Semipalmated Sandpiper – Oxey Marsh, Hampshire

On the previous Saturday (16th November) we had left in the morning for a week at our regular holiday cottage in Cornwall. The long staying Paddyfield Pipit at Sennen had just gone and to rub salt into the wounds, within an hour of us leaving Totton, a possible Western Sandpiper was found only 30 minutes from home at Oxey Marshes near Lymington.

There was quite a bit of interest on WhatsApp as Western Sandpiper would be a first for Hampshire although over the next few hours the consensus moved to it being a fairly long-billed Semipalmated Sandpiper, not as rare but still only the 7th record for Hampshire. Semipalmated Sandpipers are vagrants from North America with a handful of UK records each year. Whatever the identification it seemed a bit academic for me as it was unlikely to stay for eight days.

Dad saw the bird pretty quickly on the Saturday even before the identification had been confirmed. Western would be a life tick for him but in the end it was confirmed as a Semipalmated Sandpiper which was a very good year tick and in addition Dad saw a Velvet Scoter the next day and with these two birds he moved to 248 for the year. This is his best ever total and close to the 250 target which had seemed out of range for him at the start of the autumn.

The Semipalmated Sandpiper took up residence on Oxey Marsh and towards the middle of our week in Cornwall I began to wonder if it might still be around when we got back to Hampshire on Saturday, although I wouldn’t have the opportunity to see it until the Sunday. Each morning it continued to be seen on Oxey Marsh. On the Friday afternoon we started packing ready to come home and with the rain continuing to fall, as it had for most of the week, we decided that we would set off right away, an evening early.

We were meting Ian and Julia for lunch near Oxford on Sunday so that we could collect Sarah’s Mum who had been staying in Coventry while we were away. Returning early on Friday evening meant that I could try for the Semipalmated Sandpiper on Saturday morning and also for a newly found Snow Bunting which had turned up at Salterns Park near Hill Head and if time allowed for the Velvet Scoter which had been seen again with 11 Common Scoter off Hill Head.

We arrived back in Hampshire late Friday afternoon, all three birds were still present and so I set the alarm and braved the wet Saturday forecast and headed to the rarest target first, the Semipalmated Sandpiper near Lymington. As the rain looked heaviest early on I’d decided against a really early start. I parked the car on the final bend on Lower Pennington Lane and then walked along the path eastwards towards Oxey Marshes. It was nearly 9am and there had been no reports of the bird which was a bit concerning.

On the walk out another birder said that he had seen the sandpiper with two other birders and so I headed off, slightly happier, towards the two figures on the distant sea wall. A lovely Long-tailed Duck was a bonus diving in Oxey Lagoon and as I continued around the sea wall I noticed that neither of the distant birders were watching anything. I eventually joined the birders and asked if it was still on view. They said that they were pretty sure they’d seen it earlier but that everything had flown off and the flock had been lost to view. They said they had some photos and they showed me. Unfortunately, however, it proved to be a Dunlin. This probably meant that the sandpiper hadn’t been seen at all today and it was 9:45am, this was a low point.

I then double checked on Bird Guides which area of the marsh the sandpiper had been favouring during the last seven days and it was actually the lagoon I had just walked straight past (in my eagerness to join the two birders). As the reports on Bird Guides suggested that the bird hadn’t moved from this area all week I decided to head back there. On the way back I bumped into ‘randombirder’ and as we got back to the lagoon he picked out a small solitary sandpiper feeding at the water’s edge. It was the Semipalmated Sandpiper, what a relief!

It looked smaller than Dunlin although there was nothing to directly compare it with, it was bull-necked and fairly stocky, stockier than Little Stint with a rather tubular broad and blunt ended bill and webbing between the toes, a feature which only Western and Semipalmated share. The bill was fairly long and slightly down curved which had led people to originally identify it as a Western Sandpiper. The plumage, however, was more suggestive of Semipalmated given that the retained juvenile scapular feathers showed no rufous edges, unlike Western. The retained coverts also showed dark central marks more similar to Semipalmated and the dark cap also looked better for Semipalmated. An obvious and very noticeable contrasting dark band ran along the upper scapulars. Little Stint would show white mantle Vs here and more rufous feather edges on the scapulars and mantle. The sandpiper was fairly close and fed actively, with a sewing machine like action, and approached to within a range of around 75 yards.

This was my 3rd Semipalmated Sandpiper in the UK with my first in the old county of Cleveland in 1989 and one on Tresco on Scilly in 1996. It is also a Hampshire tick.

With the news that the Snow Bunting had been seen again at Hill Head I decided to head back to the car. It appeared that the Semipalmated Sandpiper then left on Saturday evening although it was subsequently seen briefly on a couple of occasions over the next two months. It had moved a fair distance in the meantime and sightings were very brief at long distance and it was never twitchable again and so coming back from Cornwall a day early was an inspired decision.

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