasshopper Warbler was singing. Not much hope in this I knew but it was better than standing doing and hearing nothing.

I got to the causeway and commenced walking down it. A Common Sandpiper flew from me, out over the reservoir in that stiff winged, low over the water flight they employ. Half way down the causeway a small flock of larger waders circled over the reservoir and then passed over the smaller basin. Raising my bins I could hardly conceal my pleasure as, on focusing on them, I  identified eight Bar tailed Godwits, the majority being  males in their superb summer plumage of brick red underparts and dark upperparts, patterned with brown and black.

The sun was comparatively weak at this early hour and cast a gentle light on them, illuminating their colours and imparting a golden glow that encompassed their bodies. They circled and I willed them to land but to no avail, for they rose higher and headed away to the northeast .With some anxiety I checked my camera to see if I had managed to capture them in flight and for once found I had been moderately successful. How easily one's mood can change. From mild disappointment at missing out on the Grasshopper Warbler, an unforeseen opportunity had brought me unbounded pleasure. 

Bar tailed Godwits

Thoughts of the un-cooperative warbler quickly vanished with this minor triumph and although I went back to wait at the scrubby area  my heart was no longer in it and anyway there was still no evidence of the warbler. Another song, not heard since last Spring came from a hawthorn. A cheery warble encapsulating the boundless optimism of the season. It was a Common Whitethroat, the first at the reservoir this year and a nice bonus to add to the godwits. 

The godwits had detained me longer than I planned and now I was faced with a two hour drive. It was touch and go and briefly I wavered but then thoughts of the delights of a Spotted Redshank strengthend my resolve and I took the road southwards.

It was, as often it is, a huge gamble.There was no guarantee I would get to see the Spotted Redshank any closer than last time. It could be anywhere in the channel, maybe totally out of sight. But nothing ventured nothing gained and I took the chance as I often do, although there was some calculation involved. I had checked the tide times at Sidlesham and knew the tide would be around its lowest when I planned to arrive and thus the bird would probably be feeding rather than roosting, as they do at high tide. It had been reported from its favoured channel yesterday and some good  photos of it, also from yesterday, had been published on social media. My main concern was the sun which was predicted to shine all day.Would it be in such a position and of such strength, in mid morning, to affect photography?

I had to take the risk and, there we have it - hope. The birders constant companion.

The benefits of cruise control on the car made the long drive relatively untaxing and I drew up in the unmade layby on the busy road that leads to Selsey. Sidlesham Ferry Pool was on the other side of the road but apart from two Avocets, around thirty roosting Black tailed Godwits and scattered Shelducks, slumped in the grass sunning themselves, it was quiet.

The creek or channel of water I was interested in lay on my side of the road, on the other side of a hedge. The channel wound its way through saltmarsh out onto the expanse of Pagham Harbour, now an RSPB reserve. A track led down the south side of the channel where I could get close, before the track turned away, following the saltmarsh which formed the boundary of the reserve.

I looked along the channel and found two birds feeding almost side by side, slowly walking away from me along the edge of the mud. Waders.  Both long legged but one taller and larger in the body than the other. A Black tailed Godwit was the larger and its companion was - the Spotted Redshank! 

My gamble had paid off and how. The bird was as close as I could have ever wished but there was now another problem confronting me if I wished to fulfil my desire to get my photos - the position and strength of the sun. I needed to get to the other side of the birds as the sun was currently shining directly at me. I walked swiftly down the track and took a convenient little spur to my right that brought me out to the very edge of the channel and in front of the two advancing birds.

The two of them, noticing my presence halted their progress. Unsure, but not alarmed enough to fly. I held my breath and stood absolutely still.This could go either way and the prospect of being so close and being denied this opportunity did not bear contemplating. The godwit, after pausing for a few seconds, turned and commenced walking in a leisurely fashion back the other way but the redshank, after much neck jerking and head bobbing, a characterisic of Tringa waders when they are mildly anxious, recommenced its elegant meandering towards me, its long bill darting down to seize at morsels on either side of it.

My opportunity had come, right here, right now and I made maximum use of it. Nearer and nearer the redshank approached but finally decided it was too close to me for comfort,  waded into the water and swam the short distance across the channel. 

It walked up onto the exposed mud on the other side and immediately recommenced its search for food.

Its position was now no good for photography, the strength of the sun and the bright reflections on the wet mud were too much. I laid the camera down and settled to watch the redshank feeding opposite me. Slowly it wandered further away down the channel. I lay on a bank of coarse grass, pleasantly sheltered from any cold wind, the sun warm on my face. Relaxed and content, enjoying this time of inactivity after my drive south. I watched a couple of godwits feeding.

Black tailed Godwit

Half an hour passed dreamily in this quiet corner. No one came to disturb my reverie. I was at peace and reclined in the grass to see if the redshank might return. It never did but you know, it really did not matter.


  1. Great stuff! Glad you’re past the worst of public-health restraints there. Please may you have much more to enjoy in the days and weeks to come. And thanks as ever for these reports!

    1. Best wishes to you too Nick.Take care.We will come through this