Collared Pratincole – Sidlesham Ferry, West Sussex

With a British List of more than 400 species it is unusual to have seen none of the three species of pratincole. In 1997 I had dipped a Collared Pratincole in North Norfolk having travelled up the day after it had finished its 5 month stay! An Oriental Pratincole was also missed in May 93, when having dipped on the Pacific Swift at Cley I had popped into Gimingham in north east Norfolk to see the Oriental Pratincole. It wasn’t seen that day but returned the next day! While not actually dipping on Black-winged Pratincole I had run out of time on two occasions when near to an individual in the North West.

Late morning on Saturday 26th May a Collared Pratincole was found at Sidlesham Ferry in West Sussex. Pam & Terry were coming down to take us to the Blue Lagoon and so I couldn’t make the trip immediately, I would have to hope it hung around until Sunday. I made arrangements with Dad to go the next morning. The pratincole hung around the ferry pool all afternoon and evening and was seen to go to roost. The pager reported that the bird spent most of the time on the ground in a distant set aside field to the south of the ferry pool. With the heat haze and the distance involved viewing wasn’t ideal.

I was quite keen to get there early just in case the bird flew off at dawn, however in late May this is very early and I ended up meeting Dad in Wellow at about 6am, we transferred into his car and headed off. We got to the ferry pool visitors car park at around 6.45am and then made the quick walk along the main road which passes close to the pool. There were about 25 birders already present and they were lined up on the bank next to the road and adjacent to the hide. They were looking in different directions and it was clear that the bird wasn’t on view at the moment. Having spoken to the other birders it seemed that someone had claimed to have seen the bird in the set aside field at around 5:15am but nothing since. A little later another birder turned up who seemed to know the area and he said he had walked out to the set aside earlier on in the day (he had permission as it was private land) and was certain that the bird wasn’t there and that the reports of the 5:15am sighting were rubbish.

After an hour or so several birders left to go and have a look around Pagham Harbour, they would come back to Sidlesham if the pratincole turned up. The set aside field was extensive and it took some looking through. I felt reasonably sure, however, that the bird wasn’t in there and just hoped that it had moved and would return to the ferry pool to hawk for insects when the day warmed up, it was currently cold and particularly so when the wind picked up. I had warned Sara that I would probably be back later than normal and had it in my mind that I would need to leave at around 1pm, it was now 10am.

It was about then that Dad & I watched a distant bird pick up from the ditch around the pool and fly away to the North West, it was not easily recognisable. At first I though that it was a Collared Dove but it didn’t seem right and I began to wonder if this was the pratincole, several birders around the corner were also bemused but one of them was pretty certain that this was our bird. I accepted this although feeling a little cheated that this would be the best view we would get, the bird had appeared to be flying off very strongly. Over the next few minutes I began to have strong doubts particularly that we should have seen the contrasting white rump and black tail and that the wings should have appeared darker. At around 11am we left to find a garage to buy some sandwiches feeling very frustrated and knowing that we hadn’t seen the pratincole.

We returned and rejoined the group of birders to hear that one of the lads had seen the bird briefly in flight and it had come down into the set aside field. I decided to painstakingly comb through the field using my scope to eliminate section by section. There was renewed hope but it wouldn’t be easy re-finding the bird, it would be well camouflaged. After several minutes I came across a small brown blob which I instantly recognised as the pratincole, with my heart pounding I called out directions.

Most people had great difficulty in locating the bird and it was 15 minutes or more before everyone was happy. The bird began to move around and appeared very plover-like. Even at this range the red base to the bill and black ‘tear’ line were noticeable. To separate the species from Black-winged or Oriental we would need to see the bird in flight. In the end this wasn’t necessary because the bird stretched its wings and while flapping on the ground I could see the white trailing edge to the secondaries and the chestnut underwings. Just to give us the full picture the pratincole suddenly took flight and transformed from plover to tern darting and hawking over the pool, the white rump and black tail were very obvious and confirmed for me that our earlier bird was certainly not the pratincole.

Soon afterwards we returned to the car fully satisfied and headed home, my first tick for 238 days!!!

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