Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Year-ticking in Yorkshire

A couple of weeks ago I did an epic University Run up to Edinburgh to drop off my youngest daughter. Well, today it was the turn of the eldest who was due to start her PhD in Astrophysics at Durham. Sadly (for me at least) her PhD is much more like a proper job so I won't be having to ferry her back and forth at the start and end of each term time which means that this is probably going to be the only Durham run that I'm going to make for quite a while. So it was important to make the most of it. As usual I was keeping a keen eye on proceedings in the North East in the days leading up to my departure but sadly there was nothing really stand-out that caught my attention. So in the end I mentally put together a few possibilities and decided to play it by ear on the day. The problem was always going to be overnight accommodation but I tracked down a B&B that was reasonably close to various places like Spurn and put in a provisional booking for Saturday night, asking if I could confirm on the day which they said would be OK.

Saturday morning we set off bright an early just after 8 a.m., stopping only to buy some provisions for the journey before hitting the motorway. We followed our usual route of M40 northwards, then M42/A42 up to the M1. There was quite a lot of traffic for what would normally be a quiet period on Saturday morning and we came to the conclusion that it was a lot of students heading off to University. Indeed we played "spot the student car" on our way northwards, looking out for cars like ours, packed to the gunwales with student belongings. The journey was uneventful though there was some issue to do with the key handover rendezvous to try to sort out en route. Originally the agents had told us that they would meet us at the flat at 12:30 but we then got a second hand (via a flat mate) e-mail saying that it had been pushed back to 1:30 instead. That was rather going to mess with my plans for a speedy getaway to start my birding but it couldn't be helped. So we arrived bang on time at 12:30, parked up by the flat and then walked into town to buy some lunch which we ate al fresco before going for a walk along the river. In the end the agent didn't arrive until gone 2pm and there was all sorts of bother as she'd not brought the right keys (apparently not her fault but a mix-up at the office). Finally however, we managed to get another resident to let us into the building and got the apartment door open (though with the wrong key as it turned out!) and we could commence the unpacking process. This didn't take too long and it was time to say our good byes. This was much less of an emotional affair than a couple of weeks ago (Daughter 1 was much more chilled about it all basically) and I was soon back in the car, ready to plan my birding for what was left of the rest of the day.

With no last minutes Mega's to change my plans but the continued presence of the White-rumped Sandpiper at Tophill Low NR, I thought that I'd go and take a look at that, it being quite a while since I'd seen my only other UK record of this species. After that I planned on heading over to the B&B near Spurn for the night and then spend Sunday morning birding at Spurn before coming back home. I tried to call the B&B to confirm my stay but there was no reply so I headed off and during a fuel stop I managed to get through to sort my stay out. Tophill Low was a reserve I'd never heard of before and it turned out to be right in the middle of nowhere along loads of narrow back roads so quite an effort to get there. I turned up to find quite well resourced and equipped reserve, built next to a water treatment works. There was an extensive car park, a toilet block and visitor centre, a large viewing gallery over the extensive reservoir there and an elaborate network of visitor trails that lead you all around the reserve. I picked up a map (which you really needed to find your way around the place) and headed off for the South Marsh East hide. This turned out to be a good fifteen minutes brisk walk away but after so long sitting in the car it was good to stretch my legs. Along the way I passed loads of different lagoons, all with extensive hides, it really was quite an extensive place. In the warm later afternoon sunshine there were lots of dragonflies zooming about the place, mostly Hawkers (probably Migrant) but including at least one Golden Ringed.

Finally I arrived at the hide to find only half a dozen or so people in there and news that the Sandpiper was still there and on show. I soon got onto it and went about reacquainting myself with this Nearctic vagrant.

The east South Marsh lagoon was a lovely extensive shallow area with a nice patchwork of bars criss-crossing the area, ideal for waders of which there were plenty. There were mostly Lapwing and Snipe with a few Dunlin and a couple of noisy Greenshank. On the duck front there were mostly Teal. I spent some time taking it all in and systematically looking through all the birds to see if I'd missed anything.

The view from the East South Marsh hide
With time marching on I decided to start heading back but as I was in no hurry to be once more behind the wheel I elected to stop off at each hide on the way back just for a quick glance. It turned out that the east South Marsh one was best for waders but there was another that overlooked an extensive lake which was full of Geese and Cormorants as well as some diving ducks. Others looked over smaller ponds with a few Dabchicks. There was so much variety there, it really was a great little reserve. Eventually I got back to the car and programmed in the B&B location to my phone. With a journey time of over an hour I headed off into the twilight along the narrow roads before skimming the outskirts of Hull and then heading east in the darkness on the familiar route towards Spurn. As my B&B was at Holmpton I was directed to turn off at Patringham across a long single-track road through open farmland. In the darkness it looked like the back of beyond. The Sat Nav finally told me I'd arrived but I looked around and could just see empty fields! The post code, which I'd assumed would be accurate enough, turned out to be less than helpful so I had to call my hostess who fortunately talked me in and was waiting for me at the door. As I was getting out of the car a Tawny Owl called close by, a nice first of the year for me. I was soon unpacked and installed in my comfortable room for the night with a hot cup of tea. There I had a little room picnic with some of the provisions I'd brought before checking in back home and then turning in for the night.

The next morning I was up, showered and ready for my cooked breakfast at 6:45 am. I couldn't finish all of it so I saved some bacon and sausage for my lunch and poured the rest of the teapot contents into my flask. Then it was on the road and heading towards Spurn. There had been nothing of note there yesterday apart from a Red-breasted Flycatcher that spent the day in the Crown & Anchor carpark so I decided to head there first to see if it was still about. There I met a few other birders including a chap from Sheffield who was as keen as me to see this bird. The two of us therefore stuck it out for some time as others came and went. My new found companion had one of the shortwave radios to hand and when a Yellow-browed turned up at Easington by the Old School (where the Siberian Accentor was first found) we decided to head off there. So we hopped into our respective cars and a few minutes later were parking up near Vicars Lane. There was no immediate sign of the bird but we met up with the person who'd found it who said that it had moved down the lane a bit. We started to work the trees along the lane and my companion then spotted what turned out to be a smart Firecrest in the trees. As more people gathered in the Lane (there was precious little elsewhere to entertain people) I heard the Yellow-browed call once though no one else seemed to. A few minutes later it suddenly started calling regularly from within a White Poplar and I managed to get some nice views of this lovely warbler. They're always a delight to see despite losing much of their original rarity value.

Warbler watching in Vicars Lane
Having seen it as well as I was going to and with increasing numbers of people arriving I decided to return to Spurn itself to see what else I could find. I headed first back to the pub car park to put in some more time there. Whereas before the sun hadn't really reached the trees properly, by now things were nicely lit up so I wanted to check if the Flycatcher had now put in an appearance. There was sadly no sign of it though a nice Spotted Flycatcher was some compensation.

Spotted Flycatcher on the wires
Eventually I got fed up with staring at the same bushes and decided to head down to the Warren to see what was about though there'd been nothing of note reported on the radio apart from a Redstart and Whinchat as well as an Ocean Sun-fish and some Dolphins on the sea. When I got there the sea watching hut was virtually empty. A couple of birders standing next to it informed me that a few Red-throated Divers had flown part and a few Common Scoter but that was about it. This got me thinking: it was clearly a poor day for decent birds here but there were a number of relatively common species that I hadn't seen this year, perhaps I should work on my year list. Now I don't in anyway "do" a year list but I do keep track of what I've seen over the year. This year has been a particularly poor one: I've been out on far fewer trips than usual, mainly due to work concerns and, apart from meaning that I've posted far fewer blog entries this year, it has also meant that my year tally is embarrassing low. This could be an opportunity to make amends. I had a good idea of some of the common species that I still needed and in terms of sea watching Common Scoter and any of the Divers would be year ticks. So I spent a bit of time watching the sea though to give you an idea of how bad it was: it took me over 15 minutes to see my first bird at all, a Gannet. Eventually I managed to get Common Scoter on the list before giving up. Still this had given me a much needed boost of motivation and so it was with renewed vigour that I resumed my explorings. For starters, there were always Tree Sparrows around the Warren and it didn't take me long to find one - tick!

My first Tree Sparrow of the year
I'd been told that a Redstart (which I needed for the year) had been frequenting the bushes just north of the Warren huts and so in the company of the two chaps who'd been sea watching we went to take a look. There were quite a few birds zipping about in the stunted trees there, mostly Blue and Great Tits. A Whinchat showied occasionally, a Yellow Wagtail flew over, here were a few Linnets buzzing about and a juvenile Willow Warbler went through but that was about it.

Next I turned my attention to the estuary as the tide was at its peak now and lots of waders were close in on the Humber side. A quick scan revealed mostly Redshank, a few Curlew, a few Bar-tailed Godwits (tick), a Knot (tick), a couple of Grey Plover (tick), a few Ringed Plover and a single Greenshank. It had been a useful opportunity to bag some of the commoner waders.

Time was marching on and whilst I didn't have a specific time that I had to be back home I wanted to get ahead of the Sunday evening traffic so I started to think about home. "Just one more look at the Crown and Anchor before I go" I told myself. I was glad that I did because I managed to add Pied Flycatcher to my year list. Whilst not particularly exciting in this context, it is quite a rare species in Oxon so I'm always happy to see one.

A blurry Pied Flycatcher
Finally I had to admit that it was time to leave. So I parked up with a view of the Humber, polished off my packed lunch and had some tea from the flask before firing up the Gnome Mobile and setting the coordinates for home. The rain which had been forecast for this afternoon finally caught up with me and driving conditions were fairly horrendous as I headed back. I didn't arrive back until just before 6 pm in the end, tired but happy with what had been a far more enjoyable trip than I'd originally expected.

My view as I ate my lunch, before setting off for home
Post Script

For this who like a bit of stats, I managed no less than 12 year ticks on the trip in the end. The rarest were the White-rumped Sandpiper and the Yellow-browed Warbler and the commonest was Snipe (how I'd managed not to see one so far this year is quite beyond me!!). My year list tally is now on a magnificent 166 - quite a remarkably low total for this time of year and with much more stringent work commitments coming up for the rest of the year I'm not likely to add many more to it. Still I'd managed to add a few on this trip so it was slightly less embarrassing  than before.

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