Spurn Bird Observatory and the surrounding area, located on the Yorkshire side of the Humber Estuary, hit a purple patch this weekend with reports on Saturday of not only around thirty Yellow browed Warblers being present but with the additional attraction of greater rarities in the form of a Citrine Wagtail, a Pied Wheatear and an Olive backed Pipit.
All very enticing but with the considerable deterrent that it would take a four and a half hour drive to get to Spurn from Oxfordshire. The major attraction for me was the Citrine Wagtail, a species I have never seen but it was being reported as being elusive so it hardly seemed worth the risk to drive all that way on the slim chance of seeing it, despite Gnome managing to see both the Pied Wheatear and the Citrine Wagtail on Saturday whilst driving his daughter back to Durham University. I was truly envious.
So Saturday found me, instead, patrolling the uninviting concrete expanses of Farmoor Reservoir for another look at the Red necked Grebe and then in the evening attending Badger's surprise birthday party at a Greek Restaurant on the Cowley Road in Oxford.
My birding friend Clackers was also at the party and after a while as the wine flowed and life took on a rosy glow I enquired jokingly of Clackers and with no little bravado, if he was interested in going to Spurn on Sunday. I fully expected he would say no but the answer was in the affirmative. 'Really?' 'Yes why not' he replied. Andy, sitting next to me told me that access to where the Citrine Wagtail and Pied Wheatear were, at a place called Middle Camp, was banned on Sunday up until 1pm due to dangerously high tides. 'That's no problem' I glibly announced, 'If we leave at 9am we will not get there until after 1pm anyway'.
It was settled. Well almost. As we spilled out of the restaurant into the cosmopolitan delights of the Cowley Road I told Keith I would call him tomorrow around eight am with a definite yes or no about going to Spurn.
I rolled over in bed on a misty and still Sunday morning. It was eight. I groaned. I would like to say the spirit was willing and the flesh was weak but in fact neither was very enthusiastic at that precise moment about a drive to Hull and beyond. I mused that just one different letter replacing the U in Hull would be more appropriate to my feelings about that distant city at this precise moment. Slowly however as the blood flowed and I stretched my limbs the competitive drive returned. A cup of tea, some toast and, 'Right, let's ring Clackers'. 'You still keen to go to Spurn Keith?' 'Sure am'. 'OK I will be at yours at 9am'.
Keith was ready and waiting as always, boarded the Audi in quick time and we were off. Up the M40, across country to the M1 and then ever northwards. Today was one of those welcome autumn days of sunshine and no wind. Tomorrow it was forecast to change very much for the worse so this really was our one and only opportunity.
It's a long and tedious journey to Spurn but we whiled away the miles chatting constantly about an eclectic mix of subjects and swapping anecdotes, ranging from Keith's experiences dealing with celebrities promoting their books, (Keith worked for Blackwells in Oxford for more years than I can recall), past birding experiences, how wealthy the various Oxford Colleges really are and why they are so rich, to more mundane issues such as what is defined as 'The North' in England, have they cleared the viewing areas at our local Dix Pit, gossiping about various birding acquaintances, what really were our chances of seeing the Citrine Wagtail and why are the Motorways of Britain seemingly constantly being dug up by an invisible workforce. I said to Keith this was probably our most risky twitch yet but over the years I had never failed to see my target bird at Spurn. I thought as I spoke the words that I had administered the proverbial kiss of death but honestly I have never failed there and have seen some very rare birds indeed, namely, Rufous tailed Rock Thrush, Great Snipe, Masked Shrike. Black Stork and Ivory Gull.
Clackers checked RBA on my phone and it told us the Citrine Wagtail was still present so our gamble appeared to be paying dividends but we were still cautious as a lot could happen in the ensuing time it would take to get there. Sadly it was reported there was no sign of the Pied Wheatear or Olive backed Pipit from yesterday but it was the Citrine Wagtail we desired most.
The dulcet tones of Marge the Satnav femme fatale guided us on to the M18 and then the M62. Fifty six miles to Hull or as Marge pronounced it HI ELL. She was probably right! The Humber was in full high tidal flow, its sun illuminated waters sparkling as we passed around a quiescent Sunday morning Hull. We traversed the eastern outskirts unscathed in mind or body and soon were back in rural surrounds as we took the interminably winding country road, complete with obligatory slow car towing a caravan, out through the wide expanses of flat farm fields towards Kilnsea and Spurn Bird Observatory,
The landscape now was one of vast, flat, pale brown fields ploughed and rolled, ready for sowing the winter wheat. By the side of the road those stalwarts of the hedgerow, hawthorn, elder and field maple, were now turning various shades of yellow and orange. Soon enough the wind and rain will strip their leaves and then the winter thrushes will come and strip the berries.
We approached Kilnsea and drew to a stop along the grass verge by the road just beyond the Crown and Anchor Pub. There were birders everywhere either peering intently up into trees, chatting or just walking along. We left the Audi in a long line of cars, parked precariously on the wide grass verge. Where to start? After such a long drive it is difficult for the first few minutes to concentrate and set an agenda. Our priority was the Citrine Wagtail as neither of us had seen one in Britain but where would we go to find it? Obviously it would not be here in the trees. We spoke to a passing birder who kindly directed us to drive further up the road and then to turn right at the end by the Bluebell Café and go to the Canal Scrape further down the road leading to the Bird Observatory. We got back in the car and drove the short distance to where the scrape was located. The small car park there was full so we joined another verge hugging line of parked cars along the narrow road.
The road from Kilnsea to the Bird Observatory
Foresaking our scopes we went with bins and camera, expecting to embark on a long vigil awaiting the arrival of the wagtail and with some trepidation entered the Hide overlooking Canal Scrape. I expected the Hide to be filled to bursting with birders, judging by all the cars outside but was pleasantly surprised to find it only relatively full but not crammed solid. You could swing a cat if you had a mind to and if one was available. We sought the left hand corner and Keith enquired in a whisper to a seated lady birder if there had been any signs of the Citrine Wagtail.
She replied 'Yes it's just there on the grass' and pointed through the viewing slat. Astonished we looked, we saw and we marvelled. Just a few metres away was a lifer for me and possibly for Keith too. A Citrine Wagtail in all its pale grey and white loveliness. I always wondered if I ever found one myself would I be able to tell it from a juvenile or first winter Pied or White Wagtail. Here was the answer. A resounding YES. It was so different. A suite of diagnostic features were all too obvious, starting with a noticeably broad white supercilium curling right round the ear coverts, two wide white wing bars on each wing and prominently white fringed tertials that shone in the sun and a broken necklace of black passing around its white throat. It was about the same size as its commoner cousins and for a wagtail had a shortish tail, with white outer tail feathers. At first it was running around gobbling up insects from the short grass and reed stubble as fast as possible but then stopped for an extended preen and some wing stretching, before it uttered a diagnostic buzzy chizzick, somewhat different to the more melodious note of a Pied Wagtail and flew to virtually underneath the hide's viewing slats to give point blank views. One joker said it was showing close enough to sign autographs!
We watched it avidly, hardly believing what had happened, indeed what was happening. To see it instantly, so close and without the expected anxiety riddled long vigil waiting for it to turn up was just incredible. I took many images with my camera and new lens and we just enjoyed the wagtail, constantly, actively, running after insects, back and fore in front of us. Half an hour passed in no time at all. Keith in the mean time also spotted a female Common Redstart in the hawthorn bushes at the far side of the scrape and then a volunteer warden stationed in the hide and in radio communication with colleagues announced that a Little Bunting had been trapped and ringed at the Bird Observatory just two hundred metres up the road and would be released in fifteen minutes and if anyone wanted to see it they should get up there as quickly as possible.
First winter Citrine Wagtail
He also mentioned that an Arctic Warbler had been trapped, ringed and released earlier in the morning at Church Field which is a small tree fringed area belonging to Yorkshire Wildlife Trust near to the Crown and Anchor pub. This was back where we originally stopped on first arriving.
We were in two minds. Both of us reluctant to leave the Citrine Wagtail parading before us but in the end our resolve weakened and we left the Hide deciding on the two hundred metre walk to the Bird Observatory to see a virtually guaranteed Little Bunting. I could see a long line of birders assembled on the skyline at the Observatory awaiting the bunting's release and prayed that both Keith and myself got there in time. We did and joined a throng of around eighty to a hundred birders. The warden appeared with the bunting and everyone crowded round, pressing forward and almost forming a circle around the warden.
This was when I began to have my doubts about what was happening. I too have been a bird ringer, for almost fifty years, and resigned some two years ago but I was a little unsure about the wisdom of inviting one and all to witness the bunting in the hand and its subsequent release. A few people was fine but not a crowd of almost a hundred. I understand that everyone wants to see a Little Bunting but does it need to be surrounded by almost a hundred birders and shown in the hand for at least ten to fifteen minutes? The bird's welfare is paramount and I just thought this was a little too much and it made me uneasy. However I joined the throng and had a good look at the bunting so really cannot complain too much. The warden walked around the encircling, excited birders so everyone got a close view and then eventually released the bunting which flew off strongly, so all was well in the end I suppose.
The Little Bunting before release
A sense of denouement now came over us as we had seen the Citrine Wagtail and had the bonus of a close up view of a Little Bunting, all in the space of an hour or so since we arrived. Birders, just like us wandered back down the road, discussing the day's events and what to do next.
Eee! It were reet grand!
'What do you fancy next Clackers?' 'It's entirely up to you old boy' he replied. 'Well we could go and have some more Citrine action in the Hide or we can go and look for the Arctic Warbler.' We decided on the latter as we would probably have a good chance of finding some Yellow browed Warblers as well. This would be a good test of our observational skills, as we had to first locate the Arctic Warbler and then identify it, the kind of birding challenge I like.
The Arctic Warbler had been trapped and released at a place called Kew Villa near to the Crown and Anchor pub. The tiny Kilnsea churchyard, the adjacent Kew Villa and Church Field both owned by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and the Crown and Anchor car park, comprise the only area of mature trees for miles around and are a magnet for warblers especially the smaller ones colloquially called 'leaf warblers'. We first tried the churchyard, standing quietly on the path between the graves, in the sunshine and surveying the encompassing mature trees for the slightest movement.
Kilnsea Church and graveyard
Dark silhouettes flitted through the tree branches, enigmatic and frustratingly hard to pick out but eventually we got our eye in and it became slightly easier. This was more like proper birding, testing our skills of both observation and identification as the mercurial shapes flickered in rapid, endless movement amongst the leaves. Keith espied a leaf warbler with a huge supercilium but it was gone in an instant amongst the foliage. It could have been the Arctic Warbler but no one else saw it. We waited patiently and quietly and other shapes revealed themselves to be Common Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests. Finally a tiny form, little bigger than a Goldcrest perched high up on the edge of a clump of sycamore leaves. It was a Yellow browed Warbler. Our first of the day. A vision of loveliness with its distinctive yellow supercilium and yellow double wing bars. A tiny sought after jewel of a bird amongst a sea of leaves. Truly a leaf warbler. A few seconds view and it was gone, impossibly active, constantly seeking insects in the leaves. More Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs came and went, then another Yellow browed called from the trees and briefly showed itself at the top of an elm. Five Redwing flew over, their melancholy, breathy thin contact calls announcing their identity. Song Thrushes, also possibly migrants, hid lower in the bushes under the trees. Sadly, although we waited here for an hour there was no further hint of the presence of an Arctic Warbler and so we gave it up.
Clackers suggested we check out the trees a few metres further along surrounding the pub car park as there were quite a lot of birders there looking up at the trees. 'Any sign of the Arctic?' we enquired of one of the birders. 'Nah, just Yellow broweds and Chiffies' and at that very moment a Yellow browed Warbler did indeed show itself very well. Lines of pale yellow on mossy green upperparts, pale off white underparts, impressions of patterns and colour and then it was gone. We stood and waited, testing our skills at picking out the fluttering shapes that were not leaves moving in the gentle breeze. I scanned to my left and saw a small warbler in an Elder. It came to the top and was revealed to be yet another Yellow browed Warbler. Clackers got onto it and just as he did I noticed another small warbler appearing at the edge of the Elder bush. It came further out. I alerted Clackers. He said quietly, 'That's it, isn't it?' 'Yep' was all I could say and there it was, the Arctic Warbler, its diagnostic long white supercilium, single wing bar, pale legs and bulkier body all too apparent. It was only on view for seconds before it flew into some elms never to be seen again. Clackers saw it briefly as did one other birder next to us but that was it. Word got out and the car park filled as other birders came to look.
The Crown and Anchor car park with attendant birders
Other Yellow browed Warblers and Common Chiffchaffs came and went in about equal numbers but we never saw the Arctic Warbler again although it was seen nearby later that afternoon . A Great Spotted Woodpecker that landed on one of the trees created a bit of a stir as, with the acute lack of trees, they are something of a rarity here and therefore this individual was considered a migrant.
We decided that we would leave the other birders still hopefully scanning the trees and returned to the Hide overlooking Canal Scrape for one last look at the Citrine Wagtail, which by now had moved to the far side of the scrape and was not giving such close views. Shortly after our arrival it called loudly, flew up and then over the Hide and was gone. A Little Grebe chased fish in the shallows, the roiling water betraying its underwater progress and a single male Wigeon swam with some Mallards off the far bank of the scrape.
A Jack Snipe emerged from the reeds left of the Hide, standing quite still and then commenced its unique bobbing action before retreating back into the reeds. The female Common Redstart was still feeding in the hawthorns on the far side of the scrape and two Tree Sparrows perched at the top of one of the windblown hawthorn bushes. A little later a small, pale warbler appeared in the same bushes and checking through the scope was identified as yet another Yellow browed Warbler. They seemed to be everywhere and estimates ranged from thirty upwards being present today in the general area. We estimated that we alone saw between twelve to fifteen. The sun was by now ever so gently declining, casting a golden pre-evening glow over the land as yet another Jack Snipe emerged from the reeds, this time on the far side of the scrape, its marvellous cryptic plumage only betrayed by its constant bobbing as it probed the mud.
It was time. We felt we had been here for much longer than the incredible four hours that was the reality. We stopped at the Crown and Anchor for a celebratory drink, a large red wine for the Clackmeister and a weak lager shandy for me - well I had to drive so it seemed sensible! I promised myself a large, very large malt whisky when I got home but that was a distant four to five hours away. The birds I had seen on this incredible afternoon would sustain me on the long drive home along with the odd Red Bull!