Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The times of the tides

The day before I had a particularly long but successful business trip to Rotterdam so I decided that a lie-in was in order. Surprisingly I was still up at round 8 though and feeling not too tired. So, I pinged off a quick email to work to say I was going to take a day off. The reason - the Hudsonian whimbrel. This is another rare American wader, following on from the Hudsonian godwit and the greater yellowlegs. I'd never seen one before but to add insult to injury my brother-in-law got it the previous weekend.
It was hanging out on the south coast near the yellowlegs at a place called Church Norton which is near Pagham harbour. the directions seemed straight-forward although parking was iffy as you had to park in the church and brides were apparently getting upset at twitchers crashing their big day!
I got to the church on time, at about 10.30. There were a  number of cars already there. The bird was normally seen "from the hide". A track led off the car park and I soon found myself on an estuary with lots of mud and about 15 birders. Two were already leaving and the news was "no sign". In theory I was there at a decent time, the tide was low and lots of mud but it was rising rapidly. Over the next 90 minutes we saw lots of other waders - curlew, the commoner cousin the eurasian whimbrel, dunlin and ringed plovers but no sign of the star. It was now getting pretty hot as well. By 12 the tide was pretty full. The mud had all but disappeared and the waders gone into a roost. Most of the birders also retired as well to wait for the tide to fall.
I went back to the car and drove off to find some lunch, as the decision to go was a late one so I hadn't made any sarnies. A quick stop for fuel of the diesel and sandwich variety and I was back on the estuary. A few others were doing the same, lurking in bushes and having a bite to eat. Then suddenly on my phone came an alert that the bird was seen at 12. Very strange, no other birders around to call it in and you would have presumed they would have waited. A few others saw the alert and came back but no sign.
I did walk down the estuary and you could see in the grass a number of birds of curlew shape lying up. The heat haze was awful though and there was no chance of making anything out. We did get on one group and two looked whimbrel-like but way too far off to make them our properly. A few of us decided though that this was the best place to wait for the tide to fall as this was where the mud would first appear so we basically camped out whilst mud slowly appeared.
Eventually things started to hot up. First one bird appeared opposite us, then another in flight, then 3 all flew in at once. The game, as Sherlock would say, was afoot.
The bird itself has only recently been upgraded to full species status and can be tricky to tell apart from its commoner European cousin. The main diagnostic though is the lack of a white rump, plainly visible in flight. So, for the next couple of hours I suppose we studied every large wader and everyone was "white rump". Some played hard to get and either flew towards us or walked around without raising their wings. One group of 3 had a bird which "looked good" and no one saw white when it landed but it then vanished in the long grass never to reappear - a possible or even a probable but not a certain.
Finally we got excited. One bird, clearly a whimbrel came marching down the estuary.

Why is this a whimbrel not a curlew? Well it's smaller although that is hard to tell, the beak is a lot shorter and it has a bold stripe on its head. We watched this bird for I suppose 45 minutes as it fed voraciously on the mud. Would it raise it's wings? Would it heck. A couple of times it sort of shrugged and we thought we could see white but not conclusive either way. Finally it had moved so far we had to decamp further up the estuary back to where I started the day by the hide.
I got there at the same time as the bird and another 10 or 15 people were already on it. Our party slowly arrived as well. Finally it gave a big wing flap right in front of me....... and showed a white rump. Not the Hudsonian after all. Everyone continued staring at it hoping we might be wrong but no. It was now about 6.45, the tide was starting to come back in again and it was getting overcast and quite dark even though we were near midsummer.
I gave up on this one and had a last scan of the estuary - curlew, curlew, curlew, small curlew?!! One bird way over the far side looked odd. The bill was much longer than our friend but not quite like a curlew. Then it turned and I got a bright flash of white on its crown. Suddenly it all fell into place. Hudsonians were meant to have longer bills - tick - and are an overall darker, browner colour - tick.
I gathered up my gear and almost shouting to everyone else "its over there" I yomped the few hundred yards to where it was.
"Oh yes" said a bloke already there "its down in that gulley". He could have bloody waved and told us earlier!!!!
Finally, all 20 of us got onto the bird in the rapidly failing light.

The whole "jizz" of the bird was different and made us 100% happy with the id before it even flew and showed us its non-white rump.
It was somehow longer, in bill, in body and in legs. It almost resembled more of a godwit with a bent bill. The stripe in its head was really showing well though.

You can see here the characteristic whimbrel stripes but these I think are the most definite I've seen. It did fly once totally confirming the identification but we were already happy.
It paraded around on the mud catching crabs and other small stuff but always a good couple of hundred yards or more away hence the not brilliant photos  which are all heavily cropped and at ISO2000 or so.

Finally, by about quarter to eight we all gradually gave up and wended our way back to the car park. Some very happy birders. Took me over 9 hours to get the bird. Another birder, Brian Harrison who was very good company over the many hours, had been there since 8!!
A not too bad trip back was made all the better by England stuffing NZ at cricket but to be honest , who cared. What a great Spring for rare American waders. Wonder what the Autumn will bring?