Wednesday, 20 September 2023

Of Gulls and Waders at Farmoor 16th September 2023

It has been good time for birding at my local Farmoor Reservoir these last few weeks with small numbers of commoner waders passing through as they return south from their arctc breeding areas, the vast majority being juveniles as the adults have already preceded them.How they find their own way south is something at which to wonder and marvel.Ringed Plovers. Turnstones and most frequent of all Dunlins are all periodic and regular visitors and I.chide myself for saying 'It's only a Dunlin', before reflecting on the tiny bird's long journey and the minor miracle of how it came to be here.

Juvenile Ringed Plover

Juvenile Dunlin

Adult Turnstones

This year more unusual and less than annual occuring wader species passing southwards have been Red Knot, Ruff Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint 

Adult Knot

Juvenile Ruff

The customary post juvenile flock of Starlings, all now well on their way to acquiring a winter plumage of  iridescent black starred with white,  swirl around in a tight cohesive flock before settling to feed in their customary frantic fashion, on the short grass of the banks by the works buildings. For a second year running they harbour an almost totally white individual or maybe it is the same bird as last year. I do not think it is an albino as it does not appear to have pink eyes and its head is a shade of palest buff. I could be wrong though, as it is incredibly difficut to get close enough to it to make a detailed examination and it disappears during the day, only being seen at dawn and dusk. 

Forever wary the starling flock when alarmed will seek the highest points on the various structures in the works complex. At pre-roost time they congregate on the works buildings and  sometimes there is an opportunity to see them, for once not in constant motion..One evening when the weather conditions were nigh on perfect with a setting sun casting a benign light and no wind to speak of they settled for an extended period on one of the metal structures, prior to flying to their roost. 

Murmuring amongst themselves with chuckles and gurgles as if in reflecting on the day, they perched amicably with their strange coloured companion.I stood with some colleagues and tried out my new camera.This would be a real test as the starlings were quite distant.No one else with me really bothered but I  got what I considered a  good image of this striking bird and felt rather pleased with myself.I will forgo mentioning the other multiple images of this bird that failed the test.

It only requires one good image!

The welcome late summer spell of heat and sunshine that has settled over Oxfordshire has brought an almost Mediterranean ambience to Farmoor's concrete shores but it will not last so I am making the most of it. A sure sign of the changing season is that the reservoir, where I spend more time than I should, is slowly garnering its complement of roosting gulls which will gradually increase to reach a peak of thousands by mid winter.

Sadly avian flu has cast its long shadow and the large numbers of Black headed Gulls that breed at nearby Cassington Gravel Pits have been badly hit but post breeding the survivors plus birds from futher afield are a growing presence on the reservoir although much diminished.from normal numbers and sickly looking individual gulls as well as the bodies of already deceased Black headed Gulls and Lesser Black backed Gulls are currently much in evidence.

I took a stroll along the causeway on a sultry, humid  late afternoon and on reaching the far western end of the causeway met Ben who told me he had just found a juvenile Little Gull which  even as he spoke was conveniently flying directly towards us from the smaller of the two basins. It passed near to us and proceeded to fly away parallel with the causeway, all the way to the far end where it turned before we lost sight of it.

It came into view once more and we hurried down the causeway to try and get nearer and fortuitously it chose to fly back towards us, fairly close to the causeway and then settled briefly on the water almost opposite us.

With my new camera and lens I am learning a new techniqie for me of back button focus so with some uncertainty I pointed the lens at the  gull  and with thumb on the back button and index finger on the shutter button pressed and hoped. It worked reasonably, although not to my total satisfaction but I managed to obtain a few passable images.

It was on the water for only a short time before rising once more and flying off to the far western end before transferring to the larger basin that is Farmoor 2.We followed its progress against the trees but eventually lost sight of it once again.

Juvenile Little Gull

Compared to the few Black headed Gulls also flying around seizing small fish from the reservoir it appeared notably slimmer and much more buoyant in flight, floating through the air with much elegance as its wings caressed the air in a graceful motion that was more tern like than gull.

Black headed Gull

Normally we see Little Gulls here in Spring, the majority  adults in summer plumage with the odd first year bird in transitional plumage. Records of Little Gulls outside of this period are scarce and usually involve winter plumaged adults.This individual was still very much in juvenile plumage which involves much brown on its upperparts.They do not retain this plumage for long, moulting the brown feathers to be replaced with grey and white and this bird was already commencing its post juvenile moult into the predominantly grey and white plumage it will wear for the rest of this year and the next.They are only fully adult in their third year of life.

Walking down the causeway we were pleasantly surprised to discover a juvenile Mediterranean Gull sat on the water with a Black headed Gull for company and presumably joining the gull roost.Like the Little Gull it was in transition  from juvenile plumage to first winter plumage.We endeavoured to get closer but lost it amongst the growing number of gulls arriving to roost on the reservoir.

I returned the next day at roost time to see if I could find either of the gulls again but there was no sign of the Little Gull. However the Mediterranean Gull was perched on the valve house railings with the usual gang of Black headed Gulls. I endeavoured to get some images of this welcome visitor to the reservoir but it was far from straight forward as it was stood with its back to me and facing into a setting sun.Quite a test for me and my camera but I was really pleased with the results.I watched and photographed it as it stood on the railings preening then went back to the causeway where I found it had decamped onto the water but now was more distant.

The gull soon returned to the railings to preen once more and I remained on the causeway checking the larger gulls until 7.30 when the reservoir gates close for the night.  

As I departed the sun was a fiery orange orb slowly declining behind the trees at the far end of the reservoir by the river. There was barely a whisper of wind and the waters were mirror smooth

At times like this Farmoor can take on an almost fantastical appearance and one can almost imagine oneself in a far less prosaic place than an inland reservoir in middle England

Tuesday, 12 September 2023

A Boat and a Booby 9th September 2023

On Friday I called Adrian, one of our twitching crew and suggested we make a trip to South Gare which  lies just north of Redcar at the mouth of the River Tees in Cleveland, to try and see a Brown Booby that has been hanging around there for the last couple of days, having travelled northwards along the North Yorkshire coast from Flamborough where it had been seen earlier in the preceding week.

I saw my first Brown Booby, an immature bird, on a memorable twitch to Cornwall in September 2019.It was the first for Britain.Since then another four have been accepted for Britain and the unprecedented influx this summer will probably add at least another two or three. It still remains a very rare bird however and many birders have yet to see one in Britain.

As intimated above it has been a bit of a booby fest these last few weeks. I travelled to Scilly to see a Red footed Booby at the Bishop Rock Lighthouse in late August and shortly after a Brown Booby also appeared there. Since then there have been other sightings of Brown Boobys from off the coast of Yorkshire and Scotland so there must be at least two different individuals currently in British waters, possibly more.

The Brown Booby is the most numerous and widespread of all the booby species and is normally found in tropical waters of both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.Presumably the individuals being seen here have been storm driven at some point across the Atlantic.

The Brown Booby at South Gare  was apparently showing very well and could be viewed from various elevated points at South Gare, spending long periods perched on the buoys marking the shipping channel for the large ships coming and going from Billingham. 

Obligingly perching on the prominent buoys and looking set to remain, the Brown Booby gave many birders an excellent incentive to add this species to their list and it also seems to have caught the general public and media's interest, which often happens with large twitches in accessible public places.

The current exceptional hot spell of weather brought warm air from the land to meet the colder water of the sea,  which combined on Thursday to create thick fog, frustrating the many birders who had come to see the booby which was rendered invisible all day, apart from a brief five minute window when the fog relented.With this in mind I had consulted the Met Office web site on Thursday evening and it predicted full sun for the following day with no fog so we decided to try to see it at first light on Friday.

We arranged to meet at Leicester North Services, a mutually acceptable meetng point, with Adrian coming from Essex and me from Oxfordshire.From there we would travel north in my car to Cleveland.

So it was an early Thursday night for me to get some sleep before a 1am Friday departsure from home to meet Adrian at 3am Sleep proved elusive as the night was sultry and oppressive and I was glad to leave the house and walk out into the cooler night air, a tee shirt being perfectly adequate it was so warm.

All went well. We met at Leicester and then made another two and a half hour drive north.

I set the satnav for South Gare but was persuaded by Adrian that we should go to North Gare as that was where Les, another mutual twitching friend of ours had seen the booby a few days earlier 

Two hours later, in a misty grey dawn we drove through the depressing industrial landscape of Billingham and eventually drew up by the entrance to a massive power station and set off through the dunes towards Seaton Sands, a large and at this time in the early morning, deserted area of sand, dunes and saltmarsh  that overlooks the north side of the estuary. Despite reports this very morning of the bird's presence on a green buoy mid estuary we had seen no other birders. Where were they? Adrian was convinced we were still in the right place but.I thought it strange there were no birders and no other cars where we parked but we nevertheless walked out onto the vast somewhat desolate Seaton Sands with the indistinct towering shapes of Billingham's industrial structures looming in the mist beyond.the river.

We did find the booby, a microdot perched on its green buoy and virtually invisible by way of the great distance between it and us.It was obvious we needed to view it from South Gare and not here

We trudged back to the car just as the first dog walkers began to arrive and drove for half an hour back through Billingham to South Gare, then took a narrow road that leads out to South Gare's lighthouse and breakwater.

What a contrast to North Gare.The road on both sides was lined nose to tail with cars and a huge number of motorhomes It was a job to find anywhere to park but finally we managed to wedge the car between two motorhomes. 

A chat wth one of the motorhome owners elicited the fact that most of the motorhomes belonged to local folk who came here for a weekend of sitting and admiring the predominantly industrial wasteland and river on one side of the road  although there is a beach accessible through an area of dunes on the other side, but it certainly is not an obvious place for a spot of R and R.

It was clear where the booby was, as a line of birders were standing at the top of a dune looking out to the river mouth and the booby, still ensconced on its green buoy.

We walked up to join them and I got my first proper view of the booby, no more than a hazy image through the light mist which would hopefully burn off as the sun strengthened.

The booby left the buoy and joined a frenzy of gulls feeding on a bait ball of sprats. These bait balls, intermittently coming to the surface, would each attract a scrum of feeding gulls.The booby was in there with the best of them, plunge diving in shearwater fashion to seize the sprats.Gulls being what they are mobbed it when it flew, lines  of them pursuing it but the booby appeared unphased and would return for more sprat action, diving into the heart of the throng on the sea.It was an accomplished swimmer and intruigingly was left alone by the gulls when on the surface and only mobbed in flight.Its slimmer profile and dark upperbody plumage maybe made it look skua like to the gulls.Who knows. what  goes through a gull's head.Not a lot for sure.

The bait ball and its accompanying frenzy of gulls subsided until the next and the booby, after flying around for a spell, flew to a red buoy and perched there. Conveniently all the buoys had numbers so locating it was simplified.

We learned that a local man was canvassing us birders, asking if anyone wished to go out in a boat to get closer to the booby. This was an attractive proposition but we had no idea where he was or where to find him but after about half an hour he found us and said he had two takers already but we two would make four, the maximum the boat could take. We signed up and followed him down through a jumble of decrepit sheds, a boatyard and beached boats to a small harbour and a seaweedy shoreline to await the return of the Drifter which was already completing its first booby run

I got the impression some of what we were doing was not quite legit but we were not about to question an opportunity to get closer to the Brown Booby

Due to the topography of the harbour we had to first get on board a very small and unstable skiff that would ferry us out to the Drifter. The skiff was drawn up alongside the treacherous and very slippery seaweed on the shore and we had to clamber on board by a process of stepping gingerly over the gunwhale and  then sitting in the centre of the skiff so it did not capsize. Easier said than done!

The skiff on its way to the red and white boat -  Drifter

Remarkably it all went to plan, to the sound of much humourous banter from those on the shore and we were paddled over to the Drifter where we repeated the boarding process with somewhat less decorum but eventually we were all on board and headed out of the harbour in search of the booby.

We soon located it, now sat on another red buoy and headed towards it. All was good until, still some way from the booby, it took off and flew to join another frenzy of gulls, decimating another  sprat shoal that had  appeared.. 

Once the sprats were consumed the gulls dispersed and the booby flew to yet another buoy briefly, before flying off and we lost sight of it..

We cruised around checking various buoys. Adrian thought he saw it far off on a distant buoy but on getting closer we found it was a Cormorant. Frankly we had no idea as to where the booby might be and reports from land based birders indicated they too were at a loss as to where it had gone. .

The skipper of Drifter

Adrian suggested to the skipper we should get some fish to throw overboard to attract the gulls and in the process the booby might also be lured in..No sooner said than done, a rod and line were produced and within minutes the skipper was hauling in a line full of mackerel which were chucked into a bucket.

There was still no sign of the booby, either flying or perched.Large numbers of Guillemots and Razorbills swam around us. hunched low on the sea and a few gulls flew past while Sandwich Terns called from the sky above. 

I grew despondent.Tired from the early morning start and frustrated that we had been so close to the booby, it now appeared we wete doomed to failure.The skipper however hsd other ideas and we carried on sailing up the estuary, now joined by another boatload of birders. The mackerel were cut up into pieces and thrown over the side of the boat and the gulls duly arrived but not that many snd rhen only Herring Gulls and a single Great Black backed Gull.No Brown Booby.

At the point of giving up there came a report that the booby was fishing between buoys 12 and 13 further up the estuary so we called the other boat .Our skipper was worried by the ebbing tide and a submerged reef of rocks so we followed the other boat as their skipper knew the underwater topography better.

As we approached red buoy 13 there, to my eternal relief was the booby perched on top. Slowly we approached, asking the skipper to position his boat so we had the sun behind and to gently circle the buoy. Then cutting the engine we drifted around the buoy at enough distance to not disturb the booby and took all the photos we wanted.The booby remained unflustered, preening.

I can recall initial impressions of a prehistoric looking ceature with pale yellow feet and legs, contrasting brown and white plumage and an impressive pale pink bill. .For some minutes we floated in the vicinity of the buoy, asking the skipper to not get too close as this might flush the booby which would not be welcomed by those on land.

Close to, the Brown Booby was striking.Its plumage was basically rich brown on its upperparts and white below but it was its face that caught the eye.There was bare white skin to behind the eyes and the brown feathering only came to the front of its crown so to me it was reminiscent of a shawl held over a person's head,.the dark eyes stark in the white face. Maybe I have too vivid an imagination but the appearance of its face close up was striking.

Eventually it took off once again and flew to join some gulls feeding distantly on another bait ball towards Seaton Sands on the north side of the estuary.We had been out maybe an hour which was far longer than was agreed, so thanked the skipper by adding  another fiver to the ten pounds each he had charged us

We headed back to land and as we did I mused it was going to be interesting how we got off the Drifter and into the smaller and highly unstable skiff 

But first we sat offshore while  the skiff feriied out two more birders to our craft.Then commenced a comedy of errors as the two birders obviously unused to boats endeavoured to clamber onto Drifter.

The first rather stout gentleman ended up prostrate along the gunwhale of Drifter, stuck fast and had to  be manhandled by the skipper onto the deck..Unfortunately his fellow passenger tried to board at the same time rather than await instructions which meant the skiff was overloaded to one side and, tilting alarmingly, was in danger of imminent capsize.Shouts of frustration and panic, intermingled with some hilarity on our part, rang out from our skipper and the man rowing the skiff. But it was too late. The second birder was by now straddled between the skiff and Drifter..The man with the skiff clung to the side of our boat desperately trying to keep the skiff from sinking and by hauling the second birder onto our boat head first the skiff righted itself and disaster was averted.It was a close run thing

Back on land we visited the local boatyard cafe with its unique approach to customer service and decor but the coffee and breakfast were entirely acceptable. More accustomed to the relative sophistication of  my local cafe at Farmoor Reservoir, the South Gare cafe was an eye opener to say the least.

The sun was hot as we departed the cafe.It was mid day and we had enjoyed ourselves immensely.

No more needs to be said.


Saturday, 26 August 2023

The Booby Prize 24th August 2023

c Mark

Well where do I begin? This was the most stressful and energy sapping twitch I have ever experienced and that is saying quite a lot.

This blog may go on slightly but let's commence at the beginning and take it from there

On Monday August 7th a boat load of birders on one of Bob Flood's celebrated pelagic trips off the Isles of Scilly were, to put it mildly, enthralled and ecstatic when, two miles southwest of the Bishop Rock Lighthouse, a Red footed Booby was  seen and photographed as it flew past them. Its identity was in no doubt - it was indisputably a second summer Red footed Booby, only the second record for Britain.The first was an ailing juvenile.washed up on a beach at St Leonards on Sea in East Sussex  on the 4th of August 2016 and taken into care. 

Red footed Boobies are related to gannets and are widespread in tropical and sub tropical areas of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. .I have seen them at Bird Island in The Seychelles which lie in the Indian Ocean and there they roost in trees (see below) using the thin branches to perch on.The name booby derives from the Spanish word bobo which translates as foolish or clown, referring to their clumsy movements on land such as in trees..

An adult Red footed Booby in The Seychelles

The news of the booby's chance discovery caused a sensation amongst birders the length and breadth of the country but as it was flying and at sea it was thought most likely it would never be seen again. However to great surprise and relief it was re-discovered on the 14th of August, perched at the very top of the Bishop Rock Lighthouse which lies four miles to the west of St Mary's. the largest island in the Isles of Scilly. Over the subsequent days it became apparent that the booby had decided the lighthouse would do very nicely as a place to perch and relax between fishing sorties and there it has, for the most part remained. Birders began chartering boats and trying to find accommodation on St Mary's as the booby's now regular routine made twitching it eminently possible. 

Arrangements were made to lay on boats to ferry the hordes of birders arriving on the island from the mainland and wishing to go out to see the booby and our regular twitching group consisting of myself, Mark, Adrian and Les made plans to go and see it too, although most of us had to delay until Friday the 18th of August because of our various domestic and work commitments. 

In the end Mark went on Wednesday with another colleague Andy as they had  chartered a boat from Penzance directly to the lighthouse whereas the rest of us had to settle to drive through the night on Thursday and take the Friday morning Scillonian, sailing from Penzance to St Mary's and then a charter boat to the Bishop Rock Lighthouse that same afternoon. Worryingly a violent storm, promising high winds and rain was predicted to hit the Scillies on Friday afternoon.We would have to take a chance and hope.A situation all too familiar to twitching.folk. 

The Scillonian at St Mary's Quay, Isles of Scilly

When we left Penzance there was no intimation of a storm but as we arrived at St Mary's the rain began and the wind rose but not enough to deter us from taking our charter out to the lighthouse. We had a backup plan that if on Friday we failed to see the booby, we would camp on St Mary's for the subsequent two nights and try again on Saturday and if that failed give it one more go on Sunday although I had to leave, at vast expense by helicopter, early on Saturday afternoon as I had a prior engagement back home that I could not get out of.

The worst of the weather hit us as our charter  boat The Seahorse  headed for the lighthouse.Fortunately it had a large cabin where we could all shelter as wind driven rain lashed the boat and huge waves tossed us up and down. It was nigh on impossible at times to stand and one had to cling to anything available to keep upright.After what seemed a very long time we reached the vicinity of the lighthouse and venturing out into the wind and rain scanned the top of the lighthouse, only a mere 49 metres above us! That was when one could stand upright for long enough. Waves broke with explosions of white surf against the rocks on which the lighthouse stood. It was purgatory as we were thrown around the wave tossed boat and needless to say the booby was nowhere to be seen on its regular perch at the very top of the lighthouse.Well what bird in its right mind, even an ocean going seabird, would perch exposed in 50mph gusts and lashing rain?

I was tired, wet and now thoroughly miserable.All of us knew the game was up,.the bird was not here. We had dipped but we were reluctant to leave. It was almost as if we couldn't quite believe we had failed but after endlessly circling the lighthouse, ludicrously hoping the booby might by some miracle fly in we had to accept the inevitable. 

Rain,wind and no booby!

We vowed to come out tomorrow morning to try again but needed to arrange to charter another boat as The Seahorse had other commitments.

Back on land we headed for The Garrison camp site to check in to our nice cosy four man tent pre-booked by Adrian. At least we could dry off and then retire to the pub. But hold on, disaster loomed as we found the camp site had screwed up our booking and released our tent to someone else.Words were spoken and in the end we were allocated two very small single person tents and a double, equally miniscule tent.

I can find somewhere for them out of the wind, the lady manager cheerily informed us as if this would placate four very tired and fractious birders.

Obviously feeling guilty about her error she offered to put up the tents for us and duly erected them in the howling wind and rain, which was not easy and then the two single occupant tents were found to be faulty so replacements had to be found..More delay ensued and more words were spoken. Eventually the replacements were erected by which time we were all soaked to the skin..

I won't charge you for the inflatable matttresses said the lady.

I felt like saying she should not be charging for anything but remained silent.

There was nothing we could do..It was the tents or nothing. Martin was by now contemplating sleeping in the nearby shed as was I. Needless to say the mattresses needed inflating and then had to be manhandled for a hundred metres across the camp site in the raging wind.You can guess the rest but eventually with help from other campers we subdued the mattresses and got them into the tents.Two deflated in the night but by then we were past caring.

We retired to The Atlantic pub having put our wet clothes in the campsite's tumble drier. A nice meal with a beer or two and some convivial conversation soothed our troubles away. Via various texts I arranged a charter on The Falcon for 1030am tomorrow although all other charter boats had decided not to go out on Saturday due to the weather and a heavy four metre swell.

I was reluctant to leave the pub knowing what awaited me but eventually I had to head back to the camp site in the dark, dodging water filled potholes on the way..

I still cannot speak about the night that followed in the tent so let's leave it at the fact the tumble drier failed to dry our clothes and the night in the tent was sheer hell as wind and rain slapped the tent around and I lay on a half inflated mattress wishing I could be anywhere but here. Of course if I had seen the booby  it would all have felt so different..

Morning could not come soon enough for me and as soon as possible I was out of the tent, still in the clothes I had slept in..The rain had gone but the wind remained very strong although it now brought with it pleasant sunshine. A coffee from the Visitor Centre helped me to feel slightly more in touch with humanity and then I went birding with Martin around The Garrison, We found a Northern Wheatear on the football pitch, a Common Whitethroat and a Blackcap in the surrounding bushes but the best came last when we discovered not one but two Pied Flycatchers, my first for the year, zipping around a copse near the tennis courts.

Back at the campsite Les was eulogising over the very tame House Sparrows, which he does not see at his home in Essex. The sparrows were looking for crumbs around our tents as a Swallow family rode the wind above the trees.

At 1030am we presented ourselves at St Mary's Quay and The Falcon duly arrived. I half expected the skipper to tell us it was off but he was happy to proceed, of us set off for the Bishop Rock.The Falcon is a fast and powerful boat and despite the heavy swell, after twenty minutes we were only a mile from the lighthouse but the seas, due to the tide had progressively become wilder and more threatening.The boat was rising and falling alarmingly in the huge swell and eventually the skipper turned to us and suggested it would be too risky to approach the lighthouse any closer. So near and yet so far. I looked longingly at the lighyhouse We turned back which was the sensible and safest thing to do.With this unanimous decision my chance of seeing the booby had evaporated.Tired from lack of sleep, depressed from not seeing the booby I slipped into neutral and,,back on land, at three pm flew in the helicopter to Penzance and collecting my car set off on the five hour drive home.I just wanted to forget about it all and return to some form of normality

I had failed but it did not seem to matter too much as I had done my best but been confounded by the weather.Sometimes you just have to accept it is not going to be your day.

The next morning my friends, still on St Mary's, joined another charter to the lighthouse.The weather was fine and sunny and the  sea calm. They saw the booby which had returned to the lighthouse with the change in the weather. It was a bitter pill to swallow

Images and comment on the various birding WhatsApp groups I am a member of, relayed the news about their joyous triumph and I could just about manage a wry smile at my misfortune but I was already scheming about a return to Scilly.

I had to return.No question but currently was utterly physically exhausted and in no fit state to go anywhere for a couple of days. On Wednesday I had an important hospital appointment that could not be missed.Thus Thursday was the first day possible to return to Scilly.

After the hospital appointment I managed to get virtually the last available day trip booking on The Scillonian for Thursday, a bargain at £35.00 return. Remembering how tired I was after my failed first attempt to see the booby I booked myself into a room with a normal bed at the Lands End YHA for Thursday night.There was no way I was going to camp ever again.

Apparently but by no means definitely a charter boat would be meeting The Scillonian each day when it docked at St Mary's Quay and take birders out to see the booby.although the degree of uncertainty and lack of communication about this was yet another addition to my already sky high state of anxiety.The booby was currently being seen each day and reported via a special WhatsApp group Red footed Booby-Scilly which served as a useful source of updates on the situation, so well done Sam Viles of Birdguides for organising this.The group also doubled as a forum for birders, yet to see the booby, to manifest their anxiety with endless questions and comments, both sensible and otherwise  

Surely the most bizarre question to date being - Do you need a passport!

I left home at 1am on Thursday morning and tried to ignore the thought of the 270 miles that lay between me and Penzance. Inevitably the M5 motorway was closed for repairs around Bristol and so I and a snaking line of lorries took to ill lit secondary roads by way of a diversion. Motorway closures are now a regular additional hazard to night driving and there is no real way around it.To add to the problem the yellow diversion signs are at times ambiguous or not even in evidence. My solution is to just follow the lorries!

I arrived in Penzance at 5am in semi darkness and light rain  that was predicted to give way to sunny periods from around six in the morning..Having arrived ahead of schedule I managed to secure a free parking place on the seafront. Overcome with tiredness I shut my eyes and awoke forty minutes later to find it was now daylight and Penzance was coming alive.Some intrepid ladies were already swimming and laughing in the sea off the promenade

I needed tea and a bite to eat. Gathering myself together  I walked to the Harbour Cafe where a cheery welcome and two large mugs of tea and some toast and marmalade dispelled the memory of my long, lonely night drive and made life bearable once more.I remained in the cafe until 8am and then walked to The Scillonian reception on the quayside and joined a long queue to check in for my three hour trip to St Mary's.Being school holiday time and with an impending Bank Holiday, The Scillonian was fully booked  for not only today but right through to Sunday.

I got a seat, in the open, at the back of the ship and surrounded by dogs. children, birders and holiday makers, awaited the ship's departure at 9.15am on what was turning out to be a pleasantly calm and sunny morning.

The trip was its usual mixture of long periods seeing nothing interspersed with sudden bursts of intense bird and cetacean activity. Cory's and Manx Shearwaters were regular and there were frequent sightings of Common Dolphins. leaping out of the water or speeding under the ship. Everyone wants to see dolphins and surges of humanity went from one side of the ship to the other whenever some were sighted, with many of my fellow passengers optimistically attempting to record the dolphins on their phones.

Gradually, as the ship got nearer and nearer to St Mary's, I became more anxious as the moment of destiny loomed. I knew I had but one chance and this was it. I could not stay on Scilly as there was no accommodation and there was not a chance to return from the mainland, even if I wanted to, until the following Monday due to The Scillonian being fully booked.. Make or break. It certainly did not help when reports came through that a helicopter had been seen flying around the Bishop Rock Lighthouse this very morning which surely would scare the booby and persuade the bird to find somewhere quieter. The day before it was reported someone had apparently flown a drone over the booby and flushed it although there was no proof this had happened.

There was nothing I could do but try to put all this negative news to the back of my mind.Dick Filby the owner of RBA (Rare Bird Alert) was on board and he took the names of all the birders on the ship who were intending to go and see the booby. He then relayed this information to Joe Pender at St Mary's.telling us there was no need to worry about a boat being available to go to the lighthouse as Joe with his boat The Sapphire would be waiting for us on arrival.There were twenty nine of us and the charge for the trip would be £21.00 payable, by cash or card on board The Sapphire.  

We arrived at St Mary's on time and there was Joe waiting for us. Once everyone was on board The Sapphire we got underway. sailing out into a reasonably calm sea bathed in sunshine. It was very pleasant sitting at the back of the boat, warmed by the sun and listening to the chugging ot the boat's engine  while looking for large shearwaters. Joe would announcc,over the tannoy, every sighting of a 'large shear', usually Corys and everyone would leap up with camera poised to try and get a picture with varying success, as the boat pitched and rolled across the sea.

It takes about forty five minutes to get out to the lighthouse and as The Sapphire churned its roller coaster course through the waves the tension began to escalate amongst all twenty nine of us.  As we got ever nearer to the lighthouse more. Cory's Sheawaters, large, long winged and languid  came close to the boat before skimming effortlessly away over the waves, providing a temporary distraction from our concern about the booby. Everyone was very jolly, chatting and laughing but no one was fooling anyone, the outward cheerfulness was disguising the nervousness and stress we all felt about whether the booby would be on the lighthouse or not.

We would soon know.The expectation and anxiety was almost unbearable. What if it was not there?

Joe and Dick in the wheelhouse would be the first to see  the booby as we headed for that lonely pillar of granite.. I leaned over the side of the boat to look forward and was surprised to see we were closer to the lighthouse than I thought..I could see birders near the wheelhouse scanning the top of the lighthouse but no word of affirmation came back from them.Someone took a long range image ot the netting where the bird liked to perch and proclaimed he could see the bird in his image but we required official confirmation.

A minute later Joe announced over the tannoy that the booby was perched on the lighthouse. A huge cheer of relief went up, arms flew into the air in exultation and smiles cracked  tense and anxious faces. . 

A spell of intense activity commenced as everyone checked settings on cameras, positioned themselves on the boat and waited as Joe slowed the engine and manoeuvred The Sapphire towards the lighthouse and the rocks.

We came in gently, initially viewing the bird from distance, when it appeared as a small dark lump, an aberration on the wire safety netting protecting the top of the lighthouse.

Joe moved the boat closer and closer.We  were now very near to the lighthouse, the boat in the lee of the wind but still bucking as the waves ran under it to break against the rocks. Below us was 43 metres of sea. I braced myself against a bulwark with feet jammed againt a wooden seat and lay almost on my back to take endless photos of the booby perched far above me.Frankly the distance and lack of stability were testing the limits of my camera and lens. Mark has a much bigger lens and has allowed me to use a couple of his images from last Wednesday to illustrate this blog for which I am very grateful.

c Mark
The booby was very unhelpfully perched facing away from us so getting a decent image was nigh on impossible. My best efforts are below. I was not too put out as the main point of my being here was to see the bird and here it was large as life. 

It was doubly pleasurable to see it after all the problems encountered on my earlier attempt. The booby commenced preening and I could clearly see the bird's huge, webbed feet wrapped around the mesh of wires at the very top of the lighthouse. Otherwise its plumage was typical of an immature bird, being a messy mixture of various shades of greyish brown on its upperparts and dull white on its underparts, head and breast. The bill was bluish white and pale pink at its base with a noticeable black tip and the large feet orange red. Obviously in moult, it spent quite some time preening before tucking its large bill into its back feathers and going to sleep.


The height of the lighthouse, even more impressive close to and the booby perched at the very top meant any photo with my lens and camera was going to be of record shot quality only.and so it proved.

The Sapphire's engines revved as Joe manoeuvred the boat to try and cover all the angles.Dare I say, it was almost as thrilling to be bucking around on the waves under the towering structure of the lighthouse with the waves crashing aginst its base. I looked up at its immensity, on a day when the sea was relatively benign, but the power of the ocean was all too clear and our vulnerability equally apparent.

The Bishop Rock Lighthouse was constructed in 1843 and is 49 metres high It is built on a ledge of rock 45 metres long and 16 metres wide.The surrounding sea has a depth of around 43 metres here and below it lie in excess of ninety vessels that have foundered on the rocks.The lighthouse also has the distinction of marking the westernmost point of Britain. Beyond is nothing but the Atlantic Ocean and then Canada.

We floated around the lighthouse for about thirty minutes and then moved further out to sea to look for other seabirds. Personally I would have preferred to have remained at the lighthouse as, for me the booby was the whole point of the trip. Cory and Great Shearwters are all well and good but over the past couple of weeks I had seen plenty of both whereas I had only seen one Red footed Booby. 

I was philosophical.Why worry. I could relax now as I had seen the booby and could join my friends in celebrating the fact.. It was of no consequence if others wished to go in search of shearwaters and so I happily watched the endless patterns of churning water in the wake as we sailed away. Being so tired it was a pleasure to sit with my thoughts at the rear of the boat with a sea of incomparable blue all around.

One of Joe's young assistants came to the back of the boat with a loaf and began throwing pieces of bread into the wake to attract the gulls following us, the plan being that the gulls would in turn arouse the curiosity of any large shearwaters or petrels nearby. 

It was only a partial success but a few Cory's and a couple of Great Shearwters put in brief appearances as did a couple of Storm Petrels. After thirty minutes it was time to head back to St Mary's in order for those of us on a day return to connect with The Scillonian. For the forty five minute jourmey I sat content and at peace, enjoying the sensation of being at sea below open skies, in my own private world.Some of my fellow birders chatted, while others slept, lulled by the waves.

It was done.I had succeeded against the considerable odds ranged against me.

The Red footed Booby was species 533 on my list of birds seen in Britain.