Wednesday 20 September 2023

Great Shearwater - Patch First!

Wow it really has been a day of all the emotions when it came to birding... or lack of!

With neither species of large shearwater on my patch list, this summer/autumn I have put as much time in as possible during the right weather in an attempt to change that.  So far though no luck despite the record numbers in UK waters. Then came today, a day that I didn't have much time, and what happened today? The remanence of Hurricane Lee delivered big shears a-plenty deep into Lyme Bay, with double-figure Cory's count off Dawlish Warren, several of both species off Portland Bill and Budleigh (!?), as well as a Great Shearwater behaving like a Herring Gull off West Bay!  

This is where the frustration and exasperation came into play.  I was at work with all the news coming through and there was nothing I could do about it.  Ian M did watch Seaton Bay for a couple of hours first thing, but he missed out on big shears too although he did have a good count of Balearics.  So although I hadn't missed any that were actually seen here, it didn't help with my mood and I still felt like I was missing out.

Late this afternoon I managed to get out of work a bit early, so hot-footed it to The Spot On Kiosk where Ian and Phil were already in situ.  By this time the wind had dropped right down rounding off the top of the waves but it was still lumpy out there and there were still frequent rain showers passing through.  Over the sea though there were no birds, other than a few Gannets.  Things were looking bleak. 

Yet another heavy shower came through at about 5pm, encouraging Phil and Ian to head home for tea, which to be honest sounded like a good move.  However my lift was still over an hour away so I sat it out.

The rain stopped and within moments I picked up a Storm Petrel.  It was close too which was nice, although I kept losing it in the swell.  A few minutes after that (now 5:22pm) I was scanning further to the right to see if I could pick up the Stormie again, when the underside of a shearwater flashed up into my scope view from below, extremely close in. It dropped behind a wave and then emerged again to reveal itself as a pristine Great Shearwater!  A first for the Axe patch!

This is where sheer joy and jubilation came in, as well as utter shock, surprise, disbelief and the shakes! 

However I then completely fluffed up, as I spent about thirty seconds rummaging around in my rucksack for my camcorder, before remembering it wasn't even in there!  I grabbed a couple of 'barely' record shots with my phone camera, quickly messaged it out on WhatsApp and phoned Phil, before going back to my scope and enjoying it again.  

To my surprise, over what was now a fairly smooth (and otherwise completely bird-less) sea, it kept flying deeper into the bay - behaving nothing like any shearwater I have ever seen here!  It got about half way along the beach towards Seaton Hole, before it veered out south and headed for Beer Head.  Absolutely incredible views.  

As it got to Beer Head another rain shower came in and I lost it.

Yes that is a Great Shear! The Axe's first!

A few minutes later Ian and Phil returned... no sign.  I felt gutted for them both, and really disappointed, it honestly completely dampened the buzz I'd felt ten minutes earlier.

Ian and Phil left again, and I alerted birders further west along the coast in case the Great Shear had kept going.  I wasn't so sure though, I knew there was a chance the band of rain may have stopped it in its tracks.

About ten minutes later a second Storm Petrel flew west (a bit further out this one), and then at 6:12pm I saw the Great Shearwater again! Flying east and further out - but it was lingering!  My phone kicked into action again...

I then felt nervous and anxious, as the Great Shear would sporadically drop on the sea and disappear completely, or worse on occasions it would fly even further out...

But then I heard the sound of cars as Phil and Ian arrived (again!) and am so so pleased to say all was put right.  Complete and utter joy and relief plus the buzz from the bird returned! Kev, Tim and Tim made it down too, with the shearwater remaining in view until I left at 6:40pm.  I know Tim managed some proper photos of it, I will put a link to them when they are online. 

It is not often that a seabird can be twitched! Especially not a shearwater and not here!

Although I cannot of course be 100% sure, I am as good as that this was Gavin's earlier bird at West Bay as it just did not behave how a big shear should, especially not a Great!  This made it even more perfect for me, knowing it was enjoyed by him too.

An absolutely amazing experience, watching such an epic and rare bird casually gliding over the bay backwards and forwards for so long, not to mention the ultra close first flypast. Quite sureal really. No waves, no other birds, just us and it.  Incredible.

Patch birding really is the best.


  1. Great bird & blog. Nothing better than sharing a patch first

    1. Thanks for the comment Kev! Yes I think the want to share birds is at its strongest in a patch birding environment - certainly is here anyway!

  2. Such a great example of why sticking it out until the bitter end is always an option worth considering! 😄 Superb result, especially the sharing! 👍👍

    1. ...sticking it out usually means missing the good bits and seeing nothing later - which could so easily have happened here! Thanks Gav

  3. Well done Steve, I've enjoyed this post just as I enjoyed Gav's!

    1. Thanks for the comment Jonathan! Such a bloody good bird deserved a decent write up! Twice!