WHEATEAR THE STAR AS RARITIES STOP OFF @ 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 being 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 warm sunny day when I arrived and the reason for my visit was the report of some rare bird sightings that had been reported during the previous couple of days. These were a Wood Sandpiper close to the visitor centre, a Barred Warbler a few hundred yards south and over on Kilnsea Wetlands a Spoonbill and Pectoral Sandpiper. Of the four rarities I had only ever seen a Spoonbill before and this was down at RSPB Fairburn Ings.
After stopping for a quick drink at the visitor centre I headed round to the Canal Scrape Hide as the Swallows raced by overhead. The water in front of the hide was fairly quiet with a couple of Coots & Moorhens, but over on the far right hand side was a Redshank and one of the rarities I was hoping to see, the Wood Sandpiper. The Redshank and Wood Sandpiper were making there way up and down the right hand side of the water's edge until the Redshank flew off to the far side of the water close to the reeds and the Wood Sandpiper moved down towards the bottom right hand corner.
After a few minutes it began to make its way along the edge of the water towards the front of the hide, disappearing for a couple of minutes behind a grass mound blocking the view of the edge of the water. It emerged walking up over the grass, pausing to have a stretch and quick preen of its feathers before turning and heading back down towards the water's edge. It spent a few minutes going back and forth in front of the hide before it started to make its way back across to the right hand side of the water.
I now returned to my car and drove the short distance north to Kilnsea Wetlands where from the car park I could see a large number of Gulls and waders present. I followed the path round to the hide where there were several Dunlins and Black Tailed Godwits in the shallow waters in front. There were also large numbers of Black Headed Gulls further out and over to the right just as many Greylag Geese. In the far left hand distance were at least two hundred Redshanks huddled together with a pair of Little Egrets just to their left as well as a few juvenile Shelducks. Over to the near right hand side I spotted a Little Stint and about fifty yards behind there was a Spoonbill with its beak tucked into its feathers asleep. There were also a few Wigeons on the water just to the right of the Spoonbill and over the far side of the wetlands a Marsh Harrier was now soaring towards the water.
I left the hide and headed along the path towards the Beacon Ponds and over to my right I could see a large number of Linnets perched together on the telegraph wires. About half way along this section of the path I came to a viewing screen overlooking the water where the Greylags were making their way towards the water making a lot of noise. As I continued along the path several Linnets were now landing and taking off on the grass banking to my left and in the field to my right.
Eventually the path goes through a gate and splits in two with the right hand path taking you towards Beacon Lane and Spurn Point. I took the left hand path which takes you down the eastern side of Kilnsea Wetlands and up the western side of the Beacon Ponds. There were several Goldfinches and Linnets on the hedges and as I reached the very large pond on my right there were a pair of Grey Herons briefly chasing each other before one landed in the water and the other on top of a post in the middle of it.
It was now after midday so I headed back along the path towards the hide overlooking Kilnsea Wetlands. Just at the side of the hide is a small viewing screen and through here I could see Black Tailed Godwits, Dunlins and one of the other rarities - the Pectoral Sandpiper - although it was at the far side of the water. As I was watching the Pectoral Sandpiper a small bird landed on the island in the water about thirty yards from me. It was a Wheatear and after hopping around the near side of the island it scurried across to the middle and then flew off southwards.
As I headed along the path back to the car I spotted something perched on some farm machinery at the other side of the field and after looking through my binoculars I could see a Little Owl with its back to me. I returned to my car and drove back down to the visitor centre to get something to eat at the cafe. After lunch I headed along the path heading east along the north side of Clubley's Field towards the sea where I could see a Seal around a hundred yards out from the shore.
I turned to the right and headed along the path towards the sea watching hide and about halfway along I spotted a Painted Lady butterfly perched on a Michaelmas-Daisy plant between the path and the beach on my left. As I continued on I saw a Whinchat sat on a wire fence about a hundred yards to my right and just to my left I very briefly saw two Meadow Pipits moving along the top of the beach. Once I reached the sea watching hide I turned to the right and headed down the steps towards the main road/path towards Spurn Point.
I turned to the left and headed towards the breach where the sea can wash over during high tides. I had not gone more than a few yards when I spotted something perched at the top of a large sand bank. As I moved closer I could see it was another Wheatear and after a few minutes it flew low along the sand to a fallen tree trunk at the edge of the beach. It then flew across to a pile of small rocks just in front of me for a couple of minutes before it went back towards my left, briefly landing on a bent rusty steel rod and then disappearing down behind the tree trunk.
After a few seconds it popped up and landed on the end of the trunk looking westwards for a couple of minutes before flying off back towards the large sand bank it had started on. I now continued on towards the breach and just before I reached it I spotted a Kestrel busily tucking into a vole. It was still there once I had taken a look at the breach to see what was there and I was coming back towards the visitor centre. It flew off and landed on the top of a telegraph pole.
When I reached the point where I had seen the Wheatear before it was perched right back at the top of the sand bank. I continued back along the road towards the visitor centre and before leaving headed back to the Canal Scrape Hide to see if the Wood Sandpiper was still there. It was still there but in the far right hand corner of the water at the edge moving back and forth along the edge. There was also a brief appearance from a female Sparrowhawk and a male Pheasant whilst a Kestrel flew overhead and landed on the Barn Owl box at the far side of the water before taking off and flying back in the direction it had come from.
As the Wood Sandpiper now made its way along the edge of the water towards the hide I had seen three of the four rarities today with the Barred Warbler being the only one I hadn't spotted. The Wood Sandpiper now settled down just the other side of the grass mound with just the top half of its head visible so I left the hide and headed back to the car to begin the journey home.
I have added a few photos and a full sightings list from my visit to Spurn Point.