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Thursday, 2 October 2008










THE STILT SANDPIPER IN CUMBRIA


A finder's account by DARREN ROBSON
(All images above taken by DR)



Monday 22nd September was just another ordinary day, I was at work driving my bus and daydreaming about my forthcoming time off this autumn. As I arrived at Anthorn in my bus I saw a birder I knew who proceeded to tell me he’d seen a Wood Sandpiper at Campfield Marsh earlier in the day. This is a scarce species in the north of the county so I thought I’d go and take a look after I’d finished work. It was getting late when I arrived at the scrape, I set up my scope and began checking through the birds. Nothing of interest was found amongst the closer birds so I concentrated on the more distant birds and the far shore of the scrape. Then, midway along the far shore I came across a wader. I zoomed in my eyepiece to gain a slightly better view – this didn’t look like a Wood Sandpiper! My first impression was Stilt Sandpiper, but I had never seen this species before and this bird didn’t appear to be in any plumage of that species that I was familiar with. In my head I went through any likely confusion species, but those legs and that bill were like nothing I’d ever come across before. The rational half of my brain was telling me that this was surely something more common, but my heart was already racing. I grabbed a couple of field guides from the car but these didn’t help – they only showed Stilt Sandpiper in adult plumage. The light was fading by the minute. I decided to ring Tristan Reid, I hoped he’d be in and figured that he’d be able to quickly lay his hands on some field guides. The phone was ringing and Tristan answered. ‘Tristan, its Darren – I think I’ve got a Stilt Sand on the scrape at Campfield!’ Over the next few minutes I attempted to describe my bird and Tristan relayed some features that I should be looking for. Unfortunately the bird had walked behind an island and for 10 valuable minutes it was not on view. The bird eventually reappeared and then flew a short distance. With the light now terrible, but the bird a little closer, now was my only chance to grab some record images. I was still confused by this bird and at this range and in the poor light I couldn’t convince myself that I was looking at such a rarity, perhaps these photos would clinch the ID of this bird beyond doubt. So with shutter speeds of 1/15th second I began to take some photographs. It’s only a five minute drive to my home at Port Carlisle and as soon as I arrived I downloaded my photographs. In Photoshop I was able to adjust the light and zoom in on the bird and I emailed a few of them to Tristan. He rang me back quickly and suggested sending them to someone I could trust so a few minutes later I was sending them to Chris Batty at Rare Bird Alert. I grabbed my three different shorebird and wader books off the shelf and began to feel more convinced than ever that this was a juvenile Stilt Sandpiper, no wonder I was confused! This is a mega-rare plumage in Britain! A very enthusiastic Chris called me straight away and shouted ‘Juvenile Stilt Sandpiper – no doubt about it!’ As Chris spoke to me I was already dancing around the living room and punching the air – my wife and 6 month old baby looking on in disbelief! Ok these photographs weren’t very good but they had turned out to be the most important ones I’d ever taken. Pretty soon the news was out and for the next 2 hours my phone was red hot as I passed on the unbelievable news to as many birders as I could. I knew it was going to be a clear night – would the bird still be present in the morning? I needn’t have worried – keen local birders had gathered at first light and were soon rewarded with views of the bird. A steady stream of admirers came from near and far throughout the day and with perfect light conditions and good views everyone left happy. I also learnt that there had only ever been two previous records of juvenile Stilt Sandpiper in Britain – in Lancashire in 1967, and in Shetland in 2002. Interestingly though, a juvenile had been seen on the 14th & 15th September at Ardvule, South Uist, Western Isles, and with this plumage so rare here, it is more than possible that this bird is the same one. It also later transpired that a juvenile Stilt Sandpiper was seen and photographed at Glascoe Dubh on the Isle of Man on 17th September. The dates of these occurrences certainly support the theory that only one bird was involved.

This bird represents the first record for Cumbria and is my best discovery in the county so far. In the last 3 years alone, regular watching of the Solway has resulted in the discovery of several quality waders, including the first twitchable Broad-billed Sandpiper in Cumbria (2nd record), two Pacific Golden Plovers (4th & 5th records for Cumbria), the first White-rumped Sandpiper in Cumbria since 1984 (3rd record), and Pectoral Sandpiper.