Wednesday, 1 October 2014

End of an Era and Some Northern Birding

I've been rather relying on some good autumn birding to help bring me back from the pan-species abyss that I blogged about in my previous post but sadly so far it's been a rather quiet autumn in the county. However at the end of the month there was an important milestone in any parent's life: that of taking one's first child of to university for the first time. I can't really believe that our eldest daughter K is all grown up now and ready to fly the nest but on the last Sunday of September she was due to head north to Durham for the start of her term there. It's a long distance to go there and back in one day (though of course most hardcore twitchers will happily do it) so I decided to take advantage of the fact that I'd be up there and to stay overnight to do a spot of birding in an area that I didn't normally get to visit. Naturally enough the long-staying first winter Masked Shrike at Spurn caught my eye. Shrikes have got to be one of the most twitcher-friendly species about: they tend to stay in the same place for a long time (this one had been more than a week there) and to sit up on the top of bushes so that they're easy to see. With it still present on the Saturday, as long as it stayed one more day I was pretty confident of getting to see it. So I booked in at a B&B in Kilnsea for the Sunday evening with a plan of spending Monday morning birding the area before heading back to Oxford at around midday.

Sunday morning K and I duly got up at the crack of dawn and were soon heading north up the M1 which for some reason seemed to consist in large parts of 50 mph restricted roadworks which made for rather tedious driving. Still, as it was early on a Sunday morning there wasn't much traffic and we made good time. To pass the time we played "spot the fresher", looking out for other cars loaded up to the gunwales like ours with bedding and suitcases and there were quite a few heading north with us. At around 11:30 we reached the Durham turn-off and headed into the very picturesque city. As the centre of the city consists of tiny cobbled streets there was a major police operation to co-ordinate the hoards of newcomers and we were directed to a sports field holding area to await further instructions. Fortunately we didn't have to wait long as apparently there were some parking spaces outside K's college and we soon found ourselves being directed up into the heart of the city and to her college. There a team of keen second years were on hand to help unload the car and take her to her room. All too quickly her stuff was unloaded, good-byes were said and she was off to start her student life and I was free to do some birding. 

As it was a surprisingly long further three hours drive from Durham to Spurn I didn't waste any time but quickly ate my sandwich in the car and then headed back on to the motorway, first southwards and then eastwards along the M62. I remembered much of the latter part of the route from last year when I ventured north to see the Ivory Gull. I passed the time listening to a play on Radio 4 and thus it was in good spirits I arrived at Kilnsea at around 4pm. I didn't waste any time but parked up and having spoken to some other birders soon found out that the Masked Shrike was still about in Middle Hedge and showing well. Middle Hedge turned out to be the hedge that runs east to west across the middle of the first field north of the Easington Road as it itself heads eastwards towards the Bluebell Café. There were a group of birders standing in the edge of the field just off Beacon Lane and I joined them and was soon watching the Shrike. 

And what a gorgeous little bird it turned out to be. It was rather petite as Shrikes go with scaly dark feathering over its head and much of its back whereas it's underside was pale white except for an exotic flush of orange colour on it's lower right flank where its adult colours were starting to show. There was a large white patch on its coverts and a white block at the base of its flight feathers, this latter marking it out from a juvenile Woodchat Shrike (which it was originally mistakenly identified as). The main diagnostic feature however was its rump which was dark compared to the always pale rump of a Woodchat. It was very active, working its way along the hedge and frequently flying down to pounce on some prey items of which there seemed to be plenty given the Indian summer we're currently enjoying. I watched it for about an hour, taking frequent photos or just admiring it in all its Shrikey loveliness.

After I'd had my fill I wandered over to the café to see if I could get a little something though annoyingly it seemed just to have closed. I therefore decided to explore a bit further down the peninsula so got back into the Gnome mobile and headed down to the Canal Scrape where I'd heard that a Jack Snipe was showing well in front of the hide. This indeed turned out to be the case and I spent a while watching this delightful wader bobbing up and down right in front of the hide in what amounted for a Jack Snipe to full view.

I wanted to do some reconnaissance work for tomorrow morning to see where the various other location were so I headed further south and parked up just before the gateway entrance to the Point itself. I wandered over to a pond and watched a Hawker dragonfly that was working its way around a small pool in the late afternoon sunlight. Just at that point I heard a down-slurred call. Could that be a Red-throated Pipit? I looked about frantically but couldn't see anything. Sadly it never called again and it's always difficult when something only calls once: the first call gets your attention, then if it calls again you can usually nail it. In the end, despite my uncertainty I put it out on RBA as a "possible" so that people could look out for it just in case. I wandered over to the sea-watching hut where there were a dozen or so Mallards and a couple of dozen Common Scoter on the sea but little else. It was all very peaceful, with passing calling Curlews and a large wheeling flock of what I took to be Knot flying over the estuary in the distance. What's more I had a Mega under my belt and the prospect of some good birding ahead of me tomorrow morning so I was a contented bunny.

The Humber estuary at dusk

By now I was feeling very tired after my early start and long drive as well as extremely hungry so I returned to the Gnome-mobile and headed back to Kilnsea to the Crown and Anchor where I enjoyed a very welcome plate of scampi and chips and a half of Tetleys (well I was in Yorkshire after all). In the pub there was a lot of talk about the recent flooding that the peninsula had suffered at the start of the year. I half listened as I watched the tide creeping up the estuary and ate my fare. Then it was a short drive of a few hundred yards up the road to the Westmere Farm B&B where I checked in to my room. The farmer's wife offered me a cup of tea down in the communal dining area which I gladly accepted. I passed some pleasant time there chatting with the farmer and one of the guests who turned out to be a birder from the island of Islay up in the Scottish highlands. There was more chat about flooding and how the eastern shore is gradually being eroded and the soil is being deposited along the Humber estuary instead. It turns out that the peninsula is a very mobile thing here and is gradually moving. In fact the road down the peninsula was washed away during the winter floods and there is some debate as to whether it should or even could be repaired. The birder and I then talked about birding in his neck of the woods and also down in Cornwall. However, in the end tiredness got the better of me and I headed up to my room, had a quick shower, gave my VLW a quick call and was asleep by 9:30.

Given the balmy weather and the fact that there was so little wind, I had been worried about possible fog the next morning but in the event it turned out to be fine. I was up and ready for my cooked breakfast at 7am and out the door by 7:30. My plan was to head down to the Warren area for a spot of sea watching first thing and then gradually to work my way back up the peninsula. I parked up at the Canal Scrape car park and elected to take the footpath along the eastern shore to the Warren area, being rewarded with a Wheatear for my troubles but little else of note. At the Warren area the Observatory team were busy up on the hillock doing some vis migging and there were a couple of people sea watching in the hut. I asked the sea watchers how they were getting on but conditions were very hazy and they had nothing to report. I therefore decided to hang about near the vis mig team with one ear cocked in case the sea watchers should call out anything.

I soon noticed a moth trap down the slope in the garden of the observatory and asked whether they were being run at present. I was told that the moth man was due fairly shortly and right on cue his car could be seen driving down the road. I went to meet him and politely asked if I could watch him unpack the trap which he was happy with. The traps consisted of a couple of very large Skinner-type traps with weather-proofed MV lamps built in. There weren't huge numbers in the traps but of course the moths were very different from what I would expect in my Oxford garden and I passed a happy three quarters of an hour taking note of the species of interest. The highlight was a Shore Wainscot, which feeds on Marram Grass and which is very localised but there were quite a few other species of interest to me including Tawny Pinion. Blair's Shoulder-knot, Small Blood-vein and various micros.

Blair's Shoulder-knot
Shore Wainscott

With the moths duly processed I went back up to the vis mig site and then wandered over to the sea-watching hut. They'd seen a large diver which was probably a Great Northern but they weren't quite sure. I had a little look and picked out a few Red-throated though couldn't see their bird. Whilst the sea was flat calm the hazy sunshine meant that it was hard to see much so I soon gave up. At that point word came through on one of the radios (that all the hardcore locals carry) that they'd caught a Little Bunting in the nets and were going to release it in fifteen minutes time. Somehow I'd been in the right place at the right time and had managed to jam in on a good bird! I wandered down to outside the ringing hut and in due course the bird was brought out. It was a comparatively subtly marked bird though you could clearly see the greyer lesser coverts with the whitish wing bar, the pale cheek mark, the central crown stripe and the fact that the black border didn't extend along the throat side of the cheek area. All in all a great little bird which was soon released safely back into the wild.

Little Bunting in the hand

Talking of ringing, there were loads of mist nests down in the Warren area as well as a heligoland trap. The main species being caught apparently were Reed Buntings, Meadow Pipits and Tree Sparrows, with large flocks of the latter chattering away in the surrounding bushes. There were various tapes playing away in the bushes to lure birds in and it was strangely disconcerting to hear Meadow Pipit song, followed by Serin and even Red-throated Pipit all in quick succession! 

Coastal Orache species, probably Spear-leaved Orache

By now it was mid morning and it was getting hot! The vis miggers and sea watchers were flagging and I too had had enough so I started to wandered back to the car. On the way a car went passed with a familiar face in the passenger seat. "Keith" I yelled out, for it was indeed Clackers and the car skidded to a halt. It turned out to be Keith Clack and Colim Oram, up for the day to pay homage to the Shrike. We had a good chat and then parted company, they to check out the Warren and I to head back to the car. I had a quick look in at the Canal Scrape hide where the Jack Snipe was in the same place though fast asleep so it took quite a bit of time to see it at all. One of the locals there pointed out a few Med Gulls in the wheeling flock of Black-headed Gulls overhead.

After a while I decided to head back to Kilnsea to see if I could score a cup of tea though the café was annoyingly still shut. I parked by the café and I decided to walk along the road to the Church Field behind the old church where apparently a Common Rosefinch was coming to the feeders occasionally. There I found a couple of photographers sitting quietly either side of a screen in front of the feeders. Notice I say "either side of" rather than behind though they assured me that the bird would still come with them being there and even showed me some back of the camera photos as proof. Personally I wasn't convinced but I decided to stay a while. Various Greenfinches would come and assemble on the wires or in the bushes, look at us warily and then fly off. Whilst I'm sure that eventually they might come in, I was also convinced that they would come in a lot more quickly if the photographers at least stood behind the screen. Eventually the photographers decided that they'd had enough and I too decided to leave at that point.

On the way back towards the café I bumped into a fellow birder who asked me about the Rosefinch. I told him where to look and also that one should really stand back to get best results. I headed on to the café and he to try his luck. The café was still shut (does it ever open?) so I popped in to see the Shrike briefly though it seemed rather distant this morning. Back at the car park I met up with the Rosefinch birder who'd apparently had almost immediate success - he said that he stood right back and had no problem seeing it. As it was more or less time for me to depart I decided that I'd just quickly pop back in there to see if I could see it before I headed off on my long journey back to Oxford. I arrived back at the Church Field to see a few other birders all standing around next to the screen making no attempt to hide behind it. I approached them and politely suggested that we'd all have better luck if we stood much further back. They all looked at me blankly and but didn't seem inclined to move at all. There was clearly no point in even trying to wait with these morons standing around in full view so I headed back to the car contemplating the long journey home.

There were lots of great weeds growing in the Church Field including this Borage

I was just about to get in the car when a bloke called out to me from across the road that he'd just found a Richard's Pipit nearby. He seemed pretty sure about it and gave me exact directions to a field just north of the new Riverside Hotel no more than 500 yards up the road. Needing no further invitation I jumped into the car and headed over there, soon finding the field in question. I was the first on the scene and a short time later another bird (Dutch judging by his accent) arrived and the two of us scanned the field. There were a few Starlings and Goldfinches flying around as well as some LBJ's at the back (probably Reed Buntings) but nothing else. As the field was rather undulating we cautiously decided to walk around the edge to get a better vantage point but we couldn't see anything. I could hear other birders starting to arrive so we moved back to where they all were. Just as we were walking back a bird flew down into the middle of the field and my companion says "that looks like a large pipit.." and indeed it was, a splendid Richard's Pipit. It quickly hopped up to the brow of hillock and showed well on this ridge for several minutes as we re-joined the other birders. I'd sent a text out to Clackers when I'd first got the news and sent another one to confirm the report and then continued to watch the bird. Given the heat haze and the fact that the bird kept disappearing over the brow of the hill I didn't bother trying to digiscope it but just enjoyed watching it and also let others look at it through my scope. Clackers and Colin arrived just as I was leaving and given that the bird was reported later on that afternoon as still present I assume that they got to see it though time was marching on for me and I decided to hit the highway. With a four hour journey ahead I got my gear into the car and headed off on the minor roads back towards Hull, very pleased with my bonus last gasp Richard's Pipit.

The journey back was uneventful though the southbound M1 was just as full of road works and with a lot more traffic on the way back it was quite tricky driving at times. Therefore I decided to try out a new route back and came off the M1 as soon as possible on the A42. This turned out to be a great little route home, taking you down to the M42 and then the familiar M40 back to Oxfordshire. I arrived back home to the bosom of my family late afternoon to enjoy a well-earned cup of tea. It had been a great little interlude up in the north with the long-staying Masked Shrike, a fist full of new moths, a Little Bunting in the hand and a last gasp bonus Richard's Pipit all making for a great time away. I must admit I was most impressed with Spurn and would certainly like to return there again some day. Fortunately K will need ferrying backwards and forwards to and from Durham for some years to come so it would be rude of me not to return to this great site.


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