Least Sandpiper – Drayton Bassett Pits, Staffordshire/Warwickshire

On Tuesday 21st May a Whiskered Tern had been found in Greater Manchester. May is the peak month for Whiskered Tern and with this species being the most commonly occurring which I still need I was keen to see one. It was assumed that this summer plumaged adult was the individual that was first seen at Lakenheath, Suffolk on 16th May.

There had been an adult bird in Wiltshire at Cotswold Water Park on Sunday 14th April, I couldn’t go because we were entertaining Pam & Terry for Pam’s birthday. I had in my mind that the best chance of seeing Whiskered Tern would be in April or May on a Saturday or Sunday perhaps 2 or 3 hours away and I would need to go straight away as Whiskered Terns didn’t seem to hang around for long. The April Wiltshire bird fitted this description but unfortunately I couldn’t make it on that Sunday. I had decided to wait for news on the Monday morning and with it still present I made arrangements to take Tuesday morning off from work and I contacted Peter and asked if I could kip at his place on Monday night. The bird was still present into Monday evening but just before I was about to set off for Peter’s house the pager reported that the tern had been scared off by crows and hadn’t returned. I decided not to risk the journey and sure enough the tern was not seen again.

Unfortunately, the Whiskered Tern which had now turned up in Manchester was probably too far to go for a bird which had occurred 120 times in Britain, albeit often only fleetingly. I discounted the idea of going for the tern and didn’t even bother saving the directions on the pager. The Tern was still present on Wednesday and Thursday.

At 8pm on Thursday evening the pager reported that a Least Sandpiper had been found close to Birmingham at the small complex of working pits which straddle the Warwickshire and Staffordshire border at Drayton Bassett. I immediately made plans to go on Saturday morning and texted Dad and Nick, I knew Peter didn’t need it and James was in China. Dad didn’t respond, he was returning from the Chelsea Flower show, Nick replied to say he had seen the Cornish bird of 1986. I spoke to Dad from work the next day, he was keen to come although he mentioned that he would need to be back by 6pm in order to go to a party on Saturday evening, this wouldn’t be a problem as Drayton Bassett was about 150 miles from West Wellow and perhaps a round trip of only 4½ hours.

That afternoon it occurred to me that Manchester wasn’t a great deal further from Birmingham and perhaps we could try for the Least Sandpiper and then the Whiskered Tern. I spoke to Dad who seemed reasonably interested although neither of us were sure where Pennington Flash Country Park was. We agreed that I would do some more research and a call to the RBA team revealed that Pennington was near Leigh 3 miles south west of Manchester and only 90 miles north of Birmingham. With both birds still present at dusk we decided to try for both but because of Dad’s evening party, we arranged to start early and I set my alarm for 4:35am.

I left home at 5am and picked Dad up in Wellow at 5:40am. On Friday morning the sandpiper had been rung in to RBA at 6:10am and then reported on the Early Channel at about 6:25am. If this was repeated on Saturday morning, and it seemed likely with there being even more people present, then we would have news before we got to Newbury. By the time we got to Oxford I was fearing the worst, there had been no news, this meant that the sandpiper had not been seen and with waders being night migrants this was bad news. Sure enough, at 7:04am, my pager reported that there was no sign of the Least Sandpiper. We were only 40 minutes from Birmingham, should we carry on or turn back? Was it worth continuing the trip just for Whiskered Tern and what if we turned back and the sandpiper was relocated? In the end, and with news of the continued presence of the Whiskered Tern, we decided to carry on for the tern but our spirits were low.

At 7:33am a bleep indicated a National message and I glanced at my pager which was strapped to the steering wheel for ease of viewing. I noticed Least Sandpiper in capital letters and my heart missed a beat. The American Stint had been relocated on the southern end of the pits, having moved from Staffordshire to Warwickshire. I let out an unrestrained ‘YES!!!’ and with us now being only 10 minutes from the motorway turn off the adrenaline levels soared, we had planned to drive straight past the turn for Drayton Bassett and continue towards Manchester.

By 7:50am we were turning into Middleton Hall and met two other birders in the car park, they weren’t really sure of directions. After speaking to Dick Filby, I led us off heading north east towards the Pits. After a brief wrong turn we found our way through a farm, over the canal and then over the conveyor belt. We could see the birders across the other side of the pits and headed around to join them.

At just after 8:20am I was enjoying my first views and the first half of a potential double tick day. Key features were the small size, short rear end, yellowish legs and pectoral band.

Most of the 30 or so records are in the autumn and perhaps this bird could have made it across the Atlantic in September 2001 before wintering in Spain and then heading north towards Britain thinking it was still in North America and heading towards Canada!

It seemed a shame to leave the bird so quickly but after some very good close views we were on our way again.

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