Saturday, 2 November 2019

The Beach, 16th October 2019

Late on Tuesday and, of course, after we'd left the Lizard, a report was issued of a White-rumped Sandpiper that had been seen, yes you've guessed it, at the Lizard. The bird had been seen in a field known as the "Bottle dump field" since it sits behind the lay-by that contains the local glass recycling bins. When the bird had been seen we had been at Church Cove, just a half mile away! News travels slowly around the Lizard owing to poor mobile phone coverage so we were already back at the holiday cottage before we heard about it. In any case the bird was seen to fly strongly to the north so it wouldn't be worth going back to the spot to look for it and besides we'd already seen two White-rumped Sandpipers this year at Frampton Marsh on a really good day in July.

Wednesday dawned bright and sunny which made a very welcome change from the pretty dismal weather we had experienced so far through the week. It was quite windy though but that is not unusual for this part of the world. A year ago almost to the day the Grey Catbird had been found close to Lands End and had sparked one of the biggest twitches of recent times but today, as we walked along the road, we had parked at Trevescan to avoid paying the exorbitant parking fee, towards the tacky tourist complex that sadly sits right on the Lands End headland, it was quiet and there were no other birders around. We spent some time looking into the gardens of the houses closest to Lands End where good and rare birds are regularly found. True to form though we only saw common stuff such as Chiffchaffs, Goldcrests and Chaffinches.

We weren't really expecting to find much but studied clump after clump of sallows and willows anyway and were rewarded with virtually nothing. Lands End has never been especially productive for us over the years. Having said that though, in addition to the Catbird, we have also seen our only Melodious Warbler, in the same sallows that we now studied, a Dusky Warbler, a juvenile Rose-coloured Starling, which had a fondness for chips and pasty crumbs dropped by folk at the picnic tables and several Snow Buntings. It is a very good area for migrant birds since the headland juts out into the Atlantic and is often the first piece of land that tired migrating birds see so they are induced to settle and feed. We just never seem to find any of them ourselves, except for some of those Snow Buntings which are hardly that rare.

juvenile Rose-coloured Starling, Lands End, 15/10/2015
All we found on our tour around the headland were just the common species such as Chiffchaffs and Stonechats. With the strong onshore breeze I thought that we may see a rarer seabird flying past but once again all that I could see were Gannets, Kittiwakes and hundreds of Guillemots and Razorbills that filed past in long and vigorously moving trains. We made a quick scan of the buildings for any Black Redstarts, there were none, and Rose-coloured Starlings, none of those either, and gave up!

We found ourselves drawn back to Penberth Cove, it was bright and sunny after all, for another look for Yellow-browed Warblers and Firecrests in their favoured trees. But, naturally, because it was a much better day for photography there was absolutely nothing in the trees at all! Birds just never seem to want to play ball. We sat on the rocks in the warm sunshine and actually just enjoyed watching the waves crash into the rocks while watching Gannets offshore and Rock Pipits on the slipway. Even with the lack of good birds, to be able to sit a while in such a beautiful spot is as close to ideal as you can get in my eyes.

At last we had something to go for when a bird news message came through as we drove aimlessly away from our little corner of paradise informing us that a White-rumped Sandpiper had been found on Marazion Beach. Maybe it was the one that had been seen on the Lizard the evening before? In order to avoid yet another over hiked parking charge, sadly Cornwall is plagued by them, we parked by Longrock Pool and walked along the sea wall looking for the expected gathered birders. We didn't find any birders and also couldn't find any wading birds of any description anywhere along the beach between Longrock and the Red River. As far as I could work out the Sandpiper must have been feeding in a little stagnant pool left behind by the tide but by the time we got there the pool was empty of birds bar a few Pied Wagtails. Dogs on the other hand were seemingly everywhere and I got to doubting that we'd found the right spot. We walked the whole length of the RSPB Marazion Marsh reserve on the landward side of the road but that just didn't seem to fit with a White-rumped Sandpipers chosen habitat even one that was migrating. Defeated we returned to the cafe by the car and over a coffee pondered over what to do next.

At the car we watched a pair of Meadow Pipits that searched between the rocks of a wall for food. At times they disappeared completely within the wall emerging several minutes later further along, I've never seen Meadow Pipits do that before!

Meadow Pipit
It appeared that we'd missed the Sandpiper by minutes since it had been seen to fly away from the pool because, annoyingly, it was flushed by one of the dogs and out towards the rocks surrounding St Michaels Mount. Oh well these things happen sometime and besides we had White-rumped Sandpiper on both our year and Cornwall lists already.

With a lack of viable alternatives we jumped back into the car and headed up to Hayle once again where we knew there would at least be something to look at and we could divulge in another Cornish Pasty! We scoffed the local delicacy while overlooking Copperhouse Creek where we added Pink-footed Geese to the trip list although the group of four were way out of photographic reach. The tide had gone out and most birds had gone out with it, the only ones within reach were a couple of Herring Gulls that were greedily eyeing up my Pastry lunch! Ryan's field was empty, in complete contrast to our previous visit, so we looked out onto the main estuary from the road bridge instead. Here there were plenty of birds, Bar-tailed Godwits, Curlews and Redshanks fed in the mud, Wigeon and Teal dozed whilst waiting for the tide to turn and flood the mudbanks again, and Rock Pipits darted between the wading birds. In truth though we were a little bored and restless so when the White-rumped Sandpiper was called again at Marazion we went straight back there!

This time the report was more detailed, the bird was on the beach directly below the main beach car park. As we followed the coast road we could see the largest throng of birders that we'd seen during the week all lined up and looking towards the same spot. We didn't waste any time and I forgot my thriftiness for once and headed straight into the carpark and, after being challenged by a highway robber dressed up as a parking attendant and relieved of four quid, parked and walked the ten metres or so to the sea wall. From the elevated position it took just seconds to locate the Sandpiper which was resting amongst the stranded seaweed. We made our way onto the sands which placed the sun at our backs and set up to admire the Dunlin sized wading bird and for me to take some photos at last. 

White-rumped Sandpiper, Marazion Beach, 16/10/2019
The White-rumped Sandpiper was nestled in the washed up kelp and was feigning sleep but was naturally wary at the same time. The Birders and Toggers had surrounded the bird with some on the beach and others stood at the car park looking down. The Sandpiper seemed quite happy even though the keenest observers were just ten metres or so away. I counted around fifty folk watching the bird and wondered where they all were earlier when we'd made our first failed attempt to see the Sandpiper. Many passers by were intrigued by what we were all looking at and Mrs Caley fended questions after questions of "what are you looking at?", "is it rare?" and "where is it?". All were welcomed to view the bird through our scope, perhaps we should have charged 10p a pop and we'd have got the parking charge back!

I shifted position a few times in order to get different angles of the bird while Mrs Caley continued to entertain the masses. The White-rumped Sandpiper was a juvenile moulting into winter plumage. Essentially like a Dunlin it differed in having much neater streaking to the breast with none extending to the belly or flanks and longer wings giving it an attenuated profile. Most striking was the clear pale supercilium.

Apart from minor movements the Sandpiper hardly budged in nearly half an hour until an unruly dog, it's disappointing why some dog owners can't marshal them better, got too close. Then the White-rumped got to it's feet and took evasive action but that only entailed running swiftly for a few metres until it had reinstated a safe distance once more.

The bird ruffled its feathers and had a quick preen, as if to investigate that they were still all there, during which it very helpfully exposed the white rump feathering that gives the bird its name, and then occupied a slightly raised position on the strand line from where it eyed the imposter keenly. Luckily it was actually now closer to me and I had pole position to capture easily the best shots I've ever taken of the species.

After a few minutes the Sandpiper plopped onto its belly and resumed its slumber and it didn't appear at all interested in moving anywhere else!

I made a few acquaintances and chatted with some local birders including John Chapple who takes marvellous video films of birds in and around Cornwall and was the author of the video of the Catbird twitch that the BBC showed in their news round up, the original of which featured yours and hers truly but the BBC wisely and unsurprisingly chose to leave me on the cutting room floor! The video is here Celebrity Twitchers! 

The White-rumped Sandpiper wasn't seen on the following day so we are both just glad that we'd about turned and gone back to see it!

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