Wednesday 27 January 2021

The Elusive Purp

Several weeks ago Tom Brereton found a Purple Sandpiper at West Bay.

In all the years I've lived in this part of the country I have never seen a really local Purple Sand. By that I mean somewhere I bird regularly. It is a species notably absent from my old Axe patch list at Seaton - we couldn't even find any historical records. Small numbers winter a few miles to the east of it at Lyme Regis, and to the west at Sidmouth, but it's like there's an anti-Purp forcefield in between. There is a nice rocky area at Seaton Hole, a spot where Purple Sands would look right at home while pausing briefly on passage, but no dice, they just won't use it. At least, not when anyone's looking. They won't even fly past if there's any chance an Axe birder might see them.

Now that I'm in Bridport my local birding covers a wider expanse of coast, but again no wintering sites. Lyme is a few miles west, and the nearest birds the other way are on Portland. However, West Bay undoubtedly holds promise, with some excellent rocky groynes and the harbour wall itself. And it was on the outer harbour wall that Tom found a Purple Sandpiper at the beginning of December, only his second in many years birding here. For me it was finally a chance to see a genuinely local Purple Sand.

As soon as I could, I was on the case. No sign. And again. No sign. And again...etc...

Umpteen times I have tried and failed. It's not been a hardship because I am beginning to enjoy poking around West Bay, looking for birds. Slightly frustrating though. It's been seen at least a couple more times that I can think of, but not by me. And then a few days back we had Storm Christoph battering West Bay with a massive sea, so I guessed the Purp would do the prudent thing and head off somewhere a bit more sheltered.

I thought West Bay might be fairly quiet in this afternoon's rainy weather, so headed down for a walk. Out on the harbour wall...nothing to lose...

I stopped at the end, looked down at the waderless rocks and then had a quick scan of the sea. Nothing. My body was already half-turned to continue on, but my eyes fortunately decided to have one final check of the rocks. I so nearly missed it...

Initial view. Freshly emptied, and bedecked with little raindrop jewels...

I thought it was never going to unfold, but finally...

Purple Sandpiper in all its rotund glory.

My final photo was a blur of open wings, and when the viewfinder was clear again it was gone. I have no idea where, it just vanished.

In the The Birds of Dorset I notice there's a bizarre 1970 West Bexington record of a Purple Sand in a flooded field, but let's face it, they're a pig to get anywhere away from their winter haunts. Amazingly the species is on my London list, courtesy of a bird on the Thames at Teddington, but even that was on a lump of rock or concrete or something. I always thought the best chance of a Seaton bird would be a fly-by, but you'd want very good views. It would certainly be a bold call!

For a bird that is so regular along this coast, albeit very site-faithful, you wouldn't think it would take 18 years to finally get one on my local list. Still, one or two Axe birders have been waiting considerably longer! The elusive Purp.


  1. not that you keep lists of course.....

    1. Oops. Accidental use of the phrase 'get one on my local list' when I meant 'enjoy a lovely sighting near my home' of course... 😊