Serried Ribs

This is my first blog that deal with WeBS Surveys so let me set the scene.

Once a month, on a Sunday coincident with a high tide during daylight hours (usually between 10am and 2pm), The British Trust for Ornithology (The BTO) mobilise their small army of volunteers to carry out a Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) across thousands of coastal and inland lakes and waterways, across the length and breadth of the UK.

I’ve been a WeBS Volunteer at St Annes beach, St Annes-On-Sea, Lancashire, for the last two years, and in August this year, I also took on the responsibility for carrying out the WeBS Survey at two locations ‘Over Wyre’ at Fluke Hall and at Lane Ends.

WeBS Surveys and its forerunners have been going since as early as the late 1940’s and the information collected, with its consistent and accurate methodology, coupled with metronomic regularity, provides all manner of data useful for conservation, population estimates, migration dates for arrivals and departures and ‘evidence’ where needed of the harm (or good) that development and change may bring in surveyed and neighbouring sectors.

There are target species in each of the sectors and St Annes beach is a site of National importance / significance for Sanderling (Calidris alba), a beautiful, small wader of seemingly boundless energy, which travel to the Fylde Coast in late Summer / Autumn from their breeding grounds in the high Arctic including Iceland, Northern Scandinavia and Russia. Failed breeding birds start to arrive from late July and build up over the late Summer and into Autumn with the count this Saturday reaching 1750 individuals. some images from the St Annes WeBS can be seen below.

The two sectors that are surveyed in North Fylde mainly target wildfowl (ducks and geese) such as Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) and Wigeon (Anas penelope) and also return good numbers of Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) and Curlew (Numenias arquata); the Curlew, with its haunting / melancholy song being the UK’s largest wading bird.

This being my first time surveying these sectors, I was heavily reliant on the previous WeBS volunteer for both of these sectors, Len Blacow, who, up until this year, had surveyed these two sites for over 40 years – a tough act to follow! As always, Len couldn’t have been more helpful, and whilst it will take a few months for me to get used to the terrain and more importantly, how to read the weather and the tides and which channels and sandbanks are favoured by which birds and when – the winds and the weather themselves will also play a huge role in this education process, and only time will improve these skills – hopefully I still have plenty of it left!. As with the St Annes WeBS, to follow are some pictures from Lane Ends and Fluke Hall (I’m sure my good friend Simon Davis used to live there but that’s a story for another day!).

In all my time of doing WeBS surveys, which granted is not that long, very few birds that could be described as scarce / rare / unexpected have ever been present and the species and numbers of birds have usually been as expected (There was an adult and Juvenile Roseate Tern on St Annes beach last year and whilst I am 100% certain of what I saw, and have the notes and drawings to prove it, it was not a record accepted by the Lancashire bird committee and officially didn’t exist!).

That all changed this weekend with one bird appearing at St Annes that has never made an appearance on a WeBS Count in our area (and never is quite a long time!)- the heart-stopper in question was an American Beauty, better known as an American Golden Plover (Pluvialis dominica) – As you would imagine with anything American, it’s that bit bolder, brasher, and (a little bit) bigger than its European counterpart the Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria) and when you look at the colours on its back and wings, it certainly comes ‘star spangled’.

There I was just minding my own business, clicking away on my tally counter, counting the Sanderling and there, stood at the edge of the incoming tide, bold as you like, was a solitary bird that was just simply stunning – you go through the mental checklist – is it a Golden Plover no – why not? Markings, it’s head pattern is clearly different; White band along the underside of the wind – No, the chest and belly are jet black – no white at all; as the bird flapped it’s wings, it revealed the underwing, was it pale / white? No – in this light it was uniformly grey/brown and showed no white at all. That left only one real option, American Golden Plover it was and I duly announced it on the Fylde Bird News Whatsapp group where local birders announce birds (and other animals and insects) so others may get a chance to observe them.

I’ve been told by fellow birders many times to make contemporaneous notes and to make a sketch highlighting noticeable features – I’m truly shocking at drawing but even poorly drawn, you should be able to check the observation against the field guides and photos. You are trying to remember as many features as you can whilst still trying to enjoy the bird for what it is – not easy with the your heart pounding! As exciting as it was, my encounter with this bird lasted all of seven minutes before it was flushed by a dog and was lost to view to towards Fairhaven!

What makes the sighting of the American Golden Plover all the more incredible, is when you consider where it should be! The picture below shows it’s breeding grounds in the High Canadian Arctic / Northern Alaska and it’s migration route either side of the Rocky Mountains, though Central America and to its ultimate wintering grounds across Southern Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina – Instead of those exotic sounding places, it instead decided to turn up off St Annes! What is just as remarkable is that this is not the first American Golden Plover I’ve seen this year – A birder called Ian Hartley found one in a Golden Plover flock up at Glasson around four weeks ago and after observing this bird for around 45 minutes, it made the identification of this St Annes bird all that more straightforward. Thank you Ian!

Whilst nothing quite that rare was seen on the Lane Ends and Fluke Hall surveys, I was still treated to views of birds that are certainly not resident / don’t breed on the Fylde and in many cases simply pass through on their way to or from their breeding sites – the supporting cast to the lead actor that was the American Golden Plover were Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe), 2 Juvenile Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) and a pair of Curlew Sandpiper (Caladris ferruginea). In total, 52 Species were observed across the three sites and I can’t think of a better way to spend a few hours at the weekend.

The encounters with the American Golden Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Marsh Harriers and Wheatears certainly add something to these sessions but I genuinely do also celebrate the ordinary and take as much delight hearing and seeing Black-Headed Gulls and a Wren belting out its song….we just never know if what is commonplace today will be a rarity in 10 years – enjoy them whilst we still can.

If interested, the three full WeBS submissions are as follows:-

American Beauty – 17/09/23

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