Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Spurn!! (31st August-9th September)

This was the trip I was really looking forward to for months!  Thanks to the BTO I was kindly given a grant for £150 to act as a volunteer at the bird observatory for 10 days a brilliant opportunity to meet like-minded people and get out to simply bird.

To sum up the visit, I can only describe it as obsessive persistent birding, exactly what I was hoping to do.  The vibrant and stimulating environment with equally keen birders and other naturalists is incredibly encouraging and a big influx of young birders was great to see.  Some great young birders with whom I managed to go birding with including local birder Daniel, Liam Langley and David Campbell as well as many other "Next Generation Birders".

I arrived around midday on the 31st August and after a grueling train trip north through the country followed by a short lift from Andy Roadhouse, we started by sussing out the RED-BACKED SHRIKE at Sammy's Point along with 8 Whinchats.

Next up, was a quick nip to Paul Collins (the Warden) before finally arriving at the obs and heading straight out birding!

The first couple days involved exploring the place at random, getting to know the place as well as the people before falling into a routine that coincided best with peak numbers of seabirds/waders/passerines.  First up, was a walk around The Triangle.  A Whinchat and 1 Spotted Flycatcher were decent enough, as were 4 Yellow Wagtails, an additional 5 Whinchats, 1 Wheatear and a Snipe at Beacon Ponds.  A Stoat or Weasel also shot down the path ahead of me.

The Point, was my next attempt and after a long slog of 3 ½ miles down the spit I eventually made it to be rewarded with a single Willow Warbler and 5 Swifts, barely compensation for the effort I had invested to see the Corncrake I had hoped for.

A little disappointed with my first visit to the point I soon discovered the variety and number of waders on the Humber were worth far more appreciation as they included tens of thousands of Knot along with lesser numbers of Dunlin, Curlew, Redshank, Golden Plover, Grey Plover, Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Oystercatcher and 2 Whimbrel 4 Wheatear were dotted along the spit but I was relieved to arrive back at the Warren for a bit of seawatching.  2 ARCTIC SKUAS, both stunning dark morph birds were a great treat as they flew south past the hide and other snippets included 7 Little Gulls, 2 Manx Shearwater and 3 Common Scoter.

An early start on the 1st September brought a couple more migrants to the doorstep and a brief check of the Humber yielded 1 Mediterranean Gull.  A round walk of the fields and scrapes north of the obs produced 15+ Yellow Wagtails, 4 Whinchats and a single Reed Warbler working its way through the hedgerows.  From here onwards I had a longer seawatch with a single RED-THROATED DIVER being a much overdue year tick.  2 Grey Seals also made regular appearances and 2 Whinchats west of the Warren were also of note.

Radios at Spurn are also extremely popular and with passage migrants moving quickly over the point news needs to be circulated quickly to give everyone the best chance of connecting with what’s about.  As a result, a radio through of a Wryneck only a couple hundred meters up the road led me to abandon the otherwise dull seawatch and after a couple minutes I was watching not one but 2 WRYNECKS!!  They fed intermittently on the side of the road before being flushed every now and then, which led them to become more elusive but they were stunning birds none the less.

I was pretty keen to get away from all the busy running about so sat down and click counted Shelducks, a good suggestion by Andy as I managed an impressive total of 1016 birds!  Next up, a brief visit to another local Red-backed Shrike, also residing at The Triangle.  This was yet another juvenile (as was the one at Sammy’s Point) which showed reasonably well, as well as being an added bonus to the day.  I found a couple other migrants dotted about the field margins, including 1 Redstart and 2 Yellow Wagtails4 Ruff at Kilnsea were other additions of note along with 1 Tree Sparrow before heading back to seawatching.  Not much was happening here either but a distant Grey Heron moving north was a surprising migrant.  Yet another surprise migrant came heading towards me at 90 degrees to the shore and it was only when it banked sideways that I realised it was Kestrel!  This was almost definitely a migrant from the continent as I first noticed it as a small unidentifiable dot on the horizon.  However, as it reached the last dozen meters of its flight, it wobbled and pitched down exhausted on the beach after completing its epic trip over the North Sea.  It was a miracle of nature that Spurn seemed to symbolize!  The seawatch also produced a pale phase Arctic Skua chasing Sandwich Terns on the shoreline in front of me which was also a great close up treat.

Red-backed Shrike impaling a bee on a spike at Southfield Farm

There wasn't much else to do once I arrived back at the Warren so once again I returned to seawatching.  The highlights were 2 SOOTY SHEARWATERS, 2 Arctic Skuas, 2 further skua sp. and 1 Little Gull heading north before I finally called it a day.

Yet another early morning start on the 2nd September with more seawatching on the menu!  A little more wind than on previous days brought a couple more birds into action with an increase to 22+ Manx Shearwaters (mostly moving south), 2 Red-throated Divers and 2 Arctic Skuas going south.  A Sooty Shearwater was once again noted going south and 4 more skua sp. were unfortunately a little too distant for certain ID.  A Whimbrel also flew south past us, followed by a juvenile Yellow-legged Gull heading north.  It was only young Daniel and I that remained in the hide seawatching and as it was still first light we were still enjoying a moderate passage of birds.  Up until the point we had a crackly radio call from Adam Hutt who was watching a possible Crag Martin over the Warren!!!  We were less than 50 meters from where he was stood!  The scope was abandoned and within a couple seconds we were on scene.  It had gone by the time we arrived but Adam thought it might have moved southwards down the peninsula so we tore it down to the Narrows in his car, scrambled out the car but there was no further sign, it must have gone…

Back at the Warren we opted for a quick check of The Triangle which produced a single Yellow Wagtail and 1 pos. Wryneck which shot over the tops of the bushes before disappearing out of view.

Other sightings from the 2nd September included a Whinchat at the Warren, a large Toad crossing the road a female Redstart down Beacon Lane and the showy Red-backed Shrike.


A late afternoon seawatch was rather slow going but we did note 1 Little Gull and a single Manx Shearwater heading south.  There was also a little bit of a controversial ID over an albino hirrundine that appeared over the Warren before I picked it up later flying over the caravan site.  Depite rather certain claims that it was a juvenile Swallow by most of the local birders I returned unconvinced to try and set the record straight as I was pretty sure it was a House Martin.  Anyway, here are my best attempts.

albino House Martin

By the fourth day of my visit I was in a steady routine and yet another 6am start rewarded us with 2 Red-throated Divers, 1 Bonxie and 12 Little Gulls on the early morning seawatch.  A total of 21 Wheatear and 6 Whinchats for the day as well as a bonus LITTLE STINT which I found whilst scanning through the waders at Chalk Bank.  The evening seawatch was comparatively dull with only 1 skua sp. seen flying south.

I rolled out of bed at 2am on the 4th to accompany Paul, Jack, Tim and Daniel with the wader ringing.  A total of 20 Dunlin, 1 Redshank and a Grey Plover were ringed and released.

Grey Plover

Next, a quick stop on the way back at Canal Scrape to try our luck at finding a early morning crake.  Instead we chanced upon a Kingfisher which flew in and began feeding from the exposed perch at the centre of the scrape, the first record for the Spurn recording area this year!

Kingfisher in the hand, caught at Canal Scrape

Seawatching once again dominated the day and other than 3 skua sp. and 6 Red-throated Divers we also struck lucky with a VELVET SCOTER that flew close in shore past us.  2 Arctic Skuas, including a dark phase individual chasing terns added a bit of action to the seawatch and I connected with a juvenile Marsh Harrier.  There was an obvious improvement once I returned to seawatching, following a brief excursion to count waders on the Humber as there was a steady trickle of 8 Bonxies, 5 Arctic Skuas, 14 Little Gulls, 1 Black Tern and 3 Arctic Terns.  2 probable CORY'S SHEARWATER also flew north but poor views and controversy over the ID of the birds, which only four of us had seen, led to some disagreement so it was safest left unIDed.

record shot of the Velvet Scoter

2 Bonxies

The 5th started as always with a seawatch.  1 Arctic Skua flew south, 2 Red-throated Divers also followed.  A single Chaffinch flying south was of greater interest to me as it represented the only one I heard on my visit to Spurn!  Passerines of note included 1 Whinchat, a trapped Garden Warbler and later on a WRYNECK was caught and ringed at the obs!  This allowed me to finally appreciate them at a close range, after all, they are stunning birds!  Daniel and I also found 2 Cuckoos and enjoyed yet more good views from the Red-backed Shrike.  A mix of other birds from the days total included 3 Swifts, the remaining Kingfisher at Canal Scarpe, 8 Arctic Skuas, 1 Red-throated Diver, 7 Little Gulls and a Hare.

Wryneck in the hand!

Cuckoo at Southfield Farm

The following day was by far the most productive and despite getting up 15 mins later than usual I still managed to jam in on a ROSEATE TERN that flew north with a group of Common Terns.  There was a general increase of most seabirds with 11 Red-throated Divers moving offshore, 21 Arctic Skuas and 6 Little Gulls before we were interrupted by a radio message from the Warren.  This was followed by a quick sprinted down the slope before setting eyes on a LEACH'S PETREL casually flapping its way across the Humber.  It afforded half decent views as it banked occasionally showing its distinctive rump before gradually moving further east down the river.  Back at the seawatch, we noted 1 Sooty Shearwater, 3 Bonxies, 1 Porpoise and 3 distant skua sp. going south.

pale phase Arctic Skua

A short and uneventful excursion down to the point with Laim and Daniel was rather pointless as the rewards were slim.  Only 1 Whimbrel, 2 Whetaear, 3 Whinchats, 1 Redstart and a Spotted Flycatcher.

It was good to be back at the Warren seawatching again as we saw 2 RED-NECKED GREBES flying south, 1 Balearic Shearwater, 15 Bonxies, 1 Black Tern, 27 Arctic Skuas, 3 Red-throated Divers and 3 distant unIDable skua sp.  Despite the seawatch going well, I couldn't resist a quick nip over to Kew to try my luck for the recently found Rosefinch but just as I was walking into the field, a radio message of news further up the coastline at Grimston of a Long-tailed Skua heading south towards the Warren was enough to have me running back the way I had just come.  I had about 20 mins until the bird would pass the Warren.  However, just as it was predicted to appear the Rosefinch was trapped a couple dozen meters from the site!  Half the crowd, along with myself had a few seconds at glimpsing the COMMON ROSEFINCH in the hand before rushing back up the slope with high expectations of the skua passing but it never came...

Paul Collins reveals the Common Rosefinch at the Warren

I decided to stay until early evening and Daniel and I were rewarded with a Roseate Tern that flew through in the evening roost of Common Terns.

Roseate Tern, a rather blurry white smudge near the front of the flock

The 7th brought a couple more seabirds but it was a big change from yesterdays peak numbers.  8 Arctic Skuas, 2 Red-throated Divers, 7 Bonxies and 6 Little Gulls represented the highlights and we also picked out a Hobby flying over the caravan site thanks to another helpful message over the radio.  Odd ends from a wander around Triangle yielded the usual Red-backed Shrike, 1 Lesser Whitethroat and a brief visit to Kew to enjoy good views of the Common Rosefinch complete with its shiny day-old ring.

Common Rosefinch

twitchers trampling all over Pauls' flower meadow!

Singles of Ruff, Wheatear and Whinchat were all encountered and the afternoon/evening seawatch resembled much the same birds as the last couple days with 1 Red-throated Diver, 6 Arctic Skuas, 8 Little Gulls, 3 skua sp. and 2 Whinchats next to the hide.

Red-backed Shrike at Southfield Farm

showy Red-backed Shrike

The same routine again on the 8th with a morning seawatch to start the day afresh.  This included 4 Red-throated Divers, 2 Bonxies, 7 Little Gulls and 3 skua sp.  At the Warren, Martin Garner picked out a good candidate for a Yellow-legged Gull heading away from us over the estuary after which I had yet another walk around Triangle.  The Red-backed Shrike showed well and I noted a further 2 Ruff and a Wheatear.  Back at the afternoon seawatch, we clocked up 4 Arctic Skuas, 7 Red-throated Divers, 11 Little Gulls, 1 Eider and 1 skua sp.  It was going fairly slowly when I suddenly picked out a Great Black-backed Gull flying south above the horizon.  I checked it through my bins and got a huge shock when a great black head and a huge beak stared back at me!  It almost resembled a Pallas's had it not been for the obvious black back.  After all the fuss, it seemed a GBBGull with a melanistic head might be the best explanation.

Great Black-backed Gull with what appears to be a melanistic head!

The 9th had come and it was my final day at Spurn.  I did attempt a short seawatch and managed 5 Red-throated Divers before I gave up and headed down to the Sheepfields with Clive McKay, a man for a Meadow Pipit obsession and a great person to speak to about the finer details of migration.  I joined him in trapping a total of 27 Meadow Pipits and 2 of the nearby flock of 15 Tree Sparrows which we ringed and released.  Much of Clive's study is focused on the differentiation between the UK and Icelandic races of Meadow Pipits and despite the large overlap in biometrics and personal interpretation of mantle colour (the key features for separating the two races) we did trap and confirm at least one Icelandic Meadow Pipit!

Meadow Pipit of the Icelandic race.  Separated by the colder tone of olive brown on the mantle and marginally longer wing length

also predominantly white on the underside unlike the warmer buff/orange tones of a British race bird

a different Meadow Pipit resembling the British race.  Showing a warmer tone of brown on the mantle

a rather bleached individual

tracial pit on a Meadow Pipit

a rather disgruntled Tree Sparrow

To sum up my visit, it was a brilliant eye opener for the migratory habits of birds and it was a real education meeting and speaking to experts and local birders who all had an enthusiasm for birds at Spurn.  Particular thanks to Andy Roadhouse and Paul Collins for their hospitality and Clive McKay for repeating his slides to me after I missed his lecture!

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