An account of the 2006 Bird Race by Fraser Cottington

23 January 2007 | Fraser Cottington

Having felt that last year's result was a very poor show of what we should have got, but we knew our afternoon strategy was the main problem. This year we were determined to aim very high, and would make 2006 'our year' and as we added up all the species that were 'available' we told ourselves "118 is possible and if a 'passage day' occurred on the day, we could have a stab at the 1990 record".

After the usual extended period of mental planning, it was just 3 weeks from the race and we commenced focused, but intermittent reckying - mostly making sure last year's misses were not repeated. Even the morning before the race there were still birds to 'pin down' and I was out before dawn fine tuning the timings of our early a.m. slots. Later having bumped into an Osprey, I got rumours of Black Redstart in Reading, which I had somehow not connected with on 3 of my own reckies. To have a stab at the record we needed everything possible, so trying for Black Redstart would mean changing the plan again and no time left to check before the race.

I felt it was a gamble worth taking and over dinner on the eve of the race, ran the idea past the team - resulting in out adding it to our expected total - 117 and no more, so unless we got very lucky we would still fall short of the record!

Our race began with us in situ at 11:45 at our 'reliable' Barn Owl, seeing one then and again at the nest box at 11:59, but it kept us waiting a further 15, arm aching minutes of constant 'binning' the box before the pair showed. The wait also produced Nightingale, Sedge, Mallard, Mute Swan and Canada Goose, kicking us off with 6 species.

One tricky owl species under our belt, we headed off for Little Owl, but unlike last year, it did not immediately respond to Andy's call, so we quickly opted for our back up site, but again a 'no show', just adding Grey Heron and Coot. We were out of time and had to head to our Mandarin Duck site, deciding to make them a night visit after missing them last year! - Mandarin showed no problem, plus Egyptian Goose - time to head for Grasshopper Warbler.

Arriving 25 minutes later we bumped into 3 other teams, who also failed to add the now silent or perhaps even absent warbler and the first blunder of our plan was obvious - no back up site! Reed Warbler was added on the way back to the car, putting us on 11, but had now used up 25 minutes of precious night minutes.

Another 25 minute journey later, Stone Curlew called as we got out of the car, allowing us another 'allocated '15 minutes to listen for other key species - no target birds called, just adding Lapwing, Pheasant and Tawny Owl, putting us on 15.

Still missing Little Owl, we headed back East and decided to add multiple 1 minute stops at various known haunts in hope of a chance call, but to no avail, Robin and Blackbird began calling and I knew we now had only 15 minutes spare for our special reed bed location.

Arriving at 03:23, first Moorhen and then Song Thrush, but our target bird, a somewhat mythical species in our experience, made us wait just 10 minutes - a short, but unmistakable squeal confirmed the presence of our first ever bird race Water Rail! We were on a high and moved on to the forest with 20 species under our belt and some valuable night birds..

The next 2 hours of the race was the most practiced part of the day, duly adding 4 'essential species' - Nightjar at 03:53, Woodlark 04:00, Woodcock at 04:06 and a key bird - a singing Redstart at 04:13, saving us a tricky afternoon slot and long walk.

Off to Reading for an 'un-reckied' and therefore unlikely Black Redstart, but as luck would have it, one was calling above us as we got out of the car at 04:40, along with Marek's team who obviously had the same gen. Feral Pigeon showed in the streetlights and it was back in the car and dashing back to the forest sunrise, adding Blue & Great Tit and Wren en route.

Back at the forest by 04:57, Coal Tit was calling on arrival, followed by Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Chaffinch, Carrion Crow, Willow Warbler, Goldcrest, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Wood Pigeon, Long tailed Tit and Cuckoo. As we reached the top of hut hill, I knew we would have to wait a few more minutes for the Siskin to begin singing, which it duly did at 05:21, putting us on 41. Looping back to the car, we ticked off Tree Pipit and Crossbill's as they flew overhead calling constantly, a Nuthatch and then a bonus - Spotted Flycatcher at 05:29, would mean not having to go to an extra site later. Approaching the car we added Stock Dove, Treecreeper, Collared Dove and Jay.

Time to go again, Rook, Jackdaw, Starling & House Sparrow were seen en route to our first wader site, then Adam shouted "Little Owl" and screeching to a halt, we all saw it perched briefly on a nearby fence post, our luck was in and we forgave the species for it's earlier awkwardness, adding Goldfinch too, we were now on a healthy 56 species before 6am.

Burnt House Lane produced Skylark, Red Legged Partridge, Garden Warbler, Reed Bunting, Whitethroat and Swift, but no waders! Undaunted we drove round to view the back pit, adding Pochard, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Great Crested Grebe and Grey Wagtail.

The short drive to main pit produced the expected Common Tern, Black- headed Gull, Greylag Goose, Pied Wagtail and Swallow, then luckily Andrew found the female Peregrine on the right hand pylon, making our total so far 73. Crossing the road to Hosehill, Greenfinch and Dunnock were duly ticked.

Time for another target wader, just a short drive brought us Cormorant, Sand Martin, Little-ringed Plover and our key bird, Greenshank. We figured 79 was a good score for 06:54 and just another short drive brought us to Midgham, adding Shelduck, Redshank and Common Sandpiper.

I had parked the car stupidly blocking the track and as Andrew and Adam said we should check further down, I said go for it and headed back to move the car, but before I got there they shouted me back and I ran over to them, but then had to run back to the car again as I was now blocking the postman in. Fortunately the Yellow Wagtail they had found was still visible and I was reminded of why we say "never split up - ever". Kestrel flew over as we made the short drive to Woolhampton at 07:18.

Woolhampton has always been good to us in previous years and it produced Cetti's Warbler, Kingfisher, both of which we have missed in past races. House Martin and Yellowhammer showed too, bringing us to 88.

Greenham has so much wader potential and yet as with all other bird races, it failed to produce any on the day, just adding Linnet, it was quickly on to Greenham central where we got Green Woodpecker. Then Adam caught a glimpse of a pair of Teal flying low, but they disappeared behind some nearby trees and were never seen again.

Undaunted, but time wasted, we marched on adding Meadow Pipit, Stonechat and Dartford Warbler in under half an hour, our total was now 93 at 08:34! Picking up Mistle Thrush from the car we arrived at Lower Farm. I went through a really tired spell here and was grateful for the sit down in the hide, Andrew and Adam pointing out the needed Dunlin, Teal, Ringed Plover, Little Grebe and Ruddy Duck putting us on 99.

'The team' swears by Combe Wood and this year would be no exception, Red Kite showed before we entered the wood itself and we celebrated what we felt was probably the quickest ever 100 species at 10:13.

Buzzard followed immediately after, with the target Marsh and Willow Tits minutes later. On the way back two of us heard Bullfinch, one did not and thinking "it won't be a problem" we kept moving. Scanning for migrants on Combe Hill, to our amazement a female Ring Ouzel was feeding on the north face, which lifted us even higher, but feeling this was too good a species to miss, we informed several other teams, then sped on to the downs.

At the downs 5 more species were added, Curlew, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Corn Bunting, Lesser Whitethroat, but Grey Partridge was proving awkward and as we stood discussing the merits of missing out a back up site for them, two flew from about 20 feet away from us, putting us on 109 and it was still only 12:30!

It was time to head back East to Lavell's for our missing raptors and within moments of our arrival at 13:35, Black Swan Lake airspace produced a lone Hobby at 13:38. Next Herring Gull flew over the car park and it was time to move on yet again, but luckily we still managed to pick up Sparrowhawk overhead near to the aviation museum, putting us on 112.

Wraysbury was 'a must' for another of our terrible misses last year - this time Ring-necked Parakeet called in seconds, but a bonus for the day was a female Wigeon. Sadly the Little Egrets we had seen on previous reckies, were not located.

Even though it was only 14:41 we still felt time could still slip away, so decided to drop Dorney Wetlands, opting for a look at Slough Sewage Farm from the bridge over the M4. Parking just a hundred yards from the bridge, we were soon scanning and picked up a male Shoveler asleep next to 2 Shelduck. Now on 115, everything was showing so easily, "maybe the last few species would be more difficult, or perhaps a big rain storm was heading our way and we might then luck out"?

I pulled up at the roadside saying, "it was possible to scan the wires from here, possibly saving us more time", with these words barely out of my mouth, I said "in fact what are those two?", sure enough 2 Turtle Doves were on show at 16:09 and we sped off not quite believing just how easy the afternoon had gone so far.

There was still one species to get at the forest and as it had proven to be a reluctant early riser, we headed up 'that hill' again and waited about 7 minutes before a Firecrest called. We now headed for Moor Green for a wader that had been there 3 or more days now, arriving at 17:07 heading quickly down the path, picking up a Barnacle Goose for the category C addition of the 1990 record and then had the longest wait of our entire day.

After over 40 painful minutes and about to leave, the Bar-tailed Godwit walked out from the nearest corner and became our 118th species, leaving just one third of the team to get back Bullfinch.

With our paperwork totally immaculate, I pulled over near to Bottom Lane and decided a walk in this area would be most likely to bring this shy finch species.

5 or 6 cars of passing teams said hi, or waved as they passed us, all of them loitering near to the finish line no doubt. Walking on for just a few more yards and...yes there it was the Bullfinch called at 18:29 and we went nuts, our 119 species and half an hour spare too!

In the pub we soon learned of our unanimous win and I announced our plan to go for the county record during the awards ceremony. We just had time for a couple of pizza slices before we were discussing the 2 possible additional species to go for under 24 hour rules.

Getting useful information from 2 other teams, we were off again, first trying for Little Egret at Searle's Farm Lane, but after a painful 25 minute wait, decided this could easily be a waste of time, so sped off West for one owl species that was guaranteed.

Hitting heavy rain on the M4, we were overcome with negative expectation, so came off the motorway, diverting via an old Grasshopper Warbler site, but no luck and it was clear by the state of tiredness in team, there was only one last chance to equal the 1990 record.

The shower was over, but we still felt doubtful that the weather would hold for owls as we arrived at 22:15, but yet again and just a few minute walk, the far reaching Long-Eared Owl call hit our ears. Despite all the tiredness we jubilantly shook each others hands and congratulated ourselves for now being joint county record holders - a score we had waited a very long time for - 120!

Let it be said that Andy and Adam are top birders, who on the day found most of the stuff, I just do the planning, together you might call us the 'The Carlsberg Team'...probably the best team in the world! ;O)