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Friday, 24 September 2021

White-tail and whales
White-tailed lapwing at Blacktoft Photo: Bob Russon

White-tail and whales

Most older birders get to the stage when their life-list gradually grinds to a halt. All the commoner species have been ticked off and, during the enthusiasm of youth, many of the rarer birds have been chased across the country. Eventually though it becomes more difficult to find the time and energy to justify a 200 mile or more trek on the chance of spotting an elusive warbler which looks like most other warblers - small, greenish and keen to avoid id.

However, occasionally, a rarity turns up and just asks to be added to one's life-list. The white-tailed lapwing which had already spent a good few weeks at RSPB Blacktoft Sands fulfilled all the necessary criteria, being at a reserve, viewable from a hide, easy to identify and a genuine long-distance wanderer. This bird should have been many thousands of miles to the east in central Asia and northern India and this was only the 7th UK record and easily the most 'twitchable'.

About two years ago, we had booked a three day stay in a hotel a couple of miles inland from Whitby. Then you-know-what landed on our shores and all such pleasant activities were put on hold. With the easing of restrictions we were able to rebook for early September and, as we were travelling north, it didn't take much of a diversion to call in at Blacktoft.

We were met by a very chatty and enthusiastic volunteer who assured us that the bird was still there and visible from the nearest hide. Now that's what I call easy birding! When the bird first appeared, access to the hide had to be on a strict rotation to allow everyone a chance to view the bird in case it decided Blacktoft wasn't to its taste and rapidly departed. But, as it had already been there a couple of weeks, the initial mad rush of birders had died down and we were able to find a seat in the hide without difficulty. Our views weren't brilliant as the lapwing was on a small island about 30 yards out and spent practically all the time asleep with its head tucked under its wing, but at least it was there and viewable.

Very happy with this addition to our life list, we carried on north to our hotel and settled in. Following our September speaker's description of all the birds and cetaceans off the Yorkshire coast, we had booked a 2 hour boat trip for the next day. Though it wasn't with a wildlife company, I thought there was a chance of spotting something worthwhile. Luckily the sea was dead calm as we made our way out. Other than a few gulls, there was little of interest until we were about five miles out when the captain announced that there was a Minke whale in sight. Sure enough, in the distance, a smooth black shape with a tiny dorsal fin appeared on the port bow (note the nautical terms - I've read Hornblower!) Over the next 30 minutes or so we cruised slowly around getting at least half a dozen sightings, some quite near and, on one occasion, two whales were visible at once. On the way back to harbour we spotted three porpoises so I was able to add yet another two mammal species to my annual list.

We'd left Whitby at 9.30am when it was easy to park and fairly quiet. So it came as a shock to arrive back in town to find it full, jam-packed with holiday-makers and their dogs and the whole place reeking with the smell of chips. Cue rapid departure, heading further north to make a first visit to RSPB Saltholme. As we left Whitby there was a stationary queue of cars and coaches at least a mile long waiting to squeeze into a place where there was absolutely nowhere to park.

By contrast, Saltholme was quiet and peaceful, with a very modern visitor centre and shop and a cafe providing great chips. Although we didn't spend much more than an hour there, from one hide we picked up spoonbill, ruddy shelduck, about 100 barnacle geese and a black tern -all birds I hadn't seen for some years and a very welcome addition to this year's list which had been looking rather thin as a result of lockdown.

P.S. Five days later, I made a second trip to Blacktoft with my son Tim who was keen to photograph the lapwing which had moved to a different hide and was now showing much better, giving us some good images including the one above.