After spending a long week of 6 am–2 pm shifts at work and reading continuous reports of good birds arriving up and down the east coast, I was champing at the bit to get out among it and try and see some of these migrants myself. Little did I know how the day would unfold.
I arrived at Spurn just as it was getting light properly, parked up at the Blue Bell cafe, got my kit together, put a few layers on and decided to walk down to Kilnsea churchyard and the Crown & Anchor first. As I approached the churchyard a distinctive rattling call alerted me to the first 'nice' bird of the day, a lovely Red-breasted Flycatcher. I watched as it was harassed by a Wren, but it was just too fast for my camera as it sallied for insects. Other birds in the immediate area also suggested that the outlook was promising.
After I bumped into fellow birder John Sadler, we mooched about looking at the 'RB Fly' and the other migrants around Cliffe Farm until a radio message came over on John's CB that an Olive-backed Pipit had just been found along the canal zone, and that's where we headed.
Before we reached the group of birders watching the pipit we came across three others watching something. We asked what it was and they replied: 'A shrike, possibly Red-backed". I cheekily asked if I could have a look and to my amazement it wasn't a Red-backed, but looked like a juvenile Woodchat Shrike, with its large scapular patches and overall pale plumage. We put the news out on the radio system as "an interesting shrike, possibly Woodchat" while John looked on his iPhone at the Collins Bird Guide app.
A typical view of the Kilnsea Masked Shrike (Photo: Mark Rayment)
I carried on watching the bird, and it flew across Well Field into the far corner and began to fly-catch from the wire fence and posts. In flight it was striking, with big white primary patches and long black tail, but no white rump; alarm bells started ringing in my head, as I couldn't remember this combination of features on Woodchat. Further looks in Collins and conversations with other birders as they arrived (including Andy Roadhouse) about the lack of a white rump all pointed to Masked Shrike, a species I had contemplated earlier but did not dare claim, such was the worry of making a huge 'cock up'. However, it now looked like it was a first for Spurn and Yorkshire, and a third for Britain... and we had all been in on it!
The bird occasionally gave brilliant views to the assembled crowd (Photo: Martin Standley)
With hindsight and more relaxed viewing later, it was apparent exactly what it was: with its diminutive size, long black tail with broad white sides, big white scapular patches and big triangular primary patches — basically black-and-white plumage. Noticeably, it did have one flank which was pale and one which had a peachy wash to it, no doubt indicating that it was in active moult. It was reminiscent of a Pied Wagtail when fly-catching from the fence, as it frequently flew out to seize craneflies, with a frequent flicking and cocking of its tail in typical shrike fashion.
Note the peachy lower flank feathering moulting through, which was more obvious on the bird's right side (Photo: Dave Hutton)
The rest of the day was spent on a high, with more views of the star bird, along with a juvenile Honey Buzzard that flew south and a Great Grey Shrike (just a couple of hundred metres away — my earliest personal record) to add to the notebook. What a cracking day out at the mainland's premier bird observatory, one which will last in my memory for a long time to come.