Monday, 22 September 2014

Tracking the Fea's Petrel

On Sunday 21st September, while OPBs, RBFs & YBWs arrived in Britain, a Masked Shrike munched craneflies at Spurn and Ben MacDui's Snowy Owl sat atop a rock; birders on the North-East coast of Britain managed a huge feat of communication and observation. Andrew Kinghorn takes up the story:

My day started off with dropping my Dad off at the airport to fly back to Qatar (where he is currently working), it was only 5:00AM and I decided I had enough time to drive up to Holy Island and take in the joys it had to offer before heading back to the Durham coastline. I arrived on the island early, had a 30min rest in the car and then headed for “The Lough”, on arrive I was treated to brief, but satisfactory views of the Firecrest, I then located the Siberian Stonechat showing down to around 10m, and finally the Barred Warbler in some nettles by the hide. 

I had enjoyed the morning but found little else on the island, a smattering of Wheatear and a single Redstart were the highlights. As I walked down the Straight Lonnen with high hopes of a stress free morning I got the BirdGuides report through of a Fea’s Petrel flying north past Flamborough, about a minute later I got a report from fellow NGB James Shergold to say that I should go to the headland (Hartlepool, of course!). I rang Mark Newsome (Durham Bird Club recorder, and seabird guru) and asked “how long I had” if the bird was going to go past Whitburn, somewhere in the region of 5-6 hours was the answer, but Mark suggests to wait and see if it went past Long Nab first before getting overly excited. I was calm, but hurried back to the car. My logic was that if I started heading south and there was no further news I could abandon that plan and go elsewhere on the mainland to look for migrants. 
As I started going south the bird then went past Filey, I was not too surprised, its quite close after all...then it went past Long Nab. I was starting to get hopeful now!

Jamie Duffie announced on Twitter he was off to Cowbar to look for it, a good choice of location perhaps? I called in to see Beadnell Birder, a quick coffee and a phone call from Stef McElwee revealed that it was not just the Durham birders getting excited. As I got in the car and headed for Durham I had a decision once I got through the Tyne Tunnel, I was greeted with news the bird had just gone past Cowbar! 
I had a choice, I could either go to Hartlepool or Whitburn, Harry Murphy (fellow NGB) had already been on the phone to tell me not to bother with the Headland, he rightly reminded me that the previous three Fea’s that went past Whitburn all evaded the Headland. For once I was swift and decisive, I was going to Whitburn. 

I rocked up at 12:15 and the Obs was absolutely packed to the brim (with fellow NGB member Kieran Lawrence already inside)! I ran back to the car got my vantage point chair (use it for work) and set up outside the obs with fellow keen Durham lads to start the big sit out. One hour passed and still nothing…then two hours. I was still hopeful, then Stephen Howats phone rang, it was Paul Anderson (DBC chairman), turned out he was at Ryhope watching. He had picked the bird up! Panic stations. Not only was it coming north, but it was coming north fairly close in. 
About 15 minutes later and Mark Harper (world birder – see Twitter) who was sitting beside me shouted “I've got it!”, his directions were sufficient to get almost everyone on the bird pretty quickly, a quick call to Dave Foster who was just north of the obs was made and then the bird put on a superb show in front of Whitburn Observatory for about 20 minutes before flying off north to Tynemouth and St Mary’s Island. A quick call to Alan Curry and Stef McElwee to let them know it was on its way; they were both delighted with the news and connected within 1.5 hours. 

During all of this Dan Pointon and James Shergold were making their way up from Spurn, after it went past the Obs they headed for St Mary’s and missed it by minutes, but thankfully they were still in the car and myself and Dan McGibbon advised they go straight to Newbiggin and head it off there. They did and they were successful. The next stop for the bird was Snab Point in Cresswell village, then it was seen off Druridge Bay, and then Beadnell birder connected at Beadnell Bay (could have stayed for loads more coffee!), then David Steel on the Farnes had the bird go through Staple Sound, and then finally those on Holy Island had the bird flying north past the Crooked Lonnen. This site marked the end of the bird being tracked up the coast, however, during this period a second Fea’s Petrel went north past Whitburn Observatory! Found my Mark Harper, who initially picked up the first bird past Whitburn earlier in the day.

It was not all good news, the bird seemingly avoided going past Hartlepool Headland. This was a great shame, especially considering friends were there looking.

In order of reported sightings:

Flamborough Head


Long Nab





St Mary’s Island


Snab Point

Druridge Bay

Beadnell Bay

Farne Islands

Holy Island

An incredibly exciting experience and a one I won’t be forgetting for a long time, the only downside was that some friends looking and not looking (other commitments/not able to move in time) did not get the bird.

-Andrew Kinghorn
Andrew is 22 years of age, and has been a birder for about 8 years. He is an ornithological surveyor living in County Durham. He has a vested interest in all things birding, however twitching is a passion of his and he loves to see new birds.

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