Saturday, 30 July 2022

Bempton 'Bertie & the Red-tailed Shrike

There have been many blog posts about Bempton Cliffs RSPB over the last couple of years, mainly because of its star headliner, the resident Black-browed Albatross. Up until now I've had to watch from the sidelines: at four hours each way from Oxford to Bempton, personally it was just too far to contemplate. Things got more interesting recently when Bempton 'Bertie was joined by a second star bird in residence, namely a Turkestan (or Red-tailed) Shrike. With the prospect of a two tick day, that could possibly justify an eight hour round-trip though it was still marginal. What tipped the balance however, was when my eldest daughter needed to head back to Durham. I "nobly" offered to drive her back rather than her having to take the train. So with the credit of these brownie points I could with a clear conscience head up to the North East and try to catch up with these two birds.

We'd all been away on holiday to Canada (expect a write-up sometime soon complete with lots of bear porn shots). My eldest daughter had stayed on for a conference the following week and on Sunday she finally arrived back in the UK. I'd offered to take her back up straight-away on the Monday - I was keen to crack on with it as I was worried about the Shrike leaving though in fairness it had been around for more than a month now. We set off at our usual time of about 8 a.m. and the journey up to Durham was uneventful. I dropped her off, had a quick cup of tea and a snack, and within half an hour was back on the road again. The reason for this quick turn-around was that the forecast was for heavy rain at Bempton later on in the afternoon and I wanted to get try to get both birds under my belt before it set in. I'd booked some accommodation nearby in Bridlington overnight and planned to visit Bempton again the following morning but was hoping that I wouldn't have to fret overnight about not having seen one of my two target birds. That was the plan anyway but how would it play out?

The trip from Durham to Bempton was a tortuous cross-country route that went on for two and a half hours. The journey wound its way past Middlesbrough, passed around Whitby and through Scarborough before I finally started to see signs for Bempton Cliffs RSPB. I eventually pulled into the car park sometime after 3pm to find conditions rather hot and humid. I quickly put together all my stuff, asked a helper for directions and yomped off down the path towards the Staple Newk viewpoint where the Albatross was usually seen. My plan was to drop in there to see how often it was showing, then nip over to tick the Shrike before coming back to get the 'tross before the rain set in.

It was a 15 minute yomp to the viewpoint where I found a dozen or so other birders, mostly armed with long lenses all hanging around. I was told that "it was showing every 15 minutes or so" which sounded far better than the stories I'd been hearing about waiting hours to see it. If that were the case then I thought I could afford to spend a little time waiting to see it before going to get the Shrike. 

Much has been written about the joys of Bempton and finally seeing it in the flesh it was indeed very striking! The first thing that hit you was the sound: an endless cacophony of Gannets calling, punctuated by Kittiwakes repeating their name. The next thing that hit you was the smell, the stench of guano was quite overpowering! Looking down, the cliff was mostly occupied by Gannets all the way from the very top down to the bottom. In amongst them and next most numerous were the Kittiwakes, perched precariously on tiny little ledges. Lower down one could see various Auks coming and going, mostly Puffins with a few Guillemots and Razorbills occasionally - I guess that it may be getting a bit late for these latter two. With some Rock Doves, a few Fulmars and Shags it was quite a spectacle to take in.

The view from the Staple Newk viewing platform

With a promise of only 15 minutes to wait I hung around for a while but there was no sign of my target bird so, with some ominous dark cloud out at sea in the distance I decided to go and get the Shrike first of all. This is where things went a bit wrong. My understanding was that it was in the hedge east of Wandale Farm (which was correct). What I got wrong was that it was not best viewed from the path west of the hedge that lead to the farm. I slogged my way all the way down to the farm only to spy some birders over on the east side of the far hedge clearly looking at something. So I had to slog back again, across the end of a ploughed field, nip over some barbed wire fence (to save having to go all the way back to the coastal path and up again) and finally I was on the right side of the hedge. Some other birders had got this wrong too and were stuck just on the west side of the hedge before realising that they too had to turn back. Anyway, I eventually made my way to a field of short grass where there was a single birder clearly scoping something. I arrived out of breath to be told that it was showing every few minutes. I sat down next to him on the grass and within a couple of minutes there it was, showing nicely just 20 yards away in front of us. 

A couple of record shots of the Turkestan Shrike, taken in the gloom

Isabelline Shrike was recently split into two separate species: Daurian Shrike (from Mongolia and West China tablelands), and the much rarer Turkestan Shrike from central Asia. I'd managed to see the former in Pendeen, right outside my holiday cottage there but so far Turkestan Shrike had eluded me. The word Isabelline is said to refer to a greyish yellow colour and interestingly is said to come from Isabella I of Castile who promised not to change her undergarments until Spain was freed from the Moors. Unfortunately this went on for longer than she anticipated hence the discolouration of her underwear.  I'd always felt that the name Isabelline had a rather poetic ring to it though this story does rather taint any romantic notions about the colour!

I spent about 15 minutes watching it, taking some photos and chatting to my companion. In passing he told me that it was possible to view the Albatross when it was on the cliff even if it wasn't flying and he explained where to view from. With time marching on and the Shrike under my belt now I wanted to try and get the 'tross before the weather set in. However, within a few minutes of setting back towards the cliffs the heavens opened and I was soon completely soaked. In my haste to get going I'd left my waterproof trousers in the car and I realised too late that I'd also forgotten to replace the lens caps on my scope so both lenses were now rain spattered. Gah!

Just as the rain started to ease I arrived back at the coastal path and headed round to where I'd been told to view from to scan the cliffs. My Shrike companion turned out to be close behind me and he showed me the exact spot: about 400 yards beyond Staple Newk where the path splits into two and then rejoins again. From here you could look back towards the cliffs and see everything that was on this side of the steep ridge that slopes down from the cliff top to the sea. He explained how far down to view and just with my bins (which were mercifully still dry!) I started to scan. "There it is" I exclaimed to two other people who were also looking for it. Indeed it stood out clearly amongst the throng. 

The Albatross perched on the cliff

I started to assemble my scope and dry off the lenses to take a better look. One of the others said "has he gone now? I can't find him" and sure enough when I looked again there was no sign of him. Could he have flown off in that time? He must have done! I disassembled my scope again and headed back to Staple Newk where there was just one person, a lady sensibly clad head to toe in waterproofs. She told me that the Albatross had indeed just flown off and she could just about see it on the sea through her bins though it would be very hard to give directions. Given how poor the lighting was I decided I wouldn't bother trying to see a small dot on the sea. 

So I waddled back to the car in my rain-soaked trousers. There I cranked up the heating, changed my trousers (I'd thankfully brought a second pair) and treated myself to several cups of tea from the flask and indulged in some celebratory snacking. Talk about cutting it fine! I'd managed to see the Albatross for the last 10 seconds before it flew off. Still, I'd clearly seen it so at least it meant I could relax for the evening. Having finally dried off and recovered from my soaking, I drove the car the 15 minutes into Bridlington to where I'd booked a nice little hotel right on the seafront at the north end of the beach looking out onto the sheltered Bridlington Bay with Flamborough Head in the distance. Here I had a quick shower to warm up then relaxed for the evening with a tasty curry, washed down with a beer from the bar. I spent the evening watching K-dramas (my guilty pleasure!) on Netflix before turning in for the night, listening to the waves lap against the shore and the occasional sound of calling gulls.

With both birds under my belt already there was no need for a first light dash back to the cliffs. Instead I opted for a comparative lie-in and a cooked breakfast before heading back at around 8 a.m. At least that was the plan though my intermittent insomnia kicked in at I was awake from 5 a.m. onwards. Still, I saw a flock of Sandwich Terns fly through along the beach and I took some time to finish drying off  with a hair dryer some of my gear from yesterday's soaking. 

After breakfast I drove the 15 minutes back to the reserve where I found the car park largely empty, with only the keenest of birders there before me. I got ready and headed off along the cliffs once more. En route I was treated to some nice views of a Barn Owl hunting in the grassy fields that line the edge of the reserve. As I went a few birders were coming back the other way so I asked about the Albatross (there'd been no news on RBA as yet) only to be told that there was no sign of it so far. I got the impression that these people (they seemed like locals) would have checked the cliff top view to see if it were there so it seemed like it had not returned after its departure yesterday. If so then I would indeed have scraped my tick by the skin of my teeth yesterday evening!

I headed back to Staple Newk platform where I watched the to-ing and fro-ing of the birds for a while, taking it all in. As the light was better I took a few photos with my Superzoom though of course the quality is nothing compared to the myriad of top class Bempton photos out there on the internet.

With there having been no news on the 'tross from anyone on the platform I thought I would go and check the cliff viewpoint before going for Shrike seconds. There was indeed no sign of it in its usual roost point where I'd seen it the day before so I headed back for the Shrike. This was still there in the same field and I took some more photos of it.

Some video I took
(thanks to Badger for the editing)

After a while I headed back to Staple Newk to check on news but there had still been no sightings. I decided to head back to the visitor centre to take a look at the large Tree Sparrow population and to explore some of the nooks and crannies near the car park. This area has hosted some mega rarities (e.g. Eastern Crowned Warbler) in years gone by and it did indeed look very good. There were plenty of Tree Sparrows about including some young birds and I took some time enjoying their company.

Bempton Tree Sparrows

I next went to the café for a mid morning cup of tea and a snack. I was wondering what to do. In the absence of the Albatross I was asking myself if I should head back, perhaps stopping in for the Black-winged Stilts at Potteric Carr on the way. I was just about to start my tea when news came up on RBA that the Albatross was viewable distantly on the sea from Staple Newk. I hurried back to the car to retrieve my gear, pouring my tea into my flask for later before hurrying back to the platform. There, after a bit of asking, I found the person who had reported it. It was horribly difficult to get directions on the bird which was a distant (though clear enough) blob in his scope but eventually he got my scope on it and I could take a look for myself. A succession of other people then took a look through my scope before someone knocked it off alignment and after that I couldn't find it again. Lots of other people could not get on the bird though a couple of younger birders did manage it for a while. It was really hard to pick out though as it was drifting all the time.

It started to rain again, though mercifully not too hard. After a while a couple of people refound the bird, this time much closer and much clearer. I had just got onto it again in my scope when it started to fly. I tracked it in my scope, enjoying the sight of a flying Black-browed Albatross in my field of view. A couple of years ago that would have been quite something to be writing! Eventually it got close enough that I switched over to bins and finally we all enjoyed some cliff front fly-bys before it settled on the cliff out of sight again. 

A couple of record shots of the bird as it approached the cliffs.

I know that this is a bit of an "old hat" rare by now and everyone and their dog has already seen it but I had a re-read through of the Bird Forum thread on the bird and everyone was saying was a special and unique experience it was to see it. Having now seen it for myself, I have to say that I have to agree. It was indeed an amazing sight to behold seeing an Albatross flying back and forth at a close distance in front of me. It was a very special moment that I will not forget in a hurry. I too have become one of these "religious converts" and a true believer!

With the bird now out of sight from the viewing platform I went back to the cliff viewing point to take a look at the bird back on the cliff and once again I could pick him out fairly easily in his usual spot. Having now seen him in all the different viewing modes (cliff perch, cliff fly-by and speck on the sea) I felt that I'd had the full Albatross experience and as time was marching on I happily headed back to the car to get ready for the long slog home. I detooled, had a slurp of tea and then programmed the sat nav for the journey back. The first leg of the trip was tough: my lack of sleep was now catching up and I had to concentrate carefully. I stopped in a layby for lunch to try to pep me up and I managed to make it until I reached the M18. After that, the motorway driving meant that I felt more awake and it was an uneventful (though still rather long) drive back home to Casa Gnome where I finally arrived just in time for a celebratory roast dinner prepared by my VLW. It had been a great trip out, with two shiny new life ticks for my troubles.


In case there are any people who have yet to see either bird below are some instructions that I wished I'd had when I visited as it would have saved me quite a bit of time and effort

Shrike Access

From the coastal path take the path through the kissing gate (circled yellow) and follow the dotted line path along the hedge to a second kissing gate at the end of the field (circled green). The shrike is in the field of short grass between the gate and the telegraph pole in the hedge (along the red line). It shows regularly every few minutes or so.

Albatross Viewing

To see the Albatross on the cliff itself you need to go past Staple Newk viewing platform and follow the coastal path until it splits into two. A little while later the two paths rejoin. At that point view from the cliff top back towards the sloping rocks of Scale Nab.

Look back towards the cliffs where the two paths rejoin 

To see the bird you need to look at the slope of the rocks. At first it is reasonably steep (see yellow line below), before it becomes a bit less steep for a little bit (red line) and then drops off even more steeply (blue line). At the start of the red line bit look on the cliffs in the green circle. Note that this also more or less lines up with the base of the cliffs behind it as well. You should be able to pick it out with bins OK.

If you look carefully you can just see the Albatross in the top left-hand corner of my green area

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