Tuesday 4 May 2021

A Wood Sandpiper Saves the Day 2nd May 2021

Today the plan was to go to Boddington Reservoir in Northamptonshire first thing, where a  Grasshopper Warbler was showing itself to all and sundry from literally feet away. Sometimes they are extremely elusive and shy but this individual was the precise opposite. 

Mark and myself got to the site at just before seven  on a sunny, still, but very cold morning and eagerly awaited the warbler's appearance. We waited and waited for one, then two hours, but of the desired warbler there was neither sight nor sound. A Common Whitethroat sang persistently and loudly from an adjacent hedge of blackthorn and hawthorn, only being outdone in volume by a Wren. Blackcaps, Reed Buntings, even a pair of Bullfinches came and went in the hedge while a Sedge Warbler sang its manic, crazed song from a nearby willow.

Common Whitethroat


Bored and disappointed we decided to give it thirty more minutes and then leave. Just before time was up the 'gropper', its name abbreviated to this by many birders, commenced singing but from deep in a hawthorn bush and remained invisible. This reclusive behaviour was, if the previous days were a guide, not  normal for this individual but at least we now knew it was still here. It stopped singing and we eagerly awaited its appearance on its favourite bramble bush but came there nothing.Not a sign of it. Silence reigned as far as the 'gropper' was concerned.

We were joined by another birder with a camera and he told us what a fabulous performance the warbler had put on yesterday morning. He showed us some pictures he had taken yesterday and we ruefully congratulated him.We waited another hour, hoping, and saw the 'gropper' briefly, being chased by the male Common Whitehroat.Was this maybe the cause of its silence? I confess to wishing the whitethroat ill but there was nothing we could do. The whitethroat cheerily sang its song from the top of the hawthorn hedge as if mocking us.

We would never know if the 'gropper' was cowed into silence and reclusiveness by the whitethroat but it was obvious it was not going to delight us with any satisfactory views, so  we decided to quit the scene and drive twenty five miles to Piddington, also in Northamptonshire, to see two Dotterel, resting in the middle of a vast, prairie like farm field. Dotterel would be a lifer for Mark so he was keen to go. 

A forty minute  drive across Northamptonshire brought us to Piddington and the temporary home for the Dotterels which was a large farm with vast acres of barren fields, a hostile environment for nature with hardly a hedge in sight and seemingly devoid of birdlife or any wildlife whatsoever. All this sterile,subjugated land situated right next to a private airfield.

A brisk walk through the wasteland of fields, one vast acreage of tilled earth running into another, brought us to the Dotterel field. and in which the two birds were hunkered down on the soil enjoying a bit of sun. They were fairly distant but with the scope you could make out the broad white superciliums on their heads but little else. Hardly the best of views but Mark was content. The heat haze did not help, rising from the warmed earth and creating a shimmer, making the birds seem like a mirage.

We waited to see what would happen and sure enough the pair rose to their feet and now we could see the rich chestnut and black on their bellies and white breast band.The strong colouring of their plumage suggested these were females, which are, almost uniquely amongst british birds, brighter than the males.

They pottered about, picking at the bare earth and did not look remotely like they would come any closer. So it was scope views only and for me highly unsatisfactory. We gave them ten more minutes of our time and then headed for our final destination, Graven Hill which is near Bicester, in our home county of Oxfordshire.

If we were lucky we would get to see a Wood Sandpiper and a pair of Garganey, frequenting a marshy flash of shallow water, reeds and sedge that used to form part of land owned by the MOD and that has now been relinquished for housing. The fate of the marsh is unknown at the moment but anywhere that can attract a Wood Sandpiper and a pair of Garganey is surely worth preserving or at least attempting to do so.

It was an hour's drive south for us from Piddington and we stopped en route at a large services where a Lesser Whitethroat rattled out his song, surrounded by busy arterial roads and traffic noise.It was singing lustily from a few trees bordering the services car park and that had been spared from the concrete. Nature once more demonstrating, that given the chance, even in the most unpropitious of situations, it will and can re-assert itself .

We stopped here for a sandwich, sitting on a grass bank in the sun to eat them before carrying on to Bicester. Mark knew the area well and directed me up a short unprepossesing small road off a big roundabout. This led into an area of abandoned land reverting to scrub and there by the road was the marsh  that was currently home to two very desirable species of bird.

I drove the car onto the grass verge and we got out to scan the marsh. Naturally there was no sign of the Wood Sandpiper although we knew it had been reported from here earlier today. The Garganey were immediately obvious, filtering the shallow water for food and in the company of a pair of Gadwall.I found a Little Ringed Plover, footling around on the muddy margin of the water and a Lapwing was incubating four eggs, only a few metres from us, on a sandy spit in the marsh.

A car stopped by me and it was Steve, another Oxonbirder, and his wife, just back from a few days in Lincolnshire.They too had come looking for the Wood Sandpiper.

The sandpiper was still nowhere to be found but there was so much habitat for it to lose itself in we were not that downhearted. It was here somewhere and sooner or later it would show itself. An hour later we were not so sure and it was not looking good. I was tiring, ready to write the day off. 

By now I was continuously scanning the opposite shore of the marsh for the sandpiper. Up and down I scanned and finally detected some movement in the grass by the water's edge.It was a bird alright but the patterning on its partially obscured body was not that of the sandpiper. It was a snipe, browns of varying hues and buff lines on its upperparts confirmed the fact. But something was not quite right as it looked smaller and more richly coloured than a Common Snipe. Moreover, it was bobbbing up and down constantly as if on a pogo stick.

It had to be a Jack Snipe. A bit late in the year but despite it only being partially visible there was no doubt as to its identity. I asked Steve to look at it just to confirm my ID which he did and agreed it was a Jack Snipe.He told me he had seen one at Frampton RSPB in Lincolnshire just a couple of days ago. So that was that then.Very nice! I felt a whole lot better, indeed I was energised by this discovery.

As I was scoping the Jack Snipe a small wader flew through my view. It had to be the Wood Sandpiper, which appeared from nowhere but had now disappeared behind some reeds and despite waiting it did not re-emerge. So frustrating as we knew it was there but the reeds hid it and despite scoping the whole bank endlessly I could not re-find it.

The Jack Snipe too had disappeared, scared back into the cover of the sedge by a Carrion Crow that was making a constant nuisance of itself and really annoying the male Lapwing, that time and again rose from incubating its eggs to  dive bomb the crow in 'stuka' fashion and chase it well  away from the nest site but the crow always returned and the whole episode was renacted time and again. The male Lapwing was identifiable by his very long and spiky crest whilst the female had demonstratively shorter plumes on her head. The male seen close to was breathtakingly beautiful.What appears from a distance a black and white bird that swirls in flocks over fallow winter fields was now in full breeding regalia, a kaleidoscope of colours, purple, emerald and blue tones coalesced through its dark green upperbody plumage.Its head and chest a striking contrast of black and white.

The Garganey, meanwhile fed constantly, heads below the water sifting the mud for food but in the end they had enough and flew from one end of the marsh to the other to preen and then briefly sleep before once more hunger drove them back to feeding.

Both Mark and myself scanned the marsh frequently but to no avail as far as finding the sandpiper was concerned. Finally one sweep of the far shore located the Wood Sandpiper under the bank, bathing and preening. Where it had been we knew not but here it was now and that was all that mattered. We watched it for a few minutes and then the consistently annoying crow, flew too close  and scared it into flight and we lost sight of it.We knew it flew to the right but where? Frantic scanning failed to relocate it. Bloody crow! First it was a whitethroat this morning thwarting us and now a crow this afternoon.  Over half an hour later we had only added two Common Snipe to our tally and with no sign of the sandpiper Mark was keen to head for home. Reluctantly I conceded that it was for the best.We walked back towards the car and then Mark said 'There it is!' 'Where?' 'Right there in front of us.'  And indeed it was - very close to the edge of the marsh that lay below where we stood. While we had been scanning the far side of the marsh it may well have been close to the nearer edge all the time. The sandpiper saw us and decided we were too close for comfort and flew, displaying a mottled pale brown body and wings, closely barred tail and a distinctive white rump. My heart sank. Not for the first time today I may add. Was it going to disappear again? The answer was, thankfully no, as it flew only a short distance and settled, still close to us. Bobbing and jerking its head in a classic demonstration of wader anxiety. Led to believe it was flighty and wary we stood absolutely still, hoping. For once it worked and the sandpiper became calm, standing motionless, facing away from us, a silhouettte, its tiny form bowered amongst the emergent vegetation and easily overlooked. 

A few seconds later it commenced wandering through the sedge and reeds picking morsels from the green spikes or rush and leaves of aquatic plants, the identities of which were well beyond my capabilities. It gently bobbed its hind parts as it moved, a distinctive sandpiper behaviour. A comforting calming motion for both bird and, certainly in my case, observer. 

As it strolled through the water we came to the realisation it was not shy at all and was showing hardly any concern at our presence and even commenced to wander towards us at one point. It was very thorough, assiduously examining every spike and leaf for prey, darting out its long delicate bill to seize anything it found.

This was our golden opportunity to get some good pictures. My impression was of a supremely elegant mid sized wader, devoid of the more portly stature of the similar looking Green Sandpiper and,  with longer legs and neck, it had a grace all of its own. Its slim form could get lost in the sedge and reeds and it was obvious to see how easy it could be to overlook it. 

Its plumage is frankly unremarkable in that there are no obvious bright colours or  markings that catch the eye.It appears pleasantly streaked and spotted, some say mottled, on a base colour of brown on its upperparts and white below. A subtle understated garb that is still attractive in its own fashion.Long straw coloured legs carried it through the shallow water as it hunted its prey. It was, as I mentioned, apparently untroubled by our presence and continued to feed in typical wader fashion by stopping every so often, to look and listen, as if startled by something and then, after due consideration, recommenced its patrolling through the vegetation. Any alarm from other birds on the marsh brought it to an immediate stop with neck extended, tense and alert to any potential danger. The crow was often the cause for anxiety, especially when being pursued by the endlessly attentive Lapwing. 

By good fortune the sandpiper had chosen to feed close to the Lapwing's nest so the crow was kept well away for the most part.

Wood Sandpipers are long distance migrants, breeding from Denmark, Fennoscandia then east throughout northern Russia to Kamchatka and a few pairs are breeding in the Highlands of Scotland. They spend their winters throughout Africa south of the Sahara and I have seen them in numbers in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Tanzania.They are classed as a scarce passage migrant to Oxfordshire but this Spring in particular, there have been an exceptional number of records from the county. They are often compared to the Green Sandpiper, being superficially similar in appearance and size but their closest relative is the Common Redshank.

Arguably these were the best views I have ever had of a Wood Sandpiper so I was reluctant to leave but I turned away from the sandpiper, that was still feeding very close to us, as Mark was anxious to get home, his back was troubling him and it had been a long day after all. I could have remained longer but it was the right decision to leave when we did.

The Grasshopper Warbler disappointment was all but forgotten after this stellar performance by the Wood Sandpiper.