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Recording at Flamborough
Site Guide: The Fog Station | Print |


Seawatching at Flamborough Head takes place at the Fog Station (and is sometimes known as Seawatch Site)


Most of the seawatching undertaken by the local birders is done from the area around the Fog Station. It must be stressed that the cliff to the east of the fence is unstable due to erosion and anyone venturing around it does so at their own risk. If unsure, the best place to watch from is the cliff top on the south side of the Fog Station.

Finding this site is very straightforward. It is the most easterly part of the Head. Drive from Flamborough village towards the lighthouses and park in the public car park next to the new lighthouse and café. From here, walk along the tarmac track leading to the Fog Station, a collection of small white buildings.

Seawatching is ideally done in small groups working together, communicating everything they see. It is essential that someone continually looks through a telescope (a wide angle 20x or 30x lens is useful) to cover the mid-range and distant birds. It is equally important to have someone watching through 8x or 10x binoculars all of the time. Try balancing your binoculars on top of the eyepiece of your telescope for stability. Finally, a few birds will be missed by both of these observers, so a third person using their naked eye at all times can concentrate on the close passage of gulls, terns and waders. It is most appropriate for this person to be the note taker. Alternate tasks regularly if you are new to seawatching. Concentration over very long periods comes with time. A fresh eye looking through a telescope will immediately pick up more birds than a tired one.



It should be mentioned that seawatching is not about looking for scarce or rare birds, but about monitoring sea passage. Even the most dedicated rare bird watcher will have their enthusiasm dented after two hours of searching desperately for a large shearwater or Sabine’s Gull. Do not target particular species at the onset of a seawatch, as these birds may not be moving that day and you may overlook others that are equally interesting. Have an open mind about everything you see as there is still a lot we do not know, but do not jump to “rare” conclusions. 99 times out of 100, an odd looking Manx Shearwater will be just that, and not a Little. All top class seawatchers are committed to actually counting birds. In addition to providing useful data on population numbers and fluctuations, it also enables the observer to maintain concentration for a longer period. Each observer should try to count one of the commoner species, preferably with the aid of a tally counter, available from good stationers. With practice, up to three or more species can be counted by one observer, as well as the annotation of the less numerous species in a notebook.


Weather plays a vital role in seabird movements, as in all aspects of bird migration. It is therefore worth spending some time learning a little about weather systems and maps. After a while, it becomes possible to predict the movements of the commoner species and occasionally the rarer ones. We should draw to your attention two types of weather system that regularly produce birds:

  • A deep depression that comes in from the Atlantic and passes over northern Britain, before moving southeast into the North Sea. This system would first give us northwesterly winds, followed then by northeasterlies. Invariably in the period August to November, this system would displace large numbers of skuas, which could be seen from any prominent location on the northeast coast. Example 2 is more conducive to the movement of shearwaters, but they can appear in such conditions too.


  • Large movements of shearwaters, particularly Manx and Sooty, can occur in a totally different weather system, known locally as a “High Pressure Loop”. This rarely discussed phenomenon can be likened to the fact that passerines move through high pressure. Shearwaters, it seems, like to move on the edge of highs. If in the autumn there is a high centred over western Britain or Ireland, the resulting clockwise airflow seems to encourage birds to disperse from their feeding grounds off southern Ireland, over the top of Scotland and down into the North Sea. The movements down the North Sea are rarely detected, but some of the heaviest passage is recorded as birds reorientate and return north, often flying into a northwesterly wind.


  • Under exceptional conditions, seabirds can move throughout the day, but generally the best passage slows by 09:00hrs and can cease by 11:00hrs. It is vital, therefore, that observers are present within half an hour of dawn. In August and September, it is not unusual for passage to pick up again at around 16:00hrs, but this doesn’t often happen in October and November.


The prime time for seawatching is autumn. This is the time when most of the large movements have been noted and also allows the highest probability of something unusual. Autumn commences in July, a good month for Manx Shearwaters, as well as the first returning skuas and waders. August is more predictable for the commoner skuas and shearwaters, in addition to huge Puffin movements, and affords the best chance to see the rare Cory’s Shearwater. September is generally the most exciting month, with all four skuas seen with some regularity and the possibility of Great Shearwater or Sabine’s Gull. October can be good, but is much dependent on the breeding success of the skuas and weather conditions, while late October and November can produce mass movements of Little Auks. Winter can have its highlights, but only after putting in long hours with little reward in very unpleasant conditions.


On this shivery note, whatever the time of the year, be equipped for the worst of the weather that the North Sea can throw at you. Waterproofs are essential, on top of layer upon layer of warm clothing. Most of the best seabird movements occur in times of rough weather. An old blanket or sleeping bag will increase comfort from the elements from September onwards, while a soft cushion will be of great use at any time. The latter is, perhaps, even more necessary than a telescope!