Led and Reported by Ashley Saunders of Oriole Birding
Tuesday 14th– Heavy rain and light E winds, 15C
It was back to the North-east of England this week for a custom tour for Wensum Valley Birdwatching Society, and with east winds and rain for most of the day, we departed Norfolk rather wide-eyed at the prospect of a day’s birding tomorrow at Spurn. But, we had birds to see on the way too as we made a bee-line for Blacktoft Sands again and it’s long-staying White-tailed Plover. Little did we know that during our drive, a Bluethroat had been found here too and this was very exciting and welcome news when we arrived at the Visitor Centre (via the Tree Sparrows on the feeders)! Thinking the plover would be the easier of the two highlight birds to see, we opted to head straight to Xerox Hide where the Bluethroat had been seen twenty minutes previously, but arrived there to a hide full of people who’d not seen it nor knew exactly where it was. There were two shouts though of quick flight views of it over the reeds – this clearly wasn’t going to be easy! A great show of other birds here though included four Water Rails on view at one time, and they were pretty much constantly on show during our whole visit. Common Snipe, at least three Green Sandpipers, twenty Ruff and a lovely juv Spotted Redshank which flew in calling, were other highlights here. With no further sign of the Bluethroat though, we decided to take a walk east towards Townend Hide to see if the plover was about.
We checked First Hide, where it had been seen earlier, but there was no sign. However, a Glossy Ibis was seen in flight, fairly distantly to the east of us and going away – clearly heading back to Alkborough where it has spent much of the late summer. A Sparrowhawk breezed in and landed in front of us, and a Weasel was also seen, but no plover. On to Townend and there were plenty of birds again here – Black-tailed Godwits, Little Egrets, plenty of duck and another Green Sand. We were told the plover had been here half an hour previously, but had walked behind the small island and might still be there. Deja vu from our last visit here when something similar had happened! We waited for a bit, and then decided instead to go back and try again for the Bluethroat, returning here to check later.
At Xerox Hide, the Bluethroat was showing, and we managed to get one scope onto it as it sat motionless at the base of the reeds. It shot back into cover though before any of the group could see it, so a tense wait followed until it reappeared.. This time it played ball, and we watched it for ten minutes running in and out of the reeds and often standing in the open on the mud cocking it’s tail. It was a male too, with plenty of blue on the bib – though being an autumn bird we couldn’t see if it was white or red-spotted. A superb bird to kick off our tour though, and we added some Bearded Tits to boot. The rain was coming down heavily, but we had half an hour to play with – back to Townend Hide!
The visibility from the hide was grim and nothing on the scrape seemed to have moved an inch since we were last in the hide. We weren’t hopeful, but just then the White-tailed Plover wandered out from behind the small island and stood on the mud among the Teal, facing away from us! Its long yellow legs were the best way to spot it, as otherwise it blended in surprisingly well. Everyone got a scope view, just, before it took flight and headed back west over the reedbed and out of sight. We checked First Hide and Xerox Hide again, but there was no sign, so it must have gone down somewhere else in the reedbed. Still, a fantastic rarity to get on the tour lists again! From here we had just over an hour to run to our accommodation, where we arrived damp and weary about 1845.
Wednesday 15th– Sunny spells and light N-NW winds, 18C
An excellent and varied days birdwatching at Spurn today, on what would be described as a ‘quiet day’ for the peninsula, despite yesterdays excellent looking weather chart that seemingly failed to materialise any East coast grounded migrants of any quality or number. We kicked off with a gentle amble from the Bluebell to Cliff Farm, to get a feel for the day. A Lesser Whitethroat in one of the hedges, and then a lovely Spotted Flycatcher in the garden of Cliff Farm showed a bit of promise but in truth it already felt like it would be very quiet for grounded migrants. Along the canal, a Hobby flew in and circled over the Triangle before continuing south, and six Pale-bellied Brent Geese were on the Humber. We also saw four Greenshanks here and several hundred Golden Plover, and the tide was rising fast and beginning to concentrate lots of waders towards The Warren. We headed back to the van and drove down there to get into position and enjoy the spectacle of birds on the rising water. Grey Plovers were perhaps the stars of the show, with many hundreds present including lots in summer plumage – the light was just fantastic! Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin and Golden Plover made up the bulk of the numbers otherwise, but we picked two lovely juv Curlew Sandpipers out too, feeding on the closest mud. Our vantage point at the start of the breach was ideal with the sun behind us and more and more birds dropping in close to us all the time. At one point everything flushed into the air leaving one wader behind on its own – a juvenile Little Stint! Overhead passage was minimal but included a trickle of Meadow Pipits and Swallows, half a dozen Yellow Wagtails and two Grey Wagtails. There were a few raptors moving too, with 2-3 Sparrowhawks seen, plus a Marsh Harrier.
After checking the bushes around The Warren, we popped into Canal Scrape where we saw a couple of Water Rails and a Willow Warbler, with a Garden Warbler flashing past us near the Discovery Centre. We lunched here, before driving back out of the village to Kilnsea Wetlands to catch the end of the high tide roost. A Spoonbill was resting among the large numbers of birds present, and a lovely 1cy Caspian Gull (German ringed) was at the back among numerous other large gulls. Mediterranean Gulls were also very much in evidence here with scores of them resting on the edge of the scrape, mainly adults but with lots of first-winters too. Other species noted from the hide here included a crop of juvenile islandica Black-tailed Godwits, eight Ruff, a juvenile Spotted Redshank, two Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, juv Little-ringed Plover, six Avocets and several Pintail. Back near the car park, two juv Little Stints showed well with a scattering of Dunlin, Ruff and Ringed Plover.
Thursday 16th – Hot and sunny with light W winds, 20C
A tough day today with some bad luck with the Albatross and pretty quiet on the migrant front in hot and calm weather. We planned to shape our day around Bempton and the Black-browed Albatross which has been in residence on and off for the last couple of months. The only problem is, it’s behaviour is totally random and while some days it spends the entire day on the cliffs, other days it goes out to sea for many hours. It had been missing for most of the previous day so normally that is a decent indicator that it will be around, and we were fairly relaxed! En route to Flamborough we called at Hornsea Mere, a super site especially early in the morning with the sun behind. We soon notched up some nice groups of Little Gulls (surely this is the premier site for this species in Britain?) including a gorgeous adult sat on a buoy just off Kirkholme Point. Among the hordes of ducks we picked out two Goldeneye, and then found the juvenile Red-necked Grebe which had been present the last few days. This was a really smart bird, with striking black and white face pattern, and we saw it really well.
On to Bempton, and we arrived to hear that the Albatross had been on the cliffs earlier, but had now flown out to sea – not the news we wanted to be greeted with. We headed down to Staple Neuk anyway, too enjoy the spectacle of the breeding Gannets which were now in the last throes of the breeding season – in fact one youngster fledged onto the sea while we were there. The views, sights and sounds were as fantastic as ever, but there was sadly no more sign of the Albatross which had been seen to fly way out and not return. With no way of knowing how long it would be before it came back, we put a time limit on it and then headed back.
A Peregrine showed well in front of the viewpoint and our first Wheatear of the week bounced in off the sea too.
Flamborough Head was our next stop, and it was very busy here in the now baking hot afternoon. We did a circular walk of the outer head, which was devoid of migrants but the clifftop route allowed us to scan the sea which was busy with flocks of Razorbills, and lots of Red-throated Divers migrating south. Another Wheatear (a lovely male) was perched on the cliffs below us and a Rock Pipit flew in too. Back too Bempton then to eat our lunch, and give ourselves chance to dash back down to the cliffs ‘on news’ – sadly though it wasn’t to be and the Albatross had not returned. From here we had just over three hours of driving to reach our next destination for two nights at Amble in Northumberland, where we arrived around 1830.
Heading back down to The Warren, we headed up to the seawatch hide for a short session as the light was now excellent for looking out to sea. We had a decent watch, with a trickle of auks and Red-throated Divers passing, a couple of sightings of Arctic Skuas chasing Sandwich Terns, two Common Scoter, and a flock of sixteen Little Gulls. The best bird was a pale/intermediate type juv Pomarine Skua, which appeared on the horizon line shortly after a group of thirty Kittiwakes had moved north. Its chunky appearance was obvious from the off, and in the initial view we thought it might be a bonxie. Better views revealed a massive silver underwing flash, but paler area on the belly and then as it turned and dropped to the water, an obvious pale barred uppertail. It then continued to power on south – distant, but clear-cut views. Heading back to The Warren bushes, the sun was shining on them beautifully and we wondered if something might pop out in the last warm rays of the day. Sure enough, a Pied Flycatcher obliged and gave us some lovely views in the scattering of small oaks and sycamores along the embankment. A Common Whitethroat joined the flycatcher briefly too. A super day!
Friday 17th – Overcast with light SE winds, 18C
Holy Island is always a special place to visit but it served us up a great day full of excitement today!
We headed straight there after breakfast this morning so we could cross the causeway and be in position for the rising tide and check the wader flocks. First checking the beach, we saw lots of Razorbills, a juv Kittiwake and several Red-throated Divers offshore. Then on the estuary, an excellent numbers and variety of birds included at least 500 Pale-bellied Brent Geese, arriving here for the winter from their Svalbard breeding outpost – we were pleased to see some nice sized groups of goslings among them already too. Waders were not to disappoint, with hundreds of Dunlin bustling in and feeding just in front of us, peppered with a few Sanderling and Ringed Plover but not much else save for three Knot. Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey Plovers were mostly clustered up the east end of the bay, closest to the village, and passerines included Stonechat, Reed Bunting, our first Skylark of the week and a single migrant Siskin going south. Up to the village car park next and we opted to head out along the Crooked Lonnen first as we could see hundreds of Golden Plover feeding in a short grass field north of the track. Arriving at a
gate where we could easily view the birds, we were delighted to find that the light was superb and the birds were close and seemingly not bothered by our presence. On the first scan through, we picked a striking bird out that was well marked, small and pale. It showed a prominent white supercilium extending down along the flanks, black peppering on the undertail, a long, heavy bill and long tibia. It didn’t, however, look especially grey. Clearly something interesting, we focussed in on it to see if we could check the underwing. It duly lifted with all the Golden Plover, and showed grey underwings. This was confirmed again a few minutes later when we were able to follow it in flight for a short while in the scope – dusky grey auxillaries. So a ‘Lesser’ Golden Plover – but which one? The bird began to feed actively and scurried closer towards us with each burst. It was strikingly small when seen next to Golden Plover, and had very long legs. The upperparts were coarsely marked with lots of yellow notching to the feathers, and also a lot of white especially in the small coverts. The tertials looked new and fresh, with yellow notches, and there was a fair bit
of retained black on the underparts. It looked a best fit for Pacific Golden Plover, given its structure (especially bill and legs) and the upperpart colour and pattern. The primaries, however, looked rather long and caused some concern that it was perhaps an American. This didn’t fit with the rest of the ID though, and subsequently these fears were allayed by the fact that the new tertials were presumably growing and in fact it only had two on each wing, with the other feathers having been dropped. The length of primaries beyond the tail was well within the ball park for Pacific too so we settled on this as the correct ID. A tremendously smart bird, which continued to show superbly for us and eventually became the closest bird in the flock only a few metres away from us. Time was against us thought as we needed to get back into the village for lunch before the café closed, and so we left the bird hoping to return and loom again afterwards.