Sunday 2 October 2016

Spurned 24th-28th September 2016 Part 1

A long planned, long awaited and much anticipated four day birding trip, based at the newly opened Bird Observatory on the Spurn Peninsula near Hull in East Yorkshire finally came to fruition with my good friends Andy, Jason and Clackers.

The weather and more precisely favourable easterly winds had brought numerous good birds to the east coast recently and Spurn had received its fair share in the two or three weeks prior to our visit, the most notable being a Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, but in typically capricious fashion the winds turned southwest just as we set off for our visit. This would not be helpful as we were on one of the extremes of the east coast. There is nothing one can do but remain philosophical and birders are renowned for their optimism, a required attribute if you are to be serious about birding, especially in Oxfordshire, so we resolved to just take it as it comes when we got there and anyway, if there were no rarities there would definitely be some nice birds to see despite the wind not being from the right direction.

I have visited Spurn on a number of occasions before but never stayed overnight, twitching in a day rarities such as Great Snipe, Rock Thrush, Black Stork, Masked Shrike, Citrine Wagtail, Little Bunting, Arctic Warbler and nearby at Patrington Haven an Ivory Gull, and as a result retain fond memories of its unique atmosphere of wildness and abandonment that hopefully may long continue. Currently there is a threat from and major row with Yorkshire Wildlife Trust concerning their ambitious plans to build a vastly expensive and obtrusive Visitor Centre here which will completely obliterate the intrinsic character of the area to the detriment of the thousands of birders who make a pilgrimage to Spurn each year. Planning permission has already been refused once but another application has been submitted, so we duly signed the petition against the Visitor Centre when it was presented to us by three ladies outside the Bluebell Cafe, the current hub for Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. The Obs is nothing to do with Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and rightly, in my opinion, are vehemently opposed to the proposed Visitor Centre but it does seem a shame that two organisations who both have a common interest find themselves at loggerheads due to the obduracy of certain persons in the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.

The 'old' Spurn  Bird Observatory, located at a place called The Warren which is at the far end of the dead end road leading out from Kilnsea, was first opened in 1946 to record the fantastic numbers of migrant birds that occur throughout the year. 391 species of bird have been recorded in the Spurn area to date and over 400,000 birds have been ringed by the Observatory. It is anticipated that the old Observatory will eventually be lost to the sea and that is why the new observatory has been established further inland on more secure ground.

Regrettably I could not accompany my three accomplices on the Saturday having to attend an acupuncture conference near Reading but I managed to leave the conference by mid afternoon and a subsequent four hour drive got me to The Crown and Anchor at Kilnsea at 7.30 that evening to join 'the lads' for dinner. The new Spurn Bird Observatory (The Obs) was conveniently located just a few hundred yards from the pub so I parked the car in The Obs car park and walked to the pub to join the others. They reported they had seen a couple of Yellow browed Warblers and a potential Pacific Golden Plover in my absence whilst I could report seven Pink footed Geese flying over the Humber whilst I  was approaching Hull and a Northern Wheatear flushed from the grass verge by my car's headlights as I neared Kilnsea 

'The Obs' - The new Spurn Bird Observatory -
The Crown and Anchor is the focal point in Kilnsea for birders and general visitors alike and the pub car park plays regular host to birders, who inevitably, in many cases, end up in the pub for a drink and a meal after scanning the  trees surrounding the car park for warblers and flycatchers, both rare and common. On my last visit it was from here that Clackers and myself saw not only a couple of Yellow browed Warblers but also an Arctic Warbler and then celebrated the event shortly afterwards in The Crown and Anchor. 

Jean, the landlady of the Crown and Anchor it is fair to say divides opinion. This may be because she is a  blunt speaking Yorkshire woman and her utterances can be taken the wrong way but I think her heart is in the right place. A look on Trip Advisor shows reviews that are split right down the middle between favourable and unfavourable concerning Jean and her pub so it was with some trepidation that I ventured through its doors to join the others. I need not have worried as all appeared well and Jean was in a good frame of mind and I have to say never gave us cause for concern during the four nights we ate at the pub, whose food, by the way, was superb. I can personally recommend the treacle sponge with vanilla ice cream.

After our meal and a couple of pints it was back to The Obs for a relatively early night in preparation for a serious day's birding on the 'morrow. We made our way back along the unlit path, past the red phone box, doorless but still operational, with the huge Humber Estuary on the other side of the road, unseen but not unheard in the dark, as the strong southwest wind stirred the water into tossing waves breaking on the shore

The Obs, which is a converted house has only recently opened in March this year and therefore the facilities are almost brand new, of  a high standard and designed with birders in mind. We were all in one room, which compared to some I have shared on similar trips was spacious and allowed all four of us enough space to move around and stow all our birding gear such as telescopes, tripods and backpacks without constantly being on top of each other. Kindly, in deference to my more senior years Jason and Andy took the bunk beds whilst Clackers and myself had a single bed each. Two separate bathrooms with hot showers were conveniently situated right next door to our room. Perfect.

We set the alarm for 6.00 am and duly at the appointed hour rose and got ready. The evening before we had discussed what we would do and in what order as there are numerous places to go here to look for birds. We had decided to drive the short distance, about a mile, to the Canal Scrape Hide and have a look there before going a few hundred yards further on down the road to the old Observatory where we planned to do some sea watching from the hide especially built for that purpose.

The road to the 'old' Observatory and the Canal Scrape Hide
Parking the cars we walked down the short, bush enshrouded path to the Canal Scrape Hide and opened the door to take our place on the benches and look out onto the scrape. This scrape is renowned for giving good views of Jack Snipe which normally is a reclusive and very hard to see bird but not here for some reason.

Sure enough there was a Jack Snipe, viewable and close up through the viewing slat at the left hand end of the hide, feeding in the mud and riparian vegetation. I confess that I do have a thing about this diminutive snipe. Many years ago I used to catch and ring them at Hersham Sewage Farm in Surrey, one of which was recovered in Norway and it also probably contributed to me getting married to the woman who has been part of my life for almost thirty years now but that is another story. Superficially they look like a smaller version of a Common Snipe with a long bill and predominantly brown and buff striped upperparts but closer inspection reveals a very beautiful bird indeed. The longitudinal buff stripes on its back are a brighter almost pale yellow, and the feathers between the stripes are shot with green and purple iridescence. 

Jack Snipe
Even more intriguing is its constant gentle bobbing or bouncing of its body on flexed pastel pale green legs as it probes its long bill energetically in the wet mud. Why they indulge in this bobbing is a mystery but it is a unique and somewhat beguiling characteristic and I watched as the Jack Snipe slowly bobbed its way amongst the green shoots of emergent reeds and the yellowing dead stalks of sedges

The Jack Snipe was about the only bird to be seen here apart from a Common Snipe, some Little Grebes, Mallards and an unseen Water Rail screaming in the reed bed, so the others left for the sea watching hide but I remained, determined to make the most of this scarce opportunity to watch a Jack Snipe. It continued its bobbing progress and as it did two sheep that are used to crop the grass short around the scrape came close and the Jack Snipe instantly sank to the ground on bent legs and lay prone and completely still with bill outstretched on the mud and dead reeds, becoming almost invisible, so effective was its camouflage in its chosen habitat. They are so confident in their camouflage that they will only arise when you are about to step on them and sometimes you can even pick them up from the ground. Having read about this behaviour so many times but only ever having seen it once before it was a welcome treat to be able to observe for a second time this response to perceived danger, so very different from the reaction of its larger cousin the Common Snipe which behaves in precisely the opposite manner by hurtling from the ground, at some distance, with a harsh cry and a wild flight high into the sky.

Once the sheep had passed, the Jack Snipe rose and once again bobbed its secretive, silent way into the thicker vegetation and became effectively almost invisible. Satisfied I packed away the camera and left to join the others at the sea watching hide.

Oxonbirders seawatching outside the Hide
The seawatching hide itself was full so we got some chairs and sat outside looking out to sea and the mass of wind turbines five miles out to sea on the skyline with the indistinct shapes of huge ships waiting to enter the Port of Hull anchored beyond them. The wind direction meant that not that much in the way of birdlife was moving but there was enough to keep us occupied with a constant stream of Gannets in a variety of plumages, double figures of Red throated Divers passing, a Great Skua close in along the shoreline and a pale morph Arctic Skua coming ever closer from further out to sea. Andy found a distant Manx Shearwater but that was about it apart from some terns and ducks. 

During our time here a call came through on the intercomm radio, that the volunteer wardens carry to keep in communication with each other, announcing that a Yellow browed Warbler had been trapped and ringed at Church Fields some two miles back along the road at Kilnsea and if anyone wanted to see it before it was released then they should get down there quickly. Andy and myself elected to go but Clackers and Jason decided to carry on sea watching.

We quickly drove down to Church Fields and walked up the narrow path to find Paul, the Spurn Observatory Warden waiting for birders to arrive. Quite a crowd quickly assembled and Paul removed the warbler from the bag and held it up for us to see. A tiny gem of a bird that had come from so far away in Asia, green above and dull white below with lemon yellow stripes on wings and head it struggled to get free from Paul's fingers.

Yellow browed Warbler
Whilst always grateful for the opportunity to see birds like this in the hand I do get a feeling of slight unease about this showing of birds in such a manner and would happily settle for a more fleeting view of the bird behaving naturally in its chosen habitat, but that is just me and I have no wish to appear ungrateful. In fairness Paul recognised that the warbler was getting stressed and released it immediately, whereupon it flew into a willow and was promptly joined by another but both were soon gone into the dense cover and tangle of leaves.

Whilst here we took the opportunity to become 'Friends of Spurn' and I enquired about purchasing a copy of the newly available book Birds of Spurn and was told it would be delivered to The Obs that evening.

Returning to join the others we learnt that we had missed very little and things had not picked up so we all left the sea watching and walked back along the high bank with the estuary on our left that forms one part of The Triangle, an area of bushes and fields that has harboured many common and not so common birds in its time. Today there was nothing rare but four Whinchats perched on the fence wires were nice to see as was a distant Common Redstart, whilst all the time migrant Meadow Pipits and Swallows were flowing past overhead following the narrow peninsula southeastwards.

A short spell in the Crown and Anchor car park and the tiny churchyard, looking for very elusive Yellow browed Warblers also revealed a male Blackcap feeding on elderberries and a Spotted Flycatcher but there was little else to see. 

Male Blackcap

Kilnsea churchyard - a good location for warblers
We revisited Church Fields for Badger and Clackers to also enroll with Paul as 'Friends of Spurn' and then after some indecision, a definite plan was made to go to Bempton Cliffs RSPB which entailed about an hour's drive.


l-r  Andy, Clackers and Badger at the ringing hut
The lure here was reports of double figures of Yellow bowed Warblers which Andy was determined to try and photograph but had failed to do so at Spurn. In bright sunshine we wound our way along empty country roads that meandered in tight curves across the open countryside of East Yorkshire and finally arrived at Bempton which is situated on the coastline above Bridlington and is renowned for its cliffs and breeding seabirds, most of which had now departed, but that was not what we had come to see. It was Yellow browed Warblers and we were told they were showing well in some trees nearby. We could hear them alright but seeing even one proved none too easy and with the strong wind blowing hard through the trees it was a nightmare to pick out a tiny warbler flitting through the twigs, branches and constantly wind buffeted leaves. We all managed to see one eventually but it was still far from satisfactory and Andy once again was to be denied his wish to get a picture of a Yellow browed Warbler. 

Birders looking for a Yellow browed Warbler at Bempton
Much more satisfactory were the numerous Tree Sparrows perching very obligingly in the bushes and trees, sheltering from the gusting wind. Such pretty birds and somehow managing to be much more appealing than their rougher cousins the House Sparrow. Like many birds that were once common in our countryside Tree Sparrows have declined enormously and it was good to see such a thriving colony of them here as they  flew in chirruping squadrons from one favoured area around the Visitor Centre to another.

Tree Sparrow
Andy and Badger headed for the cliffs but I decided to try and get further views of  the elusive Yellow browed Warblers. Just one would be acceptable and after an hour of standing and looking at every flicker of movement in bush and tree I finally located one which contrary to my expectations was not zipping hyperactively through the twigs but was just footling about slowly moving from twig to twig. It was still deep in the cover of the bushes but I felt birding honour had now been satisfied and rejoined Clackers at the Visitor Centre for a coffee. Another look at the Tree Sparrows by the feeding station and then a short wander whilst waiting for Badger and Andy to return from the cliffs gave me the chance to find four Whinchats in a distant hedgerow.

We resolved to finish the day back at Spurn by going to the Kilnsea Wetlands an area of open scrapes overlooked by a small hide and just a short drive away from The Obs. Nothing too exciting was on the scrapes, just single examples of common waders such as Knot, Golden Plover and Bar tailed Godwit as well as three Dunlins, in amongst a selection of ducks, most of which were Wigeon with one Northern Pintail and three Northern Shovelers by way of variety. A Northern Wheatear, bouncing across a grassy bank was a pleasant surprise.

So our first full day at Spurn came to an end. No major rarities for us to eulogise over but the close encounter with the Jack Snipe was a definite highlight for me, so much so that I resolved to go back to the Canal Scrape Hide first thing tomorrow morning to renew my acquaintance with Lymnocryptes minimus.

The Crown and Anchor did us proud once again in the evening, providing just what was needed in the way of sustenance plus a reviving pint or two of cider at the end of a long and rewarding day.

to be continued

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