Emerging from my car when I parked near the end of the road to Spurn Head, I was accosted by a cheery soul who had just left his at the same time.
“Have you seen it yet?” he asked. “Or heard it?”
I looked puzzled for a moment and listened. There was nothing but birdsong in the air, which for my questioner was the whole point. He had seen the long lens of my camera and assumed that I was, like him, a “twitcher”, a bird-watching enthusiast. It wasn’t an unreasonable query for we were at the edge of Spurn National Nature Reserve.
Spurn, or Spurn Head Spit as it is also known, is a sliver of land that continues the East Yorkshire coastline down into the mouth of the Humber, the estuary formed at the confluence of two great English rivers, the Trent from the south and the Ouse from the north. This marked the southernmost border of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria (North of the Humber).
Firstly as a landing stage for migrating birds crossing the North Sea. My new friend was excited at the arrival of Savi’s Warbler, and went to tell me that the nearby bushes were already full of visitors keen to catch a glimpse of this small brown bird that is virtually unknown so far north. Breeding pairs in the UK usually reach as far as Norfolk and number in single figures.
No chance of me seeing it, as my need to walk the 3.5 miles down to the end of the spit meant a noisy stride as loose change and lens cover rattled rhythmically to mark my passing. My wildlife observations were mostly confined to gulls and sparrows. Further down the strip of land, which changes shape according to tidal forces as attempts at sea defences have been abandoned, another twitcher pointed out a wheatear to me and explained how its name was a corruption of white arse! The bird was gone before he finished his sentence. Even the weasel that crossed the path right in front of me did so with such speed that there was never a chance of a photograph.
The other reasons that Spurn is important are for military reasons and navigationally, factors I shall cover in subsequent posts here, but for now let’s focus on the element of wildlife that was in no hurry to get away. In fact I was keener to get away from it. There were signs along the way warning of the hazards arising from collapsing pathways and lost roads (there used to be a railway that ran the length but what traces remain show tracks heading off into the sea to one side and the estuary to the other). There was though a more prevalent hazard.
As the spit grew wider there was more plant life, and stretched between twigs were dried out structures, thicker than web and clearly fairly robust as these were from previous seasons, but further south there were more and fresher examples. Fresher because they were still occupied, and occupied by a writhing mass of… caterpillars. That may not sound hazardous, but these are the offspring of the brown tail moth and they pack a serious punch. The tiny hairs that cover their bodies break off and can cause rashes, headaches and breathing difficulties. You don’t want to mess with these little guys (unless you’re wearing gloves).