Saturday, 19 October 2013


Now the SEMIPALMATED PLOVER is not the most inspiring of American species that has ever  occurred on this site of the Atlantic Ocean. You could say that our very own Common Ringed Plover of Britain and Northern Europe is slightly more a aesthetically pleasing. The issue is though this subtly different species is an extremely rare visitor to Europe and particularly Great Britain. Since the initial sighting on St Agnes, Isles of Scilly during October 1978 just a further two birds have been found and accepted in Britain. When the second individual turned up in Devon during the Spring of 1997 and returned again in 1998 I could not even be bothered to make the short diversion down to Dawlish Warren as I drove from the Midlands to Cornwall and back on several occasions. I had wrongly assumed that now we knew exactly what to look for in this species, at least one would be safely identified every year.

Last Thursday night news filtered through that a first winter SEMIPALMATED PLOVER had been present in the high tide wader roost off the eastern tip of Hayling Island in Hampshire. At last I finally had a chance of putting a birding schoolboy error to rest after over fifteen years. With much to do at work on the Friday there would be no chance of heading south until the weekend though. On the Saturday morning, I headed down with Mike Feely and Dave Hutton to try our luck at high tide. 

Anxious birders at Black Point.... with Brent Geese overhead.

By just after 10.00am we, along with around eighty other like minded souls were in position at Black Point eagerly anticipating the feathered gift the incoming tide would bestow upon us all. Initially there were around 25 Common Ringed Plover and around 10 Dunlin to search through but as time progressed these numbers increased little by little making the process of elimination trickier. Some birders could not take the suspense though and were clearly seeing pro-semipalmated features in some of the Common Ringed Plover that simply did not exist. If only some folks would do their homework before deciding to travel so far, after all preparation is a major part of the enjoyment in rarity chasing. At one stage I even turned around to see no less than three copies of the Collin Bird Guide being passed around amongst the crowd.  Field guides in the actual field are something of a rare sighting in themselves these days.

Then at around 10.45am a flock of around 30 Sanderling descended along with a few more Dunlin and the odd Common Ringed Plover. After a scan of the new arrivals my attention was drawn to a slightly smaller, more compact first winter ringed plover type bird. Upon further scrutiny the bill was stubby and despite the poor light I could also make out a smidgen of white feathering above the gape line and a hint of pale-fringes on the wing coverts. At the range we were viewing though it was impossible to pick up a hint of orange at the base of the bill and looking for the actual partial toe-webbing was an obvious waste of time. The small dome-headed appearance of the bird was quite apparent however. This had to be the SEMIPALMATED PLOVER! As the seconds ticked by more and more birders independently noticed the same bird and mentioned the same features. Luckily the bird walked slightly closer and with an obvious first winter Common Ringed Plover at its side for comparison the identification was ultimately confirmed.

Unfortunately just as we all started to relax and enjoy the bird, an incompetent wind-surfer sailed way too close to the Point and flushed the whole wader flock. They flew off in a south-westerly direction and with the tide rushing in there was little chance of them returning to the same sandy spit. I was both pleased and relieved to see the bird however I really did want better views if at all possible. Some 'tick and run' merchants slunk off back to their cars however most hung around for a further half hour or so just in case the bird did decide to return. At the same time new groups of birders started to arrive on site just a few minutes too late.

We then received the welcome news that the bird had been relocated about a mile of so away roosting  along the beach at Eastoke. As the heavens opened a mass exodus from the sailing club then ensued. It was quite amusing at one stage as we made a wrong turning only for a convey of other birders to follow us. After finding a space to park we then braved the driving rain to jostle for a precious viewing position on the beach. Despite rain hitting my scope head on I eventually managed to pick up the rarity once again. 

first winter SEMIPALMATED PLOVER (nearest bird)
Eastoke Beach, Hayling Island, Hampshire
Photo by Dave Hutton

Eventually as I ran out of dry lens cloths the downpour finally subsided and the sun attempted to peer through the dark clouds. With much closer and far better viewing conditions I could now absorb most of the clinching identification features. This time I could even detect a small, feint spot of orange at the base of the subtly upturned bill however a good view of the 'semipalmations' were just not possible as it stood mostly motionless on the shingle. At one stage the flock flew off for a while but while they were in flight none of us heard the distinctive call of a SEMIPALMATED PLOVER

first winter SEMIPALMATED PLOVER (nearest bird)
Eastoke Beach, Hayling Island, Hampshire
Photo by Dave Hutton

Finally at around 1.30pm the whole flock of birds took flight again and this time they meant business. I eventually lost view of them as they headed back east towards Sandy Point. We did attempt to relocate them but unfortunately a large section of the beach was cordoned off due to some ongoing flood defence work. At this point a handsome adult winter Mediterranean Gull flew past us heading west along the beach.

Eastoke Beach looking west towards Portsmouth.
Photo by Adam Archer

Before we attempted to find somewhere to eat we decided to head back over to Black Point to see if the birds had returned there on the receding tide. Unfortunately there was still quite a bit of disturbance from the nearby sailing club and only a small number of Common Ringed Plover were present. It would have been quite possible for the birds to have made their way into the vast estuarine areas of either Emsworth Channel or the Chichester Channel to feed. Other species included around 120 Dark-bellied Brent Geese, 2 Little Egrets and a single Sandwich Tern.

Looking north towards Black Point after the wader flock disappeared.
Photo by Adam Archer

It was then onto South Hayling for a quality box of celebratory haddock and chips at Coastguards Fish & Chips. This fine establishment has been voted the best chippy in Hampshire 2013-2104 and I can see why. The food was tremendous and very reasonably priced too. I can thoroughly recommend a visit if any readers are ever birding nearby.


This species breeds in Alaska and widely across northern Canada to Baffin Island and Newfoundland. It spends the winter along both the Atlantic and Pacific shores of the southern United States and all the way down to the southern point of South America. If accepted, the Hampshire bird will be only the fifth ever record (and fourth individual) of this species in Britain. The previous records are as follows:

2012 - Western Isles - South Glendale, South Uist - juvenile - 7th to 11th September.
1998 - Devon - Dawlish Warren - adult (presumed returning bird from 1997) - 31st March to 10th May.
1997 - Devon - Dawlish Warren - first summer - mid April to 21st September.
1978 - Isles of Scilly - St Agnes - juvenile - 9th October to 9th November.


  1. How can the chippy win for next year… it's a swizz!

    1. Honestly Haguey they deserve it.... I would give them until at least 2020. I love chips me!