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Open Mic: Wader Quest Astride the Atlantic

At the Mic: Rick Simpson

Rick Simpson of Newport Pagnell, UK, is a bird guide, illustrator, author of Confessions of a Bird Guide, and a Birdlife Species Champion. 

He previously wrote about Wader Quest at the ABA Blog in Thailand, the UAE, Florida, Washington, and California.

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In 2013 we spent the first four months based in the UK so didn’t add much to our Wader Quest total of 80. In early January  we did a short trip up to Wales to visit our friends Ruth Miller and Alan Davies of The Biggest Twitch fame, they had offered to help us find two of the winter visitors that we were after, Purple Sandpiper and  Jack Snipe.

When we arrived in Llandudno and contacted the couple they were keen to show us the sandpipers straight away. Alan met us and took us to an artificial sea wall made of large boulders. Here we walked along the promenade until suddenly Alan leaped over the guard rail and bade us follow. We did so and there, at the water’s edge, was a Purple Sandpiper with some Dunlin. It seems that this bird is site faithful to a particular group of rocks and can reliably be found there all winter.

Purple Sandpiper, photo by Elis Simpson

The following day was Jack Snipe day. We trudged around the Conwy RSPB reserve where these birds had recently been seen but to no avail, plenty of Common Snipe, but no Jack Snipe. Alan decided then that we should try another spot, a small patch of saltings and pasture further west along the coast. We again trudged across almost the entire patch when suddenly we put up a snipe in front of us. It flew in a wide arc and then went down behind us, it was our Jack Snipe, not the best views maybe, but countable nonetheless.

We then did no wader chasing until we headed for Texas and Louisiana in late April, arriving in Houston we hired a car and drove south to Galveston. It was getting late when we arrived but we managed a short drive along the island before it got dark and saw our first new wader, Upland Sandpiper in long grass near the airport, we also saw a willet in the fading light but couldn’t decide which it was.

Upland Sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper, photo by Elis Simpson

The next morning we arrived at the western tip of the island and started searching the mud around the beginning of the bridge. It was fantastic to hear and see so many birds. The American Avocet flock, mostly in breeding plumage, was just off the beach and their constant murmuring provided an interesting backdrop to the occasional willet call and the general hubbub of terns, gulls and skimmers. We found our first Eastern Willet and many peeps which were very approachable some of which were Semipalmated Sandpipers, another new bird for us.

After this we headed east, our destination Cameron in Louisiana. On the way we stopped at various points and added Solitary and Pectoral Sandpiper to the growing tally, we also couldn’t resist stopping at High Island for a short while, and very rewarding it was too, but waders were why we were there and we soon moved on.

The Louisiana Ornithological Society was having its spring meeting in Cameron that weekend, and we had been invited by Joelle Finlay to give a talk there, which we were delighted to do. We also spent a day chasing birds with Joelle and her husband Ken Harris, plus a local reporter Cyndi Sellers who was covering our visit and helping organize the weekend. We saw no new waders on the day, but had a great day’s birding nonetheless with the highlight at the end of the day being when we saw a Western Tanager.

In the morning we headed inland to the rice country, here we were to meet Steve Cardiff and Donna Dittman, who had agreed to help us find the key wader species in the region.

It was really exciting to see so many waders, dowitchers and sandpipers were everywhere we quickly found Pectoral, Stilt, Semipalmated and Least and it wasn’t long before we saw our first new wader, American Golden Plover. Shortly after this we came across one of the highlights of the trip for us, a gang of Wilson’s Phalaropes, mostly in spring plumage and some lovely females among them, pootling around together on one of the flooded rice fields.

Wilson's Phalarope, photo by Elis Simpson

Wilson’s Phalarope, photo by Elis Simpson

Donna’s sharp eyes and expert field identification skills picked out a group of Buff-breasted Sandpipers flying over, we were happy to see them as they were definitely one of the major targets for the trip, but we did hope to see them slightly better.

For the next few hours we drove slowly along roads surrounded by rice fields and also drove through the turf farm in the area, we did get better views of our ‘Buffies’ and indeed better views of the ‘Uppies’ that we had seen back in Texas, but we were overwhelmingly impressed by the sheer numbers of waders around.

Towards the end of the day there were still two species we had not connected with, one was Baird’s Sandpiper and the second was Hudsonian Godwit. Or hosts knew of a spot where the latter had recently been seen, it was a bit of a drive away, but worth taking the chance.

When we arrived at the allotted spot, we all eagerly got out of the vehicle and started scanning the flocks. It was Donna again who saw it first and called our attention to our first Hudsonian Godwit. As I was setting up my scope, the whirring of a thousand wing beats made me look up. Everything was on the wing; a Peregrine had just flown through. To our dismay the godwit flew on, up and away not to be seen again, fortunately Elis had secured a record shot of it just before it flew. We gratefully thanked Steve and Donna for a fantastic day in the field and returned to where we were to overnight.

We awoke to a thick fog, but the sun soon began to burn off the moisture and we started to look for birds. The first stop was along a grassy side track. We got out of the car and decided to start scanning the peeps gathered in the field. The very first bird I lifted my bins to was a Baird’s Sandpiper, how lucky can you get? We spent a good while watching this bird, reveling in our good fortune, and then drove on to enjoy more of the same from yesterday.

We returned to Cameron later that day and the following morning headed back to Galveston, but not before stopping at the Sabine Bridge to tick off the American Oystercatchers that reside there.

After a short time in the UK our next port of call was going to be South America; Brazil and Peru, now that was an exciting prospect!

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