Monday, 3 October 2016

Durham October 2016

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, it's now Uni Run season and with now two daughters to move about to various parts of the country this was a busy time of the year. The start of the autumn term up in the North East has in the past always been the highlight of my Uni Run season and up until now I've always (i.e. both previous times) gone to the Spurn peninsula where I've enjoyed birds such as the juvenile Masked Shrike, Richards Pipit, Little Bunting, Citrine Wagail and Pied Wheatear. Could this run of good birding continue for a third year? The week leading up to our departure looked anything but promising with prevailing south westerly winds killing all the action along the east coast. I did remind myself that last year there has been nothing of note in the preceding week only for a bunch of eastern goodies to make landfall on the day of my trip. Fortunately, at the weekend when we were scheduled to go, the forecast was for the winds to change round and indeed Sunday was going to be a strong northerly. "Now, why should this be of interest?" I hear you ask. Well, for sea watching of course. Apparently on the east cost a northerly wind is what you want and this would be a chance for me to have my first go at a proper autumn east coast sea-watch. Now, I don't get many opportunities for sea watching (hitherto they've mostly been down in Cornwall) and because of this there have been a couple of the relatively common sea birds that I'd yet to see. I finally managed to see my first Little Auk at the start of the year thanks to a session at Whitburn but there was still Long-tailed Skua (the rarest of our four Skua species and particularly uncommon down in Cornwall) which had remained obstinately elusive. September was their peak autumn passage month but as it was only just the start of October surely this would present a good opportunity. Anyway, with nothing else in that part of the country to tempt me it seemed as good a plan as any so it was that on Friday I booked somewhere to stay on the peninsula for my trip. Sadly my two usual accommodation locations, namely the famous Kilnsea Crown & Anchor pub and also Westmere Farm, were both fully booked so in the end I found a nice Air Bn'B location at Patrington, 15 minutes drive away from the Point. With that all sorted it was then a matter of cajoling my daughter to finish her packing ready for our departure on Saturday morning.

Saturday duly arrived and the weather forecast was unchanged. There was no great urgency in our departure so it was a little after 9 a.m. by the time we finally sallied forth from Casa Gnome on the familiar slog north. Sadly we ran into difficulties almost immediately with much of the M40 being very slow moving all the way up to the M42. There was no obvious reason for this but it was a frustrating start to our journey. After that things moved more smoothly and we listened to Graham Norton waffling away on Radio 2 for much of the journey as we made our way northwards. Just as we were coming up to the Durham turn-off on the motorway news came through on RBA of a Solitary Sandpiper in Lincolnshire. Bingo! This could be just what I needed and mentally I started to work out the best way there after dropping off my daughter. However, when at a traffic light I had a chance to check the details it turned out that this sighting was two week old so it was back to my original plans. 

As it was freshers week at Durham there was a long queue of traffic entering the city but we soon turned off and made our way down picturesque side streets to where she was staying with her friends for this week until she was allowed access to her room in college. We'd soon unloaded the car and I had a reviving cup of tea whilst she caught up on news. I checked my RBA app - still nothing of note at all so I decided to stick with my original plan and head on down to Spurn. I said my goodbyes to my daughter and was soon heading back southwards on the motorway. It's a long old slog down to Spurn and having done four hours of driving already I was feeling quite tired but I found a good play on Radio 4 which kept me entranced and the miles gradually slipped away. Unlike last year there was no en route breaking Mega rarity news to get the pulses racing and I made steady progress past Hull and through the various villages that precede Spurn Point. Eventually at around 5 p.m. I turned the corner at the Crown and Anchor pub and drove down the familiar road to the Bluebell Café. It's funny, this is only the third time that I'd been here but I felt like a seasoned visitor. I felt knew where everything was and how things worked though of course compared to many people I'm still a complete newbie here. I stopped by the toilets next to the café in order to use the facilities and as I was coming out I met a birder. I asked him what was about and he filled me in though it was nothing new at all that hadn't been on RBA already: a Crane had been seen in flight over Easington, a Wryneck was there as well and a Richard's Pipit had flow over the Warren early afternoon. Apparently, according to the short wave radio network, the sea watching was starting to pick up so he was heading over to take a look. This all tied in with my plans anyway so I too drove the short distance down the road to park up near the YWT reserve sign and to get tooled up. As I was getting ready I looked over towards the sea watching hut which is on the low ridge that runs down the seaward side and I could see a large crowd of people all around the hut. In my relative inexperience I'd never seen it like this before - it was exciting!

I hurried over there to find that the hut itself was of course full and with all the most sheltered outside spots already taken in the end I settled on a plastic chair on front of the hide alongside a seasoned local. The advantage of sitting in front of the hide was that you could at least hear the calls from within the hut where all the locals were. This is often a big issue for me when sea watching: my hearing is not what it used to be and in windy conditions I often can't hear the calls as birds are found so I was pleased to be "in the loop". It was clear that conditions were good: birds were being called every minute or so and it was a constant stream of good stuff. Sooty Shearwaters were on the move in good numbers and there was lots of Skuas going by. What's more the great advantage of sea watching at Spurn is the large number of markers that you have when calling out a bird's location. For a start there was the off-shore wind farm and its associated sub station. The turbines were grouped together with singles at the ends, then two's and three's with a few lots of five in the middle - the "north fives", the "middle five" or "close five" (as they were closely spaced) and the "south fives", before getting into the "fours". Further south there were three or four reference-point tankers of different colours so if people felt so inclined they could tell you exactly where any bird was.

"The Fives"
The fact that we were so low down also meant that issues about how far away a bird was was less important. In Cornwall, where you're watching from a cliff you can easily miss a bird if you're not looking far enough out but here you could see everything within one scope's view. The only downside was that lots of the birds were really far away - I mean often little more than dots. Yet somehow the seasoned pro's at Spurn could differentiate between a Pom and an Arctic even at that range. I'm not sure exactly how far away the birds were but a bit of Googling revealed that the turbines themselves were a good five miles away. Anyway, I did my best to keep up and we managed to see Bonxies, Poms and Arctics in good numbers as well as plenty of Sooties and the odd Manxie or two. On one occasion the local next to me picked out and called a small Skua species that I managed to get on to as well. He confided to me that whilst he couldn't say for certain, he felt that it was probably a Long-tailed. Gradually it started to get dark and I was really feeling cold by now, having been sitting in the wind for about an hour and a half. It had been a great session though apparently I'd missed the best bird, a juvenile Sabine's Gull, which had gone through before I'd arrived. With the forecast for even stronger winds tomorrow I felt quite optimistic that I would get my target bird tomorrow so I walked briskly back to the Gnome mobile (in order to warm up) and headed back towards Kilnsea to look for some food.

The Crown and Anchor had a sign outside that they were only serving pre-ordered food that night which was no good at all. The next village (Easington) had one almost completely deserted pub in it but they weren't serving on a Saturday night. After striking out twice I decided to head back to Patrington where my Air Bn'B location was in order to ask my landlord's advice on where to eat. So it was that some fifteen minutes later I pulled up at an attractive Georgian property on the main road through the village and met my landlord. The house turned out to be an amazing hotch-potch of styles. Almost "shabby chic" with bare boards and old painted furniture but with so much furniture crammed into what was quite a small house that I didn't know where to look next. There were lots of amazing features and the kitchen was wonderfully eclectic. As a gardener, my landlord made a living selling dried flowers and there were hanging up everywhere over the ceiling. It was all most striking!

The characterful kitchen - you can see the dried flowers hanging from the ceiling

Anyway, my host recommended the Station Hotel, just five minutes up the road which even did gluten free food (which sadly is a necessity for me these day). He even phoned ahead to check that they could fit me in and booked me a table for me - so helpful! The food turned out to be really tasty and I enjoyed a drop of Black Sheep, a local bitter, which went down very well. Whilst there I met a couple of visiting birders who'd sat next to me at the sea watching hut and who were now on their way back to Derbyshire so we chatted whilst we ate. Watching distant dots over the sea wasn't really their thing and we debated the pro's and con's of sea watching. Soon we went out separate ways and I headed back to my lodgings for the night. Even though it was still only just gone nine o'clock I was so tired that I went to sleep, dreaming of distant bird dots against a backdrop of white wind turbines and ships.

My stylish high-frame bed

The next morning I awoke just before 6 a.m. as intended and after dressing and having breakfast with my landlord down in his kitchen I packed and was soon back on the road to Spurn Point. My plan was to get there at around 7 a.m. as it was getting light and whilst I more or less managed this, it turned out that everyone else had got there much sooner and the hut was completely full and there were a couple of dozen birders dotted around the hut as well, mostly to the leeward side of the hut. In the end I sat in front of the hut with a few other people though the wind was much much stronger and blowing just east of north so I got the full brunt of it. Fortunately, I'd learnt from yesterday's experience and had put on every bit of clothing that I'd brought with me on the trip so I was better prepared. 

It turned out to be a similar experience to yesterday afternoon though in the increased wind I found it very hard to hear what people were saying in the hut at all. One of the young locals was sitting next to me and occasionally I asked him what had been said. The action was steady but not quite as fast as yesterday evening. Sooties were the most numerous good bird and a Balearic Shearwater went by but I couldn't hear where it was and couldn't get on it myself. Part of the problem was that in the wind my scope was shaking quite a lot so that it was hard to make things out. Various Skuas were going by though in smaller numbers than yesterday, some of which I managed to get on but all in all it was rather hard work in the conditions. As the wind moved around to a more easterly direction it was blowing more and more straight into us at the front of the hut. The local next to me gave up after a while, the wind proving too much for him and I too eventually had enough and moved around to the leeward side of the hut. There I found a small free standing space to occupy where mercifully it was more sheltered. Fortunately they also had the flap open on that side of the hut so that there could be some communication and so it was easier to hear. The nice thing about being on this side of the hut was that you could hear the birds behind you and it was comforting to listen to the regular chirps of the Tree Sparrows in the bushes by the old observatory. A flock of three Redwings (my first of the autumn) came in off the sea and landed in the bushes behind us briefly before moving on.

Sea watchers - after the crowds had thinned out
After a while I realised that the chap sitting in a chair in front of me seemed to know what he was talking about. I find that as a comparative novice at sea watching, it's always worth working out who knows what they're doing and this chap was calling out some good stuff. After a while I finally heard from him those words that I was waiting for "possible Long-tailed Skua heading south" though he was a bit vague on directions despite some prompting from me so I wasn't able to get on it before it passed. How frustrating! Still, it was an encouraging development. Less than five minutes later and he called again "Long-tailed Skua heading south" - no possible this time so he must have been pretty sure. This time the location was more clear and just as it passed the last of the turbines south I got on it. Bingo - Long-tailed Skua in the bag! It was going at quite a pace and a few moments later it was gone but still I'd seen it clearly. Now all the frustration and shivering in the wind was forgotten and I was a happy bunny.

Gradually the wind was dying down and with it were the birds. People started to leave until eventually there were only a couple of people in the hut and I went in to join them. I carried on for five minutes or so but when "Yellow-browed Warbler at the Canal Hedge" came on someone's radio I decided that I'd had enough of watching distant specks on the sea and also that I need to do some walking to warm up and stretch my legs before my mammoth drive home that afternoon so I headed off to see if I could find it. The Canal runs along the estuary side of the Triangle from near the entrance gate back up to Cliff Farm which is opposite the Crown and Anchor. I'd never actually walked very far along this way so it would be a perfect opportunity to stretch my legs and to see if I could year-tick a Yellow-browed. I asked everyone I met whether they knew anything about it but no one did. Someone told me that a second bird had been reported at Cliff Farm and that that one might be easier to get so I wandered all the way up there. A few people were staring into the garden of the house there but no one had seen it for a little while. I too stared in a half-hearted fashion for a short time though I soon got bored and headed back the way I came. Back at the southern end of the Triangle I found some people who'd seen the original bird over in the scrub south of the Canal Scrape hide and after a little while I managed to see it as it moved its way along the bushes there. A wheezing call alerted us to a Brambling which had just flown in off the sea and it came down to land on a fence post in front of us though it moved on again before I could get my camera out. Time was marching on and my thoughts were now turning towards my long drive home so I started to head back to the car, hearing a Lesser Redpoll go over and seeing a flock of three more Brambling as I went.

I just love the landscapes that you get at Spurn
Back at the car I de-tooled and started to think about lunch. Normally I'd stop at any convenience store for some crappy sandwich but these weren't likely to be gluten free so I had to think more carefully. I knew that M&S did gluten free stuff and in the end I decided that I would set off and see if I could find a store at one of the local petrol stations. I headed off, though soon had to stop somewhere to take off several layers of cloths as I was still all dressed up for my sea watching and in the car I was far too hot. There seemed to be no M&S stores at all before Hull - I did try a Co-op but they had nothing gluten free. In the end I just kept going, joining the motorway on the west side of Hull and heading southwards. Finally at mid afternoon I came across the first M&S services and I was able to stop for my sandwich. The M42 south (which I normally take) was closed for refurbishment this weekend so I ended up staying on the M1 all the way down to where it joins the A43. There were various jams and slow patches on the way so it all took longer than it should but with the radio for company and the comforting glow of a successful morning's birding I didn't really mind. Finally at around 6 p.m. I was back home at Casa Gnome where I indulged in my traditional post-trip celebratory cup of tea and a chance to catch up on news from my VLW. It had been a long but very enjoyable weekend away.

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