Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Spurn Young Birder of the Year Competition, by Findlay Wilde

Throughout the UK, there are lots of places that are good for birding, there are also many places that are brilliant for birding; however there aren’t many places that just go above and beyond and leave you in wonder, thinking “can you get much better than this”? Not surprisingly that’s exactly how I felt when I made my first ever visit to Spurn on the remarkable Yorkshire Coastline. On one side is the North Sea, on the other you have the Humber Estuary. You are standing on a thin piece of land between the two, making Spurn a magnet for migratory birds and a haven for birders such as myself.

Every year Spurn has a large scale event called ‘MigFest’, short for migration festival. MigFest takes place over a weekend in September and never disappoints. There is a great social network of people to talk to and of course it is a perfect chance to see migration in full swing with the odd rarity mixed in as well.  Last year, a new feature was added, the “Spurn Young Birder of the Year Competition”, which I was delighted to take part in.

Arctic Skua by Moss Taylor
Arctic Skua by Moss Taylor
We only went for the day of the competition, but we still managed to see lots of amazing birds and have an incredible time. I woke up early in the morning eager with anticipation, knowing that just a 3 hour drive stood between me and a day I would probably never forget. I was sort of nervous arriving at Spurn, not because it’s the first time I had been, but because it was the first time I was taking part in an actual birding competition. I arrived for about 7:30am with the actual competition starting at around 9:30am; this gave me a couple of hours or so to catch up with the other young birders taking part; Ellis Lucas and Evie Miller.  Whilst waiting for Ellis to arrive, Evie and I did a bit of sea watching. I instantly saw 2 lifers. The first was a group of 4 Sooty Shearwater that flew north quite close in. The highlight however, was a Long Tailed Skua that also flew past north, with 7 Arctic Skuas. What an amazing start to the day!

Time flies when you’re having a great time birding, and the point soon came for the competition. All 3 of us travelled from the sea watching hut to the old Bird Obs, The Warren,  where we met up with Nick Whitehouse who had organised the whole event, and of course our other judges. The competition consisted of 4 stages; the ‘Lab Test’ (certainly the hardest in my opinion), the ‘Field Test’, the ‘Estuarine Test’ and a ‘Sea Watching Test’. The latter was what I started with. My expert trained his scope on a set of wind turbines out at sea, my scope obviously focused on the same place, then anything that flew through the vision I had to identify and I was scored on how many I got correct out of the total number of species. It was challenging, but great fun as I got to see Red Throated Diver, Sooty Shearwater, Manx Shearwater and Grey Plover.
Spotted Flycatcher by Findlay Wilde
Spotted Flycatcher by Findlay Wilde

Every time we finished a stage, we would swap challenge and expert, so next up for me was the Lab Test. This started with me going into a room where the bird ringing at Spurn was done. For this challenge I had to identify specific feather groups on a bird, such as the lores and greater coverts, and also identify 2 bird calls. Once the science parts were completed, I was taken outside again to do some VisMig work, during which I saw Tree Sparrow and Meadow Pipit.

I haven’t yet mentioned the weather, but at points it really was awful and that unfortunately was the case for my next challenge, Estuarine. I was taken out to view the Humber Estuary watching the waders being pushed forward on the incoming tide, being tested on Dunlin, Redshank and Grey Plover. I was also asked some general knowledge questions about waders.

My final challenge was the Field Test where I was taken out around the Spurn area to identify any passerine birds in the scrubland and small copses. I managed to get great views of Pied Flycatcher and Tree Sparrow, whilst hirundines such as Swallow and House Martins whirled above my head. And then that was it, all the challenges were done.

Red-backed Shrike by Findlay Wilde
Red-backed Shrike by Findlay Wilde
We then had about an hour to wander round whilst the judges swapped notes. I chatted with Ellis and Evie about the answers we had given and what we all saw, it was great to be able to talk to the others and compare notes.  During that spare hour, we went to look for the Red Backed Shrike that had been showing well in and around corner field; this particular bird was a lifer for me and certainly didn’t disappoint. The bird showed up about 10 meters from us allowing us a spectacular look at this rare migratory bird.

It was then time to head back to The Warren to see how we had all done. Nick Whitehouse went through all the answers and explained in a lot of detail the birds we had seen and some we missed. All the experts gave advice on IDing birds in the field and we all learnt so much from them.  It was made very clear that although it was a competition, the important thing was the learning experience. And this kept getting said during the day.  I can honestly say, it never once felt like I was being tested against the other young birders, it felt more like I was getting an invaluable learning experience, with experienced birders giving up their time to help and support us.  It just felt like I was looking at my own skills and seeing where I might need to improve.

The rest of the day was then free to go birding. During this time we met loads of great birders and kept bumping into the experts, who were interested to know what we had seen.  Ellis and I went off to do some more sea watching (which I don’t get much chance to do in Cheshire). Within 2 minutes of arriving at the sea watching hide, we were already witnessing 2 Sabine’s Gull flying north!!! Closely followed by a CORYS SHEARWATER!!!! A very rare bird for Spurn and even better that it was close in, giving spectacular views. Next up on our birding agenda was to go and get another good look at that Red Backed Shrike.

Time flew by and it soon came to the point where we had to head to Westmere Farm for the evening event. It was a pleasure to meet Martin Garner, an absolutely phenomenal guy; Ellis and I did a few identification challenges with him while we were waiting for dinner. Whilst everyone was finishing dinner I went to see if I could relocate the Barred Warbler that had been seen earlier, however I had no luck.

For the evening event we all hurried into the presentation room to grab a seat, as the talks are very popular. Martin opened the evening talks by saying a few words about MigFest and how it was great to see so many people there.

Next up was the Young Birders section of the evening event. Everyone was so supportive of the young birders and we were all made to feel really welcome.  The competition was explained to the audience and then the 3 of us were invited up on to the stage where we all received prizes for taking part.

The team at Spurn were amazing. The competition was fun, stress free and I learnt so much from those few hours spent one to one with some very experienced birders.  So if you want to have a go and enter the 2016 competition then just go for it. Don’t worry about winning or losing, it’s about learning and meeting a great group of people (young and old) that you can always turn to in the future for help and advice.

For details on entering the competition visit:
http://www.spurnbirdobservatory.co.uk/blog/post.php?s=2016-04-30-calling-all-young-birders

Findlay Wilde, @WildeAboutBirds
http://wildeaboutbirds.blogspot.co.uk/

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