An account of the 2008 Bird Race by Fraser Cottington

4 June 2008 | Fraser Cottington

After a year off and seen the horrible, cold and windy conditions the teams had to deal with in 2007, I was hoping for a warmer day and we were not disappointed, I also planned for our team to live up to our expectations of having enough upto date reckied sites, to hit 117 and with a reasonable passage day, we would take the county record, but each year it feels as though there are new lessons to be learnt about bird racing.

Despite knowing we had missing species, I still decided for us to start at a Long-eared Owl site that had failed me two nights before the race and not surprisingly we failed on our first hurdle, only getting Tawny Owl - I would not recommend this kind of start, it is bad for morale!

I assured the team we would cross path with a roadside Barn Owl, having seen 2 and heard 2 more en route to the next stop - nothing and included visiting two more no show sites for Grasshopper Warbler, with Moorhen and Sedge Warbler the only additions, we were facing a treble false start and I just hoped new Little Owl site would come good - Not a sign, but then Little Owl called at a random stop nearby. It was already 01:13, two owls missing and on a pitiful tally of 5, adding Pheasant at 01:19, before heading to the downs.

Lapwing called as we arrived, but Stone Curlew kept us waiting another 8 minutes and with no likelihood of Quail being in, we left for our backup Barn Owl site.

The 'downs' is a long way from anywhere and yet again my site let us down, Wood Pigeon noisily left the trees above us but no owl. We knew we would have another chance at first light, so moved on quickly, it was already 03:03 and thankfully we were able to drop our usual site for Little Owl and go straight to Water Rail.

We arrived at the site and found not one, but two other teams torch beams making their way along the lake edge ahead of us. The whole lake was noisy with Reed Warblers and then a heron called and Andy called Little Egret, I said I think you're right, but it was pitch black and never called again. We did not add Little Egret, but I share Andy's view that the call might well have been one, baring in mind he sees them in large numbers daily on Hayling Island.

Water Rail was calling loudly and we immediately headed for the car, it was 03:40 and time for things to go up a gear, Robin sang by a street light we jumped in the car, feeling slightly better.

We have a pretty well rehearsed pre dawn, Woodlark called as we got out of the car at 04:02, Nightjar 04:03, Woodcock at 04:09 and then Redstart…keeps us waiting until 04:25, but we cleaned up as expected and could now put right the Barn Owl situation - I had fully reckied the dawn status for this site, distant Song Thrush sang, it was getting light and we had to step on it.

The Barn Owl did not show and we stayed way too long, but with the morning mist getting worse we quit, only adding easy birds, perhaps Red-Legged Partridge was of some worth, tally was 26, but the owl failure was hurting.

We picked up 12 more en route to Reading at what I considered to be hopelessly late time, two less likely species for Reading town centre were Goldfinch and Common Tern! Black Redstart, like it's woodland counterpart kept us waiting, but thankfully the chaps got onto a female on the building - not calling, oh well we got to see it for a change we said! 39 and 05:28, nearly 25 minutes behind already!

We dashed to Moatlands for the possibility of an unusual gull or tern, but alas no extras, we added 12 including Cetti's Warbler and, moved on to main pit, where just as on a previous recky, the Peregrine showed, but was gone moments later…good timing at last! Also adding Egyptian and Greylag Geese, plus Garden Warbler, Cuckoo and Rook - 56!

An almost pointlessly short stop at Woolhampton provided Grey Wagtail, Cormorant, Skylark, Long-tailed Tit and Yellowhammer, then on to Crookham pools for waders a plenty, we hoped. Great Spotted Woodpecker was the first species we added, then a female Wheatear moved off quickly, then at the pools Redshank, Greenshank and Linnet - 66.

At West Greenham we knew we had to beat the dog walkers and being that we were already late, we marched ahead. Goldcrest, Willow Warbler, Stock Dove added we scanned and picked up Stonechat, Meadow Pipit, then went for Little-ringed and Ringed Plover, both were easy and we looped back for Dartford Warbler, which kept us searching until 07:19 - 75!

Taking a further loop back we hoped for Tree Pipit, but failed adding Jay and Mistle Thrush, both tricky birds for us on previous races. Time to go again, but this time a bonus bird never expected before. Sadly our earlier lateness and adding more time at Greenham left us with no chance and whilst we added Grey Partridge and Corn Bunting, I was gutted we had missed Short-eared Owl.

Lower Farm produced Pied Wagtail, Pochard, Little Grebe and Sand Martin, the Pochard being of particular value this year, time 09:09 - score 84!

A new Spotted Flycatcher site was reliable, House Martin circled as we drove off. At Combe Hill we added Red Kite, moving on to the woods, Bullfinch, another problem bird for us in the past, showed straight away and we marched on up the hill, quickly adding Nuthatch, Marsh Tit, Treecreeper, Buzzard and then a little wait, but providing only flight views Raven followed and on we went for Willow Tit, which took another 20 minutes, but "at least we cleaned up" we said, 10:47 and 95 scored.

We had really changed our plan from previous years and knowing we would not score 100 as quickly, we aimed for difficult birds first. At the downs Curlew was added immediately, then we waited, too long with no additions, other than Hobby and Lesser Black-backed Gull. We left but pulled up for a raptor, which ended up being a Kestrel, but our luck was in, a Lesser Whitethroat called by the road - our only one of the day 12:55 - 98.

I knew our Turtle Dove site was 50:50 it showing while we were there and it was a no show, but Sparrowhawk circled overhead our 100th species at last 13:48. We sped on to Adam's Yellow Wagtail site and scored quickly, so on to Slough Sewage Farm, where Shelduck, Shoveler and Herring Gull duly showed, Wraysbury next and Ring-necked Parakeet is never a problem, sadly others didn't play so nicely and we left with only that, due to my stepping 4 paces away from the others and missing Kingfisher.

My Firecrest site at 16:29 was easy and very convenient, but we had odd birds missing and changed the plan again, diverting straight to Moor Green with fingers crossed. We were in luck and Reed Bunting called as we walked, the Barn Owl showed at the mouth of the box, but was so stationary we thought we been duped, finally it did move and we added it, just as a Common Sandpiper came into view, a Mandarin flew over and a Kingfisher called just once!

We had just added 5 birds very quickly bringing us to 112, it was 17:24 and we debated heading to the forest for Siskin and a reported Wood Warbler. We felt it was too tight for time and should give Turtle Dove another try, before heading back to Theale area.

Turtle Dove was not added and we dropped in to BHL for a chance Little Egret or wader, but added nothing and in our hurry to be back we lost focus on adding anything more at main pit and went straight into the pub on 112, wondering if we had done enough!

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