Monday, 19 January 2015

White-rumped Sandpiper twitch

Last Tuesday I took the day off work and went down to the New South Wales south coast to twitch a wader – a White-rumped Sandpiper.

I don’t consider myself a twitcher as such. Yes, I’ve left work previously, in the middle of the day, to go to see a bird well out of its more usual range that had showed up at one of Canberra’s wetlands, or woodlands, or even suburban roadside trees. A Crimson Chat, Swift Parrots, Little Egrets, Purple-crowned Lorikeets, a Wood Sandpiper, a Pacific Emerald Dove and Red-necked Avocets amongst many others spring readily to mind. But I haven’t until now gone beyond the ACT or more than 50 km or so specifically to see an itinerant or wayward bird.

I didn’t go for the Grey-headed Lapwing of Burren Junction in 2006, I didn’t try for the Forest Wagtail that spent the winter of 2013 in Alice Springs, and I haven’t travelled the 670 odd kilometres to Lake Tutchewop in north-western Victoria to see the Long-billed Dowitcher that may still be there as I type.

But I did go to Lake Wollumboola, 200 km from Canberra, to see the White-rumped Sandpiper.

Lake Wollumboola can be a great spot for wader watchers, and hosts a Little Tern breeding colony most years.
This is how the lake looked in April 2011 after it had been open to the sea for several months. The lake is normally isolated from the sea by a sand berm about 100 m across, at which times the lake waters are slightly above sea level and become brackish. The lake has been open to the sea 21 times between 1969 and 2013. 

I was first aware of the sandpiper’s existence when it was reported from Shoalhaven Heads on Monday 5 January by Nigel and Carla Jackett. By the following day it had relocated to Lake Wollumboola, ten kilometres further south, a site I know well from many visits as it is not far from Currarong where I have spent many weekends at my sister’s holiday house.

I vaguely considered going for the White-rumped Sandpiper, but work and other issues took precedence and I let it pass. That is until I received an email from a friend and fellow member of the Canberra Ornithologist’s Group on the Monday afternoon seeking interest from a fourth person to accompany her, Sandra and Jean (just to fill the car) on a trip planned for the next day.

Within a couple of hours I had cleared it with my boss, got in touch with Sue to claim that final seat, found out a bunch of information about the bird itself, got verification from a couple of other Canberra birdos that they had seen the sandpiper earlier in the day, so it was still there – oh, and phoned Karen (my partner) to let her know I’d be going!

The wader-preferred part of Lake Wollumboola as it was in January 2015.

When we arrived at the lake, the waders were all aggregated in the usual spot where low, sparsely vegetated sand hillocks and sandbars currently provide some protection and security along the shallow margins of the brackish lake waters. And it took us only a few minutes of scanning the many waders present – mainly Red-necked Stints, Red-capped Plovers, and Red Knots, with just a couple of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, a Lesser Sand Plover and a single Bar-tailed Godwit (there had been 42 sharpies and 18 godwits when I was last at the lake, three months previously) – to locate a couple of Broad-billed Sandpipers. This was the other key species we were after (both Sue and I had tried for Broad-billed Sandpiper at Tuross Heads several years previously without success). Five minutes in and all four of us had a lifer!

The two Broad-billed Sandpipers we saw within 5 minutes of arriving.

And it was probably only another ten minutes at most before we located the White-rumped Sandpiper, feeding essentially by itself, but amongst the various other waders. Having found the object of our quest so quickly and easily, we settled down for a longish stint (sorry!) of relaxed wader watching.

Our first view of the White-rumped Sandpiper across the small embayment.

Just to be clear, White-rumped Sandpipers (Calidris fuscicollis) breed in northern Alaska and northern Canada and usually migrate down through eastern and central USA to the Caribbean and on to Argentina for the northern winter / southern summer. They are not often seen in Australia, there being only a handful of records. It has been claimed that this bird was the most ‘twitchable’ White-rumped Sandpiper for at least 20 years! And it is very definitely being twitched by a large number of people (at least by Australian standards...)  Somehow, this bird must have either got its compass directions wrong, or perhaps got caught up with a bunch of co-migrating Red-necked Stints and ended up on Australia’s sunny beaches.

The White-rumped Sandpiper was undoubtedly the least wary of the waders there, and, if you stood quietly, would approach to within about 3-4 metres as it worked its way methodically back and forth along the shoreline. Conditions weren’t brilliant for photography (light overcast with strong glare both from above and from the water’s surface) but at least there was no stark shadowing. The following are just a few of the several hundreds of photos I took that morning of these two new (for me) species.

Two Red Knots and two Broad-billed Sandpipers
Broad-billed Sandpiper (centre) with female Red-capped Plover (behind) and Red Knot for size comparison.

Characteristic profile, with long droop-tipped bill, of a Broad-billed Sandpiper.

The waders seemed to have no problem finding plenty of food in the form of small marine worms.

Broad-billed Sandpiper in flight.

The Lake Wollumboola White-rumped Sandpiper (with Red Knot behind).

The White-rumped Sandpiper typically foraged at the sandy-muddy water's edge... a continuous scan and probe method... locate small marine worms...

...which it ate with relish.

But it also spent some time foraging over the sand further from the water's edge
(although the mud was just a centimeter or two beneath the sand!).

White-rumped Sandpiper in flight - showing... white rump.

Broad-billed Sandpiper and White-rumped Sandpiper together. Two lifers for me (numbers 593 and 594 for my Australian List) in the one photo - wader watchers' bliss!

The third most exciting find for me were the three or four White-winged Terns (the first I’ve seen in NSW) that were preening on the sandbars amongst the more usual Little Terns. Other terns present were a couple of hundred Greater Crested Terns, the odd Fairy Tern, and a brief fly-by from a pair of Caspian Terns – all usual suspects for the site (at least in summer).

White-winged Terns behind Little Terns - Lake Wollumboola, NSW.

And a single Fairy Tern amongst the Littles. 
[It seems this bird is likely a Little Tern x Fairy Tern hybrid - see postscript below]

Greater Crested Tern with dependent young.

A small group of Red Knots - the one on the right with a trace of red, whether residual or developing who knows.

Following is a list of the birds we saw at Lake Wollumboola that morning. This doesn’t include any we saw at the car park and picnic area at the northern end of the lake, but does include what we saw on the lake or in the fringing vegetation as seen from our wader watching spot. Some numbers are fairly rough estimates as our focus was very largely on the two target sandpipers! And for anyone interested, there is a nifty little pamphlet about Lake Wollumboola and its birds at: 

Black Swan                          >2,000
Chestnut Teal                                4
Great Egret                                  10  
White-faced Heron                        1  
Australian Pelican                        54
Little Pied Cormorant                    4
Little Black Cormorant            ~200
Great Cormorant                           4
Swamp Harrier                              1
White-bellied Sea-Eagle                2
Eurasian Coot                       >5,000
Australian Pied Oystercatcher      3
White-headed Stilt                         1
Red-capped Plover                   ~30
Lesser Sand Plover                       3
Bar-tailed Godwit                           1
Eastern Curlew                              3
Red Knot                                   ~15
Red-necked Stint                       ~40  
White-rumped Sandpiper           1
Sharp-tailed Sandpiper                 2
Broad-billed Sandpiper              3
Silver Gull                                      3
Caspian Tern                                 2
Greater Crested Tern              ~130
Little Tern                                  ~40
Fairy Tern                                      1  
White-winged Tern                        3  
Nankeen Kestrel                            1
Superb Fairy-wren                         2
Brown Thornbill                              2
Australian Magpie                          2
Magpie-lark                                    1
Silvereye                                        2
Red-browed Finch                         2

White-rumped Sandpiper at Lake Wollumboola, 13 January 2015.

It was a great day – much better than being at work!

Postscript (28 January 2015)

In an email exchange with Dimitris Bertzeletos, he provided convincing arguments that the bird I identified above as a Fairy Tern was in fact a Fairy Tern x Little Tern hybrid. His comments included: 
Fairy Tern reaches the north eastern parts of breeding range around Turross Estuary with the odd bird turning up at Lake Wollumbulla and hybridization is regular as there are few Fairies around. The facial pattern does indeed look good for Fairy, but the amount of a black on the beak (Australian Fairies shouldn't show any in breeding plumage, and even in non breeding condition it is too extensive and clear cut imo) as well as the grey tones on the wings point towards Little influence.


  1. Super exciting for you. The photo of the broad billed and the white rumped together was useful. Not being a real birdwatcher I struggle with all but one or two species of sandpiper.

    We get Little Terns here, nesting on the sand and gravel islands in the Loire. It's a big deal, one of their great European strongholds. You can sit on the river wall in the middle of Blois or Montlouis or Tours and see them (whilst munching on patisserie for breakfast of course).

    I'm amazed by the numbers of some of the species you saw -- that's a lot of swans!

    I particularly like the last photo, with the ripples.

    1. Yes - Lake Wollumboola is renowned for its Black Swan population. Apparently over 13,000 swans were there on one occasion. One of the reasons the lake has been recognised by Birdlife International as an Important Bird Area (IBA) as it supports more than 1% of the world population of Black Swans (and Chestnut Teal).

      And, yes, I also like the ripples - made a nice final photo.

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