Birdwatching at Spurn Point on the Yorkshire coast
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 February 2020
Think you know your birds – or want to know more? Jeannie Swales and Tony Bartholemew sampled a new bespoke birding tour at Spurn Point
You might think it could be a tad intimidating for a very amateur birder to be out on Spurn Point, one of the world's most famous birding locations, with an expert from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and the editor of Bird Watching magazine.
These are definitely men who know a hawk from a hawfinch, even on a wildly blustery day in mid November when we all have to down binoculars on a regular basis to wipe our watering eyes.
Yorkshire Life was invited on a new bespoke birding tour offered by the Trust, and starting next spring.
The tours will be very personal - just three people at a time (or possibly four if you're all good friends and don't mind being a bit squished in the back of the YWT pick-up truck as you bounce down the peninsula) - and all led by the YWT's Spurn Gateway development officer and lifelong birder, Adam Stoyle.
We arrive early in the morning on one of the coldest, wettest days of the winter so far - a day when any sensible creature, great or small, is seeking the warmest, most sheltered place, it can find.
The day starts with tea or coffee in the Spurn Discovery Centre at the northern end of this windswept spit of land.
The centre is something of an attraction in its own right. Low-slung and cedar-clad, it's built on gabions - wire cages stuffed with recycled concrete which provide valuable winter hibernation spots for newts and lizards - and studded along its length with well-used nest boxes. The award-winning design by Beverley-based SALT Architects allows rising sea levels to claim the ground floor in times of flood. On the afternoon of our visit, we're joined by a coachload of architecture students from the University of Sheffield, keen to explore its eco credentials.
It's cosy, too - a real wrench to leave on a day like this one. But the weather doesn't dampen the enthusiasm of tour leader one little bit. Adam's passion for birds is infectious: this is a man so attuned to all things avian, he can look at a skein of geese that to you or me is just a distant black scribble across the sky, and instantly say whether they're pinkfoots or greylags just from their honks.
By just turned 9am, we're in a hide at Kilnsea Flats, scanning the sodden landscape through our borrowed binoculars. It seems to be mostly geese, until Adam points out curlews, bar-tailed godwits, lapwings, teal and mallard.
And those geese, well, they're not just any old geese. They are pink-footed and greylag, and glorious black-and-grey dark-bellied brent geese, like stout businessmen in sharp suits. Adam tells us that about 1,500 of them overwinter at Spurn each year.
And the current buzz amongst the local birders is that amongst them is a more unusual visitor - a black brant goose (and yes, that's brant, not brent).
With the main difference between the two being that the brant has a narrow white collar, I can't see how we're going to stand a chance of spotting it - but Adam has it pegged almost immediately. And once he's pointed it out, it's obvious - although I'm 99% sure I'd never have spotted it on my own.
It's all part of the experience - we're not there to just tick boxes in the back of our bird books. Adam is a patient, engaging teacher, and excellent on the essential skill of fieldcraft.
A lot of the birdwatching, he tells us, is patience - sit and wait quietly, and the birds will eventually become accustomed to your presence and show themselves. Faced with a field full of birds that all look the same, scan across slowly with your binoculars, then scan again, and again. It was this technique that led us to spot three roe deer sheltering against a hedge beyond the geese, an added mammalian bonus.
The experience includes lunch back at the centre, courtesy of the excellent Maureen and her team (and trust me, they know how to cook!).
Then we're back out for the highlight of the day - a trip down Spurn itself, one of this country's most remarkable places. A long sandy spit extending into the sea, it affords the disconcerting opportunity to be driven along almost surrounded by water - the North Sea to one side, the Humber to the other.
Unfortunately for us, it's way more exposed than our morning location, and there's even less wildlife about - but Adam yet again proves his birding chops by spotting a goldcrest, which is at just 9cm long is Britain's tiniest bird. It's greenish, with an orange crest, and Adam finds it in the midst of an ocean of sea buckthorn (green with orange berries). It's another example of fieldcraft, he explains - listen. If you recognise the calls or songs around you, you know what you're looking for.
We round the afternoon off with a common snipe and a reed bunting, and discover we've clocked up nearly 30 species.
I'm pretty impressed until Adam tells me that, on a good day, he'd expect to see 70 to 80 species on Spurn.
What we saw
Dark-bellied brent goose, black brant goose, greylag goose, pink-footed goose, wigeon, shelduck, shoveler, mallard, teal, mute swan, whooper swan, curlew, bar-tailed godwit, redshank, dunlin, lapwing, common snipe, herring gull, common gull, great black-backed gull, sparrowhawk, common gull, starling, magpie, crow, pheasant, wren, reed bunting - oh, and roe deer.
Adam was keen to point out that the squally weather affected our day's birding, and he'd normally expect to see at least twice as many species - and as an important stopping-off point for migrating birds, Spurn is used to more unusual visitors. The 'recent sightings' board at the Discovery Centre on the day of our visit listed black redstart, hawfinch, dusky and Hume's warblers, hooded crow, little auk and marsh and hen harriers among many others.