Western Sandpiper – Musselburgh Lagoons, Lothian

An American Sandpiper had been found at Musselburgh on 9th August. It was initially believed to be a Semipalmated Sandpiper, although Western had not been ruled out. Western would be a tick for 95% of British Birders and a first record for mainland Britain. Peter and I agreed that we wouldn’t go unless it became a definite Western Sandpiper. 

We had a week’s holiday beginning on Monday 18th August in which Sara and I had planned to paint the front and back of the house. I mentioned to Peter that I would be able to go for anything and asked him to ring me if any big news came through on the pager. On Thursday afternoon we’d finished painting the house and I rang Birdline at about 9pm. The news was that the sandpiper was a definite Western and it was commuting between Aberlady Bay and Musselburgh Lagoons. Apparently Killian Mullarney had confirmed the identification having been shown a photo of the bird at the Bird Fair.

I rang Peter immediately, Sue answered and told me that Peter had already gone, he was at Richard Baatsen’s house in Gloucestershire. Their plan was for Peter, Richard, Linda Cady and Nigel Pleass to leave Richard’s house at 11:30pm and head up north. I considered ringing Richard to see if there was any room in the car but decided against it. I rang James, he was going and there was room in the car but he couldn’t leave until Friday evening afterwork. James hadn’t considered ringing me as he assumed that with my family commitments I wouldn’t be available. The bird was seen again on Friday and at 6:10pm James picked me up and we headed off. He had arranged to pick up two college friends. We collected Dave Morgan in Rugby at 9:30pm and Ian Stanley in Derby at 10:45pm.

James did all of the driving and we arrived in the almost full car park at Aberlady Bay at 3am. Having had the minimum of sleep we got out of the car at about 5:45am and began the long walk out to the point. The high tide roost was at about 7am and this represented our best chance of seeing the Western Sandpiper. At about 6:15am we began watching the frantic wader roost but with 300+ birders watching it soon became apparent that the bird wasn’t there. If we failed to see the bird here then we knew it was going to be difficult. 

At about 6:30am the pagers went off and a birder next to me shouted “Shit, Musselburgh!!” Everyone, in one movement, jumped up and legged it back to the cars. At one stage I looked behind me and saw the huge advancing army of birders following me. James drove very quickly to Musselburgh, we jumped out of the car and ran towards the high tide lagoons. The birder in front of me attempted to clear a fence by pole-vaulting it with his tripod. He misjudged it and disappeared out of view into the ditch. I ran straight passed him focussing on the group of birders up ahead. As I placed my already extended tripod at the end of the line of birders several people shouted out “it’s flying!” 

My heart sank but fortunately it soon flew back and rejoined the huge roost. It was very small and strikingly white underneath with a small Dunlin-like bill, albeit at the lower end of the range for Western Sandpiper. Apart from the bill the only other obvious feature separating this bird from Semipalmated was that Semi P would not be so far advanced in its moult into winter plumage. 

Feeling very relieved we spent about an hour in the area before heading off to Cambo Sands for an adult Bonaparte’s Gull. After a quick afternoon revisit to Musselburgh in a vain attempt to refind a Sabine’s Gull we headed back south. 

I finally got back into my bed at 3am. It had been a round trip of 1200 miles over 33 hours in which I had managed just a few minutes sleep!

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