This was my second record of another vagrant north-American wader. Today’s bird had been a high-tide visitor at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s Slimbridge reserve for most of the past week. Semipalmated Sandpiper resembles Little Stint but is a shade larger with a slightly heavier bill and subtle plumage differences. I had observed one nicely at Keyhaven, Hants in September 2013, a bird that had flown when other Oxonbirders visited the next day.
Saturdays being my only available time for birding with present work commitments, I am reasoning that anything worth seeing is worth going for. On checking RBA at 7am my eye was caught by two rarities in north Norfolk: Blyth’s Pipit, a lifer; and Marsh Sandpiper, a potential British list addition. I fired off a couple of texts seeking company then eventually made it as far as the car inside which my satnav had been seeking a valid signal. 160 miles! No way: too far, too risky and as I was unlikely to get to Norfolk much before 1pm, too potentially hectic.
I resigned myself to a day spent locally but on reaching the car park at Otmoor received a reply from Andy. Both Norfolk birds were no longer there but he was tempted by the Slimbridge Semipal, having missed that Keyhaven bird. Here was an acceptable day out for both of us so we met and headed west, arriving on site shortly before midday.
Slimbridge is of course a zoo, but beyond the captive wildfowl pens, play areas and other visitor facilities lies the Zeiss Hide that overlooks marshes adjoining the Severn estuary. On our arrival this facility was bulging with birders three lines deep, all scanning a distant assemblage of wildfowl and waders amongst which somewhere was concealed the star visitor. My own experience of Slimbridge is that anything reported on RBA is invariably distant, and my distaste for observing birds at that range is well known in the Oxon birding community. This was clearly a bird to let others find for me.
Murmured directions were issuing from up and down the hide and I got onto the birds being discussed several times. But it was plain there was no true consensus as to which of many small waders the Semipal was, that question being confused by the presence of an adult and a juvenile Little Stint. Numbers inside the hide thinned nicely after quite a few people ticked what some who remained agreed had been a Dunlin moving left. Then the bird now thought to be the Semipal went out of view, prompting a frustrating wait. Things had been much easier than this at Keyhaven two years ago.
Andy muttered how this was a typical Slimbridge experience: distant bird, disagreement over ID and that he had sworn never to come here again after we had both dipped on an even more distant Buff-breasted Sandpiper a couple of years ago. If looks could kill from the reserve warden who was standing nearby, I would have had to drive home myself in my companion’s car! I also agreed entirely with his sentiments.
Eventually the Semipalmated Sandpiper emerged into full view, with far fewer birds present to pick it out from and much more manageable numbers of birders in the hide. Andy was now satisfied this was the same bird we had seen earlier before the Dunlin confusion, and that we were indeed observing the Nearctic wader we had come to see. Mission accomplished!
For a close-up image of today’s bird captured by one of the Slimbridge wardens see here