Grey Phalarope – Stanpit Marsh, Dorset

On Thursday 26th September, after a series of strong southwesterly winds, a Grey Phalarope was reported on Going Birding at Pennington Lagoon. Two Arctic Skuas, two Great Skuas and a Roseate Tern were also seen in the morning from the nearby sea watching shelter at Milford on Sea.

The forecast was for further strong winds from the south west and Martin, Dad and Mark had been debating where to go for a trip out the next day. One option was to head to West Sussex for the juvenile Rose-coloured Starling at Pagham Harbour and to combine that with some seawatching at Selsey Bill. Once the Grey Phalarope had been found, however, the decision was made to go for that and combine it with seawatching at Milford Shelter.

On the Thursday there had been just enough time for several Hampshire Year Listers to connect with the Grey Phalarope at Pennington before it flew over the stone jetty and out into the Solent, this was at 5:40pm. Despite this set back we kept to our plan of sea watching at Milford Shelter and we hoped that the Grey Phalarope or another might be re-found in the Pennington area. Our three hour sea watching at Milford on Sea was pretty poor, with no highlights, despite the promising conditions. I returned home a bit disappointed that the Grey Phalarope had not been relocated.

While I was walking the dogs later in the afternoon Bird Guides reported that the Grey Phalarope had been found again on Pennington Lagoon. I tried to contact Dad but I wasn’t able to get through straight away and in the end I was ready to leave before Dad was ready and this meant that I ended up having to wait for him on the drive for 10 minutes. Still, if the phalarope flew out to roost on the sea at 5:40pm like it had done yesterday then we still had plenty of time as it was just before 4pm. Also if it remained to roost on the lagoon then we had plenty of light as sunset wasn’t until 7pm.

Dad picked me up and we headed off to Pennington and 35 minutes later we were parked at the end of Lower Pennington Lane and I said I would jog on ahead and hopefully locate the bird. As I reached the sea wall I could see a birder watching the lagoon. I turned the corner east and walked quickly towards him. He was obviously watching the phalarope and I stopped to get a quick ‘insurance’ view, however, he immediately began to turn with his binoculars to his eyes and he followed something out into the Solent! This had to be the phalarope and I tried desperately, in vain, to locate what he was following. Within 30 seconds I was standing next to him and he confirmed that I’d just missed it. It was 5pm. Dad arrived and we spent 20 minutes or so looking in the surf and out into the Solent and also back on Pennington Lagoon and Butts Lagoon. It was difficult to keep the telescope still in the gale force winds and the forecasted heavy rain started. What a thoroughly depressing hour.

I hoped that other phalaropes would be found over the weekend. One was seen on a seawatch off Hill Head around lunchtime on Sunday. Just after that a Buff-breasted Sandpiper was seen briefly (but not seen again) at Stanpit Marsh and Bird Guides reported that two Grey Phalaropes were also there although it didn’t give a precise location for them. A little later on twitter reported that there was a Grey Phalarope in front of the ‘pod’ at Stanpit although I wasn’t sure where this was. A message on Bird Guides at 8:30pm stated that there was a Grey Phalarope in a gully beside the footpath at 4:15pm. I checked the pin placement for this report and it was near the footpath and in front of the visitor centre and so I assumed that the visitor centre was known as the pod by the locals. I checked with Dad but he couldn’t go until Tuesday. At first I thought I would wait for positive news the next morning but on a Monday morning there may be few people looking and so I headed there for just after first light.

I was the first birder on location and quickly found some suitable looking water channels in front of the visitor centre. Soon afterwards I noticed a very pale wader flick up, fly a few yards and then disappear again out of view. Unless this was a Sanderling this must be the phalarope. My telescope was badly misted up from the failed phalarope trip on the Friday and so I had to make do with my binoculars. Soon I had good views and felt a wave of relief that Friday afternoon’s frustration didn’t matter anymore.

I put out the news and once my telescope had cleared I started to make some sketches. Compared to the Grey Phalarope I had seen at Hook-with-Warsash almost exactly a year before this bird was much more obliging showing quite closely although it was fairly flighty and flew on at least five or six occasions.

Most of the time the phalarope was swimming and on one occasion started to spin in tight circles getting faster and faster. Phalaropes do this to stir up the water causing an upward flow from below and with this flow comes food.

This 1st winter bird was heading to winter at sea well off the coast of Africa and had been driven into Christchurch Harbour by the strong south westerly winds. At this time of year juvenile Grey Phalaropes are further advanced in their moult compared to juvenile Red-necked Phalaropes and so the presence of the large panel of grey 1st winter feathers is a useful clue that this was a Grey Phalarope and the fairly thick bill confirms the ID.

This takes my year list up to 239 already making it my second best ever year although I’m well behind 1996 when I finished September on 258 on the way to a final total of 289.

American Golden Plover – Steart WWT, Somerset – 1st October 2019

On Monday afternoon I was checking the Bird Map on Bird Guides and I could see that an American Golden Plover had been seen in Somerset at Otterhampton Marsh, Steart WWT and that a Spotted Crake was being seen close by at Greylake RSPB, both sites within 30 minutes of each other. I mentioned to Dad about possibly going the next day but in the end we decided not to travel given that the forecast for Tuesday wasn’t great.

The next morning Dad went much more locally for the Grey Phalarope at Stanpit a bird that I had seen the day before while Dad had a hospital appointment with Mum. I wondered about heading to Somerset on the Wednesday but Dad couldn’t go that day. The forecast for the rest of Tuesday was for thundery showers but I noticed that the plover and the crake were both viewable from hides. I also noted that the forecast for Tuesday evening and overnight was much better and I wondered if the birds might move on with a clear night after several wet days. The plover and crake had both been reported again this morning, it was 11am and I decided to head to Somerset right away. Dad had just got back from Stanpit and said he could come and so I picked him up at 11:30.

On the way Dad researched car parking places and whether the hides were open until sunset. Yes they were and we decided to go for the ‘easier’ bird the American Golden Plover first. We parked at Steart WWT and Dad couldn’t decide between taking his scope or his camera, he choose the camera but as we arrived in the hide and saw how distant the birds were (250m+) we realised this was a mistake. There were no other birders present and with Dad having only his binoculars it was down to me to find the American Golden Plover.

The main groups of birds were a very long way off and were strung out on long thin islands of grass within the flooded marshes. Lots of the birds were hidden from view. None of the reports on Bird Guides or RBA stated whether the bird was associating with Golden Plover which they often do. It was low tide out on the estuary but I don’t think Golden Plover are tide dependent for feeding and so if it was in a flock then the fact that it was low tide might not be the reason that there weren’t any Golden Plover around. Of the four American Golden Plover I have seen in Britain two were with largish Golden Plover flocks and the other two were on their own.

There were plenty of Lapwings and this seemed a possible species with which it might be associating. There were also lots of Teal, Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwit a few Bar-tailed Godwit, a Spotted Redshank and good numbers of Redshank. Lots of other people began arriving to see the American Golden Plover. Those without telescopes knew it was a hopeless task and even those with a telescope struggled to pick anything out given the long distances. People began to drift away and Dad and I were almost on our own again. After countless scans I felt sure that there were no Golden Plover of any type present on the marshes.

The light was good directly out from the Quantock Hide but the view towards the west was now becoming very difficult as the sun started to break through. Haze, glare and harsh water reflections made viewing in that direction extremely difficult, almost impossible. I kept scanning that way only because there was just as much chance of the bird being there.

After two hours of constant scanning I came across a wader on one of the distant islands. It was 300 metres away and by now given the difficult lighting and the fact that I was at 60x magnification the wader was not much better than a silhouette against an orange glow. I could see that it was short billed and when it walked two steps, paused, stood upright, paused and walked another two steps I knew it was a plover. It was obviously too slim, delicate and small billed for Grey Plover and when it turned its head I could see a very striking white supercilium and black capped appearance. In fact the head pattern seemed as marked as on Dotterel, this was clearly the bird and after a while I managed to get Dad onto it.

It was a shame that the distance and lighting made this whole process a significant challenge but it also made it very rewarding in the end. There was little point in getting the sketchbook (or camera) out and so we headed back to the car to maximise the time available for the Spotted Crake. American Golden Plover takes me up to 240 for the year.

Spotted Crake – Greylake RSPB, Somerset – 1st October 2019

We arrived in the Lookout Hide at Greylake RSPB just south of Shapwick. There was no need for telescopes as the water channels and sedges were very close. We chatted to the four birders already present and were told that one photographer had spent 12 straight hours looking without success (!) and then had returned the next morning and had excellent views immediately.

None of the birders in the hide had seen it and it seemed that the crake only showed occasionally but it showed well when it did and it seemed that it was more likely to show in the mornings. After two further hours and no sightings and with the sunlight fading we gave up and headed back home. Perhaps we’ll get a Spotted Crake on Scilly in two weeks time, fingers crossed!

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