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…
This morning I found time to experience the restorative and uplifting powers of nature (rather than dashing to the toilet, as the title may suggest) – but I very nearly didn’t bother.
After hitting ‘snooze’ about four times, I dragged myself wearily out of bed with a throbbing headache and in a grouchy mood, and attempted to wake the kids for school. Once I’d done the school run, I would, I vowed, go back to bed. My previous plan had been to go out somewhere for a morning’s birdwatching, but bed seemed far more appealing.
When nature calls
But on the walk back from school, I heard nature calling. The weather was pretty mild for a December morning, and there’s a nature reserve – Askham Bog – just up the road. OK, I probably wouldn’t see anything new there, but it felt the right place to be, so I strode home with purpose, changed into some old trousers, grabbed my binoculars and walking boots, and off I went.
Depression and stress have been stalking me again this year and I’ve had a lot on my mind, so this week – a week off work to be in my local panto at night and find some ‘me time’ by day – is proving a valuable breather. And where better to have a breather than in the fresh air, surrounded by trees and wildlife in a familiar spot?
Askham Bog, on the edge of York, at first seems small, with a boardwalk offering a short circular walk around the woods and bogs. But it’s much larger than it first appears, and part of the joy of going there is to explore the smaller paths off the boardwalk.
It didn’t take me long to get lost in nature. All was quiet when I first ventured over a stile and into a copse, but then there came a familiar cheeping overhead, and a group of long-tailed tits came into view, acrobatically working their way through the branches. A loud alarm call came from somewhere up ahead – a wren, with a voice far bigger than its body.
Ain’t no party like a woodland party
I returned to the boardwalk, the early-morning sky still waking up, and almost immediately encountered one of those wonderful winter flocks of mixed small birds, seemingly having a party in a tall tree. It was like half the wood had been invited to hang out – Redwings flew on ahead, while blue tits, coal tits and great tits joined their long-tailed friends; a treecreeper worked its way up the trunk, and tiny goldcrests flitted from twig to twig, some coming incredibly close. I spotted the silhouette of a larger, lean-looking bird at the top of a nearby tree – it turned out to be a smart male sparrowhawk; a potential party pooper if ever there was one. It took off, perhaps having detected my presence. Maybe I’d saved the day for the revellers. I stood mesmerised, taking it all in. If I saw nothing else, I told myself, it had been worth getting up for this.
On my next jaunt away from the main path, I found chaffinches and bullfinches, the latter given away by their signature call – something like a squeaking hinge that needs oiling. I was distracted by a bright white shape bouncing up and down in the distance across the bog. I knew instinctively what it was – yes, I was staring at a deer’s bottom. The roe deer in question wasn’t hanging about (I don’t think I would either if someone was staring at my bum through binoculars) and it bounded off.
The best was still to come.
On my next excursion, I lost myself completely (mentally, not literally) in my peaceful surroundings, even pausing for a moment with my eyes closed to take in all the sounds – robins and blackbirds calling, wrens shouting from the undergrowth… Then I found myself composing this blog post in my head, and told myself to shut up and just enjoy being there.
Crossing a boggy field to the boundary fence, I spotted another bouncing white bottom in the distance, and another, as two roe deer retreated into the wood; then another came fully into view. They soon legged it, probably afraid I’d start ogling their backsides.
Flushed with success
I walked up to the boundary fence to peer into the wood, and a medium-sized, brown bird suddenly whooshed up from the brown leaves covering the ground, and it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. I was perplexed for a moment. What could it be? It was too big to be a mistle thrush, too small for a female sparrowhawk, and the wrong shape for an owl. Then it dawned on me – I must have disturbed (or ‘flushed’, to use birding lingo) a woodcock! These elusive birds are known to spend the winter at Askham Bog, but because they’re so hard to see – both because of their skulking behaviour and their effective camouflage – I had never seen one there before.
I made my way home, once again feeling tired, but now feeling happy and content, knowing I had used my time well and listened to my body. For an hour and 20 minutes, I’d transported myself away from the real world. Next stop, bed. Maybe I’m getting the hang of this self-care lark at last.
Here are some photos from my walk.
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