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13th January 2021 - Strangers on the Shore

If you've spent a bit of time watching birds on the Solent, you'll probably be familiar with most of the common winter migrants - dark-bellied brent geese, sanderlings, black-tailed godwits et al. But what about some of the rarer visitors to our shores? It's always worth scanning those flocks of ducks, geese and waders - you never know what rare treasures you might spot among them! Here's a few vagrants and passage migrants that you might be lucky enough to see:



Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) - top half in the picture above

This photo-friendly vagrant from North America caused a stir when in residence at Pennington Marsh last autumn. Slightly larger than its European cousin the red phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius) - bottom half of picture above - with a longer neck and a longer, more slender bill, there can be a few sightings of Wilson's phalaropes each year in the UK, typically juveniles. The red phalarope is also seen occasionally, on passage to and from its Arctic breeding grounds.

 Glossy Ibis

Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)

This large wetland bird spends most of its time in warmer climates, breeding across southern Europe and into Asia, with most birds migrating to Africa in winter. Occasionally however, a glossy ibis will turn up in the UK - one was recently sighted in West Sussex. The glossy ibis is roughly the same size as a curlew, and has a similar long, down-curved bill used for probe feeding. While at first glance appearing black, its plumage is dark purple-brown, with a green gloss on the wings for which it is named.


whimbrel curlew


Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) - left in picture

Not quite so rare, this large wader breeds in northern Scotland, and can occasionally be seen in the Solent area as a passage migrant en route to wintering in Africa. Be careful not to dismiss it as a curlew (right in pic) sadly, it shares the same threatened status in the UK. Look for the shorter bill and slightly smaller size than a curlew, as well as a more prominent eye stripe.



Brant Brent


Black Brant (Branta nigricans) - top in picture

This relative of the dark-bellied brent goose(Branta bernicla) bottom in pic, hails from eastern Siberia and the north-west of Canada and the US, and is another vagrant occasionally spotted along the Solent. The black brant can be hard to pick out in a flock of dark-bellied brents as its colouring is very similar, but there are some key features to look out for: the black brant has a prominent white patch on its flank, and notice that the white "collar" on the neck is deeper and bolder than that of the dark-bellied brent.




Semi-palmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla) - top left in picture above

You will need eagle eyes to spot one of these small waders. One of a few species of vagrant sandpipers to the UK, the semi-palmated gets its name from the fact that its toes are partially webbed - a trait that in fact it shares with another US vagrant, the western sandpiper (Calidris mauri) - top right. Both of these species are easily confused with the little stint (Calidris minuta) - bottom left - which can also sometimes be seen as a passage migrant, or the slightly larger and widespread sanderling (Calidris alba) - bottom right - the most obvious difference is the feet (if you can see them!) - otherwise, the subtle plumage differences can keep even experts guessing!

Ranger Dave