Thursday 2 November 2023

A Bird and a Buoy; 9 September 2023

A fortnight before we took the epic (by our standards) trip out to Bishop Rock lighthouse. The twitch to see a Red-footed Booby ended in failure when the bird went awol for the day. That big chunk of disappointment is detailed here. The very next day the Red-footed one was back on the lighthouse and amazingly was joined at the same time by a Brown Booby as well. I felt more than a little bit fed up by that.

Roll forward to a few days ago and another Brown Booby was tracked travelling up the Yorkshire coast. The female bird visited many hotspots along the way but finally settled down at the mouth of the River Tees. The Booby took to spending a lot of time perched on some of the buoys that mark the main shipping channel for the super-tankers that make their way in and out of the Teesside industrial area. By Friday some enterprising birders had hatched a plan to get some local fishermen to take them out into the harbour to get some better views. The arrangement seemed to benefit both sides, the toggers got some cracking photos and the boatmen raised money for their institute and also for the RNLI. However, a storm was brewing, not of the weather kind but one borne out of envy. While the birders in the boats were enjoying point blank and unrivalled views of the Brown Booby as it stood atop the buoys, those that stayed ashore were complaining that the Booby was being disturbed by the close attention that it was getting. This situation escalated on social media with many arguments being traded between the different camps. The main complaint was that the resourceful boat trippers would unsettle the bird enough to send it packing before other people had been given the chance to see it. However, the Booby, a bird so named because of its supposed stupidity and lack of fear, stayed all day and well into the evening and it seemed that none of the boat loads of photographers had bothered it one iota.

We set off for Teesmouth early, although not too early, on the Saturday morning. We already had Brown Booby on our life list courtesy of the immature bird seen on The Lizard in 2019 (read here) so we were playing it quite cool. The drive to South Gare would take around three and half hours so we'd arrive about ten o'clock. We'd been to South Gare twice before. The first time to see a really showy Pomarine Skua back in 2018 (read here) and last year to add our second Greater Sand Plover (read here). South Gare is a man-made sea defence wall that protects the Tees industrial area harbour from the North Sea. Until recently it was also the site of a massive steelworks plant which had fallen into disuse. Work had started to completely dismantle the works and demolition was well underway when we saw it from the beach last year. We still got a shock though when we drove up towards the lighthouse and found the entire site completed levelled with just a few piles of rubble remaining. I've no idea what use will be made of the former industrial site but it would be great if nature was allowed to reclaim some of it.

The last time we drove up to the lighthouse there were maybe a half dozen other cars parked up. This time both sides of the rough track were lined for almost a mile with camper-vans and mobile homes. I couldn't believe it. It was akin to one of those scenes from an American movie when a UFO had been spotted. What the attraction was though I had no idea. The Brown Booby was sure to be popular but it wouldn't be attracting such an army of mobile weekenders. I found a space to park a hundred metres or short of the end of the road and saw maybe around twenty birders stood overlooking the harbour area. The Booby had already been seen that morning so we thought that adding the bird to our year list would be a shoo-in. But of course birding, our birding anyway, rarely goes to plan and by the time we had taken our place amongst the assembled we learned that the bird had flown off its favoured buoy and gone fishing. Some folk remarked that the Booby had appeared settled until one of the boats had gone too close to the bird and its adopted buoy so it had flown off. Others, probably more reasonably, suggested that the Booby had joined in a massive feeding group of Gulls and Gannets in the opposite side of the bay off Seaton Carew. In fact some birders were claiming that they could see it on the sea even though the flock of birds were at least a mile away. I certainly couldn't make it out through my 80x magnification eyepiece.

I scoured the bay for maybe half an hour without spotting the bird and began to feel as if our luck for seeing a Booby would be out for the second time in a fortnight after the painful dip to the Bishop Rock lighthouse off the Isles of Scilly when we agonisingly missed out on that Red-footed Booby. A couple of shouts for the Brown Booby came to nothing when juvenile Gannets were mistaken for it. That disconsolate feeling was about to set in when a chap shouted, 'It's flying towards us'! I checked all of the birds that I could see flying and couldn't see the Booby. The commentary continued, 'Still flying straight at us', and, 'In front of the boat'. Which bloody boat? There were quite a few out on the water including a couple carrying camera wielding birders. I couldn't see any Booby bird no matter how hard I tried to follow the line of sight of the other birders who were now all presumably following the supposedly incoming bird. Except they couldn't have been because when the same chap shouted, 'It's on the buoy, it's on the green buoy', the Brown Booby was on its usual number 5 marker, away to our right and we'd all been searching straight out!

But at least we had now seen the Booby so relief flooded through the folk who like us, had arrived too late to see the bird before it had flown off. The buoy, and bird, were about two hundred metres offshore from where we stood, allowing for good scope views with the magnification cranked up but in pure record shot only territory when it came to photos. 

Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster)

A couple of the Togger boats had also clocked the bird and arrived at the buoy and began circling like Sharks sizing up their next meal. One boat in particular spiralled in ever closer until, from our viewpoint, it seemed to be so close to the buoy that I half expected somebody to jump off the boat and onto it. Of course distance is very much foreshortened when looking far out onto water and when the boat steered to one side of the buoy it was clear that the skipper had left at least ten metres or so space between his craft and the bird. I watched the bird closely through the scope for any signs of alarm but the Booby appeared to be completely disinterested in the boat or the folk aboard it. That didn't stop the mutterings from a few of my fellow birders who began to bawl out the boat trippers as had happened the day before. For my part I wanted a piece of the real action and asked a group of (local going by their accents) birders stood next to us where we could catch one of the boats. The answer I received was both helpful and disparaging, 'The fisher-folk run the boats out of the little harbour by the cafe just down the road' was the useful part, 'I think people who take those boats are bastards and I wouldn't be doing it because it's selfish', and 'Think about the birders still on their way who might miss out' was less pleasant. Personally I thought those sentiments were absolute tosh, the Booby was clearly unperturbed by the boats and their occupants. I debated the choice between a view from two hundred metres through a scope or from ten metres off a boat for about a millisecond. No brainer.

I drove the car back to the small harbour and we followed a couple of other birders down onto the sea wall. As I looked at the small fishing vessels anchored up in the water it quickly dawned on me that boarding any of the crafts wouldn't be straight forward since there didn't appear to be any usable jetty at all. I watched one of the boats with some birders aboard return and stop in amongst the moored boats. It transpired that access to and from the boats was going to be via a small dinghy that was rowed to shore and back by the fishermen. We watched three birders, complete with camera gear disembark from the fishing boat and board the extremely precarious looking smaller craft. When they were all in, the rim of the dinghy was just inches above the water. One false move and they'd all be in the drink. Just seeing that was too much for Mrs Caley and she very wisely decided against going any further. So I was left with the other two birders for company. We moved around onto a gently shelving, seaweed strewn and muddy beach where the dinghy was slowly headed to and waited. When the rowing boat reached the shore another local waded out in his wellies and helped drag the boat ashore. The occupants then disembarked but all of them got at least a shoe full of water in doing so. This would be fun.

It was our time to get in the dinghy. I waited until last, which wasn't the best move since after the other two had already gotten in the boat, it had lowered considerably in the water so had to be moved out from the beach a bit. The fact that it was a nice warm and sunny day helped me out though because I was wearing sandals and shorts so the fact that I now had to tread in the water in order to gain the dinghy didn't matter. My feet would soon dry out. The trip from the shore to the bigger vessel was one of the hairiest couple of minutes of my recent life. Just a fortnight before I had sailed in rough seas to the Bishop Rock lighthouse where the boat had lurched every way possible except for upside-down (which it almost managed a couple of times) but this fifty metre journey in a boat that was a hair-breadth away from a disastrous capsize was far more nerve-wracking. Mindful of the fact that the three of us passengers were all carrying expensive camera kit and binoculars meant that we didn't need to be told to stay "as still as possible because this boat could easily upturn" by the skipper!

Obviously we did manage to board the "Karen Lesley" safely. We eagerly awaited to leave for the number five buoy and the Booby but had to wait while the skipper returned to shore to collect another three passengers. The tension increased, birds can fly off at any moment. The fare was a very reasonable ten quid which I gladly handed over, though we were warned that they'd be no guarantees of seeing the bird of course. We left the harbour just as another boat came back so it seemed as if we'd be the only boat out there which would be far better from my point of view because there'd be even less chance of the Booby scooting out to sea. As we chugged slowly out of the harbour I took a couple of photos of a Razorbill that was milling around the moored craft and which brought back memories of the large number of Auks that we'd seen in Burghead harbour in Scotland a couple of years back. A few minutes later we cleared the protective rocky bank and entered the main waterway. A quick check revealed that the Booby was still perched on top of buoy number 5 about half a mile away.

Razorbill (Alca torda)

All of us made frequent checks that the Booby was still there, fearful that it could fly off at any moment. The skipper also asked where the bird was so that he could aim straight for it. About halfway to the bird there was a major moment of panic when one of the pilot boats that are used to guide the massive oil tankers into port sped past us and headed directly to where the Booby was. I steadied myself and took photos in case the bird made a bolt for it but despite the pilot boat passing very close to its favoured perch and trailing quite a wake behind it, the Booby just stood steadfastly atop the floating structure and appeared as if it couldn't have cared less. Further evidence that the folk bawling out birders like me who wanted a closer look at a superb bird were way off the mark. This Brown Booby was as happy as Larry regardless of how many boats approached it.

We were closing in on our target and the panic had passed so I settled down and took photos of a few Guillemots. I kept my eye on the prize of course, but there was no need to worry, the Booby was going nowhere. We had to steady ourselves against the waves created by the wake of the fast moving pilot boat. After our pelagic out to dip that other Booby I felt as if I was a top-grade seafarer and considered the three foot high waves heading towards us to be a mere ripple. Mind you, we were in a small boat so I soon had to cling onto the side rail rather than end up flung over the side. The boat was steered in towards buoy number 5 and myself and the other five occupants began firing off shot after shot of the fantastic Brown Booby that perched up above us gazing down on its latest flock of admirers.

Guillemot (Uria aalge)

The skipper of the Karen Lesley slowly circumnavigated the buoy and we all got to appreciate the Booby from all angles. The bird didn't do a lot, spending most of the ten minutes that we were with it by preening and adjusting its feathers ready for its next fishing expedition. The bird paid no heed to our presence at all. There were opportunities to take every type of photograph, provided that you were happy that every shot was of a bird stood on top of a green flat topped cone. To see the Brown Booby up so close and personal was a real thrill though, and I spent the whole time in some degree of awe. An experience I'll never forget.

The photos below are just a few of the three hundred that I took in those magical ten minutes.

With our time up we returned to port. On the way I chatted to a couple of the chaps about the event and we checked a few photos. It occurred to me that some of the best birding available is that taken from boats, whether it be a pelagic to see rare Shearwaters and Storm Petrels or witnessing White-tailed Eagles plunging to take a fish. Mrs Caley was stood watching from the shore. It was a shame that she'd missed out on the Booby close up show but there was no way she'd ever get into that little dinghy. As we entered the small harbour the thought that I'd have to get back into that rocky and dodgy craft hit me and the tension rose as we collectively realised that getting into it would be even more difficult this time round since the fishing boat was a clear four feet higher above the water line.

The Razorbill was still fishing around the boats and that at least diverted my attention away from any impending disaster while we waited for the dinghy to be rowed out to collect us. Birds are definitely not worried by boats or by the people on them. I guess seabirds in general get used to them in the same way that land-birds become accustomed to cars. A vehicle can be used as an effective hide for watching birds and similarly so can a boat.

The dinghy took three at a time back to the safety of the muddy shore. I went in the first crossing, eager to get back to Mrs Caley. As we disembarked the first chap out managed to slip and go head first towards the slimy water. He prevented a proper dunking by reaching out with his arms but unfortunately that left his camera free to plop into the water. I sincerely hope his own photographs weren't ruined and that his camera dried out afterwards.  No mishaps for me except for another pair of wet feet.

After the fun of the Booby we headed up to RSPB Saltholme to year tick a Buff-breasted Sandpiper. The wading bird was a long way out and in hideous heat haze was a job to identify with any certainty. I was satisfied that we had the correct bird though so tentatively added it to the list. There would no doubt be another chance to see another over the next few weeks.

Year List additions;

286) Brown Booby, 287) Buff-breasted Sandpiper

1 comment:

  1. What an adventure! Where was Storm Ciaran? Great shots of the Brown Booby but poor man who lost his camera. I hope that it was insured.