Rare bird sees twitchers flock to Ian's favourite spot

Ian Smith at Spurn.  Picture: James HardistyIan Smith at Spurn.  Picture: James Hardisty
Ian Smith at Spurn. Picture: James Hardisty
Easington, tucked away in the south-east corner of Holderness, became the centre of the universe for some last month when the first ever UK mainland sighting of a small bird, the Siberian Accentor, was blown in on a strong easterly jetstream.

The village of 691 at last census, best-known for gas terminals, saw its population double within hours and during the following two days more than 6,000 visited to catch a glimpse. Ian Smith was one of them, but in his dual role as a local resident just two miles away in Yorkshire’s most south-easterly village of Kilnsea and also vice-chairman of Spurn Observatory Trust he tried with colleagues to manage the situation for the enthused and those who just wanted to carry on with their day.

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“I was just as excited as everyone else in the bird watchers world. I’ve been passionate about birds since I was 15 when I lived on the fringe of Sherwood Forest and met guys who were ringing them. I was immediately fascinated and my passion has taken me all around the world.”

Ian’s love of Spurn and watching the migration of birds started in 1982. He finally upped sticks and bought a property in Kilnsea, one of only 27, seven years ago. He retired early from his job as a chartered surveyor earlier this year to commit more time to volunteer for Spurn Bird Observatory Trust (SBOT). The Trust’s chief role is scientific monitoring and recording of bird migrations, population trends and ringing so data can be fed into a central hub run by the British Trust for Ornithology.

“Spurn is wild, unique and one of the most important staging posts for bird migration in the world. There really is nowhere on Earth like Spurn, Spurn Point and the wetlands around Kilnsea. It is such a lovely place to live, very tranquil and relaxing. I like the remoteness, especially when the Humber is frozen over and the snow is gusting horizontally into your face. Fortunately I’ve been able to retire early and along with others involved with the Trust I now have the opportunity to put something back for the love of it.

“When the sighting of the Siberian Accentor occurred the next morning was bedlam. From a bird watchers’ point of view it was the highlight of the year but for the residents who just wanted to get on with their own lives and work it was an inconvenience with thousands suddenly descending armed with long lenses, tripods and binoculars. We (SBOT) stepped in to manage things as best we could. We marshalled people, set time limits for sets of 50 at a time to watch and both landowner Geoff Stoddart and caravan site owners Sandy Beaches gave us car parking space. I was up at five o’clock with many others from SBOT that morning on Hull Road trying to get some order to it all.

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“I’ve had 30 years of travelling and hadn’t seen this bird species before and the rarity factor was what brought everyone. Mr Gale, whose garden became the focal point, really enjoyed that so many were getting pleasure from it and we’ve since offered a donation to a hospice that he chose by way of thanking him for his assistance in coping with the attraction his property suddenly held. The village schoolchildren also came to see and the bird watchers offered their binoculars and talked to them about what it was all about so they could experience the enthusiasm and excitement.”

Encouraging bird watching by young people is high on Ian’s and SBOT’s agenda. While it is involved in migration studies and protection of birds such as the Little Tern employing both a paid full-time warden and assistant warden, the SBOT sees its work on MigFest (Migration Festival) held at Westmere Farm in Kilnsea as an essential tool to attract the next generation.

“We started MigFest a few years ago and it has grown to attracting 300 in September each year. While all ages come it is helping younger people in getting involved. Binocular manufacturer Swarovski sponsors our Young Birders of the Year competition for those aged up to 16. The awards are just one part of a weekend that includes guest speakers and has become a great social event in the calendar for the bird watching community.”

SBOT recently purchased one of the properties in Kilnsea and has converted it into accommodation for 13 visiting birders. Among its current residents are two young bird watchers Johnny Fisk, aged 21, from Harrogate who currently funds his love of Spurn and bird watching by working at the county’s most south-easterly pub The Crown & Anchor, and Daniel Branch, also 21, from Halifax, who studied Zoology at Sheffield University and spent the summer as warden for the Little Terns project managing up to 50 pairs.

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“Bird watchers are passionate about wildlife and conservation whether young or older,” says Ian. “It’s important we realise just how precious all of this is here at Spurn and we need to conserve it. When you look around the world and see things happening like the slashing down of the Brazilian rainforest it makes you think that sooner or later we all need to take stock and reach a balance.

“When you look on the Humber and see 40,000 birds wheeling around or you see Curlews congregating and flying off in groups of 500 a day to Scandinavia you know that you’re seeing something special.”

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