Champions of the Flyway!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Flamborough & the coast, 3rd - 6th September 2010

Be grateful for luck. Pay the thunder no mind - listen to the birds. Eubie Blake

I try to go back home to Flamborough half a dozen times a year these days, combining time with the folks with as much birding as possible, usually for three or four days. Scheduling is abitrary, and I sort the time off and trains well in advance, so coinciding my visits with, for example, falls of migrants or seabird movements is always in the hands of the gods.

While there's been some memorable adventures in the field over recent years, where true far-eastern promise is concerned the stars have rarely aligned; until last week, that is. With a classic east coast autumn weather system apparently holding (high over Scandinavia, easterlies over the North Sea) tempered only by the lack of forecast precipitation or frontal movement, there was good reason to anticipate something special.

3rd: Leaving Kings Cross before dawn and arriving on the head by 10 a.m., the sun was shining, the wind had dropped to a whisper and a certain passerine had, extraordinarily, decided to stay overnight.... staying faithful to a sunny and sheltered corner where Old Fall hedge meets the plantation, the fresh-in Eastern Olivaceous Warbler performed impeccably over the course of two hours, just as I arrived.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Old Fall

Showing poorly the day before, and disappearing for good shortly after we left it, recent very-near misses with eastern exotica were swiftly forgotten within an hour arriving on the Head. A supporting cast of Pied and Spotted Flycatchers and Willow Warblers in the same patch of vegetation made for a fine scene, and just as we were about to leave, large raptors began appearing en masse overhead - within a couple of minutes nailed down to 17 Common Buzzards and two Honey-buzzards.

Common Buzzards

A cup of tea in Richard's garden produced the first Barred Warbler of the trip, and a late lunch at the old man's place in the village produced another five Common Buzzards low overhead in the warm sunshine. Ninety minutes scrutinising the willows by the golf course provided an entertaining roll call of warblers, popping out one by one - Lesser and Common Whitethroats, a Reed Warbler (which quickened the pulse for a while), three Willow Warblers, a brief view of a yellowish Hippolais which got away, and a very showy Barred Warbler. An evening check of South Landing beach produced seven wader species, including five Bar-tailed Godwits.

4th: The good people of the local RSPB group kindly asked me to be the lead observer on the upper deck of the Yorkshire Belle for this week's pelagic cruise - three and half hours in Bridlington Bay and off the tip od the Head in pursuit of passage seabirds. Although the omens were not good (precious little movement along the coast over previous days and weeks, and a continuing light south-easterly) and expectations were low, we did pretty well - the morning's highlights included a juvenile Black Tern around the boat, five Arctic Skuas, a Bonxie and three Sooty Shearwaters amongst the more expected fare.

Harbour Porpoise, Bonxie, Black Tern, Gannets, Arctic Skua

A few sessions on the Head in the afternoon produced little in the way of new arrivals, but with the winds due to strengthen and cloud forecast overnight, anticipation was on the rise....

5th: an early start and straight out onto the outer head, variously with Phil, Rich and Craig, in the as-predicted moderate and gusty south-easterlies - and in truth not a great deal to eulogise over; a few common warblers (including another skulking Reed, this time in Bluethroat Dyke), a couple of Arctic Skuas off the cliff, at least seven Lapland Buntings in the outer fields (one of which almost becoming breakfast for a local Peregrine), and a Barred Warbler still in the bay.

Lapland Buntings

Time to call it a day, and spend the afternoon and evening with the maternal side of the family line. A run out to nearby Filey Dams YWT before a scheduled dinner reservation in Bridlington was pleasant as ever, with a Little Egret (still not a common bird in these parts), Dunlin, several Wigeon, Common Sandpiper, plenty of Teal etc to look at.... until the mobile rang, and within a split second of looking at the screen, I knew I was in the proverbial.

Stonechat and Whitethroat juveniles in the bay

Wigeon, Filey Dams

Having left Rich with strict instructions (if it's rare, don't call; if it's very rare, do...), and knowing he fully appreciated the delicate nature of my situation, it had to be big. "Brown Flycatcher, Buckton". A predictable playing-out of expletives, awkward negotiations and hooking-up arrangements saw us arriving at the end of Hoddy Cows Lane 15 minutes later, car doors flung open and closed, and Rich, Dad and I bombing up the track.

Tearing across a succession of trackless fields in a small motor would deter most, but with the old man at the wheel, such barriers are traditionally non-existent (all those RAC rallies in the North Yorkshire forests weren't for nothing). Minutes later, and we approached the small, remote, gorse-filled dell barely visible between the expanse of arable land near the clifftop.

And there it was - sat out in the open in the sunshine. A truly stunning little poster-bird, performing absurdly well in a small and sheltered bare patch in the gorse, with a Pied Fly, a Spot Fly, a Garden Warbler and a Willow Warbler for close company - none of which were nearly as sore-thumb like. In truth, as an ID challenge there was probably little reason to use binoculars; as a spectacle, there was plenty of reason, and the views were exceptional.

Brown Flycatcher, Buckton

With the news only just filtering out and the finder and local birder Dave grinning blankly alongside us, we had a good hour or more of the bird to ourselves before the masses began to descend. Chaperoned back to Flamborough in plenty of time to placate and prepare for the evening, all was well in the world.

6th: Despite plenty of wishful thinkers having visions to the contrary, the Flycatcher left overnight, but with the now easterly wind strenthening further (becoming truly blustery by lunchtime) and the cloud thickening, it still looked good; and so, after brief checks of various spots on the outer head, Dad and I decided to join Mark and Jenny at Buckton.

Barred Warbler, Selwicks Bay

Mark is pathologically patch obsessive - one of many things we have in common, except his isn't a large puddle in the middle of Babylon, it's a migration nirvana on the north side of Flamborough Head. And doesn't let the fact that he lives in Bedfordshire stand in his way; over the last few years, he's made Buckton a migrant trap to die for, complete with habitat creation, net rides through every few bushes, a heligoland forthcoming and even an on-site caravan to crash in.

Common Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher, Wheatear and Lesser Whitethroat

Too windy to set many nets, we spent a memorable few hours on the clifftop watching diurnal migration at it's most exciting. Passerines dropping into the grass, just metres from the North Sea, not even stretching the extra 200 metres to the nearest scrub - Common Redstarts, Pied Flycatchers, Willow Warblers, Spotted Flycatchers, Whinchats and Wheatears buzzed around us and ditched down out of the wind.

With a single 30 ft set in the nearest dell, we trapped a few very tired migrants, none of which possessed any fat content - several Spot flys were thus taxied over the nearest woodland (does car-assisted still count?), and by late afternoon, I had to drag myself away and head back to London. A wonderful few days on the cape.