Peter And Margaret Tell Us Their Experience Of Our Tour For Two In Yorkshire

Gannets are always very popular on our Birdwatching Trips Tours in Yorkshire but this time so much more...

We put together a special custom Tour for Two for Peter and Maragret to Yorkshire from the 8th – 14th of October 2021 and the they very kindly sent us a write up of their holiday…..

What a way to start our Tour for Two - mega rare White-tailed Lapwing first bird! Here with a Curlew Sandpiper.

For the two of us, it had already been a brilliant day’s birding at Spurn Point, Including the amazing sight of a flock of pink-footed geese flying in separate skeins of varying length that sketched beautiful abstract geometric patterns across the Yorkshire sky. But we sensed the slight disappointment in Alan’s voice as the expected migrant rush had not yet materialised. So we moved round a little from the Discovery Centre on the Humber estuary side, stopping to check out a barn owl sitting in a box across the field on the way, to follow rumours of a yellow-browed warbler and some short-eared owls seen the previous afternoon at Sammy’s Point. It was mid-afternoon. Things stayed quiet until Alan spotted a red fox making its way across the far side of the field towards patchy bushes beside the estuary path. We followed its pale-coated progress through a field-gate and into the bushes. Suddenly, Ruth and Alan were singing (according to my excited and possibly unreliable memory) in perfect harmony “Short-eared owls – loads of them – the fox has flushed them – look, 2, 4 ,6 …NINE”. Up the owls came in a chaotic but impressive flurry above the fox, and then, almost as soon as that frenetic opening to the performance of the day we were about to witness had started, they settled back into grand flight on paths along the field right in front of our eyes – up and down in relays, a game of tag involving six of the original group, majestic colouring in the descending late afternoon sun, the glorious grandeur of their wings as they beat their way to-and-fro in a feast for our eyes. The colours varied – one bird was a deep dark rich brown, another a light camel colour, all showing subtle shadings. One of the original nine sat at the point of the original eruption, a ringmaster, observing the comings and goings of the others, showing no emotion or excitement, as if overseeing the activity of the others from a director’s chair. We stayed, glued to telescopes and binoculars, with Margaret joyfully in full camera-mode, for 30 minutes of pure theatre. We had stumbled into a ringside seat for watching the short-eared owls performing their graceful ghost-like sequence.

One of the NINE Short-eared Owls we were thrilled to encounter - watched from the footpath.

Peter gets his breath back after the amazing Short-eared Owl display.

If that was the most complete drama of our wonderful Yorkshire birding trip with Alan and Ruth, then the other days supplied the high-points for the birding lists. On our way to our base just north of Beverley on the first day, we had stopped off at Black Toft Sands, a magical reserve especially good for not-so-experienced birders like the two of us because the birds feel so close. Not only did we quickly accumulate a decent bunch of waders and ducks for day’s list, but we had the time and space to contemplate the detail and special beauty of each species – helped and encouraged as always by Alan and Ruth’s infinitely patient and unobtrusive lessons in all the key features to look for and their unflagging enthusiasm and appreciation of species that they had seen so many times before. But the top spot for this site was the white-tailed lapwing – special for us not just because it is a UK rarity, but because it is an extraordinarily lovely bird to just sit and watch – and it obliged by putting itself in a prime position, occasionally pairing for a little flirtation with a passing coot or duck who themselves seemed anxious for a photo-opportunity with this celebrity bird on their patch. This was our top bird of the holiday for just gazing and absorbing bird beauty.

Yellow browed Warbler Norfolk Oct 2017 1

Yellow-browed Warblers can be very elusive but Peter nailed it! Library photo.

After the short-eared owls of Spurn on day two, day three took us to Flamborough in hope of more migration activity. But on the way we stopped at Hornsea Mere – Yorkshire’s largest inland lake, so my guidebook told me, and a lovely spot in the early dew-filled morning before the boats from the yacht club started their day’s sport. We were rewarded by a Slavonian grebe, enjoying its solitude on the water. At Flamborough, we feasted our eyes on the gannets, and, despite Alan’s anguished cries to get to the telescope fast, just missed the Arctic skua. We looked for warblers in the hedgerows behind Bempton Cliffs without success, but later on in the afternoon, with the sixth sense Alan and Ruth bring to their birding that constantly seems to make things happen, they took us along a back path from the café to the car park and stopped in a small group of trees. And then the combination – Ruth heard it, Alan saw it, and we sort of caught something flying and making the leaves move - a yellow-browed warbler, our first-ever sighting of one, but a bit unsatisfactory because the two of us hadn’t seen it properly, especially that yellow brow. We stayed, and suddenly I saw a leaf move again and, wow, I was seeing a warbler and it had yellow brows and it wasn’t flying off. Quick as a flash, Alan and Ruth and Margaret were confirming it. Well, that’s the beauty of a tour with Alan and Ruth – they placed me in the right place at the right time, having already established the bird was there. Previous experience suggested I could still screw it up, but this time the magic worked, and my eyes and binoculars and the bird had lined up. How exciting was that! This had to be my personal spot of the tour, even though my role in it was definitely a walk-on part.

When in Yorkshire.... Peter celebrated in style! And he just about ate the lot!

The next day brought us the top rarity of the tour, and introduced us to the pain and the pleasures of twitching – and more particularly the experience of watching Alan and Ruth in full twitching mode. Alan had declined to follow news of a long-toed stint at St Aidan’s (an RSPB reserve near to Leeds) over the weekend – a bird so rare in the UK that even he had not seen one on British soil before – in order to shelter us from the crowds of birders that had gathered there. But the downside of this for our intrepid guides was rising anxiety come Monday (day 4 of the tour) that the stint might have moved away to obscurity. As we made our way to Leeds, we began to understand the tension generated by a rare bird sighting – would we make it in time? The happy ending was that we did, and the number of birders at the site had thinned, so we got a clear view of this tiny bird with its huge toes. It obligingly placed one of its feet on a grey stone in the sunlight – perfect for studying this amazing appendage. Lessons in bird anatomy followed (this bird’s toe is bigger than its tarsal – Margaret and I had to get our heads around the fact a bird’s foot starts at what looks to us to be its knee), while the long-toed stint itself was diverted by nearby lapwings who were mostly being very tolerant but occasionally became sufficiently irritated by this camera-grabbing newcomer to give it a little flick. The stint was unfazed, and looked quite comfortable feeding away thousands of miles away from its usual home. We stopped at the top of this large and very beautiful reserve, its peace and calm in the morning sunlight belying its former life as an open-cast coal mine, to view what Alan and Ruth had christened the “Big Thing”, a vast museum-piece of machinery imported from America in the 1950’s to shift coal and now lying admired but redundant. A pair of red kites flew over, Big Things of the sky. A trip on to Fairburn Ings, another RSPB reserve on an old industrial site, provided the usual spectacular denouement to a day out with Alan and Ruth. Ruth’s ears picked up a green woodpecker’s song and the bird then displayed for us, and after a long but energising walk, a pair of cattle egrets showed down below us in the valley.

The tiny but oh so very rare Long-toed Stint - last UK record back in 1982!

We returned to Spurn for day 5, and to activity more to Alan’s liking – redwings and bramblings coming in at a rate of knots, and a knot itself on the shore – plenty of birds to form the largest day list of the trip. Our reward for patiently walking along the coastal path back from the pub to the Discovery Centre was a meeting with a Western Bonelli’s warbler - but only seen in flight by Margaret and me. So we had one last walk around to the pub and stood, the four of us alone, looking across the field to a hedgerow. As one of the Spurn Observatory volunteers joined us, the wonderful little warbler appeared for us again and this time gave us clear views of it in the afternoon sunlight. After two minutes Alan tapped my shoulder and said “Look behind you” - our solitude had been transformed by the silent arrival of about 30 birders and their scopes. Very impressive twitcher migration. We assumed this was day 5’s piece-de-resistance for the day, but we had not reckoned on our amazing guides. Off we went to watch the waders and ducks one more time at Kilnsea Wetlands, passing a Little Owl perched near a farmyard on the way. In the hide Alan and Ruth went silent and went to work with their telescopes on an innocent looking flock of black-headed gulls – Ruth started taking photographs as Alan gazed and pondered at one gull – was it a Caspian gull? No certainty, so no pronouncement to the hide, no messaging on social media, but back to the hotel for an intensive study of the photos and the literature to alleviate the boredom of the England football match. Next morning came the joyful pronouncement – this was indeed a Caspian gull, defined by one little column of white between primary and secondary wing feathers. From such narrow margins comes so much of the excitement of bird identification.

First-winter Caspian Gull at Kilnsea Wetlands a tricky ID but great fun to sort out.

Day 6 was going-home time and we assumed this was run-down time too, but no – a spectacular flock of some 30 snipe all together was the find of the day, taking some of the pain away that followed later from a necessary lesson in ‘dipping’. We had followed news of a Baird’s sandpiper on a site on our way home near Rotherham, just this side of the Nottinghamshire border so still part of the Yorkshire tour, but despite a brief distant glimpse on arrival, it did not reappear until after we had long gone. It had been the most fantastic feast of birding and learning and superb birds, common and rare, for 6 days, with two of the friendliest, funny, patient and brilliant guides on the planet – so absorbing a little lesson in disappointment on the final day seemed a reasonable price to pay.

No better way to end a day full of wonderful birds with great company - a spot of "tailgating"

We emerged from our wonderful trip with lots of new birds but just as important lots of glorious gazing at birds in wonder and delight – what more could you want? – and along the way we had also learned the new experience of tailgating – gathering around the open boot of the car at lunchtime, when there is no café nearby, to share a flask of coffee and some sandwiches. Followed, of course by going off to find a café for cake at teatime. Thank you Alan and Ruth for more laughter-filled days of birding delight.

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