Migfest 2016 – a visit to Spurn Head

After a superb August on Bardsey, I left the island on Wednesday ahead of a period of stormy weather, and made my way to the east coast of England via a series of buses and trains. The purpose? The primary reason for my short-distance migration was in fact to take part in an event focussing on migrations of a much larger scale: I was making my first visit to the superb Spurn head in East Yorkshire to attend this year’s Migfest.

In September every year, Spurn Bird Observatory plays host to a gathering of birders from all over the country – and even further afield – to come and witness the spectacle of migration at one of the UK’s best hotspots for this exciting movement. The ‘Migfest’ weekend event includes guided walks, ringing demonstrations, moth trapping and a series of interesting talks from a range of different speakers (this year, including David La Puma from Cape May Bird Observatory and Björn Malmhagen from Falsterbo Bird Observatory). But aside this, the main focus of migfest is the birds: getting out there and witnessing hundreds of migrants passing by out to sea, whizzing south overhead in flocks or gathering in their thousands along the foreshore as the tide forces waders from their feeding spots.

the brand new bird observatory building
I arrived at Spurn after a day’s travelling on Thursday evening, and it was great to meet up with young spurn-based birders Tim Jones, Jonnie Fisk and Daniel Branch, who were helping out with the running of the event. On Friday morning I awoke bright and early – the weather was clear and breezy. Not ideal for ringing (too windy for using mist nets), but the south-westerly head wind encouraged a steady passage of migrants overhead, and gave me a great introduction to ‘vis-migging’ (watching visible migration) on the Warren and the New Narrows (where the mainland tapers off to a fine point before the spit juts out to sea). We recorded some great numbers over the course of a few hours, the final tallies including 800+ Swallows, 1000+ Meadow Pipits, 50 Linnets, 160 Tree Sparrows, 20 Grey Wagtails, 60 House Martins, 30 Sand Martins, 20 Yellow Wagtails and 2 Greenfinches.
Tim Jones vis migin’ at the warren
a steady overhead passage of Meadow Pipits resulted in 1000+ counts on Friday morning, accompanied by tight undulating flocks of Tree Sparrows.
Plenty of Sandwich Terns powering by too
There is something very special about witnessing ‘raw’ migration: actually seeing these tiny birds, often weighing no more than 20 grams, as they embark on a journey that can take them hundreds of miles across the globe. It’s pretty remarkable really, not just the physiological demands these birds are under, but the navigational challenges they face too
It’s not just passerine migrants that make for exciting visible migration: watching flocks of ducks and waders fly by is a brilliant sight in itself
Besides the overhead passage, the nearby seawatching hide was a great place to be too: seabirds and waders were flying south and north throughout the morning, and as the wind became increasingly storng during the day, some smart species were recoded. In the morning, highlights included 15 Sandwich Terns, 3 Manx Shearwaters, 11 Red-throated Divers, 15 Cormorants, plus plenty of Wigeons and Common Scoters.
Wigeons migrating with the new wind farm looming offshore
As the morning progressed, the skies remained bright blue and sunny, and the wind picked up to a fresh breeze. These conditions aren’t ideal for trying to find migrants like warblers and flycatchers hiding in the vegetation, so species Willow Warblers, Whinchats, Wheatears, Spotted Flycatchers and Whitethroats were present in quite small numbers. But the conditions were great for watching another of Spurn’s star attractions: the waders
Knots
Dunlin & Ringed Plovers
Ruff
Curlew
The twice-daily exposing of Humber’s rich estuarine shores results in huge numbers of wintering and passage waders, which make use of the mudflat’s feeding potential. During my stay at Spurn, there were several thousand Knots and many hundred Golden Plovers commuting between inland scrapes and the mudflats every day. Amongst the throng of pulsating calidrid flocks were Curlew Sandpipers, Curlews, Ringed Plovers, Dunlins, Redshanks, Sanderlings, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits and Ruffs. In winter, the numbers can surpass six-figure counts – now that must be an epic sight!
Bar-tailed Godwit
Sanderling
Ringed Plover
Ringed Plover & Dunlins
Kilnsea wetlands
One of the coolest moments on my first day had to be the sight of a juvenile Peregrine bombing out of nowhere and slicing past the shoreline where thousands of mixed waders were gathered; the Knots arose in confused and pulsating flocks, Redshanks scarpered with Dunlin in tow, Curlews spread their clumsier wings in surprise and sent water splashing. The Peregrine didn’t actually manage to catch anything: juvenile birds often head to estuaries during the autumn and winter to practice and hone their hunting abilities, although flocks can often be trickier targets than individuals. It was certainly amazing to watch the reaction of hundreds of waders as it powered through and attempted to pounce on one…
I spent most of the first day wandering around and exploring the various habitats and sites that Spurn has to offer: The Point (right on the end of a 3-mile spit), The Warren (the sort of funnel before the spit, where migrants are squeezed to a point before crossing the north sea), Kilnsea wetlands and Beacon Ponds (a series of inland scrapes and tidal lagoons), and countless patches of reed beds, scrubland and stubble fields. It was great to meet up with fellow young birders who had likewise made the trip to join the event: Matt Bruce and Beth Aucott, Espen Quinto-Assman and Oli Simms. We spent the afternoon searching the coast for migrants and scanning the sea for passing terns and gulls, which included over 200 Common Terns blasting south accompanied by two Black Terns and three Little Terns, along with three Arctic Skuas, 10 Mediterranean Gulls, a Red-throated Diver and, perhaps most surprisingly, a distant Marsh Harrier! A late Common Swift shearing southward along the dunes of the point was great to see – surely no trip to Spurn is complete without seeing its most famed species? There were a few migrants to be seen in the mixed scrub in sheltered areas, including a lone Spotted Flycatcher, Willow Warblers, Whitethroats and Whinchats.
Willow Warbler
Spotted Flycatcher
Common Swift

there were over 30 Migrant Hawkers scattered around the point, and good numbers of Small Tortoiseshells, Red Admirals and Painted Ladies also passed through
looking back to Spurn and the warren from the point
After a full day in the field, Friday evening saw the official launch of migfest 2016, with a speech by Andy Clements of the BTO and then an interesting talk on the concept of ‘Reverse Migration’ by John Beaumont from Flamborough Bird Observatory. My first day at spurn was rounded off nicely by catching up with some old friends and new faces over some hot cheese & onion pies, followed by a drink in the Crown and Anchor.

Migfest Day 2 – Saturday 10th September

Saturday dawned calm and drizzly – not the sort of conditions that immediately spur one to jump out of bed at 6am, but myself and Will Langdon headed out nonetheless, with the hope that the conditions may have brought a few birds to ground. We walked along the edge of the ‘triangle’, where a handful of new arrivals presented themselves in the form of five Reed Warblers, nine Whinchats, five Sedge Warblers, a couple of Willow Warblers and some Swallows passing overhead. We made our way to the Warren, where a fair gathering of folk had been seawatching (or at least trying to in the persistent rain) for the last half-hour. We joined the group, becoming increasingly drenched as the precipitation continued unabated.
soggy seawatchers
There was just enough clarity to lock onto passing seabirds, and we collectively recorded 12 Red-throated Divers, two Manx Shearwaters, an Eider, 60+ Common Terns, a couple of Arctic Terns, 25 Sandwich Terns, 5 Mediterranean Gulls, 50+ Common Scoters, a handful of Teals and a few Gannets. At around 8am, news came over the radio of a Kentish Plover showing on the sand bank near sammy’s point – a rapid exodus of the hide and seawatching party saw cars and people bomb off to see this scarce visitor – the first at Spurn since 2000. Unfortunately the bird had scarpered, and wasn’t picked up again for a couple of hours, when it turned up in Kilnsea wetlands. I managed to catch up with the bird here, where it showed well on the scrape alongside the superb Wood Sandpiper, Little Egrets, Mediterranean Gulls and a handful of calidrid waders. A superb surprise was when a 3rd winter Caspian Gull dropped in – my first ever sighting of this subtly smart species, and one which I’ve been hoping to find back in Wales for a while (although they are a scarce bird in wales, with fewer than 3 records!).
Caspian Gull! 
This stunning Wood Sandpiper showed brilliantly throughout the event
Little Egrets
The rest of the morning was spent looking for new arrivals amongst the sodden hawthorn bushes – this produced a couple of Lesser Whitethroats, two Common Whitethroats, a couple of blackcaps and a handful of Willow Warblers – and also popping in to the main migfest hub to catch up with more birders and friends who had arrived and were taking a look at the various stalls – featuring organisations like Waderquest and the BTO, through to artwork from the likes of Darren Woodhead and Richard Thewlis. It was good to get away from the rain and warm up at intervals, but there was also plenty to be seen out in the field, and it was definitely a very enjoyable morning.
I had to head off at lunch-time on the Saturday, with a train to catch to Falmouth on Monday, so said goodbye to the brilliant team at Spurn Bird Observatory, and adios to a brilliant migration hotspot which I’ll surely return to before too long. A big thanks to everyone for a great event and some good birds.
mixed waders on the beach besides Warren
Links:
Spurn head NNR (Yorkshire Wildlife Trust)
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