The rarest bird I ever saw

(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)

Tuesday, September 20, 1988

Another bit of excitement, this time at Pitsford in Northamptonshire, where there is a Sociable Plover, first discovered apparently by a teenage birdwatcher, late on Sunday evening, flying around with a flock of Lapwings. The Sociable Plover, not the teenager.

Here is a Lapwing:

lapwing1a480 zzzzzzz

And here is a Sociable Plover:


I have a free afternoon from school on Tuesdays, so I decide to leave at one o’clock, directly from Period Five. So as not to look an even bigger idiot than normal, I take a pullover and a pair of jeans to change into, as well as my telescope, tripod and binoculars. I religiously ring Paul, as I always do, to ask him if he wants to come, but he’s at work, I also ring Alan to unmake a previous date to go looking for Hobby at Clumber Park that evening. Surprisingly enough, he also has a free afternoon, so we decide to go for the bird together.
It’s only about eighty miles to Pitsford, so we arrive there about three thirty. Look for the orange arrow:



It is obvious where the bird is supposed to be from the great tangle of parked cars. Quickly, we park too, and head on out there. It is a marshy area, with a very long shoreline, and a lot of distant birds. Look for the orange arrow:


Unfortunately none of the distant birds is a Sociable Plover, although a winter plumaged Grey Plover, seen through a heat haze at a range of about four miles, does cause quite a few hearts to flutter, mine included.

Grey%20Plover% xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

There are some Curlew Sandpipers, a few Ruff , and a couple of Little Stint.

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The Pectoral Sandpiper, though, which has been reported for the last couple of days, seems to have gone:


Eventually the disappointed crowd drifts away, in ugly mood, to the section of the reservoir where the Sociable Plover came in to bathe on Monday afternoon. Here, there are absolutely thousands of gulls, and to relieve the monotony of waiting, we look through the crowd for the lone Mediterranean Gull that has been tantalising the gull watchers for the last few evenings:

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No luck with that either, and Alan and I agree on a departure time of six thirty, as the last few minutes of daylight tick inexorably away. Finally, we are forced to admit defeat, and terribly disappointed, we trudge despondently back to the car. Fifty yards from the vehicle, I get my car keys out. We are just climbing over the fence at the side of the road, when a rather rusty car suddenly squeals to a halt, and a young man jumps out and screams:

“THEY’VE FOUND IT!!!!         THEY’VE FOUND IT!!!!   

We restrain him for a moment and ask him one or two simple questions like:

“WHERE???      WHERE???      WHERE???”

He burbles on for another ten minutes about crossroads and turns left and turns right and pubs called the Red Lion, houses with green doors and the third tractor from the right:


This is terrible. It is one thing if the bird is not there. That you can live with, difficult though it may be. But to be right next to the bird, and not to be able to navigate your way to it in the car, that’s something else:

socco plov xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

It is cruelty of an unreasonable nature. The young man tells us to wait. He’ll call over all of the other birdwatchers, still standing expectantly on the edge of “The Marsh”. Then we can all follow him in a convoy, just like in the song and the film made from it:

This we all do, or rather, attempt to do. I am personally amazed at what staggering speed a rusty T Reg Datsun can achieve when provoked:

datsun xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

He must have rocket assisted take off in the boot. We are driving along country lanes at around ninety miles an hour, squealing the tyres on rustic roads which are really meant for bicycles or the odd haywain:


On the other hand, there is a certain logic that says if I keep fifty yards behind the lunatic in front, we cannot fail. Whatever bend the Datsun can get round, I can get round. Any emergency stop he is forced to do, I will have ample time to prepare for. It doesn’t work quite so well at “Give Way” signs, and we have a couple of close shaves. Nevertheless, after a fundamentally frightening drive down these little country lanes, we arrive at the tiny village of Old, where we find cars abandoned at crazy angles across the grass verge and even in the road itself . A great crowd of people is staring fixedly at the back of a distant field.

This Must Be The Place:


one above OS

The field itself is in a rather strange condition, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Nottinghamshire, with some areas recently ploughed, with lots of bare earth visible, but there is also a series of strips of stubble, all about six or seven yards wide. The Plover is out there with a large group of Lapwings, but it is a long, long way off. It takes a lot of careful and diligent searching, most of it done at comparatively high magnification, before Alan and I both find The Bird:

sooibla xxxxxxxx

It is nowhere near as colourful as the field guides would have you believe, and, indeed, it is completely capable of disappearing entirely when it stops moving around, and just sits down quietly, looking rather reminiscent of a clod of earth with two eyes and a beak. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fly at any point, so we miss the chance of comparing the wing pattern to that of Sabine’s Gull, and of seeing just how similar it is:

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Still, you can’t have everything. Indeed, the way that things have gone tonight, it would be difficult to imagine how much luckier we could have been.

In my career as a twitcher, that was the closest I ever came to not seeing a rare bird, but then still managing to see it.

Secondly, the Sociable Plover was the rarest bird that I ever saw, from a global point of view. Red-breasted Nuthatch has occurred only once ever in England, and so has Ancient Murrelet, and I saw both of them:

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The world as a whole, though, is not particularly short of either species. Sociable Plover however, at this time, some thirty years ago, was on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, chiefly because of over-hunting and habitat loss, two splendid ways of driving a species into extinction. At the moment, the Sociable Lapwing, as it is now called, has recovered sufficiently to be placed currently in the Critically Endangered category:




Filed under Science, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

28 responses to “The rarest bird I ever saw

  1. Sounds like a Michael Caine film! Glad you got to see it, must have made that drive seem so much more worthwhile.

  2. I had to smile at Aviationtrails’ comment (Michael Caine film) – mainly because it’s true!! What a project – the convoy song in the background was a stroke of genius, John.

  3. Tony Wilkins

    The Dukes of Hazzard and their General Lee had nothing on John Knifton and a T-reg Datsun

  4. Quite an adventure you had! And the story had a happy ending too! Well done!

    • Thanks very much for your interest. Yes. I suppose it was an adventure, something a little more exciting than our usual “same-old, same-old”

      • I can relate to your experience here. We have taken several drives to get pictures of certain landmarks (trees, waterfalls, buildings, bridges, etc.) and have gotten lost a few times (I always drive, so that’s on me). But we all laugh about these adventures even when they don’t turn out so well!

      • Absolutely. Episodes like that are usually something to laugh about in retrospect!

    • Thanks very much for coming by. I’m glad you enjoyed the story.

      • I might have to buy a good long-range telephoto lens and look for some birds. We have a lot of colorful birds in our area. I would like to see another Oriole – I have seen one in my lifetime in the wild. And the woodpeckers and hawks are plentiful but they stay too high in the trees for me to get a good look at them.

      • Birds can be very difficult to photograph without spending large sums of money but just occasionally, if you sit quietly, they may come closer. I envy you your Orioles. In the USA you have several species, and they are all very brightly coloured. Good luck with the camera!

  5. Great narrative, and congrats

  6. Your story telling is hysterical, John! OMG!!! The whole time I was laughing out loud by your descriptions of the miss, the near miss, and then the hit. You have a way with words that bring such JOY to the reader. How I totally enjoyed your story, and I did hold my breath as you went racing down the path meant for bicycles. I’m am SO very relieved you got to see your rare bird. What’s next now? LOL ❤

  7. Lucky you seeing this fabulous bird (I’m green with envy) and what a great piece of writing. I’ve seen a woodcock and I was pretty impressed with that. The song and video took me back to my youth. Thanks.

  8. I’m glad you dropped by, and I’m pleased that you enjoyed the story. Keep warm! It’s freezing here. Maybe Walrus will be the next thing to go and see.

  9. Enjoyed your narration and glad you finally got to see rare bird 🙂

    • You are very kind, thank you. Your recent trip to India must have provided you with a few birds to see…Black Kites in the cities and eagles and vultures in the mountains. India has a legendary ornithologist named Salim Ali, who single handed seems to have classified all the birds of a vast country.

      • We did see different types of eagles and kites in the mountains but couldn’t know specifics about them. During my last trip I got to see some awesome birds but I need a better camera to capture them. I look forward to going through his work so that I am better informed in my future trips, thank you for the tip 🙂

  10. Matthew Capper

    Hi John

    Would it be okay to use a copy of one of your sociable plover shots in an illustrated talk? I need a photo of one to illustrate a particular story and don’t have one. If you could let me know, I would be very grateful. I’ll include a credit with the shot. Many thanks. Matthew

    • You are more than welcome, Matthew, although there may be a copyright attached to it. I have always tended to use a picture and then take it down when asked, rather than limit myself to a very tiny number of photographs. To date, two people have objected in more than 550 posts.
      If you are bothered about copyright, the place to go is wikipedia (or wiki-anything, to be honest).

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