Spurn Revisited

This month I began a exciting old-new adventure, when I was asked to be the official Patron at Spurn Bird Observatory. It is a place that looms large in my whole development as a naturalist. Strange to relate, but Spurn returned to me this year in more than just this single privileged guise. Earlier in 2022, myself and two friends Mark Beevers and Jonathan Mycock said farewell to our mentor Jim Lidgate, who was a maths teacher at our school. It was he who took us for numerous holidays at Spurn.

Sadly, Jim struggled for years with cancer and he was finally told that his time was short. We thus arranged to speak with him and his partner Liz before he passed away, partly to tell him how his example and generosity helped to shape each one of us, setting us on a path to nature for all of our lives. He offered us the kind of contact and opportunities that are now forbidden by regulations around health and safety or children’s welfare. Alas for us all I think.

Here’s the only pic of Jim (with his back to us in the middle) that I could find (courtesy of Howard Frost and the scapbooks at Spurn obs).

I’ve further acknowledged Jim’s role in my forthcoming book One Midsummer’s Day out next year but I also wrote about Spurn’s seminal part in my lifelong love affair with bird migration.

Here’s a snippet:

“The last includes my earliest, perhaps the most powerful recollection of bird migration that I have. It involved black birds, common blackbirds at Spurn Point on the Yorkshire coast. It was dusk and the whole low-scrub landscape of sea buckthorn, with its livid orange berries and murderous spine, was reduced by last light to a silver-leaf-flecked cavern of darkness all around us. Out of it came blackbirds, rising. Calling to each other as they went. Nocturnal thrush migrants setting forth. Maybe thirty or forty, but going directly up, into the dense blue of the October sky. A chatter of contact notes coming from dark shapes scattered through the lesser darkness of night. Across the haze of Grimsby’s electric lightshow to the west. Up they went, searching for the stars, spiralling in a way that I had never ever seen before. They were going. Northern birds flying south. Taking advantage of a clear full Moon – like my Moon tonight – and which birders call a ‘splitters’ Moon’. It was a moment I’ve never forgotten. I was thirteen. It was fifty years ago. I’ve been filled with Zugunruhe* ever since.”

*(Zugenruhe is a technical term meaning ‘migration restlessness’.)

Anyone unfamilar with Spurn may know at least that it is a curving, south-pointing finger of coastal dune, low-lying scrub and grassland running for about three miles towards a terminal point on the northern edge of the Humber estuary. It more or less aims directly towards Grimsby and all birds moving along the east coast are funneled to this slender bottleneck.

It’s difficult to capture its unique shape and character because it is so low-lying, but you perhaps can see below its southerly curve and the narrowness of its isthmus. That very specific geography has made

Spurn the pre-eminent mainland British location for migrants. It has the highest list of any UK locality and has a remarkable roster of extreme rarities. It also produces an annual species total greater than all Norfolk (so they tell me!). That is some boast.

But Spurn isn’t just about glamour species. The Humber estuary holds 130,000 wetland birds and is a magnificent sweep of tidal mudflat on Spurn’s doorstep. Some of the most memorable days we had involved common migrants, but in impressive abundance. In the last 140 years Spurn observatory has recorded some extraordinary days: for instance, the passage of 20,000 swifts on the 23rd and then again on the 25th June 1990. A day I would love to have been there is 20 November 1967, because the place was visited by 20,000+ blackbirds. Just imagine it!

When we went in the 1970s it was standard to make our way at dawn to what were then called the Narrows – literally the thinnest stretch of the whole peninsula – and to keep count of migrants flying past. Here is a page or two from my notebook, which is 49 years old. I was 13 years old when I made these notes

(above) my notes for 25 May 73, each fig represents a separate group of south-flying house martins or swallows. (Right) shows similar notes for 1 June 1973.

Remarkably the original observatory, known as The Warren, stll stands. (Spurn was the site for an agriculturally managed rabbit warren as early as the seventeenth century). To this tardis-like four,-rooom cottage, whose significance was out of all proportion to its size, was added a later, military-style barracks structure imaginatively known as the Annexe. The latter was our customary accommodation during many, many visits. I have an old receipt for a week from September 1976. The whole thing cost me £4.80. It is another classic measure of the age that, between us all, we possess not a single photograph of the period. The image of me – aged 18/19 while birding somewhere in Europe – is the closest I can get to the era.

With most places in relation to the standard human span, it is the landscape that serves as an anchor, fixing us to a particular moment, and acting as the metronome by which we can measure change, both physical and spiritual. With Spurn, however, the reverse is true. This is the British coast, nay the European shoreline, that has changed most. A lot of the things that are embedded in my memories of Spurn have now vanished. I don’t seem to have changed much. But Spurn is unrecognisable. The annex has gone, but also several fields and the long hedgerow behind the obsevatory, known as ‘Big Hedge’, as well as various ponds, the whole road along the peninsula, many of the wartime structures that dotted the route to the Point, even big chunks of the Narrows and the entire row of lighthouse cottages – all of them have gone.

As if in proportion to the losses inflicted by time and tide, the human community at Spurn, especially its various committees over the last couple of decades, have been remarkably creative in ensuring a future for the observatory. A new building has been bought and converted as the new observatory, just down the road in Kilnsea. The committee has also bought and converted for wildlife purposes and for visitors’ use, pockets of land throughout the recording area. It is still an amazing place and a fabulously exciting location to encounter bird migration. I am hugely looking forward to reacquainting myself with this dear old friend. May be you should join me.

(Below are the new obs with its common room, where the nightly log of all the birds seen that day are recorded. It was such a wonderful ritual to have been part of, even a 13-year-old could make a contribution to the day’s official business. I’m looking forward to taking part again.)

Finally here is a glimpse of why Spurn is so memorable. it is a place with an immense sense of space and with the widest horizons, where young and old are able to ponder what is important in life.

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