Last week was an exciting and hectic week at St. Aidan’s. As we’re now settling back to some level of normality, I’d like to share a few of my reflections of our rare visitor.

I was driving round the eastern reedbed on a sunny Friday afternoon, when I was stopped by a few of the local birders to show me a bird they were looking at. There was some debate as to the identity of the bird; initial thoughts were that it was a Temminck’s stint – a rare enough bird in itself, with only a handful of previous records for the site. Members of the local Swillington Ings Bird Group managed to get some great photos and videos of the bird, and the debate continued into the evening. It was then briefly thought the bird was a least sandpiper, which would’ve been a first for the site; but after further scrutiny it was finally decided that we had something much rarer on our hands.

The long-toed stint is a diminutive wading bird which breeds in the Siberian uplands. It migrates south in the autumn to spend winter in southern Asia and Australia, so it was a long way from where it should be - quite how it found its way to West Yorkshire will always remain a mystery. In fact, the compulsion and navigation of birds to migrate thousands of miles twice a year is still nowhere near fully understood. Birds do get lost of course, and can turn up in unexpected places at any time. The fact that anything can turn up at any time is what makes birdwatching so exciting.

Photo credit: Dave Ward

There had only been two previous confirmed sightings of a long-toed stint in the UK. The first was in Cornwall in 1970, with the second coming at Saltholme Pools in County Durham, in 1982 - before the RSPB took on management of that site. The fact that such a rarity had turned up at St. Aidan’s filled me - and inevitably many others – with huge excitement.

So it was late on Friday night as the news was spreading that there was an incredibly rare and exciting visitor at our site. Whilst I got an early night, many others were already planning and beginning their journeys, from all corners of the country to West Yorkshire. I had a bit of a lie in and leisurely breakfast (it was Saturday morning, after all) and arrived on site at about 9am. The car park was full and many people were already leaving, having been on site since first light and enjoyed great views of the bird. As I walked down to the eastern reedbed where the bird was feeding, a stream of happy birders were walking away - whilst a frantic horde was rushing towards it!

Photo credit: Dave Ward

This pattern continued all weekend as the star species seemed very well settled, moving between the eastern reedbed and Astley lake. We counted over 2000 people coming onto the site over that weekend – nearly three times as many as the previous weekend. There were likely many more than that, as we are only able to count those coming to the visitor centre. Our staff and volunteers cheerfully greeted as many people as we could, chatting to visitors who had travelled from as far away as Kent, Dorset, South Wales, and Shetland! Although parts of the site were very crowded with people desperate to get a glimpse of the bird, there was a real exciting buzz around the whole place. It was also fantastic that once they’d seen the star of the show, visitors were able to have a leisurely walk around site and were treated to views of bittern, a lingering black-necked grebe, red kites and kingfisher.

The stint was obviously finding plenty to eat - alongside dunlins, godwits and ruffs - in the shallow water and exposed mud. Finding suitable wetlands to rest and feed for a few days whilst on long migrations is often essential for the survival of waders. So we manage the water levels carefully at St Aidan's to provide ideal conditions for a stop off. We keep the water levels high in the reedbeds throughout the summer, then draw them down slowly throughout autumn, to create perfect conditions for migrating waders. In recent years we’ve had some uncommon species such as little stint, curlew sandpiper, pectoral sandpiper, and wood sandpiper - uncommon, but not unexpected. I don’t think anyone could’ve expected a long-toed stint to turn up, but we certainly enjoyed its week-long stay, as did thousands of birdwatchers from all over the country.

- John Ingham, Warden of RSPB St Aidan's