Monday, 5 October 2015

Spurn Delights

It was time to take Daughter 1 back up to Durham for her second year at University. I can't believe that she's been there for a whole year already - where has the time gone? Looking back to the last October trip, I'd gone to Spurn where I'd enjoyed the delights of the Masked Shrike together with bonus Little Bunting and Richard's Pipit - it had been a great visit. All during this summer I'd therefore been looking forward to this trip and in the weeks leading up to it I'd started monitoring the birds in the north east closely to see what I might expect. The Black Stork at Sunk Island had looked tantalising though it disappeared long before I was due up. A decent wave of autumn migrants had hit the coast a couple of weeks ago including a great Arctic Warbler at Spurn though it and all the other migrants soon disappeared. In fact the two weeks leading up to our departure were depressingly quiet with just a few Yellow-browed Warblers left, mostly around the Spurn area. I started to resign myself to a very quiet trip indeed and mentally lowered my expectations to being happy if I could at least see a few Yellow-browed whilst I was up there. Oh well, autumn birding can be so weather dependent and having to go on a fixed date can be very hit or miss.

On the day of our departure we set off bright and early at just after 8 a.m. The roads were reasonable and we made good progress as we sped northwards along the M1. We'd very much got used to the wonderful Indian Summer that we've been enjoying so it was a bit of shock to find that the north of England was shrouded in very low cloud and indeed was rather misty in places. The car thermometer was reporting a chilly 8 degrees as we stopped for fuel - it was quiet a shock to the system! We made good time and in the usual four hours we'd arrived at her shared student house that was to be her home for the year. All her friends helped unload the car (though they "helpfully" unpacked our car warning triangle from the boot as well and put it in her room - I must remember to get that back!). I got given a quick tour of the house which was actually two houses knocked together. It wasn't too bad as student digs go, I've lived in much worse over the years. Then whilst my daughter started to sort out her room I had a reviving cup of tea and looked through the RBA reports to see what was about. An Olive-backed Pipit at Spurn immediately caught my eye - that was new this morning and at least there would be a decent bird to look for. Having seen one at Pendeen a few years ago, it wouldn't be a new bird for me but nevertheless it would be nice to see.

I said my goodbye's to my daughter and headed off down the motorway back towards Yorkshire. I'd just turned off the M1 onto the M62 and stopped for petrol when news came on RBA of a "Pied or Black-eared Wheatear at Spurn". This was getting interesting! The latter would be a new bird and at the very least there were now good two birds to see. Disappointingly for me, a few minutes later it was confirmed as a Pied. Nevertheless I sped eastwards with a bit more optimism about the prospects for this trip - it looked liked I'd lucked into a mini fall.

It's a long old slog to Spurn as I'm sure many of you already know. I'd just negotiated the delights of Hull and was now on the small back roads that lead to the point when news came through on the pager: "Pied Wheatear plus Citrine Wagtail". Wow, this was getting better and better. What's more Citrine Wagtail was indeed a new bird for me. Spurred on I sweated the last fifteen minutes till suddenly there I was at Kilnsea, passing the Crown and Anchor pub and heading down towards the Warren. The birds were being reported down on the narrow peninsula well past the Warren and the Observatory buildings, an area that I hadn't explored the last time I'd been down. I hurriedly parked up, tooled up as quickly as possible and started yomping southwards. I asked people for directions as I went and learnt that it was past the "breach" where the sea had washed away the road and that the Wheatear and the Wagtail were hanging out more or less in the same place. It was tough going on the sand and shingle to go at any speed but I hurried on as best I could passing a stream of birders coming back the other way. In fact myself and one other couple were the only people heading southwards still and I hoped that there would be people still there help with finding the birds.

Past the breach and sweating profusely now from my exertions, I came to a patch of Marram Grass where at the far end a birder gestured to me to go back. Eventually I understood what he was asking and headed back a bit and then cut through the grass to where I came to a sandy track. There I found the classic twitching equivalent of a showdown. On the road at the far end was a phalanx of twitchers. At this end was another, smaller group including me and in the middle, oh joy of joys, was the Citrine Wagtail! It was zig-zagging it's way along the road gradually working its way towards us as it went. I set about trying to digiscope it though it was moving so rapidly that it proved to be a difficult task. Still I got one shot to come out OK in the gloom.

Citrine Wagtail
Eventually it got quite close to us and then someone moved and it flicked away and out of sight over the other side of the dunes down towards the east shore. What a relief it had been to have caught up with it just in time - all the slogging across the sand had been worth it! Able to relax now at having achieved the bird that I'd most wanted I decided to see if I could mop up with some of the other rarities. I wandered further down the spit and after asking various people I learnt where the Pied Wheatear had been hanging out though apparently it hadn't been seen for a while. Most people were moving back northwards now and there was no obvious bunch of twitchers looking at anything in particular. I teamed up with another birder and we started searching the area together. After a while we spotted a few big-lens photographers down on the beach looking at something. That looked encouraging! Eventually we managed to spot what they were looking at, it was the Wheatear flicking about on the rocks on the shore. We hurried down the path a little to get a closer view and as we did so the bird moved nearer to the base of the cliff where we were located. Thus we were able to enjoy great views looking down on our target from our vantage point. And what a great bird it was! The bird I'd seen previously in Gloucestershire had been a very drab juvenile but this was a first winter male.

The Pied Wheatear

Pleased at having now seen the two of the three rarities I made enquiries about the Olive-backed Pipit though apparently it hadn't been seen for some time and was a good distance further along the spit. I decided to quit whilst I was ahead at that point and started to amble back northwards. I managed to get another glimpse of the Citrine Wagtail as it flew low over the Buckthorn and down onto the shore again but it was proving rather elusive now. I stopped to admire some coastal plants and took a few snaps.
Perennial Wall-Rocket
Sea Rocket
As I made my way back I searched the salt marsh for birds though a few Wheatears, Meadow Pipits and a Skylark were all I could find. I stopped in at the Warren to chat with some people by the vis mig spot - apparently the sea hadn't been too bad with a few Skuas going through but there was no other news. Then back to the car where I headed up the road, stopping in briefly at the Canal Scrape hide though there was nothing of note, before heading up to the Crown and Anchor where I'd booked a room for the night.

I had a quick cup of tea and a wash-up in my clean and comfortable room before dinner, then enjoyed a good scampi and chips and a pint of Tetleys downstairs in the pub. A birder came and sat at my table and we got chatting. He was a Spurn veteran of 27 years who somehow managed to miss the news about the birds today (problems with his phone and having left his radio behind somewhere) so he was debating whether to try for the rarities tomorrow morning before the tide cut off the lower reaches of the point. He was a bit reluctant because of the inevitable crowds that would be there tomorrow. He'd also seen several of these species previously at Spurn but still in the end felt that he had to go for them. I wished him luck, happy that I didn't need to got down there tomorrow having bagged them already. There was the Pipit still outstanding but I didn't feel compelled to try for that so I was thinking of hanging around for some bonus stuff tomorrow. I wandered contentedly back up to my room to watch the crunch England vs. Australian World Cup rugby match (with the inevitable outcome) and then read for a bit before retiring to bed. It had been a great day and what had started out looking like a very quiet birding trip had turned into a day to remember.

The next morning I woke up far too early - my mind seems to have got in the habit of waking up exactly two hours before the alarm when I'm out on a trip like this which is extremely unhelpful! Anyway, after a futile attempt to get back to sleep in the end I read for a bit before showering and getting dressed. I was out of the hotel and ready to start birding by around 7 a.m. My plan was to check out the area by the hotel to start with before heading down to the Warren. The pub car park had a few birds about but it was just the usual common stuff. Across the road Cliff Farm seemed deserted so I headed down the road to Kew Villa and the Church Field. I went into the latter location and was just scanning the far bushes when a polite cough over to my left made me realise that I wasn't alone: one of the ringing team was there just checking the nets. It turned out that he'd caught a Yellow-browed Warbler and I waited patiently whilst he processed it so I could take an in-hand shot. They are such gorgeous birds, they're always a pleasure to see.

An in-hand Yellow-browed Warbler
I thanked the ringer for letting me get such a close view and then wandered back up the road to the car before driving the short distance down to the Warren where I parked up and headed over to the Observatory area to see what was occurring. As I walked I met up with a couple of other birders heading the same way and between us we found two Yellow-browed Warblers working their way northwards through the bushes just north of the Warren. That was three of these little gems I'd seen already!

At the Observatory itself there'd been no news on any of yesterday's birds so far so I pottered about in the area, watching the sea a bit though it was very murky and there wasn't much movement, and joining in with the vis migging though there wasn't much going over and people soon wandered off. Still it was great to be here with Goldfinches, Tree Sparrows, Mipits and Redpolls flying about everywhere. I made sure that I stayed close to someone with a radio the whole time so as not to miss out anything.

After a while news came out on RBA of the Olive-backed Pipit still being present though no one on the radio network new anything about this and eventually RBA changed it to "erroneous report". So it looked like all three of yesterday's birds had moved on. Some time later the radios reported that the Citrine Wagtail was now at the Canal Scrape. With nothing better to do I hurried over there to enjoy some seconds of this great bird. It was hanging out right in one corner of the scrape so could best be viewed on the left hand side of the hide which was already several birders deep. Instead I went to the other end where I could get a more distant angled view of the Wagtail as it fed away on the edge of the scrape.

A distant view of the Citrine Wagtail
After a while, as more and more people arrived in the hide it got too much of a scrum and I returned to the peace and quiet of the Warren, stopping off by the small pond where a couple of birders were admiring another Yellow-browed. Back at the Observatory there was yet another Yellow-browed in the bushes by the accommodation which I watched for a while - that was my fifth one of the morning! After that I divided my time between looking out over the sea and looking out over the estuary, feeling relaxed and contemplative. Suddenly news came over the radio of a Great White Egret flying southwards down towards us. We all hurried up to the higher bank to get a better view and sure enough there it was, a large white bird flying against a white cloud backdrop. I took a crappy record shot as it flew by

Great White Egret
News also came over of four Bonxies heading our way so we all started looking out for them. A couple of divers flew by (a Great Northern north and a Red-throated south) and then some people managed to pick out the Bonxies though frustratingly I never managed to get on them in the gloom. After all that excitement I had a quick trawl through the flock of roosting Dunlin and Ringed Plover on the shoreline then it was back down to the estuary side to relax some more and to have a mid morning snack. I passed the time photographing some of the local flora and avifauna and looking at all the birds on the estuary including lots of Grey Plover, Redshank, Dunlin and Curlew. There was also a nice flock of Brent Geese settled in front of us and a smattering of Shelduck.

Buckthorn Berries
Warren Reed Bunting
Time was marching on and as it had got rather quiet on the news front my thoughts started to turn to my long journey home. I didn't want to leave it too late before setting off as the traffic can get rather bad late on Sunday afternoon. Thus at around 11:30 a.m. I went back to the car, de-tooled and started to head off. I stopped off at the Crown and Anchor for a last look across the estuary towards the point. This place was really starting to grown on me: the combination of some great birds and what is a very peaceful location was very appealing - it's just a shame that it's so far away.

Looking from the Crown and Anchor back towards the Point in the distance
Of course the one thing that I was fearful of as I set off home was that something good might turn up after I left and sure enough about thirty minutes into my journey news broke of an Arctic Warbler that had been trapped at Kew and which would be released in a few minutes. Now I was too far away to get back in time for the release and it probably wouldn't hang around so I had to grin and bear it. Anyway, it was getting late and I wanted to get home. As it turned out the Warbler hung around for much of the afternoon so had I gone back for it I would have seen it. Still you can't see everything and fretting over every last missed bird just does your head-in so I remained philosophical about it. After all, yesterday morning I'd been expecting no more than a Yellow-browed Warbler or two and here I was coming away with a Citrine Wagtail and a Pied Wheatear, five Yellow-browed Warblers and a bonus Great White Egret. What's more I'd reacquainted myself with what's fast becoming one of my favourite birding locations. How ever you look at it, it had been a great trip away.

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