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Postcards from the edge: Winter in Filey, part one

March 28, 2014

This article was originally published here by Birdguides in March 2014

After an exceptional summer and a memorable autumn in his recently-adopted East coast manor, Mark James Pearson continues his Postcards…. series with a flavour of observatory birding in the off-season, and everything still to play for in the final throes of the year…..

This male Kestrel patrolled the landslips and undercliff of Carr Naze on many days over the winter

This male Kestrel patrolled the undercliff of Carr Naze on many days over the winter

One of the many reasons that inspired our moving to Filey in 2012 was the potential for getting one’s birding and natural history kicks not just during the perceived peak times, but through 360 degrees of the seasonal cycle. The prospect of being on the coastal front line for winter movements, storm-driven influxes and pelagic long-shots was, and remains, inspiration enough to keep the engine running throughout the darkest days up here on the edge of North Yorkshire.

Goldeneye are a scarce but fairly regular visitor to the bay in winter

Ducks are a feature of the bay in winter, with Goldeneye occurring regularly in small numbers

Up until then, my frame of reference for patch birding in the depths of winter, at least in recent years, had been very different. During the preceding decade, my backyard of choice was Stoke Newington Reservoirs – a watery, tower block-encircled enclave deep in Hackney’s dark heart, and thus about as urban as birding gets. With a few notable exceptions – almost all of which involved cold-weather movements – winter’s pickings were slim; slivers of hope were provided by gull assemblages and Aythya flocks (often containing colour-ringed birds and hybrids respectively), and the routine checking of both occasionally produced something a little more special. Otherwise, factor in robotically dull, inmate-style circuits of the barbed-wired perimeter, and you get the somewhat noirish picture.

Long-tailed Ducks are rare but regular visitors to the bay in winter, particularly around the Brigg. Females are smart enough ...

Long-tailed Ducks are rare but regular visitors to the bay in winter, particularly around the Brigg. Females are smart enough …

With that in mind, it’s fair to say that winter birding here at Filey is a somewhat different proposition. It would, of course, be disingenuous to paint a picture of perpetual pay-outs, and like pretty much anywhere, it can be hard work at this time of year. Inkeeping with many other exposed stretches of coast, for example, various terrestrial species (and especially passerines) sensibly decamp to more hospitable surrounds as winter approaches, and thus are predictably thin on the ground; the hedgerows and copses which held such promise in the midst of autumn migration become exposed, barren and almost birdless as the new season takes hold.

But while expectations are suitably downscaled as the autumn ebbs away, time and energy spent in the pursuit of quality birds and birding don’t necessarily have to be. Instead, they become seasonally adjusted towards a more specific range of possibilities. Attentions turn to those habitats which, unlike the quintessentially English seaside town sharing their grid squares, are far from closed for business in the off-season.

... but winter males are arguably the most beautifully decked-out creatures to visit our local shores

… but winter males are arguably the most beautifully decked-out creatures to visit our shores

First and foremost, there is the bay. Geographically speaking, it goes without saying that any bay on the British and Irish coast is likely to host an enviable array of visitors from far and wide over the course of a winter season, either as a matter of course, or as a temporary port in an unforgiving storm. The range of more expected or anticipated species naturally varies according to exactly where along the coastline you happen to be, but there are certain common denominators – divers, grebes and seaducks, for example – that grace the majority of our bays to varying degrees, and Filey is happily no exception.

The bay itself is a sweeping, sheltered crescent lined for the most part by five miles of sandy beach, and framed by the rugged, crooked finger of the Brigg to the north and the iconic, vertigo-inducing chalk cliffs of Bempton and Flamborough to the south. With a variety of interconnecting offshore and intertidal habitats, possibilities increase accordingly (as do the fantasies of otherwise off-the-radar Arctic refugees – more of those a little later).

In contrast to other times of year, auks in the bay in winter are unpredictable and always worth a second glance. The most likely species are Guillemots, like this winter-plumage bird ...

In contrast to other times of year, auks in the bay in winter are unpredictable and always worth a second glance. The most likely species are Guillemots, like this winter-plumage bird …

But it’s also a bay that makes you work for your rewards. This is no cosy harbour, or small, becalmed basin easily scanned and scoped in a few minutes; instead, its daunting expanse forces you to pick your battles, and there is no best practice or secret recipe. The vagaries of prevailing conditions naturally heavily influence the dark art of second-guessing the its inhabitants and their respective positions at any given time, the nuances of which being (mercifully, perhaps) a little too esoteric to go into here.

In order to maximise possibilities and bring a higher proportion of birds closer inshore, high tide or thereabouts is very much the preferred option. In theory, those frustrating, over-zoomed views of a promising diver bobbing in the distance are increasingly likely to reveal a key feature as the tide rolls landwards; a white rear-flank patch may happily become more evident (or indeed happily less so, with a nice neat chin-strap in evidence instead). Not always the case in practice, of course, but enough to justify targeting the highest point in the tidal cycle above others.

...or Razorbills, which are also the default species close inshore in the summer months. Less expected congeners occasionally put in cameo appearances, however ...

…or Razorbills, which are also the default species close inshore in the summer months. Less expected congeners occasionally put in cameo appearances, however …

But timing, say, an hour or so’s scan around the turning of the tide here also has its responsibilities. Hence, on a given day, you can be entirely alone at first light, but for the shimmering silver streams of gulls leaving the water’s surface and heading inland. Alternatively, you may well become engaged in passing the time of day with a local motability scooter-riding lady pensioner, while trying hard not to be distracted by the six Yorkshire Terriers crammed unceremoniously into the scooter’s shopping basket like a canine bouquet (each with matching hand-knitted jumpers, individually embossed with marker-penned numbers, in case you were wondering). What Filey lacks in culture, it at least tries to make up for in uniquely colourful distractions.

...such as Black Guillemots (like this bird in the bay corner), which are less than annual locally but sometimes stick around once in the bay...

…such as Black Guillemots (like this bird in the bay corner), which are less than annual locally but sometimes stick around once in the bay…

Talking of which, the bay has an illustrious history of sheltering coronary-inducing exotica from distant climes. Indeed anyone hoping to add Harlequin, Steller’s Eider or Ivory Gull to the local list should look away now, with all three, somewhat incredibly, having fallen (the latter two to the collector’s gun) here in the 19th century. In more recent decades, the bay has harboured national and local rarities including several King Eiders, Surf Scoters and White-billed Divers; not quite as mind-blowing as the contents of Victorian hunting bags perhaps, but quality finds nonetheless – and the stuff of distant dreams to a central London birder with no immediate hope of parole a few years ago.

Dreams these days are more likely to be occupied by sewage (one of many unexpected side-effects I’ve suffered since moving back to the Yorkshire coast). In this context at least, they relate to the lamented loss of a justifiably popular local pipe, unfortunately ceasing its noble purpose long before my arrival. Hence, those days of skies blackened by multitudes of terns and of long-staying Ross’s Gulls dancing around the outflow are, for the time being at least, consigned to history (although industrial sabotage remains a tempting option).

...and Little Auks, which may occur in sudden influxes as fly-bys, or as temporary guests in the bay (as with this bird) ...

…and Little Auks, which may occur in sudden influxes as fly-bys, or as temporary guests in the bay (as with this bird) …

Subsequently, regular coverage seemingly became fitful at best, reflected by the bay slipping off the pages both of bird reports and the radars of visiting birders. Recently, however, a quiet renaissance has occurred, with a small team of us dutifully scanning its surface on a regular basis, from the bay corner in the north to Reighton in the south, with often rewarding and gratifying results.

Very recently the bay kindly chose to reinstate its potent but dormant wildcard potential with an emphatic bang, the echoes of which happily continue to ring around this part of town at least (and long may they continue to do so). One’s perception of a local patch and its possibilities can change forever with a single stroke of outlandish good fortune; a scenario which played out unforgettably last December, when, while scanning the bay from the promenade and shooting the breeze with a few local anglers (“Wigeon – it rhymes with Pigeon”), a certain A-list alcid swam innocently into my field of view.

... and then there's those occasions when a second glance is akin to a bomb exploding ... Brünnich's Guillemot, Filey Bay, December 2013

… and then there’s those occasions when a second glance is akin to a bomb exploding … Brünnich’s Guillemot, Filey Bay, December 2013

Already well documented elsewhere on these pages (although gladly rolled out again with the faintest encouragement, of course), I’d never honestly imagined that my daily scanning ritual just a couple of minutes away from where I write would yield such a glittering reward after such a relatively short time.

There is a certain extra-special something about uber-rare Arctic seabirds and the environments they evoke, and being lucky enough to find one this far south tastes all the sweeter. Much as I’d sometimes love to be on, for example, the Uists or Orkney for such reasons, the thrill of discovering such a bird more than half way down the east coast is all the more intense as a result; and if it’s all downhill from here, so be it. There’s always Hackney, after all…..

Late winter sees an increase in duck numbers at the Dams, with males in fine breeding plumage (such as this Gadwall)

Late winter sees an increase in duck numbers at the Dams, with males in fine breeding plumage (such as this Gadwall)

From a purely headline-grabbing perspective, the Brünnich’s is naturally a nigh-on impossible act to follow (even if we stay here for years to come); but if it were only about rarities, I wouldn’t have been there to find it in the first place. The real inspiration to keep checking comes from the ever-changing dynamic out on the waves, the mix of transients, medium- and long-stayers, and the anticipation of a new roll-call on a daily or even hourly basis.

Thus, each winter is unique here, with different and sometimes unexpected species taking centre stage in a given season, depending on all manner of factors. Most importantly perhaps, conditions (locally and further afield), the availability and abundance of food, population fluctuations, and not least, pure chance affect the cast and its performances.

As mid-winter approached (and with a gift of a show-stopper already on the scorecard), the coming weeks and months would prove constantly entertaining, and pleasing difficult to predict.

Words and pictures copyright Mark James Pearson 2014

The bay corner after a deep frost

The bay corner after a deep frost

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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