04/08/2004
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Days to Remember: Whitby, Yorkshire, 21st October 1990

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Birders love tales about birds, be they birds they've seen or birds they've missed - even if there is a pang of envy whilst listening to events that you were not able to share in. If you watch a patch on a regular basis the conversation during those quieter moments inevitably switches to nostalgic discussion about the 'best' birds you've seen there, or the best days you've had on the patch.

Now, I'm lucky in that my coastal patch is on the Yorkshire coastline around the historic fishing town of Whitby. Whitby is perhaps best known for its impressive Abbey, its connection with Captain Cook and as the location where Bram Stoker's Dracula came ashore during a torrid storm. In the mid-1980s a few friends and I were aware of the history of the town, but we were looking for somewhere to find our own rare and scarce birds in the well-watched county of Yorkshire. We were looking for a location that was not very well watched, and somewhere of a good enough size to present options and somewhere that clearly had potential. Our demands were perhaps ambitious, but as is often the case for such quests birders look to old copies of county bird reports and we did the same.

Old bird reports are superb references for finding forgotten locations that have attracted interesting birds in the past, but are not currently part of the birding scene. During our searches one place that did keep cropping up in the dim past was Whitby, but it was evident from the more recent reports that there was no systematic coverage of the area, or if there was, there was no submission of records! We seemed to have solved our puzzle, so to put our hypothesis to the test we decided to give it a go and our exploration of the area commenced in summer 1985. Working things out for yourself is great fun, but the disadvantage is that it takes longer to reap the rewards. For the following few years we kept experimenting with different locations for seawatching, different locations for passerines, all in an attempt to learn about the area under different conditions, with the ultimate goal of optimising our chances of success in the future. One of the downsides of 'trail-blazing' is that you miss out on a lot of birds whilst you're trying to answer the questions that exploration provides. So, whilst our coastal neighbours north and south enjoyed the bounties of many falls, we lagged behind a bit in the rarity stakes.

All these years later, I'm still an avid patch birder and watch Whitby as often as possible. Over the years others have come and gone, joining the small band of regular observers who now cover the 'patch'. In time we've been lucky enough to find plenty of rare and scarce birds. I've enjoyed many fantastic days birding, particularly on days when migration is taking place all around you and the bushes 'drip' with migrants, or I've witnessed a breathtaking movement of seabirds. Thousands of hours out and about have allowed us to experience the highs and lows of the 'self-finder'. The highs speak for themselves in the pages of the British Birds Rarities Report or in the pages of the county bird report. The lows are those days when every coastal patch to the north and south of you is turning-up rarities and scarcities, but for some reason, despite a full day in the field and countless miles up and down numerous coastal ravines, all you have to show for your efforts are a handful of common migrants. Birding is many things; predictable it is not.

Out of the many fantastic days at Whitby, one probably stands out above the rest as truly being a day to remember - 21st October 1990. However, the story starts a few days earlier.

Thursday 18th October 1990 looked like a superb day to be out and about in the field at Whitby, so with this in mind a day off work was booked at the last minute, as they always were - isn't it great to have understanding work colleagues? The evening weather forecast on the 17th predicted east-south-easterlies and rain overnight, so it was with great excitement that I travelled to 'my patch' that morning. However, the weather had other ideas and much of the day was spent being soaked through to the skin and a dense coastal fog made observing birds nigh on impossible. Despite flogging the patch from dawn 'til dusk, it was with a heavy heart that I made my way back to the car in the gloom having heard huge numbers of migrants in the fog, the overwhelming majority of which were thrushes. I did manage to see good numbers of Goldcrests, but the best that I could pull out of the murk and rain was a wheatear, which despite wishful thinking, was just a plain ordinary Northern Wheatear. My misery at being soaked and frustrated all day was further compounded later that evening when a quick call to Birdline revealed that it had indeed been an excellent day, with rarities all along the east coast. The frustration of local patch watching and the woes of the self-finder were all too evident that evening - perhaps I should have just travelled around watching everyone else's birds in the county instead!

Redwing (Photo: Russell Slack)

It was to be a frustrating 3 days before I was able to return to Whitby. A day's leave had been squandered and I was in no position to take any more, so I would have to wait until the weekend. I comforted myself with the knowledge that the easterly airflow and rank weather were forecast to persist, so there was plenty of scope for more arrivals and it was unlikely that much would have departed during such conditions. Experience had also taught me that many of the rarities tended to arrive after the main fall, so I remained as optimistic as possible. A return visit on the Sunday (21st) must surely be better, if the weather would allow it.

It was with a dull head and tired eyes that Andy Wilson and I awoke on that dark Sunday morning. A dawn start in the field was in order to make the most of the shortening daylight hours, and despite Andy and myself remaining in one of York's nightclubs well into the early hours, we hoped that our premature departure from the club several hours earlier would prove worthwhile. As we departed York for the coast in the dark of an October morning, we wondered whether the day could meet our expectations.

The 40-minute journey was buoyed with an air of optimism and dropping down the main road into the Esk Valley just inland from Whitby it was clear that the inclement weather had held. The leaden skies and drizzle had lightened enough with the approaching dawn to allow us to look out across the vista over Whitby. The abbey stood sentinel over the town, the skies of the North Sea behind it angry with blackened rain-bearing clouds - excellent!

We headed east of Whitby to the tourist village of Robin Hood's Bay; Ness Point just north of the village protrudes from the rest of the coastline and acts as a magnet for migrants. From here on a clear day you can see the famous Yorkshire migrant hotspots of Flamborough Head and Filey Brigg to the south, both close enough to provide a boost to flagging enthusiasm on days when they have rarities but you don't. Arriving at just prior to 8am we rendezvoused with Tim Barker, my fellow 'explorer' in the mid-80s when we sought to put Whitby on the ornithological map. This was our 5th autumn of working the area, and although we had managed a few decent birds over the years, we still awaited the 'biggies', but we had reassured ourselves many times that they would come. Today, Tim, like us, sensed that this might be the time when these years of expectation might be fulfilled, and with the sound of numerous passing thrushes in the gloom the indications were that we might be right.

Goldcrest (Photo: Keith Smith)

We wasted no time getting into the field. On days such as this it can be difficult not to get too carried away in the excitement of it all, but as we headed north onto Ness Point along the disused railway line we started putting names to the numerous shapes flitting around in the gloomy autumnal dawn. Straight away we were greeted by flocks of ever-mobile Goldcrests tirelessly pronouncing their presence as they worked their way through the bushes. Countless Robins lurked low in the undergrowth, frequently masquerading as any number of their more interesting relatives. Overhead, disorientated thrush flocks descended noisily out of the murk, whilst at ground-level hundreds of Fieldfares and Redwings exploded abruptly out of every bush that we passed. Our prayers several hours earlier would appear to have been answered, as there was clearly a serious number of grounded migrants in the area, all of which boded well for the rest of the day. Our expectation heightened as we methodically filtered our way through the huge numbers of commoner species in search of something rarer.

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We slowly worked Ness Point for the next four and a half hours, patiently scouring each gully, pacing along every dry stone wall and peering expectantly into any patch of suitable habitat. We inadvertently flushed several Woodcock from the undergrowth, their escape destination always out of sight over the next ridge, and a Jack Snipe proved exceptionally confiding in a small marshy corner. Associated with the hundreds of Blackbirds were a few Ring Ouzels, and we were distracted by close scrutiny of several Wheatears and Black Redstarts, the latter always a welcome diversion . It was clear that birds were still arriving, as Goldcrests continued to pour in, many feeding amongst the grass at the cliff edge, but try as we might none of them transformed into a Pallas's Warbler or Yellow-browed Warbler. The birds were so intent on feeding that they clambered over everything and anything, and we watched captivated as several worked their way along Tim's outstretched arm, before trying to seek shelter in his pockets. It never ceases to amaze me how these tiny bundles cross the North Sea and for me that was especially apparent as I watched them frantically trying to replenish the energy they had expended on their journey. We were only witnessing a tiny fraction of those that must have set off the previous night, how many must have perished on the journey was anyone's guess, but everywhere we looked there were Goldcrests. Overhead, Skylarks journeyed through with purpose, as small groups constantly passed, amongst which the occasional Lapland Bunting betrayed its presence with a distinctive call. At eye level a superb Short-eared Owl provided a welcome distraction from the constant scrutiny of every small bird that moved.

Black Redstart (Photo: Chris Wormwell)

We left the area just after midday, pleased at the mass of birds we have been able to witness, but slightly disappointed that we had not managed to detect anything out of the usual amongst the throng of commoner migrants. Then again, that was probably the reason why - there were so many birds that rarities could easily have been overlooked amongst the activity taking place all around us. Three pairs of eyes can only detect so much, and the finding of rares is often easier when there are fewer birds about. With time rapidly moving on we decided to try a new location. This can sometimes be a dangerous choice as in this case it was clear that there were huge numbers of birds on Ness Point and there simply had to be something good there - we questioned whether we would be better off working our way around the area again? Somewhere new it was though, and we decided to restore our flagging energy levels with some sustenance, whilst a call to Birdline confirmed that rarities were appearing everywhere else. This served to motivate our tired limbs, but was also frustrating that we had not yet detected anything worthy of entering into the roll-call of rarities along the east coast. We pondered over where to try next and decided to head a couple of miles northwest of Ness Point and explore the scrubby gully by Whitby golf course in search of a tristis Chiffchaff seen there the day before.

Richard's Pipit (Photo: Mark Reeder)

Arriving at the golf course we wasted no time in jumping over the fence into the longish grass beside the gully. As we did so we flushed a large pipit which conveniently 'shreeped' as it got up, making the identification as a Richard's Pipit a relatively straightforward process. The pipit proved rather elusive and quite mobile over the next half an hour, but eventually provided excellent views perched briefly on top of a hawthorn bush before it dropped to the ground where it looked more at home. Pleased with our 'success' we took our fill of the pipit before leaving it to go about its business among the scruffy margins of the well-kept golf course. During the morning the weather had been constantly improving and as it did so it became apparent that there were fewer birds about, and this was clearly the case around the gully. Another Short-eared Owl and more Ring Ouzels deservedly took our gaze during the wait for the Richard's Pipit to provide good views. Satisfied with proceedings, we headed back to the gully to resume our search for the tristis.

Short-eared Owl (Photo: Steve Round)

It was whilst slowly working the gully that we flushed a small pipit uttering an interesting drawn out 'speze', before it dropped back into dense vegetation. This intriguing encounter set a precedent for the bird's behaviour over the next 45 minutes or so. Tantalisingly brief views in the interim had by now convinced us all that our quarry was an Olive-backed Pipit (OBP), but a final attempt to obtain views in the open resulted in us flushing the bird, but this time it flew quite some distance to the bottom of the large gully and it carried on going until it was out of sight! Nowadays Olive-backed Pipit is not such a rare species, with several hundred having been seen in Britain. Back in 1990 there had only been just over 70 records of Olive-backed Pipits and for us this bird was Whitby's coming of age as a birding location. This was all very well in theory, but between us we had just about seen enough to convince ourselves, but what we had seen would not have been worth troubling the BBRC with! The previous winter I had become exceptionally well acquainted with OBPs during a winter spent travelling in Asia and was more than happy of the identification on the basis of the cumulative total of brief views, but I was frustrated that we had not been able to clinch it beyond doubt. Annoyed by our failure, we spent the next 15 minutes frustratingly searching the seaward end of the gully in the rough area where we had last seen the pipit fly over. A stunning Mealy Redpoll provided little in the way of consolation as we began to resign ourselves to the fact that we had lost the bird amongst the coastal scrub. OBPs can be elusive enough at the best of times, never mind in a huge gully with lots of habitat and just three people searching. Somewhat dejectedly we made our way back to the top of the gully to repeat a systematic search. Being an obsessive self-finder has taught me many things, the most important of which is probably never to give up. Returning to where we had initially flushed the bird from we were amazed to flush it once more. The bird called as it got up, but thankfully it only flew a short distance on this occasion before settling amongst the upper branches of a small sallow. As we feasted our binoculars on a pristine Olive-backed Pipit, we knew that our reward for all those years of pounding the patch had come at last. During the next 45 minutes the pipit allowed us to approach within 5 yards of it, almost too close to focus on it at times. Birding certainly can be a wonderful thing!

Olive-backed Pipit (Photo: Tristan Reid)

Finally, the pipit dropped out of sight and we decided to leave it in peace. We went back to the car elated at our exploits. It was now 3:30 pm and we were aware that the remaining daylight was in short supply. With this in mind we decided to use the remnants of the day to look at Kettleness Point, a bleak clifftop area of sparse cover, some three miles to the northwest of Whitby. This decision was made more in the hope of adding to our counts of the commoner species, rather than with any great expectation of further rarities. The added bonus of scant cover would mean that this would be a relatively easy task as anything that was there would be easy to see. Stopping en-route to take on board more sustenance to maintain our flagging energy levels, a quick scan over Sandsend Bay produced a nice raft of 58 Goldeneye. We joked that we should have spent the day seawatching, then scanned through the flock just in case there was a Smew lurking amongst them - there was'nt, but it would'nt have been the first time we've picked up a coastal Smew amongst a movement of Goldeneye!

Goldeneye (Photo: Sue Tranter)

Arriving at Kettleness the autumn sky was starting to dim. The weather had continued to improve through the afternoon, and perhaps thankfully the sunshine meant that we could expect a later close to proceedings than would have been the case a few hours earlier. It's at times like this that you wished it went dark during the autumn at 10 at night and that the longest days were the autumn days - just think how many more rarities you might find! We headed east along the coastal path content with our increasing count of commoner migrants. This took the form of two more Ring Ouzels, a Black Redstart, a late Spotted Flycatcher and a typically confiding Snow Bunting, as well as yet more thrushes and 50 more Goldcrests.

Upon approaching a small clifftop depression complete with several stunted bushes a movement caught my eye as I noticed a small bird flit from the ground to settle in the lower branches of one of the bushes. Lazily, I lifted my bins, a movement that I must have done several thousand times throughout the day, and one which had often left me staring at a shy continental Robin. As I put the bins to my eyes and adjusted the focusing wheel the bird in questioned metamorphosised into the familiar plumage and tail-pumping action of another Olive-backed Pipit - I could'nt believe it. I shouted "OBP" to the others, by which time the bird had dropped out of the bush and over the cliff edge. Andy and Tim looked at me blankly, no doubt thinking that I was suffering from a spell of belated euphoria at seeing the earlier bird at the golf course. However, they quickly realised that fatigue had not caused this outburst, but that I had in fact seen yet another Olive-backed Pipit.

Bemused, we sat and waited, as this was our only option as there was no way of scanning the vegetation on the near-vertical cliff edge. Thankfully, after what seemed an eternity the bird flew back onto the cliff top. It perched conveniently on a dilapidated barbed wire fence, before dropping to the ground to perform nonchalantly well for the next 25 minutes, at which point it dropped back into the bracken and scrub below the cliff edge. This bird was a duller individual, being much more buff underneath, with drabber upper parts. After the departure of the bird, we all stared at each other blankly, numb with the elation that finding rare birds brings. For us it felt like we'd scored two cracking goals in the cup final and this was our day and one to savour.

With darkness rapidly approaching we returned to the car reflecting on what a superb day's birding we had enjoyed on 'our patch'. A day such as this on Shetland or the Isles of Scilly would be nothing out of the usual nowadays, indeed it would almost be expected. However, for us it was somehow the culmination of all those years of planning where our coastal patch was going to be and all the subsequent years once the choice had been made pounding every inch of habitat in search of goodies. These two Olive-backed Pipits were our first quality BB rarities on the patch, they were self-found and the three of us were able to gorge ourselves on their every detail. I've been fortunate enough to have seen two other OBPs at Whitby over the years, and have seen countless birds on numerous trips to Asia, but they easily rank amongst my favourite birds.

Subsequent years have enabled us to find much rarer birds on the patch, but, for me at least, this October day firmly remains my favourite day in the field around Whitby. I've not witnessed a fall of such magnitude since and as I sit here now recounting the day and scouring through my notebook, the day brings a sense of excitement and anticipation over me as I recall the day's events unfold. There can be no greater thrill than to witness the mass movement of birds, and there is that sense of personal satisfaction that those questions you asked of your patch are sometimes answered in dramatic fashion. It would have been much easier over the years prior to this day to have given up and gone to places where regular rarities occur, but that rather defeats the object of it all for the self-finder and patch addict. Nationally, the autumn of 1990 was exceptional for OBPs and a deluge of over 40 were recorded, but 'our' two birds were special and will always be so, as it took our expectations of what could be achieved on the patch to a new level.

Written by: Russell Slack