Autumn Migration at Spurn Point Nature Reserve

As we stood at the edge of the windswept Spurn Point, the gusts whipping our hair into a frenzy, the printed site map flapped open to reveal its details.

This fragile, shifting penisula marked the beginning of the beleaguered Holderness Coast, where relentless tides and gales waged a constant battle against the land.

The narrow spit of land stretched out before us like a tentative finger, with the mighty Humber Estuary churning on one side and the unforgiving North Sea pounding against the other.

The air was alive with the cries of gulls wheeling overhead, their snowy feathers glowing like beacons against the grey skies.

Our guide, a young lad seemingly immune to the elements, pointed out to sea.

"You see that sandbank out there? That's where Spurn Point used to be, just a few years back. The tides are always on the move, eating away at the shore." He shook his head, his voice carried away on the wind. "It's a reminder that nothing stays the same for long."

Our trip to Spurn Point

Earlier in the year, we had set our sights on Spurn Point, drawn by the thrill of witnessing the autumn migration.

We carefully planned our trip for September, hoping to catch thousands of birds making their way to warmer climes. However, as we arrived at the peninsula, it became clear that the weather had other plans.

We had travelled a day earlier, navigating winding roads towards England's easternmost tip. Excitement built in our chests as we approached an iconic landmark – crossing over the Greenwich Meridian – an imaginary line dividing the Earth into two hemispheres.

Greenwich Meridian sign
Greenwich Meridian plaque

Upon arrival at Spurn Point, our first port of call was the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Discovery Centre.

Here, we pushed open the door to the Blue Bell Café, filled with the irresistible aroma of homemade soup. We ate, feeling the warmth spread through our chilled bones.

With renewed energy, we ventured out into the wild beauty of Spurn Point not wanting to waste the last of the daylight.

We headed to the Sea Watching Hide, a humble wooden structure, where a group of dedicated volunteers had gathered to count birds. As we joined them, a gentle-voiced man with binoculars announced, "Five Gannets just passed the platform, flying south." A woman with a kind face and a notebook called out, "Red-throated Diver in front of the fives!"

We followed their gazes to the horizon, where a row of wind turbines, dubbed the "fives" by locals, stood apart from the rest. I squinted, trying to make out the birds, but my camera lens was no match for the distance

Sign giving information about the Wash Over at Spurn Point

We bid farewell to the volunteers and headed to the Wash-Over point, where the tide was out, exposing the muddy estuary. Waders and ducks dotted the landscape, their feathers glistening in the faint light.

As we walked, the sky grew heavier, the sun hidden behind clouds.

Although the light was too soft for serious photography, I couldn't resist snapping a few record shots, capturing the serenity of the scene.

Finally, we wrapped up our excursion and headed towards our accommodation for the next week, the sound of the sea still echoing in our ears.

Guided walk - Day 2 at Spurn Point

We headed to the Discovery Centre for a 9am guided walk, only to discover we were in the wrong place. Retracing our steps, we arrived at the Spurn Bird Observatory with minutes to spare. However, the wild weather meant we were the only ones brave enough to venture out.

Johnnie, our guide, had planned a route around "The Triangle", which took us past the Crown and Anchor pub and along the estuary's edge, where we spotted a lone Curlew.

Curlew on the Humber EstuaryCurlew on the Humber estuary

We then turned left towards The Warren, where we saw a late Hobby, a bird of prey similar to the Peregrine. Crossing the road, we revisited the Sea Watching Hide, where I was lucky enough to see a Short Eared Owl fly past close to shore.

As we walked along the cliffs, I spotted a beautiful Wheatear.

Wheatear on cliff
Wheatear on beachClose views of a Wheatear on the beach at Spurn Head

We then stopped briefly at the Canal Hide, where all we saw were two Moorhens, before continuing to a sunflower field. Despite the heavy rain, I was thrilled to spot a Roe Deer amongst the remaining flowers. She soon ran off, but not before I took some photos.

A Roe Deer amongst the sunflowers

By lunchtime, the weather was extremely unpleasant, with almost horizontal rain stinging our cheeks. We still had one side of the Triangle to cover, but our luck changed when a passing ornithologist offered us a lift back to the Observatory. After that, we returned to our cottage for a shower and lunch.

Later, we took a quick trip out for supplies and a warm hat, then spent the afternoon downloading and processing our photos in the warm. That night, we slept well, perhaps thanks to the fresh sea air.

Kilnsea Wetlands - Day 3

Sunday dawned wet and wild, a recurring theme.

We began at Kilnsea Wetlands Nature Reserve, seeking shelter in the hide.

Unfortunately, we missed high tide, and many birds had already returned to the mudflats to feed.

Despite this, we spotted small groups of common waders like Redshank, Knot, Dunlin, and Turnstone.

A Grey Heron, whom we nicknamed Shakespeare, caught our attention. It repeatedly picked up a feather and spat it out, possibly mistaking it for a fish.

A Grey Heron with a feather in its beakShakespeare with his quill.

We retraced our previous day's journey from the Spurn Discovery Centre.

Although the rain eased off, the wind grew stronger.

A female kestrel hovered above us during our walk, offering great views. We also saw Reed Buntings and Meadow Pipits.

At the Canal Scrape, we caught glimpses of an elusive Snipe and two moorhens. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the resident Water Rail.

A flying female Kestrel

Cold and wet, we sought refuge at the Crown and Anchor for a late lunch. From the comfort of their large picture windows, we continued birdwatching while taking in the views of the 1895-built Spurn Lighthouse, decommissioned in 1985.

Day 4 of our Spurn Point visit

Kilnsea Wetlands at sunrise

We set off just after sunrise, taking advantage of the promised better weather conditions.

As we reached Kilnsea, we enjoyed the golden hour in the hide, where I photographed various birds using my Canon 5D MK IV and 150-600mm Sigma Contemporary lens.

The birds I captured included

  • Curlew
  • Shelduck
  • Pink-Footed Geese
  • Little Egret
  • Mute Swan
  • Redshank
  • Avocet

All too soon, the golden light faded, and we resolved to arrive earlier the next day.

Flying Curlew at Golden HourCurlew during the Golden Hour
A flock of Shelduck in flightShelduck flock

The Kilnsea Sound Mirror

We left the hide and walked towards Beacon Ponds, making a detour to the Kilnsea Sound Mirror - a huge concrete dish designed to focus the sound of aircraft engines as they approached during the First World War, before the days of radar.

Flock of Curlew over Beacon PondsFlock of Curlew (with a single Avocet) over Beacon Ponds

As we walked, more birds deserted the wetlands and flew overhead, creating quite a spectacle.

Rounding the far corner, Reed Buntings and Goldfinches covered the bushes.

Although we had heard rumours of a rare Rustic Bunting on the reserve, we weren't lucky enough to spot it.

When the ground became too wet underfoot, we reluctantly turned back. A small group of Whimbrel feeding in the field was a nice find just before we reached the car park.

Reed Bunting on hedgeFemale Reed Bunting

We returned to the Discovery Centre and then checked out the sunflower field, where goldfinches, greenfinches, and tree sparrows were devouring the seeds.

At one point, I heard a rustling beside me and glimpsed a Whitethroat in the reeds.

A Whitethroat among the reedsA Whitethroat in the reeds beside the field gate

Walking to Spurn Point

One of our aims was to walk out to the very end of Spurn Point. The journey, a daunting three and a half miles each way, stretched out before us.

As we walked, the sun broke through the clouds. We shed our layers, reveling in the rare treat of a balmy day.

A tractor, its tires rumbling over the sand, overtook us, carrying a cargo of furniture to some unknown destination. We exchanged amused glances, feeling like we were the only ones not in on some secret.

A tractor acting as a furniture removal vehicle on the sand of Spurn Point

The only other vehicle permitted on this sacred ground was the Unimog, an all-terrain beast that ferried enthusiasts on a Spurn Safari to the point's tip. Alas, it was not running during this visit.

I mustered my energy, but the distance proved too great for my weary legs. The refuge shelter on the other side of the breach beckoned. I collapsed onto a bench, grateful for the respite, while hubby continued, determined to reach the iconic Spurn Lighthouse.

The remains of military buildings from world war 2 at Spurn PointWorld War 2 remains

The air was alive with the whispers of history, the remnants of World War 2 structures and ancient sea defences crumbling into the North Sea. Pillboxes, gun emplacements, and store rooms stood like sentinels, their concrete walls slowly surrendering to the relentless tides.

I was lost in thought, my feet sinking into the cool sand, when I heard the crunch of boots behind me. I turned to see my hubby trudging towards me, his face a picture of defeat.

"It was further than I thought" he said, as he dropped his backpack onto the sand with a thud. 

I nodded sympathetically, feeling a mix of relief and disappointment. We had both been looking forward to reaching the lighthouse. 

Big Hedge

After our long walk, we detoured up the Big Hedge Footpath, where two Stonechats searched for food. 

Nearby, a cluster of birdwatchers huddled, their binoculars trained on some distant prize. "Rustic Bunting," one of them whispered, eyes aglow with excitement. I smiled, feeling like an outsider, unsure of how to distinguish it from its Reed Bunting cousin. We didn't spot the elusive bird, but the thrill of the hunt lingered.

Photo of a female stonechat on a fence postFemale Stonechat
Photo of a male stonechat on a fence postMale Stonechat

As the day drew to a close, a trio of deer materialized, their large eyes watching us warily. I snapped photos, the fading light rendering them grainy, but I couldn't resist sharing them with you.

Later, I would commit one of these moments to paper, the result a delicate coloured pencil drawing that would find a home on my other site.

For now, I basked in the serenity of this windswept place, the memories of our adventure etched on my heart like the lines on a weathered stone.

A Roe Deer buckRoe deer buck (male)
Side view of Roe Deer buckBuck side view
My coloured pencil drawing of the Roe Buck seen at Spurn HeadPencil drawing by Carol Leather

Flood alert! - Day 5 

As we relaxed in our cozy cottage, the evening's tranquility was disrupted by the ping of an incoming email on my phone.

I hesitated for a moment before opening the message from our host, a sense of foreboding settling in.

The words on the screen seemed to leap out at me: "Early morning flood warning for Easington village due to the perfect storm of foul weather and a Spring tide." My heart skipped a beat as I read on: "Please ensure you don't leave anything valuable on the floor."

I turned to hubby, concern etched on my face.

"We need to move our gear," I said, my voice laced with urgency.

We scrambled to clear the floors, hastily relocating the precious camera equipment and laptop to the kitchen worktops. The bungalow's compact layout made it a challenge, but we managed to find a makeshift sanctuary for our belongings.

The next morning, the stormy weather outside mirrored the turmoil within. We huddled together, listening to the howling wind and the relentless drumbeat of rain against the windows. Mercifully, the sea didn't breach the shore, sparing us from the worst of the deluge.

As the afternoon wore on, cabin fever began to set in.

We decided to brave the elements, venturing out to Sammy's Point.

The wind whipped our faces, and the rain stung our skin, but we pressed on, determined to make the most of our soggy holiday. The only reward for our efforts was a fleeting glimpse of a solitary Curlew, its haunting cry piercing the gloom.

It was a dismal day, one that would be remembered more for its challenges than its triumphs.

Birds of prey - Day 6

The next morning the radiant sunshine and gentle breeze beckoned us to venture out.

Our first destination was a now familiar haunt – Kilnsea Wetlands – where, although we had missed golden hour, the promise of high tide still held the potential for birds in situ.

As we stepped into the reserve, the bird song hit us like a wave.

The sheer number of birds was overwhelming, making it a challenge to distinguish one from the other amidst the sea of plumage. It was as if the wetlands had come alive, pulsating with the rhythm of wings beating in unison.

Large flock of wadersLarge flock of waders

And then, in a flash, the birds erupted into the sky, a whirlwind of motion that left us awestruck.

Our eyes scanned the horizon, searching for the catalyst, and soon, two sleek silhouettes came into focus: a pair of Hobbies, their agile forms a blur as they darted through the air with lightning speed.

My camera clicked away, desperate to capture these elusive birds of prey, but they were so quick, so agile. I only managed one decent photo and that was a heavy crop. 

Peregrine falcon in flightHobby in flight

The spring tide

After this unforgettable spectacle, we reluctantly tore ourselves away from the hide and made our way to the old Blue Bell Café building, where the full fury of the sea awaited us. 

Two brave souls and their little dog followed in our footsteps, tracing the same path we had trodden just days before, but now much of it lay submerged beneath the waves.

The car park was a victim of the sea's wrath, its tarmac expanse all but vanished beneath the water. We stood at the edge humbled by the sheer power of nature's elemental forces.

The Spring Tide in full force

Our last day at Spurn Point - Day 7

As we stepped out of the car on our last day, the drizzle-laden air enveloped us like a damp shroud, and the biting wind whipped our faces, its chill seeping into our bones.

We exchanged a determined glance, shouldering our gear and setting off towards Kilnsea Wetlands, by now a familiar pit stop on our route from Easington to Spurn.

The dark, sky seemed to mirror our mood, but we pushed on, driven by the promise of the last morning's birdwatching.

As we approached the hide, the golden light of dawn began to seep over the horizon, casting a warm glow over the wetlands. We moved stealthily, not wanting to startle the wildlife, and slipped into the hide, our eyes scanning the landscape for signs of life. 

The silence was almost palpable, broken only by the soft lapping of water against the shore.

And then, we spotted it – a lovely Brown Hare, sitting serenely in front of us, its large brown eyes watchful but unafraid. 

I fumbled for my camera, trying to capture its gentle beauty before it departed.

The hare's ears twitched, and it sprang into action, racing towards us with a burst of speed before veering off in the opposite direction, leaving us breathless and grinning.

Brown Hare sitting in the early morning golden lightA sitting Brown Hare
Running brown hareThe Hare soon raced off

Our next destination was the Canal Scrape behind the discovery centre, a tranquil oasis that often yielded unexpected treasures. 

As we made our way along the winding path, the golden light began to fade, leaving behind a soft, ethereal glow.

The scrape was quiet, with only a few stragglers scattered about, but we were soon joined by a elegant Little Egret, its snowy plumage a stark contrast to the dull morning. 

It waded into the water, its long legs stirring the sediment for its breakfast and we watched, mesmerized, as it snagged a fish from the depths.

The last vestiges of the golden light had almost disappeared, leaving behind a soft, blue-grey haze, but we lingered, reluctant to leave the peacefulness of the scrape.

In hindsight I'm glad we moved on.

Little Egret fishing

Rare bird sighting!

As we made our way down to the Sea Watching hide for a final visit, a sudden commotion caught our attention.

The crowd was hurrying in the opposite direction, their faces alight with excitement.

We stopped in our tracks, curiosity getting the better of us. "What's all the fuss about?" we asked a fellow bird enthusiast.

The response was like a spark to dry tinder: "Booted Warbler amongst the sunflowers!"

The words sent a thrill through the air, and I couldn't help but be swept up in the fervour.

I, no die-hard Twitcher, felt my heart racing with anticipation. My husband, not quite as enthralled, opted to rest his tired legs at the car, but I was determined to catch a glimpse of this rare visitor.

As I pressed on I realized I was headed for the same field where I had seen the Roe deer and soon ended up at the same gate.

This time it was surrounded by men with cameras and binoculars their lenses trained on the tangle of plants a few meters into the field. I joined their ranks, scanning the area for a bird that remained elusive.

The problem was, I had never laid eyes on a Booted Warbler before, nor had I even heard of it until a few minutes prior.

I was clueless about its size, its plumage – everything.

So, I turned to the experts around me for guidance. "Excuse me," I said, "could you please show me where to look?"

The response was immediate and overwhelming. Ten voices chimed in at once, each offering directions and advice. "See where two sunflower seed heads are behind that patch of mauve flowers? It was down the bottom there a moment ago!" someone exclaimed.

"Showing up top again, on the thistle patch," another whispered, as if sharing a precious secret. A gentle hand guided my camera lens lower, saying, "You're aiming too high; try that spot."

Then, a soft voice from behind me offered a wealth of information: "You're looking for a little fella with a greyish beige back and head, and a greyish white underside. Watch when it moves, and then follow it until it lands a short distance away. It's quite confiding, so it'll stay in position for a while."

Just as I was processing this deluge of information, the Booted Warbler took flight from the ground, perching in plain sight. At last, I had an idea of what to look for.

My camera struggled to focus against the messy background, but I managed to snag some record shots – enough to prove I'd seen the bird, even if I had to crop them to show it off.

As I gazed at the Booted Warbler, I couldn't help but feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.

It was my first rare bird, and I knew there were many others at Spurn Point that day who hadn't been as fortunate.

The little bird may not have been the most dramatic or colourful creature, but it had won me over with its quiet charm. And as I turned to leave, I caught myself smiling – perhaps, just perhaps, I was a "proper birdwatcher" after all.

Booted Warbler at Spurn Point 2019The rare Booted Warbler in the sunflower patch
Booted Warbler

To future adventures

I felt a sense of exhilaration wash over me.

It was an exciting finale to our visit to this special place, where the North Sea crashed against the shore and the Humber Estuary stretched out like a shimmering silver ribbon.

I just hope this little spit of land, with its fragile dunes and shifting sands, doesn't entirely disappear due to coastal erosion, leaving behind only memories of the joy it brought to birdwatchers and nature lovers like us.

As we reluctantly turned to leave, I felt a sense of certainty wash over me. I was certain this wouldn't be our last trip to Spurn Point, this enchanting peninsula on the East Yorkshire coast.

Who knows what wonders we'd discover next time? The thrill of the unknown hung in the air like the cries of the gulls wheeling overhead.

And, as fate would have it, we did return, this time in October, when the autumn winds howled and the skies were ablaze with golden light.

We took a Spurn Safari on the Unimog, went inside the lighthouse and met two red foxes, used to humans although still wild. They came so close I was able to photograph them with my iPhone. It just goes to prove you don’t always need a long lens for wildlife photography!

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