Monday, 19 September 2011


HURRICANE Katia followed in the spiteful footsteps of her destructive sister Irene when she hit Britain last week.

Loss of life and an estimated £100million damage bill were the horrendous legacy of her 70mph wrath as she spiralled across the Atlantic and hit the north of Britain with a vengeance.

Considering all the misery Katia caused it seems trite to look upon one of the worst cyclonic events in recent years in a positive way. Yet the storms that caused so much destruction in Northern Ireland, Scotland and the north of England produced a bountiful harvest of birding ‘windfalls’.

The eight buff-breasted sandpipers tiptoeing on the grassy sward on the Isles of Scilly and several pectoral sandpipers across the archipelago were testament to the rarity-producing capabilities of cyclonic conditions.

These North American shorebirds would have been en route from the tundras of northern Canada to the South American pampas when they were blown off course.

The thought of these delicate birds each weighing less than three ounces surviving Katia’s swirling winds and torrential rains is hard to comprehend.

Photographer Martin Goodey’s series of close-up shots show the ‘buffies’ made landfall without too much damage.

As many as 32 buff-breasted sandpipers have been recorded in the British Isles these past few days, harking back to a spell in the mid-Seventies when dozens were delivered to our side of the pond during a series of windy autumns.

In 1977 a total of 15 birds were seen on the island of St Mary’s, a precursor to its removal from the list of British rarities.

Although most buff-breasted sandpipers fly through the central US states on their autumn migration, a sizeable percentage of the population takes a route that sweeps them far out into the Atlantic.

This puts them at risk of being blown off course.

The fact that sightings of buff-breasted sandpipers don’t have to be ratified by the British Birds Rarities Committee contrasts bizarrely with the bird’s global conservation status as near-threatened.

Buff-breasted sandpipers have the ignominious reputation of almost following the flight path of the Eskimo curlew and passenger pigeon, two North American birds extirpated by forces in their own way as destructive as Katia and Irene.

Hunting by American settlers in the late 19th-century saw the sandpipers’ numbers crash from millions to the point of extinction.

Today’s population is estimated at 15,000 and because it is seldom seen on America’s eastern seaboard, there are stories of US birders travelling to Britain to see it.

Two other rare American shorebirds also put in an appearance in the wake of Katia, a greater yellowlegs in Cornwall and a sandpiper on Scilly. A presumed escaped azure tit is causing excitement after turning up in a garden in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire
By Stuart Winter.

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