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.