The Stilt Walker by John Rayner (12.12.12. Birdlog Special Post!)
April 20th 1984 was a Good Friday bank holiday and it was certainly a good Friday for me. I’d done a little local birding that morning and was back at home when a friend, Julian Weldrick, phoned me at about 16.30 to inform me of a bird he had just seen.
Finding a rarity always has a degree of luck about it and on that day it was lucky that Julian happened to be working in the Daily Star office in Manchester instead of his usual Chester Chronicle office in Chester. This allowed him a brief en-route visit to Frodsham Marsh to look for spring migrants. He found a Whinchat but the general migrant search came to an abrupt end when he happened upon a wader that puzzled him. Unfortunately he had to leave for work but luckily he phoned me from the Daily Star office, during his break, with news that he had seen a wader he did not recognize. “A funny Yellowlegs type” but without the bright yellow legs. Julian is no slouch on his birds so something that baffled him was likely to be worth investigating.
I called for Geoff Lightfoot and arrived at Frodsham Marsh about 18.10 with a light SW breeze and half cloud cover that allowed sunny spells. We quickly found the bird and it puzzled us as well! It was certainly no Lesser Yellowlegs! A few common birds were eliminated and re-eliminated before we resorted to getting out the ‘Heinzel, Parslow and Fitter’.
We dare not approach too closely so settled down with our ‘scopes and went through the field guide methodically. Only one candidate stood out and I think it was I who first tentatively suggested Stilt Sandpiper. But no, it couldn’t be … Could it?
I took 7 pages of notes and here are some samples. “Bill one and a half time head length, solid black, stout not needle, decurved towards tip which was slightly ‘blob’ ended”. “Warm brown patch directly behind eye not as rich as chestnut round bill”. “Prominent white supercilium and dark lores”. “Square slightly off-white upper tail coverts”, No wing bars or white ‘V’ up back”. “Underparts heavily chevroned”.
Re-reading my original notes the identification seems quite straight-forward but at that time Stilt Sandpiper was, and still is, a mega rarity so we challenged our identification over and over again. For most of the time the bird was solitary with only a Pied Wagtail for direct comparison but we estimated it to be approximately the size of a small Ruff. Later an adult Little Stint flew in and was noted to be ringed above the knee on the left leg, worthy of further study on any other day but today it was largely ignored.
Just about the only thing wrong with this mystery bird was feeding action. It was supposed to be a Dowitcher-type sewing machine action but our bird “probed in shallow water”.
At 18.55 the bird flew of its own volition and was not relocated, so we took the cautious approach and went home to mull things over before putting out news. It just had to be a Stilt Sandpiper. Julian returned home after midnight from his shift and then phoned me anxiously. I told him my thoughts on the ID and he concurred. All that was needed now was the bird to hang on overnight.
Tony taking photos of the Stilt Sandpiper, No 4 tank.
I went back early next morning with Tony Broome. The weather was still kind with bright sunshine and a light SW breeze and more importantly the Stilt Sandpiper was still present, it had only relocated a short distance. Unlike the previous evening, however, it was quite wary and thankfully, as it was now feeding in mud, it was hammering away like the proverbial sewing machine. The last box ticked!
We were enjoying our views when a local birder came over to advise us we were too near a Lapwing territory. We pointed towards the Stilt Sandpiper the conversation ran something like …
“Do you know what that is?”
“Wood Sandpiper, it’s been around a while”
“Er … No … It’s a Stilt Sandpiper”
“F(:>(*g Hell!”. Came the reply
We drove back to Frodsham village and phoned the news to Nancy’s café from a call box. Of course, bird information phone services were only in their infancy in the early ‘80s and imagine a world with no mobiles, no pagers, and no internet. Rarity information usually reached the general birder in one of two ways. ‘The Grapevine’ was simply a national pyramid of birders who cascaded news down from the elite at the pinnacle to the plebs below. How quickly you received this information was determined by your position on the pyramid, it might be minutes, hours or days. Thus contacts were cultivated, phone numbers carefully stored and birders actually talked to each other frequently.
Alternatively, there was a tiny café in the front room of a house in North Norfolk which had become the nerve centre of British twitching. This was the magical Nancy’s café in Cley-next-the-Sea where information was both received and distributed. The large, old fashioned, Bakelite telephone in that front room would be constantly ringing. If you were unfortunate enough to be sitting next to the phone it was your job to interrupt your bread and butter pudding or beans on toast to answer the never-ending stream of calls asking the same question, “Anything about?” Next to the phone was a large log book with national sightings listed and also some rather good sketches of rarities. Less often the phone would ring and instead of the caller asking, “Anything about?” he might say with some urgency, “Stilt Sandpiper at Frodsham Marsh now!”
This would have been duly logged and the grapevine would have been activated. Within a few hours the first long distance birders had made a remarkably rapid journey from Norfolk, given it was an Easter Saturday. There was no need to rush, the Stilt Sandpiper stayed for 171 days!
A Ticker’s Tale
John is right in his comments about the longevity of this 1st summer bird, it did indeed stay around for six months! It was also seen at Oglet Bay across the river and commuted between various locations in north Cheshire during its stay.
Field sketch of Stilt Sandpiper. WSM
I remember well the moment when Don Weedon sent his two lads Anthony and Robert down to my house on their bikes to tell me a “Stilt was on 4” (I didn’t have a telephone in the day) .Enough said, I did have an image of a Black-winged Stilt in my head as I hurtled down to the marsh on my trusty Peugeot racing bike in record time! Both wheels were buckled and twisted negotiating the pot-holed and rutted track leading to No 4 tank. But, I only had eyes on the bird and, there it was…a ‘Stilt Sandpiper’ a real Mega tick on my local patch!
I had some memorable times watching this bird over the summer but one particular moment is etched in my memory. I recall the bird was feeding along the margins of the raised muddy island that was exposed on the Weaver Bend. Sporting a series of fine belly barring with rusty cheeks and looking splendid in its advance 1st summer dress. Unfortunately, the swollen and diseased knee-joint that had gradually worsened since the bird twisted it’s leg in a submerged muddy crack soon after arriving here. Obvious to all that this aliment caused great discomfort, the bird usually fed with one or both wings open to counter balance its feeding action. After that encounter the Stilt gradually became less attentive to the marsh and presumably spent the summer haunting Frodsham Score?
The Stilt was present 16th April until at least 7th October 1984. Subsequently it was recorded on the marsh in all months. I and many other birders had the opportunity to watch it alongside a Pectoral Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper and Wilson’s Phalarope at various times during the Autumn. Finally, on 7th October the Stilt Sandpiper made its last appearance at Frodsham Marsh on the very same scrape it was first discovered six months previously.
The bird forged some long-lasting memories for birders far and wide and was really responsible for putting Frodsham Marsh on the twitching radar. I wish I was there with (The Famous Four) Julian, John, Geoff and Tony at the time of the find and identification. What a Bird! What a Find! (and) What a Place!
Additional images of this bird can be found within the ‘Birding Nostalgia’ title on the category section on the blog.