Saturday 8 August 2015

Stork Talk 5th August 2015

Black Stork has always proved a difficult bird for me to catch up with. 
 Considered rare, I believe only 233 have been seen before in Britain. Until today I had never seen one in Britain as they usually turn up a long way from where I live and are often just seen soaring overhead, high up in the sky, and if one does settle on the ground it never seems to stay in one place long enough for me to drive to see it.

This week there has been a minor influx of three or four Black Storks into England and another has even arrived in far off Aberdeenshire in Scotland. Of these, one particular individual caught my eye and that was a juvenile, bearing a white ring from a ringing scheme in France, that was at Kilnsea near Spurn which juts out into the Humber Estuary in East Yorkshire. The reason it caught my eye was that it had remained all day in a small area of grass fields called The Triangle, at Kilnsea, and appeared to be relatively settled if Black Storks ever are indeed settled when they stray to Britain.

Just before going to bed on Tuesday night I checked RBA and the stork was still being reported from Kilnsea up until 4pm at least, so there was a chance it would still be there on Wednesday, or would it? Storks seem to like nothing better than to soar around, high in the sky and can cover huge areas of geography in a very short time.Would this one decide on this course of action for Wednesday or would it stay put? That was my dilemma.

My chances were, let's face it slim at best, as for one to remain more than one day at the same spot would be unusual, but the fact the bird at Kilnsea had stayed put all day suggested it might be worth taking a chance.  I went to bed in two minds on Tuesday as whether to bother or not but a nightmare in the early hours of next morning found me waking with a start at 3.30am. Finding it impossible to get back to sleep I decided the best thing was to do something to take my mind off the imaginary horrors that had come to me in my sleep, so I resolved to drive for four hours to Hull and then out to the peninsula that was Spurn in search of the Black Stork. Well it beats reading a book! I quietly slipped out of the house with bins and scope and soon I was heading north for the MI, just as the dawn was breaking.

My serene progress was only checked once I reached the MI and encountered the all too familiar Average Speed Check at Nottingham from where, northwards, mile upon mile of central barriers were being repaired or replaced. On my previous travels north on earlier twitches this hazard had caused me anguish and frustration and now here we were again but this time with a vengeance as the speed check went on for many more miles than before. In cramped and crowded, narrow, temporary traffic lanes, I found myself with huge lorries driving far too close to the back of the Audi, as on cruise control I stuck to the 50mph speed limit. There is no escape as everyone is doing about the same speed, or if you do increase speed and venture into the outside lane to get away from the threatening cab looming large in your rear view mirror, you stand the chance of being prosecuted for speeding. So to the Eddie Stobart driver in cab number H4205 .... you should be ashamed of yourself for driving so close and your exhibition of inconsiderate driving. Finally, and thankfully the speed restriction and lorries no longer became an issue as I turned, with some relief onto the M18 and thence onto the M62, heading east towards Hull and into a now bright sunny morning 

Every time I go to Hull, which only occurs if a rare bird turns up, usually at or near Spurn, the sense of space on the M62 always takes me by surprise. The road itself never seems to be over populated with vehicles and compared to other busier motorways it appears almost empty. I suppose the lack of embankments and the wide flat expanse of featureless countryside on either side enhances the impression of spaciousness. By 8am I was approaching Hull and crawled around the  outskirts of the city in a slow moving file of cars heralding the rush hour. Hull is pretty small and I was soon passing by the huge industrial chemical works on the far side of the city - a  science fiction complexity of pipes, tanks and other weird structures all brought to vivid reality under the now brightly shining sun.

As the maze of industrial buildings receded into the distance I took the long, slow, country road that goes winding forever out towards the Spurn peninsula. This area is a country of huge skies and flat endless fields running horizontally into the distance. Small red brick villages, with strange names such as Thorngumbald, Welwick and Skeffling, each a distinct and tightly defined community, came and went as I progressed. No one was to be seen. No one here was going to work or if they were had already departed. The road was mine alone bar the occasional car and the school bus. 

I rounded a bend and saw a stunned House Sparrow sitting in the opposite side of the road. It had obviously just been in collision with a vehicle and was alive but would not be for long as the next vehicle coming its way would kill it for certain. I turned the car and drove back with hazard lights on and stopped in the road just by the sparrow. I could now rescue it and just as well, as a car at that very moment came round the bend, slowed and passed round me. I picked up the young sparrow, surprisingly warm and soft and placed it in the long grass under the hedge at the side of the road. It appeared uninjured, just dazed, and I hoped that maybe it would live. There was no more I could do for it.

I checked RBA for any news on the stork but my phone signal had now gone so I was unable to check on specific directions to the stork and in my unplanned sleepy departure from home, hours earlier, I had failed to take details of the exact whereabouts of the stork. I reassured myself that it could not be that difficult to find it. The Crown and Anchor pub at Kilnsea, (the most easterly pub in Yorkshire) seemed to come to mind as having been mentioned in the site directions I read last night and I knew where the pub was from previous visits, so headed there as a start. The stork could not be far away.

I entered the pub car park to find three or four empty cars but absolutely no one to ask the whereabouts of the stork. I dithered, cursing my over optimistic assumptions that there would be other birders around to guide me. Here I was in an isolated pub car park at 9am in the morning, having driven four and a half hours and hopefully with a much desired Black Stork somewhere close by but with no idea precisely where or how to get to see it. No one to blame but myself!

I drove back the way I had come looking for someone, anyone who I could ask for directions but there was no one. Half an hour later I was back in the pub car park and this time there were two friendly local birders just getting out of their car. A quick enquiry of them and I was put right. 'Do you know The Triangle?' one said. 'Er' no sorry' I replied. He pointed over the road to a footpath that led off alongside the brown, choppy, sunlit waters of the immense Humber Estuary. 'Just walk along there and The Triangle is the area of fields to your left'. 

I did as instructed and then  knew exactly where I was. I realised that I had come to this precise  area when myself and Andy came here last year to twitch a Masked Shrike. I never knew it was called The Triangle but now it was obvious. The fields were bounded on two sides by small unclassified roads, one leading to Kilnsea and the other to Spurn and the third part of The Triangle was the footpath I was currently on.

Thanking the two local birders I walked along the footpath and could see a huddle of birders a few hundred metres further on looking across The Triangle. I joined them and was soon informed that the stork was in a wide deep ditch, running across the far side of the field to a caravan site. The stork was currently invisible but I was told that occasionally it would pop its head up out of the ditch. An hour earlier it had apparently flown around the fields before returning to the ditch. I settled in for a wait. It was not unpleasant standing in the morning sun, on the lush green grass, with the Humber Estuary right behind me and the gentle slap of the high tide waves lapping at the bank. I kept checking the distant ditch but there was no sign of the stork. Time drifted on and steadily more birders arrived. A Sedge Warbler flew back and fore to its nest in the long grass to our left. A winter plumaged Guillemot, close in to the shore, paddled past on the sea and the harsh cries of Sandwich Terns filled the air.

c Steve Gombocz
As usually happens when there is a long wait to see a bird conversations start up amongst the assembled birders. I was discussing the origins of the Black Stork with a local birder next to me and we got to talking about France, which is where the stork had originated and somehow my new found colleague brought up the subject of the problems at Calais with all the asylum seekers. It became obvious that he was not as sympathetic to the asylum seekers as I was. At this point there are various options; end up in a discussion which can become polarised if you are not careful, gently change the subject or just fall silent. I chose the last but as I stood in these beautiful, peaceful surroundings in a stable country, indulging in my pleasurable hobby, knowing my family are safe and secure and I have a home and future to go to  I could not help but reflect on what awfulness had driven those desperate people in Calais and other parts of Europe from their country and homes, what dangers and privations they had survived and what tragedies and horrors they had endured or seen. Imagine watching your wife and children drowning after  falling into the sea from a capsized boat. I looked around, then up at the sky and clouds and just felt so grateful for my life, my family and my peaceful existence and feeling so desperately sad at the lack of compassion, and all the cruelty and barbarity in the world.

Occasionally a Little Egret hidden in the depths of the ditch would fly up, startlingly white,  before dropping back down again, changing its position. Other birders tried from different viewpoints to attempt to see into the deep ditch but there was no sightline that was any better than where we were standing. I got talking to Steve and Judy who had just arrived from Wakefield  and we chatted about birding to while away the waiting. Steve was a lifelong amateur fisherman who in retirement had decided to take up birding with his wife and was now doing a year list. It's nice when you meet people such as Steve and Judy as it makes the day more pleasurable and in the back of your mind you know that they are kindred spirits and you will probably meet again, maybe not for months or even years but you always have that bond of a mutual interest and of being on a certain twitch at a certain time to unite you.

Time passed by and the tide started to ebb. Small flocks of Dunlin, tiny black dots against the vast background of the estuary whizzed across the sunlit waves heading for a feeding site soon to be exposed by the falling tide. Some people from the caravan site on the other side of The Triangle seemed to be looking down the length of the ditch from a gate at something in the ditch but we could see nothing from where we were. It was going to be a long wait and I recalled that reports from yesterday had said the stork could be elusive, but at least I knew it was still here, so there was no anxiety on my part and I remained optimistic. Two hours had passed however and still nothing had been seen of the Black Stork. 

Then came a bit of excitement. A preview if you like to the main feature. An unexpected but welcome Short eared Owl took to hunting The Triangle, flying back and fore like a huge brown moth, opposite us. It flew with stiff, flicking wing beats, banking and twisting, quartering the ground, turning to stall in the wind, hovering and dropping with tawny feathered legs dangling, down into the long grass but consistently failing to catch anything. It settled on a fence post close by and its vivid yellow eyes with that characteristic look of blazing surprise and shock stared around. It soon took off again and I followed it in the scope, closer now, admiring its plumage of tawny browns and dull yellows mottled with black.

Short eared Owl  c Steve Gombocz
As I watched the owl fly parallel with the 'stork ditch' the smallest part of a black head showed through the grasses, just above the edge of the ditch. It was the Black Stork or should I say a very small part of it!  So small I reckon I had seen about 1% of the bird. It disappeared almost as soon as I saw it. This was no good, I definitely wanted to see it properly but it was a start. Another long wait and then came another vague impression of a blackish brown head but about 2% this time. Things were looking up! Half an hour later and this time a dark head and upper neck were clearly visible through the waving grass at the ditch side before disappearing down into the ditch again. It was frustrating to say the least. Would I ever see it properly?

With three hours gone and little to show for it we were beginning to get restless. The number of birders had risen from ten to forty. Someone said you can see it easily if you enter the caravan site and look down the length of the ditch from the white gate. A friend of his had just done that very thing. The locals advised against this as a specific edict had been made not to enter the caravan park. I was in a dilemna, as were  Steve and Judy. We were just discussing if we would fly in the face of what appeared to be an un-necessary restriction when a disembodied voice shouted, 'Its flying!' 

And it certainly was. A huge black and white bird rose on broad wings from the ditch, flying  into the wind coming off the estuary. Slowly ascending above the ditch it turned downwind towards us and circled low over The Triangle. Enormous, angular and attenuated with a long outstretched neck and pointed bill, legs trailing straight out behind, it cruised around at no great elevation on its expansive wings, the outer primaries splayed like black fingers against the pale sky. A dull black all over apart from  its white underbody, as it passed you could clearly see the white ring on one of its grey legs. It flapped and glided, a trifle ungainly, just circling at no great height around The Triangle for a few precious minutes as if checking everything was to its liking before it came back low into the wind and with wings held outstretched landed back by the ditch, sinking almost into invisibility in the long grass. Wow! The wait had certainly been worth it. I felt that I had now well and truly seen a Black Stork. I would not get a better view than this.

Black Stork c Steve Gombocz
The stork now seemed to be settled once more and again was almost invisible so most birders, including myself decided that this was the time to leave. I bade farewell to Steve and Judy and headed back along the footpath to the Crown and Anchor. It was just on noon so a crab sandwich and a lager shandy in the pub, looking out of the window at the Humber Estuary just yards away across the road, was by way of celebration.

Crown and Anchor Pub
After my lunch I was set to go but not before scoping the mudflats of the estuary, now being exposed by the rapidly receding tide. Hundreds if not thousands of Knot and Dunlin, most still in their breeding plumage crowded the glistening wet mud. The occasional Curlew Sandpiper amongst them added some extra interest.

Then it was time to take the highways and byways to home. Another much desired species had been seen and another dice with lady luck had come to a successful conclusion.

My grateful thanks to Steve Gombocz for the photos of the Black Stork and Short eared Owl


  1. Great write-up as always Ewan & congratulations on your Black Stork. For future reference, if you want to know about the various Spurn locations there's a map at:

  2. How bad must your nightmare have been that driving to Hull was the better option!
    Well done mate.

  3. The irony of a birder who dislikes migrants... great write-up, as per usual.