The star of summer 2022
When the Gull-billed Tern disappeared off to the south on Tuesday evening, my assumption was that was it. Over the past few years, Wader Pit has a fine track record of producing good birds, but a shocking track record of holding on to them. So it was a nice surprise to check on Wednesday lunchtime and find the bird back roosting on the eastern shore. It went on to linger throughout Thursday as well, but with no sign on Friday and Saturday, evidently decided that three days at Baston was plenty.
I'm particularly pleased I decided to spend some time on Thursday actually sitting back and just watching the bird without any sense of stress or rush, which is something many of us photo-hungry birders often forget to do these days. When confronted by a rarity, the adrenaline levels are high and there's always an air of freneticism as you try to better your views and photos. With some nice flight images in the bag, it was good to sit back and watch the bird do its thing, catching dragonflies and resting. At times it was interesting to note just how 'heavy' this bird appeared, being quite robust and thickset, and powerful yet languid in flight – reminiscent of Caspian Tern in many respects. Class.
I have been pretty relentless in checking my patch this summer. Last June's fleeting Caspian Tern was a reminder that, if the time and opportunity is there, it's worth a look. I've been trying to visit at least once and usually twice a day. So far, in the dry and often sunny conditions, there hasn't been a great deal to see bar the expected returning Black-tailed Godwits and the occasional other wader.
That all changed on 19 July, during record-breaking temperatures. I walked out the air-conditioned office into what felt like a fan oven after a day where the news was filled with fires, melting roads and exhausted emergency services. If I was being melodramatic, it had a 'beginning of the end' feel to it – a worrying glimpse into the future at the very least.
Despite the suffocating heat and 'hairdryer' wind that had whipped up, I decided to have a quick stop at Wader Pit on the way home. First scan: a gaggle of panting Greylag Geese, a few Lapwings, Common Terns and Black-headed Gulls, but nothing much else. No waders. Hmm. A few minutes later, a second scan: Common Tern, Common Tern, Co- ... eh? What the? That's a big tern!
The bird in question was facing away from me and immediate impression was of a Sandwich Tern-sized bird. There hasn't been a twitchable Sandwich locally so far this year so I was gearing myself up for a handy year tick. But something clearly wasn't right: it was a Sandwich Tern on stilts. There could only be one option for a tern with such lengthy pins – Gull-billed – something that was confirmed a couple of seconds later when the bird turned its head slightly and revealed a short and deep black bill. Shit!
Panic. No camera with me – it was at home – and the haze and wind was absolutely shocking. Tripod blowing all over the place, bird shimmering distantly and often little more than a whitish mirage. I rang my mum, who I knew was nearby. She kindly agreed to fetch my camera and bring it over while I stayed on the bird. But, of course, just as she arrived, the bird flew off and I lost it.
Fortunately, it returned to Wader Pit a quarter of an hour later, by which time Jake Williams and Will Bowell had arrived. At least others had now seen it. This pattern of rests on the eastern shore interspersed with feeding forays continued for the following hour or so, with the bird disappearing to feed over fields and trees for up to 15 minutes. On a few occasions it could be heard vocalising, giving a quite nasal, almost wader-like call.
The haze gradually lessened but generally remained a challenge, even if the light was improving. Let's not forget that the temperature gauge was still hovering at around the 37°C mark. By 7pm around a dozen had seen it, before it was watched to fly off south – presumed to be on another feeding flight – but it didn't return, with no further sign by dusk.
Wader Pit does it again. What a fantastic bird to have on the patch. It was a little bit galling not to have managed closer views that weren't being buffeted by a relentless breeze and smothering haze, but I can't complain at the buzz it gave me and the record shots above will certainly suffice. That'll be the highlight of my #LocalBigYear, I'm sure – to sound clichéd, this sort of experience is what local birding is all about and why it can't be beaten!
The musings of a wildlife enthusiast, usually armed with his camera.