Spotting the Western Sandpiper in Snettisham

A lone Western Sandpiper, amidst a mass of Dunlin was discovered at Snettisham RSPB on 22nd July. Although it is the world’s commonest calidrid, previously there were only ten accepted records of the Western Sandpiper visiting Britain. This was Norfolk’s second ever sighting, the previous one was in 2011.

Talking to the person who first spotted the bird he said “a small group of Dunlins and Sanderling landed in front of me, in silhouette and amongst them was something that I knew was special, even if I wasn’t entirely sure what. I managed to manoeuvre to get a slightly better angle, but was thwarted by vegetation that obscured the mystery bird. Before long, the tide pushed the flock off and despite much effort I failed to relocate the intriguing calidrid.” After eliminating a number of possible species, he realised he had something special and thought he knew what it might be. Returning early the following morning, as the tide fell and the Dunlin spread out to feed, the mystery bird was spotted again. It was a summer-plumaged Western Sandpiper. The orange on the head and back were subdued but clearly visible.

Jim Scott, the RSPB Snettisham site manager confirmed the identity of the ‘mystery bird’. As the news circulated, keen birder watchers started to arrive at Snettisham. I spoke to one person who had driven through the night from Cumbria in the hope of seeing this rare visitor.

Snettisham is a tricky place to get the timing right, as the ideal times are just before or just after high tide, as the birds either finish up their foraging, or just get started. At high tide, most of the waders are roosting and asleep, hunkered down with their bills tucked in. At low tide, the shorebirds are spread out into the far distance across the vast mudflats of the invertebrate-rich mudflats of The Wash, so that even with a scope the majority of the birds are too far away.

Because the tide had largely gone out by the time most people arrived, the Western Sandpiper was not seen by many birders until the evening tide on 23rd July. The sandpiper was most easy to locate at high tide and on the falling tide. At low water it disappeared and presumably fed somewhere further out. With patience, the bird was possible to find and there was an almost palpable excitement amongst the bird watchers, waiting for it to appear. I was lucky enough to see it through various people’s scopes, as I know I could never have spotted it myself amongst the thousands of Dunlin, Knot and Sanderling.

This was my first visit (as a ‘newbie’ birdwatcher) to Snettisham and even now I cannot believe how privileged I was to see this top of the rarity range of North American shorebirds visiting Britain.

Photos courtesy of Ian Bollen