Sunday, 23 September 2018

Corncrakes, new binoculars and lifers...8/8/18-9/8/18


A long but very worthwhile journey in Angus the Twitchmobile took us to one of our favourite places - Spurn - for their annual Migfest event and a chance to take part in the Young Birder of the Year competition.


The morning, and trip, began with a an early visit to the famous Easington cemetery. To sum it up, there were no birds were in the trees besides a wren. A slow start. However the highlight was the welcome sound of a TREE PIPIT flying South, one of two seen in the Spurn area that day while a close second was a MERLIN which sat for ages on a post (shocker!) and was a wonder to behold. We checked around the Easington area, venturing into the village a short way before it was time to head to the obs for the Spurn Young Birder of the Year Award.

 The judges took the 14-16 year old birders to vis mig and seawatching tests while the under 13's entrants were set to estuary watching, bushes and the lab test. I found the bushes hard, probably as this was my first test and I was nervous. I definitely did not say a calling robin was a calling wren. Cough cough cough! 
Due to lack of migrants, birding was tough. The only migrant was a phylloscopus in the crown and Anchor car park which disappeared immediately and did not call, meaning I could not identify it. A few questions were asked like the difference between thrush nightingale and nightingale and naming two short distance migrant chats and two long distant chats. I think I got half marks on the nightingale and full marks on the chat question (stonechat and black redstart followed by whinchat and redstart respectively). 
Estuary watching seemed easier, as the species we had to identify were fairly clear; golden plover, curlew, dunlin and grey plover. The questions were on lekking and which of a list of waders had white rumps. 
The lab test was more difficult with some topography questions. The bird was a dead whimbrel and the areas asked for were the primaries, the secondaries, the mantle, the rump, the undertail coverts, the median crown stripe and the supercilium. I managed all of them besides the secondaries. As soon as I pointed to the part of the bird I thought they were, I immediately realised they were actually the primary coverts, but it was too late to correct my answer. The calls were redwing, linnet, robin and great tit. 
Dead whimbrel

Whimbrel, not going anywhere

Very showy whimbrel

Next up was vis mig and seawatching sessions. Vis mig came first and it is fair to say there was not much to look at. A few meadow pipits flew south to the west of us and a flock of 6 tree sparrow landed nearby in the scrub. The question was on a graph of pipit migration. I used my patch to my advantage as two years ago I would have said that the graph with a steady line throughout the year with a peak in late September and October would be meadow pipit. However I had a day count of 213 this April so worked out that the graph with a small Spring peak and large Autumn peak would be this species. The pipit with no numbers in winter, a peak in spring and smaller peak in autumn had to be tree pipit while the other with a peak only in October was rock pipit as water pipits are absent in Britain in the summer months. 
Seawatching went rather well, I successfully listed the features that made a flyby tern a sarnie, identified a juvenile common gull which drifted south and identified one of three great blacked gulls as a 2nd calendar year. However the questions were real stinkers. The first was relatively easy with the difference between little auk and guillemot, not including size. I hoped my answer - stubby bill and faster wingbeats was correct and then came the hard one. What is the difference between juvenile white winged, black and American black tern in Autumn? Ouch! I managed to remember about smokey parts on American black but flopped on white winged. This was thanks to James King who a week or so earlier twitched the American black tern at Dungeness, Kent and on his tweet put " note the smokey parts". Thanks James! 

We then headed back to the obs for some lunch as the judges totted up the scores. Angus won for the 14-16 category and I won for the under 13s!  Thanks to Opticron for the amazing binoculars I won, and to the BTO and Spurn for my subscription to Friends of Spurn and some interesting bedtime reading.

The closest of many golden plover feeding on the Humber. This would be an absolute mega on my patch!

The day went on with some windy birding.  A rosefinch (a lifer) was in Big Hedge for many parts of the day which was nice, if the bird itself was a little dull. Thinking that the birds would be in more sheltered locations, I poked my head into a thick hedge leading into Church Field from Easington Road to discover a chiffchaff and a goldcrest flitting back and forth. 
We spent some time birding with the enthusiastic and very knowledgeable David Walsh and Kabir Kaul, a young birder who also took part in the competition. A reed warbler in the triangle was the best bird that we saw, but a PIED FLYCATCHER calling near the obs garden was a nice sound. The day flew by as Kabir's Mum took the offer from my Mum to go back to the warmer and dryer Westmere farm as she took me, Kabir and David to the cemetery in Easington. There were no flycatchers around, but a distant but good view of a tree sparrow was nice. Unfortunately, Kabir had to go the next morning but he at least saw the rosefinch which ended up being the rarest bird at mig fest. 
Common rosefinch (PHOTO FROM DAVID WALSH)

A lecture in the evening from a Long Point birder in Canada was very interesting. Every birder in the audience was drooling over the birds they have had there such as blackpoll warblers, song sparrows, Connecticut warblers (surely there must be one of these in Europe soon) and a delicious array of other American species which have either not been in the UK or not been here very often. I believe the most common American songbirds on this side of the atlantic are red eyed vireos and myrtle warblers but I may well be wrong in saying that. 
He also talked about Motus, a bird tracking system, which I hope will start to be used in UK bird observatories soon. I would love this radar system at my patch and Spurn as I believe there is a strong correlation between numbers of migrant passerines there, followed by similar numbers about a week later at my patch. It would be interesting to see if any meadow pipits or hirundines over my numpties were actually birds that have passed through Spurn. Motus is an amazing radar tracking technology. Just by tagging a bird, any Motus radar will "pick up" the birds signal if it is in a 10 mile radius. This allows bird observatories across North, Central, and South America to see where even the exact same bird is going as it could potentially pass through several Motus-using areas. Brilliant!

The hog roast was delicious, as always, and then it was off to the brilliant Marquis of Granby B&B in Easington, ready for another early start the next morning. 

Tree sparrow near the cemetery


The day started early with an important decision. Sky and sea scanning from Numpties, or walking the Triangle. Walking the Triangle it was. Before starting, we checked the Breach and scrub around Warren Cottage with no luck apart from a WHEATEAR which, sadly, Mum didn't catch as it flew across the breach. Many stunning plumaged grey plover scurried on the beach as dozens of ringed plovers flew across us and onto the estuary. The Triangle seem relatively quiet until the last field in which a reed bunting flew across. As I turned to look at it, a small head popped up from the long grass. "ooh that's interesting" was my initial thought. As the head popped up again a few seconds later it displayed greyish streaking, overall grey colour to the face and a triangular bill. 

"It's a corncrake!" I shouted and Mum quickly looked at the field to catch a glimpse. Another birder was further down the path and we called him over with frantic waves. The bird was now at full stretch and in open grass, showing a lovely orange body. After a couple of seconds, realising it was not being elusive and annoying, it scurried into the long grass at sanderling speed, never to be seen again. I was straight away struck by the small size of the bird. I have always pictured them being perhaps coot sized to pheasant sized, but it seemed as though it was perhaps similar in size to a blackbird! Unsurprisingly, the encounter was all too brief for photos and my camera had run out of batteries anyway. The CORNCRAKE was not seen again that day, but nearby sightings the day before and one two days later in the next field to the East may all have been the same bird. 
We left the field at about 8:45am for breakfast, leaving about 30 birders still looking for it. While eating a lovely cooked breakfast back at the B&B, a message came out on birdguides saying the earlier report of corncrake was erroneous. Of course, we were gobsmacked, and texted James Spencer, who saw the bird with us, to confirm it had, indeed, been a corncrake. He replied with
"There is no doubt that is what it was." 
I have to admit to being in a bad mood, thinking that someone must have thought that I had mistaken the corncrake for a female pheasant. We raced back to Spurn where all had abandoned the elusive bird and went down to numpties to ask who had reported it as erroneous.  
As we arrived, the comment "nice job on the corncrake" made matters more confusing. 
Mum then asked the hardened vis mig watchers, who confirmed that someone had reported the bird 20 minutes after our sighting and this was the erroneous report, not our original sighting. Relief, phew!

Early afternoon was spent at Easington gas terminal and there were, surprisingly, no other birders there, despite its reputation for quality birds. We first checked a large line of tall trees in which a red breasted flycatcher had rattled in back in June. It became obvious that these trees were flimsy and the fact that the branches were bashing against each other meant there would be no birds.  We then checked another clump of trees right on the cliff top which in the past has held the "holy grail bird" (palla's warbler), many yellow browed and, I believe, a pine grosbeak briefly some time ago. There were a few birds in the few trees. A willow warbler was the best but robin, linnet, goldfinch and a pair of reed bunting also were feeding around it. A small bird flitted out at one point before returning to a perch where it stood still and upright for a few seconds, then flying round to the other side of the spinney. It was silhouetted so did not show any detail, and the lack of sound was frustrating.  I would guess at possibly a pied flycatcher due to jizz and size, which of course is not rare at Spurn, but coming from Warwickshire, it would have been a nice bird to find.
A few hirundines and finches moved south along the cliffs and a wheatear showed briefly on the cliff face. A quick scan of the huge expanse of beach produced no skuas but we heard of a flock of 12 bonxies flying south - a nice sight for those at the Warren. We strolled down the coastal path towards Kilnsea, picking up a WHINCHAT on the way which was found by Mum.  It went quiet for the rest of the day until late. We were just heading home when news broke of an osprey over Sammy's point. We leapt out of the car and looked up. With no sign, a man came up to us and said "have you got it?"
He showed us the bird as it flew low over the Humber and off towards Lincolnshire. OSPREY is always a great bird to see and was a stunning bird to have as our last for a great weekend. 

Thanks to all those that organise Migfest and the Young Birder competition - see you all again in October!



  1. Great write up & photos, Spurn is such a great place to bird, congrats on winning & finding a Corncrake.

    1. Thanks Rob, will you be up there next year?

    2. Your welcome Jack ,yes i hope to be going next year.