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Tryngites subruficollis
Corton Cliffs 2000

by John H. Grant

THE WALK ALONG THE clifftop fields with Eric Patrick and Peter Broad at Corton, on September 20, 2000, had been fairly unrewarding, just an immature Ruff, Philomachus pugnax, being seen among a group of roosting gulls. Arriving at the former MoD compound, around 12:40hrs, we started to scan the rather bare fields. Almost immediately I noted a group of two Ringed Plover, Charadrius hiaticula, and a third wader which I could only see intermittently as it walked through furrows. Even in these fleeting and rather distant views I thought I knew which species this was and said to Eric, in a rather understated way, that we should check once again the Ruff he had found amongst the gulls. Actually I felt sure straight away that this was a different bird and so it proved to be!!!

I left Eric and Peter on the MoD road and cautiously approached the wader for a better view. Soon the entire bird was visible and I was confident that it was a "Buff-breast". I pointed it out to Eric and Peter and Eric agreed immediately. He breathlessly relayed the information to others via his mobile phone while we continued to have excellent views, albeit a little distant as there was no cover on the rather barren field and we were concerned that the bird should not be flushed.

Buff-breasted SandpiperSoon some of the 'Lowestoft Lounge Lizards' arrived. While Eric, Peter and I watched the bird at least the following observers saw it too and agreed with the identification: Ricky Fairhead, Peter Ransome, Robert Wincup, Robert Holmes, the late Ian Smith and Richard Smith. I understand many observers saw the bird throughout the rest of the day but it was not reported to be present the next day.

During the day the following notes were taken : Body size about the same or even possibly slightly smaller than the accompanying two Ringed Plovers. Much smaller than the Ruff in the same field, which admittedly was probably a male, and much smaller than I judged even the smallest female ruff would have appeared. It was a dainty, elegant bird with a noticeably attenuated rear end formed by long primary projections and a rather thin ventral area contrasting with a full breast and belly. It showed a rather skinny neck and a rather large squarish head in which large beady dark eyes were set. Its long pale yellow legs gave it a light, tripping gait.

Buff-breasted SandpiperThe crown streaked blackish brown on a buff/apricot background, but not as intensely as on some 'Buff-breasts' I have seen and so there was not so much of a capped appearance on this individual. Hindneck warm buff/apricot also well streaked darker. Mantle much darker grey intensely scalloped with neat, pale buff-edged feathers, as were the scapulars. Wing coverts slightly paler than the scapulars, being a warm mid-brown, again with neat pale fringing. Tertials and primaries dark brown, thinly edged paler. The face was plain buff/apricot. Usually with this species there are obvious pale eye-rings but these were certainly not as obvious on this bird as on others of its species I have seen. Sides of breast were neatly marked with black spots/streaks. Foreneck, breast and belly were warm apricot/buff, becoming white at the ventral area. The bill was short, black, straight and very fine. In one very brief flight the underwings appeared to be clean white. Due to the neatly scalloped upperparts, I aged it as a juvenile.

I am reasonably well-aquainted with the species, having seen several on the Isles of Scilly in the 1980s. I have also seen two others in Suffolk - one on Havergate Island in August 1997 and one, almost a year to the day prior to this one - at Walberswick on September 22, 1999 - which I also had the privilege of finding!!!!

There have been five records of this nearctic wader in Suffolk:
Minsmere: September 1, 1961.
Walberswick: very tame bird between August 28 and September 5, 1975.
Havergate Island: August 16-19, 1997.
Walberswick: September 22, 1999.
Corton: September 20, 2000.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper Distribution Map

Buff-breasted Sandpiper is a species of grasslands and for a wader has a curious migration route largely avoiding coastlines. The birds vacate their breeding grounds, in Alaska among other places, in mid-July. The vast majority head to and from their wintering grounds in South America through the Great Plains of North America's interior, sandwiched between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River system.

This may explain why they are said to be rare on both seaboards of the 'States'. Rumour has it that some American birders have 'Buff-breast' etched into their British list but not their USA list!

There is also a more easterly route, used in autumn by smaller numbers, that passes between Hudson Bay and The Great Lakes before heading across the Atlantic and heading for the same wintering grounds. It is presumed to be birds displaced from this route that account for the individuals that turn up in Europe.

Like most waders they can turn up anywhere and apart from many European countries have been recorded in Australia, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Kenya, Egypt and now Corton!!!

Hayman, P., Marchant, J., Prater, T. Shorebirds: An identification guide to waders of the world. 1989. Helm.
Rosair, D., Cottridge, D. Photographic guide to waders of the world. 1995. Hamlyn.
Payn, W. H. The Birds of Suffolk. 1978. Ancient House Publishing.
National Geographic Society. 2nd Edition. Field Guide to the Birds of North America. 1991.

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