Spurn Migration Festival: What it was and how it came to be

Neil Glenn didn’t Spurn the opportunity to attend Britain’s first ever migration festival this September. It proved to be a wise decision…read on for a fun account of festival events. Neil is a birder, trip leader for Avian Adventures, and a regular feature writer for Bird Watching Magazine, where this article was originally published. Note: this article was updated on January 27 with two bird images by David Carr.

I was marveling at a breathtaking aerial dogfight between a tenacious Arctic Skua and a desperate Sandwich Tern when I was tempted away to see a Common Rosefinch that had been trapped and ringed just a few yards from where I am standing. I had already witnessed a juvenile Red-backed Shrike catch three fair-sized rodents in half an hour, admired three Whinchats at close range and watched streams of Gannets and Swallows winging their way south. And the Spurn Migration Festival hadn’t even started yet!!

I have been fortunate enough to visit migration festivals in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas, Magee Marsh in Ohio and The Eilat Festival in Israel. All of these are field-based events; visitors sign up for minibus trips to the hotspots of the area to be shown the migrating birds on offer by expert guides. When I’ve watched eight species of American wood warbler in one small tree in the USA or witnessed Eilat birders trap and ring forty species during one frenetic morning, I have often wondered why there wasn’t such an event in Britain.

Of course, Rutland Water hosts the incredibly popular International BirdFair every year but this has its foundations in bringing people together to share information, trade a variety of goods, meet old friends and new and most importantly raise funds for conservation around the globe. It isn’t really about showing visitors the local hotspots to see the local avifauna.

Common Rosefinch © David Carr

Common Rosefinch © David Carr

It seems a group of East Yorkshire birders were having the same thoughts. While leading a guided walk a couple of years ago, Martin Garner of Birding Frontiers fame casually mentioned to Spurn regular Andy Roadhouse: “wouldn’t it be great if we could hold a migration festival at Spurn?” For various reasons, the idea was dismissed but the seed had been sown. Sometime later, Andy had a brainwave about where the nerve-centre of the proposed festival could be based and more crucially where lectures might be held. Sue and Andrew Wells from Westmere Farm had already hosted a music event, ‘Shedfest’ in their spacious barn and were familiar with the birding community through their popular B&B.

When Andy approached them about hosting the migration festival, Sue and Andrew were more than happy to oblige. “We felt that the influx of 200 birders for the weekend would provide a welcome boost to the local economy. We also decided to take on the catering and provide a temporary campsite for the weekend as well as providing the festival headquarters”. It seemed a migration festival might be possible at Spurn after all: the dream was still alive!

Like all good ideas, this one was cemented at a pub table, more specifically at the Spurn regulars’ annual winter booze up. The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust was very keen to be involved and more and more volunteers from The Friends of Spurn and the Observatory offered their services. The festival was on, but when to hold it?

Looking back through the records, it was obvious that the weekend around the 7th September turned up thousands of common migrants such as Swallow, Meadow Pipit, Wheatear, Whinchat, Pied Flycatcher, various warblers, Goldcrest, etc, and an impressive number of sought-after seabirds such as Arctic Skua, Roseate Tern, Long-tailed Skua and Sabine’s Gull. Sightings of scarce species such as Red-backed Shrike, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Wryneck were regular and a sprinkling of quality rarities of the calibre of Sharp-tailed Sandpiper had also turned up.

Red Backed Shrike © David Carr

Red Backed Shrike © David Carr

And so it was that soon after my close encounter with a decidedly non-rosy-but-cute, first-winter Rosefinch, I sat with a hundred other beguiled festival goers on comfortable hay bales in Sue and Andrew’s barn, glass in hand, listening to a sensational visible migration (‘vis-migging’) talk by Keith Clarkson: never has counting Meadow Pipits and Wood Pigeons sounded so exhilarating! Rather aptly, Keith was accompanied by Swallows swooping in and out of the barn, still feeding young in the nest.

The morning after Keith’s talk dawned bright and breezy. It was time to put those hints and tips about vis-migging into practice. An eager crowd of festival goers gathered at the seawatching hide near The Warren. Most were beginners, keen to learn the seemingly twin dark arts of vis-migging and identifying birds at sea from the Spurn masters. The volunteers were kept on their toes as they pointed out passing Meadow Pipits, Yellow Wagtails, Whinchats and Swallows over land and Gannets, Manx Shearwaters, Arctic Skuas, Red-throated Divers, a Little Gull and a Black Tern, etc. over the sea. The stars of the morning included the distant Sooty Shearwater, the Marsh Harrier resolutely flapping south just a few inches above the waves and the Great Skua that flew overhead across the azure blue sky, giving one thrilled group their first ever view of this menacing species. One really didn’t know where to look next. Oh well, may as well go to the ringing hut and see the juvenile Tree Sparrows and Willow Warbler being processed, calling in at the moth trap on the way, of course!

The tide was now at its highest and it was time to check out a few of the favoured roosting spots around the peninsula. I was keen to see the new YWT Kilnsea Wetlands site; when I drove past earlier in the day it looked the perfect place to sit and wait and see what might drop in. On my way, I gave four ladies a lift down from The Warren to the church so they could look for the Common Rosefinch. After a few hundred yards, we noticed a small crowd staring in one direction, so we stopped to admire the Red-backed Shrike posing nicely by the road.

Kilnsea Wetlands was crawling with waders. Small flocks peeled off and wheeled away to some unknown muddy destination while others dropped in, sometimes unnoticed. The scrapes were perfectly lit to sift through the feeding and sleeping flocks; we found Curlew Sandpiper, Knot, Spotted Redshank, Little Stint, Greenshank, Ruff and many Dunlin and Redshank mixed in the throng. A guided festival walk entered the hide and within minutes several participants had seen another couple of lifers and been instructed on how to tell a juvenile Redshank from an adult and how to spot a Curlew Sandpiper in a flock of Dunlin. It was a pleasure to witness the thrill they got from such ‘common’ species, and also to see the warm glow of satisfaction on the faces of the volunteers as they imparted their vast knowledge.

I loved this festival already. Happy faces were everywhere, whether being led by volunteers on a walk, helping complete strangers see a particular bird they have always wanted to see or just wandering about on their own in the sunshine looking for birds; birders of all abilities and ages came together in a group admiration, nay worship, of the miracle of bird migration. To paraphrase the masters of the dance-anthem, Faithless: ‘this is my church; this is where I heal my hurt; for today, God is a birdwatcher’.

And so on for a break at Westmere Farm to check the sightings board, grab a coffee and plan the afternoon’s activities. I could never hope to experience the whole range of talks and walks over the weekend, so a bit of planning was needed. There was the art exhibition in the historic Spurn Lighthouse to check out – complete with works by Ray Scally and Jack Ashton Booth – a history walk, a beach-combing event on this fossil-rich coast, photography workshops, optics demonstrations, the RADAR station showing fascinating ‘real-time’ images of migrating birds and migrant and wader walks. For the all-round naturalist, there were insect and wild flower walks, but one mustn’t forget to keep scanning the sky, sea and bushes for migrant birds! The YWT wardens cheerfully ferried people between events in their 4×4 vehicles, the machinery needed to traverse the sea-breached Spurn Point access road, so everyone could take in as much as possible.

After a hectic day, the festival decamped back to Westmere Farm for the eagerly-anticipated hog roast. The locally-sourced pork was absolutely delicious and was a fitting appetizer to Martin Garner’s inspirational evening lecture, where he encouraged festival goers to think like a child again (and I thought it was a bad thing that at the grand old age of 52 I had never stopped!) The evening’s entertainment wasn’t over yet, though: for the insomniacs, there was a bat walk around the Kilnsea area which produced a few Common Pipistrelles. Finally, it was time for bed, or for some a trip to the local pub!

The wind had dropped by Sunday morning, resulting in a slower seawatch from The Warren for the early risers. This was by no means an entirely bad thing: it gave volunteers a better chance to get everyone on the passing birds and more time to explain the ‘feel’ of each species on show. Visitors were instructed why that slow-flapping flock of large seabirds of varying degrees of black and white were Gannets, or why the three rounded-winged birds heading north were Little Gulls. While this was going on, Meadow Pipits, Swallows and Yellow Wagtails were zipping past our ears and three Whinchats posed for photographs on nearby fenceposts. A Red-throated Diver drifted slowly by for all to enjoy, showing off its characteristic ‘inquisitive, head-up’ jizz. The lady next to me excitedly declared it to be a life bird: another satisfied customer!

After another enjoyable spell at Kilnsea Wetlands (and a brief period of ferrying pleasant strangers around the site), I cadged a lift in the YWT 4×4 to The Point. There were very few people around, so I was free to search for my own migrants. I was rewarded with a Redstart and Spotted Flycatcher in the impossibly dense cover at ‘the end of the world’. What else might lurk unfound in this area?

I lazily hitched a ride back to Westmere Farm to chat, drink coffee and find out what had been found. The farm was within handy walking-distance of my seemingly temporary new home of Kilnsea Wetlands. An hour’s wader-watch, trying to relocate the ‘Lesser’ Golden Plover reported calling among Goldies this morning morphed into a five mile circular hike in the glorious sunshine, taking in Beacon Ponds (and its roosting flock of gorgeous Grey Plovers), Easington Lagoons (and the family of Mute Swans) and back along the pristine beach to Beacon Lane. At one point, my heart leapt when I found the Golden Plover flock hiding in a ploughed field, but my excitement was short-lived when a scan through the Goldies failed to reveal a Pacific or American version of this attractive plover. In all this time, I saw maybe five other birdwatchers, proving that even at a festival, one can get away from the crowds if one wishes to.

The weekend produced 134 species of birds including Balearic Shearwater, Pomarine Skua, two Wrynecks, three Common Rosefinches, a showy Red-backed Shrike, Caspian Gull, Corncrake, Leach’s Petrel and many common migrants. The ‘if only’ moment came exactly a week later when a confiding Great Snipe showed up: what an addition to the festival that would have been! This, and the fact that there was far too much going on to be able to cram it all into a weekend visit, gives me an excuse (as if I needed one) to return next year!

I have no doubt that the Spurn Migration Festival will become a firm favourite in the birding calendar. Coming straight after the Rutland BirdFair, it gives people the chance to get out and do some birdwatching after being enthused at Rutland. I met quite a few people from the Rutland Fair at Spurn, so the festival has the makings of an annual social gathering as well as an excellent opportunity to see some rare, scarce and common migrating birds.

In his lecture, Martin Garner displayed a quote from American birding guru, Kenn Kaufman: “Birdwatching is something we do for enjoyment, so if you enjoy watching birds you are a good birdwatcher. If you enjoy watching birds a lot, then you are a very good birdwatcher.” By the smiles on the faces of the visitors during the weekend, Spurn was awash with very good birdwatchers!

Neil would like to thank Martin Garner, Andy Roadhouse, Jonathan Leadley, Paul Fox and all the very hard-working volunteers from Spurn Observatory, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, etc. for their help during the weekend and for making the Spurn Migration Festival such a huge success.

Neil Glenn

Neil Glenn is a freelance writer whose work appears in magazines, books, and here on Nature Travel Network. He is author of the critically acclaimed Best Birdwatching Sites in Norfolk, now in its third edition Read More

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