Rain, cloud and wind. Sadly a familiar story by now which at least added thick mist for a bit of variety on Sunday. I feel at risk of repeating myself here but we truly have had an exceptionally bad run of weather and with no sign of improvement forecast it looked like we in for a day stuck indoors. Browsing the Pembrokeshire sightings pages though revealed that a Grey Phalarope had been found the previous evening and with nothing else on the cards we thought, why the hell not. Driving through a wall of unrelenting greyness did little to promote any feeling of optimism, nor did the horizontal rain that greeted us at St Brides. Still, nothing ventured nothing gained so we donned waterproofs once more and headed down to the beach. With the tide right out things initially looked quiet, too quiet, with just a couple of Black Headed Gulls loafing about amongst the waves. Fearing the worst I did another scan of the sea and finally, approaching from our right, spotted our quarry. Although distant at first the Grey Phalarope was soon within easy viewing distance, regularly making short flights but always staying just out of camera range. After about half an hour though it began to make forays directly into St Brides itself, flying within a couple of meters of our position on more than one occasion. It always appeared wary however, probably due to the numerous waves washing in, and as a result would return to open water shortly after. Despite having had some excellent views of what is easily one of my favourite birds it looked like anything beyond some truly terrible record shots was going to be out of the question. In fact we were just about to head off when it made another flight inland, this time landing on the beach a short distance away. Creeping carefully forwards to close the gap I ended up getting a couple of decent shots, the first time I’ve ever seen a Grey Phalarope out of water.
The thing that strikes me most whenever I have the good fortune to spend time with a Phalarope is just how small they are. Quite how a bird that tiny can survive on the open seas is beyond me, especially when conditions are as rough as they were on Sunday. On top of that photographs from other observers has revealed that this individual is carrying an added hindrance in that it only has one foot!
With the Grey Phalarope continuing its pattern of short flights out at sea before brief rests on land we decided to head along the coast to see what else was about. This turned out to be good timing as just around the corner from St Brides we spotted a Kingfisher speeding its way along the wave beaten rocks. This was followed shortly after by a lone Wigeon floating fifty meters or so offshore, not exactly what I’d been expecting. Shag, Stonechats and Turnstones were more usual fare before it was back to St Brides where if anything the Grey Phalarope was showing even better. It was now frequenting a large rock pool near the top of the beach and hopefully gave great views to all that wanted to see it.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, while we’d been enjoying ourselves in Pembrokeshire another Grey Phalarope had been reported from the pool at Sker Point back home. Typical. You wait ages for one and then two turn up at once. Unsurprisingly Monday saw us heading to Kenfig where our walk through the dunes was accompanied by a hobbling Crow (bad feet seem to be a common injury) plus two Bullfinches overhead which were easily identified by their classic whining call. Would we strike it lucky a second time however? Yes we would! Emerging onto the haul road we immediately spotted a gaggle of toggers (official collective term?) around the pool and moments later were ourselves enjoying crippling views of our second Grey Phalarope in two days. This individual had noticeably darker plumage than the St Brides bird and on such a small pool there was no difficulty in getting close. The only issues were wind and a lack of light which combined to make a small and very mobile bird incredibly difficult to get a sharp image of. Perseverance paid off in the end though and I got a couple of decent shots. Not bad considering my equipment was completely out gunned by those around me.
As with yesterday we eventually had to pull ourselves away before I added another couple of hundred out of focus photos to my already lengthy processing backlog. Scanning the rocks at Sker Point revealed nothing more than a couple of Oystercatchers before we set off for a walk to Porthcawl. This stretch of coast, which includes Rest Bay, is one I’ve never walked before and it turned out to be a delightfully lengthy expanse of flat sand. Most pleasing was the discovery of extensive Honeycomb Worm colonies, probably the largest expanse I’ve seen since first becoming aware of the species several years ago.
Up on the cliff tops we were surprised to see a Mediterranean Gull fly past before it was back to Sker to spend some more time with the Phalarope. Remarkably it seemed to have barely moved from its position earlier in the day and with the others now gone I had the bird all to myself. Crouching down low I hoped to get a few eye level shots which with the setting sun in the background felt like they offered some promise. The waters choppy surface continued to make things difficult but I’m more than pleased with the results. In fact I’m over the moon.
Crouching there, just a couple of meters from such a charismatic bird, light playing across the broken surface felt really rather special and was the perfect way to round off our Christmas break. 2016 is going to have some living up to do.