Sunday, 3 May 2015

Waders With The Power To Inspire - Oliver Simms

When people ask me how I got in to birdwatching, the honest answer is that I don’t really know. I sort of started for the sake of it when I was 13. I had always had an interest in animals and enjoyed seeing the larger, more spectacular birds but, struggling for things to keep me occupied in the summer holiday, I seem to remember starting to write down all the birds that I saw. One thing though is certain, two different days watching waders helped cement my passion for birds.

A few weeks after I started listing the birds, a family holiday in the Peak District gave me the opportunity to enhance my ever growing list. I can’t remember how but somehow I had heard that Old Moor RSPB near Barnsley was the best site in the area and I managed to persuade my family to stop “briefly” as we drove back from a trip to York. The “brief” stop lasted over two hours and the only reason I was dragged away was because the reserve was closing. I wrote down 83 species for these two hours, no doubt some of them farcical (Marsh Warbler certainly!), but it was the waders that really stood out for me.

Up until this point, I only really recalled seeing three species of wader (Lapwing, Curlew and Oystercatcher) in my life and all before I truly began birdwatching. For whatever reason, waders were a family that I had seen in my field guide, eye-catching species that captured my imagination and I was desperate to see more of them. Indeed, I had hoped that I would kickstart my wader list at Old Moor but nothing prepared me for the sheer variety of species. In the first hide, some local birder helpfully explained to me how to separate Common and Green Sandpipers, as these became the first new wader species of the day for me.

We then walked round to the “Wader Scrape Hide”, with the name alone causing me  no end of excitement. I was blown away. Amongst the thousands of Lapwing (exciting enough itself for me at the time) were Golden Plover, Dunlin, Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, Greenshank and, the real prize, a full summer plumaged Spotted Redshank, which an RSPB volunteer had helpfully pointed out to me. I seem to remember being quite disappointed when I was told it was a Spotted Redshank as I had been desperate to see a Redshank not a Spotted Redshank! It was only last year, almost 8 years later, that I saw my next pristine summer plumaged Spotted Redshank.

Redshank - Samuel Langlois
Dunlin - Samuel Langlois
7 months later and my birdwatching obsession had grown tenfold but I had not yet had a comparable experience with my beloved waders. I had visited several sites that I thought would be good for waders including Rainham Marshes RSPB, Rutland Water and WWT Slimbridge but only seen 3 or 4 species each time, though I had seen Redshank on each occasion! I had a free day in the Easter Holidays and decided that I was going to go somewhere by train. I decided on Rainham Marshes and I called them up to see if a 14 year old could join the RSPB without his parents present. An hour later they phoned back to say that I could but I would not be allowed in the reserve unaccompanied due to “open water”.  Furious, I set about finding somewhere else to go and I heard that Two Tree Island in Leigh was good for waders so I decided to go there.

I had never birdwatched in a saltmarsh or estuarine habitat so I did not quite know what to expect but I was hopeful of a couple of wader species. As I walked up towards the hide, I saw what I initially took to be a gull mobbing a Buzzard. I raised my binoculars and realised it wasn’t a Buzzard but a Carrion Crow so I was confused as why the “gull” was so small. The penny soon dropped, this was my first Avocet! As I got in to the hide, the excitement continued as the saltmarsh threw up more and more wonderful waders. There must have been 12 or so species of wader, I’d never seen anything like it! Highlights for me included my first Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel and Grey Plover. Looking back, if I had the same day now, the highlight would have probably been the Cuckoo singing outside the hide but, at the time, all I cared about was the wading birds.

Almost eight years since these first experiences, waders still capture my imagination. Whether the excitement of finding a Common Sandpiper on my generally waderless patch, a day on the Norfolk coast watching swirling flocks, twitching a transatlantic vagrant or enjoying Blacksmith Plovers in South Africa, I still take pleasure in these wonderful birds. Although I have seen rarities including Greater Yellowlegs, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Short-billed Dowitcher, one breeding species still eludes me; the Dotterel. I am determined this year to track one down!

Hopefully my story highlights the importance of protecting waders. It is essential not only so that future generations can enjoy them as much as I have but also because they have a special power to inspire a love for all birds and, as a result, a determination to conserve them. Those interested, feel free to the visit the WaderQuest website using the following link: 

Purple Sandpiper - Samuel Langlois

Oliver is a 22 year old Classics graduate from Durham University and, after spending his last free summer as a bird guide and hotel manager in Ecuador, now works as an auditor at the National Audit Office. He previously served as Trip Officer in the Next Generation Birders committee and is now a trustee of Wader Quest. When he is not staring at spreadsheets at work, he enjoys NGB trips to Spurn, hill walking and birding in the tropics.

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