MKNHS Group Visit to Spurn National Nature Reserve – Report by Harry Appleyard

This residential trip saw a small descent of MK Natural History Society members on Spurn, a 3.5 mile long peninsula sat at the mouth of the Humber on the East Yorkshire coast from 27th to 30th October. It is an SSSI and a National Nature Reserve, owned by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust since 1960. The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust closely monitor and manage the meadows, wetlands and intertidal habitats across the reserve alongside Spurn Bird Observatory (established in 1946).

The Spurn area is widely considered one of the UK’s best birding destinations, boasting a huge variety of migrants common, scarce and rare annually. There are several watch points and hides which are manned daily in varying capacities but usually for hours on end during the peaks of migration when there can be near non-stop “vismig” of passerines flying overhead and the possibility of rare seabirds passing the shoreline. Its neighbouring reserve Kilnsea Wetlands also holds the only breeding colony of Little Terns in Yorkshire, breeding alongside other shorebirds including Ringed Plovers, Oystercatchers and Black-headed Gulls.

Waders over the Humber, 29th October 2023 © Harry Appleyard

To date just over 400 species have been recorded here and over 250 this year alone. With persistent westerly winds earlier in the autumn, local birders and visitors were treated to several American vagrants including a Pectoral Sandpiper, American Wigeon, a Red-eyed Vireo which was ringed at The Warren near the north end of the reserve and a flypast from Yorkshire’s 1st Upland Sandpiper. More recently the winds have turned more easterly, bringing deluges of wintering thrushes, finches, Goldcrests, Woodcocks and other annual migrants from mainland Europe, plus a handful of passerines from the far east including Red-flanked Bluetails, Siberian Chiffchaff, Yellow-browed Warblers and a Dusky Warbler.

This trip was originally suggested by Colin Docketty, who very sadly passed away just a few weeks ago. He was very much looking forward to it when I had last spoken to him over the phone just over a month ago and I know he would have thoroughly enjoyed this weekend here, as we were incredibly lucky with both birds and the weather.

Naturally with a few of us split up across the area on arrival and some coming from further afield, the species seen were not shared by everybody but in the end it was a great first visit for new-comers to the area with some of Spurn’s scarcer species gracing the skies, hedgerows and wetlands throughout the weekend. The species list wasted no time in getting off to an exciting start with a Dusky Warbler ringed at The Warren on Friday morning, which was subsequently heard calling by a few of us in the same area on Sunday. These “little brown jobs” are more likely to be found wintering in southeast Asia but are one of the more regularly-occurring vagrants in the UK at this time of year.

Dusky Warbler ringed at The Warren, 27th October 2023 © Harry Appleyard

Early risers were treated to a Rough-legged Buzzard on both Saturday 28th and Sunday 29th. On Saturday morning it was mobbed by Crows before landing near Spurn Bird Observatory and on Sunday it flew south across the reserve in superb morning light, showing off its striking white rump, very pale underwings and a distinctive solid brown patch on the belly, separating it nicely from the more familiar but still quite variable Common Buzzards of North Bucks. A ringtail Hen Harrier also flew south past the Warren a little while earlier on Sunday, offering a short view as it flew low along the Humber. Common Crossbills also put in a few appearances. On Saturday a pair fed on a small conifer near Kilnsea Church before heading south with a flock of 4 and on Sunday a pair were seen flying over the Spurn Discovery Centre.

Rough-legged Buzzard, Spurn, 29th October 2023 © Harry Appleyard

We spent much of Saturday walking across the Spurn peninsula, scanning the dunes, the Humber and the north sea. We didn’t quite make it to the very tip of the reserve but still managed to cover a very good amount of ground with plenty of species found along the way, not limited to birds. A single Red Admiral flew south under a gloomy sky and Dog Vomit Slime Mould was spotted next to our path. As we made our way to the peninsula a flock of 4 Whooper Swans flew low to the south along the shoreline, accompanied by a single Cormorant. A flock of 30 Mealy Redpolls showed very well as they fed close to ground level around the Chalk Bank/Potato Field areas and a trio of new-in Siskins near the lighthouse also provided excellent views. Sadly the bird of the day, a Hoopoe was only seen by one of us as it flew over the dunes near the southern tip of the reserve but later showed very well for other birders in the area. A couple of newly-arrived Woodcocks made brief appearances and an adult Grey Seal passed by the shoreline as we headed back north later on in the afternoon. The edge of the Humber estuary provided a few common Spurn species which would otherwise be a rare treat in Milton Keynes including a flock of dark-bellied Brent Geese from Siberia, 6 Turnstones and a Grey Plover.

Cormorant and Whooper Swans, 28th October 2023 © Harry Appleyard

Mealy Redpoll at Potato Field, Spurn, 28th October 2023 © Harry Appleyard

Sunday was a very productive day from start to finish. Movement on the sea was very minimal but there was lots to see in the sky above with plenty of migrants trickling through to the south. Between 8.10 and 9.30 over 160 Siskins flew south past the Warren Watch Point, followed by small numbers of Bramblings, Reed Buntings, Mistle Thrushes and a few Redwings and Fieldfares “in-off” the north sea. A Lapland Bunting also gave itself away with calls as it flew north past The Warren. During some continued exploration of the shoreline, a Merlin gave an incredible display of its aerodynamics as it pursued a Skylark which narrowly escaped its talons, minus a few feathers! A vibrant Greenland-type Wheatear showed very well around the small cliffs and another new-in Woodcock came straight in from the sea, flying very low over the shoreline before ascending above the cliffs at the last second right in front of us.

Woodcock, 28th October 2023 © Julian Lambley

After lunch we made a quick dash to Beacon Lane at the northern edge of the reserve to see a small flock of Waxwings. 8 had been reported a little while earlier but we only saw 4, which eventually flew south. A single individual flew north from Canal Scrape by the Spurn Discovery Centre around sunset also. For the rest of the afternoon we headed to Kilnsea Wetlands and Beacon Ponds, also owned by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and part of the Spurn Bird Observatory’s recording area. On the way we passed by a Sound Mirror, built to detect zeppelins during WW1. This is one of the many wartime structures still standing across the Spurn area, with more being excavated and maintained by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Military History volunteers further south on the Spurn peninsula.

There was no shortage of wintering waterfowl to see with large numbers of Wigeon, Shoveler and Teal across the lagoons. A Long-tailed Duck which had arrived on the wetlands earlier in the week had also kindly stuck around, though being very mobile and frequently diving under the surface as it fed adjacent to the Kilnsea Wetlands hide. 4 Avocets, including a colour-ringed individual and a single Mediterranean Gull were also present. Perhaps the highlight of the afternoon for most of us was an incredible murmuration of waders spotted in the distance over the Humber, caused by an unidentified raptor. A couple of Red Admirals and 10 Common Darters were also still on the wing across the area.

For those that ventured out onto Monday morning, there were a few last minute additions to the species list. The sea was once again surprisingly quiet but a flock of 14 Common Scoter, a regular species for Spurn sea watching, flew south past the Warren. There was also another flyby from a ringtail Hen Harrier. A little while later a Purple Sandpiper called as it flew in from the beach and went north and a Great Spotted Woodpecker, a much less frequent find here than in Milton Keynes was calling near the Kew Villa area by the northern edge of the reserve.

In the end, over 80 species of bird were observed through the duration of the trip. I think it was safe to say we were spoilt with good weather and good birds all through the weekend, which is exactly what Colin would have wanted. I’d personally like to thank Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Spurn team and Spurn Bird Observatory for their assistance and hospitality over the course of this weekend and of course all the attendees that managed to make the journey up here.

To view the list of species seen during the visit click here