Rarity finders: Greater Sand Plover at Tacumshin – a new species for Ireland


I woke just before 06:00 on the morning of 20 July and decided to have a quick look at my favourite local birding spot, Tacumshin Lake, where almost anything is possible. I had to be back by 09:00 so didn't waste time with breakfast or even coffee, I just grabbed my stuff and sneaked out, anxious not to wake the kids and risk having to abandon my impromptu plan.

The incredibly warm weather of previous days lent a continental air to the 20-minute drive, which in turn got me thinking about what I might find at this fabulous spot. Maybe there would be a Caspian Tern standing on the lake shore, but I might have to settle for an early juvenile Yellow-legged Gull, or less, especially as I had very limited time.

My sense of anticipation diminished as I got closer to the lake and found that it was enveloped in thick fog, so thick I couldn't even see the lake from the car park! For a few minutes I contemplated just turning around and heading home, but I thought I'd give it half an hour or so, in case the fog would burn off quickly. While I waited I could hear the usual cacophony of Black-tailed Godwits, Lapwings and Black-headed Gulls coming from just beyond the expanse of rushes at the east end of the lake. A Wood Sandpiper – the first of the season – called, and I was surprised to hear a juvenile Roseate Tern, as they do not usually come to this part of the lake.

At around 07:00 the fog began to clear so I made my way out through the rushes, taking it very slowly and quietly as I didn't want to spook the gathering of birds before at least getting a look at what was there. On the way I had great views of a juvenile Little Egret that was so intent on fishing that it didn't notice me, as well as some very showy juvenile Sedge Warblers. As I emerged from the rushes I noticed a small- to medium-sized wader flying from my right but couldn't immediately put a name, or even a family to it. It landed on the mud with its back to me and as I registered its plover-like shape, long legs and the faded buff hindneck a bolt of adrenaline shot through me – it was a sand plover!

Greater Sand Plover, Tacumshin, Co Wexford, 20 July 2016 (Photo: Killian Mullarney)

I wasn't expecting this. It was over 100 m from me (at the time I estimated 80 m, but I measured it the following day and it was 130 m), so I calmly switched to using my scope. After several seconds it turned its head to one side, revealing an attractive black mask and an impressively long, weighty bill. I was looking at Ireland's first Greater Sand Plover, a bird that I and my birding peers have been talking about – trying to predict when and where we might find one – for over 30 years!

After quickly securing a dozen or so distant record shots (a strategy that proved crucial when some friends and I found a short-staying Semipalmated Plover at Tacumshin a couple of months ago), I watched the bird, standing all alone on the firm muddy lakeshore. After a minute or two it became active, and I got my first view of the beautiful, clearly demarcated pastel-orange breast-band. It was a fabulous-looking bird and I felt incredibly privileged to have had the good fortune to connect with it. The bird was alert and on a few occasions it looked as if it might go, so I hardly took my eyes off it to sketch, or take notes, committing as much as possible to memory.

Greater Sand Plover
Greater Sand Plover, Tacumshin, Co Wexford, 20 July 2016 (Photos: Killian Mullarney)

Almost exactly 30 minutes after I first saw it – and alas just five minutes before the arrival of the first local birder – the bird took off for no apparent reason and flew away in a NNW trajectory, climbing steadily and with no deviation, until I lost it as a dot in my binoculars. I sensed that it really was leaving, and could offer little hope to those who were already on their way to Wexford.

In spite of a fair bit of effort put in at all likely spots over the following few days there has been no sign of the bird since, but a Pacific Golden Plover that evening, a Pectoral Sandpiper two days later, a first-summer Western Sandpiper on 23rd followed by a White-rumped Sandpiper on 24th and an adult summer Semipalmated Plover on 26th ensured that no-one went home empty-handed!

I wonder how many other birds have come and gone at this site, that no-one witnessed?

Written by: Killian Mullarney

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