Last week I spent another great day in Wexford. It was sunny but breezy and, once again, I spent the entire day indulging my love of waders (or shorebirds as some like to call them).
In my last blog I wrote about the beauty of Dunlin and on how we all should appreciate them for just being Dunlin. I reflected on how, each autumn, we all look through the flocks in the hope of seeing something with them…perhaps a straight bill, long wings or a clean lower breast. All features that might jump out as being ‘un-Dunlin like’.
My first stop in Wexford was in fact to look for such a bird associating with the Dunlin flock feeding among the rotting, smelly seaweed at Nethertown Beach near Carnsore. Seaweed is great stuff as it is home to millions of flies and sand-hoppers…exactly what hungry waders are looking for. I scanned the beach but, apart from lots of Turnstones and a handful of Dunlin, there didn’t appear to be much else to be seen.
Glancing westwards, I noticed a flock of over 40 Dunlin roosting on the rocks and made my way up there. They were all asleep and were facing away from me. However, a quick scan revealed one sleeping bird with long, slender wings…wings that extended beyond the tail. This was the bird I was looking for…a juvenile Baird’s Sandpiper that had been found by my good friend, Brian Haslam, earlier in the week.
I got closer to the group and enjoyed better views of my sleeping bird. Behold that beautifully scalloped mantle and wings with each feather delicately fringed by pale edges. Behold that crisp breast band and white underparts lacking the blotchy markings of a typical Dunlin. The bird then looked up and, game, set and match…a straight bill. This was indeed the Baird’s Sandpiper.
The flock flew from the rocks and onto the beach in front of me to begin feeding. The Dunlin kept a reasonable distance but the Baird’s walked right up the seaweed and fed only 20m from me. Baird’s Sandpipers breed in the high Arctic Tundra of North America and eastern Siberia. They spend the winter in South America. Perhaps us birders who had gathered to pay homage to this ‘wonder of migration’ over the last week were the first humans this bird had ever seen. It had no reason to fear me sitting there with my camera. It’s always a special thing to encounter this lack of fear in a wild bird.
My first Baird's...
Watching this bird, I found myself taking a walk down memory lane to the day when I saw my very first Baird’s Sandpiper. It was 7th September 1980 and I was twitching with the late Ronan Hurley. We had gathered along with the key Irish birders of the day to see a Semipalmated Sandpiper found by Killian Mullarney. It was my first ‘real’ experience of the magic of Tacumshin Lake, Wexford and for all the birders gathered, it was their first Irish Semip…a mega rare ‘Yankee wader’ back then (it still is in my eyes).
Scoping the Semip through my old angled Kowa, I took in the subtle details on the Semip versus a nearby Little Stint. A flock of Dunlin arrived in to join the waders and suddenly, before me, stood a long-winged beauty with a mantle and wing pattern like a Curlew Sandpiper but with a straight bill …a Baird’s Sandpiper. I was 19 years old and I didn’t know where to look. Two major North American species in the same field of view.
Then, as if this wasn’t enough of a baptism for me, another group of birds flew overhead before landing in front of us. I lifted my bins to take in the beauty of four Buff-breasted Sandpipers… yet another high Arctic Yankee wader. I have loved Buff-b’s from that moment on. I again looked through my scope and there were all six birds feeding alongside each other. It was as if they knew they were different from the rest and were sticking together.
My old notebook...
As I write this blog, I have just taken down my old notebook from 1980. Although that day was over 36 years ago, reading my notes I have again relived the excitement of that magical day as seen through the eyes of 19 year-old Eric. I was just launching myself into the world of birding back then and such experiences cemented my fascination with migration. It is still my favourite aspect of birding…the thought that birds can travel the world and that any species (within reason) might conceivably turn up in Ireland. Heading out birding in autumn, you simply can’t predict what you might see.
I am so lucky that I started to keep a notebook as early as 1978. I can now read and feel the excitement (and often the disappointment) of my birding life as it unfolded. Each page documents my own unique observations of birds seen, my own interpretations of calls heard and my own gut instincts on the key ID features seen. At times my notes also tell the story of seeing or finding a bird. They relate the adventure of it all.
A simple tick in a book to mark my first Baird’s Sandpiper would never conjure up the same memories as the words and sketches of my 1980 notebook do. These days, it wouldn’t even be a tick in a book. It would most likely be a species added on a spreadsheet or on one of the many birding apps available now.
I still keep a notebook and there, in the current volume (No 71), sits the details of seeing the Baird’s Sandpiper at Nethertown on 14th September 2016. Perhaps if I live another 36 years, I will take down this notebook and relive those moments all over again.
If I could offer any advice to the young (and not so young) birders of today, it would be simple: keep a notebook…you’ll thank me in years to come!