Saturday 25 April 2015


HUDSONIAN GODWIT (summer female)
Shapwick Heath NNR, Somerset.
Photo by Steve Nuttall

Well what a week that was! Following the shenanigans down on the Isles of Scilly with the GREAT BLUE HERON recently, who would have thought that another huge American MEGA would make landfall in Britain quite so soon? Well, my spooky, aviform related sixth sense must have been picking up the rarity vibe because this weekend I was due to enjoy a relaxing few days with Nadia in Cumbria. The plan was to head north early on Saturday morning, attend the Workington vs FC United of Manchester match (new ground tick), check into a comfy B&B and then spend Sunday birding the beautiful Lake District.

On Friday night though, the weather was not looking too great up there and I had already witnessed FC United become champions of the Northern Premier League earlier in the week with a sneaky 1-0 victory over Stourbridge. The four hour drive did not appeal too much either, especially after the motoring exertions to Penzance and back on Monday. We decided to cancel.

So as Saturday morning broke and as Nadia and I discussed the pros and cons of installing a new 'double sink' in the kitchen, I was saved from having to search for my tape measure by an incoming call. This time it was Steve Richards as opposed to Steve Nuttall. Perhaps he had located a Hoopoe or something equally as tasty at his beloved Gailey Reservoir? "Have you seen your pager?" were his first words. To be honest I did not even know where my pager was, a schoolboy error really to let it out of my sight at this time of the year. 

He then continued with the amazing news that a HUDSONIAN GODWIT had been found in Somerset. The next few minutes were a bit of a blur but I do remember trying to brush my teeth while forcing my feet into a pair of trainers at the same time. This multi-tasking was simultaneously carried out as I attempted to convey to Nadia just how f*cking rare this species of nearctic wading bird actually was in Britain!

The godwit flock at Shapwick Heath NNR, Somerset.
Photo by Adam Archer

By 10.30am and after a safe and leisurely tootle down the M5, we were on site at the new Ham Wall RSPB car park. After a wheezy scarper down the old railway line and onto the Shapwick Heath part of the reserve complex, we set up our scopes to commence the scan of fate. A large flock of Black-tailed Godwits were distributed liberally across the back of the shallow mere. Most of them were fast asleep but a few were quite active, wading the shallows and probing the mud as they went. Amongst the group was a single, very dark individual. Even at a distance the bird stood out from the other godwits with a more delicate stature, a very slight upturn to the tip of the two-toned bill and the heavily barred under-tail coverts. We were watching only the third HUDSONIAN GODWIT to ever grace these wonderful isles we are lucky enough to call home.

HUDSONIAN GODWIT (summer female)
Shapwick Heath NNR, Somerset.
Photo by Steve Nuttall

After about twenty minutes of absorbing the distinguishing features of this extreme rarity, a few godwits amongst the gathering stopped feeding and started to peer skywards. There was obviously a raptor in our midst and suddenly the whole flock took flight. If the 'Avalonian Godwit' looked subtly different to some on land then there was no such problem with it in flight. The overall darkness of the bird combined with the black axillaries and underwing-coverts plus the reduced white wing panel on the upperwing made it stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. It almost looked like a marauding dark phase Arctic Skua amongst a panicky flock of Black-tailed Godwits with the naked eye.

HUDSONIAN GODWIT (summer female)
Shapwick Heath NNR, Somerset.
Photo by Steve Nuttall

Luckily the whole flock soon settled down and landed as near to the increasing crowd of twitchers as they could. Superb views were enjoyed of the bird as it fed for a while before having a bit of a wash and a preen. Unfortunately for those birders just arriving, it then spend a long while with it bill tucked under its wing fast asleep. With the lull in proceedings, we could then enjoy the other species on offer. In addition to the 160 Black-tailed Godwits there were singles of Greenshank, Common Redshank and Wood Sandpiper as well as 7 Dunlin. A couple of Great White Egret passed through as did up to 4 Marsh Harrier, 3 Common Buzzard, 3 Hobby and a flock of 25 Common Swift.  A Bittern was heard booming close to the footpath and a symphony of Water Rails, Cetti's Warblers, Common Whitethroats and Reed Warblers added to the atmosphere of this wonderful part of Somerset.

Spot the 'Hudwit' competition.
The sexiest leggy bird to have hit Glastonbury since Beyonce in 2011!
Photo by Adam Archer

After catching up with a few familiar faces from the West Midlands, we then strolled over the road to the Ham Wall RSPB reserve. A handsome summer-plumaged Great White Egret was enjoyed as it hunted the shallows of the main lagoon and my first Cuckoo and Garden Warbler of the year were spotted too. There were also more Hobby showing well, hunting over the extensive network of reed beds and our fourth Great White Egret of the day flew slowly overhead. To cap off a truly superb day a male Wood Warbler then showed well near Ashcott Road and just as we were about to pull out of the car park a Bittern flew over.

The HUDSONIAN GODWIT in Great Britain

This enigmatic species has a disjunctive breeding range in Alaska and parts of northern Canada, east to Hudson Bay. In autumn, birds gather in large numbers in James Bay at the southern end of Hudson Bay for the long migration south. They can often fly thousands of miles without stopping and spend the  winter in South America, mostly in Argentina and Tierra del Fuego.

As mentioned previously, the Somerset bird is just the third record of this species for the whole of Great Britain and Ireland and is the first twitchable bird for thirty two long years. The previous records are as follows:

1988 - Aberdeenshire - Slains Pools, Collieston - 26th September only.
1983 - Yorkshire - Blacktoft Sands - 26th April to 6th May (presumed to be the same bird as 1981).
1981 - Devon - Countess Wier, Exeter - 22nd November to 14th January 1982.
1981 - Yorkshire - Blacktoft Sands - 10th September to 3rd October.

Special thanks must go to Somerset birder Tom Raven for finding the bird on Friday evening, identifying it overnight and distributing the news early on Saturday morning. You have made a lot of birders extremely happy pal, well done.

Big thanks to Steve Nuttall too for the use of his excellent sanps...... miles better than my efforts!