On the 30th September 2013, I set off on a four day trip to Spurn Point in East Yorkshire in the anticipation of connecting with rare autumn migrants hopelessly off-course as they battle their way towards promised wintering lands. Maybe the early part of September is a much more sensible time to visit demonstrated by large falls of Wryneck during the first couple of weeks and the confiding Great Snipe that delighted many during its short Yorkshire life.
View of the Humber Estuary from the Crown and Anchor pub at low tide
The trip started slowly. Common Redstarts were noted early doors covorting with a Lesser Whitethroat in bushes opposite the Crown and Anchor pub. Seawatching too provided interest but nothing more to increase the pulse with a few Bonxies, Red-Throated Divers, and Gannets gliding past at first light on the 1st October. My day, however was to become far more interesting.
Birds can turn up anywhere along this stretch of east Yorkshire coastline with observers bashing around Spurn Point itself, across to Sammy's Point, and up towards Easington and beyond. The workload is high, but the rewards can outweigh the spent energy. I had heard reports of Yellow-Browed Warbler and Red-Breasted Flycatcher in the vicinity of Easington Gas Terminal, an area of mixed-deciduous woodland and scrub perfect for small passerines seeking refuge after a long errant journey across the North Sea. I decided in haste to head over to try my luck.
On arrival, I parked up and set off walking along a road adjacent to a small copse where a few assembled birders were in attendance, a local group perhaps that looked as if they had been dragged out under duress. Let's not be lulled into a false sense of birding success, this game is hard work at times - a short vigil with my peers and an attempt at conversation greeted underwhelmingly with a few vaguely audible grunts that I put down to flatulence. Alas, no sign on any of the hoped-for migrants. I hesitated a move to a different location when a security vehicle drove along and pulled up to the small gathering. This is obviously a sensitive area next to the Easington gas pipeline, so was well aware of regular monitoring. The three occupants in the vehicle officially attired cheerily asked us what we were specifically looking for. I was standing a little to the side so anticipated one of the small group to speak. Silence! The look on this security guys face said it all and I immediately jumped in to say that there were a few rare birds in the area, time of year for such events, etc. Standard.
I walked away from this group. I decided to change my viewing angle in the hope that one of these regular autumn migrants would show.
By now I was standing alone within the small copse, scope slung over my right shoulder, binoculars round my neck. Looking the part. A police car drove round the back of the copse and upon seeing me, stopped immediately. Two officers alighted the vehicle, one of which yelled across to me to 'STAY THERE!' A serious sense of foreboding struck me. I became acutely aware of where I was and what I looked like. A guy of asian origin, with a pair of binoculars, standing alone in a small copse, next to one of the largest inbound Gas Terminals in the UK. I'm writing the sitcom now!
The two officers approached me. Good cop bad cop. One glaring, questions one to ten, your time starts now! I was appalled by the opening line. 'We have had reports from a group of birdwatchers that you have been acting suspiciously and did not know what you were talking about'. WHAT??? Ok - at the best of times I admit I have no idea what I am talking about but this was just preposterous. At what point did I ask about the location of the Yellow Crowned Babbler, or whether the Red-Crested Piecatcher preferred shortcrust or puff pastry?
I handled it badly I must confess. I felt singled out. Race? Colour? All these thoughts running through my mind, blood pumping through my veins, head subtly pounding in self-induced vexation while all the time the determination to keep composed, a distant voice imploring calm from somewhere across the Humber. They took my details, further questioning, chastened, humiliated, but diluted with a palpable sense of utter naivety.
Perhaps I was being a little sensitive about this but it stayed with me for the remainder of my trip and I felt angry. Angry at ignorance perhaps or maybe due to the self-awareness that I had been overwhelmed with.
Keen to arrest this negativity, I got back to the birding, enjoying big skies, and hardened landscapes.
The next couple of days returned Firecrest, Jack Snipe, Ring Ouzel, and a flyover Lapland Bunting near Canal Scrape, hundreds of Redwing and Song Thrush pulsating through on the unrelenting brisk easterly wind that had promised much. Sadly though the weather was too good, clear skies and I'm sure many of the hoped for rare migrants were rushing straight through and ending up on the Pembrokeshire coast. In truth, I was in search of new birds though that finally delivered in the form of an OLIVE-BACKED PIPIT that was briefly seen at dawn but then after a fruitful search, was rediscovered and eventually mist-netted to the delight of the assembled crowd. I did however question the relentless pursuit of this classic eastern migrant so that the wardens could stick a metal ring round it's leg. Does this provide any scientific value at all? Maybe for another time. I had to get pictures though.
Supporting cast included flocks of recently arrived Brambling with up to 30 seen up on the seawall near to the tip of Spurn Point and some cracking male birds hardly out of their summer plumage. Both Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Yellow Wagtail, and Arctic Skua were also noted.
TWO WEEKS LATER
It's a weekday, I'm gradually awaking from my slumber. I look over at the clock and the time reads 6.20am. Give me another ten minutes and then I promise to get up and ready myself for another working day. I live in a block of flats, the main door accessed only through a security system that connects to the handset placed against the wall of the hallway. It starts beeping. A bit early for a delivery? I stumble to the handset and hoaresly utter a pathetic morning greeting. Asking for Jonathan, they inform me that they are from the anti-terrorism unit and they want to ask me some questions.
Two officers enter the flat, officious, direct. In their hand was the police report that had been written up by Yorkshire and Humberside Police on the day I had been questioned. The same accusation - 'didn't know what I was talking about'. This time I was much more level headed - I had nothing to hide, the victim of unabashed ignorance and an innocent error of judgement on my part and I am much happier to co-operate. It was however disturbing to be at the receiving end of an anti-terrorism dawn raid, cornered in your own kitchen, and having to engage in a painstaking conversation with references to Al-Shabbab. Come on!!! I wanted to see a Red-Breasted Flycatcher! The officers presented a degree of sympathy and appeared slightly apologetic, when with a generous helping of satisfaction, I informed them I was currently employed as a bird surveyor.
So now, I have this at the back of my mind. Should I have second thoughts of heading down to Dungeness, walking onto the beach at Sizewell, or heading over to Staines Reservoir with the world's largest international airport next door? And what of people? I'm a birder, and I have a really nice tan, but that makes me look a little suspicious doesn't it?
I'm not bitter although I may sound it, a little sensitive perhaps, but maybe my eyes have widened a little.