An account of the 2008 Bird Race by Phil Bysh

27 May 2008 | Phil Bysh

The cycling Bird Race team had a few face changes this year. Jim Burnett was on holiday on race day so Mike Taylor stood in for him. Then, just a few days before the day, Chris Robinson had to drop out too. Thankfully, Phil Bysh was able to stand in at the last minute. We all met up at Snelsmore at 4am and gingerly set off onto the dark common to quickly bag Nightjar, Woodcock and Woodlark. We also added Skylark, Robin, Blackbird, Song thrush, Pheasant and Woodpigeon before leaving the heathland area, before spending a few nervous minutes trying to cajole a Tawny owl to call. Any teams on Snelsmore at the same time, are you really sure it wasn't Phil you heard…?

Tawny owl successfully checked off (along with Rook and Goldcrest), we set off down into the Winterbourne valley in the growing daylight, getting Great tit, Coal tit and Wren en route. We stopped off at Mike's reliable Little owl site and after a nervous 15 minutes, in which we ticked off Blue tit, Chaffinch, Feral pigeon and Jackdaw, a panicking Blackbird alerted us to us the presence of a Little owl, which obligingly flew out across the valley. As we left, a Green woodpecker called.

On to Winterbourne and a spate of new species - Moorhen, Mallard, Pied wagtail, Blackcap, Goldfinch (a troublesome species for previous cycling bird races), Starling, Collared dove, Grey wagtail, House sparrow, Great Spotted woodpecker, Greenfinch, and Stock dove. We spent a few minutes scanning the fields north of Winterbourne for partridges. None showed, but we did get the first Dunnock, Red kite, Yellowhammer, Lapwing, Linnet, Buzzard and Swallow of the day.

On the way back into Winterbourne, a pair of Red-legged partridge obliged us with a brief view. Before we left the village we checked as many gardens as we could for Spotted flycatcher, but to no avail. On the cycle down the Winterbourne valley, we picked up Chiffchaff, Willow warbler, Mute swan, Tufted duck, even a second Woodlark, but not the hoped-for Little egret, Lesser whitethroat or Tree pipit. A brief trip to Donnington Grove Golf Course for Little egret also proved unsuccessful, but it did reward us with our only Sparrowhawk of the day, along with Magpie, Grey heron, Swift, Canada goose, and Coot.

The ride through Newbury and slog up Greenham hill added Carrion crow and Black headed gull. Once at Greenham gate, we had another burst of new species; Garden warbler, Long-tailed tit, Mistle thrush, Bullfinch (after a worrying few minutes before the whole team got onto it. We saw another 5 through the day!). The nearest we got to Tree pipit was a remarkably good Great tit impersonation. It was still clouded over, so we decided to come back later when the sun came out.

The next hour or so we slowly headed eastwards along the Common, scanning all the way for migrant and breeding passerines. We didn't get many (Nightingale, Stonechat, House martin, Meadow pipit), but a fly-over Curlew was the biggest surprise bird of the day. Jay and Kestrel also flew over. At Crookham Pools, we got the expected Greenshank along with Gadwall and the first of over 30 Hobby for the day, and fortuitously ran into a birding jogger who told us exactly where to find Ringed and Little ringed plover. Whilst Mike and Renton scanned for plovers, Phil gave the gorse a bit of a scan for Dartford warblers, and found one singing less than 20 feet away. Mike and Renton came running over and were barely 5 feet from Phil when the warbler stopped singing and disappeared.

Phil ticked off the Ringed and Little ringed plover that Mike and Renton had found then sheepishly went back to the gorse, this time to find a pair of Dartford warbler. Thankfully, they stayed put long enough for the other 2 to see them. By now we were badly behind schedule. The expected migrants on the common hadn't showed and we'd spent rather too much time looking for them, so we ditched our return trip to the Tree pipit and set off for Bowdown Woods, where Renton had had all manner of day ticks for us on his recce the day before. When we arrived, it was very quiet, and remained so for some time. Thankfully, we eventually got the expected Marsh tit, Nuthatch and a very obliging Treecreeper, but still no Spot fly.

Down to Lower Farm, which added a paltry few species - Sedge warbler, Redshank, Little grebe, Reed warbler, Common tern and Reed bunting… A quick scan over the Lower Farm Trout Lake gave us the first of a very few Sand martins of the day and Cormorant. We decided to miss out Thatcham Nature Discovery Centre and set off along the canal to Woolhampton. A scan of the main pit got us Shelduck and Great crested grebe, and 17 Hobbies hawking high over the pits. We stopped for lunch at a likely looking spot, at which point a Kingfisher zipped by. Renton had just sat down to write up the morning's species, and by the time he was on his feet, the kingfisher was long gone. The gloomy mood was lifted slightly when Mike found a pair of Shoveler, then properly dispelled when a surprise Pochard flew in and straight out again.

We headed south of Woolhampton to listen for Lesser whitethroat and Turtle dove, both of which had been there the day before. No joy this time. Nor were Yellow wagtails showing, but there was an even larger group of Hobbies here, over the fields south of us. As we continued our journey eastwards, we picked up Lesser black-backed gull. A stop at Padworth Lane GP failed to get us any new waders, but we did (hallelujah!) all get onto the Kingfisher and we all heard Cuckoo at last, as well as finding another Shoveler. Back onto the canal, slowing for Phil to fix 2 punctures, we stopped at the back of Bottom Lane to pick up Egyptian goose, but nothing else.

A quick scan through the gaps in the trees at Theale Main Pit got us Black tern.

Hopes for Moatlands were high, right up until we saw the first jetski. We scanned the margins anyway, more out of habit than hope, and set off for Hosehill Lake in a last ditch attempt to add any more species. We didn't. A final scan of the Main Pit showed the Black tern again, and Renton briefly saw the Arctic tern, but Phil and Mike couldn't get on to it.

We finished the day on 93, 2 less than the 2006 cycling team total (the same team got 96 in 2005), but we missed so many "easy" species! We were only 4 species behind the next team, and they'd used a car! Chris Robinson's dream of being the first person in Berkshire to get a day list of 100 species by bike lives to fight another day, but since Phil and Mike are now converts, maybe next year he'll have a bit of cycling competition!

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