My third York bird race would feature a lifetime first, glorious close-up viewings, a dramatic natural spectacle, and, of course, the one that got away.
The time: 6.30am. The day: Sunday. The location: my street.
Four intrepid birders – me, Rich, Emanuela and new recruit Paul, standing in for the injured Captain Jono – have gathered to see or hear as many different species as possible in one day in the York area, competing with other local teams.
It’s well before dawn, but calling Blackbirds and Robins give us a count of two before we’ve even got in Rich’s Birdmobile.
Hits and miss
A successful start to the day brought us an almost ridiculous number of calling Tawny Owls, joined by a welcome bonus of a Little Owl, and the potentially tricky duo of Grey and Red Legged Partridges. Cheered on by a nearby Snipe, and still roaming in the dark, we headed to Allerthorpe Common, a much-visited site in the past week because of the presence of a rare Coues’ Arctic Redpoll.
With a Barn Owl giving us generous views as it hunted on the common, and a Buzzard calling from above us, the omens seemed good. The list began to grow, with a double bill of Marsh and Willow Tit, followed by four Crossbills calling as they flew over. And then there were the Redpolls – a chance to scour the flock of both Lesser and Mealy for our Arctic visitor. But lovely though those many Redpolls were, their star turn wasn’t going to come out to dazzle us. With time ticking on, we had to accept that, even so early in the day, this would be one that got away.
The next part of our strategy involved looping round the Lower Derwent Valley, taking in East Cottingwith, Bubwith, North Duffield and Bank Island. There were two contrasting highlights for me.
Emanuela and Rich had seen a fly-by Kingfisher earlier on, but Paul and I had missed it while fruitlessly trying to unearth a Jack Snipe. The rules state that at least three of the team must see or hear the bird for it to count. While we were at Bubwith, scanning for an almost-mythical American Wigeon that had been seen there recently, Rich called out “Kingfisher”, and there it was, on a distant perch, beautifully framed in the lens of his telescope. It obligingly sat completely still for us all to admire – a beautiful bird, and a rare opportunity to pause and appreciate it in all its glory.
The chances of seeing a Marsh Harrier near home when I started birding were laughably small; non-existent, probably. But for my second bird race running, I was able to watch one in action at North Duffield. This cracking bird, a juvenile, I think, soared majestically into view from the hide and sent hundreds of Lapwings, ducks and gulls flapping all over the sky in a panicked cloud (that’s what is happening in the two photos below – not that you can tell!). And there was further peril lurking for these hapless birds, with a Peregrine loitering on a fence post not far away.
We left the valley to try and add more water birds to our list at Castle Howard Lake, and it came up trumps, sporting Goldeneye, Goosander, Mandarin, Grey Heron, Cormorant and others. But there was another attraction for us on the lake – a Red Necked Grebe. Normally your best chance of seeing one is on the coast, so the discovery of one here in the York recording area was a real coup for local birders. Would the lake come up with a lifer for me for the third year running, following in the claw prints of Scaup in 2017 and Cetti’s Warbler in 2018?
Yes, it would. Before race week, I wouldn’t have even considered seeing a Red Necked Grebe on the big day, yet there it was, drifting along then diving as grebes do.
Race against time
With the afternoon passing with alarming speed, we had difficult decisions to make about where we could fit into our remaining daylight. We opted for a cross-country route (finally spotting Yellowhammer) to Strensall Common, where we hoped to find Stonechat, Green Woodpecker, and the day’s most elusive common species for us, the Nuthatch. We found none of them.
Still needing some water birds, we headed to Heslington East, aiming for Pochard, Water Rail and maybe a Great Crested Grebe. We had mixed fortunes. The grebes weren’t forthcoming. The Water Rail stubbornly refused to call from its usual reedbed and then, to add to our frustration, I managed to get a great view of it as it literally sprinted away from me before anyone else could clap eyes on it. It never came out of its hiding place, and maintained a resolute silence. One out of four doesn’t count on a bird race, and we had to abandon it. With sunset calling, we managed our Pochard – bird number 89 – and set off into the dusk for one last throw of the dice at Wheldrake Ings.
Drama at dusk
The time: approaching 5pm. The location: Wheldrake Ings foot bridge.
There we were, the four of us, back in the darkness, listening and hoping. We bumped into the clear winners, who’d got more than 100 species, and they told us there had been 1,000 Golden Plovers there earlier in the day. Maybe we’d hear one to claim our 90th species. Then we heard that our rivals for second place had retired top the pub on 89.
“It was this dark when we got that Woodcock here last year,” I said. And barely had the words left my mouth than the most timely bird of the day bombed straight over our heads – a long straight bill, a barrel-like tummy, and a rapid wingbeat… Could our final bird of the day have been a more apt species than the one our team was named after?
And so Never Mind The Woodcocks finished on 90, taking second spot and having had a thoroughly enjoyable day chasing round the brilliant birding spots surrounding York – a combination of frenzied pursuit and sublime moments of birding perfection.
My second York Bird Race would see our team – Never Mind The Woodcocks – reuniting for a blockbuster sequel bursting with birds, and with an unlikely ending. Here are some of my highlights.
Up with the partridge – ahaaaaaa!
Having hatched our plans in the pub the night before, we were (almost) raring to go at 6.45am on race day. Our first stop, as last year, was to catch up with Jono’s faithful grey partridges calling in fields by the cycle track, but a distant teal pipped them to the post as our first bird of the day. As we were starting to think the partridges had abandoned us there in the cold and darkness, two of them croaked out – job done, and off down the A64 to Castle Howard.
Castle Howard Lake brought me my first-ever scaup on my last bird race, and there was to be another first this time. Having found most of the birds we were expecting as dawn broke – except for the usually dependable marsh tit – we started walking back to the car, when Jono recognised a surprising call coming from the rushes on the lake shore.
It was a Cetti’s warbler, a bird that’s been spreading north, but still not one we’d ever expected to find at this location. Although speed is of the essence in a bird race, and although hearing a bird counts as well as seeing one, once Jono knew I’d never seen one, we had to go looking for the elusive warbler – and as we got nearer, a small bird flew from left to right. We saw where it landed, and managed to clap eyes on our suspect just before it disappeared. A brilliant bird – not just for our bird race list but for life list.
Until last November, I had never seen a hawfinch. In fact, these chunky orange finches were one of my top two bogey birds. My first came at this same place – the Yorkshire Arboretum at Castle Howard, which has been a hotbed of hawfinch action since last autumn’s invasion by this normally scare species.
This time, one small patch in front of the visitors’ centre was heaving with hawfinches. Jono counted about 70 of them, mingling with greenfinches, chaffinches and redwings. It seemed ludicrously easy when it had taken me almost all my birding life to see even one. We struck lucky with a great spotted woodpecker, jay, goldcrest and mistle thrush before we left the Castle Howard area and set off back to York.
Heslington East, a wetland on the newer part of the York University campus, was our next stop. Just before finding a great crested grebe – a bird we just could not find last year – I made another notable contribution, but it was a moment of unintentional comedy rather than any birding wizardry.
Catching my foot on something, I plunged face first into a bog, leaving a squelchy imprint in the ground, like a mud angel, and coating my coat, legs, binoculars and telescope in a generous helping of oozy mud. My foolishly-chosen light-coloured trousers would give away my mucky escapades to everyone we met for the rest of the day.
A quick visit to Askham Bog, my local nature reserve, brought us our overdue marsh tit, but no joy from Jono’s ‘magic woodcock bush’.
Moving on, we failed for the second year in a row to spot any white-winged gulls (the rarer Iceland and glaucous gulls) among the flocks at Rufforth, but added some very welcome green sandpipers to our list.
Next we called in to see my friend Adam, who’d had bramblings and a blackcap in his garden in the days before the race. The blackcap must have heard we were coming, and had gone into hiding, but the bramblings turned up on cue – a valuable bird for us, as it proved hard to find in the area on this year’s race. Adam was perhaps our lucky mascot for the day – we’d bump into him in several other places as we went on to tour the Lower Derwent Valley.
Birds flooding in?
When it comes to birding around York, the Lower Derwent Valley is probably the jewel in our ornithological crown. Although I’d been to Bank Island, Wheldrake Ings, North Duffield and other sites in the valley many times, the bird race was the first time I’d really seen how all these places fit together in one big birding paradise. The view was somewhat different on this occasion, with flooding blurring the boundaries between the different sites.
As the afternoon drew on, the bird list seemed to be growing at such a slow pace that we suspected we’d struggle to get near our previous total of 95. Every site brought at least one new bird, but a lot of the species we’d encountered last year simply weren’t around – waxwings, bean goose, pink footed goose… And to rub it in, the rarity that had been seen frequently right up to race day – an American wigeon – had performed a classic vanishing act.
Having moved on to Aughton and Ellerton, I had a text from Adam saying he’d seen two marsh harriers just after we’d seen him at The Refuge. Had the jinx befallen us?
Spot the marsh harrier
“It looks like a good day for raptors,” Rich had said earlier in the day. Slowly, the birds of prey began to prove him right. We’d been spoilt for kestrels, glimpsed a soaring sparrowhawk at Askham Bog, and marvelled at a close encounter with red kites near Melbourne (at the site pictured below), but the marsh harriers didn’t show up until we arrived at North Duffield.
We’d planned to make North Duffield our last stop, but there wasn’t much about. At least, not at first glance, but our fortunes seemed to change with one great bird – a stunning marsh harrier that slowly drifted closer and closer to the hide, until we could admire it in all its majesty without even having to lift our binoculars.
It was nearly close enough to get a photo with my mobile. See if you can spot the marsh harrier in these pitiful photos…
Owls about that then?
Inspired by our harrier, knowing we hadn’t managed a single owl yet, and with the promise of gulls coming into roost at Bank Island and Wheldrake Ings, we felt there were more birds to come. And we were right – we found a barn owl and little owl at Thorganby, had a peregrine fly over our heads atop the tower at Bank Island, and spotted a distant flock of golden plovers.
Last year’s total got nearer and nearer. As the sun sank out of sight, we decided to try one last throw of the dice, and dashed in the dark to Wheldrake Ings.
We parked on the lane and walked as far as we could before meeting the floodwater. There was a patch of dry land by the bridge at the other side, and Rich boldly strode out into the water in the hope of reaching it.
He disturbed a woodcock – another bird for the list – and then, reaching the bridge, shouted out that he could hear a tawny owl. With none of the rest of us able to hear it from our side of the water, we had to try striding out into this giant puddle and hope for the best.
Paddling in complete darkness isn’t something I’ve ever done before, and the water level rose perilously close to the top of my wellies, but it was worth it for the unmistakable wavering hoot of the tawny at the other side. We were at 94 – only one less than last year – and then came the cry of a curlew, and we had matched our previous total!
Meeting some of the other teams in the pub at Wheldrake afterwards, we found to our surprise that we’d recorded the highest total of the day.
That should have been that, but a recount gave us only 94 – still the winning score but by the most slender of margins.
But that still isn’t the end. Emanuela, our list-keeper, realised she’d forgotten to count our little egret at Heslington East and the mandarins on Castle Howard Lake, giving us a grand final total of 96 – better than last year. Not only was it the winning score in the York race, it was the highest score in Yorkshire, on a day when teams across the region take part in their own area’s bird races.
And so another day packed with unforgettable experiences, brilliant birds and great company came to a remarkable close. I’m still scraping mud out of my binocular lenses.
See Jono’s blog for our full list of species and sites, and some photos of the team in action.
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…