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Migration Celebration – Spurn Migfest 2015

January 25, 2016

This article was originally published in the December 2015 issue of Birdwatching magazine

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Mark James Pearson visits the third annual Spurn Migration Festival and finds a small and perfectly-formed celebration of autumnal British birding in the most auspicious of settings

Until recently, birding festivals were very much a foreign concept (both geographically and culturally) for British birders, conjuring images of crowded, slickly-organised events at far flung, exotic locations; all very well at those famous international hotspots perhaps, but surely not the kind of thing that we could muster closer to home.

But after a lightbulb moment back in 2013, Birding Frontier‘s Martin Garner and Spurn stalwart Andy Roadhouse thought differently, and with the subsequent advent of the Spurn Migration Festival – aka Migfest – happily those assumptions have been well and truly put to bed. As arguably the UK’s premier location for experiencing bird migration first-hand in all its rich and varied forms, it’s hard to think of a better venue for celebrating this most magical of natural phenomena than Spurn – and with co-organisers Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and Spurn Bird Observatory on board, the Migfest was born. Three years down the line, this year’s event was easily the best yet – a testament to the sterling efforts of all involved.

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Barred Warbler – one of this year’s star birds

Organising the Migfest for just a couple of weeks after the commercial behemoth that is Birdfair in the birding calendar may seem unwise, but in reality, the two events couldn’t be more different. Migfest is very much a lo-fi, small scale operation, and steers clear of stepping on any toes by focussing firmly on the overall birding experience – ensuring this still evolving event has quickly and seamlessly found its own unique niche. In simple terms, it’s all about two things – birds and people – and more often than not, it’s all about the two combined.

The rustic outbuildings of Westmere Farm acted as a suitably down-home style HQ for talks, stalls and all other indoor aspects of the festival (as well as housing several families of particularly un-fazed Swallows which soon gained celebrity status). I was there to represent Filey Bird Observatory (my home patch and Spurn’s kid sister a little further north on the map) and Yorkshire Coast Nature (our local wildlife tour company), and we set up our stands alongside a handful of other exhibitors, including the BTO and artists Darren Woodhead and Ray Scally in the main barn. If anyone came to the Migfest with the intention of significantly lightening their wallets, they’d struggle to do so – unless they chose to walk off with armfuls of Darren’s and Ray’s originals, that is (and who could blame them) – reflecting the reassuringly uncommercial theme to the festival overall.

Swallow

Friday evening saw attendees arriving en masse, bringing with them an anticipatory buzz, and – symptomatic of an intimate and relaxed gathering of like-minded folk – an inherently warm 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 expertise.

It soon became clear that the informal and inclusive atmosphere was perhaps the major ingredient in the festival’s winning formula, bringing together beginners, intermediates and experts – whether in the field, in the barn, at the tea urn or in the pub. Another major positive factor was the refreshing demographic; female attendees may have been in the minority, but thankfully not by much, while the proportion of younger birders was also encouraging. Of the latter, the inaugural Young Birder of the Year award is a great initiative which will hopefully encourage more youthful participation in the future.

Male Redstart

With the barn now bustling with birders, a typically animated and engaging Martin Garner officially uncorked the 2014 Migfest with a talk highlighting some of the personal stories behind east coast bird migration. Thus, a motley crew of Yorkshire coast birders extolled the magic of their respective patches and their greatest hits and misses before a vibrant audience spent the remainder of the evening socialising, with many heading down the road to a packed Crown and Anchor; the till rolls at last orders there no doubt reflected the benefits of eco-tourism to small businesses in the area….

A plethora of daytime activities on Saturday and Sunday included ringing demos, sea-watching and vismigging sessions, painting workshops, identification masterclasses, trips in the (distinctly Mad Max-esque) unimog down to the point, and various walks and talks throughout the weekend. All were well-attended and well-received, and by all accounts, both day’s activities were a raging success – lots of choice, lots of migration, lots of happy punters and lots of birds.

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Sparrowhawk

Which were, of course, the real stars of the show. A running theme of the Migfest, further enhanced in 2015, is for a totem species to step forth every year. Wryneck was the undisputed champion last time round, with a handful gracing the area over the weekend and entertaining all-comers; this year, the conditions were less favourable for grounded passerines, and as the north wind blew it was left to the sea to take temporary centre stage. Sabine’s Gulls, a Cory’s Shearwater, processions of Sooty Shearwaters and skuas encouraged the crowds towards the Warren, with many meandering back to base at Westmere Farm with a lifer or two under their belts and a taste of Spurn seawatching at its absolute finest.

And yet despite the sea holding sway, it was another local speciality which came to the fore and claimed iconic status for the festival weekend as a whole – Barred Warbler. Many a patient attendee was treated to close-up, impeccable performances from a traditionally shy and retiring species, with at least three scattered across the area, each intermittently committed to putting on the ritz for their assembled admirers.

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Pied Flycatcher

Less favourable for landbirds perhaps, but this is Spurn after all, and thus each hedgerow and patch of scrub hosted migrants. Yellow Wagtails and Meadow Pipits trickled overhead, Whinchats and Pied Flycatchers flicked along fencelines, and commoner warblers and chats supporting headliners including the aforementioned Barred Warblers to a Wryneck and an equally accommodating Red-backed Shrike.

Saturday evening saw the now traditional keynote lecture in the main barn, delivered this year by Israeli birding legend Yoav Perlman. A barn overflowing with eager audience members was treated to a tantalising journey through Israel’s mind-blowing migratory avifauna and its myriad glittering prizes, leaving everyone wistfully considering their bank balances and passport expiry dates. If Yoav doesn’t already get commission from the country’s tourist industry, then he certainly should….

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Sooty Shearwater

Can the Migfest be improved? Certainly not in any major way, and for a modest £23 weekend ticket, it represents exceptional value. Being firmly themed around conservation, however, it’d be good to see a little more attention to detail where it matters – environmentally-friendly food packaging, a few strategic recycling points, and catering stalls with better credentials and choice would help iron out a few kinks – but otherwise it was pleasingly hard to fault.

In any case, any significant sea-change in the size or theme of the Migfest would surely undermine 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. A fantastic weekend, highly recommended – see you in September 2016!

Words & pictures © Mark Pearson 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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