Birding on offshore rigs - the fascinating story of The North Sea Bird Club

WHAT workplace also offers a  chance to see rare or uncommon birds - sometimes in close-up?
High on the list must be the North Sea patchwork  of hundreds of oil and gas rigs  - huge steel and concrete industrial facilities  located in deep water far from land.
They are hardly the most aesthetic of habitats, but since 1979, some have hosted, albeit briefly,  such 'peaches' as red-backed shrike, bee-eater, long-eared owl, white-tailed eagle, gyr falcon, hoopoe, wryneck, dotterel, spotted crake, bluethroat, red-breasted flycatcher, nightingale, red-throated pipit, penduline tit (dead), yellow-breasted bunting and more (including budgerigars and racing pigeons).
Familiar garden species such as wrens and robins are far from being unusual occurrences, especially in October, validating historic evidence that at least some of those seen in Britain in autumn and winter are likely to be  migrants from continental Europe.
All this information and and more is chronicled in a recently-published book, The North Sea Bird Club: 1979-2019 - a most impressive 240-page paperback which provides valuable insights not just into the 260 or so  species recorded over four decades, but also on the history of the club which, alas, has now been wound up as a result of decline in manning and decommissioning of facilities which have contributed to a downward trend in records received.
For 24  years of its existence, the club's chairman was Bill Sterling, of Healing, near Grimsby. Indeed, it was he who discovered the aforementioned yellow-breasted bunting.
In his fascinating contribution to the diverse content, the ex-Conoco man recalls : "I was based offshore in the southern North Sea on two major fields off the Lincolnshire coast. 
"Prolonged viewing of a bird is often not possible as you are at work and frequently have to be satisfied with glimpses or rely on finding the bird again later outside working hours.
"Additionally, vibrations from running machinery blur the image of anything you're looking at.
"Of course, you are at work and not on a birding venture and are greatly influenced by your employer - some are more lenient than others when you're skulking around with binoculars around your neck." 
This important book might never have been published had it not been for the enthusiastic support not just of the observers themselves but of Aberdeen University which was keen to collate and interpret the records. 
Also invaluable was the sponsorship of  up to 16 exploration companies - an excellent example of partnership working between wildlife observers, academics and industry.
Where not backed by photographic evidence, some of the records  are wisely treated with caution because rig workers are not necessarily birders with reliable identifications skills.
However, their contributions have all been welcomed and acknowledged in a comprehensive name-check of 640 individuals by the book’s  diligent and lucid editor Andrew Thorpe who was club recorder between 1919 and 2019.
In a note on the challenges of offshore rig birding, he writes: "Health and Safety rules restrict your ability to go into certain areas - typically the one where  that warbler just dived into"
"Lighting is mainly artificial and can make a greyish warbler look yellowish.
"Machinery and flare noise make a background sound which dampens chances of hearing a bird call.
"It is likely to be windy a lot of the time, too, so keeping balance is tricky, and the birds will likely be  sheltering somewhere where they are hard to detect and identify."
During the course of the book, Thorpe also covers many other aspects - for example, the recording process, making use of the data, ringing, the Media.
There is also an anecdote-rich section in which observers reflect, often amusingly, about their birding experiences, not all of them pleasant, in often inhospitable and dangerous conditions.
There tend to be restriction on taking photographs on rigs, but happily many excellent snaps - of observers  as well as birds -  have found a home in the book.
Towards the end of the narrative is a section on  "butterflies, bats and other beasties" - a reminder that birds are not the only wild creatures that turn up on rigs.
One particular surprise came  on the Maureen platform, on September 13, 1993, when what should have turned up but  a. . .  common frog?
For details on that improbable occurrence, you must  buy a copy of this entertaining and important book for £17.50 plus £3.50 post and packaging. 
Order forms are available from