Thursday, 16 September 2021

There goes the Fea!


A couple of weeks ago, there were great conditions for interesting seabirds to be found in the North Sea. 

A big high pressure system was spinning birds out of the Atlantic and into the mouth of the North Sea, where the northerly wind pushed them south and onto the Yorkshire coast. Among the commoner species, lots of Long-tailed Skuas and Sooty Shearwaters were picked up by seawatchers as they headed back north, reorientating themselves back to the ocean. Among the movement, Fea's-type Petrels began to be seen. Ever since seeing Desertas Petrels in Madeira last September, I was hooked on these charismatic Pterodroma petrels. Their aerial prowess, great rarity and charismatic looks are a package to excite all seawatchers and the chance to see one close to home has caused me many sleepless nights, fantasising about picking one of these up as it carved north past Flamborough Head. 

In the North Sea, birds are currently recorded as 'Fea's-type Petrels', as distinguishig the three closely-related petrels (Zino's, Fea's and Desertas) is very difficult without really close views and lots of experience. Throw into the mix the Soft-plumaged Petrel from the South Atlantic which proved its occurrence in Yorkshire waters earlier this year, and you have a complicated identification puzzle. This is why most are simply classed as 'Fea's types'.

So, to the first episode in this tale...

One morning in the middle of this northerly spell, I was busy doing chores at home and suddenly noticed a message that a Fea's-type had gone north past Flamborough Head late morning. Blimey, if I left now, I could head to Cowbar, near Staithes, along a very familiar route and possibly intercept the bird. I didn't have much on that day, so checking I hadn't overlooked any family commitments, I got the green light, grabbed my gear and scrambled for the car. Birdo mate Mark Hawkes checked out timings and trajectories and said if I got to Cowbar by 1.30pm I should be there in time to see it fly past. This was going to be close, but I had to try.  These birds pass by so rarely that I was never ever likely to be present when one was found, so attempting to twitch one seemed the only option. 

Off I went. To sum up the journey to Cowbar is easy: it was a nightmare! Roadworks, caravans, sheep on the road, ice cream vans; you couldn't make it up. Nevertheless, the abbey at Whitby hove into view before 1pm, so there was still a chance. I arrived on site at 1.25pm and ran to the cliff edge, where I found another dozen birders already in position. Many had become distracted by an adult and two juvenile Sabine's Gulls in among  a large flock of Kittiwakes feeding offshore. This was understandable, as they are scarce birds in Yorkshire and pretty lovely too. They would have to wait however, as the Fea's was due any moment. It had been reported from Bempton and then Filey after the first sighting, so it was maintaining its trajectory, hugging the coast. Worryingly, there was no report from Long Nab at Burniston, another great seawatching site. Was it still heading this way? 

Then, at 1.40pm the message came that it had been seen heading north at Old Nab, Staithes. This was the other side of Staithes harbour, the south. Birders there must be looking at the same patch of sea pretty much. The crowd went silent. All scopes swung south, scrutinising every movement, every bird that appeared over the sea, the Sabs Gulls forgotten. Surely, with all these birders looking, the Fea's couldn't get past undetected? But it did. Tense seconds turned into minutes and then quarter of an hour had passed by. We had missed it. How was that possible? If I'd been on my own I could have understood it - there was a lot of sea to look at. But somehow, it had shot past without anybody seeing it. I felt dismayed and distraught. So close....the news came a little later that birders at Hartlepool had seen it and then reports started to rain in from further north as the bird powered into the wind. I was gutted not to have seen it. But I had learnt that it was possible to intercept a Fea's, or indeed any rare seabird, from York.


Roll forward to Sunday 12th September. I had had a fantastic day leading a York Birding Club trip around Flamborough. An early seawatch from the fog station had yielded two cracking Pomarine Skuas, c30 Red-throated Divers, Sooty Shearwaters, Bonxies and Arctic Skuas. The Old Fall Loop was quiet, but we pulled out a Redstart and Garden Warbler in the Bay Brambles, which was something. On to Bempton, we headed along the clifftop to Buckton, where after a while we managed good but brief views of the Green Warbler - cracking! I had a top laugh with the gang, including Steve Farley, who had me in stitches throughout most of the day. A couple of the group went off to look for the Black-browed Albatross, which hadn't been seen since early morning. We headed over and shortly, Duncan Bye refound the bird as it flew back in to Staple Newk. He was made up as he hadn't seen the bird before. We got some nice views of the albatross as it circled the arch before landing on the cliff out of sight. After a while, I decided that this had been quite a remarkable day on the Yorkshire coast, so it was time to head home.

 I got as far as Bridlington. In a traffic jam near the 'Hume's Lights', I checked my phone and to my amazement, read that a Fea's-type Petrel had gone north close in (!) past the fog station at Flamborough, only moments ago! Oh no - if I had only stayed at Bempton a little longer. Earlier on, after seeing the Green Warbler, I had even considered going back to the fog station for another seawatch as the wind strength had increased... Anyway, nevermind the 'what ifs', I made a snap decision to U-turn out of the traffic queue and head north for Scarborough. Seeking the advice of good birding mates (thanks Mark, Rich, Dunc) I decided to go to Long Nab, as it seemed the birders there manage to connect with most good seabirds that go up the coast. No further reports came through as I headed north; nothing from Bempton or Filey. Had it gone back out to sea? The Sunday afternoon traffic was a nightmare, only adding to my stress.


I pulled into the car park just behind a pair of dawdling dogwalkers, who I had followed closely from the village. I greeted them as pleasantly as I could, tumbling out of the car, all coats and optics. They just looked at me bemused. I raced off down the track to the clifftop where I could see another birder already in position intently scoping the sea. It was Chris Bell, and he informed me that there was no sign of the petrel so far. I started scanning the sea, primarily looking far out. A few Red-throats flew south. 

After a bit I picked up a low-flying dark bird, heading rapidly north. To my surprise, it suddenly cut a big tightly curved arc up over the waves and down again - this looked really interesting and the adrenaline rush hit me like a train! I told Chris what I had seen and a few moments later, he suddenly announced 'there it is', as the bird arced up out of a wave trough again. Surely this was the Fea's? It was really distant, but that flight just screamed Pterodroma. We hadn't managed to see a white belly, or indeed any other features, but that flight style was just super distinctive and it just felt right. We lost the bird. I swung my scope north to try and catch it again, but that was it. I briefly saw a bird low down over the waves, but again only briefly. I felt hollow and a bit perplexed. I talked to Chris who agreed that this was likely to have been the bird and so I decided to put out a message to give encouragement to the birders stationed further north. I desperately wanted to see this bird and had to tell my brain not to insert things I hadn't seen into my memory. It had been a distant, brief view of what might have been the bird. That was all. But it was still an electrifying moment. This had been an exciting and tantalising end to a fab day on the east coast and I couldn't possibly feel disappointment, just shattered at the emotional strain of it all. The bird had flirted with me, just enough to keep me interested and left me desperately waiting for the next chapter.

Shortly, Long Nab birder Nick Addey turned up. It was great to meet him, and Chris for that matter. I left them to it, and headed home.

All pics are Desertas Petrels taken in Madeira last year.

Also, it turns out that 'Fea's' is pronounced 'Fay-ers' as the species is named after an Italian, Leonardo Fea, so my play on the Doves song, 'There goes the fear', in the title of this blog, is phonetically incorrect! And I also pinched this pun from top mate Dunc Poyser, so it is all his fault really -only kidding man. I do pronounce it Fears myself!!

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