Purple Sandpiper at Southsea Castle, Hants – 7th Feb

These are birds I have wanted to catch up with for a little while now. The season’s settled mild Atlantic weather pattern is producing few rarities to go after, so I have instead been beefing up my records of some of the “uncommon” birds that winter around our shores. Twite and Horned Lark (see here) were two examples, while Purple Sandpiper is another species I wanted to get to know better.

I haven’t experienced too many of the last named small wader over the years. Indeed three of my five previous sightings were at Oxford’s Farmoor Reservoir, and I have only ever seen single birds. But small flocks of PS are reported in mid-winter from regular locations around England’s south and east coasts, typically roosting at high tide on sea or harbour walls and breakwaters where they are often very approachable. Southsea Castle in Portsmouth is one classic site and that was where I headed today.

purple sandpiper.1614 southsea castle

12 Purple Sandpiper at high tide on the sea wall

On my arrival just after 10am waves were already lashing the sea wall a little ahead of the time stated in the tide tables, and a very cold gale was blowing. A brief reconnoitre in both directions from the castle soon located a flock of 12 Purple Sandpiper (pictured above). Then for the next 30 – 45 minutes these rather dumpy looking birds set about being as difficult to photograph as they could. With the low sun directly behind them they seemed to delight in keeping to the glariest, most reflective patches of the structure while keeping their backs to the camera.

Eventually the flock stopped feeding and put on an amusing display of cat napping. Each time the sea splashed them they would all jump and move around a bit before quickly tucking their heads in again, but not for long. Eventually a large wave struck and they all flew off west towards Portsmouth harbour. But there had only been 11 of them.

I relocated the 12th Purple Sand going it alone a short distance to the east, then observed and photographed this bird for the next hour. A few local birders stopped to talk but if any of them had thought: “Look at this photographer getting too close,” they didn’t say so. Out of 400 frames taken of the flock and this individual I managed the following reasonable results.

purple sandpiper.1613 southsea castle

Subtly-toned, plump Purple Sands in the winter sun

These Scandinavian breeders display generally dark and subtle tones that blend very well with the stony, man-made places they like to frequent. Some of the pictures show the purplish hues that give the species its name, and I also find the orange bill and legs very attractive.

Just before midday a dog came running along the sea wall and saw off this last Purple Sand. Were the owners concerned at having spoiled what I was clearly doing? Not a bit, they just threw a ball into the sea for their pet to retrieve and walked on. My car parking time was in any case running out and so, pleased with the morning’s work I headed away and then home.

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