Sunday 10 September 2023

Wandering Booby

Following on from the Common Dolphins and Flying Fish a week or so ago, news of a Brown Booby off Flamborough on Sunday 3rd September, was incredible, but not entirely surprising. Scilly is hosting both Brown Booby and Red-footed Booby and there had been a report of another Brown Booby off Norfolk recently, so it was only a matter of time before one turned up off Yorkshire. 

I should have been at Flamborough that morning leading the YOC trip, but in a frustrating twist, I had caught Covid the weekend before and whilst mostly recovered I had little energy and didn't feel up to it. Jane and Rob Chapman had kindly agreed to take my place and were nearby on the clifftop when the Booby had been found. I was in York! I felt ok, so shot over there and spent two hours staring forlornly at the sea. An Arctic Skua flew past and 40 Little Gulls fed along the Flamborough front, but that did little to raise my spirits. It had gone.

The following day, I was back at work and news came through that the Brown Booby was now sitting on a rock on Filey Brigg with the local Cormorants! It then settled on the sea near Hunmanby Gap and gave many relieved  Yorkshire birders the chance to catch up with it. Sadly, I couldn't get over due to work and family commitments. The next day, the bird was still around the Yorkshire coast, having started off at Filey Bay and then flying north to Sandsend and Whitby. 

It was still present after work, so I decided I would have another try for this tropical seabird. An enjoyable, if slightly nervy drive over the Moors later and I rolled into Sandsend, to find out the bird had departed an hour ago (not sure why nobody reported that!) and had turned up again at Filey. I had a quick look offshore; the sea was like a mirror and over 20 Bottlenose Dolphins were feeding. I could have stayed and watched them, but my priority lay back south, so down the coast road I went, to Filey. With some great advice from Mark Pearson, I shot down to Hunmanby Gap, to see if the Booby would roost.

The shadows were lengthening as I walked down the track to the back of a cafe where I had a good view of the sea. I scanned the bay hard; there were lots of gulls, several Gannets and a couple of Red-throated Divers, but no booby. a distant juvenile Gannet piqued my interest for a few seconds, but it was only that; a juvenile Gannet. Thinking back to what Mark had said, I looked straight out from the gap and to my astonishment, there was the Booby! It was distant, maybe 3/4 to a mile out, and the light was poor. It looked much smaller than the nearby Gannets, similar in size to a Herring Gull, but with a long, cocked tail. The plumage appeared all dark at this distance, apart from a narrow white flash on its flanks, by the waterline. It had a pale bill, but the light wasn't good enough to discern colour. I needed it to fly really, and a few moments later it flew a short distance along the surface, revealing a dark throat and breast, sharply demarcated from the white belly. The underwings had a clear-cut white band up the centre. The upperparts including the long tail were entirely dark without the characteristic white band on the rump of a young Gannet. It really was the Booby! I tried a bit of phonescoped video, but the light and distance didn't help very much. I needed to get the news out in case there was any other birders nearby, so I went up the slope a bit til I got signal and put the news on Birdguides. I then returned to watch the bird until the gathering gloom made viewing impossible. Success at last!


Brown Booby: note the compact shape, long cocked tail and triangular head. 

Juvenile Gannet: longer-bodied, comparatively shorter-tailed and typical Gannet headshape.


I made my way back to York and was surprised to see that Birdguides who had put out my news had then sent a second message to say my report was in error. This was a bit wierd so I rang them to find out why this was. It transpired that there had been some birders in the car park, higher up the hill who had not see the Booby. They had seen some Gannets, so assumed the news was erroneous. Whether these birders had seen the Booby and dismissed it as a Gannet, or whether they hadn't looked far enough out, I don't know. A couple of days later, I spoke with Andy Gibson who had been in the car park that evening. He said he was pretty sure he had seen the bird and was fairly confident it was the Booby, but other birders present were unconvinced, or maybe were looking at other birds. 

Chapter Two.

The conjecture over my sighting had rather taken the shine off the experience, and also, my views had been pretty poor anyway. The Booby had continued to be reported, but had moved north to Teesmouth, being seen both from the north and south sides of the river. Early doors Saturday, the bird - which had been identified as an adult female - was still roosting on a shipping buoy off South Gare, so I decided to go and have another look. To my delight, the bird was still hanging out off South Gare when I arrived. 

 She spent much of her time loafing on various buoys, but occasionally flew around over the river, often pursued by the local gulls. Later on, she joined a feeding frenzy of gulls and Cormorants, where I watched her shallow dive and surface dive for small fish. She was very successful and I could see she was feeding well. Her small size was again apparent, as was her long tail. Looking at her sitting on the water at distance made me feel my identification of the Hunmanby bird was correct. 


Having enjoyed some great views, I switched my attention to the beach, where c100 Sanderlings were hanging out with a few Barwits and Turnstones. 

News from the north side of the river lured me round and I was soon enjoying a gorgeous juvnile Buff-breasted Sandpiper feeding with a small flock of Dunlins and a single Curlew Sandpiper on West Saltholme Pool. A cute juvenile Little Stint was feeding on the causeway here too, my first of the autumn and several Black-tailed Godwits and c20 Ringed Plovers were also noted.


Just up the road at Greatham Creek, I had brief but good views of the juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh, with a few Dunlins. A winter-plumaged Spotted Redshank was roosting with lots of Redshank on the edge of the creek, along with 200 Dunlins, another Curlew Sandpiper and a single Knot. An overflying Peregrine briefly caused alarm in the small waders and the Pec vanished at this point; I think it flew to the north side of the creek with a Dunlin. An adult Spoonbill was also in the creek along with about 40 Grey Seals. It was time to head back to York after a very enjoyable morning's birding on Teeside.

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