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 when large twitches occur 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 in order 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 slightly unnerving.

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.


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