Long-billed Dowitcher – Bowling Green Marsh, Devon

We’d booked another week in ‘our’ cottage near Wadebridge in Cornwall, this would be our 9th visit! Other than enjoying running the dogs on Harlyn Beach, relaxing and eating lots I had seven year list targets. I planned to try for the Long-billed Dowitcher near Exeter on the way down, Black Guillemot and Iceland Gull both in Newlyn Harbour and then several resident birds for which I had been given some good location details – Willow Tit just over the border into Devon at Lower Tamar Lake and Dipper on the Upper Fowey. Also, on the way home I planned to look for Cirl Bunting at Labrador Bay RSPB.

The Long-billed Dowitcher had first been found at Bowling Green Marsh near Topsham on 25th September 2019 and rather like the Lincolnshire bird of 2018/2019 it had stayed throughout the winter. During late January and early February I began taking a bit more interest in its movements in case it was still present when we headed down to the south west.

It seemed that tides played a part in its movements and obviously fewer people were looking for it the longer it stayed. I contacted Kevin Rylands the Devon County Recorder as I wanted to maximise my chances given that it appeared to go missing for periods. He replied just before we travelled down saying that recently it had been showing on Bowling Green Marsh for much of the tide cycle but if I had no luck there then to try the mudflats off either the viewing platform which overlooks the River Clyst or the Goatwalk which is even further down the estuary. By the time we headed to Cornwall the Long-billed Dowitcher had been reported every day for at least a week.

Just before we arrived in Topsham the Long-billed Dowitcher was reported again on the main marsh although no specific directions were given. We parked in Topsham at around 12:30, finding a parking place proved a real headache. I walked down the leafy lane which runs north to south along the western edge of the marsh. There are several gaps in the hedge where you can get good views over the marsh. The first viewpoint is from a slightly raised bank and I scanned briefly. I could only see Wigeon, Teal and Mallard and the only waders appeared to be a pair of Curlew. It was low tide and so perhaps most of the waders were still out on the estuary mudflats. I spoke to another couple who were watching from the next gap. They said it had been seen in this area (i.e. the northern end of the marsh) 30 minutes previously but they hadn’t been able to find it. Another birder said it had been seen with Snipe during the week but he hadn’t seen it today.

After fifteen minutes or so I continued along the lane and paused in each gap to get a slightly different view over the marsh. It appeared that the dowitcher had moved off and I cursed my luck muttering that I couldn’t remember the last time that I had turned up for a bird and it being on show when I arrived. It’s always more rewarding finding it yourself by working hard to anticipate where the bird might be, giving it absolutely 100% and not giving up until you’ve absolutely run out of time, however, when you have limited time it’s sometimes nice to be shown it! 

I arrived in the main hide -‘the look out’, and scanned again. No one in the hide had seen the dowitcher. The RSPB guide mentioned about the viewpoint and the Goatwalk and so I decided to walk the 10 minutes down to the estuary edge where the River Clyst flows into the River Exe. From here you get great views over the vast expanse of wet mud. I picked out Redshank, Grey Plover, Dunlin, Little Egret and Curlew but no sign of the dowitcher. Given that it was still only 90 minutes after low tide this may have been the best place to stay but I had a gut feeling that the main marsh might offer me the best chance and so I headed back in that direction. It was now about 2pm and with it still being 90 minutes to Wadebridge and we hadn’t eaten lunch I decided that I would start walking back in the direction of the car which would take me past the northern part of the marsh again, where the dowitcher had been seen briefly at 12pm.

On the walk back to the car I paused in each of the gaps in the hedge and then arrived at the final slightly raised viewpoint and again no luck. I closed up my tripod legs and swung my scope over my back and with a final one handed binocular scan noticed a smallish fairly dark wader sleeping alongside two Snipe (I hadn’t seen any Snipe up until this point) – this was clearly the dowitcher and I excitedly set my scope up again.

The bird was almost certainly here all along and I had missed it when I first arrived. It was tucked in to the longer grass and could easily have been out of view when I walked past earlier.  

The dowitcher was surprisingly plain and dark with all of its wing feathers appearing dark grey brown with the broad edges slightly paler. The underparts were paler particular the vent which was white with prominent black spots and bars. The tail was also barred with the barring wider than the width of the white gap between them. The flanks and chest were darker grey. The tertials were unpatterned. The bill was twice the width of the head. The lores appeared strikingly orange, not sure if this was breeding plumage developing or remnants from feeding.  The prominent supercilium and eye stripe were stronger before the eye.

Long-billed Dowitchers breed in the Arctic tundra of North America and Siberia, and winter in California and Central America and a few each year wander off course and end up on this side of the Atlantic.

I really had given up hope of seeing the bird and I packed up (for the second time) feeling very happy.

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