Friday, 22 August 2008

Twitching in Gloucestershire: (the stilt sandpiper)

Most rarities that come up are a rather large distance from Oxford and so there's no question of going to try to twitch them. However in the last few days a genuine "Mega" in the form of a stilt sandpiper had turned up in Gloucestershire at Coombe Hill Meadows. What's more it had reliably been seen there for several days. Given that I was overdue for one of my sessions off work for birding I thought that I would do some work first thing in the morning and wait to see if it was broadcast as being present on Bird Guides and if it did I would have a go at it. One of the crucial factors that swayed me was the presence of a reliable "back-up bird" in the form of a red-necked phalarope just down the road from it at Saul Warth in Frampton-on-Severn. This had reliably been present for several days now and if it too were to come up as being present on Bird Guides on that day then I would feel reasonably confident that my journey would not entirely be wasted. There was always Slimbridge near-by as well which recently had had a few birds that I still needed for my year list (e.g. spotted redshank).

The day in question, both birds were listed almost as soon as the service started up for the day so it was just a question of getting my work out of the way. Unfortunately a few "asap" jobs came up which I had to deal with first so it wasn't until 10am that I was able to head off west towards Gloucestershire. The route was pretty straight-forward, being just down the A40 with only a bit of fiddling around at Cheltenham required to get to my first destination of Coombe Hill Meadows. This was my first experience of a mega twitch and there were birders and their cars everywhere. The car park by the canal was full so I to park in the pub car park at the top of the road and walk down. I immediately met a fellow birder and asked if the bird was present only to be told that it had been seen first thing (7am) but not since then. The chap had apparently been there for three hours with no sighting at all. By now it was about 11:15 and it looked as though I had dipped out. I decided to walk down to the hide to have a look around anyway so I went along what was by now a very muddy path. Unfortunately in my excitement and haste to get to the site I had not bothered to put on my walking boots so my normal shoes, although solid "trecking shoes", where getting very muddy.

When I got to the hide there were about a dozen birders there all staring studiously out of the hide. Indeed so full was it that I had to set up at the back with my scope and peer over someone's head. A quick scan revealed a wood sandpiper, a green sandpiper, 3 ringed plover, 2 little egrets and a little ringed plover. There was no point in hanging around I thought so I did a "dip and run" and headed back to the car. At the top of the road a very frantic welshman stopped me and asked me if the bird was still there. When I told him that it hadn't been seen since 7am he was almost in tears with frustration. I wasn't so cut up about it as I have so many much commoner birds on my list still to see that the dipping out on a mega wasn't such a big deal to me. Anyway, I decided to head off the short distance to Frampton to see if I could connect with the phalarope at least.

Some 20 minutes later I found myself heading down the canal tow path towards the Saul Warth viewing point. I met some fellow birders coming the other way who informed me that the phalarope was still present as well as some greenshank and a spotted redshank. Heartened by this I made my way to the viewing point where I met up with some birders who had also been at Coombe Hill Meadows earlier on and like me had decided to come here as a back-up.

The Saul Warth floods at Frampton-on-Severn.

I soon managed to find the phalarope, which was happily swimming about amongst all the reeds. Due to the nature of the location this meant that for a fair portion of the time the bird was actually out of sight so it was a question of waiting until it reappeared and getting a good look while you could.

The best digiscoped shot I could manage under windy and long range conditions.

Apart from this lovely small bird, there were loads of black-tailed godwits, quite a few greenshank and I even managed to find a spotted redshank amongst them.

Godwits on the floods

Whilst I was there happily watching the phalarope, the fellow sandpiper dippers got a pager update from Bird Guides saying that the stilt sandpiper had been seen at 1pm back at the Meadows. They immediately set back off there to have a look. I was in two minds about this myself so I stayed for some time in order to have a go at some digiscoping and to enjoy the tranquility of the place compared to the scrum that I had experienced back at Coombe Hill. I was chatting with yet another birder who had dipped out on the sandpiper that morning and he said that he was going to go back so I thought that I might as well go too. Now that I'd connected with my back-up bird I was going to be content even if I dipped again at Coombe Hill.

On the way I got a nice view of a hobby flying low over head and an excellent view of a buzzard sitting on a post right by the roadside. A while later I arrived back at the pub car park and having learnt my lesson from previously, I put on my walking boots. As I started down the lane a car drove by containing a couple of birders, one of whom gave me an encouraging thumbs up sign. I also met someone leaving who said that the bird was there. I was also told that rather than going in the hide, the bird was best seen by going to the right of the flooded copse in which the hide was located and viewing the scrapes from the field instead. Encouraged by this I increased my walking speed, overtaking some slower birders, and soon arrived at the field in question.

The Coombe Hill Meadows scrapes

There were some birders already there and I even recognised the birder from Saul-Warth who had helped me decided to return here. The bird was indeed showing though it was at the very far side of the scrape. Even with my super-duper swaro scope the heat haze meant that the view was rather fuzzy at best but you can't have everything, especially for a "mega". I did try taking some digiscope shots but the results were little more than a distant grey blob. Content with my sighting and having connected with both target birds I decided to head back to Oxford, getting caught in a tremendous cloud burst whilst driving through Cheltenahm.

Another few ticks for the year list and a couple of lifers as well. I was particularly pleased with the spotted redshank as it was one of the commoner waders that had been evading me so far this year. For those new to this blog my life list is rather small as I've only recently (within the last year) taken up birding again having given it up as a young boy. Therefore to all intents and purposes I've only been doing it a short while.

2008 Year List
195: red-necked phalarope
196: spotted redshank
197: stilt sandpiper

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