Top spotter keeps creeping towards his target

Andrew Gibson, Yorkshire's top twitcher, at Spurn Point.
Andrew Gibson, Yorkshire's top twitcher, at Spurn Point.
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There is high excitement among birdwatchers as the autumn migration peaks. For Yorkshire’s top twitcher, every day brings a chance of adding another species to his list. Roger Ratcliffe reports.

Andrew Gibson wasn’t sure where we could meet. He apologised for hesitating to commit himself to one location because, he said, a bird called a sandhill crane was known to be floating around the skies of Yorkshire but it had temporarily done a disappearing act.

“It could turn up absolutely anywhere so I’d prefer to stay close to the main road network ready for the next sighting. We might meet somewhere like Driffield but then, just conceivably, it could be up at Whitby or perhaps down in Hull.”

The sandhill crane is a very big bird indeed, with a wingspan of eight feet and a bright red forehead, which you’d think would make it pretty hard to lose. But then Yorkshire is a big place, and even with many hundreds of birdwatchers out looking for it there was no guarantee anyone would spot the bird.

Andrew Gibson was praying that someone would, because this was the first record of a sandhill crane for Yorkshire. As the twitcher – he hates that word – with the highest number of individual Yorkshire sightings to his name it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to add the bird to his list.

The crane was thought to have been blown across the Atlantic from the US on the tail end of Hurricane Irene. Previously, the species had been recorded just twice in the UK, both records being from Shetland. But early last month one was seen in the Edinburgh area, and after spending a few days further north in Aberdeenshire it began to drift down the east coast.

There were sightings in Northumberland and Teesside before it was identified near Boulby Cliffs on the Cleveland-Yorkshire border, but when it reached Kettleness on the south side of Runswick Bay it began to fly inland. For Yorkshire twitchers, it was game on.

In the absence of any further sightings I met Andrew at the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s local office in Pearson Park, Hull, his thinking being that the day’s light southerly winds would give the bird “a lift” and sooner or later it would reach the Humber.

Andrew’s day job is senior warden at Spurn Bird Reserve, one of the best bird migration observation locations in Britain. This has allowed him to top the Listers League on the Yorkshire Birding website. His life-list for the traditional three Yorkshire Ridings is a total of 393 species, putting him one ahead of his nearest rival, Dave Hursthouse of Clowne in North Nottinghamshire.

As we talked, he kept checking alerts sent to his pager for word that the crane had been seen at Spurn before heading south to Lincolnshire, because Hursthouse – with whom he has had a long and friendly rivalry – had decided to position himself on the peninsula that day.

“One of my considerations is always, where’s Dave?” Andrew says. “But having said that, if we heard the bird was somewhere else we’d both be in the same car going after it.”

Andrew has been birding for 30 years, and at one point he admits it took over his life. He’d catch a plane to Shetland to see just one bird. He’d drive down to England’s south coast on a Friday night after work, end up in Cornwall and drive back for work on a Monday morning.

He once hurriedly returned from holiday in the Outer Hebrides to look for a spectacled warbler at Filey but arrived too late. He remembers getting a speeding fine through rushing to get home from seeing a western sandpiper in East Lothian. He has always been frightened to tot up how much chasing after birds was costing him.

But those days are gone, Andrew said. He is concentrating on his Yorkshire list and hoping to make Yorkshire the first mainland county in Britain to record 400 species. The two nearest rivals are Norfolk and Cornwall. If he managed to tick the sandhill crane, he would still be another six birds short of that target.

But you make very slow progress when you’re top of the listers. So far in 2011 Andrew had added just one more bird to his tally – a black kite he saw at Spurn. The long spit of sand dangling into the mouth of the Humber produces many unusual migrants but the birds pass along the peninsula very quickly, often without stopping, and that’s what happened with the black kite.

It began as just a crackling message on the two-way radio system he uses at Spurn, and within seconds he was racing down to the tip of the point, where he found a birdwatcher who had already set up a telescope and tripod.

“I had to see it for myself, not rely on someone else’s word because there’s no value in that. It’s all about trust, at the end of the day. There’s no one policing what we do. The only person you’d be kidding is yourself, and there’s no fun in that. So being absolutely sure about a bird’s identity is crucial...”

His pager beeped, and almost simultaneously he got a call on his mobile. The sandhill crane had been seen in the skies over Pontefract, and since there was only another couple of hours of daylight there was little chance of him catching up with it.

This turned out to be a false alarm, however, and at some stage overnight the bird slipped across the Humber and was seen at Rimac in Lincolnshire, sadly out of bounds for Andrew’s Yorkshire list. Last week it enjoyed the attention of hundreds of twitchers on the Suffolk coast.

For Andrew, his disappointment was short-lived. He always expects the unexpected to appear in October, which is the best month for rarities. And so a couple of days later he found himself spotting a rare American black tern at Spurn. It is a sub-species of the marsh tern family, and under consideration for full-species status. If that is confirmed, then the American black tern will become another tick on Andrew’s list, one more milestone on his way to 400 Yorkshire birds.

TWITCH REPORT: THE BIRDERS WITH THEIR EYES ON THE SKIES

Real twitchers never describe themselves as such. They prefer to be known as “birders”.

The raison d’être of the hobby – some admit it is more like an obsession – is to see as many different species of birds as possible, and compile lists of these observations.

Some birders like Andrew Gibson narrow their list down to the county in which they live, but many keep lists of every bird they have seen in Britain, Europe and even the whole world. It is common to maintain a separate list of all birds seen each year, as well as an overall “life list”.

The great driving force of twitching is the natural migration cycles of many species during spring and autumn. The variable which makes this so unpredictable, and provides twitchers with so much fun, is the weather.

In autumn, for example, strong north-westerlies can knock US birds off course and bring them across the Atlantic, or easterlies can bring non-UK species over from the Continent.

All twitchers have a technology fetish, especially for telescopes and binoculars. Once they found out about the latest rarity sighting by keeping in touch by phone.

These days they all carry pagers which give alerts of confirmed sightings, and also keep in touch via the internet.

Yorkshire Birding, left, a quarterly magazine for birdwatchers is run by Andrew Gibson and three friends.