Sunday, 5 October 2014

Richard Crossley - My 'NGB years'

It looked bloody huge! Out in the Atlantic there was a dense pack of isobars and a massive, swirling mess. The weather had to be crazy out there and it was coming our way. I was 19 at the time and didn’t know that much, but this looked good. I made a couple of phone calls (no internet back then) and a prominent old-timer was predicting great things.

On Thursday September 1st, 1983, I packed my backpack, sleeping bag, coat and football kit (I had a game on Saturday) and hitch-hiked down to St Ives. I arrived in the evening and headed to my favourite barn and snuck in for a good night’s kip. Next day, was a horrendous gale with horizontal rain – I could stand behind the wall on St Ives’ island and the rain just went right over the top of me. I was a lot tougher - some may some more stupid - back then. I stuck it out there all day with my only reward being a distant, large shearwater and no other birders around. Clearly I had got it wrong! I went back to my lonely barn.

The next morning, I overslept and it was already light when I got up. I had to hitch-hike back to Okehampton for a 3pm kick-off, giving me a few hours to check if any birds had shown up. There were already about 60 birders there, the sun was out and the wind had dropped to a gentle 20mph. I was mortified – I’d already missed Sabine’s Gull, Great Shearwater and lots of skuas. But the disappointment soon turned to elation as, clearly this was going to be a day to remember.

Simply put, there were birds everywhere! The numbers never lie and even today, I don’t think there’s been another seawatch in Britain to touch it. Sabine’s Gulls were in flocks – 30 of them being fed bread by some of the birders. A passing Wilson’s Petrel soon showed up on the sewage outfall among the 5,000 Stormies now gathered there. Why would I want to look at the Pom that was called out while I was watching a Long-tailed? Then I realized that the Pom was just feet above our heads. Wherever you looked there were more birds – it became clear there wasn’t going to be any football match for me that day.

Not wanting to leave the rock, not even for food, I asked a couple of pals who were heading into town to call my parents and let the football manager know I couldn't make it. I asked them to make an excuse that I was sick. Somehow, the message got a bit skewed and my parents were dead worried that I was seriously ill in St Ives!

It was almost dark as most of us finally trudged away from the ocean. I clearly remember being absolutely knackered but, just like everybody else, having a smile like the cat that just got the cream. Sometimes, you just know that you were there – there was no doubt about this one. We all sat in the pub that night, very happy, writing field notes – some people writing up a South Polar Skua – something I don’t remember much about.

I feel very fortunate to have had many memorable days birding around the world and I've seen some of the most spectacular flights ever recorded, but September 3, 1983 will always be one of the highlights.
I’m looking forward to being back in England on a speaking tour in a few weeks – hopefully we’ll get another mega seawatch and I’ll see you there!

-Richard Crossley
Richard Crossley is an internationally acclaimed birder, photographer and award winning author of ‘The Crossley ID Guide’ series. Richard is also co-founder of the global birding initiative Pledge to Fledge (, Race4Birds ( and The Cape May Young Birders Club. Richard is on the board of directors at the famous Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. He firmly believes that the time is right to popularize 
birding around the world.

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