Long before I moved to Portland, I thought it would be fantastic to actually stay at a bird observatory somewhere in the autumn. My first choice was Fair Isle, but having decided the logistics were just not practical, I 'settled' for four nights at Spurn. I asked my old mates from college to come along too, Matt Phelps and Steven Penn.
My entire previous experience of the site was a half-day visit back in 2008, within which the place left a lasting impression, having seen my first Icterine Warbler, in-the-hand.
We set off from Surrey mid-morning, and having passed on the White-winged Black Tern in Nottinghamshire through an oversight on my part, we headed first for Broomhead Reservoir on the edge of the Peak District.
It's a lovely place that begged further exploration, but we were here of course for the Two-barred Crossbills. It didn't take long to get good views of Common Crossbill, but the Two-barreds remained hidden, as the flock mostly fed deep in the woods out of view. Just occasionally a few would fly over, but the quarry never landed on the trees within our sight. Another birder pointed out the much softer call of one of the juvenile Two-barreds, but I'm not going to tick the bird on that.
In this area was a group of feeders, and there were at least 3 Bank Vole feeding underneath, as well as Treecreeper and Goldcrest in surrounding trees.
We only had a couple of hours of light left, once we had arrived and settled in at Spurn, for birding. But, just standing outside the accommodation block of Warren Cottage was enough to accrue a decent list of birds out on the Humber and passing over. Best was a pair of Arctic Skua, a dark and a light-phase, spotted by Matt circling around in the Humber, presumably looking for Gulls and Terns to harass. A lifer for Matt and Steve. The other highlight was a Marsh Harrier passing over south, scattering the thousands of Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Dunlin, Sanderling, Ringed Plover, Curlew, Grey Plover, and Golden Plover.
Views over the Humber to Hull, as the sunset delighted.
Yesterday evening was windless, so it was something of a shock when we awoke to a strong gusty northerly wind. This didn't immediately strike me as particularly good for seawatching, but with the regulars suggesting otherwise yesterday, and the awful forecast, we decided to do the short walk to the seawatching hide, possibly for the day.
View from the hide.
We just about managed to find some space in there, as we met a good friend of a friend, and experienced Spurn birder, Tim Cowley. It was immediately obvious that there was a good passage of Skuas occurring, as one after another Arctic Skua passed, some very close. One or two Great Skua also appeared, one of which was being mobbed by a much smaller Skua. Some guys suggested it was Long-tailed, while others weren't sure. A single very distant Sooty Shearwater passed, then a little later a much closer bird showed well. A few Little Gull and a couple of Black Tern went by in addition. The Arctic Skua count was already 70 odd, when we went to the shops to get some lunch.
On our return, we were informed by Tim 'You know what you've missed don't you?' I did. A juvenile Long-tailed. We continued to watch, and delight at the numbers of Arctics, plus a few Red-throated Diver and Common Scoter passing. Some oddities were several Grey Seal showing close-in, a few fleeting Harbour Porpoise, a passing Puffin, plus many Snipe and a late Swift coming in-off. Then, I spotted a very small-looking Skua moving through at mid-distance. One look from Tim and the others, and they confirmed my suspicions. An adult Long-tailed Skua! Lifer! It really did look tiny when it skimmed low over the surface.
Later, I spotted a juvenile Little Gull passing south close-in. Suddenly, Steve Exley, the guy who's in there every single day shouted 'Sabine's close-in!'. As I searched, all I could see was a Fulmar and my Little Gull circling around and drifting south together. I'm not sure who else got onto the bird, but I know that Tim, Neil Randon (also up from Surrey), and Matt all failed to get on it. I know Steve is a mightily experienced chap, and he sees Little Gull everyday, but the bird I saw was DEFINITELY a Little Gull, and it's awfully odd how I didn't see the Sabine's and Steve didn't see the Little Gull. Hmmmm.
Though we spent it all in the hide, a bonzer first full day!
The wind was again howling this morning, and conditions seemed identical to yesterday. Despite this, an early stint in the seawatching hide showed that there were a lot of Shearwaters moving, but hardly any Skuas (final count yesterday 162)! Both Sooty and Manx Shearwater showed well (if you had a scope that is!). More Red-throated Diver were passing, as well as a few sitting on the sea, and oddities included a Pintail, a single Velvet Scoter north, and a Shag. Early on, another birder got onto a distant Petrel, which he proclaimed as a Storm-petrel. I just managed to get onto it the once at it bobbed above the waves, but that's it! I'm going to trust his identification.
Although it was a bit windy still, it was at least looking less rain-threatening than yesterday, so we were determined to actually go out for a walk somewhere. We decided to try Beacon Ponds. We walked down Beacon Lane, and we found a few Willow Warbler and the fields were full of Meadow Pipit and Yellow Wagtail. Before we'd left the cottage, we'd picked up a radio, which came in really useful here. We heard over it that a Purple Sandpiper had just passed the seawatching hide, and I managed to spot it passing quite close-in not so long after. After a bit of a struggle with the paths, we found our way to the hide overlooking Beacon Pools. There were a good number of roosting waders on it, and it didn't take long for me to find a Little Stint on it's own, though it soon retreated back to the forest of legs that were Grey Plover and Bar-tailed Godwit. Also here was a single Snipe and a fly-past Common Sandpiper.
On the way back I got another message, regarding a Red-necked Grebe past the hide. It didn't take long for the immature (still with some face-streaking) to pass our position close-in. Another had also passed the hide earlier, which is odd since we saw no Great Cresteds all week. Also, whilst viewing out to sea, I noticed what I took to be a Skua coming straight at the land. As it got close, it was obvious that it was a very chunking looking bird, with no obvious white anywhere, which had me a little stumped. It made landfall further south, around the Bluebell Café area.
By now, the message that the Red-backed Shrike of Southfield Farm was still present, had been relayed, so that was our next destination. We had no problem finding the site thanks to Tim Cowley's directions, but the Shrike was not immediately in view. What was though was a rare-for-Spurn Kingfisher on the little pond here, as well as a Sedge Warbler. While we were standing here, the alarm-calling hirundines alerted us to a bird of prey. What appeared was a very large, very dark Falcon, which flew around over our heads several times for us to get a good view. It had streaky, almost Hobby-like underparts, buffish undertail coverts, and dark-grey upperparts. The first thought of course was Peregrine, but it was at the upper limit of female Peregrine in terms of size, and it was surely far too dark. Presumably some sort of falconers hybrid? No sign of jesses. That (sort of) solves the mystery of what I had come in off the sea earlier.
We decided to take a chance at viewing from the other side of the triangle. Just a short walk down the road, we bumped into two Tree Sparrow. We'd heard they were in the area, but it was great to just stumble across them. After a Siskin flew over, and we'd checked out the bird-less Canal Scrape, we got round there only to see Neil over the other side using his camera with purpose! Back we went. We had no trouble then, viewing the cracking juvenile Red-backed Shrike on posts.
After we'd found three of Neil's Whinchat in Clubley's Field (at one point there were two plus a Reed Bunting on the same unbellifer stem!), we decided to join him and take our first walk along the point.
We questioned the need to go all the way to the end (especially as the weather looked threatening), so settled in just going halfway, to Chalk Bank Hide. The walk was largely uneventful, save for a couple of Whimbrel on the mudflats, and a Wheatear. I spotted a plant lifer of Prickly Saltwort (the little 'Christmas trees' surrounding it are Sea Sandwort).
On arrival at the hide hidden in the dunes, a rather incongruous Roe Deer showed well, though as it possessed a dark-face, I had trouble eliminating Muntjac at first.
A Greenshank and the only Turnstone of the trip was spotted from here, but nothing else new.
On the way back, the waders were showing ridiculously well. Golden Plover were particularly numerous (here with Redshank).
On the way back, the weather worsened. No doubt that's what caused the best bird of this walk, a Tree Pipit, to be grounded on the beach, again looking very out of place!
On our arrival back at the Warren, we thought there was nothing for it but another seawatch. Virtually nothing was happening, though a particular flock of 250 Common Scoter passing was quite spectacular!
Today had been earmarked by those in the know as a good day for visible migration. It was clear as we got up that there were a lot of Meadow Pipit, hirundines, and Yellow Wagtail milling about the place, as their calls filled the air.
We popped into the seawatching hide though as a routine, even though the wind was almost non-existent this morning. There was little happening though, bar a few Manx Shearwater, Arctic Skua, and a Grey Heron in-off. Steve identified a mid-distance Skua as another Long-tailed, though it didn't look particularly small to me. There had been various reports of interesting waders and the like in previous days at the high-tide roost at Kilnsea Wetlands, so that was decided on our next destination.
We walked all the way there via Southfield Farm and Beacon Lane. At the farm we had yet another out-of-place bird, a juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker perching on telegraph poles, and more views of the reliable Red-backed Shrike. The lack of wind had brought the butterflies and dragonflies out today in force, particularly down the warm Beacon Lane.
On our arrival at the wetlands, I soon spotted a bird of prey chasing a pigeon over the fields. It soon caught it and made off behind the hedges, always distant. Pretty certain it was a juvenile Peregrine. Also here was another Tree Sparrow, and the first Kestrel of the trip. A look at the wetlands themselves revealed a large gathering of mostly Redshank, and Greenshank, with a single Black-tailed Godwit and a lost-looking Golden Plover amongst them. I found a hoped-for Curlew Sandpiper almost immediately, but it soon took flight and went into the middle of the throng. It took a while before I was able to find it again, but it duly took flight once more, and landed in the open, soon to be joined by 5 others! Also three Little Stint together, with another single further along. The viewpoint that we had found, allowed us to view the Beacon Ponds at the same time. There were a similar number of waders on there, but of a different constituent. Grey Plover and Dunlin were the most numerous, but it was nice to find 4 Ruff here, which soon flew over to the Wetlands and showed well.
To eat lunch, we went to the famous Sammy's Point, though there was little of interest here. I did however find the plant tick of Grass-leaved Orache.
There was a juvenile Arctic Skua in the humber, chasing Gulls, and we went on to see probably the same bird close-in off Easington Lagoons (which also produced little in the way of birds).
Once back at base, a birder told us of a Pied Flycatcher around the Warren. While Matt and Steve viewed the area where it was last seen, I went off to search the bushes. I duly found it, and got decent views at the entrance to the heligoland trap. Once I'd got the others over though, it just showed fleetingly, and then occurred a bit of a cat-and-mouse as it flew about the place, never perching in the open.
We then heard of a Redstart down Beacon Lane, so thought it would be worth checking it out. Neil was already there. As I approached him, a bird flew over the path in front and out of view. Neil had already seen the bird, and it sounded as though the bird I had was it. Nevertheless, we continued to check the trees surrounding a house and garden (being careful not to look through the lit windows!). Soon, Matt had a bird flicking about just out of view, and then Steve spotted a bird distantly on the overhead wires. It was our very own Pied Flycatcher! A lifer for all those present bar me, it went on to be just as frustratingly elusive as the bird earlier, as it them moved from bush to bush down the path, though most got acceptable views.
We decided once again on a bit of a seawatch to take us to tea time. More of the same were passing, till a quite a lumbering beast with a pale belly appeared, going north. A nice immature Pomarine Skua! Shortly after, a group of three Skua went back the other way, which I think were also Poms, though they were more distant. One of them looked very much like the bird we'd had before.
A cracker of a day!
The wind had picked up once again for our last morning, so we took the seawatching option one last time. Nothing much had passed, by the time we realised that there was a large number of birds passing over again, so we went and watched from outside.
The constant presence of Meadow Pipit and all three hirundines overhead was spectacular, with every scan into the distance revealing more and more birds incoming. There were also a good number coming in-off the sea in addition (as well as a Wheatear, which rested for ages on a post). I think the final count of Mipits was in the region of 3000! Amongst this lot were a few Grey Wagtail, some Siskin, a flock of Tree Sparrow (which kept going back and forth, as if they couldn't make they're mind up), and a Corn Bunting, which called above our heads, but couldn't be found.
I then spotted a Little Egret passing south out to sea. The others suggested I check it closer, as a Little Egret out to sea is unusual. Although the bird certainly had a dark bill, it also had dark feet, and looked large. It was always fairly distant sadly, but I'm quite happy it was a Great White Egret.
Also occurring amongst all this mayhem, was a Marsh Harrier over the point, alerted to us over the radio, and a Lapland Bunting was found out on Clubley's Field, but could not be found subsequently. Our walk along this short-grass field, revealed just how many birds had been grounded, in addition to passing straight over. In fact, every field we came to today was carpeted with Meadow Pipit!
On our way out we checked Sammy's Point again. No Redstart as had been reported, but a Sparrowhawk chased the massed Mipits. Also a Buzzard was a trip tick.
We then found a hide in the middle of nowhere near Sunk Island to eat our lunch, as we hunted Corn Buntings. None of those were found, but the raptors were good in this area with three Kestrel and a distant Marsh Harrier.
We tried once more for the Crossbill at Broomhead, but they were just not playing ball, and we saw even less of the Common Crossbill this time too. Just not to be.
All in all though, an absolutely cracking trip. Thanks to all involved, but particularly the boys Matt and Steve, who had to put up with much, not least the accommodation, which was looking decidedly used after their busy migration festival weekend! The arrangement at Portland Obs is miles better. Thanks to Tim Cowley too for all his help.
Back to Portland soon, and it sounds like it's all going off down there. Can't wait to get back!
EDIT: Forgot I managed to get this footage of an Arcitc Skua chasing a Tern from the seawatching hide.