Thursday 30 July 2020

Things that go Kwek in the night

After a tough and stressful year so far, four nights on a boat on the Norfolk Broads with the family and best mate Philip, seemed a perfect antidote. We picked up a boat in Stalham and sailed south down the River Ant to Irstead. We moored for the night by the river side south of the village, next to a large marshy wilderness. A Grasshopper Warbler reeled unseen in the marsh and Reed Warblers slunk through the reed stems. Darkness fell, and after a long day, we turned in for the night.

Through my doze, a sudden bird call brought me to my senses. What was that? The Grasshopper Warbler continued to reel, but beyond that, the night was quiet.

Then again, a little closer, a series of 'kweks' speeding up to a rapid crescendo. And then again. My mind whirred- I'd heard this before. Surely, a Little Crake! I sat up in bed as the bird called again; my wife asked what I was doing - 'I think there's a Little Crake calling!' was my response.

I scrambled for my phone in the dark, knowing I should try and record the bird - it was switched off -damn! The bird called again - I couldn't believe this was happening - I noticed the time as my phone came to life - 11.45pm. Ready for action, I now waited, breathless, sitting in the dark, ears straining. But that was it. As suddenly as it had started, it went quiet.

Silence descended on the marsh, save the continual reeling of the Grasshopper Warbler. I strained my ears for calls. By 1am, and despite the adrenaline, I couldn't stay awake, and sleep took me.

The following morning, I told my mate Philip who had slept through the event in his cabin. He hadn't heard it and was understandably incredulous and a bit annoyed that I hadn't woken him. I went straight out on deck with my phone and tried some playback to attempt to elicit a response. Nothing. I decided to put the news out on Twitter, in case local birders wanted to check it out. It was a tricky place to get to without a boat - we had moored up at a random spot by the river. No paths were apparent.

Somewhere out there...

During the day, I replayed the event in my mind over and over, and tested my memory of what I had heard. Doubt began to seep into my mind, like a mist creeping up the edge of a river at dusk. I pushed this back - I know what Little Crakes sound like. I have prepped for years, as along with Baillon's Crake, it is one of those birds I always hoped to stumble across at Wheldrake Ings on a spring evening. I had even heard them before in Europe, and once in Britain - a calling male in Kent, 20 years ago.

Nevertheless, doubt began to creep in. Why hadn't I jumped out of bed and woken my mate Philip - it was a Little Crake for God's sake! Had I imagined the whole thing in a dream? Was it really a Little Crake, or had a Water Rail or something else calling weirdly fooled me? These doubts lingered with me all week. On return to York and good internet, I trawled through Xeno Canto to see if I could find a Water Rail sounding like the bird I had heard. I couldn't, yet the recordings of Little Crake sounded spot on. This wasn't a surprise; I hear Water Rails all the time, making all sorts of noises, from flight calls at night, to pipping males, singing unseen in the reedbeds at Wheldrake.

So, what to do? Without a sound recording or corroboration, acceptance of this record would come down to whether a records committee would believe my story and my ability to identify a bird of this rarity from a brief and unexpected hearing. I will submit the record of course, as I trust my instincts and ears, but I doubt the bird will be accepted. Nevertheless, an exciting and unexpected experience in the depths of a wonderful wetland that will remain with me.

Southern Hawker

The rest of our week was lovely. Highlights included two Otters (both on the Ant), a fly-by Great Egret near Horning Hall on 23rd July, a couple of brief Norfolk Hawkers, three reeling Grasshopper Warblers, Marsh Harriers etc. Fab stuff and nice to be back in my old patch.

Saturday 11 July 2020


After a 3am start, I am too tired to write much now, but I just wanted to share the sheer elation of seeing a Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture) in the Peak District this morning!

For once I got lucky - really lucky - when the majestic beast left its cliff-face roost earlier than expected and came gliding in front of me at 05.45. Not only that, it then landed on the ridge a couple of hundred metres away! Absolute scenes!

 This bird has been tracked from the continent and was wild born, possibly in the French Alps; it was previously seen in Alderney and Belgium. To see a Lammergeier in South Yorkshire is absolutely incredible and to see this huge sky dragon close enough to see it's white eyes and hipster beard, is unreal. I will write something more coherent later when I have scraped myself off the ceiling and had some sleep.

The distant cliff twitch

Thursday 9 July 2020

Bouncing Back!

Brockadale, near Pontefract, has become really popular during lockdown - I mean, really popular! It is a super YWT nature reserve; spectacular scenery, lovely grasslands filled with flowers and butterflies, and hanging woodlands along the Went Valley, where birdsong drifts through the canopy.

It is a special place and it seems lots of others have discovered it too. Fair play. Most people were enjoying the site responsibly - no litter and only two dogs off leads- great. Let's hope many of these people find a new connection with nature. Our kids had a great time, bouncing on a big bough by the river and checking out this and that. A close encounter with a curious Southern Hawker dragonfly was a treat.

Fantastic butterflies as ever on this site, with at least 13 species seen without really trying. Marbled Whites clustered on the purple bursts of Knapweed, whilst Dark Green Fritillaries skipped through the grasslands. There were plenty of Clustered Bellflowers in evidence; Brockadale is one of the best sites for this impressive flower. The woods were quiet, with Chiffchaffs and Wrens the only songsters noted. A downpour drenched us just before reaching the end of our walk, but didn't dampen our spirits.

 Marbled White. Doing really well in Yorkshire.

Dark Green Fritillary: Yorkshire's most common and widespread fritillary. The dark-green inner part of the underside of the hindwing is not massively obvious, but was enough to give this species their common name.

Mating Dark Green Fritillaries. It was interesting to see that the female seemingly holds still while the male walks and actually flies about, dragging her motionless body behind.

Sunday 5 July 2020

The Albatross around my neck

This last few days will be one of those birding memories that will remain with me for life, recounted at quiet times in bird hides, or with mates over a pint. And not because of the bird I saw, but because of the bird I almost saw.

Some of the birds I have missed are as memorable as the ones I have seen: the Red-breasted Nuthatch in Wells Woods in the 90s; the Lesser Crested Tern on the Farnes (twice) and at Spurn (once). The depth of disappointment of missing a bird you have made an effort to see can be as severe as the elation of seeing a bird.

In this case, I dipped* a Black-browed Albatross, a spectacular seabird from the South Atlantic, a stunning, handsome ocean traveller from another hemisphere.

*I realise that 'dipping' may mean different things to different people, but in the birding world, it is the act of missing, not seeing, failing to find a target species, and usually a rare one at that. It leaves one feeling pretty down, frustrated and upset all at the same time.

I have form with dipping Black-browed Albatrosses, so this short period in my birding life should not have come as a surprise to me, but that makes it no easier a pill to swallow. A couple of years ago, the towering cliffs of Bempton on the east Yorkshire coast attracted a Black-brow that had been touring the North Sea. I dropped everything, and drove as fast as I safely could to the headland, but the bird had gone. I stared forlornly at the endless blue of the North Sea, but nothing...Yorkshire's second Eastern Crowned Warbler in the bushes nearby only slightly lifted my mood.

Several months later in the spring of 2017, possibly the same bird appeared again. This time it even landed on the cliffs among the Gannets. Surely, it would stay long enough for me to get there and see it? No, it would not and I dipped again!

Damp and forlorn birders waiting for the albatross to fly past. Thursday evening, 2nd July.

Fast forward to 2nd July 2020...

Towards the end of the working day on Thursday, I nonchalantly checked my phone and discovered a report of a Black-browed Albatross at Bempton! Whoa! A few tense minutes passed and another message came through to say there was indeed an albatross and it had been photographed. Panic! I finished off a few emails, packed my gear and shot off. I headed east and my phone beeped with updates from birders watching the bird. By the time I reached Bridlington I was nearly out of fuel so I filled up and checked my phone. The bird had flown west and hadn't been seen for a while. Then a message came that it had been seen off Hunmanby and then gone north at Filey - seen by Terrier Captain Mark Pearson! Great for Mark, bad news potentially for me!

I pressed on. Sadly, two and a half hours of scanning along the clifftops failed to reveal the albatross. Another dip. Nevertheless, it was worth a go, and nice to catch up with many birders who I hadn't seen since lockdown. And then the photos of the albatross started to appear on Twitter. Absolute scenes! Probably some of the best rarity photos ever taken in Britain. What a bird! See here on the Flamborough Bird Obs website. Cracking.

I had a nice view of a hunting Long-eared Owl, a couple of Peregrines cruising the clifftops and all the usual seabirds, which are corking after all. But no albatross. But would it be seen again? It seemed it had gone north, so maybe not. However, it hadn't been seen further up the coast, so just maybe it had stayed in the area. We would see.

Friday 3rd July
I had decided the night before not to try Bempton again unless there was positive news. This turned out to be a massive mistake. at 6.18am the message came through that the albatross was back and was drifting along from Selwick's Bay near the lighthouse, back towards Bempton. Yikes! Back to Bempton I drove. I had a lieu day arranged with my boss, though I wanted to make a couple of meetings in the afternoon. Again, my phone pinged constantly as I drove east- I finally checked them at the traffic lights on the edge of Bridlington. The bird had flown west at 7.15am. Two minutes ago. 20 minutes later and I was on the clifftop. It was much busier today with the amazing photos having drawn in a real crowd. The bird hadn't yet reappeared having glided slowly along towards Speeton to the west.

There were lots of elated birders around showing me their stunning photos of the bird. They all said it would be back. It didn't come back. 8am became 9am and still no sign. Minutes ticked away. I had to leave at 9.30am as my wife needed the car back to drive my son to cricket training and I had a meeting at midday. I enjoyed the Razorbills, my fave auk, but felt absolutely crushed that I had been so close. Why hadn't I been there for dawn? Idiot! 9.30 arrived and I left. A big fat dip, made worse by my bad decision.

And then the really crushing news arrived. It has turned up again. My mate Tony Martin recounted to me that after getting drenched by a shower mid-morning, they were just about to give up, when at 11am birding legend Brett Richards shouted "It's coming, it's coming!" and back along the cliff, at head height, the huge seabird came. Apparently it flew past so close Dob, who was standing next to Tony, couldn't focus his camera on the bird. It then u-turned and came back and Dob got some stunning images. It drifted around for 15 minutes then glided back west along the cliffs. Incredible scenes!

I had been so close this morning and then to get this news...birding can be cruel sometimes.
Meetings done, I had to try again. Maybe, just maybe the albatross had spent the afternoon on the cliffs and would do a teatime fly-by, so I headed east for the third time. This felt like an obsession. What the hell was I doing?

I arrived at Bempton to crazy scenes. Something like 300 birders, maybe more, were strewn along the clifftop, trying their best to social distance, but failing in many cases. I met old mates from as far away as London, Norwich, Liverpool, Birmingham. They had all seen the epic photos and made the pilgrimage. Like me, they were desperate to see this special bird. The hours drifted by. It was cold, and in my stressed state I had forgotten my coat. I met up with fellow York birders Chris and Ollie and chatted all things birding, recounting tales of this spring's rarities and speculating on the whereabouts of the albatross. We constantly scanned the waves, grilled the cliffs, just hoping to see the wanderer winging his way back towards us. A Bonxie (Great Skua) loafed on the sea. It rained; hard. I was soaked and cold, tired, hungry and emotionally drained. I could feel it in my bones that he wouldn't come back again today, and wearily walked back to the car, spirits in a ditch. A ditch filled with filthy, dark water. This albatross really was becoming the albatross round my neck.

Kittiwake. They seem to have had a good breeding season, with most pairs having a chick or two on the cliffs.

4th July
I went to bed undecided as to whether I would try a fourth time or not. I was too shattered to make a decision like that. I woke at 5.25am and the decision came easily - I must try one more time. To not go was to risk colossal regret. I was heartened by a message from my old Cambs birding mate, Mark Hawkes who had set off at 3.30am from Cambridge, to drive to Bempton. It would be great to see him, so this confirmed my decision was the right one. Another easy drive over the Wolds and I arrived on the now familiar cliffs just after Mark at 6.35am.

It was great to see Mark. His boundless enthusiasm and positivity really lifted my spirits, despite neither of us really expecting us to see the albatross. It hadn't been seen since 11.15 yesterday, so hope was remote, but neither of us could face not giving it a try.

I took part in the vigil for three hours. Sol had cricket practise again and I wanted to take him, so had to leave mid morning. Mark stayed until midday, enjoying the seabirds and the stunning scenery - and the Long-eared Owl, which made an appearance again, before heading back to Cambridgeshire.

The Black-browed Albatross has still not reappeared. He is a mysterious, majestic ocean wanderer. He could be anywhere now, Iceland, Norway, back in the North Atlantic. He has beaten me again and I am devastated. I know many other birders who missed his visit feel the same and pray for another chance. Maybe he will come back soon, or maybe never. Dipping is one of the worse feelings, but I am glad I tried as hard as I could.

I like the fact that nature has the power to make us feel this way and that it can beat us. Nature is still wild. This albatross is wild and free and has disappeared across the blue sea and I love the fact that he is out there somewhere, doing his thing. I assume it has no concept of the sheer joy and exhilaration it brought to all those fortunate birders who got themselves in the right place at the right time, or the utter pain it brought to me and others by melting away so easily. Maybe one day I will get lucky- seventh time lucky -is that a thing?


Albatrosses are in trouble globally, because of us and our activities. They choke on our plastic pollution, they drown on fishing hooks set in the long-line tuna fishery. They are losing food due to the over-exploitation of fisheries. If you enjoyed reading this, or (lucky thing) enjoyed seeing this Black-browed Albatross, it is worth checking this webpage out and maybe consider a donation to help the work of the partnership trying to save these fantastic birds.

Here is a Waved Albatross I saw on the Galapagos back in 2003. A special and memorable encounter.