Spurn Residential Volunteering 2021

Sometimes, when you've wanted to do something for a really long time, it can never quite live up to expectations. Thankfully, when it came to my visit to Spurn Bird Observatory that wasn't the case - it matched my wildest expectations. I visited Spurn for two weeks, thanks to the BTO's fantastic Young Bird Observatory Volunteer Fund which funded my stay at the observatory. I'm so grateful to the BTO for providing me with the opportunity through this grant.

Having been successful in my application to become a residential volunteer at Spurn in autumn 2020, I was extremely disappointed when the pandemic meant that volunteers were no longer able to visit for anything other than the full 3 month autumn period (which I wouldn't have been able to do due to university). With a similar commitment needed to become a residential volunteer in 2021, I am extremely grateful to Jonnie Fisk for allowing me to come for 2 weeks with the YBOV fund in September before my university year began, so that I could still experience observatory life and the work that residential volunteers do. This meant that I could finally complete my volunteering visit to Spurn that I'd been looking forward to for a year and a half!

Naturally, when one thinks of spending September at Spurn it's hard not to become consumed by the potential rarities you could see. Past records include Lanceolated Warbler, Pechora Pipit and Pallas' Grasshopper Warbler, plenty to whet any birding appetite. And in the lead up to my visit, it was to these dreams that my mind inevitably wandered. What I soon realised though is how additional, even at times incidental, one's individual birding can become alongside such a thriving and friendly birding community. It is all about maintaining and enjoying this fantastic area and community. Indeed, so many of the happy memories that I'm taking away from my trip don't even involve a bird.

It is only recently that I have chosen to share my birding with others. I have spent most of my birding life, since I was very young, birding alone or with my family. At times I felt, as many others do I'm sure, that I was one of the only young birders out there. I never felt lonely in my hobby because it was simply something I loved to do on my own; sometimes enjoying the natural world alone can be a great thing. But had I known how many great young people there were out there who shared my passion I know I would have reached out sooner. This is why the YBOV grant is such a great initiative. It helps young people to experience the camaraderie and friendship of staying in a bird observatory with other like-minded people and to be a part of a birding community like the one at Spurn.

Arriving at Spurn on the 6th of September, having called in at Blacktoft Sands en-route to see the White-tailed Lapwing and some incredibly showy Bearded Tits, I stopped at Easington Playing Fields to hunt down a recently reported Barred Warbler. What a great bird that would be to start my visit! Unfortunately, the bird had gone, but as I was leaving a bird dropped onto the railings. A Pied Flycatcher. If anything, this bird was a better welcome to Spurn because they would come to epitomise my first 3 days of birding here. They were everywhere!

I pulled up in the observatory car park... a Pied Flycatcher was behind the car. With some time before check-in, I wandered round to Kilnsea Churchyard to look for the Arctic Warbler which had been found just hours earlier. No sign of the warbler but a Pied Flycatcher. Then I met Jonnie who showed me round the observatory and got me settled in. And as we walked there... a Pied Flycatcher! This is what Spurn in September is about! I was witnessing the tail end of an even bigger fall a few days before but this was more flycatchers than I'd ever seen in my life.

With an hour free in the evening on my first day, I took a walk on my own around my new home. There's something incredibly peaceful about being at Spurn after day visitors have left - something you can only really experience by staying here. Standing on Beacon Lane watching a Red-backed Shrike with no one else around and just the distant sound of the waves, was a wonderful ending to my first day and one that I'll remember for a long time. To top it off, I found a Kingfisher on the Borrow Pit soon afterwards, which was quite an unusual bird for Spurn and a big surprise.

My first full day began with a naΓ―ve undertaking to Spurn Point in jeans and a jumper, in blazing sunshine. I realised around Middle Camp the mistake I had made but unfortunately this was too late. 3 and a half miles later down at the point, Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers abounded, and I heard my second Cetti's Warbler of the day. Before coming to Spurn I had thoroughly read Birds of Spurn by Andy Roadhouse (a fantastic book!), for fear of accidentally mentioning that I had seen a Nuthatch at the log (seriously rare at Spurn) and failing to mention it at the time. Cetti's Warbler had just 5 records at the time of publication in 2014, compared to 572 records of Barred Warbler! And yet, during my visit this year, Cetti's was a daily bird, with up to 5 different birds being seen each day. A stark reminder of how quickly a species' status can change. 

Drift migrants were all over the place in early September, like this Whinchat

With SW winds forecast, my attention turned to vismigging. It was great to learn from the local experts in different areas of birding, some areas that I haven't had much experience in at home in the Midlands. I joined Jacob on several vismig watches and he taught me loads about vismigging and about Spurn birding in general. We saw some great vismig birds like Merlin, Hobby, Red-throated Diver, Spoonbill and so many Tree Sparrows. I even did the watch on my own for a short period. Likewise, I did plenty of seawatches with Steve Exley, who was kind enough to give me a tutorial in the different wind turbines which are used to call out passing birds, along with lots of help on Skua and Tern ID!

The next few days involved a great mix of birding, meeting new people and working hard to set up MigFest for the coming weekend. Jobs included erecting marquees, collecting tables, kitchen equipment and tools from various locations around Kilnsea and setting up and cleaning the furniture. And of course, as much birding as possible for the evening’s log. All in the aforementioned heat that I didn't not expect when visiting Spurn in the autumn!

One memorable moment involved carrying some steps across North Field with Toby when Gethin shouted across to let me know that the Arctic Warbler, which had been avoiding me for 48 hours, was finally showing again. A quick swap of places and a very hot kilometre of running later, I was in the Crown and Anchor car park soaking up great views of the bird. Though being out of breath did make for shaky viewing. Remarkably my only other Arctic Warbler was in the same tree 4 years ago. Is this the pub with the biggest garden list in Britain?

The next few days were a whirlwind of meeting people, events, great birds and great company, as Migfest 2021 began. The Observatory was suddenly full, and the nights were filled with socialising and getting to know lots of new people. This was my first Migfest, and what a great weekend it was, I’ll certainly be back. You really feel like Migfest is a microcosm of the birding community, it’s all about birding and making and meeting friends. Even on a relatively ‘quiet’ weekend by Spurn standards, I along with many others had lots of lifers - for me, these were Long-tailed Skua, Common Rosefinch and Dotterel.

During Migfest I ran several guided walks, did car park and camping management, took part in the quiz, visited the stalls, did lots of birding and met so many new people.

And then by Monday it was over, and there was a distinctly calmer atmosphere around the observatory, albeit a more subdued one as we said our goodbyes to lots of people, including Toby who had been here since April.

My daily tasks migrated more towards bird recording, and I carried out points counts along the peninsula and within ‘the triangle’. These counts are part of a research effort at nearby Hull Uni to investigate the detectability of birds.

The start of the week heralded the start of autumn and it was distinctly colder than before. Northerly winds brought in the first winter migrants of the autumn and I saw Purple Sandpiper, Pale-bellied Brent Goose, Brambling and Velvet Scoter. I wish I had known that the high waves that came with the winds often covered the cliff-top path to the sea watching hide. I was lucky enough to come across a Purple Sandpiper on the path just feet in front of me. It posed nicely while I took a photo, however both me and it then found ourselves under the same wave! Arriving at a busy sea watching hide on a dry sunny day, soaking wet, is a tricky one to explain without embarrassment! At least I got a photo.

A behind-the-scenes phone photo of the Purple Sandpiper, right before disaster!

Wednesday arrived with the message of "Hoopoe at the lighthouse!!" on the radio. Despite being tempted, I made the decision to save my trek down the peninsula for the following day when it was my turn to do the point count there. Maybe it would do the decent thing and stay. Instead, Jonnie and I went on a walk around Easington - an area I hadn't yet birded. A Redstart was the only notable migrant, but really the walk was about the conversation, and it was great to hear about Jonnie's time as Assistant Warden. 

Despite scouring what felt like every bush on the peninsula on Thursday, the Hoopoe wasn't to be found. Though the long walk wasn't without its rewards. My count of 906 Meadow Pipits wasn't a patch on the c.2,900 that flew over Numpties, but it was by far the most I'd ever seen in one morning, and a great exercise in vismig counting with no one around to help me! It is also telling because it shows how many Meadow Pipits cut across from the Warren and never pass over the point, something that was noticed when vismigging moved from the Narrows to the Warren some years ago. At least I'm hoping that is the case or I just missed 2,000 of them!

Sunrise over the breach

With a poor forecast and no scheduled tasks, I chose Friday for a much-needed rest. Thus, when I awoke after a lie-in to missed calls, tweets and frantic radio messages, I thought someone was playing a practical joke on me! Isabelline Wheatear in Easington! I was up and ready in 10 minutes and on my way to the Gas Terminal. Though my haste probably wasn't entirely necessary given the way the bird performed for the rest of the day, I was right to go that day because it disappeared overnight. It gave great views and was a very fitting 200th bird to complete my Summer Holiday Challenge.

My final weekend came with a small arrival of scarcities. Despite missing the Ortolan Bunting which showed to just a few observers, I did get to see another Red-backed Shrike, Turtle Dove and lots more of the commoner migrants.

It’s been about so much more than just the birds and yet I still saw 144 species including Isabelline Wheatear, Arctic Warbler, Common Rosefinch, 2 Red-backed Shrikes, 2 Long-tailed Skuas, 2 Sooty Shearwaters, 7 Short-eared Owls, 3 Purple Sandpipers, Dotterel, Velvet Scoter, Brambling, Turtle Dove and Caspian Gull.

Despite all this my bird of the trip was Redstart. Not for rarity value but because I think they epitomise September at Spurn, I love that flash of red as they fly away from you. There was a small fall of 14 birds on my final day which seemed a fitting way to end my stay here. 

All too soon, I found myself saying goodbye to everyone. I loved every minute and have made some great friendships. Despite just being here for 2 weeks, I felt like an honorary autumn volunteer throughout my stay, and I was included in all aspects of observatory life. From my Obs Family - Jonnie, Greg, Liam, Gethin and Toby - to those like Jacob who I got to bird with every day to those that stayed at the observatory for just a few nights or over Migfest, I met so many incredible people, far too many to list here. But to everyone who I met, I am very grateful for how welcome I was made to feel. Spurn really is a special place, and I will be back.


  1. Lovely post, Matt. Sounds like there's a terrific vibe at Spurn, and not just the birds... 😊 πŸ‘

  2. Special place to be and nicely portrayed in a great article πŸ‘πŸ‘

  3. Good to meet you at Spurn. Glad you enjoyed your stay; come back!

    1. It was great to meet you John - I'm already looking forward to coming back!


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