A look back at the first few months patrolling the new patch, by Mark James Pearson
Having spent the previous year on a round-the-world birding honeymoon, my wife Amity and I arrived back in the UK in the late winter with a choice: either return to London and pick up where we left off, or seize the opportunity to move on. Happily anchorless after our travels, the latter option won out, and after twenty-odd years elsewhere, a return to the Yorkshire coast beckoned.
Arriving with the vanguard of spring migrants, as of April 1st, we were duly installed in our home town. Exploring the new patch with an unjaded enthusiasm and fueled by the mouth-watering contents of previous Filey bird reports and colourful tales from the old school, the first month fortuitously turned out to be another kind of honeymoon altogether.
My debut circuit of the wider northern area – i.e., incorporating Long and Short Hedges, Parish Wood and the Tip, as well as the coastal area to the east – on 6th was quiet, until I reached the Tip, scanned the fenceline and immediately connected with a pristeen Great Grey Shrike in the early spring sunshine. The birding gods had swiftly spoken and the news was unequivocally good.
Within a couple of weeks, the Tip area again provided – a familiar honking chorus from afar announced the arrival of three majestic Common Cranes, putting on an exemplary airshow before eventually heading south on the 23rd. A few days later, and strong east-north-easterlies and rain on the 28th looked good; in reality deathly quiet, until at the very last, a male Ficedula – with features indicative of Collared x Pied Flycatcher – flicked up before me in Parish Wood, keeping the bar suitably high.
Which would’ve been more than enough, but the best of the month was yet to come. The 30th dawned under a thick blanket of fog and with a light north-easterly. A miraculously undisturbed Carr Naze at first light was sprinkled with fresh-in migrants, many at close quarters – including Tree Pipits, Ring Ouzels, Willow Warblers and more – crowned by a skulking Wryneck crouching cryptically on the path before bolting into the mist.
The sun steadily burned through, revealing a fall of warblers, chats and other migrants in the area. Back on Carr Naze for a final fling in the late afternoon, and at the same moment an Osprey (one of a hatful over the year) lolloped in over the bay, an Olive-backed Pipit briefly materialised on the cliff edge for a few precious seconds before spiriting away into the blue. Magical.
May was less dramatic, but with the preceding months’ relative bounty (and the luxury of excessive spare time continuing), it mattered little; besides, there were plenty of isolated highlights, including Stone Curlew, Marsh and Icterine Warblers, four more Ospreys, and at the end of the month, a lesson in persistence – a Temminck’s Stint at point-blank range on the lip of Carr Naze pond (which I’d have missed without checking pond’s tiny hidden corner of mud, unviewable from the path).
Of the summer, well there were worse ways to spend it than monitoring the bay and its birds, but for the most part it was an uneventful period; highlights did however include Little Tern, skuas and shearwaters, breeding plumage Long-tailed Duck and Great Northern Divers, plus the first trickles of waders and passerines on the move overhead.
August delivered the goods on both land and sea, but not without consistent efforts and the kind of time I was fortunate to be able to invest. Seawatching was something I’d been greatly looking forward to, and from early in the month onwards there was plenty to entertain from within or without the hallowed hide on the Brigg.
By the second week I’d happily connected with the season’s first Long-tailed and Pomarine Skuas and Roseate Terns, and tallies in the notebook were becoming pleasingly substantial for a lengthening list of ocean-bound species.
The land was generally quiet until favourable winds brought a small arrival mid-month, and after sitting out a shower in the cafe on the morning of 14th, a stake-out in the Top Scrub produced an Icterine Warbler soon after; requiring plenty of patience, this elusive scarcity set the tone for the next few weeks, and was the first of three I was lucky enough to find here this autumn.
An epic movement swept through on the leading edge of a weather front on the 24th. Occupying all heights, from mere centimetres to hundreds of metres above the ground, multitudes of all three hirundines clouded the increasingly blackening skies in a narrow swathe heading out over the bay; in barely half an hour, thousands of birds had come and gone.
Two days later, and the 26th looked promising; a blustery northerly provided plenty of variety, with three Shearwater species (including Balearic) and not one but two adult Sabine’s Gulls sweeping south at full tilt amongst hordes of Kittiwakes. Up the slope and into the Top Scrub, and just as I was gushing forth flawed theories as to why a certain area seemed particularly attractive to Icterine Warblers this year, no prizes for guessing what duly materialised on an exposed branch. Quite a morning.
But once again, the month’s end provided the sting in the tail. The forecast for the 30th spoke of howling northerlies and heavy squals, beginning in the morning and lasting until mid-afternoon. For once, such a promising prophecy came to pass, and by mid-morning the wind and rain suddenly hit hard, avian riches arriving with them.
One of the most exhilirating birding days of the year involved multitudes of skuas sweeping by the hide, many of which were breathtakingly close. The main pulses occurred during and just after the heaviest rains, with many birds driven close inshore, tightly hugging the coastline. What made the day arguably even more special was the highly-localised nature of the movement (with comparatively little activity at neighbouring sites); the event was uniquely and quintessentially Filey.
The figures undersell the spectacle, but multiple Long-tails and Poms, over 200 Arctics (many in flocks of up to ten), good numbers of Bonxies, six Sooties, a Balearic and various other storm-driven species later, and the privilege of spare time was brought even more sharply into focus.
The first three weeks of September were hard work, but finally, light northerlies broke the deadlock of the relentless south-westerly airflow on the 22nd; with news of the first Yellow-browed Warblers making landfall, I dug in at a favoured sheltered corner of the Top Scrub. 45 minutes later and I’d been rewarded with both a fresh-in Yellow-brow and (what else?) an Icterine Warbler. Suddenly, the autumn had really begun.
Overnight rain and easterlies on the 24th, and despite near-impossible conditions, birds had evidently arrived; an encouraging sprinkling of somewhat dishevelled Song Thrushes, Redstarts, Bramblings and Wheatears, flocks of Siskins, a few crests and warblers, and excruciatingly, what was surely something special giving tantalising views over three waterlogged hours in the Top Scrub. Another time.
But tomorrow is a new day, and the 25th was, put simply, an absolute blinder. The kind of day that amply justifies sustained efforts, and the kind of day that provides the slow-burning fuel through the lean periods. Heading up Long Lane in the rain, it was clear something special was happening; Redstarts, Robins, Blackcaps and finches flooded past, topped off by a brief but point-blank Barred Warbler. Game on.
Short Hedge was abuzz with migrant passerines, and within their number, a bright, double-winged barred phyllosc of the Greenish kind suddenly appeared before me. Hastily summoning nearby locals, the bird showed and called again, but was then disturbed and disappeared without a trace, without a cast-iron positive ID….
But birds were arriving all the time, and in amongst the Redstarts, Siskins, Bramblings, pipits, wagtails, Pied Flys, Sylvias and Phylloscs, a pristeen Red-breasted Flycatcher flicked into the open (the third for the day), followed just a few seconds later by a Wryneck, dropping onto the track and posing beautifully in the rain. A scene to savour, with a happy ending thrown in – I refound the Greenish soon after and it kindly stuck around for the masses, even being good enough to jump into a net the following day.
Having stumbled upon another couple of Yellow-brows and a pair of Firecrests by the month’s end, October was a mouth-watering prospect; in truth, it turned out to involve plenty of toil for relatively scant rewards. Even periods of promising conditions (frustratingly depositing riches elsewhere on the coast) failed to produce, despite best efforts and more hours in the field than I care to think about. On reflection, a valuable lesson in tempering expectations, and being grateful for the rewards that preceded it.
Plenty to enjoy nonetheless, including a brief White-rumped Sandpiper at the Dams, a Dotterel in the Top Fields, a Black Guillemot in the bay, an eastern-type Lesser Whitethroat, another half dozen Yellow-brows and a Red-breasted Fly, some quality seawatching and plenty of commoner migrants to enjoy; but the stand-out highlight was the unprecedented arrival of thrushes over the course of three fogbound days in the month’s third week.
Attempting to describe such a spectacle is almost pointless, but conditions conspired to cast countless thousands of Fieldfares, Redwings and Blackbirds across the recording area – littering the cliffs of Carr Naze and carpeting every stubble field and hedgerow along the coastal strip, their chatters and shrills echoing through the fog. For sheer drama, being surrounded by their swirling multitudes, as freshly-arrived squadrons continued to swell the ranks of their kin, was one of the stand-out events of the year.
Of November and December; enough to keep the home fires burning, without any particularly stunning movements or oddities; divers, grebes, ducks and waders in the bay and by the Brigg provided more than enough entertainment, and it can only be a matter of time before something special appears amongst their number (I’m hoping for Harlequin – surely not too much to ask).
And so Filey has thus become the centre of the known universe, for a while at least. A year around the world may sound like an impossible act to follow, and while Wandering Albatrosses and Spoon-billed Sandpipers do indeed seem a like a hell of a long way away, Filey has already provided birding experiences that rack up with the best of them.
Back in April, I’d have been happy to end the year having enjoyed a few decent falls and a few local scarcities. To have enjoyed all the above (and plenty more besides), as well as scoring a national rarity, a couple of county rarities and a hatful of scarcities – especially in what has been a far from vintage year locally – exceeded all my expectations for these first nine months here in the new manor. Roll on 2013.
Mark James Pearson