Monday, 9 September 2013

Spurn Migration Festival

Unfortunately, due to university getting in the way, 2013 will be the second year running that I am unable to make an October visit to the enchanting Isles of Scilly. It's hard to describe the feel of birding on Scilly to someone who has never visited but the constant anticipation of what might be found at any moment coupled with the great craic of an evening in the Scillonian Club makes it an experience that is hard to beat. When  Migfest 2013 was first advertised earlier this year, Dave Campbell and I decided to go as at that point I needed all of the Scandinavian drift migrants and he still needed a couple of the trickier ones. We booked to stay at the legendary Spurn Bird Observatory and over the following months anticipation for the event was heightened by the realisation that I'd have a good group of mates going including Scott Reid and Alex Jones. I knew that I was likely to see some decent birds but I didn't think the trip would match the feel of Scilly birding; how wrong I was!

Dave picked me up at around 15.00 on Wednesday afternoon and we took a leisurely drive over to Spurn stopping for our ritual Maccy Ds in Hull. Upon arrival at the obs we were greeted by Andy Roadhouse as well as a hoard of young birders: Dan Langston, Samuel Perfect, Tim Jones and Jack Ashton Booth. After sitting in on the log and a couple of hours discussing the potential for the days ahead we got an early night in preparation for an early start the next day. I instantly warmed to the digs at the Warren Cottage, cosy and affordable accommodation steeped in birding tradition, but that night I could barely sleep due to a potent mix of excitement and anticipation of the days to follow.

Thursday 5th September

After getting what amounted to no sleep, the day started at the ungodly hour of 05.30 with an early morning seawatch. Conditions weren't conducive for a heavy seabird passage with light winds and a heavy mist hampering visibility. Still several Arctic Skua and a couple of Red-Throated Divers were a nice reward for the effort. After a couple of hours I decided to give up and head for the triangle to check for migrants. As I was walking past the obs I was stopped by Jack and Tim who had just caught a Wryneck which they were about to ring. After a 15 minute wait the bird was released and we treated to incredible views of this cryptic stunner in the hand. A magical experience and a sign that there were birds to be found!

With the promise of migrants in the air me and Dave headed to Canal Scrape to Spurn tick the showy Kingfisher before undertaking a lap of the triangle. This produced a smart Cuckoo and at least half a dozen Whinchat which appeared to be fresh migrants working their way inland. We then headed to Southfield Farm where the juvenile Red-backed Shrike, seen on my last visit over a week previously, was giving great views as it fed on bees and other insects along the hedgerow of a garden. This hedgerow appeared to be a magnet for migrants producing a Sedge Wabler and a couple of Reed Warblers in addition to the Shrike. While watching the bird we also picked up 2 Common Swift  heading south, up to that point my latest ever British record!

After enjoying the shrike, Dan and I decided to have a wander around Sammy's Point which produced an adult Mediterranean Gull, a male Redstart and a flyover Common Buzzard. We then met Dave in the Crown and Anchor where we cooled down with a drink before retiring to the Warren for an afternoon combination of seawatching and vismigging. This was fairly quiet but a Hobby heading south was a decent Spurn bird and a couple more Arctic Skua took the days total to 7 birds. A northward passage of 12 Little Gull was also nice to see. As darkness fell we headed to the obs to complete the log before staying up talking birds for a few hours. Over the course of the evening two Spurn stalwarts, Pete Wragg and Adam Hutt of Rock Thrush fame, arrived making the obs a slightly more crowded place. After getting introduced it was off to bed for a few hours sleep in preparation for another early start.

Friday 6th September

Dawn saw us camped out in the seawatching hide where the fresh north-easterly winds produced a decent seabird passage. Highlights included around 20 Arctic Skua heading south accompanied by a decent Teal passage. Suddenly Dan's radio crackled in to life and Adam Hutt on the other end announced that he was watching a Roseate Tern head out to sea from the Humber over the warren. All eyes were instantly fixed on the sky and we soon picked up the bird, obvious from its small size and buoyant flight action, as it headed out to sea with a flock of commics. After this excitement we quickly back down to seawatching but a short while later a second message from Adam caused pandemonium as he informed us that he was watching a LEACH'S PETREL over the humber! We all emptied out of the hide and sprinted down to where Adam was standing on the banks of the river. After an intial struggle I managed to get on to the bird which gave great views as it bounced back and forth over the river. I'm a huge seabird fan birds so seeing such an enigmatic species this well, despite having seen them before, was one of the highlights of the trip and perfecetly illustrates the potential of Spurn to throw up suprises. Hats off to Adam for the find, an awesome birder who always seems to know where the right place to be is! After this we returned to the sea where 2 Sooty Shearwater heading north rounded out the morning nicely.

The rest of the morning and early afternoon passed by quietly with a wander down to the point in the company of Dan and Samuel producing little except an Eider and a Spotted Flycatcher. Despite the promising conditions, the expected rain never materialised and this was shown by the lack of new migrants on the ground. We therefore decided to head back to the Warren and spend the afternoon seawatching. Seabirds were still passing by in numbers when an unconfirmed report of a Common Rosefinch came through over the radio. At first I decided to ignore it however when it came through as genuine on the pager I dashed up to Kilnsea to have a look. We were attempting to relocate the bird in Church Field when a report of a Long-tailed Skua heading south past Grimston came through. Samuel needed this so we decided to prematurely abandon our search and head back to the Warren to continue our seawatch. On route we met Scott, Samaya and Alex who were accompanied by NGB members Matt Bruce, Zac Hinchcliffe and Chris Bridge. They excitedly informed me that they had found the Rosefinch meaning that I could no longer pass it off as a juvenile Greenfinch (although Pallid Harrier was suddenly a distinct possibility)! Most of them also needed the Skua so we headed back to the warren to search for it.

Upon arrival it was apparent that things had kicked up a gear with a large movement of Manx Shearwaters and a constant passage of Fulmars in evidence offshore. I was settling down and enjoying some close Arctic Skua action when the radio informed us of another Common Rosefinch in the bushes along the road just north of the warren. Moving faster than I ever had before I dashed down there in time to see a silent finch drop into the bushes where Adam had set up his nets. After a short wait 2 Greenfinch and a flock of Starling we're flushed out of the bushes but there was no sign of the Rosefinch. As the bird had apparently sat tight I slowly headed round the back of the bushes with Ray Scally. Soon I heard the bird urgently giving its Phyllosc like call before a chunky brown bird flicked left. I moved further round and the bird bolted flying round in a circle calling before dropping straight into the net. BOOM! COMMON ROSEFINCH on my list! Adam quickly processed the bird before it was shown to the large crowd which had quickly assembled. Although drab in comparison to a stunning adult male, it was a smart bird and constituted my only lifer of the trip. After the excitement we continued seawatching with a self-found juvenile Black Tern heading south the highlight. the Arctic Skua passage also continued with my personal total for the day reaching a whopping 44! As evening fell we retired to the pub for a nice meal and a few celebratory pints. A fitting end to one of my best ever days birding!

Common Rosefinch (c) David Campbell

Saturday 7th September

A very quiet day in comparison to Friday. Another early morning seawatch produced a large northwards passage of Manx Shearwater as well as the expected Arctic Skuas, Little Gulls and Red-throated Divers. Clear skies quickly made the sea virtually unwatchable however so we decided to wander down to the point to look for migrants. We managed to get a lift in the landrover to Chalk Bank where 4 Curlew Sandpipers gave excellent views from the south hide. We also saw 2 Black Terns, a juvenile and a moulting adult, and a nice Artic Skau which gave great views over the Humber. The wire dump and the sheep fields were fairly quiet producing only a couple of Lesser Whitethroats and Spotted Flycatchers. After getting good views of the juvenile Red-backed Shrike at Southfield Farm, where a digiscoping instructor captured the excellent image above on my phone, we returned to the warren. The highlight here was a group of 14 Common Snipe which flew in off during our seawatch, evidence of visible migration in action!

The highlight of Saturday was the evening entertainment. First we were treated to a sumptuous hog-roast and several glasses of wine before an excellent lecture by the legend that is Martin Garner on being the best birder that you can be. After this we retired to the pub for another session of drinks. The craic here rivalled the Scillonian and spending time here chatting birds with a good group of mates was one of the highlights of my year! I was also privileged to have a ten minute chat with Martin Garner, a humble and down to earth guy as helpful and inspirational as anyone I've ever met! This rounded off a great evening and gave me a few great ideas for future birding trips.

Sunday 8th September

Another quiet day with the weather conspiring to produce few birds either on land or on the sea. Most of the morning was spent attempting to relocated a Lesser Golden Plover which was heard calling in flight by Adam Hutt over Westmere Farm. Despite our best efforts the search failed however we did locate a cool partially leucistic Golden Plover with white primary flashes reminiscent of a Great Skua! After checking Kilnsea wetlands where I got nice views of Curlew Sandpiper, I headed back to the Warren to pack up. Here I met Dave who informed me of some discussion about a possible Baltic Gull in the area. After some inquiry we learned that the bird was infront of the Kilnsea Wetlands hide so headed back up there to view it. The bird was showing excellently when we arrived in the hide and was being carefully studied by Adam, Martin and Pete. Structurally it seemed bang on and most of the plumage seemed to be a fairly close match to the expected for juvenile BALTIC GULL. I have almost no clue about the finer points of identification of fuscus type Lesser-Black Backs and the bird is still under discussion but it was great to learn from Martin in the field. There is also the possibility that one day in the not too distant future this could potentially be an armchair tick.

The gull provided a nice end to an incredible trip and shortly after watching it I was heading home cramped up in Alex's car with Zac, Matt and Chris. Overall the quality of birds may not have been as high as hoped for but I still managed one lifer in the form of Common Rosefinch. More importantly I made some new friends, met some great people, saw some great birds and learned a huge amount! I also really took to the pace of birding at Spurn and could only liken the feel of the place to birding on Scilly. I plan to make another visit to the obs in the coming weeks and in the long term I hope to one day own a caravan at Spurn. Hopefully the legacy of this trip will be long-lasting and it will prove to be the beginning of a new chapter in my birding life.

1 comment:

  1. You've summed up the atmosphere excellently. It might not have been brimming with birds but we saw some bloody good ones and it was fun, educational and encouraging being around so many good birders, many of them young. The birds and people we spent time with reminded me once more how utterly amazing the hobby is, something that Martin's talk communicated beautifully.