Lesser Sand Plover – Pagham Harbour, West Sussex

I was covering the Salisbury Office on the Thursday because Dave was away on holiday. I spoke to Peter on the phone during the day and he mentioned that a sand plover species, thought to be Greater Sand Plover, had been found in Pagham Harbour. There would be plenty of time to get to West Sussex before darkness but unfortunately there was no way I could leave the telephone unmanned and Pam & Terry were coming for tea, they had taken Nicola out for a day on Thomas the Tank Engine on the Watercress Line. 

Peter said that he wouldn’t be able to go until the weekend because he had too much preparation to do before his September visit to Azerbaijan. I decided that I would arrange for telephone cover for the next morning, get up early and head off to Pagham. 

The alarm was set for 5:15am but I woke at 5:10am and after tea and toast I was on the road by 5:30am. The bird had spent most of Thursday at the Church Norton end of Pagham Harbour. There were plenty of cars in the car park at Church Norton but I managed to find a space and by 6:40am I was watching the rising tide. With such a vast expanse of mud high tide would offer the best opportunity to see the plover. There were plenty of waders including Ringed Plover but no sign of the slightly larger and paler sand plover. 

Michael May arrived at about 8am and we talked and watched the advancing tide. Gradually people began to head off for something to eat, it was after 9am and the tide was at its peak. The bird had first been seen at 10:45am on Thursday and had spent the rest of the day at Church Norton so no one really knew what it’s tidal routine would be.

By 10am I was considering doing some work in the car when several pagers bleeped the news that the sand plover had been relocated from the sea wall in Pagham Village. Although this was only about 1 mile as the crow flies the only route was the road around the harbour and this was about 15 miles!!

We ran to the cars and forming a long convoy headed off to Pagham. The nightmare scenario was that the sand plover might decide to head back to Church Norton as we were arriving in Pagham. We all parked our cars haphazardly on the roadside verges, grabbed our scopes and marched around the sea wall towards the group of birders in the distance, thankfully they all appeared to be looking intently out into the marsh. 

As we arrived the bird was not on show and it took some time before the bird reappeared from behind some larger tussocks. It was instantly recognisable as a sand plover species by its larger size and striking paleness.

The bird showed a very black face-mask and a pale rufous breast band going back on to the nape, indicating adult male plumage.  The bird was, however, only slightly larger that the accompanying Ringed Plover showed darker legs that did not extend beyond the tail in flight and its bill seemed small. These factors pointed to the possibility that the bird was in fact a Lesser Sand Plover and therefore possibly the first record for Britain. A week later, having seen the photographs, Steve Gantlett stated that he believed the bird was indeed a Lesser Sand Plover.

At the time, however, the pagers, Birdline and most of the birders on site were favouring the Greater Sand Plover identification. Even Richard Millington and Lee Evans suggested to the ‘stay and wait at home’ birders that they needn’t bother coming unless they needed Greater Sand Plover. 

Subsequently various experts from around Europe confirmed Steve Gantlett’s opinion and the bird was later accepted as Britain’s first Lesser Sand Plover. Unfortunately for all those birders who hadn’t seen the bird (because they believed it to be Britain’s 14th Greater Sand Plover) the Plover left on the night of Saturday 16th August.

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