Saturday 2 April 2022

The White tailed Plover at Frampton 31st March 2022

In late August of last year Mark, Peter and myself went to see a Black browed Albatross at Bempton Cliffs RSPB in Yorkshire and after successfully twitching it,  on our way back south, we dropped in at Blacktoft Sands RSPB to see a White tailed Plover, another major rarity that originates from Central Asia and the Middle East. Success was ours here too but little did we know that this bird, assumed to be lingering for only a few days before moving on, would remain throughout the autumn and winter and transfer its allegiance in early Spring to Frampton Marsh RSPB, a little further south in neighbouring Lincolnshire.

When we saw the plover at Blacktoft Sands  it was elusive and distant but lately at Frampton Marsh it has been showing very well at times, frequenting the scrapes around the East Hide on that excellent reserve. A conversation with Mark last Saturday, while viewing the Green winged Teal he had found  at Tring, eventually had us deciding on going for the plover.

We settled on Thursday but as the week progressed it became clear the weather was rapidly deteriorating and winter had returned after a week of very benign temperatures and sunshine. On Wednesday night Mark said snow was forecast and he was going to wait until next week to go and see the plover.

I think Mark had checked the BBC weather forecast which ever since they  parted company with the Met Office has, in my opinion been unreliable. I still use the Met Office which I find far superior. Why the BBC stopped using the Met Office is beyond me, probably to do with money but there we are.

I had set my heart on going to see the plover, no matter what, and informed Mark that I was going as my weather forecast for Thursday showed only minor snow flurries with mainly sunshine, so I envisaged little problem in driving to Lincolnshire. 

I was hardly surprised when Mark, having changed his mind sent a text stating

See you at mine at 8am

The journey to Mark's was not the best start to my day as the traffic was horrendous. Used to travelling in the night to twitches I had forgotten just how bad daytime traffic is these days in the busy periods. We had opted to meet at 8am and make a leisurely journey to Lincolnshire. Of course that time in the morning put me right in the rush hour and as a consequence I found  myself entangled in slow and occasionally non moving lines of traffic and arrived at Mark's too late for the breakfast we had planned in a local cafe.

So no food and survival would now depend on coffee somewhere on route.

Worse was to come, as on approaching Mark's home the skies darkened and snow began to fall. Surely it was one of the flurries the Met Office had forecast and would soon pass but as the flakes became ever larger and prolific I  began to feel a little foolish and apprehensive. As we set off north it was all too apparent we were in a full on blizzard. With my forecasting credibility rapidly disappearing I was mightily relieved to find that after twenty minutes of hazardous driving we were back into sunshine and blue skies.How bizarre.

And so it remained throughout our tedious journey across eastern England, passing through a land of flat and vast fields, featureless and drear, all that was formerly the fens now subjugated by monoculture farming, a land drenched with herbicide, insecticide and devoid of hedges. Most definitely not worth stopping for on the miles of dead straight roads that seem to run forever to nowhere through this unenticing part of England.  

We finally brought our highway agony to an end by turning off onto a winding secondary road that led to Frampton Marsh RSPB, itself flat and featureless but deliberately kept flooded and managed sympathetically with the consequence birds congregate here in their many hundreds.

Getting out of the car a ferocious and bitterly cold northeast wind whipped at us. A wind of which we had gained little inclination of how hostile and discomfiting it was, while driving in the sanctuary of the car. Jeez but it was cold and the wind stung my face with its icy breath.

There was no incentive to hang about and we made our way to the East Hide which is the most distant hide on the reserve. A walk of half a mile. Why is it always this way? The wind was right in our faces blowing non stop from The Wash and then Siberia beyond and with nothing whatsoever to hinder its progress across the flat landscape. My eyes watered profusely and my fingers froze in my gloves.. 

We wound our way along an exposed track to the East Hide and entered. It was not as crowded as I had feared with only two other birders present and like us armed with cameras They told us they had been here since sunrise.

Any sign of the plover?

Yes, its hunkered down  out of the wind on that small grassy spit you can just see through the reeds over there. Its head is silhouetted against the water if you look very closely.


I looked and saw and then slumped onto an unforgiving, cold and very hard bench. Tired, half frozen and annoyed that the wind had probably put paid to any chance of a nice close view of this very rare plover. It should be spending the winter in the warmth of East Africa or India, but instead had been wowing every visitor with fabulous views. Up until today that is, before the wind arrived.

Such was the location of the hide the wind had little to prevent it from howling at hurricane pace through the open windows, just in case anyone had any ideas of feeling sheltered and vaguely comfortable. Perish the thought.

My view from the East Hide
However, although the plover looked set never to move until the wind lessened, which was predicted to be two days hence, there were other birds to see and admire. Squawling Black headed Gulls dotted the scrapes and grass, shining white in the sun  while Avocets, that other black and white occupant of the reserve ran about in courting pairs, seemingly untroubled by the wind. Black tailed Godwits swirled in close formation above the marsh, alarmed by a Marsh Harrier and hundreds of Brent Geese faced into the wind on a flash of wind lashed water.

Other birders joined us in the hide and we did our best to guide them to the still unmoving and barely visible plover. One, possibly two hours passed and the plover, apart from the occasional brief sortie on its grassy spit  remained rooted to its chosen spot, mostly out of view. It was all too much and I laid my head on my arms, resting on the shelf in front of the hide window and sought solace in sleep. It was a half awake nightmare of trying to pretend that the cold and disappointment meant nothing to me.

Somewhile later a shout awoke me from my troubled slumber as Mark cried out 

It's over here!

Un-noticed the plover had unexpectedly flown to the other side of the hide where the wind was at its worst, hurling itself in extended and ferocious gusts at the hide.We had to have the windows fully open to see the plover but this allowed a screaming banshee that was the wind to enter unhindered and blast us into frozen immobility but there was nothing we could do but try to bear it.

The plover was wandering, in its plovery way, on some mud amongst a mass of short, dead reed stalks but even when it was visible there was always a spike or two of dead reed to ruin any potential photographic masterpiece, that is if you could hold the camera steady in the wind. All of us sat wishing we were dead and if we continued sitting in this wind we probably would be from hypothermia.

The plover carried on its wandering and finally gave one brief opportunity for a burst of ten frames per second of togging and then went back to hiding in the prolific reed stalks.By now we were all shaking uncontrollably, not with excitement but cold! All of us virtually paralysed by the wind chill but refusing to give in.

My initial impression of the White tailed Lapwing? 

It possessed very long and fragile looking, bright yellow legs. Knitting needles or pipe cleaners spring to mind. Its body, already plump was doubly so due to its being fluffed up to repel the cold. Consequently its head looked that bit too small for its body. Plumage wise it was a pale greyish brown on its head and upperparts, the colour of the mud it was walking on, while its breast was smoky grey and the rest of its underparts pure white.In flight the all white tail was very noticeable as was the black and white patterning of its wings.Its progress was typical of a plover, with many stops  interspersed with halting steps, surveying for prey.

The plover then did us all an immense favour and flew back to the opposite side of the hide. Cue an indecently rapid decampment from one side of the hide to the other where it was fractionally warmer. That is until we opened the windows.

The plover had landed a little way further off from its original position when we first arrived and was busy feeding along the edge of another grassy scrape. By standing on a mound near to the  hide I managed to see it over the reeds as it wandered back and fore.

Once more it flew but not very far and this time landed on an open area not very far from the hide. Here at last was our chance and those of us still able to hold a camera or bins took advantage of this unexpected opportunity..

It did not remain for long but enough for everyone to be reasonably happy. It then flew far out onto the marsh, not that it had any choice as the wind took it there whether it liked it or not.There it became its former self from earlier in the morning when we first got a glimpse of it i.e a pale brown lump very similar to all the other pale brown lumps out there that were not a White tailed Plover. 

We sat for another hour hoping it would return and come closer, listening to the endless chorus of squawking gulls and the liquid calls of Avocets. A male Sparrowhawk whipped past the hide and the swirls of godwits continued their periodic formation flying to a backdrop of scudding clouds. A Mediterranean Gull yelped its way across the sky, tacking into the wind, dazzling white in the sun, while humpbacked Ruff busied themselves, fussing along  on wind buffeted shorelines.

In the end it was just too much of a hardship to remain in the hide any longer. Six hours in what almost amounted to a refrigerator was becoming beyond endurance and we exited the hide.

A snow flurry engulfed us and then the sun shone as the wind grew even more in strength.The elements almost mocking us.

The sense of relief once we were in the car and out of the wind was palpable.

Fish and chips? Mark enquired

Mushy peas as well?  I asked

You bet.

Let's go!

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