A MEGA weekend with a MEGA bird

Flamborugh, one of the UK’s premier birding sites: In winter sea ducks are in abundance up to 7 species along with all 3 species of Diver being seen and in recent years even Surf Scoter spending the winter! In summer the coast is still alive with the 100 million year old Chalk Cliffs holding host to one of UK’s largest breeding sea bird colonies with Gannet, Kittiwake, Razorbill, Guillemot and Fulmar numbering in there thousands, with the skies above being patrolled by the ever watchful Peregrines. But in autumn Flamborugh becomes one of 5 spots in the UK were you need to be as you get witness the mighty autumn migration: the vegetation on the headland is teeming with Yellow-browed Warblers, Red-backed Shrikes, Barred Warblers, Wrynecks and Red-breasted Flycatchers. Whereas on the sea Sooty Shearwaters, Pomarine, Arctic, Great and Long-tailed Skuas including Sabine’s Gull and Leach’s Storm Petrel can be seen in a single sea watching and with a bit of luck a Fea’s Petrel or Little Shearwater! But let’s not forget the rarities which Flamborugh has had: Crag Martin, Brown Flycatcher, Taiga Flycatcher, Fea’s Petrel and Brown Shrike are just a handful of rarities Flamborugh has held host to over the years. So as you can imagine it’s a site I’ve always dreamed of visiting and on the 17th of June that dream finally came a reality.

Friday

Earlier in the year fellow young birder and good friend Darragh Hudson had invited me to spend a weekend with him up at Flamborugh, an I offer I couldn’t resist! So after a few months of waiting watching the days pass by it finally came to the morning of Friday June 17th were I boarded my train from Liverpool to Dewsbury ready for a solid weekend of birding with another young birder at one of the UK’s top ranking sites.

Black Tern at Pugneys
I give you the definition of “Record Shot” for those who can see it that’s infact a Black Tern!

 When I arrived in Dewsbury and met up with Darragh, first met back in February as we’d joined forces and had a fantastic day double dipping both Glossy Ibis and Surf Scoter, he took me round to his patch…Pugney’s Country Park. For those of you who’ve never heard of even the word “Pugney’s” then hold your head shame as when it comes to unexpected birds in unexpected places then Pugney’s Country Park is at the top of the leader board leaving its competition in the dust: Thayer’s Gull, Little Tern, Collared Pratincole, Bufflehead, Red-footed Falcon, Roseate Tern, Blyth’s Pipit and wait for it…Purple Sandpiper! Yes Pugney’s is a site which should locked up due the insanity which occurs there, it’s over 60 miles from coast and it’s a lake used for water sports with very little mud yet look what it gets!

Anyway this trip with Darragh was no exception as one again Pugney’s showed off its insanity; a gorgeous summer plumaged Black Tern was a nice bird to see, but what neither I or Darragh was expecting to come across was a flaming Whooper Swan along the banks of the River Calder! The bird was baring a ring so I got details and sent them off to Kane Brides and awaiting details. After spending a good view hours catching up with Darragh we were picked up by his wonderful mum and collected Aunty Genet and then it was finally time to head off to Flamborugh.

Ringed Whooper Swan at Pugneys_edited-1
The mysterious Whooper Swan, where was it ringed ?

 When we arrived and got unpacked Darragh and I headed straight out to Thornwick Bay for a spot of sea watching despite the howling winds and down pour which we found our self’s now part of. What I first noticed which rather amused Darragh was the sheer quantity of Gannets which were passing by, flocks of up to 50+ birds would just glide past showing us that they were the masters of these coasts. A standard sea watch on Wirral you’d see no more than 20 birds at a time, but seeing over 200 of these magnificent beasts in less than 30mins was a sight I’ll never forget. After finding myself fixated by the Gannets along with noticing some of the other birdlife around: Fulmar, Razorbill, Skylark, Guillemot and a Manx Shearwater, Darragh took me to Thornwick Pool which from the Flamborough Bird Observatory Blog seemed to be rather productive (Black-tailed godwit, Garganey, Redshank etc.), but when I arrived….Coot, Moorhen, Mallard (domestic) and 1 Teal. The most interesting thing around was a Brown Hare which Darragh picked up. With night now drawing in it was time to head back to base and settle in for the night.

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Thornwick’s Pool

 Saturday

The plan of action for today was to get up and out by 6am and head to Flamborough Lighthouse for a spot of sea watching, but being the lazy teenagers we are the closest it got to happening was Darragh getting out of bed then seconds later getting back in. We didn’t manage get out of the house till about 10ish and when we did it was only a short trip down to the bottom of the Bridlington Bay Golf Course were we set off on our coastal walk round the headland of Flamborough.

Fulmar at Bempton_edited-1
One of the many Fulmar around the cliffs

 Whilst we walked round Darragh had his eyes fixed on the sea were as I had mine fixed on the Chalk cliffs admiring there beauty and the sheer whiteness of them. Think it’s safe to say that I love Geology just as much as I do for birds! Over the period it took for the pair of us to walk from the Golf Club to the South Landing, Darragh was on fire fining Sandwich Tern and a pair of stonking drake Eider on the sea, meanwhile I was happy with simply finding a couple of Fulmar nests that were along the cliff with the occasional Rock Pipit. It was then time for both a switch in terrain and weather; from the overcast howling winds on the rocky shore line to the much brighter muddy paths of the cliff tops were Darragh and I were happily strolled along talking about all the rarities we’d like to turn up when we’d be visiting again in September.

Eider off Flamborough_edited-1
The 2 stunning Eiders found by Darragh

As we were approaching the Lighthouse after nearly 2hrs of walking round Flamborough head, I received a text young Yorkshire birder William Scott informing me that he’d be able to join the pair of us for the second half of our walk round Flamborugh. With William inbound me and Darragh headed down to a section of cliff at the bottom Lighthouse to do some sea watching in perfect conditions. Again I was gob smacked by the sheer quantity of Gannets but thankfully there many more sea birds about to distract me from the Gannets. In particular a pair of Kittiwakes just below me and Darragh caught my attention as they were constantly being harassed by a Herring Gull attempting to capture there single egg.

A good 40mins had passed when we made our way to meet up with William and we continued our walk round the head. We were also joined by Will’s dad Graham who made his way to were Darragh and I had just been sea watching. Continuing our walk round Flamborough we then stopped for a spot of lunch were in the process a Weasel and her kits bolted across the path next to where Will, Darragh and I were, along with Will finding a close in Manx Shearwater and a partial summer plumaged Bar-tailed Godwit which shot over us which I gave Darragh the joy of identifying (a bit rough on his waders).

The view of Flamborough
The views were spectacular as you can see with the Glacial Till situated above the Chalk #Geology

 With the calls of sea birds in the air and sun beating down upon us Will took us a hide which over looked the “northern marsh” which when we arrived was just as dead as Thornwick Pool the day before: Greylag Geese, Mallards and Coots. The most interesting birds about were the Kittiwakes coming in for a wash and a Yellowhammer which Will picked up on call flying over.

Patrolling the cliffs afterwards we got word from Will’s dad saying that 2 Roseate Tern had just flown past him heading our way and close in! A potential lifer for all three of us, well that’s if could pick them up which sadly after 20mins of watching the sea we didn’t. All feeling a little down we then had our hopes raised by a Peregrine nearly taking our heads off and then attempted to take a Herring Gull! And just seconds afterwards I noticed a colour ringed Herring Gull which again I got the details of and I’m awaiting to hear back from the BTO for details.

N1FT Herring Gull_edited-1
My first colour ringed Herring Gull!

 It then came to say a sad farewell to William but before we did Darragh and I took him to Thornwick’s Pool were we all received a shock when Will and I in sync picked up on a day flying BARN OWL with a voles in its talons! It gave a priceless performance past the hide were all 4 of us (Will, Darragh, Graham and Me) all gasped as it was the best views all of us had ever seen of this countryside assassin. Then it was then time to say good bye to Will and Graham who it was a great pleasure to meet and I hope to see them again later this year at Mig Fest. With William gone it was about me and Darragh made our way back to the house for dinner were afterwards we went out in search of more Barn Owl action were to our delight we discovered the nest!

Thornwick Pool Barn Owl_edited-1
The picture says it all, magnificent

 Sunday

This morning we arranged once again to go sea watching with a couple of other birders, but this time at a slightly earlier time of 4am and this time we actually slept through the alarm! A couple hours later when we both managed to crawl out of bed and had breakfast it was just a short drive down the road to one of the RSPB’s most prized reserves, Bempton Cliffs. Thousands of people flock to the reserve each summer to witness a view of one of the UK’s finest sea bird colonies, which if you look at the images of those who’ve visited then they’ll most likely consist of Gannet as these kings of the coastal skies dominate large sections of the cliffs and do so with elegance and grace as they take control of the winds when coming into land. With the sun high in the sky and a weak northerly wind completed with the calls of sea birds we set off on our trek along the cliffs of RSPB Bempton.

Still being captivated by the Gannets Darragh attempted to draw my attention away and onto to the songs of Yellowhammer and Corn Buntings in the fields along the cliff tops which for worked for a few minutes but I just found myself being drawn once again to Gannets giving spectacular views and then we hit gold, a whole out crop of rock filled to the brink with nesting Gannet. I was overcome with joy, whereas Darragh on the other hand was still in shock of how obsessed I’d become with Gannets! We did on our travels come across a couple of viewpoints enabling us to see right into heart of the colony with the odd Puffin popping its head out of its burrow which was a delight to all.

Kittiwake at RSPB Bempton Cliffs_edited-1
One of my favourite Kittiwake images from the weekend
Bempton Puffin_edited-1
What a colourful fella this guy is!

 Continuing the walk along the cliff tops the day couldn’t get any better than it already was; I was with one of my best mate in brilliant weather, my hayfever wasn’t kicking off and the birds were fantastic, but better was yet to come. When our walk had come to an end at the North Landing on Flamborough head we set up our scopes and got our self’s ready for a spot of sea watching: Razorbills, Puffins, Kittiwakes, Fulmars, Guillemots and you guessed it Gannet! Where coating the North Sea in a blanket of black and white. With Great Skuas, Great Northern Diver and Roseate Tern being seen and dipped on sea watching the previous days we set our self’s the task of finding our own “unusual” bird. After our 30min period of sea watching we may not have found an unusual bird but we did eventually find something new for our birding trip list, a pair of Common Scoter. Not an exciting bird but they are one of my favourite birds.

Afterwards we decided to end our day with another trip to Thornwick’s were as you can guess it was just as dead as the first visit. With the only new bird on show being a drake Tufted Duck. After this it was then finally time to end our visit at Flamborough and head back to Wakefield. But the action wasn’t over.

Monday

Whilst we had been up at Flamborough enjoying the delightful weather and sea birds, further down the coast in Norfolk something rather particular had turned up, a GREAT KNOT only the UK’s 5th record! The combination of Darragh being a twitcher aiming to reach 300 by new year (currently 278), his mum “willing” to drive him to see rarities and this being only the UK’s 5th record of Great Knot, all was set for the over 300 mile journey from Wakefield and back. This time we even woke up when the alarm went off!

Red Knot at Titchwell_edited-1
Part of flock of Red Knot which flew over us whilst on route to the Fresh Water Marsh

 So, after the 3hr+ drive across the country we finally arrived at the car park of RSPB Titchwell ready for setting our eyes upon the Great Knot, which as an added bonus was a stonking summer plumaged adult…what a bird! The down side was that when we arrived at 11ish there had been no report of the bird all day. Being slightly worried that we might dip it Darragh and I headed straight to the beach were we’d hope the bird would be on the outgoing tide line. After meeting up with another group of twitchers who had the same idea as us we scanned and scanned flock after flock of Knot but still no sign. I went off to scan a nearby river channel with large muddy banks but all I had was a Greenshank.

With the heavens now open me Darragh were soon soaked through and headed to the hides for refuge. At the hide which over looked the Fresh water and Salt water marsh we managed to add a few more birds to our List including Meditterian Gull, Avocet, Bittern, Shoveler, Black-tailed Godwit, Little Ringed Plover and a stunning Red-crested Pochard which was my first lifer of the trip putting me on 239 just 11 off my end of year target which I was on course to smash!

Red crested Pochard at Titchwell_edited-1
An absolute beauty, drake Red-crested Pochard

 

After partially drying our self’s off in the hides we headed back off for round two of scanning the shoreline, but this time instead of the us two and three other birders we were joined by at least ten other birders all stretched along the coast line with eyes set on relocating the Great Knot. Arctic, Little, Common and Sandwich Tern were racing over the sea whilst Ringed Plovers and Oystercatchers sat on their nests on the shingle. Then out of nowhere the words “F**K YES!!!” were blasted across the entire reserve when one of the twitchers along the beach erupted into joy as he’d just received a text from a birder further up the beach on Scolt Head Island, giving word that he’d relocated the GREAT KNOT!!!

Everyone in sync along the beach bolted straight to car park. The race for the Great Knot had begun. With me and Darragh having youth on our side by a good 40 years, we had the advantage of speed on our side and within no less than 5 minutes we’d arrived at the car park awaiting our chariot. But rather expectantly they’d just ordered some soup so we had to think of how we’d get Scolt Heads. Thankfully two birders who we’d had a chat to on the beach offered us a lift and in no time at all we arrived at the Brancaster Golf Club were we set off on our trek to Scolt Head Island.

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The long trek across the beach to Scolt Head Island
Little Tern at Titchwell_edited-1
A poor attempt to photograph a Little Tern

 For those who recall the report which came out then you might remember it saying that it was only a 800m walk….try two and half miles across soft sands in walking boots carrying scopes and cameras, it was the work of the devil. After walking for over an hour we’d finally reached Scolt Heads Island were after over 3 miles of walking and 3 hrs of driving there it was the GREAT KNOT…well just about. The bird had hunkered down behind a small sand bank, was roughly 500m away and the light rain viewing conditions weren’t the best. Even through the scope it was just a lump with those with sharp enough eye sight being able to pick out the traces of gold on its shoulders.

GREAT KNOT AT TITCHWELL_edited-1
Can you see the GREAT KNOT ? Its the black lump in the centre

 I was relatively happy seeing the Great Knot but Darragh on the other hand, well I’d never seen anyone so full with joy, he was absolutely ecstatic! Spending the following five minutes watching the bird and showing folk were it was (rather hard to pick up even with a scope!), it was then that we noticed that it was just getting up to 3pm so it was time to say an emotional fair well to Scolt Head Island and RSPB Titchwell before getting back on road to catch my train home.

I cannot thank Darragh Hudson and his wonderful mum and aunty enough for such a brilliant weekend and for inviting me back in September for peak migration season. Thank you ever so much.

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