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.

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