The 2002 Berkshire Bird Race

Paul Cropper

Team Report - Fraser Cottington/Andrew Johnson/Paul Cropper

The team met up at 10:30pm May 3rd in Winnersh. We had all been in previous Berks bird races, so we could draw on that experience: however, none of us had participated for the last 9 years! Andrew agreed to be our driver for the day. As with the other teams, we had to finish at 7pm at the Fox and Hounds pub, Theale. The weather outlook for the Saturday seemed extremely promising: a still night was forecast, with a bright morning followed by showers in the afternoon. This meant that we should do well with the nocturnal species and the dawn chorus, and hopefully pick up some grounded migrants later in the day. On the negative side, there had been no confirmation yet of nightjar, spotted flycatcher or quail arriving in the county, and precious few reports of turtle doves. We decided to begin at midnight at Thatcham Marsh, in the hope of getting cetti?s warbler and water rail under our belt early in the race; spend dawn at Lower Farm and Greenham Common; then go right to the east of the county for parakeet and mandarin, and slowly work our way back westwards throughout the day.

00:00 Thatcham Reedbed. Several Sedge Warblers (00:00) were singing persistently in the darkness. After fifteen minutes waiting by the canal we decided to leave, but just as we turned to go, a Cetti?s Warbler gave one burst of song (00:15). It was an excellent morale booster to tick off a potentially tricky species so early on! As we left Thatcham we heard several other birds calling in the darkness: Moorhen (00:19), Mallard (00:20) and Coot (00:22). A mystery wader species also flew over calling at about the same time.

00:45 Heading along the boundary road of Greenham Common, we stopped at the roadside to hear Nightingale (00:45) and our first Tawny Owl (00:46).

01:05 Drove to our barn owl site but had no luck, though we saw another Tawny Owl flying.

01:40 Arrived on the Berkshire Downs to listen for stone curlew, and hopefully curlew too. Flushed a Magpie (01:53) and a Pheasant (02:02) along the track. A surprise bonus came at 02:10 when Andrew picked up a faint, distant Grasshopper Warbler which the other team members eventually managed to hear (02:20). After a nervous wait, we were finally rewarded when a Stone Curlew (02:30) began flying around calling over our heads. With the sound of a farmer?s dog getting ever closer, we beat a retreat back to the car, bumping into DB?s birdrace team nearby.

03:00 Arrived at our woodcock site at Benyon Enclosure near Padworth. We probably made a mistake arriving here so early: woodcock were only likely to start roding at first light (around 03:45). En route, we got Robin and Song Thrush (03:36) singing at Aldermaston. A woodlark gave a brief snatch of song at around 04:00 which unfortunately was not heard by all 3 team members.

04:15 Ticked Woodcock (04:15) calling in virtual darkness at the Benyon Enclosure. This was our cue to jump in the car and dash off for black redstart - the race was underway in earnest!

04:36 Arrived at the site and immediately ticked Black Redstart singing (04:36) and Blackbird (04:37) for good measure. By now we were feeling invincible, and felt sure we were doing better than the other teams! Headed off towards Lower Farm.

04:42 Pulled over at Rose Kiln Lane just off the A33 to look for possible little owl. No owls, but heard our first Wren (04:43) here and Lesser Whitethroat (04:44).

04:56 By now the precious dawn period was upon us, and every second mattered. Our team leapt into action: we headed straight for Reading Motorway Services to stock up on fags and coffee (we did tick off Rook, Skylark and Pied Wagtail (04:58) here though)!

05:05 Mute Swan and Common Tern (05:05) from the M4 near Theale.

05:20 Jackdaw, House Sparrow (05:22), Woodpigeon (05:22), Dunnock (05:23) and Feral Pigeon (05:23) from the A4 in Newbury.

05:25 Arrived at Lower Farm (Newbury Racecourse Pit). Scanning the pits and trees from the car park, we quickly notched up Blue Tit (05:25), Tufted Duck, Canada Goose, Great Tit (05:26), Whitethroat, Cuckoo (05:27), Chaffinch, Shelduck, Redshank (05:30), Goldfinch (05:31), Dunlin (05:32), Lapwing (05:34), Oystercatcher, Little Grebe (05:35), Carrion Crow, Ruddy Duck and a lone Pochard (05:36), Reed Bunting (05:37), Great Crested Grebe (05:38), Kestrel (05:39) and Greenfinch (05:41). We walked down to the hide, meeting up with two other birdrace teams. Our list rapidly grew with the addition of Gadwall (05:44), Little Ringed Plover, a lone Teal (05:45), one Ringed Plover, Greylag Goose (05:47) and Cormorant (05:53). Walking back from the hide to the car park we heard Green Woodpecker (05:55), Reed Warbler, Starling (05:58) and Long-tailed Tit (05:59).

06:10 Goldcrest (06:10) heard while driving through Newbury.

06:11 Returned to Greenham Common for the remainder of the dawn chorus. It was now fully light but a heavy mist had descended. Heard Treecreeper (06:11) immediately, soon followed by Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff (06:13) and Linnet (06:15). We were delighted to find a female Wheatear (06:17) here (although we realised later this was just one of a large number around the county that day). Our good luck continued with a singing Meadow Pipit (06:20) and a stunning male Whinchat (06:22). We picked up a few commoner species: Stock Dove (06:24), Stonechat (06:26), Garden Warbler (06:28) and Great Spotted Woodpecker (06:29), but not much else. We began to wonder if the Common had been worth our while, but at least 2 other teams who showed up at the same time obviously thought it was! As we left we picked up Collared Dove (06:50) in Greenham Village. Disappointingly there was no nuthatch to be heard here, although on previous days it had been highly vocal. We saw Mistle Thrush (06:53) as we headed east again along the north boundary of the common, and heard our first Blackcap (06:55) when we stopped briefly near Thatcham.

07:15 Arrived Hosehill Gravel Pit. Our plan was to drop in at the main Theale sites en route to Slough Sewage Farm, basically doing all the wetland sites that might suffer disturbance later in the day. Hosehill provided Black-Headed Gull (07:17), Swallow, Sand Martin (07:18) and Grey Heron (07:20). We had intended to visit Moatlands straight afterwards but now decided to leave it for later in the day.

07:35 Immediately heard Yellowhammer (07:35) on arriving at Burnthouse Lane GPs, but we were rather disappointed to see no waders at all apart from some more LRPs. We did pick up several Swifts (07:38) and a flock of six Herring Gulls (07:39). Checked the other side of the pits, then got back on the M4 heading east.

08:09 Left the M4 at Burnham en route to Slough SF and spotted 2 Ring-necked Parakeets (08:09) from the car.

08:11 Arrived Slough Sewage Farm to find the settling beds utterly birdless - we began to realise that this was a duff day for wader passage! We got some compensation with Lesser Black-backed Gull (08:18) and House Martin (08:22).

08:40 Parked at Jubilee River in the old Slough SF, an area that had been great for waders over the preceding week. A long stop here yielded no waders but did produce two valuable ticks in 2 Yellow Wagtails (08:55) and a singing Corn Bunting (08:56) plus further sightings of Ring-Necked Parakeets and another Wheatear and Meadow Pipit.

09:10 At this point we made another mistake, spending over 1 hours scouring the Wraysbury pits. Wraysbury was in our itinerary as a possible site for terns, duck, bullfinch and grasshopper warbler, but our search did not produce any of the above. We ticked off Jay (09:41) and Sparrowhawk (09:43) for our trouble. Annoyingly, two kingfishers were flushed, but one team member failed to see either of them. Just as we were leaving, a Hobby flew over (10:44). The only other birds of note at Wraysbury were several singing Garden Warblers and another Lesser Whitethroat.

10:50 Stopped on the Thames near Romney Lock and then at Runnymede in search of mandarin. Got a male Mandarin at Runnymede.

Parked at a secret firecrest site in the east of the county, immediately hearing a Coal Tit calling. After a long stakeout listening to barely audible squeaks in the conifers, our Firecrest finally sang for us. We were equally grateful for a short flurry of calls from our only Nuthatch of the day.

12:40 Arrived at Olddean Common (Wishmoor Bottom), knowing that if we made our six target species here, it would take us across the one hundred mark. We eventually achieved this despite the fact that we seemed to be sharing the common with half of Britain?s cross-country cyclists, and most the other Berks bird race teams! Crossing the county boundary we heard Tree Pipit (12:43) and spied a stunning male Redstart (12:47). The weather was bright and sunny, so our plan was to walk to the high ground at the north end of the heath and sit and listen for birds calling. From here we heard a Dartford Warbler (12:50), and eventually we managed to pick up the calls of Redpoll (13:05) and Siskin (13:15) drifting on the breeze. A circular walk then produced a pair of singing Woodlarks (13:38), plus a flock of 4 Wheatears on the heath. We left at 14:15 having missed only crossbill and brambling (in fairness, we would have been pretty lucky to get those two).

14:30 Now things started to go wrong! We turned up at Moor Green Lakes expecting the little owl to be in plain view, which it wasn?t. A short debate concluded that we weren?t going to walk to the far hide for green sandpiper because of time considerations: we still had Dinton Pastures, Combe and Moatlands to work. Frustrated, we left without any additions.

15:15 On arriving at DP, we first stopped at Sandford Mill but failed to find grey wagtail. A wander around Lavell?s for possible bullfinch met only with the usual mid-afternoon silence, so we headed on to Whistley Green.

15:35 By now we hadn?t had a tick for two hours and were becoming demoralised. But, following a tip-off from the previous week, we located three late-staying Wigeon (15:45) on Hurst Green Pit, which lessened our gloom. A Grey Wagtail (15:52) that Andrew spotted on the Loddon also gave us encouragement.

15:55 We decided it was worth driving around the back roads south of Hurst and scanning the trees for little owl. Braving an attack on our vehicle by a homicidal black swan, we got an unexpected bonus when Fraser spotted a very high flying Red Kite from the car (16:00).

16:05 Returning to DP we checked out the Black Swan Lake from the sailing club end and had the spectacular sight of two low-flying Hobbies among the sailing boats. These were the forerunners of a flock of up to nine present later in the month. At the far end of the lake was a flock of terns and, as Andrew scanned them, he thought he saw a little gull disappearing behind the island. We dashed round to the north viewpoint to find that it was indeed a first winter Little Gull (16:10). It was the third one that Andrew had found at Dinton, but a Berkshire tick for Fraser and me!! Frustratingly, the tern flock was too distant to establish if it contained any arctic terns and we couldn?t afford the time to get closer. (On the following day several arctics were certainly present here). We did get Egyptian Goose (16:11) behind BSL North Island, and another Grey Wagtail near the sailing club as we left.

16:15 Our itinerary now sent us west up the M4, where we spied two circling Buzzards (16:45) from the car, en route to Combe. Combe offered the best chance for a variety of common species we still needed: marsh tit, willow tit, grey and red-legged partridges, plus buzzard en route and possibly bullfinch. However, reviewing our time scale, we now considered the Combe-and-back trip too ambitious, and turned off at Junction 13 towards Compton instead, to work our way across to Streatley, checking the fields for partridges.

17:20 Spotted a Bullfinch (17:21) from the car just outside Aldworth. This was a great relief, and we resolved to have a reliable bullfinch site sorted out next year!

17:25 Arrived at the Streatley end of the Ridgeway and got two Red-legged Partridges (17:25) straight away. Spent some time checking the trees here for possible spot fly.

17:45 Driving back towards Theale, we had another drake Mandarin on the Thames at Pangbourne.

18:00 Diverted to a possible marsh tit site near Woolhampton. We ended up spending a lot more time here than planned, because we found an intriguing area of new diggings nearby. Unfortunately it only contained lots more little ringed plovers.

18:25 With great regret we had to scrap our plan to visit Moatlands (and thus missed arctic tern again) as time was becoming uncomfortably tight, and made for Hosehill and Theale main pit instead, where turtle dove had been reported. We spent our last few minutes desperately looking and listening for kingfisher from the viewpoint!

19:00 Fox & Hounds public house.

As a reward for all our efforts our team had finished in fourth place. We had missed arctic tern, kingfisher, little owl, grey partridge, barn owl, crossbill, marsh tit, willow tit, lesser spotted woodpecker, turtle dove, water rail, common sandpiper and green sandpiper among other birds in the county, but had still listed a respectable 107 species. Thanks go to Brian Bennett, Pete Johns and others for their advice before the event.

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