Wader be blown away

Tuesday was a dramatic day for weather, a day of squalls and double rainbows and a stiff breeze blowing the smell of the sea over the salt marshes. Birds and birders alike struggled with the conditions, fleet of foot and wing with the still-warm sun at our back but barely able to move into the headwinds. I hadn’t been able to resist one more turn along the Hampshire coast before fleeing the British autumn for a while in exchange for the American fall (I fly on Friday, gulp), and had gladly accompanied friend and fellow birder Tony on a jaunt back to exactly the same place in which I’d enjoyed a wheatear’s company last week.

This is the time of year, and the sort of changeable weather in which you feel anything can happen, bird-wise, so it wasn’t just the wind that quickened my step. Birds were there to be found, I was sure of it. And sure enough, anything and everything did start to happen, but alas mostly in Tony’s back pocket. Yes, his pager had a busy morning, and every so often he’d read out the latest reports of just how many yellow-browed warblers and red-breasted flycatchers were skulking on the east coast, and whichever of the megas it was that turned up that day (it’s been a busy week for bird news; I barely remember which was which).

On the comparatively sedate Hampshire coast we had do make do instead with some ‘normal’ birds, but we persisted, trying to make the best of things and attempting the ‘you never know what might turn up’ optimism that is probably the difference between birders and no-birders.* And besides, when the birds seen include 16 species of wader, things can’t be too bad. Simply listing them evokes the spectacular variety on offer: greenshank, redshank, spotted redshank, green sandpiper, lapwing, ringed plover, little ringed plover, grey plover, dunlin, knot, little stint, turnstone, curlew, black-tailed godwit, oystercatcher, snipe.  Roughly every beak type, leg length, colour, size, pattern, call and behaviour you could ask for, within the broad confines of ‘wader’, and it didn’t even feel like we’d tried that hard.

Some were an absolute treat, too. One of the three knots we saw was a juvenile, a plumage I’d never seen before which turns out to involve beautifully intricate black scalloping on the back, and a natty peach-washed breast. A very handsomely marked bird indeed. I confess it had me completely stumped for a few minutes, on first finding it. I mean, it looked knotty, but I was expecting it to be all dull and grey and winter-plumaged. I still have a lot to learn – and incidentally, there are many worse ways to the bird-finding trade than by looking through a decent flock of dunlin in the autumn, amongst which the variety of size and markings can be amazing. It’s difficult to reliably find anything that isn’t a dunlin without grasping that fact, them being the archetypal small wader: sparrows of the shorebird world. Know your onions, I mean dunlins.

All this is a very roundabout way of saying that the stretch of marshes between Keyhaven in the west and Lymington in the east is a very fine place to bird, and a particularly fine place to go birding for waders. Off the top of my head I think I’ve seen 24 types there in the last five years or so, and I hope it isn’t long before I’m back amongst them. Even if, as it just about always will, an impossibly cold wind is howling up the Solent.** Happy birding!

Pictures: 1) Rainbow over the Shoveler Pools, Pennington Marshes. 2) Turnstone and dunlin roosting on the jetty at Pennington last week. 3) I disturbed this red admiral which was busily attempting to convert the sun’s energy into energy enough for a first flight, I think. Any butterfly I did see on the wing on tuesday was caught like a leaf in the teeth of the breeze.

*Being a non-birder would be fine, I’d somewhat controversially imagine. You’d never be disappointed or ‘gripped off’ since you wouldn’t even try looking for birds in the first place. You’d probably think a magnolia warbler is something to do with singing flowers, which is nice. But a no-birder is a very sorry individual indeed, and I suspect all birders have slipped and become one from time to time, often, I hasten to add, through no fault of their own. But as I say, persistence pays.

**As may be evident from last week’s wheatear video, that visit had been one of the exceptions that proves the rule….

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