CRACKING WHEATEAR @ SUPERB SPURN POINT


On Thursday I visited the superb Spurn Point National Nature Reserve which is located off the tip of the coast of East Yorkshire. Spurn is a narrow sand tidal strip of land which reaches into the North Sea and forms the north bank of the mouth of the Humber estuary. Up until a storm in 2013 you could drive right down to the southernmost tip, but this storm made the road impassable at high tide. A storm in 2017 further damaged the sandbank, washing away the remaining part of the road that was damaged in 2013.


The island beyond the breach is over three miles long and as little as fifty yards wide in places. The southernmost tip is known as Spurn Head and is home to the RNLI lifeboat station and two disused lighthouses. Spurn Head covers 280 acres above high water and around 450 acres of foreshore and has been owned by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust since 1960. In the Middle Ages, Spurn Head was home to the port of Ravenspurn where Henry of Bolingbroke landed in 1399 on his return to dethrone Richard II. It was also where Sir Martin De La See led the local resistance against Edward IV's landing on 14th March 1471 as he was returning from his six months exile in the Netherlands.


The lifeboat station at Spurn Head was built in 1810 and owing to the remote location, houses for the lifeboat crew and families were added a few years later. The station is now one of only a few in the UK which has a full time paid staff with all the others being on the River Thames in London. During the First World War two coastal artillery batteries were added at either end of Spurn Head with quick firing guns in between them.


The military also built a railway line from the village of Kilnsea all the way along to the end of Spurn Point with a total length of 3.75 miles. The line was built in 1915 to supply military installations along this stretch of coast. Spurn Point had originally been militarised in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars and when the First World War was declared the number of military personnel greatly increased overnight. The War Department decided that a railway line between Kilnsea and Spurn Point would be the best option for a supply chain and purchased the land.


The line was constructed by CJ Wills & Company with the rails and other second hand materials coming from the Great Central and Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railways. The line was eventually closed down in 1951 and was replaced by a road and the land was demilitarised between 1956 and 1959 before being sold in 1960. Apart from some small sections of the rails sunk into tarmac/concrete, there is not much left to show that this railway even existed.

Since the storm in 2017, Spurn has now become a tidal island, as the narrowest part of the sandbank connection to the mainland is flooded with each high tide. The spit is made up from sand, shingle and boulder clay eroded from the Holderness coastline that is washed down the coast from Flamborough Head. Material is washed down the coast by long shore drift and accumulates to form the long narrow embankment in the sheltered waters inside the mouth of the estuary.


There are two lighthouses at the end of Spurn Point, the Low Lighthouse (built 1852) and the brick lighthouse in the middle of Spurn Head (built 1895). Only the foundations of the low lighthouse now remain with a large water tank replacing the rest of it. The brick lighthouse is painted black and white and its main light had a range of twenty miles before the light was discontinued in 1985. In 2013 the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust was awarded nearly £500,000 to restore it and once the work was completed it reopened to the public in March 2016.


The landward side mud flats are an important feeding ground for wading birds and the area has a bird observatory for monitoring migrating birds. Their migration is assisted by the east winds in autumn, resulting in drift migration of Scandinavian birds, sometimes leading to a spectacular "fall" of thousands of birds. Many rarer species have been sighted there, including a Cliff Swallow from North America, a Lanceolated Warbler from Siberia and a Black-Browed Albatross from the Southern Ocean.

More commonly, birds such as Wheatears, Whinchats, Common Redstarts and Flycatchers stop off at Spurn on their way between breeding and wintering grounds. When the wind is in the right direction migrants are funnelled down Spurn Point and are counted at the Narrows Watchpoint, more than fifteen thousand birds can fly past on a good morning in autumn with three thousand quite normal. In 2018 the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust opened a visitor centre and new car park near the entrance to the reserve.


It was a cloudy day when I arrived and as I drove past Kilnsea Wetlands I saw two Buzzards perched on telegraph posts with one of them swooping down into a field. A little further along as I reached the Crown & Anchor Pub I could see several waders out on the mud flats to my right and several Starlings on the telegraph wires on the other side of the road. When I reached the car park I could see a large number of Goldfinches flying from the tall grass over to the telegraph wires at the other side.


As I walked across the car park a Merlin flew low along the top of the fence to my right causing the Goldfinches to head for cover. I walked across the road to the visitor centre to get a map and have a look at the recent sightings board as this was my first, but certainly not my last, visit to Spurn Point. At the end of the Visitor Centre that faces the estuary there are some feeders and on these I could see several Tree Sparrows, a few House Sparrows and a pair of Reed Buntings.

I headed back out of the visitor centre and turned left and walked through the staff car park to the Canal Scrape Hide. Out on the water in front of the hide were four Moorhens and two Little Grebes diving for food on the far side. I left the hide and back to the car and drove the short distance up to Kilnsea Wetlands, which is also owned by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. After parking in the car park I followed the path along the southern boundary of the reserve, spotting a Reed Bunting as it perched briefly on a fence post.


After a few hundred yards the path leads you to the hide which looks out over a large area of water which today was quite low. In front of the hide there were more than thirty Hebridean sheep grazing on the grass and once they all moved over to the left I could see the vast array of birds present. Over to the right there were a large number of Greylag Geese and in a small group on the grass were several Wigeons and a few Gadwalls.


On the far side of the water there were several Black Headed Gulls and on the water's edge were a few Cormorants. Further round to the left, on the water's edge, were more than twenty Greenshanks and at least ten Redshanks. A few minutes later I spotted a pair of Bar Tailed Godwits wading along the edge of the water at the far side as well as a pair of Shelducks. A Gadwall flew across and landed in the water to the left of the hide as a pair of Kestrels flew over the water and they were closely followed by another pair of Kestrels taking the total number to four.


They moved over the road to the left and began hunting over the fields as a group of about a dozen Knots flew in and began to circle round the water. After they had flown round a couple of times they landed at the far side of the water just to the right of the Greenshanks and Redshanks. I left the hide and continued along the path round the edge of the water and after about one hundred yards I reached a viewing screen. From here I could see three Mute Swans, a Green Sandpiper and a few Black Tailed Godwits.

From here the path continued and I turned left through a gate and followed the path along the eastern side of the water with the Beacon Ponds approaching on the right hand side. In the hedgerow separating the path and the water were several Goldfinches and once I reached the Beacon Ponds on my right I could see several Black Headed Gulls and a lone Grey Heron. I now walked back along the path to the car park, spotting a couple of Reed Buntings flying along the paths edge and then diving into the reeds separating the road and the path near the car park.


I headed back down towards the visitor centre, stopping off at the Crown & Anchor Pub to have a look at the mud flats on the estuary at the other side of the road. About fifty yards out I could see a few Dunlins, Little Ringed Plovers and Black Headed Gulls. Over to the right I could see another pair of Shelducks and a trio of Little Egrets whilst further out right across the horizon I could see at least forty Dunlins on the mud flats with a couple more Little Ringed Plovers amongst them.


I got back in my car and made my way down to the visitor centre and into the cafe for my lunch where I could see a Whinchat sat on top of a bush at the other side of the narrow reedbed. After lunch I walked out onto a path that is raised up above the reeds and I had not been there more than a few minutes when I saw something moving amongst the edge of the reeds. It was a Water Rail and it eventually moved fully out of the reeds probing the water looking for food and after being unsuccessful it continued along to the left at the edge of the reeds.

After a while it disappeared into the reeds and I walked down the path to the road and then crossed over and headed along the Big Hedge footpath to the edge of the beach and turned right. I followed the path down towards the Seawatch Hide when about fifty yards from the hide I spotted two birds flying along the shallow clay cliffs to my left. A little further along, one of the birds perched on the clay cliffs and it was a Meadow Pipit. It sat there for about thirty seconds before whizzing along the edge of the cliff and up onto the grass, closely followed by another Meadow Pipit.


I continued on towards the Seawatch Hide as the Meadow Pipits flew off and I then turned right and headed down the steps to the road and turned to the left and headed along the road. After about a hundred yards the road disappears as you reach the area where it was washed away by the storms of 2013 and 2017. I wandered down the sand to the edge of the mud flats where I could see yet more Dunlins in the distance and a couple more Little Egrets over to the right.

I didn't have time to walk along to Spurn Head and return in time to beat the high tide so, as it started to drizzle, I turned round and headed back along the road to one of the viewing screens looking out over the estuary. About a hundred yards or so in front of me I could see Redshanks, Greenshanks and yet more Dunlins and a couple more Shelducks. Over to the left there was a large group of Grey Plovers and over to the right there were around three dozen Curlews.


The rain got slightly heavier as I approached the visitor centre again but this time I took a path off to the left which followed the banks of the estuary all the way to the Crown & Anchor Pub. As I walked along the path I saw a couple of Reed Buntings flying low along the path, disappearing into the tall grass whenever I got near. A little further along I saw four Whinchats sat on a barbed wire fence about thirty yards away at the other side of the reeds on my right hand side.


Over to my left the incoming tide was pushing the waders further and further to the left looking for an exposed piece of mud flat to search for food. By the time I had reached the pub the water had come right in and there were only a few Black Headed Gulls on the water with a Little Egret in the distance off to the right at the water's edge. I now turned round and headed back along the path and I had only gone a few yards when I spotted a Wheatear on a rock to the right of the path.

The Wheatear kept moving from rock to rock along the side of the path, occasionally dropping down into the gaps between the rocks. As I walked along the path it kept moving ahead of me for a couple of minutes before it stopped and briefly moved in the opposite direction to which it had been moving. It then followed me again for a minute or so before flying off along the shore line and out of sight.


Once I arrived at the road I had another quick look around the trees, bushes and reeds at the visitor centre where there were several more Goldfinches as well as a few Chaffinches and a single Dunnock. Perched on top of the visitor centre were a pair of Swallows as another pair flew overhead. It was now time for me to leave and as I drove past Kilnsea Wetlands on my right I saw half a dozen Roe Deer in a field to my left.


I have attached a few photos and a full sightings list from my first visit to the superb Spurn Point.

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