Saturday 9 April 2022

Tross on the Rocks 7th-8th April 2022

It was one of those weeks for me when events, each one minor but accumulating into something distressingly greater, catches one unprepared and precipitates a downward spiral into a period of frustration and worry. Mark was the same, even more so, as an ongoing domestic crisis sought to overwhelm him.

As a result of several phone conversations we decided the antitode would be two days away from our respective homes, going birding, somewhere we could banish our cares for a couple of days and in the process rejuvenate our flagging morale. We would put into practice what has become the latest fashionable mantra of getting out into the natural world and allowing its soothing ambiance to achieve the necessary rehabilitation. Not that this was novel to us as we both have been doing this for most of our lives.

Our choice of venue was the RSPB's Bempton Cliffs reserve in East Yorkshire and a date with the much celebrated adult Black browed Albatross (the tross for short)  which has returned to the cliffs very early this year, on 30th March and is currently wowing everyone and anyone as it cruises around the gannet colony at Bempton. Mark, being the obssessive he is about photography, had seen some superb images, taken a week ago, of the albatross actually perched on a stack jutting out from the cliffs below one of the watchpoints called Staple Newk. He was determined to get a similar image if he could and I was not far behind in my desire to resume acquaintance with this fabulous bird.

Much discussion had been batted back and fore between us about what day to go and it was all very uncertain until Mark rang on Thursday lunchtime and told me his plan.

'I have booked the Travel Lodge at nearby Scarborough for Thursday and Friday nights for the two of us. Be at mine at 6pm. I'll drive'.

With just a couple of hours to assimilate this offer, I got my things together, explained to Mrs U and departed for Mark's home.Two hours later I  transferred to his car and with little ceremony we headed north for distant Scarborough. Another adventure had begun and normal life had been put on hold. Again.

If motorway driving can ever be considered smooth these days, this journey was, but depressingly and worryingly it was raining when we arrived in the seaside town of Scarborough, an intriguing mix of seaside tat and grand victorian buildings spread around cliffs encircling a bay. Our accommodation faced what was probably the grandest building of them all, in the shape of the appropriately named Grand Hotel, and although our home for the next two nights was only a humble Travel Lodge, it was housed in a building even older than the imposing frontage opposite. I was also delighted to see that some of the ledges on our building were occupied by kittiwakes and their nests, thankfully left in peace with no netting to prevent them occupying the ledges, a worrying trend these days, adopted by the likes of superstores, to keep the birds away. Surely in these troubled times where more and more of our population are turning to nature and outdoors in general, these practices should cease immediately and we regard nature for what it is, a priceless  resource to support our mental and physical well being.

We checked in to the Travel Lodge at 11pm and went straight to our rooms as we would need to be out again at 5.30am to make the half hour drive to Bempton. I never sleep well in strange beds but managed a few hours before, somewhat blearily, we exited the hotel into a wet and windy pre dawn and headed for Bempton.

Our main anxiety was whether the tross would still be there today, by no means a given, and our worry was further multiplied by the fact that a cold northwest wind was blowing strongly, very strongly and heavy rain was predicted all day which duly announced its presence on the car windscreen as we drove into an uncertain dawn.

It was hardly surprising, given the weather, to find the car park at Bempton deserted. Both of us got our gear together and struggled into waterproofs, preparatory to making the quarter mile clifftop walk to Staple Newk viewpoint, located right on the cliff's edge at the reserve's southernmost boundary. This was the prime location to see the tross, which periodically cruised around a favoured stack below, covered in the neatly spaced white forms of gannets.

There is literally no hiding place on the wooden platform that is Staple Newk viewpoint. Perched right on the edge of the cliff and guarded only by a wooden railing, you stand and survey what is a spectacular vista of cold North Sea and imposing cliffs stretching away into the distance on either side. Hundreds of feet below, a stack of rock, rising to a rounded top and covered in gannets, juts out from the cliff. The sea at this time of year is teeming with seabirds, mainly gannets, endlesssly circling around, riding the wind currents and prospecting the cliffs for nest sites while the growling, rhythmic calls of already settled birds provides a non stop backdrop of sound, mixing with the crashing waves at the base of the cliff to provide the perfect accompaniment to this city of birds.

Hundreds of kittiwakes were forming tight flocks on the turbulent sea, periodically taking flight, their pristine white heads becoming a disembodied swarm of white dots, an optical illusion, as their grey upperbodies merged  into a background of similarly grey coloured sea, rendering the bird's bodies invisible. Other groups of birds were here too, all preparing for the coming breeding season, arriving offshore from a winter spent far out in either the North Sea or the vast Atlantic; razorbills and guillemots mainly with the occasional puffin speeding across the waves. 

We were currently and unsurprisingly the only occupiers of the viewpoint and stood staring out at this familiar spectacle, on one of our favourite reserves. A relatively little known gem and it is all free to anyone who wishes to come and enjoy it for themselves.

The weather, as predicted, was going to be a trial of will over adversity with a full on northerly wind blowing with some force but thankfully at our backs, the rain mercifully only coming in periodic stinging showers, sometimes of hail, driven by the wind and pinging off my rain hood.It was cold and we would get even colder as we stood immobile on the viewpoint waiting for the tross to appear, if it was here. It is all a bit hit and miss as birds can be unpredictable. Sometimes it disappears for a day or two, presumably going out to sea to feed. Mark was pessimistic but I maintained it had been here for eight consecutive days and appeared to be finding food nearer to the cliffs so our chances were good. All pure conjecture on my part but I was in no mood to concede to any doubt.

For forty minutes we stood, cold maybe but never bored, for that is impossible with the endlessly circling gannets and a forever changing panorama as birds come and go on the wind and waves

Then it happened, our hopes and fears were instantly forgotten as a huge black and white bird sailed out from the cliff below us.The Black browed Albatross, no less. Its immense wing span dwarfing the not inconsiderable wings of the gannets. 

Looking down at this avian equivalent of a glider, the narrow black wings, long in the arm and short in the hand, contrasted with a bulbous snow white head and massive bill of palest rose pink, neatly outlined with a pencil line of black at its base. It flew out and using the wind,  hardly ever flapped those gigantic outstretched wings as it mastered the air currents and then, banking to the left, circled round, tilting to show the black and white lining to its underwings.Sweeping back into the cliffs it became temporarily invisible before swinging out to circle over the sea once more.

Familiar with this bird's behaviour from our multiple visits to see it here last year, this time there was none of the instant sense of gratification at seeing a bird for the first time, no matter how legendary but rather a quiet sense of wonder, almost reverence as it announced its presence by cruising around in front of us. It also has to be said that  there was a certain amount of relief it was actually here.

The albatross performed its customary gyrations for a minute or two before disappearing under the cliffs.This was its usual routine, a few circling glides to check on the cliffs before landing out of sight and to remain perched there, sometimes for a very long time.

Now we had to wait. It could re-appear at any moment or not move from its perch for hours on end.There is no routine to judge it by as its movements seem completely random and for the most part unpredictable.

A lady who had driven from Derbyshire joined us. She had never seen an albatross.

Is the albatross here? She enquired

We told her the tross was here but she had just missed it and it was now perched somewhere on the cliffs out of sight. 

Not to worry though, just wait and it will eventually re-appear

The wind became ever more strong, gusting violently, almost blowing me off my feet but the predicted heavy rain was not in evidence. I was cold, my feet and hands uncomfortably so but at least they were not wet too.That would have been unbearable.

For almost two hours we stood, our hopes slowly evaporating, much as did our body temperature. The sun came out briefly but there was no warmth to it and soon it was gone behind vast clouds being chivvied at speed across a wild windswept sky. The sea was a mass of roiling marine colours, grey, green, and turquoise, topped by crests of white where the wind caught at the swell..

I was shivering now, my core temperature approaching critical. Mark offered me some walnuts. Loathesome things which normally I would shun but neither of us had eaten anything due to the early start and any food, no matter how inconsequential or unappetising was welcome. I chewed on these  dry tasteless horrors and tried to prolong the eating experience. The lady, still our only companion, could take no more of the conditions and made off to revive herself with a coffee at the visitor centre. I wavered, sorely wanting to join her but knew if I did it would tempt  fate and from bitter experience I knew I would feel even worse if I missed the tross re-appearing.

Ten more minutes of sheer weather hell passed by, cold, windy and damp that no amount of stamping feet and swinging arms could banish. I resorted to  try and regain some feeling in feet and hands by marching at pace, back and fore along the viewpoint to get the blood flowing in my cold limbs. Two other birders, who had arrived, looked askance at me but I was beyond care. My exercise worked partially but only briefly as the wind was relentless. It became so strong I could lean back into it and it still supported my body.

After my exertions I resumed my position at the railing. The seabird spectacular before me had palled since our enthusiastic arrival hours ago. Cold, lack of sleep and hunger were inflicting their malign worse.Could it get any worse. I doubted it and then...............

The albatross re-appeared. 

It was as if an invisible curtain had been lifted on my suffering. The adrenalin surging through my body  became an instant panacea, all cold and discomfort forgotten, even the walnuts. The albatross treated us to an extended display of supreme flying, a magnificent presence, cruising nonchalantly amongst the wheeling gannets. It surged in a low pass over the gannet colony on the stack and passed along the cliff face, then swept out and around over the sea to repeat the performance.

The wind, now so strong, posed little problem to the bird and it would come back from each of its circling flights to stall above a narrow ridge of rock leading out to the stack, hanging in the wind, its feathers sometimes ruffled into slight disarray as the wind held it, neither going forward or back, the huge bird in perfect balance with elements of which it was an unwitting master.

These poses were very different to the traditional images of an albatross flying on huge outstretched wings and that are so beloved of coffee table books and magazines. Here it flexed those great wings into an inverted v shape, almost doubling back on themselves, to hold them at an angle in the wind, its head and chest held proud to the gusts, its huge feet splayed out at an angle from its body, constantly adjusting, acting as air brakes or rudders to guide it, much as a plane uses its tail flaps to alter its line of flight. For seconds at a time it would hold position like this, then fall away on the wind to describe sanother circle over the sea and come in once more, to stall and hang above the ridge and its gannet occupants.

It looked like it wanted to land.We clung to each moment as it approached and stalled in the air, feet hanging down, above the ridge, as the gannets watched too. I cannot recall how many times this happened but our expectations were constantly confounded as just as it looked like it would settle it abandoned the approach and swept round to repeat the manouevre. 

It swept in and stalled once more above the ridge, sinking lower and lower. Could this be the time? Would we be lucky?

Very low, its wings held it for longer than any time before and then it dropped gently down to the ridge and landed but on the wrong side! I couldn't believe it. So near and yet so far. It was out of sight. If only it had settled on our side of the ridge but it hadn't. Mark was even more disappointed as the image of it perched on the ridge amongst the gannets is what had fired him with the enthusiasm to make this trip. He so wanted that image but it was not to be.

However all was not lost as the albatross's head regularly appeared above the top of the ridge, at least giving us a view of that big white head, enormous coral pink bill  and black brow.

We were also very pleased with our images of the albatross hanging in the wind. Personally I prefer images of birds when they are actually doing things other than adopting classic poses. Dare I say it there are so many excellent but so similar flight shots of this albatross it has now become almost commonplace and unexceptional to see them. Let's maybe try something different for a change.

Un-noticed as we concentrated on the albatross, other birders had arrived  on the lookout, not many and we guided them to the tross, its head barely visible above the unimpressed gannets.For maybe twenty minutes the tross remained there, all of us willing it to walk up onto the top of the ridge and show itself properly.

Of course it did not happen and eventually it unfurled those long wings and allowed the wind to pick it up off the ridge to resume its impression of a glider, sweeping away on stiff outstretched wings out  over the sea, before returning to glide along the cliff face. On one of its periodic disappearances below the cliff it failed to re-appear and had obviously perched somewhere else.

We waited but an hour and a half later it was still absent. The adrenalin had long since melted away and the numbing cold and discomfort had reasserted itself and reached a crisis point as far as I was concerned It was now approaching 1.30 in the afternoon and we had been here for over seven hours, during which the albatross had been on view for less than thirty minutes  The cold and wind was just that too much to bear this time and I told Mark I was going back to the visitor centre. Mark too had reached his own point of no return and together we headed off back to the car park. Both of us were desperately hungry having been stood on the watchpoint for almost eight hours although time had seemed of little consequence when we were there.

We drove straight to nearby Flamborough and found a friendly small cafe. Two very large coffees and a huge breakfast for both of us was an absolute joy and necessity and as the warmth returned to my body our experience with the albatross became what it always was, an immensely and enjoyable morning in the company of a wondrous bird.

A RNLI lifeboatman came into the tiny cafe. He was local and we got chatting to him as he waited for his coffee. Somehow the conversation got on to Nigel Farage, that odious, arrogant toad of a man who had criticised the RNLI for saving the lives of asylum seekers coming across the English Channel. The lifeboatman told us caustically that he and his colleagues were great supporters of Farage as his criticisms and negative opinions of the RNLI had so galvanised the public with revulsion it had done wonders for increasing donations to the charity.He told us some of his colleagues had suggested naming a lifeboat on the South Coast, Nigel Farage, just to show their appreciation of his unwitting support. We all laughed.

I recalled the time when the nasty pompous upstart arrived in Edinburgh and visited a pub with his minders expecting a welcome but was chased out of the pub and down the road by the customers and told never to come back either to the pub or Scotland. He never has and long may that continue.

We had planned to go back to Bempton and the viewpoint once we had revived ourselves but looking out of the cafe window we could see it was now raining hard. We did go back to the reserve but remained in the visitor centre chatting and drinking overpriced coffee and looking out at a now wild sea and bleak landscape. 

The visitor centre closed at five so we returned to our hotel at Scarborough and after a hot shower and with the rain at last gone we took a stroll around the town and found a nice Italian restaurant. A glass of wine and pizza and all was well with our world once more. We were back at the hotel by eight. It was straight to bed, as tomorrow required another 5.30 am start.


Somewhat less frazzled than yesterday morning we left our hotel and made the  short drive to Bempton. We were energised after a reasonable night's sleep and yesterday's experiences with the albatross. Even better was the knowledge the weather was going to be very much different to yesterday's ordeal.Today promised sunshine and a light but chilly wind, again from the north.

It was still very cold as we made our way out to Staple Newk watchpoint and joined one other local birder who told us the albatross had already been flying around. We waited, watching the sun rise from behind the dispersing night clouds on the eastern horizon. 

Five minutes later and we saw the albatross too, as it came out from under the cliffs and circled in that same leisurely and graceful fashion as yesterday, passing over the white water below the cliffs, its white head and body softly lit by the rising sun. 

This time though it chose to fly further out to sea on a number of occasions and was regularly lost to view but it always came back, sometimes seen coming from afar and at other times appearing unexpectedly under the cliffs, having slipped back un-noticed.Yes I know, how can one miss an albatross but it is surprisingly easy to do so on the huge expanse of sea spread out beyond the watchpoint.

The wind being that much more light today meant that the albatross was not indulging in its familiar stalling routine over the ridge but instead maintained a steady patrol over the sea, occasionally being harassed by gulls. 

It was periodically and regularly on show for the best part of four hours, visible until at least ten o' clock and the calmer conditions seemed to be more to its liking.It was also noticeable how the gannet numbers were much less than yesterday, presumably many had gone fishing in the better conditions Others though were busy fighting, tussling to win ascendancy and occupy that particular ideal nesting spot, while other paired birds strengthened their bond with synchronised movements of their heads and bills. So even when the star bird was absent the gannets provided an ever entertaining sideshow.

Today the most memorable time with the albatross came towards mid morning when our prayers were answered and it came over the ridge it had landed on yesterday but this time decided to settle on 'our' side, where we could clearly see it. Our hopes had been answered in no uncertain manner as it landed between some gannets already on the rock. At this time of year the full complement of gannets has yet to arrive so there are spaces for the albatross to settle in and not get badly hassled by the gannets and this is probably why it chose to land where it did. Not that we were concerned, our only worry was would it remain where it landed.

The answer was a resounding yes, as it stood on  huge webbed feet amongst the gannets, who to be fair showed little marked aggression towards this stranger in their midst. It wandered about in a small area, curious and a little uncertain. If a gannet showed any mild antagonism it responded in kind presenting its huge blunt ended bill to the gannet's equally impressive but more pointed bill.There was, however, little direct conflict and the albatross shuffled its way amongst the gannets for a few metres along the ridge and then back again.

It had a gentle aura about it, peering at the gannets, stretching its neck and bill outwards to look at them. One could almost call the gesture benign, the act of a gentle giant and any aggression was always initiated by the gannets.

One could not help but feel sorry for this albatross, hopelessly lost and now trapped forever in the wrong hemisphere. The likelihood of ever finding a mate is virtually nil although another Black browed Albatross is currently in Norwegian waters. It is not that far from Norway to the east coast of England so you never know. Now would that not be a thing to see? Two Black browed Albatrosses together in British waters.

Until then the unwelcoming gannets were the next best thing as far as the albatross was concerned.

Unlike yesterday the watchpoint soon became fully occupied as mainly birders took advantage of the better weather conditions and those that arrived before ten were not disappointed. Yesterday evening the regional television station publicised the news that the albatross was back and this resulted in many more people than usual making their way to Bempton to try and catch a glimpse of the albatross. From ten onwards quite a crowd developed on the watchpoint, so much so that people were standing two deep. It was a much different atmosphere to yesterday and frankly beyond comfort and many had to find viewing areas further along the cliff wherever it was safe to do so.

We were joined by Darren Woodhead a professional bird artist and friend of Mark and he drew some sketches of the tross from life. It was fascinating to see him at work and producing such superb artwork amongst the crowd lining the watchpoint.

The albatross had disappeared around 10am although it could be seen perched on the cliff from other watchpoints and it never moved from its chosen spot until late afternoon.

We decided to leave at noon, the remaining two hours after the tross went out of view having become more a social occasion than true birding but this is what this kind of occasion is all about.We see a really nice bird if we are lucky and enjoy the beautiful and evocative locations they can be found in, such as this but it is also a social event and about meeting old friends, often not seen for some years, meeting people you only know from social media or previous twitches, catching up on gossip and news and hearing about each other's experiences since the last encounter. Even chatting to members of the public, helping them to see the albatross comes into the mix.Many had come here who had never seen an albatross while others had made more than one trip and having failed to see it were making the effort one more time. 

Birding is meant to be enjoyed, no matter how proficient or not you may be, a shared experience that is of mutual benefit to everyone although sometimes you would not know it.

We made our final walk to the visitor centre, had another look at the resident Tree Sparrows while enjoying a cup of coffee in the sunshine and then headed south for home.



  1. Lovely read that. Properly captured the spirit of birding. I hope to one day see him or another albi in British waters.