Monday, 18 August 2014

No shearwaters! Why bother seawatching?

It’s that time of year when many a birder heads off to their local headland or further afield to Cornwall or Ireland to take advantage of some superb seawatching, particularly shearwater passage. It even slightly amuses me when I read on twitter or on various blogs about a poor day seawatching at Pendeen as they only saw one Great Shearwater and a handful of Cory’s! Now, I used to live near Pendeen and know where they are coming from but perhaps a little bit of perspective is needed. I spent 8 ½ hours on Sunday seawatching in Hemsby and had an excellent day yet there wasn’t a shearwater of any shape or size in sight!

So why do I bother with it? In the last 2 years I have clocked up over 250 hours of proper seawatching, not including the occasional glances out I may have from my house, and recorded over 58,000 birds onto BirdTrack. In that time I have recorded 15 shearwaters and two petrels. Sooty Shearwaters are the most common shearwater I have had off Hemsby with a mighty total of 8 birds, although Manx Shearwater aren’t too far behind on 7. That equates to 0.03 birds per hour! Leach’s Petrel is the only petrel that I’ve seen off Hemsby and only one, the other petrel was too distant to ID although I had it as a probable Leachs. So 2 years, or 250 hours of seawatching is worse than ½ hour on a crap day at Pendeen.

Perhaps it’s the skuas, gulls and terns that keep me sane during the seawatches. Well, a quick glance does show that I have seen four species of skua, Arctic by far the most common with 156 followed by 33 Bonxies. My BirdTrack data shows that I have seen 11 Pomarine Skuas although I think that this is skewed slightly by one or two individuals hanging around the area for a few days and I would think that the actual figure is nearer 7 birds. Finally, and probably the rarest seabird I have seen so far are the two Long-tailed Skuas, an adult and a juvenile in 2013. Again, these are very low numbers, 0.03 and 0.007 birds per hour respectively for Poms and Long-tails.  I’m guessing, as I don’t have exact numbers, that the figures for skuas and shearwaters are a lot lower than other areas further north in Norfolk and I wonder if this is to do with the close proximity of the Scroby Sands Offshore Wind Farm and sand bank pushing birds further out to sea by the time they arrive at Hemsby?

Gulls are an ever present sight on a seawatch and I have had the fortune to add a few scarce species such as Glaucous Gull (2) and Yellow-legged Gull as well as some good movements of Little Gulls at times including 257 passing south on 19th January this year. However, in general it has been poor for gulls and I have yet to find the much anticipated Sabine’s Gull off Hemsby yet.
Thousands of terns pass by Hemsby throughtout the summer, whether it be foraging Little Terns in June and early July or large numbers of Common Terns and smaller numbers of Sandwich Terns moving south in late July and August. Over the 2 years I have recorded over 11,000 ‘comic’ terns moving south, the majority identified as Common Terns and only 23 Arctic Terns. Taking into account the number that I recorded as ‘comic’ terns the number of Arctic Terns still amounts to only 0.3% of the total of identified Common/Arctics! Seven Black Terns and a solitary Roseate Tern add a bit of uncommon/scarce feel to the tern records. So, all in all skuas, gulls and terns have mustered less than 20 ‘interesting’ records between them.

Auks are surprisingly thin on the ground here, a total of 534 recorded since August 2012 and the vast majority Guillemots with only 31 Razorbills, 3 Little Auks and 3 Puffins to show for my efforts. Divers and grebes show a similar trend although slightly more are recorded with over 8500 birds recorded of which 98.8% are Red-throated Divers. This winter there was a few days of amazing passage with 1481 past north in 1 ½ hours on 17th March and 1249 past north in an hour on 18th March. Great Crested Grebes are a regular sight in small numbers in winter with a few passing Hemsby most weeks. Great Northen Divers are pretty thin on the ground with only 7 recorded but nowhere near as hard to see as Black-throated Diver, my solitary record falling on the 1st January this year. I have managed to see two other species of grebe, Slavonian (2) and Red-necked (1) but again neither are an annual occurrence.

There are a few other seabirds that I haven’t mentioned that are commonly seen such as Gannet (the most common bird recorded with 9312), Fulmar (surprisingly low numbers, 90 birds) and Cormorants (8167 birds). Shags are not the easiest bird to see off east Norfolk I believe so I am relatively happy with picking out 16 so far.

After all this pointless waffling I have finally made it onto the main reason why I seawatch so much on patch. Of course I wish I could see more shearwaters etc but to protect what is left of my sanity I try to look at it practically. Setting the scene, my patch has no freshwater and no wader habitat so I have to rely almost entirely on my seawatching to see waders and wildfowl. I have recorded 22 species of wader and 20 species of wildfowl while seawatching and that equates to just under a quarter of my overall patch list! Although I haven’t seen any rare species of wader or wildfowl I have to admit a certain amount of joy at watching my first Grey Phalarope fly past, my one and only Avocet to date move south or the flock of 5 Scaup heading north. Obviously seaduck are relatively common, with Common Scoter, Eider and Shelduck a regular sight while small numbers of Red-breasted Merganser, Goldeneye and Velevet Scoter are normally recorded in winter. Long-tailed Duck and Goosander still have to make it onto my patch list, hopefully this winter. 

Dabbling ducks move past in varying numbers from the abundant Wigeon and Teal, to the regular but in small numbers, Mallard, Pintail and Shoveler to the genuine patch gold in the shape of Tufted Duck (5 birds) and Gadwall (2). I am quite possibly the only PWC contestant to air grab a Gadwall!
Other than Brent Geese, geese are thin on the ground although two patch ticks in the shape of a lone Egyptian Goose and two small flocks of Barnacle Geese add a slightly plastic feel to my seawatching....

The graph below shows the breakdown of waders recorded on a seawatch, no real surprises although the Black-tailed Godwit numbers are slightly skewed by one flock of 130 fying directly west straight over my head. Other than this record they are actually a very hard bird to get on patch.

I have now recorded 91 species on patch through seawatching and yes, I haven’t seen a large shearwater, many petrels, an albatross, a Feas type etc but on a patch level it’s been pretty good fun.  I can only dream of a day like the ones of Pendeen or Porthgwarra, heck I can only dream of some of the days that are had 25 miles away off Sheringham as well!!


  1. Ryan....Please....go to the pub. You have earned it! ;-)

  2. The key to rewarding seawatching and patching is - of course - persistence. Seawatching off our coast here in east Norfolk can be an arduous, cold and breezy affair, often with little reward - it was so dismal and wet this morning for example that we packed up before Ryan's Black Tern got to us. However, as a bit of encouragement, and to point out just what long hours and regular observations can produce when seen in the context of several years' effort, below are a few examples of birds seen while seawatching off TG42 in recent years. Regular, documented seawatching in TG42 only took off when my co-observer arrived here in 1995. Since then, and since my arrival in late 2006, a lot of effort has been put in on the sea and I've benefited massively from the experience of two other obsessive local patchers, who gave me the enthusiasm to watch and record in a disciplined manner. Prior to that it was bit of a black hole in terms of seabird records. When looked at through the filter of time, it's a pretty decent spot!

    White-billed Diver Nov 2007
    Cory's Aug 2008 and Sep 2008
    Fea's Jun 1997
    Multiple Leach's, but with blank years
    Multiple LT Skuas, but with blank years
    Balearic Sheawaters are annual in very small numbers
    Flocks of Little Auks thru the surf in good years
    Poms marauding through the breakers in small parties, max count 44 Oct 1996
    Sabs Gulls, but with blank years
    Highest Manx day count 995 in Sep 2009
    Highest Sooty count 67 in 1996
    Highest Gannet day count 5523 Sep 2008
    Highest Bonxie count 256 Sep 2008
    Blue Fulmar max count over 20 but precise number escapes my memory at moment
    Highest RTD count 1812 Jan 2010
    Surf Scoter Dec 2002
    Black Stork 2011
    70 Black Terns May 2009
    White-tailed Eagle 2011
    Rough-legged Buzzard
    Honey Buzzard 4 in-off Sep 2008
    Glossy Ibis
    Great White Egret
    Temm's Stint
    RN Phal
    I'd add in some highest wader and duck counts but would probably lose any remaining readers at this point...

    Scarce stuff like Black Guillie, Black-throated Diver, Iceland Gull, Red-necked Grebe, Roseate Tern and Long-tailed Duck etc all fall in time as attention shifts to counts and movements of more regular species, and an appreciation of the size of movements that give you a good indication of know when to stick it out for a big count. Yesterday's Oyc count of c150 had us hanging in there for a big 200 but it never happened. Once you've had your first fly-by Scaup or Velvet Scoter, you start to think about the highest day total, and it gives further focus and impetus to your recording.

    Yes, there are godawful days when you get it wrong and sit there looking at water (this morning for example!), but you take the rough with the smooth and appreciate the great days even more when you do get them. As part of my patch obsession, I have collated all published and verified records I can find of birds in TG42 - and some older ones too - and am currently documenting them together in one place for posterity. Slowly. It's an unhealthy labour of love.

    There will, however, be no seawatching this evening as both Ryan and I will be working the old magic at the East Norfolk all-stars football training... the most important part of patching is keeping it all in perspective!