Monday, 30 November 2009

Lower Brook Farm Spotted Sandpiper

Now that my patch, Port Meadow, is back in action I've been going there regularly but I'd not been on an "out of town" birding trip for some time and was starting to get twitchy for something a little different. I'd noticed that several spotted sandpiper had appeared recently: one at Abberton Reservoir in Essex seemed a little too far away, as did one in Topsham in Devon but one at Lower Brook Farm in Hampshire looked to be a more reasonable distance so I'd been keeping an eye on sightings and it seemed to be pretty constantly seen every day. Accordingly today I decided to take the morning off and to nip down there for a bijou twitchette.

The day that I'd chosen was starting out cold and rainy though the forecast was for it to brighten up later so I wasn't too downhearted as I headed south on the A34 in the driving rain. The journey there was uneventful and took a shade over an hour. The only interesting part was when I arrived at the car park which had a very low height restriction bar, so low in fact that it was a squeeze to get the new car in under it with the roof rack bars still on. I managed it but there was a bit of a scraping as I went in! On the ten minute walk up a rather muddy track along the river there were loads of winter thrushes and tits feeding in the hedgerow and a female sparrow hawk glided silently away ahead of me. I soon found myself standing as per the Bird Guides instructions on the Lower Brook footbridge over the river Test looking at the lawn and drive of what was a large and very nicely situated house. This house was on a small island around which the river parted. There was an immaculate close-cropped lawn and a small summer house and few trees. It didn't seem to be your typical sandpiper terrain and indeed there was no immediate sign of the bird but I'd read that it was only showing intermittently so I waited and scanned. Whilst waiting for the bird to show I noted three little grebes and several swans on the river, a greater spotted woodpecker and a mistle thrush calling in the trees behind me, a grey wagtail and kingfisher flying about and a kestrel caught something in the field at the end of the bridge.

A short time later a fellow birder turned up asking if I'd seen the bird. I was just telling him that it had not yet shown when I spotted it walking next to the tarmac drive near the house. There wasn't time to get the scope onto it before a car came out of the house and the bird moved off. The car stopped by us and the lady inside asked whether the bird was still there. When we informed her of its continuing presence she very kindly said that we could go and stand at the end of her drive to get a better view. We thanked her for this and took up her offer. From here we were able to see the bird which was now working its away along the fringe of the side channel. It seemed to be finding loads of food and would periodically pull up a huge earth worm which it consumed with gusto. Shortly thereafter it flew to a more distant channel before disappearing for a while. At this point we were joined by a third birder who was a little disappointed that we couldn't put him straight on to the bird but after a little wait it appeared again and we all got good views.

The bird had originally been reported as a "possible" and from close inspection one could see that the reason for this was its leg colour which wasn't the typically diagnostic yellow of a spotted sandpiper but was more greeny in colour. However the various other identification points were all there: short tail projection; plain back and tertials with just fringing on the coverts; a rather pinkish bill with a black tip and not much of a white wing bar in flight (there's supposed to be less white on the inner portion of the wing though I didn't get a good enough flight view to ascertain where the white was). As usual I tried to do some digiscoping but the light was so bad that it was not possible to get any sort of shutter speed even at ISO 800 so I once more resorted to videograbbing. The results are acceptable record shots given the conditions.

From these videograbs you can see the pinkish bill with the black tip, the short tail projection and just make out that the back and tertials are relatively plain.

The journey back was a little more eventful: I had to remove the roof bars before I could get out of the car park and I took a wrong turning and found myself heading south instead of north along the A34 though it wasn't long before the next junction where I could turn round and head in the right direction.

A very nice little twitch to see a subtle bird that required some thought and observation to distinguish from its commoner cousin. A lifer for me as well as another national year tick.

National Year List 2009
231: spotted sandpiper 30/11/09 Lower Brook, Hants. (LIFER)

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