Champions of the Flyway!

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Swift Redemption - Filey, 28th June 2020

With Crossbills and Siskins pouring out of the northern forests, as well as various other highlights including a point-blank Honey-buzzard arriving in off, Cuckoos, a Turtle Dove and more all gunning south (see last few posts), it's been a memorable week for visible migration at my Muston Sands watch-point here in Filey, and on the North Yorkshire coast generally. But even with all this competition, there's only really ever been one clear winner in the migration phenomena stakes....

... and it all came to a dramatic, unforgettable climax the morning before last (28th). With a moderate south-westerly and cloud forecast, it looked promising for the aforementioned irrupting finches to be concentrated along the coast, as they had been on several other exceptional mornings this week. There were a few, as it turned out, but they were barely noticed among the real stars of the show.

An 0340hrs alarm may sound a little harsh but, in order to catch the vast majority of activity at the moment, being in position for around dawn (even a little before) is essential - and my, how it's been worth it. It would've been for the views and the sunrises alone, but so much avian activity had been crammed into those first hours, even minutes, that to turn up even a little late to the party is to miss most of the action.

Walking the short distance to my vantage point a good 15 minutes before dawn, I looked up to see the bizarre sight of tight flocks of birds heading purposefully south in the gloom - amazingly, they were the first Swifts of the morning. But they were far from the last.

For the next four hours or so, we (with Keith a few kilometres south at Hunmanby Gap) were treated to an unprecedented, mind-blowing show of East coast migration at its most thrilling and visceral. Across a southbound flyway that stretched, variably, a good kilometre or so inland to my left and as far out to sea to my right, the barrage was seemingly endless; even better, the majority headed straight for me, with the shelter and height of the cliff providing a focal point for many incoming birds. Some even came within touching distance, almost brushing my cheek, and I could feel and hear the whoosh of their wings above and beyond the blustery wind.... magical.

In those four hours, we clocked a minimum of 16,500 birds.... Incredible, and the stuff of dreams for North Yorkshire vismiggers; a huge count, even by the previously unattainable standards of famous Swift bottlenecks like Spurn and Gibraltar Point, let alone our modest Filey bay VPs. That we had such a uniquely large cut of the cake was a privilege we'll not forget anytime soon, but why did it happen, and why did we score so highly?

Basically, a perfect storm, literally and metaphorically. The theory is that the majority of these birds are second-year, non-breeding birds, which effectively roam the UK and Europe in summer en masse, riding storm fronts and, with conditions conspiring, gathering into intense, narrow 'bands' of birds. With the prevailing weather systems 'trapping' an unusually high concentration of Swifts above us, the ideal circumstances then followed - in our case, those brisk south-westerlies and overcast skies focusing all the action along our stretch of coast as they battled south. The time of year is also a factor - late June and early July is the peak period for these huge counts at those aforementioned bottlenecks, and so if if were ever to happen to here too, then the timing was right....

As with so much associated with these mysterious beasts, there's still a lot of conjecture and a lot to learn, but with technology developing rapidly and traking techniques becoming less expensive and more viable, it's hoped we'll find out a lot more in the near future. Either way, magic is magic, even after you find out the techniques behind it....