Monday, 21 September 2020

MAH's top birding moments

It has been my pleasure to have known Mark Hollingworth (MAH) for over 40 years. During that time we have forged a great friendship and birded together on a regular basis, from the shingle of Dungeness all the way to rain-forests of Taman Negara. As much as we love sharing our time in the field we enjoy talking about the experience of doing so almost as much. Such discussions are bound to touch on our favourite birding moments. I have persuaded Mark to come up with a selection of his own. With his permission, here they are...

Spurn early September 1965 I was privileged to witness a stupendous arrival of passerines; brought about by a rain front crossing the southern North Sea from east to west! The harder it rained the more birds appeared. By lunch time, bedraggled and exhausted migrants were arriving, littering the bushes and spread out across the roads in their droves. A drive to the Point rewarded us with hundreds of Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts. By nightfall the rain was incessant. In the morning, the first drive of the Warren heligoland trap produced many birds. The last four bags were held back to reveal Wryneck, Icterine Warbler, Barred Warbler and Red-backed Shrike. Bluethroat was a subsequent lifer. Most birds left within a day. As we sat in the common room that evening it was almost too much to take in the numbers that were being collated - I recall a flock of five Wrynecks being called out! 

Spurn c 8-10 September 1969 A breezy northwest airflow produced a progressive buildup of juvenile Curlew Sandpipers, reaching over 100 in total in just under a week. The lagoons were next to the sea and a good location for waders. Arriving one afternoon for yet more helpings of our 'sandfest', we were disappointed to see only one wader - but what a wader! We sent for Barry Spence with a terse message -  "Yankee wader at the lagoons!" BRS identified and subsequently trapped the bird in question - a White-rumped Sandpiper, the first live record for Yorkshire! 

North Norfolk  October 1975 A massive anticyclone had built over Russia, giving light easterlies over the Norfolk coastline and the cognoscenti correctly read the runes for cripplers. An early morning Radde’s Warbler at Holkham was a lifer. We savoured this superb bird, whilst appreciating its status -  there were fewer than 20 UK records at that time. In the afternoon we heard news of a Dusky Warbler at Cley, of similar status to Radde’s. Nobody could have anticipated such a phylloscopus double on the same day! The mood in 'The Maltings' that evening was ecstatic, with about 30 birders quaffing beer and playing darts. These were two monster rarities and lifers for everyone. The next day I missed a Pallas’s Warbler, but not to worry, as I had seen one in 1965, which was, back then, an extreme rarity. To give further proof as to the weekend's potency, I had also missed both Rustic and Yellow-browed Bunting in Norfolk that very day. 

Spurn 8 November 1975 A lot of older bird watchers, the pipe-smoking brigade, used to think that migration ended on the last day of October, but attitudes changed in the 1960’s as a new generation of birder's came onto the scene. A dawn seawatch at the Narrows set the tone for numbers, variety and quality. Velvet Scoters, Sooty Shearwater, Little Auks (100+), Long and Short-eared Owls in off the sea, Great Grey Shrike and even room for the common-place to dazzle, with thousands of Starlings! Walking back to the observatory, I met Andy Butler and Tony Broome who had just had brief views of a large dark dove, which we inadvertently flushed when trying to relocate it. Fortunately it flew into the observatory garden. We took copious notes and established it as a Rufous Turtle Dove of the race meena. After an hour it flew strongly north, never to be seen again. I also missed a Pallas’ Warbler that afternoon as well... 

Spurn end-May 1976 Standing at the churchyard, I heard a trill. I knew this song from a few weeks previously in central France. It took ten minutes to find the source and verify my identification. I ran back to the observatory to receive a lukewarm reception of my claim of Bonelli’s Warbler. My hero, John Cudworth, opined that it was very difficult to identify. My response was “Not when it is singing!" On return, whilst we were watching the Bonelli's, an Icterine Warbler appeared in the same field of view. I have never seen so many happy Yorkshire smiles and I think I was forgiven for being a Southerner. At least for 24 hours... 

Spurn September 1976 An excellent week's seawatching. The highlight was a flock of nine shearwaters comprising 3 Sooty and 6 Cory’s. Nice! A supporting cast during the week included several hundred Sooty Shearwater and a few Long tailed Skuas. Laid back, stress-free birding.

Scillies October 1976 Arriving for a week’s birding, we had a mopping up session of a preceding arrival of American vagrants: Blackpoll, Grey-cheeked Thrush, American Robin, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Spotted Sandpiper plus a touch of Europe with Little Egret and Black-headed Bunting. A dream list, but relief rather than excitement took some of the joy out of seeing some impressive birds. 

Dungeness 8 April 1979 It was called the greatest sea-watch ever (but see later entry!) 27,000 Common Scoter up channel in the day. At one point a huge line of over one thousand birds stretched the full width of the horizon. A casual birder had just entered the hide as the ducks were being counted. “Where are they”?  he asked. “Between nine o’clock and three o’clock" came the droll reply. There were also thousands of Sandwich Terns passing through, which were accompanied by a tremendous selection of wildfowl and waders. With these large flocks of birds always on show, it was a relentless performance.

Dungeness 9/10 October 1987 Two day’s intensive sea-watching which left me absolutely drained. Starting on a Friday (mid morning), there was an incredible movement of seabirds, which nearly caught everyone by surprise. The wind was southwest which is generally unproductive. It turned to south. The warden arrived a couple of hours later and asked what we had seen. His assistant reeled off a wonderlist, including Leach's Petrel. "I think your Leach’s Petrel stinks”, he growled. “ In that case", his assistant replied "here’s another!" Storm and Leach’s Petrels, Manx and Sooty Shearwaters, all four species of skua, Sabine’s Gull and Grey Phalarope were the stars. The assistant warden offered to get sandwiches and coffee and was duly dispatched. This proved for him to be a catastrophic decision. Cruising through, with the Manxies, came a Little Shearwater. It was called immediately and everyone got onto it. The sandwiches tasted all the better! The day tallies created several records, including that of 408 Sooty Shearwaters. Saturday was almost as good. I can recall counting 20+ Sooties in one sweep and not having the need to use optics to do so. The two day totals were : Sooty Shearwater 408 and 143, Manx Shearwater 241 and 67, Balearic Shearwater 0 and 1, Macarone (Little) Shearwater 1 and 0, Storm Petrel 1/0, Leach’s Petrels 2/11, Pomarine Skua 2/3, Great Skua 2/37,  Sabine’s Gull 2/0 and Little Gulls 0/406.

Dungeness 6 September 1992 A birder who shall remain anonymous bursts into the sea-watch hide to announce “There's been a fall! I have had 30 Willow Warblers at the top of the Long Pits.” My reply? “That's nice, but you might want to sit down and join us - we've had over ten thousand Black Terns, and they're still moving through!” Part of an unforgettable and unexpected sea-watch.

Dungeness 27 January 2016 A day of strong winds and frequent rain which produced massive totals of 38,000 Black-headed Gulls, seven Mediterranean Gulls, 9,000 Common Gulls, 3,500 Herring Gulls, two Yellow-legged Gulls and 3,816 Kittiwakes passing west. When asking Dave Walker whether or not the Black-headed Gull count was a DBO record he replied; "I don't know if anybody has been mad enough to count them before..."

Dungeness 29 May 2017 Standing on the RSPB reserve, skywatching with Steve Gale, we received communication from Martin Casemore from his home in Lydd - "There's a Red Kite coming your way." Got it! 10 minutes later we returned the favour - "And now there's a Black Kite heading to you!" A birder queried Martin about the kite mix-up. "No mix up," replied Martin, "both species!" 12 Common Buzzards, 7 Hobby, four Mediterranean Gulls and a lingering Iceland Gull also for company.

Dungeness 19 October 2017 A gentle south-easterly unleashed a heavy movement of finches across the point. Our positioning couldn't have been better as we stood at the centre of a Goldfinch maelstrom, flocks actually parting to fly around and even through us. Our total of 6,175 doesn't do justice the experience. We were left with ringing in the ears from the incessant jangly calls. Back up came from other species of finch, including a Hawfinch which I missed. My pleasure was greatly enhanced with the company of two aficionados - Martin Casemore and Steve Gale -  friends, companions and proper birders. 

6 comments:

Gavin Haig said...

I have met Mark just once I think. A September holiday on Scilly in the mid-'80s, and we were birding the airfield. I cannot remember what we saw, but I do remember him telling me the Rufous Turtle Dove story, and generally extolling the virtues of Spurn birding. I recall thinking that I really ought to visit one day and have some of that. In the subsequent 30-something years I've managed one visit! 😄

A terrific collection of birdy tales!!

Shimmers said...

Great stuff mate. That's some birding right there!

Stewart said...

Great tales there from Martin, he should write a book!

Ric said...

Best Days with British Birds fare for sure.

But Spurn Point. Wow!

I was with Gav on his and my only visit to Spurn. What a place. Seemed everything and anything was there.

We went there for a Desert Warbler, and once that was in the bag it was just birding. And what birding it was. My best day for sure.


Dave Boyle said...

Thanks Steve & Mark - great stuff! I remember Mark talking about the, then almost mythical, Rufous Turtle Dove day but I'd forgotten he was there for the '65 fall. I'm amazed our Egyptian Goose flying over Dengemarsh road day didn't make the list! Take care of yourself Mark!

Paul James said...

Bridget and I were seawatching with John & Doreen Cooper at Langley Point (E Sussex) on 6 September 1992. We were staggered to see 1800 Black Terns heading west (a county record) but had the wind taken out of our sails a bit when we later heard there'd been 10,000 past Dungeness! There must be hundreds of stories similar to Mark's deserving of a wider audience before they get lost in the mists of time.