Tour de Force - Buchan Alpha

Published by Bagsy (bucmcro AT

Participants: Bagsy & Dave, Buchan Birders


The Talisman Energy owned Buchan Alpha Floating Oil Production Platform lies some 120 miles NE of Aberdeen, at 57º 54' 14" North 000º 01' 55" East, where ‘tours’ of duty for the crew are of 2 weeks duration. Bird recording has been an integral part of the Buchan way of life since she was converted in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Scotland in 1979. At that time a pair of Kestrels reared a brood of 4, high in the derrick, which was considered a good omen, not only for her new roll as a Production Facility, but also a long and fruitful life as our ‘local bird patch’. Since then, there have been many magical avian moments, combining to compile a formidable ‘rig list’ of 170 species, including Montagu’s & Hen Harrier, Dotterel, Short-toed Lark, Richard’s Pipit, Bluethroat, Barn Owl, Grasshopper & Icterine Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Red-backed Shrike and Arctic Redpoll to name but a few. Each spring and autumn we enjoy a healthy and varied passage of migrants, but in all of those years nothing has come close to the happenings between the dates noted above.

On that first day back onboard, I joined my colleague and protégé David Penney, (a ‘birder’ only since the first day of this year) who had returned the previous Tuesday, and had recorded no more than the usual suspects. These included Great & Lesser Black-backed, Herring, Common & Black-headed Gull, Kittiwake, Gannet, Fulmar, Great Skua, Guillemot and Razorbill. Over the next few days came some of the more expected migrants, such as Dunlin, Meadow Pipit, Skylark, Redwing, Fieldfare, Starling, and one or two ‘goodies’ by way of Little Stint, Sanderling, Common & Jack Snipe and of course the attendant ‘raptors’, a single Sparrowhawk, 3 Merlin and a Short-eared Owl. By the close of Monday the 10th, Dave was ahead by just a single Moorhen.

This partial albino was one of an estimated 1,000 Brambling that day. © Bagsy

It is reasonable to suppose that most migrants leave the Continent under the cover of first dark, so it is not surprising that most of our birds, predictably, arrive here at about 02-00, which was the case the next day. Not a lot, but increased numbers of those small birds mentioned above, as by now the wind was lightening and swinging through every point of the compass, heralding mist and fog while in the South East and rain during South Westerly zephyrs. The first coup of this tour, came by way of a bird that ashore would perhaps not warrant a second look, except on a New Years day ‘Twitch’. A Stock Dove hove into view at around 9am, and while known of its scarcity in the North Sea, it wasn’t realised until later that none of the previous 4 claims had been ratified. How strange it seemed sitting there that evening writing a full description for……Stock Dove! However, like all counties of Great Britain we too have our own association, the North Sea Bird Club, that consists of a Recorder (Andrew Thorpe), a Committee and a Rarities Panel (NSBCRC), who will need to agree that description before allowing it onto our area list. Fortunately, some video footage was also taken which should endorse the record.

Wednesday the 12th was a ‘red letter day’ to say the least. As I left the accommodation at 02-00 there was a cacophony of birdcalls, plainly audible above the constant throbbing of generators and the Gas Compression Module. Among them I recognised Redwing, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Skylark and the odd Pied Wagtail, whilst scanning the heli-deck for any early signs there was evidence of several carcasses and just a few live birds hopping about. Looking towards the flare (the second brightest in the North Sea), where residue gas is burnt off, the sky was alive with migrant activity simply described as ‘swarm proportions’. Easy enough to bandy numbers like 100,000 but where do you start to estimate such massive numbers? Descending to the port quarterdeck, about 40 metres above sea level, I could clearly see a swirl of birds, flying just above the wave tops, as far as the limited visibility would allow, there were ‘hundreds of thousands’ of them, and they kept coming till daybreak!

Dawn didn’t arrive soon enough, but finishing work at 06-00 there are no prizes for guessing where Dave and I were heading. The sky was still a blizzard of birds, with Redwings predominating, but historically and inexplicitly, reluctant to land, whereas Song Thrush, Blackbird and Starling, all seemingly in many ‘hundreds’, had already begun to take up resting posts. Brambling too were scratching around the helicopter anti-skid netting , where morsels of food sometimes become wedged, while again from above calls of Meadow Pipit and Fieldfare could also be heard. The latter also have a reluctance to land, but not so Blackcap, Goldcrest and Skylark which were now landing in large numbers, and as the daylight slowly arrived, still the masses kept circling, probably held up by the shallow fog. It was time to do our first ‘rounds’, and leaving the heli-deck a lone Bar-tailed Godwit flew over, as did 22 Lapwing of which 3 peeled off to join 3 newly arrived Jack Snipe plus 2 Common Snipe on deck. Taking a first scan across the surface of the sea, it was seen to be littered with various sized corpses, as Great Black-backed (82) & Herring Gulls (5), plus 5 Great Skuas, engorged themselves on the dead and the weak. On our first circuit, 2 Wood Pigeons were encountered at roost, while on the sea 24 Teal were in company of 12 Wigeon, as 4 others circled with a Pintail, a North Sea rarity. There were also single Guillemot, 10 Common Gulls, 152 Black-headed Gulls, 12 Kittiwake, 6 Fulmar and 96 Gannets seen passing by, while on the port flare boom a Lesser Black-backed Gull seemed very aware of a nearby Sparrowhawk, as one of 2 Merlins feasted on a hapless Redwing on the main deck. Returning to the heli-deck, another Wood Pigeon, single Water Rail, Dunlin, Pied Wagtail and Robin had joined the throng, as had 3 of the Wigeon plus a Teal. The ducks were taking advantage of the pools of rainwater, both drinking and bathing, while along with the rest, keeping a watchful eye on a Short-eared Owl ‘quartering’ astern, with prey, as 2Peregrines took up station on the opposite flare boom.

Yellow-browed Warbler - 6 seen together with a Pallas's Warbler © Bagsy

The safety netting around the perimeter of the landing area is always a good place to watch for passerines, and this was where we would spend the final hour before I would head for bed. Before the search began, 9 Greylag Geese flew twice around the rig before coming to rest on the sea close by, as a Long-eared Owl was flushed from one of the winches. Among the netting we found a few Chaffinch, 2 Chiffchaff, a Willow Warbler, dozens of Siskin, which seemed to be pecking something from the man-made fibre rope, and initially no more than a glimpse of a Phyllosc with ‘wing bars’. Almost immediately, no fewer than 6 Yellow-browed Warblers were in view, and for about 30 seconds a Pallas’s Warbler joined them, the highlight of the day. Before heading for the bunk 4 Greenfinch were found and a male Snow Bunting, still in full summer plumage, flew over our heads and purposefully south. During my absence Dave and other, non-birder, crewmembers would keep watch, adding nothing new to the list, but noting that most of the alighted birds had remained onboard. Of interest, an Angle Shades moth was caught and photographed, and a pile of small Pipefish were found on top of a rig column. How they had got there is anyone’s guess, but it was thought any self-respecting Gull would surely have made short work of these? The day had produced 48 species, a record for Buchan.

As the evening wore on only a small proportion of the ‘in flight’ migrants remained close to the rig, but almost on the dot of 02-00, the sky was again teeming, not with as many as the previous night, but ‘thousands’ all the same. As daylight arrived 7 Greylag Geese were seen on the sea, now in company with a female Mallard, the Wigeon, reduced to 4 all on the heli-deck, and Teal to 7. Also on deck were dozens of Brambling, single Jack and Common Snipe, Wood Pigeon, Skylarks, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Redwings, Starlings and Reed Buntings. A group of 4 Red-breasted Merganser were also seen briefly, in flight, while a skein of 11 Pink-footed Geese, accompanied by a single Tufted Duck, put on a splendid aerial display. There was the suspicion of 4 more Tufties but just a little too flighty to qualify for 100% status. A search of the rig turned up both Long and Short-eared Owl, at least 6 Water Rail, Meadow and Rock Pipits, Pied Wagtails, Robins, 2 Wheatears, ‘dozens’ of Blackcaps and Goldcrests, with the good stuff still to come. Later, both a Yellow-browed Warbler and a Lapland Bunting (a ‘first’ for the rig) were picked up exhausted, photographed, and later, seemingly in better shape for the warmth and rest, released, flying off strongly. Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Siskin, all in small numbers also entered the log as did 2 Yellowhammers and 2 Linnets, both rig ‘ticks’ for Dave and me, as was a smart, but ruthless Great Grey Shrike. Dave had suspicions of this from early morning, but had been unable to pin it down. Finding what looked every bit like a ‘larder’, 3 Brambling tightly packed between some small bore pipes, plus the odd decapitated and head pecked corpse, these were surely good indicators of this species? Just before dark, it was seen perched on the rung of a ladder with not enough light for a decent photo, and despite its presence for the next 9 days we never did get close enough for a good shot. Unfortunately, 40 carcasses had now been recovered, to be sent off to the NSBC for analysis, a single Lion’s Mane Jellyfish had drifted by and 51 species had been recorded that day.

Lapland Bunting, part of the influx of migrants over 3 days, which included a Great Grey Shrike. © Bagsy

It was inevitable that things would quieten down over the last week of our ‘tour’ of duty, but there were still lots of birds to see, and more additions to the lists. Barnacle Goose was added as 14 entered Buchan air space, with one peeling off to land on the heli-deck for 3 hours, allowing for some close quarter shots. Pomarine Skua was next as a fine adult, complete with spoons, passed to the south followed shortly by 3 Common Terns that lingered close by to feed. A Cormorant arrived late afternoon of the 17th, as did a female Kestrel the latter seen just briefly with the other roosting and leaving for the south early next morning. There were 3 additions to the list the following day as a Little Auk undertook just 2 dives close by before heading north, a Wren made to land but was not seen to do so, while a single Jackdaw stayed with us (as Corvides usually do) for the last few days. There was also a much more obliging Pallas’s Warbler, seen down to a couple of feet, but a lot more dowdy than the first but seemingly more mobile, plus another Long-eared Owl which must have had an ‘Equity’ card! On our final day a second Jackdaw arrived, while the Long-eared Owl and Great Grey Shrike continued to reek havoc among the few small birds that were left.

Some unusual behaviour was encountered during this period, as one of the Black-headed Gulls took a liking to the relative safety of the heli-deck, and there, was seen to swallow a dead Brambling, whole. Later, it caught a live and healthy looking one, which it shook by the neck until dead, before once again swallowing it whole. A Blackbird was seen feeding from the carcass of a Redwing, and one Goldcrest was observed ‘displaying’ to 2 or 3 others. Perhaps the cutest photograph was of a pair of Blackcaps, roosting in the 69 position, where all that could be seen was a ball of pale grey with a black blob at one end and a chestnut brown one at the other. By the time we both left the rig on Friday 21st the carcass tally had risen to over 100, and the total species count for our Tour (de Force) was a formidable 74. It is planned to start a Buchan web-site in the near future which may give our readers some idea of what may be heading their way, while in addition, the North Sea Bird Club is always willing to share information from the data base with bone fide interested parties.

Good birding

Yours aye

Bagsy & Dave
Buchan Birders