My apologies firstly for another dodgy post title - I feel that there has to be a decent pun in there somewhere but that's the best I can come up with at present!
Regular readers may have noticed the paucity of birding trips that I've made this year. My Gnome sorties in general are to add birds to my UK life list though, as I've previously mentioned, I tend to constrain my trips by distance and likelihood of seeing the target so it's a rather slow process. Even so, I'm now closing in on the iconic 400 level for this list though this does mean that more and more birds have already been seen and consequently won't warrant a sortie. In the past few years I've managed a dozen or more "lifers" each year but this year I've been languishing on a paltry four so far (Black Scoter, Black-throated Thrush, Kentish Plover and Elegant Tern, since you ask) and I've been champing at the bit to try and get this number up to a more respectable level before the year end. Now that we're into autumn it is of course prime time for this sort of thing and sure enough on Monday evening a Least Sandpiper (which I still "needed") was found early evening at Lodmoor RSPB, a location that certainly falls within my twitching distance, being about two and a half hours away or so. What more, it was found just an hour or so after a juvenile Stilt Sandpiper which was a species that I'd technically seen before (see here) though my views then were so poor in the heat haze that I couldn't really tell you much about it. So, would I head off on news the next morning? Well, there was a distinct fly in that ointment as the car had been booked in for some minor repair work that day. I'd originally been intending to take it in late morning after some work and then to pick it up in the evening but with the finding of this bird I was in a bit of a quandary as to what to do. I tried to concentrate on work but in the end I decided instead to take the car in early and then, if it was ready by say lunch time, I would be able to do a cheeky trip down to Devon for the afternoon.
Fortunately things more or less went to plan: the car was with them by 9 a.m. and I was soon back home and indulging in a preparatory "power nap" to make up for a rather restless night. At some time after midday I got the call from the garage that all had been finished so I hurriedly got together my things, ordered a taxi (there was no time for the half an hour walk this time) and headed off to pick up the car. At around 1 pm I was re-united with the Gnome mobile and was speeding off southwards along the A34. Things rather abruptly ground to a half near Didcot however when a broken down lorry forced the two rather busy lanes down into one so twenty minutes was spent crawling along at a snail's pace for a while. After that things flowed freely and the rest of the journey passed pleasantly enough. About half way along my drive, with no further news having come through on RBA, I did start to feel that gnawing doubt about whether this wasn't in fact a really stupid idea. I was going on a five hour round trip where I'd only have three hours at best of decent light left to see the bird. What's more it was rather hard to judge how regularly it was being seen from the RBA notices: it appeared to being reported every couple of hours or so but sometimes that didn't give an idea of how often it was actually on show. Oh well, I'd committed now and I'd just have to accept what the Birding Gods were going to grant me. Still, after all this effort I would be gutted to dip.
Shortly before Dorchester the "still present" news came through and I relaxed more as I negotiated the back roads of Weymouth before turning along the coastal road and pulling in at the beach car park on the western side of Lodmoor Reserve. This is a reserve that I've visited a number of times before and on every occasion in the past I'd been successful with firsts of Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers and also my first ever Red-backed Shrike all seen at this lovely wetland site. Would this be the first time that I struck out? I was about to find out! I paid for four hours of parking just so that I wouldn't need to worry about it at all, hurriedly tooled up and headed off to the viewing shelter on the south shore that had been mentioned in the latest RBA message as the location of where the Least Sandpiper was. As I turned the corner I could see a few birders peering intently through their scopes - always a good sign and my nervous enquiry as to whether "it was still there" was met with an offer to look at it through a scope ....and relax! All the planning and stressing had been worth it, all my doubts about how stupid the trip was melted away and another lifer was in the bag! I hurriedly set up my own scope and started digiscoping away taking both video and some shots though in the strong winds of the prelude to Storm Aileen it wasn't easy.
|The pick of my digiscoped stills of the Least Sandpiper|
...and some video footage in the wind
I studied my first Least Sandpiper closely: it was easy to see how this bird had actually been mis-identified as a Little Stint originally at the weekend though it was easy enough to see the diagnostic greenish legs and the dark loral stripe when you knew what to look for. After about five minutes the bird, which had been feeding away actively in front of the viewing shelter, moved down to the hidden side of one of the many islands that broke up the shallow waters there and was out of sight. Having successfully connected with my target bird so easily I enquired as to where the bonus Stilt Sandpiper was, to be told that it was presently frequenting the western shore and was showing well. I headed off on the five minute walk to that end of the reserve to find a gaggle of photographers frantically papping away. Apparently it had just moved from its usual location to a really close spot and they were all trying to take advantage. I whipped out my super-zoom and joined in though after a couple of minutes the bird had had enough of the whirring shutters and flew back to its usual more distant location
|The Stilt Sandpiper showing at a nice close distance|
When I'd first clapped eyes on the bird, my immediate reaction was "Curlew Sandpiper" and the scaling back feathering certainly was reminiscent of this wader though on close inspection that's where the similarity ended: there was no peach blush to the breast and instead of the decurved bill, it was long and straight with the hint of a droop at the tip. The legs, instead of being black were green and very long (hence the name). It had a strong supercilium which gave it a bit of a look of a Knot about the face. All in all a very striking bird. The other photographers couldn't be bothered with any more photographs at this greater distance so I had it to myself for a while as it picked its way through the roosting Black-headed and Mediterranean Gulls.
|More Stilt Sand Porn|
After a while I too had had my fill and I decided to head back for seconds of the Least Sandpiper if it was now showing. I wandered back towards the southern shore munching on a packet of crisps as I went. Back at the viewing shelter I discovered that it had been on show again but had been flushed and had flown off towards the eastern end so I headed off that way to see if I could find it. One of the viewing areas had a Great White Egret on show (not the rarity that it once was), I spotted a Common Sandpiper in amongst the rushes and down near "the Hump" another birder had found a Wheatear but that was about it.
|Nice close views of a Great White Egret|
As I was heading back towards the viewing shelter again another birder turned up who, by going somewhat "off piste" had found the Sandpiper feeding away on a hidden area. I joined him to watch it feeding away with a couple of Ringed Plover and a Dunlin for company. It was good to see it next to some standard waders for comparison where it's diminutive size was all the more obvious. The other birder had to leave and I took a few more photos.
|Size comparison with a Dunlin|
I looked up from checking the back of my camera to find that all the waders had suddenly disappeared. I guessed that they might be back at the viewing shelter and headed off that way to find that this was indeed the case. At this point I got a call from home asking what time I was intending to be back so that they could plan dinner. Thinking about it, I more or less decided that I'd seen everything as well as I was going to be able to and with time marching on, that I would head back home. So I wandered back to the car park and fired up the Gnome mobile. Despite it being the rush hour, fortunately all the traffic was heading in the opposite direction to me and the journey back was uneventful. I arrived back at around 7:45 in time to sit down with my family for an enjoyable meal and a chance to catch up. It had been a very successful outing indeed.