Thursday, 2 April 2020

Little Whimbrel, Blakeney 1985: Connecting the past with the present.

Little whimbrel, Blakeney harbour, Norfolk
24th August 1985 © David Cottridge.
In late August 1985 my dad and I set out for Norfolk for a long weekend birding. It was one of our favourite birding places and late August was a favourite time of year because it gave us the opportunity to see a few early autumn migrants whilst at the same time many of the summer birds would still be around. We booked into the White Horse Inn at Blakeney for the nights of 24th & 25th August. My dad must have been keen to go because 24th August was his wedding anniversary though that didn't really register too much with me at the time!

Back in 1985 the North Norfolk coast and in particular Cley-next-the-sea was still the epicenter of mainland birding in the UK. Bird information services were still in their infancy and Nancy's cafe was at the height of it's powers and nearby Walsey Hill was also an important source of information. In the mid 1980's it sometimes seemed that I spent every weekend with my mates in the autumn in this area and it turned into a really good social event. Sometimes we'd sleep in the car, sometimes a tent, other times in a B&B, very occasionally a hotel.

This was different though, this was with my dad and I expected the pace to be a bit more relaxed. Dad was a keen birder, he had been since at least his early twenties, but he didn't really do twitches and he was what I would call a selective birder, he didn't like seeing birds out of what he considered to be their proper context and for him the overall experience was everything not just seeing the bird. So for example he turned down the opportunity to come with me to see a juvenile great northern diver in the midlands because he wanted his first great northern to be a summer plumage bird in the Scottish Highlands. He did however love the North Norfolk coast, though the irony was not lost on him that many of the migrants we saw such as 1st winter barred warblers and ortolans were just the east coast equivalent of a juvenile great northern in the midlands, but this was different because the North Norfolk coast was meant to be full of migrants, that's what it was all about, that's what he wanted to experience and so in that respect they weren't out of context.


So we checked in at the White Horse Inn at Blakeney on 24th August and then headed off to Cley marshes. I can't remember which hide we were heading for but we were going there in the hope of seeing a pectoral sandpiper which had been reported, exactly the kind of species we had hoped to see at this time of year. Just as we got to the hide a birder rushed out and said "little whimbrel at Blakeney harbour!" and off he ran. I looked at dad, he looked at me and we calmly went into the hide and started looking for the pec sand.......after about a minute or so we turned to each other and simultaneously said "Perhaps we better go!". Ten minutes later we were back in the car and heading for Blakeney. No parking problems for us, we just parked in the White Horse car park and walked from there.

We headed out onto the marsh following the sea bank which is now the route of the North Norfolk Coastal Path. It might have already been called that at the time but if it was I don't remember it as such. We could see a group of perhaps 10 birders about a mile distant and we assumed that they were watching the bird and with no other information to go on we decided walking out to them was the best bet.

On the walk along the bank we were occasionally overtaken by other birders who elected to run and by the time we got to the viewing position there were perhaps 16 birders in total looking into a field which I have since learnt is called Blakeney Eye. We were very much amongst the first people to get there. I set up our shared scope and started scanning the field. At first I saw just curlews, but then I came across a whimbrel. I'd never even heard of little whimbrel before today and I had no real idea of what they looked like, presumably just a small whimbrel I reasoned. In my eagerness I mistakenly told dad that I'd got the little whimbrel and let him look through the scope. We watched the wrong bird for a minute or so until it was my turn with the scope again and as I watched suddenly something about the same size as a ruff walked up to the whimbrel! This was more like it! More dwarf whimbrel than little whimbrel, this was clearly the bird we were looking for. Sheepishly I told dad that we'd been watching the wrong bird. Oh well, it was my dad's first whimbrel as well, so at least he got whimbrel before little whimbrel!

We watched it for a couple of hours or so and then headed back to the White Horse, passing many more birders going the other way, some running, some walking, but all asking the same question "is it still there?". The crowd was growing by the minute. That evening I made a few phone calls to mates back home and set in motion a twitch from the North West. Hard to imagine now that a bird such as a little whimbrel could be in North Norfolk and yet most of my birding friends knew nothing about it until I phoned them that evening, but that's the way it was back in 1985. News about rare birds really just passed along the so called grapevine, word of mouth in other words, you had to know the right people.

The following morning we were having breakfast and we could see a stream of birders walking or running past the White Horse and setting off along the sea bank. We sauntered along the bank again for a second look and this time did a bit general birding as well. Eventually we decided to carry on with our planned weekend to Cley and Blakeney Point and saw exactly the sort of birds we were hoping to see, pectoral sandpiper, wood sandpipers, spotted redshanks, ortolan, dotterel, black tern, bearded tits and various waders. The little whimbrel was the second for Britain and possibly for Europe and one of the finders was Pete Antrobus, a guy I went on to work with in later years, though I didn't know him in 1985.

Little whimbrel breeds in the far north of Siberia and winters in northern Australia and back in 1985 I didn't expect to ever get the opportunity to visit either of those places. As far as I was concerned that was it, I never expected to see little whimbrel again.

Photo: Little whimbrel, Exmouth, Western Australia
13th October 2019 © Colin Davies
34 years later there had still not been another little whimbrel in the UK and the species was just about the last blocker on my UK list. Nobody under the age of about 40 could possibly have seen one in the UK. It was October 2019 and I was on a road trip in Western Australia with my son, and one of our first stops was Exmouth, about 800 miles north of Perth. The first morning we were there I was up at dawn and off to the local sewage works. I knew that in the blistering heat of Exmouth, the sewage works would most likely prove to be an oasis for birds and the adjacent golf course would provide a large amount of extra habitat. There were all sorts of birds on the sewage works, from budgerigars and cockatiels to whiskered terns and wood sandpipers, whilst on the golf course a brolga walked around boldly amongst the red kangaroos and brown quail flew up from under my feet.

Photo: Banded lapwing, crested pigeon and little whimbrel
Exmouth, Western Australia © Colin Davies
It was on the way back that I spotted them. Eight redshank sized birds walking around on a sports pitch. They were walking in amongst the crested pigeons and banded lapwings which were clearly larger than the mystery waders. My first reaction was little whimbrel, but then I set about trying to talk myself out of it. Could they be wood sandpipers? I'd seen a few of those at the sewage works and the birds I was looking at now did look incredibly small for any curlew or whimbrel. They were so slim and dainty and they had a prominent supercillium. Sounds a bit like wood sandpiper surely? But no, surely not, the bill was too long and slightly curved and the legs were also too long. Easy to look back now and feel foolish about even considering wood sandpiper but at the time I really just couldn't believe that I was looking at eight little whimbrel. The species had such a mythical status for me.

Photo: Wood sandpiper, Exmouth, Western Australia
© Colin Davies

Photo: Little whimbrel Exmouth, Western Australia
© Colin Davies
Up until now I'd only looked at the birds through my binoculars, but then I suddenly remembered that I had my scope and tripod in the boot of the car! It's a strange thing but when I'm abroad I often forget about my scope even though I usually have it with me. I think it's because I can't be bothered carrying it in the heat, or there's a heat haze which renders it useless or maybe I'm often just looking for birds where I don't need a scope. Whatever the reason it's often forgotten for long periods.

Now however the effort of cramming it into the suitcase at the expense of some extra T-shirts, a few more pairs of socks and a spare pair of shoes was about to pay off. I got the scope on the birds and straight away there was no doubt. Little whimbrel! One bird even turned towards me and started feeding and showed me its crown stripe.  A cracking bird!

Photo: Little whimbrel, Exmouth, Western Australia
© Colin Davies
The final confirmation if any were now needed was when the birds flew. They didn't have a white rump. In Europe we tend to expect curlews and whimbrels to have white rumps, yet in fact the majority of species across the world have brown rumps. These birds remained on the playing field for the duration of our stay in Exmouth and I looked them up every day. Little whimbrel is relatively common in Northern Australia but it's not that easy to see for the casual visitor.

The really weird thing is though, as the years have gone by and with no photos of my own to look at because I didn't have a camera back in 1985, my memory of the Norfolk bird has been taken over by Dave Cottridge's photo at the top of this post.  This is the classic photo of the Blakeney bird. Having now seen little whimbrel very well in Australia, I don't think the bird in the photo has the jizz of little whimbrel, in my opinion little whimbrel is a slimmer, more upright species than the bird in the photo. Of course the photo is the Blakeney bird and it was a little whimbrel and it's posture is just a moment in time, but it just goes to show how misleading a photo can be and is a good example of why all the best field guides use paintings rather than photos.

So I guess that really is it. I don't expect to see little whimbrel again. Yet just a week or two after I returned from Australia a little whimbrel turned up in Holland. Perhaps there is yet hope that I'll see another in the UK.


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