This Spring, I entered the Martin Garner Spurn Young Birder of the Year Competition by submitting my entry to the BTO. There was an online questionnaire about my birding experiences. The form was easy enough to fill out, one of the questions asked "What got you into birding?". For me, this was regular, monthly visits to WWT Martin Mere. I was never interested in the captive birds, only in the 'real' ones! Here, I saw my first Marsh harrier, Ruff and many other species. Anyway, back to Spurn...
Entries from up and down the country were assessed by BTO and Spurn Bird Observatory. When I received an E-mail to tell me I was one of five young birders to reach the final, I couldn't believe it! I was elated and couldn't get downstairs to tell my parents quick enough! After parents, I was on the phone to my birding mentor, David Bowman who was just as excited as I was that I'd made it!
Next, revision! Any species that I wasn't too strong on (Gulls and waders) I looked up the key ID features to try and make picking them out in the field more likely. With having an inland patch, I don't get much chance to do sea watching or ID many waders. However, I had a trip to Bardsey Island coming up where I'd be able to gen up on my sea birds. My patch (Woolston Eyes) had begun to liven up with wader passage so I had an opportunity there too. My routine was a morning of ringing then going into the hide afterwards to do some birding for a few hours before heading home to catch up on school work (obviously just as important)..!
I arrived at the Spurn Migration Festival for 7:30 as the competition started at 9:15. I got out of the car, put on my boots and then heard the sound of people running as someone screamed "KENTISH PLOVER AT RIVERSIDE!" I was offered a lift and off I went, unfortunately when we got there the bird had flown off so the run through driving rain had not been worth it! I caught up with a few young birders and made my way over to Westmere Farm to register with my parents. The other young birders and I made it to the Warren just in time to dry off a bit before the briefing from Nick Whitehouse. Everyone was as soggy and frustrated as each other but the competition had to go on!
There were four parts to the competition. Sea-watching, Wader ID (Estuarine), Bushes and the dreaded Lab Test - *gulp*! Each section of the competition had a different assessor attached to it and we took it in turns going out and doing each part.
Firstly for me was the Lab test, and to be honest, I just wanted to get it out of the way! For this part, we were given a stuffed bird and asked to point to certain parts of it (eg. primaries, mantle). It was a test of our technical skill and the ringers amongst us were at an advantage! The second half of this was listening to various calls/songs and having to ID them. I, for one, was pleased to have revised my calls the night before!
Next was across the road from the Warren to scope some waders! I was asked to ID three species and was then asked a few questions about waders. For one of them, we were given a list of wader species and asked to pick out which didn't breed in Iceland - a real tricky one that my assessor confessed he didn't know previous to asking other people!!
It was then back across the road and up to Numpty's to do the sea-watch. Apart from the gales blowing out to sea and the torrential rain, the conditions were...perfect! Again, we were asked to ID 3 species out over the water. I got lucky as I was the only one to have a Red-throated Diver go past for the competition, and even better was the fact it was in Summer plumage!
Finally, off to do the Bushes. This replaced the Visible Migration Watch that last year's birders did as the almost constant rain on Saturday meant almost all migration overhead had been brought to a standstill. You guessed it.. we were asked to ID 3 species and also some flight calls and, for me, the flight calls were Tree Pipit, Yellow Wagtail and Snipe. This was concluded with some questions on separating 'Eared' owls in the field and describing the breeding and wintering range of a songbird that visits the UK in large numbers...the Wheatear.
We headed back to the Warren for a buffet lunch that had been kindly organised by Nick Whitehouse. Once everyone had their food, Nick announced the winner, it was very close, but it turned out to be me! I was stunned. Never in a million years did I think I'd win a competition like this one. I guess putting in hours and hours of serious birding a few times per week had worked for me, but more than anything, it was because of all the help and patience that the guys at Woolston Eyes had given me! Days spent in the hide watching the comings and goings, explaining why something is what it is and picking up some of the extensive knowledge of the birders there!
I'd always been a nervous person when having to go up on stage in front of a lot of people, but on the Saturday evening, it was more excitement! I was going up, with four other like-minded young birders, in front of a crowd of people that were all there to support us. It was a brilliant evening and I was very pleased to receive my prize, a new pair of Swarovski binoculars from TV Presenter, Mike Dilger, and Director of the BTO, Andy Clements. It was very inspiring to meet them both and they provided all five young birders and the others in the audience with much encouragement to pursue careers in wildlife and conservation as it would be us that it is handed down to.
While at Spurn I met lot of great people too, I caught up with a few other young birders and met a few of the Spurn regulars. It was also a real pleasure to meet Sharon Garner and to accept a copy of Martin's book, Winter Challenge Series. Also, David La Puma, the head of Cape May Bird Observatory, and Björn Malmhagen, head of Falsterbo Bird Observatory.
I'll definitely be back birding at Spurn soon as it really is a very special place and there's not really anywhere else like it (in the UK). It's a great place for young birders as all of the staff are very knowledgeable and will do anything they can to be of help!
Finally, I'd like to thank both Spurn Bird Observatory, the BTO and also everyone that attended for making it such a special weekend. It was a brilliant weekend and hopefully even more people will start to visit.
George Dunbar, @GeorgeDunbar_