A youthful Tony Broome birding the Weaver Bend. Image by WSM.
A Shorebird Utopia – The Magical Spring of 1999
Birding at Frodsham Marsh in 1999 will be etched in my memory for a number of reasons including the near perfect habitat in spring for waders that had been created on No5 tank, mainly by accident after the outflow got blocked and the tank’s eastern end flooded. Like many birders, waders hold a special place my heart and I just love watching them. My Frodsham Marsh list still had a few holes in it at the beginning of 1999 including a number of waders.
The first three months of the year were typically dull and wet due to a westerly airflow. April was mainly under the influence of the westerly airstream until around the 17th when the wind swung around to the east. The long-staying Long-billed Dowitcher, found on February 19th on No6 tank by Bill Morton, continued to be seen since its initial finding as it acquired summer plumage. On April 1st, two Avocets dropped in for a couple of hours, a rarity in those days and a male Kentish Plover put in a very brief appearance on April 3rd and 4th being seen for about four hours in total over the two days. A great find for Guido D’Isidoro.
Long-billed Dowitcher field sketch by Bill Morton.
When the easterlies did influence the weather patterns, the county’s first Terek Sandpiper was found on No5 tank on the 26th by Gary Bellingham as he looked for the dowitcher. It gave birders the run around as it commuted to the Score and back, departing the next day after it was flushed by a Hobby at 12.30 hrs….only to reappear at the RSPB Conwy reserve the next day. But what a wader tick for the local patchers? A real mega by any account.
The easterly airstream continued into May. Two Dotterel found by Vernon Munday on No4 tank on the 5th gave superb views to their finder and I caught up with them on the 6th when the news broke. I got a phone call and drove down in my lunch hour, a sixty mile return trip. Even the pot-holed track on the north side of No6 tank didn’t slow me down. A steady stream of birders watched them down to a few feet. No5 tank was attracting up to a thousand Dunlin which in turn attracted other waders. Curlew Sandpipers and Little Stints, Black-tailed Godwits and Whimbrels. It was alive with birds. I was going three or four times a week in the hope of finding something, buoyed along by the sheer number of birds present. However, the weather deteriorated between May 8th and 13th, the temperature plummeted and there was heavy rain, before high pressure built again and easterlies re-established themselves, giving sunshine and clear skies.
The variation in Dunlin plumages was amazing and I spent hours looking at them. I watched two very big winter-plumaged birds on April 26th, which had regularly been reported as Curlew Sandpipers, being equally long-billed and legged. The majority of the Dunlins in the huge flock were already in summer plumage or acquiring it, so the two birds stood out. I mused over their final destination. Would it be Siberia and were they ‘sakhalina’….? Or were they ‘hudsonia’ on their way to the Canadian Arctic? Maybe they were just ‘alpina en-route to North-west Russia. On the evening of May 15th I sat in the evening sun and scanned the flock. One particular Dunlin stood out, striking in its appearance. In summer plumage, it had totally frosted upperparts. All the buff and brown head, mantle and scapular feathers usually seen on ‘schinzii’ and ‘arctica’ had been replaced with a beautiful silver-grey bordering the black centres with any washed-out rustiness confined to the central crown, ear coverts and a few lower scapulars. The breast streaking and black belly patch were normal and the bill wasn’t particularly long. On a rear view it was reminiscent of a Sanderling. It was simply the smartest Dunlin I’ve ever seen. Was it an extreme ‘arctica’? I haven’t seen one like it since.
Dunlin races, Frodsham Marsh. Tony Broome.
I returned early the next day, Sunday May 16th which dawned dull and overcast but calm. It was a cool 10c. I arrived at 07.30 hrs, my bag already sorted out with a flask of coffee and enough sandwiches and crisps for a long day out in the field. I’d parked by the old log and could hear Dunlin calling over the bank on No5 as I stood sipping my coffee and munching on a ‘breakfast sandwich’. I can still smell the coffee in the cheap plastic flask cup….a smell that goes with birding really. Some Black-tailed Godwits flew over and dropped down behind the bank. I gulped the last of the coffee down and stepped over the barbed-wire fence before creeping along the bank, hidden from the birds, to a familiar spot on the bank where I knew I could slowly edge my way up the slope until I could just see over the top and set my scope up. The birds remained unconcerned and carried on feeding, some very close to me.
The anticipation was always there with me. It still is. I love that moment each new birding day when you put your eyes to the bins or look through the scope for the first time in the hope that a mega will jump out at you. It rarely does but it’s never stopped me believing. I was born an optimist. It helps when you’re a birder, especially one who lives inland some thirty miles from the nearest coast. May 16th would prove to be different. It would be the day when my efforts and optimism would pay off.
I looked at the nearest Dunlin admiring their summer plumages, so varied and individual. Many were singing and the air was full of excited calls as around 600 birds vied for position as they fed up before continuing north. Then my heart missed a beat. The sixth bird I looked at wasn’t a Dunlin. Almost at once it disappeared behind a couple of Dunlins but soon reappeared. Slightly smaller, shorter and dumpier than the nearby Dunlins, it was strikingly grey, white and black with any rufous not apparent on the initial views. The bill was very different with a blunt kinked tip. I realised at once that I was looking at a Broad-billed Sandpiper, another county mega! It came as close as 25 metres and I watched it through my 40x… the sun appearing out of the clouds behind me making every feather so sharp that I felt as if I could reach out and touch it. I made a few excited phone calls to incredulous friends and then settled in to watch it whilst I could enjoy the moment. Just me and the bird. It was a classic summer-plumaged bird with a black crown and a broad split supercillium, black ear coverts and lores and a grey shawl with fine black streaking that extended onto the breast as big bold streaking. Black arrowheads extended down the flanks in two lines and ended as spots on the on the undertail coverts, the rest of the underparts white. The blackish mantle had cream scapular lines on the upper and median feathers and a mixture of silvery or chestnut feather edges. My detailed description covered four pages, not that it needed to be that long but I just couldn’t take my eyes off it. What a bird!
Broad-billed Sandpiper, Frodsham Marsh. Tony Broome.
It was slightly smaller than the smallest Dunlin but noticeably smaller than the biggest ones and had a more upright stance with the bill held vertically as it fed, wading in water to just below the knee. The feeding action was so different to the surrounding Dunlins. Whereas they constantly probed, the Broad-billed Sandpiper fed in a constant hurried fashion, constantly on the move, the bill submerged just below the surface, picking at prey. Most of the time it fed on the outer edge of the flock, occasionally being surrounded by Dunlin which resulted in it bumping the Dunlin out of the way in an aggressive manner. The flock was mobile at times and they’d flush and wheel around in a tight flock before returning to feed. The Broad-billed Sandpiper was easy to pick out even in flight, its small size, dark upperparts, grey breast band and white underparts making it obvious as I followed it in the bins. On plumage features, it was the nominate race ‘falcinellus’ as expected, rather than ‘sibirica’.
Broad-billed Sandpiper, No 5 tank. Image by Steve Young. Check him out at http://www.birdsonfilm.com/
Birders began to arrive and the bank of No5 tank was lined with scopes. They came from all over the country. It was a great feeling to know that something I’d found gave so much pleasure to so many other birders. The bird was flushed on the first day by a Sparrowhawk at 1230hrs and wasn’t seen again despite desperate searching by late comers who’d missed it. However, they needn’t have worried because it reappeared next day for a four day stay until the 20th before moving on to the Conwy RSPB reserve as the Terek had done.
For me it was a great bird to find on my local patch. However, and maybe some birders may find it strange, but it wasn’t the most memorable moment of that spring, despite there being so many rarities. In birding, there are good times and great times, but just occasionally something happens to make a moment extra special, so special that you never forget it. These moments are real rarities but when they happen they stay with you forever.
On Tuesday, May 18th I drove down to the Marsh after work arriving at nearly six o’clock. I settled in on the bank of No5 tank, sitting behind the tripod and scanning the Dunlin flock in front of me. There were over a thousand birds present with the odd Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint present along with 25 Black-tailed Godwits. The Broad-billed Sandpiper was still present until 18.40 hrs when it flew towards the Score. It was a perfect, beautiful evening with wispy high cloud building, the low, warm evening sun setting in the west reflecting off the mirror-like surface of the water, hues of pale azure, gold ochre, cadmium lemon and red contrasting sharply with the bright emerald of the fresh spring emergent grass. It reminded me of an artist’s palette, perhaps something that Lars Jonsson would have used. A brisk, chill easterly wind blowing was at my back but the water was sheltered by the bank. I looked around and I was alone, all the birders having left. It was just me and the birds. I decided to stay and soak in the atmosphere and just enjoy the moment. I sat so still, hardly moving and the Dunlin flock came ever closer, accepting my presence completely, as though I was part of the landscape. Occasionally a bird, only a few feet away, would freeze and cock its head on one side and look at me before carrying on feeding unconcernedly. A Whimbrel called in the distance sending a tingle down my spine, the evocative bubbling call getting louder as it approached, before dropping in at the back of the flock. It began to drink and then preen, resting, prior to moving on that night. The majority of the Dunlins were feeding frantically in an ever-moving carpet, building fat reserves up before their final push north. There were others in small groups asleep at the back of the flock, possibly having just arrived from a long flight from further south. Small parties continued to drop into the throng. The probing birds argued over feeding territory and as they vied for space they uttered short sharp calls. The air was full of shrill ‘shreee’ calls and snatches of song, some birds so close that I could feel the sound. It was actually a very emotional experience. I was an intimate part of their world and a moment in time impossible to explain adequately in words. But a truly magical birding moment and it left me with a feeling of total euphoria.
It would actually prove to be more special than I could have imagined. The tank was destined to be drained within a couple of years and although Frodsham Marsh still attracts big flocks of Dunlin these days, they aren’t as accessible as they used to be on No5 tank. All in all a cracking Spring. If it had been a fine wine, 1999 would have been a vintage…