Now as regular readers will know, I'm not a great twitcher. I diligently work my patch on Port Meadow and will make occasional forays out of county for something that's reasonably close and nicely bedded down (i.e. showing predictably over a a series of days) - these rules are designed to minimise the pain of dipping. To go for something the first proper day it's being reported in almost unheard of for me (Cream Coloured Courser being the only exception that I can recall). However there have been a couple of contributing factors which today lead me to break this general rule and go for a bit of full-on filthy twitching.
The first factor has been the lack of any off-county outings for three months now. My last outing was the Courser in May and apart from a family holiday in Cornwall I've not been birding out of the county at all since then. The summer doldrums had come and driven me to take up mothing (which I'm really enjoying). Autumn is basically upon us but throughout August there'd been nothing within range: all the good stuff appearing in the furthest reaches of Scotland or along the East coast far up country. All this had lead to a build up of twitchers lust or whatever you call it: a longing to go and see something good!
The second factor is eBay. Occasional my VLW decides to buy some piece of furniture, often for the house in Cornwall though now that is furnished and let out. However, she's been searching for a narrow cupboard that will fit in a small alcove in our front lounge for several years now. It's a particularly narrow space and until now she'd not been able to find anything that would fit. However, recently she came across the perfect piece and with some tactical sniping at the end of the auction we managed to secure it for a bargain price. The item was located in Bath and the seller was flexible on when it could be picked up. As it fell to me to drive over and pick it up (a huge Brownie point bonus) this effectively meant that I could wait for a good bird to turn up in that general area and then combine the two in the one trip with the full blessing of my VLW. It's effectively a free "Twitch a bird near Bath" card.
Now "near Bath" is very much open to interpretation and I can be quite liberal in such matters when it suits. A Short-billed Dowitcher had been found yesterday at Lodmoor in Weymouth. Initially identified as a Long-billed but by the evening "promoted" to Short-billed when better photographs finally emerged. When it was reported as still being present first thing the next day I started to wonder just how far Weymouth is from Bath. Actually on the map, Bath isn't that far off a straight line from Oxford to Weymouth and after showing this fact to my VLW on a map even she was convinced enough to sanction my spontaneous twitch - I guess that she was just keen to get her cupboard. Anyway, it was a little after 9 a.m. that I set off and arrived some two and a half hours later at Lodmoor, a site that I'm familiar with, having stopped off there a couple of times en route to Cornwall (Weymouth is pretty much en route to anywhere vaguely south-west of Oxford in my book). I arrived and gave Badger a call, fully expecting him to have been there from first light. To my amazement I found that he was still on his way with Ewan "Two Eyes" and that I'd actually arrived for a twitch before him - unheard of! On the journey I'd been following progress and after the first couple of reports it had all gone ominously quiet after 8 am and sure enough it had not been seen since then. En route I'd been progressively thinking that I might have been a bit premature on all this and that waiting for it to become better established might have been wiser. Still I was there now.
All the birders were lined up along the south-west side of the reserve where it had been last seen but somehow I really didn't fancy standing around for hours waiting so I decided to wander around a bit, safe in the knowledge that should it re-appear then word would quickly be put out on RBA. I bumped into a chap called Phil Woollen (who has a blog called The Wirral Birder) who'd also been thinking that other parts of the reserve should be checked out so we worked our way around together. It was remarkably empty on the rest of the reserve with just a few Common Sandpipers to show for our efforts though I did manage to find a Painted Lady, presumably freshly "in off". We kept checking back at the line of birders on the opposite side to see if they looked like they were watching something but they seemed to be mooching around still. By this time getting on for a couple of hours had passed and with the clock very much ticking for me (I still had to get over to Bath) I was very much starting to resign myself to a massive dip.
I took a few half-hearted photos whilst wandering around
As we were working our way back round to where the main twitching crowd was I got a call from Badger and Ewan who'd finally arrived and I said that I'd see them round there. A short time later classic twitch Chinese Whispers started: they called back saying they'd overheard another guy in the car park who'd got a call that someone had seen the bird though the directions seemed to be wrong as the next thing they turned up along the south-east (sea-ward) side and we assured them that there was no one else birding along there. We all hurried on back to the south-west corner where eventually through some phone calls Phil determined that it was in fact in that corner where it had been seen. We elected to go along the road to the tip and view from the vantage point of the old rubbish dump which offered an elevated outlook over the marsh. Eventually the rumour mill filtered through to us determining the narrow channel where it had briefly been seen though of course there was nothing to be seen. The next half an hour or so was spent staring at this channel and chatting. Suddenly a shout from Lee Evans woke us all up: he had the bird in view though from a more acute angle where he could see further down the channel. We all rushed over to where he was and arranged ourselves so we could all more or less see. Suddenly the bird was out in the open, creeping along the edge of the reeds and with hurried directions we got onto it. It was on show for a couple of minutes during which time we all saw it apart from poor old Joan Thompson who was too short to view it through any of the offered scopes. I managed to get reasonable views and to check out the strong patterning on the tertials though it wasn't out long enough for me to take any photos or video footage. We kept expecting it to re-appear in the same spot but some half an hour later it had not reappeared and I'd run out of time. Thankful at having seen it I headed back to the car park whilst Badger and Ewan decided to head down to the lower but closer viewing point on the reserve itself.
Some of the twitchers on the rubbish mound overlooking the reserve.
That's LGRE in the white shirt.
I programmed the cupboard address into the Sat Nav, fired up the Gnome-mobile and headed off towards Bath. En route I picked up regular RBA texts saying that the bird was showing again briefly before finally giving itself up properly and "showing well" so had I'd been able to stay I would eventually have got a prolonged look at it. However, given that I'd been staring a dip full in the face, I wasn't complaining about my views! I arrived at Bath and the vendor's house after a couple of hours journey - thank heavens for the Sat Nat or I'd never have navigated myself through Bath itself and it's one-way systems. After that it was a quick call to my VLW to say when I'd be back for dinner and then the final leg of the journey back from Bath to Oxford. It had been a long and tiring day though I'd managed to see my target bird and to get the cupboard so everyone was happy.
This is what all the fuss was about, well worth twitching!...
...with this as a bonus (c) Badger
This gives me an opportunity to waffle about ID a little - something I'm very interested in but often don't seem actually to be able to put into practice! There's an interesting article here about Dowitcher ID which is worth a read. The bottom line though is that for juveniles (such as our bird) the strongly-marked tertials is the best diagnostic though the relative amount of black and white in the tail is also useful: SB has more white than black as you can more or less see from the above photo and vice versa for LB though this isn't always diagnostic. Also LBD has a unique diagnostic call mono-syllabic call whereas SBD had a di-syllabic one though apparently LBD can do something like it as well.
...and here is some superb Badger (c) video