Dunlin, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Ringed Plover…What was that?
I was sat hunched up just below the rim of the north embankment of No.4 deposit sludge tank and partially obscured by a few scattered thistles, a small bush or two and, clumps of rank grass. I was here two hours before the expected high tide on the River Mersey which lay several hundred metres beyond the Manchester Ship Canal and behind my position. I untwisted the cap off my flask and poured out a cup of steaming hot tea rummaging at the bottom of my rucksack I pulled out my squashed cheese sandwich. This would be sustenance for the duration of my time here and of course fully charge my batteries.
Shortly after finishing my brew and sarnie my attention was drawn to a “tew-tew-tew” call from a bird which had caught my peripheral vision as it slung itself over my shoulder in flight and settled on the muddy mire over to the right of my position – it was obviously a Greenshank and one of seven birds seen during the rising tide. This lone bird was swiftly followed by a small group of 20 Dunlin and they settled closely to the ‘shank’ in the same area of wet ground in front of me. Within seconds a second group of waders flew inches over my head and with a whoosh they pitched down with the birds already present and immediately commenced to feed, nervously pecking at the surface of the mud. On closer inspection a carpet of emerging midge larvae were laying like a black swarm on the isolated pools and these had spilled out onto the adjacent muddy areas.
I was in a cramped position and I needed to stretch my legs so, I slowly lifted my body to an upright stance and carefully turned to look at the state of the tide beyond the rim of the embankment. Almost immediately a large group of Ringed Plover were approaching my position, roughly at eye level and coming directly toward me. The leading bird was pivoting from side to side in flight and the following birds did likewise taking the lead from the birds in front. Just as the Ringed Plovers were about to enter the confines of the sludge tank they caught sight of me and ever so quickly but gently shifted their flight line and careered to my right. Snake-like, the entire flock moved further out onto the tank before wheeling round to join the birds already feeding. Small flocks were soon followed by much bigger parties and then groups of hundreds of Dunlin and Ringed Plover were pouring over my view-point with an audible almost rythmatic pulse of wind through wings interspersed with piping and rasping “krree” calls.
As I mentioned earlier the midge larvae were emerging from their shallow water bodies and the bank where I sat had clouds of adult midges hanging like a veil about my head. However there was a freshening north-easterly breeze and the mini-muggers dropped below the bank giving me a respite from their bites and only occasionally causing me mild irritation.
The incoming tide oozed its watery self through the channels out on the river and then eventually spilling over onto the salt marsh at Frodsham Score where Oystercatcher, Curlew and Black-tailed Godwit could be seen and heard as they sought shelter wherever they could. The score salt marsh changed from a verdant green swathe into a mocca grey-brown watercolour and flocks of serpent-like lines of shimmering Dunlin laced together to waft in clouds as they too needed a resting place for the period of the river tide.
The shorebirds continued to enter the sludge tank in flock after flock and the sounds of their frenzied chattering whilst alighting soon meant that something special was about to unfold. Just as I expected the last group of birds from the river had entered the tank, a flock of about 400 Ringed Plover nearly parted my hair as they ‘Flosbury flopped’ over the bank and darted to join the others on the ground below. I barely had time to use my scope, trying to find a start point for my count or to even work my way through this shorebird hoard (which was really a pleasant problem to have). I found a cluster of waders gathered and thought they would be a good point to lead me onto other groups and a clear area where most birds could be seen reasonably well. The assemblage contained several hundred Dunlin, little parties of (mostly adult) Ringed Plover and the odd Ruff as a focus point.
It was inevitable that this amount of birds would attract unwelcome attention. I caught sight of a Sparrowhawk flying along and just below the rim of the tank as it flipped down using a series of phragmities clumps as cover to approach the birds at ground level. The taller Greenshanks were partially obscured by the vegetation and spotted the hawk first – a collective warning cacophony rung out alerting all of the smaller birds. Instantly the entire flock of hundreds of waders that had been either feeding or roosting rose as one and as they did so the Sparrowhawk shot straight from cover and flung out a leg ripping a young Dunlin from the air. It was a pitiful sight to see as the raptor carried the still struggling bird to a small elder tree on the far bank to dispatch its quarry. The whirling masses of both Ringed Plover and Dunlin took their time giving the site a good ‘reccy’ before resettling on the mud again.
I must have been well concealed or the flocks didn’t see me as a threat and as they became bolder they fed even closer to me than they had earlier. At times I was struggling to focus my telescope and then, when my bins became redundant I just didn’t need the use of optics for these closer birds. Soon the anxiety from their earlier threat subsided and the groups spread out further onto the tank. I commenced my scrutiny of the species and numbers. I found a group of birds which I started to sift through and slowly worked my way along their line, Dunlin, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Ringed Plover…What was that? A smallish caldris wader with an obvious frosty coloured appearance and elongated body shape dropped below a sandy ridge into what I guessed was a dried up water channel. I could just see the top edge of its back as it sneaked along the trough, presumably feeding as it went along and I thought it may have been an early Little Stint. The birds dropped out of view so I carried on my sweep until I reached another party of Ringed Plovers and a smallish Dunlin, was this the bird I had just seen?
I retraced my steps and swung back to the initial group of Dunlin that I had started to work through. Dunlin, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Ringed Plover…White-rumped Sandpiper! I really had to pinch myself that the bird that I had seen dropping into the sandy channel was an adult (moulting) summer plumage White-rumped Sand!! It sat side on, displaying the truncated body with exaggerated long wings. The immediate impression was of a pale ghostly looking head and underparts contrasting with the reddish colouring on the back with an obvious white V on the upperparts. I scribbled down notes and made a few sketches. The back and mantle were rusty coloured with black streaking while the lower mantle feathers were edge white. There was an obvious pale edging to lower scapulars. The clean white under parts and blackish chevron streaking and fine delicate streaking which ran along the flanks from the sides of the upper breast were noted. A medium length black bill with a fleshy base and flexed black legs were other give aways. I hadn’t seen the rump but on those views it was irrelevant, to me it was obvious what it was. I was more than confident with the birds identity but I had a pressing problem. This was 1994 and mobile phones hadn’t reached Cheshire to the extent that I owned one and I had hitched a lift to the marsh. I didn’t even have a car (not that I could drive anyway). I was obliged by birding protocol to spread my good fortune to the wider fraternity with the tide having now reached its fullest and the shorebirds in an agitated state, beginning to sense the turn of the tide, as they flew around in little parties. It would be a long walk from the north bank of No.4 tank round the Holpool Gutter and that’s before I could reach Rake Lane and then the two-mile trudge to Helsby and the nearest public phone box. I only had a contingency ten pence coin in my pocket to cover all eventualities (like this). The prospect of leaving my spot was a frustrating one but a White-rumped Sandpiper was still a good bird to put out and would generate some interest locally. When I eventually did the walk and found a phone box I called Ted Abraham at his home (I wasn’t going to waste ringing in the news and my 10 pence on his protracted introduction to Birdline Northwest). Fortunately, Ted’s wife answered the phone – he wasn’t available for comment so I left details and retraced my steps back to the north bank of No.4 tank. Most of the wader flocks had returned to the river but fortunately within a gathering of 200 or so Dunlin was the White-rumped Sand and like a lot of rare waders at Frodsham it was evident there wasn’t a hurry to return to the river. Ted et al eventually made it to the marsh and saw the bird but that was the last time it was seen. Oh, I did get to see the birds wrap around white rumped patch on my second helping.
Wader watching is still my favourite type of birding and the sludge tanks of Frodsham Marsh are my favourite type of birding habitat.
Written by WSM.
Images: Image 1 by Paul Crawley; Image 2 by Dermot Smith; Image 3 by WSM; Image 4 by Findlay & Heather Wilde; Image 5 by Shaun Hickey; Note book entry and illustration by WSM.