Rarity finders: Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Ballycotton, Co Cork

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper: Ballycotton, Co. Cork. (Photo: Paul Moore) Sharp-tailed Sandpiper: Ballycotton, Co. Cork. (Photo: Paul Moore)

Camping on the beach at the edge of the bay here is one of the most beautiful, gratifying natural experiences I have enjoyed in the past two or three years: the whole of Ballycotton bay stretching out before me across to Garryvoe Head with a dawn chorus of Oystercatchers piping and Curlews bubbling away right outside my canvas door. It's certainly, as I've always thought, a lot better way to start the day in a fit of keenness than trying to drag yourself out of a comfy bed and the smell of breakfast cooking downstairs.

As it was Sunday morning and I knew the punters on the pier I hoped to be flogging my photos to wouldn't be out till gone midday, I knew I had a lot of time to kill. I wandered off to see what I could see. One of the more gutting moments of my self-imposed exile from birding in 2002 was missing out on Ballycotton's Red-necked Stint at exactly this time last year. It turned up the day I got halfway to the bus station intending to head for Ballycotton, only to turn back thinking I wouldn't bother. It disappeared three days later when I finally got down in pouring rain having spurned an earlier opportunity of taking the time off work. I could have easily arranged in order to get down and see it. Every weekend I've camped here since late May it's haunted me to think I could, and should, have seen it, if not actually have found it, in the first place.

I checked Ballycotton Lake, some of the pools on the duneward side of the marsh, and one quarter of a very long stretch of beach. I sat down to write up my notes, pleasantly content, despite the absence of any megas, at the continuing of this long-forgotten discipline. I closed the notebook and resumed the walk. Another quarter section of the beach then maybe I'd return to breakfast. Surprisingly, a little out-of-the-blue on what was an otherwise fairly blank morning, I spotted a flock of 30 Dunlin feeding on a batch of rotting seaweed high up the beach on the falling tide. Without any great hurry I sidled round to get the light better, put up my bins and there it was facing straight towards me: a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper!

These moments of great finds come along so rarely in life that it's hardly surprising we birders make such a great deal about them. They are truly electric moments. I'd spent much of the last month knowing I was going to find something good this autumn but not knowing when, or where, it would be. In a way I dreaded the thought of picking up something a mile-and-a-half away that wasn't immediately obvious and having to work my way towards an identification. Or worse, having a species pair I'd forgotten all the book knowledge about.

I'd never thought about finding a Sharp-tailed Sand before; it was SIXTEEN years since I'd seen one in Kent (less time since I'd seen them wintering in Australia but, as I've said before, you don't scrutinize so much abroad do you?...and they were in winter plumage). Here it was in all its glory: rusty-capped, 'football-shaped', streaked, spotted, and chevroned underparts. I got the old 'shakes' again, swore loudly to nobody but myself; and punched the air a few times for effect.

I then settled down to take the notes. This mobile phone age is great for ringing people on the spot, but for the third important time this year (I found two separate Bonaparte's Gulls this winter) I'd left it miles away, back in the tent. It really is a forced discipline to look at a bird and begin to describe it. Again, taking birds at 'face value' is something I've become used to, and trying to scrutinize tertials and greater coverts, and which ones are which, is something that undoubtedly takes effort and a consistency of practice.

I watched the thing (I admit) for forty-five minutes before I went off to ring the lads. I figured it might be the only chance I'd get and if it flew off, well they wouldn't have got down in that time in any case. I also knew I wanted to go to 'work' on the pier and immediately decided I'd sell five pictures today (in the event I sold SIX).

As I hurried back to the tent/phone those strange yet wonderful feelings returned! Was I imagining things? Was it a Pectoral Sandpiper? How certain was I? Even great birders have doubts with finds, I mused to myself as I remembered the account by Chris Heard of a BrĂ¼nnich's Guillemot. It's so tentative this bird finding thing. Such a strange intrusion into our 'reality': it CAN'T be a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper/BrĂ¼nnich's Guillemot/Black-and-white Warbler...but it IS! It really IS! What's it doing landing in front of ME!...little ME!...Unbelievable! and yet TRUE! Only SOMEONE ELSE MUST SEE IT! I've got to tell someone else!

Now I don't want you all to think I'm going crazy! I KNEW the thing was a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, alright; but I'm sure you've all had that feeling: you've told somebody; there...it slipped out. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper on the beach in Ballycotton! They're gonna come from Cork; they're coming from Dublin; (three lads even came from England). You've told them: they're looking for it; they haven't seen it...You're pacing the floor like an expectant father, trying to remain cool: is it a boy, is it a girl? They're still looking...it's been seen, at last!...false alarm. Still no sign.

Six hours it took before the bird was relocated; and, standing on the pier at Ballycotton while chatting amicably with my customers, I could see them all, two miles away: trudging up and down in little clusters, looking, as birders always do, incredibly out of place among the scantily clad, beach-going crowd enjoying the Sunday afternoon sunshine. I could see them all gathering and watching together...and everyone was happy. The third Sharp-tailed Sandpiper for Ireland; the first for ten years. Perfect. Or, it would have been if it could have just eluded them for another couple of hours. The Irish tradition of plying rare-bird-finders liberally with drink was high on my agenda to round off a perfect day. Regrettably, at four in the afternoon, most were ready to go home and I wasn't quite ready myself to pack up my photos to join the three lads who ventured out for an early pint at six. They all owe me one...

With 26 accepted British and Irish records (plus a well watched bird in Kent in August 2001), this is still a highly desired 'sibe'. This is the third for Ireland. Previous records are:

1994: adult at Tacumshin from 6th-21st August.
1997: adult at Tacumshin from 14th-15th September.
Written by: Graham Gordon, Cork