Saturday, 22 September 2012

Americans on the Wirral! - 20/21st September 2012

When news broke on Wednesday about a Semipalmated Sandpiper on the Wirral, I was quite excited as this is a species I should really have caught up with by now, however they are very very rare in the north west, and I believe Lancashire has only had 1 prior record (Brockholes LWT). When photos were uploaded to Surfbirds, things weren't as simple as you might first think as the bird seemed to look very much like a Western Sandpiper due to a long curved bill and rufous fringed scapulars. The bird was put out as possible Western Sandpiper.
After the Western Sandpiper at Cley in Winter 11/12 I put quite a lot of research into the splitting of these two similar species so I used all my past references to make my mind up about this bird. I kept going back and forth between ID's as in some photos it looked very Western and in others looked very Semipalmated. I know from past experience that photos can be very misleading and show a bird in a completely different light to what it actually looked like in the flesh which can make you believe a bird is something else. As a result, I decided that I would go for this bird on Thursday to try and make my own mind up on what this bird is.
I arrived to a crowd of about 40 people watching a flock of Sanderling, Dunlin and Ringed Plover. They had seen the bird, but the group had lifted just before I arrived and then settled, so the bird had been lost.
I then joined Chris Batty, Stu Piner, Chris Galvin and Steve Young on the next road along called Curzon Road, and after about 15 minutes of scanning through the flock, Chris Batty picked the bird up at the front of the group. I managed to get onto it almost straight away and was amazed at how much it looked like a miniature Sanderling. The bird was quite distant at c75 meters and in reasonably poor light so I wasn't able to view the finer details of the plumage like the scapulars etc, so I focussed more on jizz of the bird and structure.
The bird has next to no legs for the majority of the time and certainly didn't look leggy like I would generally expect Western to do so. The bill was quite long with a slight curve at the tip. Subsequent reading has taught me that East Coast female Semipalmated Sands can have a long bill with a curve and even a thin tip, instead of a blob tip, so unless a bird shows a very short bill or a very long bill, this feature isn't a sensible feature to use to help with ID. The bird fed by pointing its bill downwards at '7 o'clock' with a bull neck and a concise structure as though the bird was a little ball. It never pointed its bill forwards or stuck its neck out. In terms of position of its legs, they did appear quite far back on the bird with quite a lot of the bird in front of the legs. This is quite often a good indicator of species as Western's legs are really far back. I don't feel that in this particular case, legs position is useful as the bird was facing into strong wind so this could have just been the bird trying to stay stood up! At the distance I was viewing, I couldn't get a feel for the shape of the birds head, but I did note it seemed reasonably large. The face was again a little too 'small in my scope' to get any great detail, but I certainly saw dark ear coverts and what appeared to be a faint supercillium presumably meaning the crown was quite dark.
After 5 minutes of intense viewing, the whole flock lifted and the bird was never located again. I went home with the impression that if I had found the bird, I would sent it out as a probable Semipalmated Sandpiper as I just couldn't turn it into a Western despite trying based on the picutres I saw.
Further reading on Thursday night and observing Steve Youngs photos made the bird look like a Western Sandpiper and the American birders that were asked for their opinions seemed to all think it was a Western. I just couldn't get this impression in the field, so I really wasn't happy and if it turned out to be a Western, I wouldn't be happy with ticking it. I also personally thought that on a lot of photos, it looked like a Semi-p and of the videos of Western and Semip's I watched on Youtube, the Hoylake bird matched Semi-P. I wasn't happy, so talking to Alex Jones, I arranged to go the following day with him to hopefully get better views with better knowledge to hand.
Western/Semipalmated Sandpiper - photo Alex Jones
I met with Alex at Rhyl station for 10.40 and we headed off to Hoylake with a quick detour to Burton Mere Wetland to catch up with a Juvenile Sabine's Gull that appeared the day before. We got really good views of it and it was nice to compare it in structure to the Black-headed Gulls and also see a Sabine's Gull as well as in flight. I have only ever seen one sat before and that was back in 2001 at Seal Sands (I hardly remember the finer details I was 9!)
We made our way to Meols at the base of Roman Road and were pleased when a flock of Dunlin landed about 50 meters away and within 10 minutes, the bird was picked up in brilliant light and we were able to watch the bird for half and hour before it started flying around. It then landed slightly closer and then walked even closer on the rising tide. The views were really pleasing and I was able to pick out the colour of the scapulars which I would suggest was a rich ginger colour that I would certainly say fell within the colour variation of Semipalmated Sandpipers. I was keen to observe the nape as I had read that Western show a very little contrast in colour between the nape and the cap whereas SemiP do. The bird showed a clear dark cap and a pale nape so there was an obvious contrast. The supercillium also seemed pretty obvious compared to the cap and the similarly dark ear coverts. When the bird walked towards us, I (along with Alex Jones) was sure that the breast showed a very faint buff tinge instead of clean white which would be a feature of SemiP. The flock then took flight.
White Rumped Sandpiper - Photo Phil Woolen
Moving down to Hoylake, We found the flock again and within about half an hour, there was a rumour going around that someone had found a White-rumped Sandpiper. Another species that I should have seen by now, but hadn't! It turns out that this wasn't a rumour and someone had found out. The wind was picking up and the flock took flight! I was gutted! However, they landed again and about about 10 minutes scanning, I managed to refind the bird in the flock! I was so happy! This was a fantastic adult White-rumped which was 75% of it's way through the moult into Winter Plumage so appeared quite grey in appearance. The bird was surprisingly smaller than the Dunlin it was with with a really thin body. The primary projection was obvious and it was nice to see the crossed primaries. The main feature that allowed us to pick the bird up was the really obvious supercillium behind the eye. A fantastic bird!

After lots of reading, and lots of views of the bird, I am almost 90% sure the stint sp is a Semipalmated Sandpiper and the only reasons why I am not 100% is that fact that I have no field experience with either and the American birders think it's a Western...

Thanks to Alex Jones for the lift and to Alex and Phil Woolen for use of photos.

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