28.08.83 Birdlog. A Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

On this Day: 28.08.83 Birdlog

John and Pete Shield’s car pulled up outside my house with an audible screech of its tyres. This was soon followed by a sharp ‘rat a tat tat’ on the front door with the customary shout of “wanna go to the marsh?” I definitely don’t need asking twice and in I jumped! We sped down to the marsh, parked up alongside a variety of early eighties Ford Fiestas and Vauxhall Astra’s at the junction of No.1 & 5 tanks. Whoever it was out of the three of us who decided to walk to the river and onto the Weaver Bend made a costly manoeuvre. After an hour or so’s birding on the ‘bend’ and without much to boast about we headed back to where we had parked the car. On the way we bumped into a Wirral birder who casually mentioned that someone had just found a Pectoral Sandpiper on No.5 tank. We were a bit pissed off that we hadn’t watched over that tank first and hurriedly increased our steps pronto. At the top of the bank on No.5 tank was amassed a huddle of middle-aged men with oily Barber jackets hunched over their tripod mounted telescopes, each one gawping into the distance at a collection of mist shrouded objects which was traipsing the far mud. The sludge tanks on Frodsham Marsh are the main reason why shore birds and occasionally birders choose to settle here during the height of the tide on the Mersey estuary. The incoming sea forces waders to seek shelter and the sludge tanks on the marshes act has a safe refuge. The settling tank are fed by a series of pipes that pump sediment silt from the nearby Manchester Ship Canal and this particular sludge tank was actively used to contain that silt. Over a period of time the sludge would settle long enough to support the hatching of mosquito larvae and other mud dwelling invertebrates and is therefore attractive for the waders to feed and rest up during the highest tides.

It would have been a fairly routine twitch to see a Pectoral Sandpiper on Frodsham Marsh in the summer of 1983. Nearctic shorebirds were very much on the radar for this Cheshire wader hotspot. When we arrived there was the usual smiles and banter from the various birders who had either seen the bird or were busily engaged in conversation, or both. This can be irritating to those that had arrived late particularly when we asked if the ‘Pec’ was still here and got a cursory nod or flick of the head in the general direction of where the bird was. I found a spot and lay on my back with the bank as my support.

The usual dilemma – bins first or scope? I thought and I extracted my trusty German-made Hertel & Reuss 25-60×60 Televari telescope from its leather case (it was voted the most popular telescope in 1982 in a survey conducted by BB). But it did have its disadvantages and one was when it was damp you would need the arm of Hercules to pull the draw tubes from the suction craving housing without popping your arm out of its shoulder socket! After some cursing and coaxing I lifted the pin prick sized eye piece to my pupil and placed the broad end of the object lens on my crossed leg and knee cap (I didn’t possess a tripod then). In this position it would take a while to locate one particular moving wader in amidst the scrum of other birds that were energetically and manically weaving amongst each other. I eventually locked onto the ‘Pec’, but I wasn’t presented with the usual demarcated patterned chest band with an accentuated bodied sandpiper that has become the staple diet I had come to expect here. It took a few views of this bird as it weaved itself through the mass of Dunlin before my eyebrows were force into alert mode! The morning mist was beginning to fade away but the sunlight was directly behind the birds which were ahead and most were silhouetted shapes. I remember thinking when I saw the wader for the first time it wasn’t a ‘normal’ bird? The subject was a small shorebird picking nervously from the surface of the ground. It’s finely balanced body was supported by two legs as if handcrafted by the gods themselves. It had an air of elegance as it tiptoed the mocha brown coloured slime that left beads of ooze dripping as it gently repositioned each foot from the ground before placing the next step ahead. The petite demeanour and messy chest and chevron streaked flanks just didn’t add up? I asked some birders who were standing nearby what their opinion was? They simply shrugged their shoulders and reiterated that they had been told it was a worn summer plumaged female Pectoral Sandpiper and were happy to believe that. I was getting more curious and asked friends what they thought, but no reply was forthcoming. I felt bold enough to say to them that “if I had found this bird I would have said it was a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper”! I wasn’t alone in my thoughts as Mark Gibson also had his suspicions. The rest of the afternoon many people came and went and they didn’t appear to be any words of descent against the “Pec”.

It’s funny how things pan out but it was obvious some people did have other thoughts and one in particular stuck his neck out further than I did. Later that evening Tim Cleeves who was the warden at Hilbre Island in the early 1980’s and had already amassed an enviable reputation for his identification skills made his thoughts public. Soon after his visit to see the “Pec” it all fell into place and its true identity became apparent. That evening word spread like wild-fire and the reidentifed Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was available for all to see the following day. The species are still rare to see in the UK. This particular bird was just one of a run of top-notch rarities that spanned the next two decades on that glorious glutinous gooey sludge tank.

If you were actively birding in the 1980’s then you wouldn’t expect to have the technologic advances of the present day at hand. Information was generally relayed via telephone landline or a very basic jungle grapevine. If you didn’t have a telephone at home (which I didn’t) then your chances of keeping abreast of rarity news was basically slim to zero. I was reasonably fortunate by having a network of friends who I either contacted via the local phone box on a Friday night to hear about birds I had dipped on or rarities that were still available.

Regarding the identity of the Sharp-tail there had been a British Birds journal article published (which is linked below) three years previously, but for many including myself who hadn’t subscribed to that publication we were none the wiser. I’m certain that the birds identity was suspected by many birders present but at a time when the nuances of identification were just emerging from the dark ages it’s easy in retrospect to be critical.  The majority of senior birders that were present were probably no wiser than the kids who were picking up the birding baton and stumbling along the path ahead. We as younger birders (at the time) perhaps had an obligation of respect to the old geners but it’s always worth having a touch of cynicism. Always keep an open mind and never be afraid to ask a few questions. There are no daft questions just daft people giving the wrong answers (sometimes).

It has been 34 years since this bird appeared on No.5 tank and I can remember that occasion like it was yesterday. Ironically 7 years ago on a trip to New Zealand I was watching a flock of Sharp-tail’s when I found two Pectoral Sandpipers in their midst but neither were adult females moulting out of breeding plumage!

The identity of the original finder isn’t know but I’m glad they put the news out initially and they deserve some credit for doing so.

Bill Morton.

Identification of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers

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