Hudsonian Godwit on the Avalon marshes – 30th Apr

At last some rare wader action to end the month! For me this has seemed like an uneventful spring bird passage so far, with only the Hampshire Greater Yellowlegs to go after. Then six evenings ago another Nearctic vagrant, only the third of its kind to be seen in Great Britain arrived at Meare Heath on the Somerset Levels. News was put out early on Saturday once the finder (see here) had made sure of his sighting, but I didn’t notice in time and the bird flew off late afternoon.

I will admit to having to read up on Hudsonian Godwit, not recalling the name previously. The species is so called because almost the entire post-breeding population gathers along the south Hudson Bay and James Bay in Canada. This is a spectacular migrant, wintering in Argentina, and trans-Atlantic vagrancy is very uncommon. In RBA’s weekly summary the bird is said to have acquired mythical status over the 32 years since it was last twitchable here.

I arranged to go down on Sunday with Oxonbirder Andy Last but the “Hudwit” was not relocated. The bird stayed away until Wednesday when it returned with a flock of Black-tailed Godwit and remained until dusk. Where it had been in the interval is not known. Today I was just setting out for what would have been a routine sort of day locally when I got a text from Andy saying the Hudwit was back once more. Suddenly my day had a greater sense of purpose and I upped and went.

shapwick heath.1501

On arriving at Ashcott Corner between the Avalon Marshes reserves of RSPB Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath I found the welcome sight of bulging car parks and a procession of birders coming and going. The location was just a ¼ mile to the west but there was a large flock of Blackwits and other common waders to pick the visitor out of (pictured above). Fortunately I stood next to a friendly expert who guided me to the correct bird. At this point the Hudwit, a female was sleeping and the most noticeable diagnostic was a dark coloured belly. But when she occasionally shook her head or preened briefly the bi-coloured, slightly upturned bill and distinctive pattern of the upperparts were plain to see.

See here for RBA’s photo gallery of this bird.

Then I saw Oxonbirder Adam Hartley (aka Gnome) walking towards me to greet some friends of his, so I thanked my helpful guide and went to join Adam. Having got my eye in I could now relocate the Hudwit fairly easily unless it became obscured by other birds, and we watched it mostly sleeping for over an hour. All the time birders were coming and going, with up to 300 present at times. Many of these had the air of vastly experienced twitchers: grizzled, tanned characters with big beards, dated spectacles and carrying all manner of optics; all of this reflecting the great rarity of the bird we had come to see. And a good natured ambience prevailed with people exchanging anecdotes of birding derring do from far and wide

Bittern

Bittern

As if to demonstrate how I only have to step out of Oxfordshire to trip over Bittern, this one (above) did a fly past. A local bird surveyor told us there are now over 40 booming males on the Avalon Marshes, as well as growing numbers of Great White Egret. Marsh Harrier and Hobby also put in frequent appearances to entertain the crowd. All this is testimony to the huge amount of habitat restoration carried out by the RSPB and English Nature since the 1980s when this area was one largely of peat workings.

At just before 3pm all the Godwits went up and circled round. This was the flight view that everyone had been waiting for since the Hudwit revealed its distinctive dark underwing pattern (pictured below). Adam, who was on an errand to IKEA in Bristol, then had to leave and so I departed too. Back at the car park a business suited man in a BMW pulled up next to me and transformed himself quickly into a birder. He said his day had started in Lancaster, where he saw mainland England’s other mega a Pied-billed Grebe. Then after client meetings there and in Wolverhampton he had time to drop in here before heading home to Bedford. Now that’s what I call achieving a work / life balance!

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