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Spurn Migration Festival 2014

October 21, 2014

This article was originally published by Yorkshire Coast Nature here in October 2014

Well, that was fun, as being part of team Yorkshire Coast Nature on manoeuvres invariably is – whether in our natural habitat leading wildlife safaris and nature tours, or being involved in events and shows. Last weekend meant the latter, and thus Rich and I stockpiled the motor with tents, sleeping bags, boxes full of bird reports, ‘scopes, tripods and supplies and headed southbound – from the sweeping curves of Filey Bay, via the rugged limestome promontory of Flamborough – to the magical migration mecca that is Spurn.

To prize two obsessively faithful patch birders away from their respective coastal observatories in early September – with easterlies and rain forecast over the weekend, no less – requires a very good reason indeed; substantially better than weddings, funerals, wars or similarly trivial distractions. But the Spurn Migration Festival – aka Migfest – was deemed worthy of the sacrifice, and thankfully, expectations were easily matched.

Arriving early on a sunny Friday afternoon, we checked in at base, and – as if to set the tone for the festival’s charmingly lo-fi demeanour – an appropriately small blink-and-you’ll-miss-it banner tied to the side of a trailer quietly announced the registration point and entrance to the hub of the festival, Westmere Farm.

From Filey, at Flamborough, to Spurn...

From Filey, at Flamborough, to Spurn…

From there to Wellfield, a half a mile or so south towards the point and home to the marquee we’d occupy alongside our fellow sponsors and exhibitors over the weekend. Amongst a friendly cast there we soon bonded with two outstanding bird artists whose reputations rightly precede them – Ray Scally and Darren Woodhead.

Ray’s work graces everything from the pages of the bar-raising Yorkshire Bird Report to the new Birding Frontiers Challenge Series, while Darren’s hypnotising watercolours are rightfully revered far and wide. More importantly though, both would also turn out to be worthy drinking partners.

After pitching our tents back at Westmere, we’d a couple of hours to burn before the evening’s festivities, and we really had to eat – and so naturally we grabbed our bins and went birding instead. Almost unbelievably, this was my first real taste of Spurn’s unique landscape, and walking the rough grassland, scrubland, wetlands and shoreline soon revealed the Migfest’s context and backdrop, and within them, its greatest asset – the birds.

And not just any old birds – migrants almost without exception, liberally scattered across all available habitats. From the multitudes of returning Arctic waders on the mudflats and saltmarsh, to the swarms of Meadow Pipits descending into the long grass, to the parades of Whinchats flicking restlessly along fence-lines – the Migfest was already living up to the hype. By the time we headed back to the farm, we’d enjoyed a fine selection of new arrivals, the best of which was unarguably a superbly tame Wryneck feeding just a few metres away on the rocky Humber shoreline.

Wryneck – one of the birds of the weekend

With attendees arriving all the time, there was a building buzz around the place and – symptomatic of an intimate and relaxed gathering of like-minded folk – an inherently friendly atmosphere, maintained throughout the weekend. Clearly the event was attracting the ‘right people’, which translated as basically anyone with a common interest in the glories of migration, regardless of ability or expertees.

Just the audience, then, that Birding Frontiers driving force Martin Garner hoped to connect with and has encouraged in recent years, and so it was fitting that a typically animated and engaging Martin officially uncorked the 2014 Migfest on Friday evening.

The barn at Westmere is an ideal venue for the evening talks, and with visible migration being a central theme throughout the weekend, Clive Mackay was the ideal speaker for the first night. Clive is a passionate and obsessive proponent of the phenomenon now generally known as vismig – literally, the active migration of birds when visible to us – and reinforced the huge importance of amateur input (aka citizen science) in piecing together the migration jigsaw. Inspiring stuff, followed by a nightcap or five in the Crown & Anchor, but more of that another time.

With YCN's newest client - The One Show's Mike Dilger

With YCN’s newest client – TV’s Mike Dilger

Come Saturday morning and we were on duty; lots of interest from potential clients, many of whom couldn’t believe they could see Honey-buzzards, Adders, Pied Flycatchers, Goshawks and Redstarts in the morning and cetaceans, skuas and huge numbers of breeding seabirds in the afternoon on our Wildlife Safaris (you can, and we do!).

Over the course of the two days we also led guided walks and gave impromptu ID sessions outside the marquee, which just so happened to look out over a superb ‘leading line’ for passerine migrants – with flycatchers, Whinchats, warblers and wagtails just a few paces from the YCN stand, and a second Wryneck, this one conveniently pitching down between parked cars next to the marquee.

The organisers laid on plenty of other daytime activities for attendees, including ringing demos, sea-watching and vismig sessions, and various walks and talks, and by all accounts, both days were a raging success – lots of birds, lots of migration, and lots of happy punters.

We were also there in our capacity of Bird Observatory representatives, with our ongoing involvement at Filey and Flamborough respectively inspiring us keen to strengthen the links between the three Yorkshire Coast Observatories. It’s a productive time for all concerned, with plenty of positive progress in recent years to build on at all three Obs, and more than likely, some interesting co-operative plans in the pipeline. Watch this space.

Yorkshire's three Obs!

Yorkshire’s three Obs!

Saturday evening in the barn saw TV presenter and newly-baptised patron of Spurn Bird Observatory Trust Mike Dilger take the stage before a packed house. A natural entertainer, who – unlike certain wannabes on the circuit – can back up the style with the substance, he knows birds (and clearly many other taxa) well, and his passion for wildlife infected every corner of the audience as potently as the long list of tropical diseases he gleefully recalled contracting.

Heavy rain failed to discourage another short trip to (and long evening in) the Crown & Anchor, the manager of which is no doubt grinning widely at the till reciepts for the weekend – another positive element to the Migfest being the surge in trade it brings to local businesses. Eco-tourism and the green pound in action.

Meeting the famous Gillian at the stand

Meeting the famous Gillian at the stand

Can the Migfest be improved? Certainly not in any major way, and for £21 for all the above, it represents exceptional value. It being firmly themed around conservation, however, there are a few kinks to iron out. All the packaging for food and hot drinks was unrecyclable or compostable, and there were no recycling facilities anywhere on site – representing a huge amount of unnecessary waste from the kind of event that should be leading the way.

Likewise, the food options were extremely limited, and vegetarians (yours truly included) were particularly poorly catered for. But these are issues that are easily addressed; environmentally-friendly packaging, a few strategic recycling points, and an outside catering stall or two with solid credentials, and it’s all good.

Any sea-change in the size or theme of the Migfest, however, would surely destroy its informal, DIY charms, and in the process its very appeal; the emphasis of quality and uniqueness over profiteering is a refreshing and inspiring model, and long may it continue to succeed.

Best moment? For us, early on Saturday morning in the camping field: just as we’d opened the flaps on our tents, a several hundred-strong flock of Starlings – initially feeding quietly in the stubble nearby – suddenly panicked, becoming a thick black storm-cloud heading straight for us. In the centre of the maelstrom a close-up Merlin twisted and turned, grasping at shapes and inadvertently driving the flock at our tents, with birds hitting the fence just a couple of metres in front of us and barely avoiding our tents (and us) as they attempted their escape. Pure drama.

Highly recommended – we’ll be there again next year, even if the wind is in the east – and you can’t get a bigger compliment than that….

Copyright Mark James Pearson 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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