Tuesday, 6 November 2012

A Brief History of Rare Plovers

More Accurately: "More Than You Could Possibly Want To Know About Rare Plovers on Port Meadow"

It's not every day that one gets to find a nice bit of rare on one's own patch. After what has been a very lean year on my patch at Port Meadow I finally managed to get some reward for my daily visits in the form of a juvenile American Golden Plover. What's more, it's a bird that has "history" as far as the Meadow is concerned so I thought that I'd fill readers in on all the background information. Most county birders will already know most of this so it's more for the benefit of my off-county readers that I write all this.

It all started back in the autumn of 2008. I'd only taken up birding again (after giving up as a teenager) the previous year and was still quite frankly a bit crap at it ("what's changed?" I hear you ask). If I recall, I'd been pestering Ian Lewingon (our esteemed County Recorder and bird illustrating and identifying god) about some ID issue (I think that I'd found a Dunlin or something and was trying to string it into a yank peep). We got talking and he'd told me to keep a look out for American Golden Plovers in amongst the large Golden Plover flock that frequented the Meadow at that time of year. I dutifully started checking out the flock on subsequent visits though to be honest I had no idea what I was looking for. A couple of days later I rang Ian up to say that I'd seen a rather funny looking Golden Plover and did he want to go and check it out. He dutifully went down to the Meadow and then about an hour later I got a call from him to say that he'd found the bird and it was indeed an AGP. He then went on to describe the bird which was very dark and smaller than the surrounding European GP. At this point I confessed that the bird I'd spotted actually had been a rather pale bird so I had in fact just randomly latched onto a rather pale bog-standard plover and had dragged Ian down on what should have been a wild goose chase. The fact that he'd managed by chance to find the real deal whilst there remains for me one of the all time great birding coincidences that will never cease to amaze me. This was after all a county first so it's not as if they were that common here or anything. Anyway, I hot-footed it down to the Meadow (only a couple of minutes bike ride away) and Ian eventually got me on to the bird which I enjoyed in the company of a half dozen or so county birders who were also there. The flock was incredibly flighty and every few minutes they would go up, wheel around for a while before settling again. With each "reshuffle" there was a frantic period of trying to find the bird before they all took off again. However, after yet another reshuffle, when the birds finally settled the AGP could not be found and we realised that it must have been one of the few birds that peeled off from the flock during the wheeling. Over the next few weeks there were occasional stringy claims of the bird having been seen again by single observers but there was never anything substantiated nor any photos and to all intents and purposes it had spent only a couple of hours on the Meadow and been seen by a lucky half dozen or so county birders.
It's noticeable how much it stood out from the crowd with it's dark grey colouring 
and smaller size (c) Nic Hallam

Here's a nice digiscoped videograb (c) Ian Lewington

Fast forward to 2012. There'd been no rare plover action on the Meadow (or anywhere else in the county) in the intervening years. I'm still working the Port Meadow patch - Lee Evans recently referred to me as a "Port Meadow obsessive" in one of his blog postings and I guess that I can't really argue with that. Anyway, I'm on one of my runs around the patch: in an effort to keep fit I occasionally go for a run around the patch carrying my bins and a pocket point & shoot camera. It enables me to cover the rest of the patch apart from the floods and it does afford me a reasonable level of exercise. Back to the story: I come across the golden plover flock and dutifully scan through. The last bird in the flock is this little chap:

Here's a shot taken with the pocket P&S camera
- it's the bird on the right

And here's it blown up as much as possible

As you can see it does look rather good! I gave Ian a call and told him that I had a possible American Golden Plover but that I wasn't yet certain about it. He set off in his car and I gave the bird a good grilling. It certainly had the distinctive grey colouring and the primaries did look rather long but what about structurally? The problem was that basically it was the same size and structure as the rest of the birds and that wasn't right for an AGP as I'd learnt from the 2008 bird. Eventually it flew a short distance and I was able to get a view of the underwing - gleaming white and therefore not an AGP but an unusual aberrant grey-toned golden plover. I sent a text to Ian telling him the bad news and he diverted to the local tip to look at gulls instead. I wrote it up on the Port Meadow blog and thought no more about it. A few days later it was still there and I was able to get some video footage of it.

YouTube did some post-processing on this footage in order to brighten up the colours and it's given them a rather surreal look but you can see just how strikingly un-golden this aberrant grey-toned golden plover is. Notice how it's the same size as the surrounding birds though.

A few weeks later I was checking out the evening gull roost on Port Meadow. At this time of year I like to get down for the last hour of light. I first check out the ducks and waders briefly just to see what's about and then concentrate on the gulls until the light fades. I was doing my usual scan through the golden plover flock, partly to see how many dunlin were about as they like to hang out with their big wader friends. Almost immediately I spotted a bird which stood out from the other plovers. It was hanging out just beyond the rest of the flock and at first I thought that I had the aberrant bird from a few weeks ago. However the colouring looked different: it wasn't so clean white underneath and there was something about it that told me that it wasn't the same bird. I quickly set my digiscoping gear up and started filming. Whilst doing so I looked at it more closely and it seemed to tick all the American Golden Plover boxes: very long primary projection - I could seem them crossing beyond the tail; a dark cap and mantle; a strong primary projection and it was structurally smaller and slimmer than the surrounding birds.

I gave Ian a call - I suspect that he has come to dread my "too late to twitch" phone-calls that I make to him. I told him that I had another candidate American Golden Plover but that this one I thought was actually the real deal. I then did something that I've been longing to try for some time in exactly these circumstances: I took a photo with my iPhone of a still from the back of my camera from the above video footage and e-mailed it to him there and then. It was pretty poor quality

It's a testament to Ian's birding prowess that from that photo he was able to say that he was pretty sure that it was indeed an American Golden Plover though he would ideally like to see the full video footage before making it official. It was indeed too late for him (or anyone else) to get down and after a few more minutes the bird shuffled into the back of the flock and I could no longer see it.

Here's the full video footage, in all it's grainy glory including the "heavy breathing" from me 
- well who wouldn't get excited at such a find?

Back home, once I'd uploaded the video I e-mailed Ian the location and a couple of minutes later he rang back to confirm what I was actually pretty confident of now that I'd had a chance to review the footage myself, namely that it was indeed a genuine American Golden Plover. I proceeded to put the word out to the county birders and to RBA and then went off to celebrate with my family though they were quite frankly disappointingly unmoved by my monstrous find.

The next morning the county birding great and good were (I imagine) assembled on the Meadow at first light to look for the bird. I myself, being for a short time the only birder in the county to have seen two AGP thought that I'd have a bit of a lie-in instead. After a while I got word from Badger that the plover flock was flying about constantly and not landing at all so that it was impossible to know whether the star bird was still there. This apparently went on for more than two hours and gradually work commitments or boredom meant that most of the people there drifted away leaving a few hardcore birders to watch the wheeling flock. Eventually at around 10:30 I got a call from the Wickster saying that the plovers had finally landed and that the American Golden Plover was still amongst them. A little while later I got another call, this time from Badger saying that now there were two AGP's present! I suggested to him that the other bird might be the Imposter from the other week and e-mailed him over a photo of that bird. He soon called back to say that I was right, it was the Imposter but that it had fooled quite a few people some of whom had even happily ticked it and left. Eventually apparently it got sorted out in the field and fortunately Badger was able to take some pretty good shots of both birds.
The Imposter - right colour, shame about the structure

Here's the real deal 

You can see how it's smaller and leggier compared to its european cousin

Plover Porn (c) Badger (top three) and Ian Lewington (bottom one)

The star bird was watched until after 2pm after which I think a bunch of people left. I went along for my usual last hour of light visit where I met up with some rather disappointed county birders who'd been there at first light but had had to go to work during the day when the bird was actually on show. Now they were back after work but despite the flock getting a thorough grilling there was no sign of it. Indeed it was not seen on the following day either and sadly a number of county birders still don't have it on their county lists. In a way though this keeps up the air of mystery and difficulty with this bird in the county - it's a proper bogey bird for some now.

So there you have it, all there is to know about American Golden Plovers on Port Meadow. I think that next it's time to find a Pacific Golden Plover, now that would be something!

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