Recent Sightings Friday 1st November – A Sandpiper Identification Challenge - thanks to volunteer Phil for his report and sightings

On this day West Mead provided a wonderful opportunity to study one of the more unusual wading birds that turns up occasionally at Pulborough Brooks.   A wood sandpiper was feeding around the pool margins and stayed all morning giving close views.

This is a species I’ve only seen a handful of times before, always at some distance and usually pointed out by other people with a superior knowledge of waders.  My colleague Tom and I spent some time trying to identify this bird before a process of elimination came up with wood sandpiper.  Maybe we should carry bird books more often. Happily we were able to point out this bird to a number of visitors braving the low cloud and drizzle, one of whom with greater knowledge than ours confirmed the diagnosis.

Wood sandpipers are similar to the related green sandpiper which can also be seen at Pulborough Brooks in autumn.  This photo shows a green sandpiper near Winpenny Hide a few years ago.

The upperparts of the green sandpiper appear black or a very dark greyish brown depending on the light but are always noticeably darker than the wood sandpiper.  Both have a degree of speckling in the upperparts during the breeding season but while this is prominent in the wood sandpiper, and the remnants of this can be seen in the photos, it is much finer and barely noticeable in the green sandpiper.  Wood sandpipers are slightly smaller but by comparison to the body have slightly longer legs giving a more elegant shape rather like a redshank. Indeed my first thought on seeing the bird was redshank until the complete lack of red very quickly caused me to abandon the idea.  Wood sandpipers also have a clear pale stripe above the eye which is absent in the green sandpiper.  Green sandpipers have greyish green legs, but they are often muddy and it is hard to understand how the bird came to be so named.  Wood sandpipers have yellowy green legs which can be seen quite well in one of the photos. 

Wood sandpipers usually turn up as single birds on migration.  Green sandpipers can sometimes be seen in small groups.  I have seen a group of 6 before at Pulborough, but my Birds of Sussex book notes a record of 26 on the reserve in August 2009. 

Both species breed in Scandinavia and Northern Europe in marshy woodland with very small numbers of each species breeding in Scotland.  Whereas wood sandpipers are ground nesting, green sandpipers use tree holes. 

Wood sandpipers mostly migrate to Africa for the winter with a few staying in Southern Europe.  Green Sandpipers winter mainly in Africa and Southern Europe but around 900 stop in the South of England.   This means there is a chance of seeing green sandpipers all through the winter, whereas with the wood sandpiper a sighting in early November is highly unusual.  Friday’s bird was clearly running very late.  The peak time for seeing both these species is August with sightings gradually tailing off through September.   On migration both species will use the muddy margins of the flood pools, but green sandpipers also have a liking for our ditches.

Wood and green are not the only types of sandpiper seen at Pulborough Brooks.   The common sandpiper and dunlin are regularly seen during the autumn migration, but I have chosen to keep this article simpler by only comparing the 2 species most easily confused.  Now I’ve had the good fortune to spend 2 hours in the company of a wood sandpiper I expect to identify this species much more easily in future.