Sunday, 16 October 2016

There is a season Spurn Spurn Spurn 14th October 2016


On Thursday I went shopping with my wife in Oxford for those last little things we need prior to our departure to The Seychelles for a long awaited holiday. I was tired, very tired, having only returned the night before from Shetland, following an abortive trip to try and see a Siberian Accentor, the first ever to be recorded in Great Britain. I had driven for eight hours to Aberdeen on Monday, boarded the overnight ferry to Lerwick two hours later, along with some thirty other birders and next morning had driven a hire car to a small quarry on Mainland at a place called Mossy Hill to find, well, nothing. The bird had gone. The day was saved by the presence of Britain's sixth ever Black faced Bunting on the nearby island of Bressay which after a ten minute crossing on another ferry from Lerwick I managed to see. Then it was a return to Lerwick, back on the overnight ferry to Aberdeen and twelve hours later I left a wet and dark Aberdeen and drove back home on Wednesday, arriving  in Kingham mid afternoon. I should have been delighted at seeing the Black faced Bunting, a major rarity in its own right but still felt somewhat deflated having missed the Siberian Accentor which apart from being a very rare bird is also an attractively plumaged one.

Let me fast forward this tale to my wife and I returning to Kingham following our shopping, in the early afternoon of Thursday. I slumped on the couch with a cup of tea and a sandwich and dozed off. Later, having awoken I consulted my phone for messages and found one from Badger that sounded urgent, in fact almost hysterical and desperate in tone. I called Badger immediately to learn he had been trying to contact me for some time but to his immense frustration always got my voicemail - this is the curse of our house in Kingham and Vodaphone's incompetence - no signal.

'What's up matey. It sounds urgent? I enquired.  'Have you looked at RBA ( Rare Bird Alert) recently?' I hadn't due to the distractions of shopping and the attractions of a quiet corner on the couch where sleep had enveloped me. The words that followed shook me to the core. 'A Siberian Accentor has been found at Easington near Spurn! We are leaving at 3.30am tonight to get there by dawn. I'll drive'. I needed no second invitation. 'Count me in, who else is coming?'  'Just Gnome'. 'OK, what about Clackers, that will make four and a car full. I can collect him on my way to you'. 'Yeah, give him a call and let me know. We depart from Kidlington at 3.30'.

I called Clackers who also needed no second invitation. A major twitch was on for the four of us and probably the majority of the UK's birding community. Being on the mainland this would be a huge twitch with many people attending. Some had undoubtedly already made it to Easington today but the majority of birders would not be able to get there until after nightfall or first thing tomorrow due to the time constraints imposed by the bird only being found in the middle of the afternoon on this very day.

Although tired I found myself tingling with excitement, anticipation and apprehension. 

The bitter sweet joys and perils of twitching are two fold and they now took hold with a vengeance. 

Firstly, the night following the discovery of a rare bird is a lottery - many birds migrate at night and can and often do leave in the night to confound everyone who turns up to see them the next day.

Secondly, there is the third day rule - an unwritten rote among twitchers about seeing a rare bird, in that the first day is usually fine, the second day is pushing it just a little and the third day, well you are really chancing your arm. It is not always this way but surprisingly often it works out that the bird is gone on the third day.This is what happened to me on Shetland.

We had no idea how long the bird at Spurn had been present before it was discovered. Being Spurn, which has a bird observatory and is intensively covered by birders at this time of year it was unlikely that it had been overlooked but you never know. All this served to heighten the state of anxiety, the bedrock of twitchiness, and I was literally trembling with excitement as here, almost unbelievably in a matter of days was a second chance to see a Siberian Accentor after my epic failure in Shetland.

Something very strange has been occuring with Siberian Accentors this autumn. They breed across northern Russia east to Chukotka and their normal wintering area is northeast China and Korea but this year migrants have arrived in Finland, Latvia, Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Norway, Denmark and Germany with no less than three in Sweden and two in Great Britain (for a further update see the bottom of this post). What has caused this phenomenon no one knows and one can only speculate that it is either unusual weather systems or, less likely, faulty genetic programming in the individual birds concerned or possibly a combination of the two. This autumn has been unprecedented in bringing an incredible number of rare birds to Great Britain due to a high pressure system over Scandinavia blocking the normal Atlantic weather fronts from the west and allowing an easterly airflow to drift birds off course that should be migrating from Russian and Siberian forests to south east Asia.

Well, we could discuss all this later but for now it was down to concentrating on the matter in hand which was getting to Spurn as soon as possible and seeing this second ever Siberian Accentor in Great Britain. I could not sleep, the adrenalin tingling through my veins stimulating my body better than any caffeine laced drink could ever do. I tried sleeping but it was useless. I tossed and turned and in the end managed about an hour of fitful sleep but then it was time to collect Clackers in Witney and rendezvous with Badger at Kidlington.

Feeling ever so slightly light headed from lack of sleep and the sheer excitement I collected Clackers and we drove the short distance across county to Kidlington, to join an awaiting Badger who was all set to drive us to Easington in East Yorkshire

'Where's Gnome?' I enquired. 'He's not coming as his wife was none too pleased about his joining us'  Badger informed us. 'OK, sorry to hear that'. I took the back seat, which now with Gnome's absence was a haven of space and darkness in which to try to relax, spread out and get some sleep on the four hour journey north. Clackers and Badger would be happy enough chatting in the front. We headed off, leaving the orange sodium lit surrounds of Kidlington and joining the comparative darkness of the Motorway. I shut my eyes, we were finally on our way, four hours would decide it one way or another. Almost instantly tiredness claimed me. Occasionally I would waken as we progressed, to look out on the familiar night time surrounds of a Motorway as lorries passed like brightly lit behemoths up and down the carriageways. It was a luxury to not be driving and in charge of a vehicle and I revelled in the womb like cosiness of the backseat of the car,  and soon I sank back into oblivion. A brief stop at Tibshelf Motorway Services resulted in our getting lost in the maze of ill directed traffic lanes at the Services  and consequently finding ourselves in the lorry section of the Services, our tiny car dwarfed by the leviathans of the road, sinister in their hulking ranks as their drivers slept in the cabs. What a life. How can they do it day after day after day or in this case night after night after night? It really is another unfathomable macho world, a clan that I  can never be or would want to be part of.

We were blocked in by a huge container lorry that parked across our rear as we were about to reverse out. I just hoped the driver was not going for a shower or meal break and thankfully he returned in ten or so minutes and the lorry moved off. We were free to be on our way again.

I next awoke as we  traversed Hull with rain hammering down and the sky turning from the blackness of ink to that familiar depressing grey that so often benights this land. Clackers needed a comfort break so we stopped at a garage and I took the opportunity to get myself sorted out with camera fully prepared and protected from the rain, suitable clothing donned and now feeling wide awake after a spell in the fresh air. We took the familiar, slow winding route out of Hull towards Easington and the Spurn Peninsula. The weather improved as the light increased and from rain we went to drizzle and finally as the dawn properly arrived the drizzle ceased and a grey, dank, wet underfoot kind of a day greeted us. I consulted my RBA app as we drove along. There was one message for today.

0710  E.Yorks SIBERIAN ACCENTOR still Easington by old school opposite car park. Park on B1445 or in Easington Square + walk down Vicars Lane + follow road to left.

I relayed this information to the others in the front. Badger could hardly believe it but it was true. There it was in black and white on my phone's screen. The bird was still there. Instantly the atmosphere in the car turned to one of supercharged excitement and life took on a whole new meaning with the realisation we were within a few miles of success and for me the disappointment of Shetland would be forever expunged.

I think we increased speed exponentially, frankly it all became a daze of expectation and excitement and fifteen minutes later we approached Easington where it became apparent that a major crowd control operation was in action, with marshals directing birder's cars to park along the verge of the narrow road leading into Easington. We could see cars continuously lined down one side of the normally empty road all the way to a junction some quarter of a mile distant. 


Many birders would have arrived well before dawn and slept in their cars in order to be up and ready at first light to see the bird. We were advised by the marshal that the village was closed to birders and the verge he pointed to at the side of the road was the nearest place we could park. This was not a problem and Badger put the car on the verge and getting our things together we set about walking along the footpath to the road junction and as we did we passed the unbroken line of parked cars and several birders returning with satisfied looks on their faces having already seen the Siberian Accentor. Turning left  at the junction we walked a short distance up the road to turn into another road on our right which was Vicars Lane, temporarily closed to traffic by a police sign. 



The Siberian Accentor was up this road, a short way on the right frequenting a  small square area of disused, weedy, leaf strewn tarmac surrounded by gardens and the backs of houses.

The tarmac area where the Siberian Accentor found a home
Vicars Lane runs parallel alongside the huge Easington Gas Terminal, the biggest in the country, where gas extracted from the North Sea makes landfall and because of this it is an extremely sensitive and well guarded site protected by police, cameras and high security fences. By the side of this fence as we turned into the lane we were confronted by a mass of birders and marshals standing in front of a huge line of hundreds of birders queuing and waiting to view the bird. 
The queue to see the Siberian Accentor
Vicars Lane temporary valhalla to hundreds of birders
The location from where you could view the bird was restricted and only around fifty birders at one time could get to see it, looking from the shelter of trees on the other side of the road, over a low fence and out onto the small, disused area of tarmac that the Siberian Accentor was feeding on. A well managed queuing system was being operated by the marshals so that ten or twenty birders were allowed to go at any one time and view the bird for ten minutes before relinquishing their place to others in the queue. As we passed along the lane to the end of the queue we could see the lucky birders already viewing the bird.

Birders viewing the Siberian Accentor
We joined the queue and I recognised many of my fellow travellers from the abortive trip to Shetland of a few days ago. It became quite a social event with everyone in good humour especially those who had already seen  the bird and others coming back to the queue for another go. I found myself greeting various friends from Sussex, Rocket, an instant friend from Burnley and Mike, both of whom I had met on a twitch to North Uist last year, Bradders who had given me information some years ago on where to go in Morocco to see various birds, Sladey with whom I had spent many winters looking at gulls at Nimmo's Pier in Galway, as well as Geoff, Roger and Ian also from Oxford and many others who I had made brief acquaintance with on various twitches over the years. Of course everyone was in a good mood which only served to increase the bonhomie.

Finally it was our turn at the head of the queue and we were directed to the fenceline. We separated and insinuated ourselves as best we could amongst the birders already there and I found myself with an open view of the tarmac square but no bird! It had flown off into the surrounding shrubbery and was no longer visible. The assembled crowd including me held their metaphorical breath. We waited for five or so minutes although it seemed much longer and then a slight movement where the tarmac joined the shrubbery betrayed the star bird's muted arrival, skulking by an ornamental urn. It surveyed the scene for a few seconds and then shuffled its way out onto the mossy, weedy tarmac. The Siberian Accentor. I cannot adequately describe this moment and the feeling it brought. All the tensions, worries, speculation and anxieties coalesced into a quiet exultation of delight and satisfaction of achievement. A warm glow permeates one's body and soul and all is well. Everything is forgotten for a brief moment in time apart from the joy of looking at something so very much coveted.

My first view of the Siberian Accentor
The bird itself did not disappoint. It was similar in build and demeanour, although possibly slightly smaller, to its close relative the Hedge Accentor and it shuffled its body close to the ground on legs bent at the knee and held half parallel with its body, tossing the moss and dead leaves aside with sharp flicks of its bill to get at any prey thus exposed. Its head pattern compared to the dull grey of our more familiar Hedge Accentor was striking, being a combination of broad black and orangey buff bands, the orangey buff continuing onto its breast and streaked flanks.The upper parts were broadly streaked chestnut brown with a noticeable 'string of pearls' wing bar formed by narrow white tips to its greater coverts. A sharply pointed black bill and a longish tail completed a very attractive ensemble.

Cameras were constantly firing away with staccato volleys of clicks as the bird fed unconcernedly in front of us, sharing the space with a couple of Hedge Accentors for comparison. It ranged from some thirty feet down to around ten feet from us, constantly feeding and in view for most of the time apart from a couple of sorties back into the shrubbery, thus keeping everyone happy.











I relinquished my space after my time was up and rejoined the even longer queue for another go.

This time the queue moved quicker and soon I was back at the fence and getting another eyeful of this 'mega' rare bird. Penny Clark, a well known blogger from Norfolk was in front of me and with her scope strapped to her back was in danger of doing me some damage. A quiet word in her ear and she moved her scope to ground level and all was well. Another gent in his anxiety rested his lens on my shoulder so cramped was the space  but I was happy to oblige, carried on taking pictures and then watched the bird in my binoculars. This time there was no pressure or orders to move and let others in and so I spent my time relaxing, watching and taking pictures. Badger was doing the same somewhere else along the line with his video set up (see the end of this blog) and time drifted on.









Siberian Accentor
By ten o'clock there was no need to queue at all and you could just go back whenever you felt like it for some more viewing. Many birders were now chatting and socialising on the closed road or in the trees by the road and I joined in, relaxing and meeting with various friends and acquaintances, all of us reliving this experience by recounting to each other our various tales of stress, journey times and other inconsequential matters  and just enjoying this uniquely social occasion. Two armed policemen arrived curious about the bird and wanting to see what all the fuss was about. Someone showed them the bird and they too chatted amiably with the birders and marshals


Surprise! Badger and Clackers
We signed another petition against the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust's plans for a huge unwanted Visitor Centre at Spurn and then the time arrived that every birder recognises when you have finally had enough and know it is time to move on. We decided to drive the short distance to Spurn to look for other 'good' birds that had been reported today such as an Olive backed Pipit, Dusky and Pallas's Warblers and a Shorelark.

On arriving at Spurn my heart sank as it was obvious that everyone else had the same idea as us. Cars lined the long road without a break from the Crown and Anchor pub right up to the Bluebell Cafe and birders were milling around in all directions. It was a bit chaotic  and got even more so when it was learnt that a Dusky Warbler, one of three to be found today had been trapped and ringed in Church Field and would be shown to anyone present and then released in ten minutes.

The lane from the Crown and Anchor to the Bluebell Cafe
Luckily we found a parking space right by the entrance to Church Field. The small cramped confines of the perimeter path around the rough grassland that comprises Church Field was soon filled and almost overwhelmed by the number of birders that wanted to see the Dusky Warbler. The circular path round the small area of rough grass was packed with birders and the warbler was held up for inspection for all by getting the crowd to slowly move in a circular motion past the ringer holding up the bird. 


The queue to see the Dusky Warbler
It worked reasonably well but then descended into anarchy as everyone crowded closer trying to photograph the bird. I understand that by doing this the Observatory gets  some much needed revenue from donations of grateful birders but I am not so sure about the ethics of displaying a bird in such a manner to such a huge crowd for such a long time. It certainly is not my kind of birding but I do recognise the unique situation and have some sympathy for the ringers in their predicament (I used to be one myself) and desire to please everyone but for me the bird must always come first and in this case I do not think that was quite the case but that is just my personal point of view.


Dusky Warbler
The unfortunate warbler was released into cover and showed no apparent harm and we all then filed out onto the road again. Chaos still prevailed with cars and birders attempting to traverse the narrow road and avoid each other in the process. We walked up to the Bluebell Cafe, full of birders seeking refreshment and made for the shoreline just beyond, to look at a Shorelark which was, as is customary with this species, behaving in a confiding manner. They are such attractive birds with their combination of yellow head and black face mask. It was not hard to discern where it was as an attendant phalanx of birders were ranged along the seawall close to it. Inevitably there were one or two who, with inadequate cameras and a lack of courtesy to other birders just had to get too close but with crowds like today you knew there were always going to be one or two incidents like this.





Shorelark
The Shorelark seemed untroubled by the close attention it was attracting and I got some good photos as it ran about in the sand and short grass. Looking to my right I noticed a rapidly increasing crowd of birders looking from a nearby grass bank down into a paddock of rough grass. I joined the throng to learn there was an Olive backed Pipit skulking in the grass. I really do not like this kind of birding but there was nothing else but to join the horde and do my best. In the end a black  cat wandering through the field inadvertently flushed the pipit  from the grass and it flew up onto a hawthorn hedge briefly before flying into some more long grass and invisibility again. The crowd regrouped around its latest hiding place and it flew a couple more times but then decided it had enough of being flushed by hordes of birders and disappeared into the wide open skies above the Bluebell Cafe.


Olive backed Pipit's view of massed birders - no wonder it flew off!

Birders looking for the Olive backed Pipit

The Bluebell Cafe
So what should we go and do now? We wandered up Beacon Lane that was opposite the Bluebell Cafe and runs between fields on one side and Sandy Beaches Holiday Village on the other. The whole area was alive with birds, most were probably migrants just arrived courtesy of the strong  onshore northeasterly wind and overcast conditions

Goldcrests, Robins, Redwings, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds. Ring Ouzels, Fieldfares, Chaffinches , Tree Sparrows and Bramblings, the latter distinctive with white rumps and nasal calls as they flew away into the trees, were everywhere you looked, the thrushes feeding on the red berried hawthorns that comprise most of the hedges around here or if not in the hedges they were hopping about on lawns or short grass. I have never seen so many Robins, with often double figures feeding on each patch of grass with the other thrushes.

Brambling

Woodcocks either just arriving from the sea or flushed from ditches by the swelling numbers of birders flew inland, their distinctive neckless silhouette making them unmistakeable. A flock of more than thirty Bramblings were feeding below some feeders in a garden off the lane and parties of Siskins regularly passed overhead betraying their presence with their melancholy whistle.

Part of the mixed flock of Chaffinches and Bramblings feeding in a garden
We walked back towards Kilnsea Church as there was a report of a Pallas's Warbler being seen there. As we did we passed a house with an immaculately mown lawn whose verdant surface was being taken full advantage of by migrant Redwings, Robins and a particularly drab Ring Ouzel, almost looking like a female Blackbird but a pale wing panel and diffuse scaly underparts gave its identity away. Obviously a young bird as there was no hint of a pale crescent on its chest.

Ring Ouzel- a first year individual
There was no sign of the Pallas's Warbler in the churchyard just some Common Chiffchaffs, a female Blackcap eating the last of the elderberries, the inevitable Goldcrests and a Mealy Redpoll. We walked to the nearby Crown and Anchor pub car park but there was no sign of the Pallas's Warbler there either. We went back to the churchyard but again there was no sign of the warbler but I did get the briefest of views of a Yellow-browed Warbler. 

We went back to the pub car park where Clackers, tired of all the walking had remained throughout and was justly rewarded with good views of the Pallas's Warbler in our absence. After a long wait we got just a swift glimpse of it before it disappeared. We waited and waited but it never returned, and a flock of unidentified redpolls passing overhead, a showy Firecrest plus numerous Common Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests were all that we saw. 

We were getting cold now and decided that it was time to do something active rather than sit about waiting. Walking back to the car I leant on a gate and surveyed another lawn finding it infested with Goldcrests, presumably just arrived from crossing the North Sea, the tiny birds feeding animatedly on the ground, finding insects at the base of the short grass tufts.There must have been a dozen or so Goldcrests along with the ubiquitous Robins feeding here.


Goldcrests
Our final stop was to be at the nearby Sammy's Point where a Little Bunting had been reported this morning from the foreshore. The afternoon had by now turned into a rather bleak, cold and grey presence and Sammy's Point, exposed as it is to the elements only made this ever so much more apparent. The usually hardly occupied car park was crammed with birder's cars today but we managed to find a space and set about some birding.

There had been no sign of the Little Bunting all afternoon but a big surprise was a Pied Flycatcher hunting insects from the rocks forming the seawall. It was sharing the rocks with some Common Chiffchaffs. a Northern Wheatear, a Common Redstart and to no one's surprise, many Robins. I cannot emphasise just how many Robins there were today. They were literally everywhere you looked, in hedges, ditches, on fields, on the seashore, in gardens and on the roads. Being such a territorial bird I am used to only seeing them individually in my garden but here they were happily sharing habitat with each other and without any sign of aggression whatsoever.

One of the hundreds of migrant Robins on the Spurn Peninsula
On the landward side of the small car park was a small area of green, sheep grazed grass with scattered hawthorns and populated by the ever present Robins but also by at least ten Ring Ouzels, their chackering alarm calls betraying their  hidden presence in the hawthorns. Once they felt at ease they would emerge from the depths of the hawthorns to feed on the berries and on occasions even descend to the ground to feed but ever wary would never remain long on the ground before fleeing for the safety of the hawthorns.




Ring Ouzels
Time was moving on now and we made one more stop at the nearby Easington Cemetery. It was a welcome relief after the crowds to find it deserted when we got there apart from a couple tending a grave. We found yet more Robins but also two Common Redstarts amongst the gravestones. The fields and hedgerows around the graveyard were alive with birds. A ploughed field next to the graveyard held a small flock of Bramblings, Chaffinches and Yellowhammers and the hedgerows were full of Redwings feasting on the berries.

I chatted to the couple tending the grave, a father and his middle aged daughter. He was ninety and had been married for sixty seven years and the grave was that of his recently deceased wife. His daughter talked to me about the history of the surrounding countryside and her father invited me back for tea but I sadly had to decline but my talk with them left me with a good feeling and again emphasised to me the friendliness and kindness of the people who live around here.

So with that memory in my heart a quite wonderful day of birding in the company of two good friends came to its reluctant conclusion.You want it to be always like this but then if it was it would not be so special.

Update

Various estimates of the number of birders in Easington on the first full day of the Siberian Accentor's stay vary between 500-1200 and between 3-4000 birders came to see it during its stay. It also made the national news with both The Daily Telegraph and Daily Express running articles on it.

As of 26th October the following Siberian Accentors had been recorded in Great Britain

Shetland                  Mossy Hill Scousburgh  South Mainland Shetland  9th-10th October
East Yorkshire         Easington Yorkshire 13th-19th October
Cleveland                Huntcliff  Saltburn by-the-Sea 15th and 17th October
Co  Durham            Hendon South Dock  Sunderland 18th October - poss same as Cleveland
Northumberland     Holy Island of Lindisfarne 18th October
Shetland                 Troila Geo Fair Isle 20th October
Shetland                 Lund Isle of Unst Shetland 22nd-23rd October
Shetland                 Kirn o' Skroo Fair Isle 22nd October - different to the bird on 20th
Orkney                   Sandside Bay, Deerness, Mainland  Orkney 25th-26th October
Shetland                 South Dale Isle of Fetlar Shetland 26th October

From the 24th September-4th December an unprecedented 232 Siberian Accentors have arrived in Western Europe. Totals are as follows:

Sweden 75; Finland 74; Great Britain 13; Denmark 12; Germany 11; Norway 10;  Poland 11; Estonia 8; Latvia 9; Lithuania 4; Russia 3;Netherlands 1 and Czech 1.

Video below courtesy of Badger/Megabrock Productions





3 comments:

  1. "The words that followed shook me to the core." Tremendous stuff and again a compelling account of what it is to twitch, here on a heroic scale. (Hope the Black-faced Bunting gets more of a look in a future post.) Thanks for the effort, also to write these reports.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Nick
      Many thanks for your kind comments. It is always nice to find out who reads my blog
      Best wishes
      Ewan

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