Ever been out walking in total darkness on a freezing January morning to listen for grey partridges? No, neither had I, until I took part in my first bird race.
The idea of a bird race is that you get up horribly early in the morning and dash around all day trying to see or hear as many different species of bird as you can.
If it sounds a bit extreme, that’s because it is, but it’s also great fun and rather exciting once you get past the dazed ‘Is this all a dream?’ feeling.
Our intrepid team, Never Mind The Woodcocks – me, Jono, Rich and Emanuela – spent ten hours lurching from one York birding hotspot to another, totting up 95 species between a hooting tawny owl before dawn and a just-in-the-nick-of-time call from a little owl after dusk. I can take little credit for this impressive total. My main role was to bumble about, ask lots of questions, and chip in with silly jokes.
The Michael Clegg Memorial Birdrace turned out to be an epic adventure, featuring two firsts for me, close encounters with some great birds, and some fairly common species leading us a merry dance…
Egret by gum
After getting off to a mixed start in the dark – grey partridges and golden plover among the early ticks, but little owl refusing to play ball – our first location as dawn broke was the village of Stillingfleet, where a great white egret had been reported recently. A muddy trudge up and down the beck failed to reveal the egret, but listening to all the other birds waking up around us was a treat.
Brambling on my mind
Passing an elegant barn owl perched on a gate, we approached our next location – seemingly a non-descript field in the middle of nowhere. But Jono had done his homework, and we soon found what we were looking for: a flock of bramblings, appearing in generous numbers at the top of a nearby oak tree. These attractive finches, boasting bright orange chests, are winter visitors to the UK, and aren’t always easy to find, but they spoilt us by hanging around for decent views and allowing me to learn their call, which sounded a little like an unimpressed sneer.
Gawping at scaups
A key spot on our tour of the York area was Castle Howard Lake, so it was a blow to arrive there in dense fog, with terrible visibility. Most ducks on the lake, which is normally thronging with a variety of wildfowl, were reduced to grey blobs – disappointing, as I’d hoped we’d find a scaup there. While not a particularly exciting bird to look at, it was one I’d never seen before, and a male and female had both been reported in the days before our visit.
Working our way along the lakeside path, we gradually started to find the birds we were looking for, such as the sleek goosanders and charismatic little goldeneyes among the many wigeons, teals, coots and tufted ducks. As we resigned ourselves to a scaup-less trip, the female suddenly glided into view. My first ‘lifer’ of the year! I’d always thought I’d struggle to identify one alongside the very similar tufted duck, but it was clearly a different shape – it looked longer, lower in the water, with a different-shaped head and a generous blob of white on its face.
The fog continued as we headed to Strensall Common, which was eerily beautiful in the gloom, but not exactly awash with bird life.
Here come the gulls
There was certainly no shortage of gulls on bird race day – big flocks of them in the fields to the west of York. Identifying some of them was easy. Adult great black-backed gulls are unmistakable beasts – they’re big, and have black backs. I know what adult herring gulls and black-headed gulls look like. But throw winter plumages and juveniles of various ages into the mix, then set the challenge of trying to identify the rarer species – Iceland gull and glaucous gull – and I’m all of a tizz. We stared at flocks of gulls until my eyes ached and I felt dizzy, but still couldn’t find what we were looking for; and what we knew some of the other teams had seen. It was like a gull version of ‘Where’s Wally?’ with a cast of thousands.
Waxwings – exotic-looking pink birds with striking features and a rather punky hair-do – visit the UK in varying numbers each winter from Scandinavia. In some winters, like this one, they come over in large numbers to scoff as many berries as they can. They’d been spotted all around York in the run-up to the bird race, but our first attempt was fruitless. Our next stop was right next to the city walls, where waxwings had gathered during the last few days to feast on berries. From our perch on the top of the walls, we found blackbirds, song thrushes and mistle thrushes gorging themselves on the red fruit, but no waxwings. We were about to give up, when I made one of my few notable contributions to the team effort and spotted a solitary waxwing peeking out from the middle of the tree. We celebrated with a botched fist-bump/handshake/high-five mash-up and dashed off to our next site.
Wagtails and herons and grebes, oh my!
Bird watching is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. That can mean both unexpected delights and great frustrations. Three common species proved evasive on the day, and we got increasingly concerned that we were somehow going to fail to see a pied wagtail, grey heron, or great crested grebe. I’d seen a heron on the way to Castle Howard, but the rule was that birds only counted if at least three members of the team saw or heard it. Eventually, we did find one – a distant view from the hide at our final destination, Wheldrake Ings. The quest for a pied wagtail got more and more ridiculous, and the biggest cheer of the day came as we spotted one out of the car window, strutting nonchalantly along a pavement. But the grebe was nowhere to be found. Knowing the other teams were also struggling to find one, we wasted valuable time scooting off to two locations, hoping to track one down, but to no avail. It was the bogey bird of the day.
Wild goose chase
There was to be another first for me on this day of twists and turns. As the light began to fade, we literally went on a wild goose chase to try and track down a tundra bean goose. Luckily another birder was watching geese from the roadside, and was able to point out where the bean geese were hiding among larger numbers of pink-footed geese and the much commoner greylag geese. It was a puzzling game of ‘spot the difference’, and I’d probably have overlooked them without expert assistance – they did a cracking job of looking just like the pink feet, until one kindly gave us a flash of its bright orange legs.
A sniper in the bog
There were two final stops on our way to Wheldrake, where we knew we’d be able to enjoy a dusk bonanza of waders and other wetland birds – and endure another hapless sift through countless gulls.
One was the easiest find of the day – a little grebe appearing exactly where Jono had expected it on the Pocklington Canal.
The second was really something to behold – Rich’s snipe dance. Spotting a boggy field that was rich with potential for skulking snipe, off he went, bounding through the bog like a welly-wearing gazelle. It worked – from nowhere, up shot two common snipe in one direction, and a rarer, smaller jack snipe in the other. It was only the second jack snipe I’d ever seen, and a first for Emanuela.
Topping up our list with a late flurry of species at Wheldrake, we retired shattered but satisfied with our efforts – and talk turned to the possibility of a 24-hour Yorkshire bird race in May. Now that really would be extreme…