Birding Trip Report: East Yorkshire January 2019
Day One: Saturday 26th January 2019
On Wednesday 23rd January, I officially started for my first proper holiday of the year when I drove home from work feeling as a light as a feather at the prospect of the weekend ahead. I had the weekend off anyway but I'd booked a couple of days off either side just to give me an extended break. Thursday was spent exploring my local patch and unsuccessfully trying to track down a Brent Goose that had reappeared at Upper Bittell Reservoir, Worcestershire after going missing for a couple of weeks. Friday was spent exploring local haunts within the City of Birmingham. My main target was to hopefully see an Iceland Gull that had faithfully returned to a site known as Swanshurst Park near Moseley for the past two winters, but so far has failed to show up.
Saturday morning rolled around fairly quickly and I was up early frantically packing and preparing for the 3 hour journey north to Skipsea, and the Village Farm B&B, a place that Paula and I had stayed at twice before and were very much looking forward to returning to. Once upon a time, the prospect of driving for 3 hours would have made me feel tired merely just thinking about it, but now all I felt was excitement. The route to East Yorkshire was a well trodden one now for us, and with each trip it began to feel more and more like a simple jaunt down the road.
Whenever we take a trip up to the Bridlington area, there are several landmarks that we look out for, landmarks that signify that we are back, and that our holiday has began for real. Firstly, there's the Robin Hood Inn at Middleton on the Wolds. It stands out for the name and the quaint appearance of the exterior. It's one of those inviting pubs that draws you in, although we have yet to accept the invitation. The next landmark is a small pond located in the village of Burton Agnes, it has a fair collection of ornamental wildfowl including domesticated Greylag geese. The third and final landmark is the Carnaby Roundabout. Roundabouts in general are not particularly memorable, but this one has been decorated with a replica model of a RNLI lifeboat, and thus to myself and Paula its known as lifeboat island, and for us marks the gateway to Bridlington.
Return to Flamborough
As is often the case we arrived in East Yorkshire before we were due to check in at the B&B so we headed straight for the peninsula that is Flamborough Head, and more specifically North Landing. Back in the summer, Paula and I had sat atop North Landing cliffs happily watching seabirds drift by on a blistering hot day, but the winter offered us a totally different environment. The cafe was closed, and everywhere was eerily quiet. As I readied myself, Paula slipped out to use the local toilets, but quickly returned exclaiming with dismay that they were locked. We had no choice but to relocate, and after stopping briefly at a local pub, we found ourselves on the Head itself parked right by the lighthouse. We had originally planned to go back to North Landing, but the opportunity of exploring the Head itself in daylight was too difficult to resist, as we had only previously visited after dark to admire the lighthouse. Now in the clear light of day, I was finally able to appreciate the Head itself in all of its glory. My eye though was caught by a fairly new addition to the cliff top- a brand new wooden bird hide. The hide, at the time of writing is not quite complete and has yet to be signed off by the local council, but I was privileged and honoured to be allowed in by members of the Flamborough Bird Observatory team, who were busily adding a few final touches to it. I was also equally honoured to be able to conduct a brief seawatch in the company of renowned Yorskshire birder Brett Richards and his wife Cynthia. Brett has personally seen more than 500 species of bird across Britain and Ireland, and also featured in a programme about Twitchers broadcast by the BBC several years ago.
Whilst I was in Brett and the team's company, Paula elected to explore the cliff top trail with Eddie. With my eyes glued to the sea, time became temporarily irrelevant. There was near silence in the hide, with the only noise coming periodically from Brett who gave a running commentary of what he saw. Seawatching for a landlocked birder like me is a very rare treat, and so I was simply content with admiring the Gannets, Guillemots, Razorbills and Red-throated divers that streamed past like frantic passengers rushing towards a departing train. However, the undoubted highlight of the seawatch came in the form of a lone Manx Shearwater that flew south. Manxies are a common sight during the main migration periods, but in January sightings of them are almost unheard of, so it was a very welcome addition to the year list.
After bidding farewell to Brett and the team, I met up with Paula and Eddie who were en route back to the car. I took one final chance to gaze out at the sea and take a lungful of salty air before venturing to the B&B in Skipsea to check in.
Day Two: Sunday 27th January 2019
I can't recommend the Village Farm B&B highly enough. Paula and I have now stayed there three times. Its warm, peaceful, friendly and quiet. Everything that you need to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Breakfast is provided by the proprietor Chrysta and just over the road, the once derelict Board Inn has reopened and according to a few of the locals has undergone a wonderful transformation. I'm not normally impressed by things such as decor and interior design, but the quaint appearance of the pub did impress and the food was pretty good too.
Our second day in East Yorkshire and a look at the weather forecast made for grim reading. Gale force winds from the north west coupled with the promise of sleet and snow. As we ate breakfast, Paula and I poured over options of what to do. Neither of us wanted to just sit in our room, especially given the fact the weather was actually calm and bright first thing. We had originally planned a trip to Staithes in North Yorkshire, but Paula suggested that we head down the coast instead towards the Spurn area. She had fell in love with the area on our last visit and was eager to see it again. Being the birder that I am I needed no further convincing, so we duly headed south toward one of the UK's prime birding spots. Paula took on the driving duties whilst I put myself on weather watch, as well as keeping Eddie quiet. The latter wasn't particularly difficult as Eddie slept for the entire trip.
My eyes lit up once the gas terminal at Easington came into view, and my mind rolled back to November of the previous year when I'd got my first glimpse of a Dusky Warbler in somebody's garden. Instead of heading straight for Spurn Nature Reserve, we veered off and headed for an area of coastline nearby known as Sammy's Point. A quick weather check revealed that things were still fine for now, but the wind was starting to pick up, transitioning from a stiff breeze to gale force. Sammy's Point was an area that I'd only heard mentioned in reports, and recently a Hooded Crow had been frequenting the area. Paula drove carefully down a single track road until we came to a small parking area literally yards from the beach. We exited the car and were instantly bombarded by the full force of nature. It was difficult to stand and walk, let alone search for rare eastern crows. Moreover poor Eddie was shivering uncontrollably. After a mere few minutes, I made the decision to relocate to Blue Bell Car Park in nearby Kilnsea, and it was here that I came up with a bright idea.
The Bright Idea
Once safely back in the car, Paula and I swapped rules, and along the way I relayed my idea. The plan was to park in Blue Bell Car Park in the parking space nearest to the beach, then I would crawl into the back and simply continue to bird but safely out of the wind. You see, my Citroen Berlingo originally belonged to Paula, and she gave it to me when she bought a new car. Both cars have been modified to carry disabled passengers as both Paula's parents are disabled. This means that in the back of the car there are no seats just space, which suits both down to the ground.
After a few minutes we were safely in the car park, and almost immediately the car was buffeted by the howling winds. Moreover, a glance out into the North Sea revealed a menacing thick black cloud heading our way. No matter, I simply took the time to wipe the windows before setting my scope up to commence the seawatch in earnest. Paula and Eddie made themselves comfortable in the front seat and even enjoyed a well earned sleep, whilst I happily counted the seabirds that streamed past. The chief highlights from my car based seawatch were was a single Northern Fulmar, appropriately heading north, 9 Shore (Horned) Larks and 7 Snow Buntings.
I'm not quite sure how long we spent in the car park, but it was at least an hour. During that time I took advantage of the relative comfort and enjoyed a refreshing beverage and a few snacks that doubled up as my lunch. I also took a few moments to simply listen to the gales outside and observe the ferocious sea as it crashed against the shoreline.
I hadn't intended to actually get out and walk anywhere in the Spurn area, but an intriguing report of a drake Green-winged Teal at nearby Beacon Ponds compelled me to try and have a look. Not being overly familiar with the area, I naively assumed that we could simply park up at Kilnsea Wetlands Car Park and walk there. On the map, it looked a simple case of following a path that skirted through the reserve. I had no real need to see a Green-winged Teal, as I'd found my own one the previous March less than 15 miles from home. Still, it would be a very useful year tick; moreover if I did connect with the bird then more than likely it would be the only one of its kind I'd see all year.
We parked up in the gravel-covered car park and unsurprisingly found that we were the only people there. Fortunately, the bird life was fairly abundant in spite of the adverse weather conditions. On the opposite side of the road, a flock of around 15 Eurasian Curlews fed leisurely, seemingly oblivious to the howling gales. I attempted to take a few pictures, but the wind and my virtually numb hands made holding the camera steady virtually impossible. I then led Paula and Eddie through a kissing gate and followed the windy and fairly muddy path towards what I hoped would be Beacon Ponds. But the path abruptly ended at a rather inviting bird hide- had I reached my destination already? We entered the hide enthusiastically and settled down for a spot of comfort birding. I noted flocks of Eurasian Wigeon, Brent Geese, Northern Lapwing amongst others; and a quick glance at the Eurasian Teals bore no Green-winged fruit. After taking a few photographs, I checked my phone map again, and concluded that we hadn't even reached the Pond yet. By my reckoning it was literally the other side of a small ridge that divided the Wetlands from the rest of the Spurn peninsula. But how to get there?
After taking a few moments to rest, I led the windswept Paula and shivering Eddie out of the hide and back down the path. About 200 yards along and to my left I beheld an arable field that currently played host to a small flock of Brent Geese. A path seemingly skirted along the edge of the field towards a gate up on the ridge. Was that the way to get there? I dithered...I didn't want to accidentally step onto private land, neither did I want to disturb the geese. Fortunately after discussing the problem with Paula, sanity prevailed and I abandoned the search. The cold had gotten to all of us, so we headed back to Skipsea and the warmth of the Village Farm.
It transpired that the only way I could have accessed Beacon Ponds would have been to journey back to Blue Bell Car Park, and then walk a mile or so up the beach. Given the circumstances, I felt content with the decision that I'd made at the time.
Day Three: Monday 28th January 2019
Our final day in East Yorkshire, and as usual we intended to delay our trip home for as long as possible. After enjoying one final breakfast at the Village Farm and bidding farewell to Chrysta, we made our to Bempton Cliffs. Bempton is well worth a visit at any time of year, but does tend to be quieter during the winter months, only picking up again once the seabirds return to breed. Unsurprisingly the visitor centre car park was quiet. In fact, it was so quiet we were able to park virtually by the entrance. A glance to my left revealed the overflow car park to be locked; the whole area had a weird sort of ghost town feel to it. As Paula, Eddie and I approached the visitor centre a sign informed us that the entry today was free, although a donation was recommended, which I duly sorted out. Once inside, the lady behind the desk shook herself awake and, after the usual pleasantries she asked if we'd been here before. We of course answered yes, and she soon turned her attention to Eddie.
We didn't stay at Bempton for too long; apparently both Short-eared Owl and Black Redstart had been reported today, but we saw neither. Instead we simply walked to the nearest viewing platform and gazed out to sea. The only birds to be seen on the cliffs were the local Feral Pigeons/Rock Doves. Gazing out to the far distant horizon, the weather didn't look at all promising, and the sea far below seemed angry and hostile. Then again it normally looks angry to a landlubber like me. The seabirds of course were completely undeterred, and as I watched them stream past, I couldn't help but admire one particular Northern Gannet that effortlessly glided through the strong winds. For a moment or two it was almost stationary, as it adjusted its position in accordance with the swirling gales.
We'd actually gone to Bempton for a specific purpose. You see, my brother's girlfriend's birthday was imminent and she has a particular love of Puffins, so what better place to find some relevant souvenirs. Paula of course took care of those whilst I perused the books.
Flamborough and Bridlington
After leaving Bempton, we made the short hop to Flamborough Head for one last look around. I'd heard reports of a female Black Redstart that had been frequenting the area around the fog station, which lies adjacent to both the lighthouse and the new seawatching hide on the edge of the peninsula. Once again, we didn't stay long, as the winds right on the Head itself were bracing to say the least. I searched the fog station, and quickly scanned the surrounding grassland, but my brain screamed for me to get somewhere warmer. Once back in the car, I contemplated the next course of action. We could go north to Scarborough to check out a Great Northern Diver that had been present in the Harbour for some time, but I was more inclined to simply make another short hop to nearby Bridlington for a look around, so after a short discussion with Paula, we were on the move again.
We'd both been to Brid before, but only during the main tourist season, when the pier and seafront had been jam-packed. Now, it wasn't quite a ghost town as such, more like a theatre about an hour before the show is due to begin. As we walked round, we noted the familiar fairground rides, but none of them operating, instead groups of men were busy fixing, adjusting, welding or whatever it took to keep the rides going. A few of the hotels along the front were decked out in scaffolding; it almost felt to me like I had intruded into the backstage area of the theatre. There may have been other tourists there at the time, but all of the accents I could hear were local.
As lunchtime approached the drawback of being in a seasonal town became apparent. Walking down the front we noted that every food establishment was understandably closed. Instead, we had to venture into the town, and even then only found somewhere that opens 4 days a week. Still, we were very grateful for the traditional seaside food. Once the afternoon rolled around, the tide had begun to recede, and the promise of spotting wading birds in the harbour and along the shoreline loomed large. I was particularly looking forward to catching glimpses and taking photos of Purple Sandpipers- waders that breed in the high Arctic and migrate south for the winter. Sure enough, just on the other side of the harbour wall, on some newly exposed rocks I saw my first, then another and another. In fact I counted 18 of these little beauties. Purple Sandpipers though aren't really purple as such, more of a grey brown with a purplish tinge with a fat dumpy body. Alongside them were Eurasian Oystercatchers and numerous Ruddy Turnstones. Turnstones are undoubtedly the most charismatic birds to be found in Bridlington. They easily outnumber the pigeons and successfully compete with them for food. Its quite surreal for a landlocked birder like me to see birds that would be counted as rarities in my own region, darting around people's feet and acting almost as tamely as dogs or cats.
In the Harbour itself the newly exposed tidal flats proved to be a haven for Common Redshank and Dunlin and the shoreline of the beach a magnet for Gulls- mostly the familiar Herring, but with a few enormous Great Black-backed Gulls that strutted among their smaller cousins like pompous schoolyard bullies. By the time the local town clock struck 4 we were ready to leave. Daylight was running out fast and we had the inevitable traffic to consider. Reluctantly, we left East Yorkshire and headed home.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 James Kenny