Birding Trip Report: East Yorkshire: Winter 2018
Day One: 17th September 2018
You may recall my previous article detailing an encounter with a Great Grey Shrike or 'Graham' as he affectionately became known to my girlfriend Paula. Well, barely a week after that, Paula and I were making preparations for the 3 hour car journey from the West Midlands up to the village of Flamborough, East Yorkshire and a quaint former fisherman's cottage that would serve as our home for a few days. This was our fourth trip up to that part of the world in the space of 12 months, and it was well on the way to becoming a second home. Even the drive up there was beginning to feel like a leisurely jaunt rather than a slog up Britain's Motorways. In fairness though, given the time of year, the likelihood of hitting holiday traffic was minimal and thus made the journey north very pleasant indeed. Even so, with it being the beginning of winter the daylight hours are almost at their shortest, thus birding would be restricted to just the few hours of light left after midday.
We arrived at the appropriately named Pebble Cottage in the heart of the village a little after 1pm, unloaded the car and then set off down North Marine Road heading for North Landing and the towering Flamborough Cliffs. It was a cool but bright day with a moderate south-easterly breeze, so when I set up my scope on the cliff top I kept my expectations fairly low, content with simply being able to enjoy views and birds that I would never experience back home. There was a steady stream of European Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls as well as pleasing views of flocks of Common Starling and the odd Eurasian Rock Pipit. A winter plumaged Great Northern Diver (Common Loon) flew past after about an hour and that was quickly followed by 3 Northern Gannets and 7 Little Gulls that looked like mere white specks to the naked eye but showed incredibly well through the scope. A flock of 30 or so European Shags bobbed up and down on the surf more than 300 feet below me, but otherwise it was fairly quiet.
A local dog walker passed by and politely asked whether I’d seen anything. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” I replied. He then asked me if I was looking for Puffins, to which I simply replied “Nope, just looking for anything that might fly past,” He wished me good luck and after a brief fuss of his Labrador he carried on his walk. Bird-wise there were no more highlights from day one, but both Paula and I did have the privilege of seeing the local coastguards out performing a survey of the cliff tops and coastline in their helicopter. They even waved at us as they flew past heading towards the head of the peninsula. Even more amazing was the sight of one of the crew members being lowered down onto the cliff top further along the coastline, in what can I only guess was a training exercise. For landlubbers like myself and Paula it was a truly amazing sight, and both of us agreed that we would never have had the courage to be able to do such a thing.
Day Two: 18th September 2018
We were up early the next morning, well before dawn as a trip to Spurn Point 2 hours further down the East Yorkshire coast beckoned. Spurn Point is another peninsula, but entirely different to Flamborough. Instead of towering cliffs, the landscape is made up of sand and shingle and extends nearly four miles out into the Humber Estuary. Spurn is also the sight of the first Bird Observatory to be established on mainland Britain and over the years have recorded a multitude of rare migratory birds, in fact, at the time of writing they are just 2 species short of 400 in total that have been recorded down the years.
Expectations were high as I tucked into breakfast and digested the recent birding news. My eyes widened as I read the report of a Dusky Warbler that had turned up in the garden of the Old School House along the quaint sounding Vicars Lane in the village of Easington, which lies at the base of the Spurn peninsula.
Pebble Cottage, the old Fisherman's haunt that was serving as our charming home for the duration of the trip was entirely self catering, which was great for Paula and I as we could go about the daily routine at our own pace, rather than scramble to take breakfast at an allotted time. The trip to East Yorkshire was not only a birding holiday but a way of marking our two year anniversary as a couple, so for both of us it was the ideal quiet escape from the humdrum of life in the city. We were all ready to go before 8 am, which was just as well because even from Flamborough the trip to Spurn meant another 1 and a half hours on the road, despite the fact that it was less than 50 miles away from where we were.
We arrived in the village of Easington a little before 10 am, and was relieved to find birders clad in typical green laden with binoculars and scopes walking towards a large industrial complex which we presumed was the local sewage works. Getting out of the car I walked down Vicars Lane but soon realised that I had made an error when I spotted a crowd of birders on the other side of a railing fence talking quietly but pointing excitedly at a piece of hedgerow. Walking back along the Lane, I turned up what I could only imagine was someone's driveway. Presumably, I was okay to simply open the gate and walk in. I guess that in this part of the world, having rare passerines simply turn up in your garden was the norm.
I couldn't help but feel a little naughty as I almost tiptoed towards the throng of lenses, scopes, careful not to inadvertently step into the line of sight of any. I've done that before, and it does wonders for your popularity I can tell you. Fortunately for me a kindly Scottish birder beckoned me over and pointed the bird out to me low down in the hedge in a clump of Brambles. I'd left my scope in the car so simply had my binoculars. I scanned the area the birder was still pointing at. I couldn't see anything at first. But then a flicker of movement and a flash of brown. "I got it!" I said without really thinking. But when the bird decided to reveal itself I could quite easily see it was an Eurasian Wren and said so aloud partly to myself and partly to the chap next to me. Then, slightly further along I caught another flicker of movement and this time there was no doubt. I firstly caught a glimpse of its dusky (hence the name) grey brown/rusty underparts and its reddish brown legs, which at least meant that I wasn't looking at another Wren. Then, barely a second later I caught a brief glimpse of its head, and the eye stripe or supercilium that was sharply outlined in front of the eye. That, and the overall grey brown plumage confirmed that I was indeed looking at Dusky Warbler.
So why the big deal I hear you ask...well, Dusky Warblers normally breed in Siberia and then migrate to Southeast Asia to spend the winter, but somehow this little guy had ended up being blown thousands of miles to the west to a small part of East Yorkshire. Seeing a Dusky Warbler was a personal moment of satisfaction for me in more ways than one, as it was the first bird I'd seen since an individual turned up at Marsh Lane in my home county of the West Midlands.
Whilst off viewing the bird, Paula had contented herself with walking her dog Eddie around the village, but after a few minutes she had appeared on the fringes of the birding community and Eddie's presence in particular won him a fair few admirers.
Footage of a Dusky Warbler from Portland Bill, Dorset
Kilnsea and Spurn
After leaving Easington we pressed on towards Spurn Point, but not before making another but altogether briefer stop at Kilnsea Wetlands. It wasn't a scheduled stop by any means, but the site of several swan shaped blobs on the salt marsh compelled me to at the very least check them out. They're probably just Mute Swans I told myself, but its always best to be sure. However, closer scrutiny revealed that in actual fact almost all of the blobs were Whooper Swans, winter visitors from Iceland and easily discernable from the resident Mute Swans by virtue of their altogether slimmer profile and yellow and black bills. I counted 8 of them in total, but the real highlight of my brief stay was a female Hen Harrier that made a timely appearance drifting slowly but steadily over the Whooper Swans, who were entirely unconcerned by the presence of a Raptor.
We finally arrived at Spurn Car Park itself just before midday and I was particularly interested in taking a look at the new and very controversial visitor centre. Having never been to Spurn before, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it, but I couldn't help but think whether a visitor centre was necessary, given the fact that the wildlife was all around us. I gave the 'Discovery Centre' a wide berth and instead headed for an area known as The Warren to engage in a spot of seawatching. However, a part of me felt incredibly guilty, and I can assure you that it had nothing to do with missing out on the Discovery Centre. No, instead I felt guilty about having to leave Paula and Eddie behind. You see, dog aren't permitted within the Nature Reserve for the understandable reason that they may disturb the wildlife. I had assured her that I wouldn't be too long, but how long is too long, I thought to myself.
The Warren itself was named after a Rabbit warren that existed on the site hundreds of years ago. It seemed strange to me to be standing on a site named after a long vanished Rabbit stronghold, but as I thought about it later on, neither Paula and I saw a single Rabbit on the peninsula. From here the land became basically as narrow as the road that led right down to the Point itself. One the Eastern side lay the Sea and on the West lay the Humber estuary characterised by vast mudflats known as Kilnsea Clays. Walking up to the viewing screen I scanned the flats and found a menagerie of Wading birds including thousands of European Golden Plover. I checked them carefully hoping to pick out either a Grey Plover or something rarer like an American or Pacific Golden Plover, but none were to be found. There were also thousands of Dunlin, Northern Lapwing and Red Knot- although the latter had long since moulted into their grey winter plumage. Common Redshank were also plentiful, as were Black-tailed Godwits and interspersed between the Waders were dozens of Common Shelducks. After that, I literally crossed the road, climbed the embankment and was greeted by what seemed to me like a very violent sea. To my right lay the seawatching hide, that did seem very inviting, but a group of birders had simply pitched up near the coastal path, so I simply went and stood next to them. The wind was strong, Easterlies of at least 45 miles an hour and it was difficult to concentrate on my birding let alone make conversation with the others. The Easterlies did bring some reward though with a stunning flock of Common Eiders that passed fairly close to shore and drew a few appropriate gasps from the others. However, my stay at The Warren wouldn't last much longer. I scanned to my left, looking back towards the Caravan Park at Kilnsea and couldn't help but notice a couple of people playing with their dog on the beach. The pang of guilt returned and without further ado packed up my scope and headed back for Paula and Eddie.
Bluebell Car Park
I walked briskly back to Spurn Car Park and informed Paula of what I'd seen and we quickly relocated to the Caravan Park, and the adjacent and rather charmingly named Bluebell Car Park. The dog I had seen was still here, and Paula took Eddie for a walk down the beach while I resumed my seawatching, However, the real highlight would occur when Paula returned. She had been back to the car to fetch our fold up camping chairs and gratefully I sat down and enjoyed a flask of tea. All of a sudden, I nearly made Paula jump out of her skin, when I loudly exclaimed: 'LITTLE AUK!" She looked at me as if I'd gone mad, but I most certainly hadn't. A tiny Arctic relative of the charismatic Atlantic Puffin had just flown past us and indeed had passed close enough that I would have been able to make it out with my naked eye.
Little Auks breed in huge colonies on coastal mountainsides fairly far from the sea, but then disperse south for the winter, and are in fact a fairly regular site on Britain's North Sea coast. After a little more seawatching which passing flocks of Greater Scaup, Common Scoter and Red-throated Divers (Loons) we headed back for a quiet night.
The Best of Last of the Summer Wine
Day Three: 19th September 2018
Another early start and an altogether different day from the previous two. Day three would be a rare break from birding for me, as this was a day for Paula. You may remember me mentioning that this trip was our way of marking two years together as a couple, so I had set aside a day for Paula to be able to visit somewhere she had wanted to see since childhood. Even from the moment we met, she had talked about how much she had enjoyed watching Last of the Summer Wine either with her parents or her late grandmother, so when I discovered that most of the show had been filmed in the West Yorkshire town of Holmfirth, I promised to take her there one day and that day had dawned.
We were off and on the road for just after 8 am, and within an hour we had already skirted around the historic city of York, catching a glimpse of its famous Cathedral as we drove past, and also caught a glimpse of Leeds' skyline. I couldn't help but notice how similar it was to Birmingham's complete with tall and ultra modern looking glass buildings. Its a testament to the sheer size of Yorkshire that travelling from one to side to the other involves a two hour journey and nearly 100 miles on the clock, that's the equivalent of travelling from my home in the Midlands to London.
I wasn't quite certain what to expect from Holmfirth, a part of me had expected it to be splashed with signs directing us to Last of the Summer Wine landmarks and maybe a tour bus, perhaps with Nora Batty's scowling face plastered on the side. However, a quick look through Yorkshire tour book the previous evening, revealed that Holmfirth was a mixture of quaint charm and modern humdrum- apparently it even had a shopping centre. Upon arrival, we saw no signs, no buses, indeed no clue whatsoever that Last of the Summer Wine had ever existed. We drove around the town twice with Paula desperately scanning for anything she recognised. Finally, we managed to pull over and conduct a more thorough search via the sat-nav and to our amazement found that Nora Batty's cottage was a searchable item, so we relied upon the technology. However, once again we ended up completing another circuit of the town as neither Paula and I could pick it out.
Frustration had started to set in, so we parked up in the nearest car park and resumed our search on foot. This time we were far more successful, as Paula recognised the cottage as we crossed the River Holme on Lower Mill Lane. Interestingly, the famous cottage was now a holiday home and next door to that was a cafe, the aptly named Wrinkled Stocking Tearoom. Feeling slightly disappointed that we couldn't walk round the Cottage we settled down to a spot of lunch in the Tearoom and reflected on our day so far. Paula felt happy to have finally visited Holmfirth and seen some of the places she had grown up watching, but being there in the flesh revealed some home truths. The show presents England at its most quaint, but the reality is that Holmfirth is a busy and bustling town, and even while stood outside the cottage, the sound of traffic was unrelenting, obviously it must have been edited out in the show.
The Search for Hoody and More Seawatching
After finishing our lunch, we journeyed downstairs to have a look round the Last of the Summer Wine exhibition. Admittedly it didn't do much for me, although I was touched to learn that Peter Sallis, known as Cleggy in the show, but also equally well known as the voice of Wallace in Wallace and Gromit had been buried next to Bill Owen (Compo) after passing away last year. Other than that, both Paula and I were both in agreement that Holmfirth wasn't quite what we expected to be. I hadn't intended for this day to be a birding day, but Paula asked me if there were any birds nearby that we could look for- turns out she enjoys the chase almost as much as I do.
A look at my phone revealed that a Hooded Crow, a rare eastern species, closely related to the common Carrion Crow had been spotted in nearby Meltham supposedly feasting on a sheep carcass. The report, at the time was already two days old, so I conceded that it was a long shot at best, but the temptation to check it out was far too great, as the Hooded Crow would be another life tick. However, as expected there was no sign of either the bird or any sheep carcass. Paula pointed out that there's little chance of a carcass being allowed to linger for long. So, without further ado we departed West Yorkshire and made the 2 hour journey back to the East coast.
We arrived back at Flamborough for just before 3pm, meaning that there was a chance to take advantage of one hour of daylight, and what better way of doing that than a spot of seawatching at South Landing. The last time I had been there was back in August when both Paula and I had relaxed in our fold up camping chairs as the hot sun beat down on our faces. On this day, things were wildly different, with an unrelenting easterly wind complete with an icy chill brought from Siberia. It was hard at times keeping my scope upright but in the brief time we were there we did manage to spot a couple of Little Gulls, 22 Eurasian Curlews, 3 Razorbills, a couple of Common Guillemots (Common Murre) and even, bizarrely an Eurasian Woodcock that had clearly travelled across the North Sea- the first time I'd ever seen one at the coast. However, the main highlight of our brief stay was yet another Little Auk, just the one mind, but after waiting my entire life to see one, I had now seen two in as many days.
Day Four: 20th November 2018
The final day of our birding/anniversary getaway and this day marked two years exactly since Paula and I had had our first date. We hadn't planned anything as such, partly because there was the long drive home to consider and partly the fact that I was unsure of where to go. My mind veered towards nearby Bempton Cliffs, home to the largest seabird colony in mainland Britain, but the seabirds wouldn't be there now. Still, there was always the chance of maybe spotting Short-eared Owls, or perhaps something a little rarer like a Lapland Bunting (Longspur). However, a report had come through on my phone the previous evening of a Long-billed Dowitcher- a rare North American Wader that had been Frampton Marsh, Lincolnshire for quite some time. You may recall a previous article of mine in which I reported on a trip I took to Frampton back in August 2018 to look at a Stilt Sandpiper, another rare North American Wader. Well, the Long-billed Dowitcher had been reported at Frampton at around the same time, but had flown off just prior to my visit, so I had assumed it had gone. But, the bird had returned some time after and had been reported fairly regularly since. Frampton was sort of on our way home to the Midlands so after mulling it over in my head, I decided to embark on the three hour trip to Lincolnshire.
Even as I drove along, I considered other options. I thought about dropping in at Bridlington Harbour to check for Purple Sandpipers, another species of Wader, although this one was a regular winter visitor to Britain after spending the breeding season in the high Arctic. It would have been a useful year tick, but I was feeling a tad more ambitious, and after a few moments of silent debate, I was happy with the decision I'd made and so was Paula. We arrived at Frampton at around lunchtime, and you may recall that on my previous visit the weather conditions were downright awful. Well almost three months later, the weather was 10 times worse. The wind must have been at least 50 miles an hour if not more, with that same icy chill I'd experienced in Flamborough, moreover it was raining, and raining hard. Understandably Paula and Eddie remained in the car, as I sloped off to the visitor centre to get directions for the bird.
The Search for Lenny
When I'd first shown Paula a picture of a Long-billed Dowitcher, she took a long look at it, smiled and affectionately dubbed it 'Lenny'. The name was planted in my head and when I went to ask the wardens of the bird's whereabouts, I had to remember to refer to the bird by its proper name rather than its given name. The warden directed me towards an aerial map of the reserve, complete with the locations of the visitor centre, trails and hides. With a marker pen, he had split the reserve into four different zones, each one denoting where each of the star attractions lay. Number 1 was at the bottom and covered the farmland which played host to thousands of wintering wildfowl including Brent (Brant) Geese, Number 2 covered the reserve pools and denoted the presence of a single Whooper Swan, whilst 3 and 4 covered the vast salt marsh that lay beyond the reserve. 3 denoted the presence of the Long-billed Dowitcher close to the public footpath, whilst 4 denoted the presence of Merlins, a small winter visiting Falcon not too dissimilar to a Kestrel. It looked straight forward on the map, simply walk along the public footpath, climb the embankment and scan across one of the world's largest salt marshes for a tiny Wader. I prayed that this wouldn't take long.
Along the way I couldn't help but marvel at the avian Serengeti that greeted my eyes as I looked out onto the grasslands- thousands upon thousands of Eurasian Wigeon along Brent (Brant) Geese, Pink-footed, Greylag and Canada Geese; not to mention the impressive array of Waders including Northern Lapwing, European Golden Plover, Eurasian Curlew and Common Redshank, but the call of Lenny prevented me from getting too carried away. Approaching the embankment, I caught sight of another birder pacing up and down in a rather exasperated fashion, and my heart sunk a little bit- had the bird flew off or was it simply not showing? Either way my initial optimism faded ever so slightly.
Climbing the embankment, I was greeted with a truly awesome sight, a vast expanse of green interspersed with muddy channels, scrapes and small pools, mile after mile of salt marsh. In fact, what I was looking at was one of the largest expanses of salt marsh you’ll find anywhere in the world, extending right up to the mouth of the Wash, and somewhere out there was a Long-billed Dowitcher. I didn’t speak to the other birder, and admittedly even if I had, I doubt I’d have been able to hear anything over the wind. The birder left soon afterwards, so I was left alone to locate the bird.
At first the salt marsh seemed desolate, but a flock of 100 or so Brent (Brant) Geese provided a highlight, and the fact that I could actually hear them was a testament to their vocalisation abilities. As lovely as the Geese were, I was here for only one reason and scan after scan of every nook and cranny, every possible Dowitcher locality proved fruitless. There were a few heart in the mouth moments, when I spotted an Eurasian Curlew, and then a Common Redshank, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not turn either one into a rare North American Wader.
I’m not quite sure how long I was up on that embankment, I’m not sure how many times I scanned the area, for all I know the Long-billed Dowitcher could have been right in front of me, but I just couldn’t locate it. By now, the cold was affecting my concentration and my rain soaked gloves meant that my fingers were gradually losing feeling, so I gave up, slung my scope over my shoulder and trudged forlornly back to the car.
After taking a few minutes to warm myself up in the car, it was time to consider options. It was only 3 in the afternoon, so neither Paula and I were quite ready to return home yet. I couldn’t help but wonder whether we should have dropped into Bempton Cliffs or Bridlington instead. Still, if I had have seen the bird then it would have been more than worth it. I toyed with the idea of visiting Gibraltar Point, but a quick look at the sat-nav revealed that it was an hour away from us, and after driving 3 hours from Flamborough, I wasn’t ready for another long drive, and besides, dusk was just around the corner. Instead, I went for what was hopefully a safe bet, a short 20 minute drive to a Nature Reserve located close to an old airfield at Woodhall Spa.
The main attraction at least for me at Woodhall was the prospect of seeing my first ever Ring-necked Duck, a bird that my North American readers may be very familiar with but my European ones less so. They’re native to North America but are regular vagrants to the UK during the Spring and Autumn. They look superficially similar to our native Tufted Duck, but the best way to distinguish them from Tufted Ducks is the shape of the head. Overall they have a much higher forehead and crown, moreover male Ring-necked Ducks have a noticeable white band on their bills just behind a black tip.
On the way to Woodhall we passed through the village of Coningsby, home to an RAF base that served as a base of operations for Avro Lancaster bombers during World War II and is still very much in operation today. The base serves as the home of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, although when we were in the area, all we saw and heard was a couple of ultra modern fighter jets presumably out on patrol. I’m no aviation expert, but am also certain they were Eurofighter Typhoons.
Arriving at Woodhall Spa, I was dismayed to find that the nature reserve, despite being owned by the Wildlife Trust was gated and the lock was protected by a keypad. There was no way though that I was going to be denied a life tick after coming so far, so I simply clambered over the wall and pointed my scope towards the North Lake, the place the bird had been reported. The weather was still absolutely atrocious and my lens wiping cloth was doing overtime. I promised myself that once I’d seen the bird, we would finally head home. After several minutes of frantic scanning, I located a very smart looking drake Ring-necked Duck in amongst a flock of Tufted Duck. He was a truly beautiful bird complete with high crown and forehead and the distinctive bill pattern that further clinched the ID. The bird actually gets its name from a purplish brown neck collar that is sometimes visible, although on this occasion it was well hidden.
I felt a tremendous amount of relief at achieving a fairly decent consolation life tick after missing out on my main target, but at this stage both Paula and I were ready to return home at last. Although, the amount of miles covered over the weekend had caught up with me so Paula kindly drove us home. As I caught sight of Birmingham’s skyline whilst travelling along the M6, I felt a degree of melancholy as the realisation of returning to normal life beckoned, but at the same time reflected upon a wonderful weekend, and looked forward to a return trip in the New Year.
© 2018 James Kenny