The 2004 Berkshire Bird Race

29 July 2004 | Fraser Cottington

?This year? we told ourselves, ?is our year!? and after months of mental planning we began real rekkying and lots of it, despite the double whammy of losing my job and having my van stolen from outside my new flat! Andy found masses of sites across the county, and also had done extensive work all over the downs. For the first time we had what we called a ?genuine night strategy?, promising all the expected species. We had to make some last minute adjustments on the eve of the race, one being the possibility of getting the Whimbrel at DP if that day?s bird stayed until dark. It was too tempting, but sadly it had left long before dusk.

From earlier years, of which there have been many, we laid down a golden rule of never changing the plan on the day. We did of course, but this time it just about all fell into place?

At 11.35 I was still typing out the final race plan and we discussed things further? we counted up again, and thought 118 was a real possibility. If extra waders came through, we had the record in the bag; ?precision timing from start to finish?, we said. Suddenly we checked the time and realised we should have left the house 5 minutes ago! We scrambled out of the house, got less than a mile from the house and Adam thought he had left his shades behind. We turned around and I dashed in to get them, only to find he had his but it was I who had left mine behind, which I was very grateful for.

So, at last we leave and luckily we had planned our first stop as Hurst. We arrived at 00:07, I was barely out of the car before AJ & Adam simultaneously said ?Little Owl?. With Nightingale singing in the background we were two up in under a minute and could head straight to our secret Grasshopper site all the way over in West Berks, since no others appeared to have stayed prior to the race.

Arriving at AJ?s Grasshopper Warbler we could hear it ?reeling away? without even having to get out of the car, so we were even more ahead. We decided to try Snelsmore, which produced absolutely nothing. Undaunted we moved on to Greenham, where Lapwing called and moments later Adam & I heard a very short but definite burst of Nightjar ?churring?. AJ hadn?t heard it and he was very frustrated with himself. We did wait quite a while but no further calls. We headed off to hear Woodlark, which was singing overhead, with Mallard calling at the same time, followed by Sedge Warbler, but now it was time to head for the downs.

Getting out of the car we immediately heard Stone Curlew calling in the distance. AJ had found another special species here; walking down the track towards the spot prompted a Dunnock to sing in pitch blackness. Expecting a wait, I had barely got my flask out when the silence was broken by a Quail calling nearby and we were beginning to get excited about how quickly we were getting our target birds, AJ still more than a little annoyed about Greenham.

We could now have headed for Cetti?s, but the conversation became focused on if we could get back to Greenham to have another go for Nightjar and then go on to our Woodcock site. It didn?t seem possible and as we turned left off the A4 we realised Cetti?s was supposed to be next. For an unknown reason we said it would be fine, and we?d fit it in somewhere later!

So we headed straight on to the Woodcock site that last year also provided Nightjar. We waited and waited, for too long in fact, arriving too early. But we waited for Woodcock, which duly called at 03:59. It still wasn?t very light so decided to carry on waiting to see if Nightjar would call. It didn?t, although we added Tawny Owl, Woodpigeon, Skylark and Robin. We gave it a last few minutes and knew we should have already left for our Barn Owl. As we drove away we left our windows open for the dawn chorus calls. At a T-junction a Roe Deer stood in the middle of the road and as we paused, to my amazement, I suddenly heard ?churring? off to my left, I shouted ?Nightjar!? and AJ was very relieved man! We were now nearly 20 minutes behind schedule and time would continue to slip away.

Too much driving around at dawn can be an awful waste of prime time, but we only had one site to chance a Barn Owl. Nevertheless we heard Blackbird, Song Thrush & Wren as we drove. At Lavell?s Garden Warbler was already singing when we arrived. Dawn chorus was underway: Blackcap, Reed Warbler, Canada Goose, Tufted Duck, Carrion Crow, Whitethroat, Jackdaw, Rook, Moorhen, Coot, Mute Swan, Pheasant, Common Tern, Great Crested Grebe, Chiffchaff and Magpie, but NO Barn Owl and we had definitely stayed too long. We glanced at BSL, Egyptian Goose and left, picking up Chaffinch and Treecreeper on the move. As we joined the M4 we saw Kestrel on a lamppost.

We arrived at the first of our Theale area GPs, picking up Teal, Gadwall, Grey Heron, Great Tit, Yellowhammer, Blue Tit, Collared Dove, Redshank, Black-headed Gull, Pied Wagtail, Common Sandpiper and Cuckoo. Moving on a Sparrowhawk over the car proved to be our only one of the day, and our first unplanned bonus bird, was a 1st summer Little Gull on the Moatlands water-ski ramp, not visible from the usual viewing place!

At main pit, we checked for Peregrine without success, we added Greenfinch and scanned the pit itself. Just two terns sat on the buoys, 1 was Common, one almost unbelievably was an Arctic Tern. We dashed back across the road for the male Wigeon on Hosehill and were gutted to hear a grasshopper warbler reeling away. A quick check in the book showed that it had been present for a few days, and our ?only? Berks bird was blown out of the water! Driving round to the horse paddock we saw the Turtle Dove on the dead tree for the first time ever, which then flew off over the ridge westwards. Mistle Thrush, Green Woodpecker, Starling, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Cormorant were added before our next stop - our favourite level crossing. Waiting painful minutes for a train to pass, we added House Sparrow, Grey Wagtail and then an unexpected Spotted Flycatcher. Goldfinch & Little Ringed Plover were visible from the edge of the road, but we wanted to be sure waders weren?t hiding, so set off through the soaking wet knee high weeds. Red-legged Partridge called and showed at the far edge and two Yellow Wagtails put us on 70.

Time to leave again, the level crossing was down again, causing a quick u-turn and an alternative route. However, we had achieved our goals quickly here and were only a little behind our schedule, so decided to have another go for Cetti?s. Unfortunately no show, but we picked up Willow Warbler & Reed Bunting. This stop was a poor decision as it now made us 33 minutes late at Greenham Common. We quickly added Ringed Plover, Swallow and Linnet, but where were the migrant waders? There were none to be seen, which was incredibly disappointing following the good passage that had occurred previously. We added Bullfinch, Feral Pigeon, Meadow Pipit and Stock Dove, but had to scope for our target birds: Dartford Warbler appearing on the gorse long enough for all to glimpse, followed by Stonechat. Last year we had missed Wheatear for not looking properly, so we spread out AJ & Adam got on a Whinchat at the very western end of the runway strip. We knew this was another bonus species, but felt it was very visible if people came that way. Walking back to the car a Nuthatch was low on a lone small tree and put us on a very healthy 83, before Lower Farm.

Arriving at Lower Farm 53 minutes later than planned, we shortened our visit here considerably. Swift, House Martin and Sand Martin were overhead and as we walked into the hide, Andy Horscroft?s team were ?waiting?, they said. Not sure for what, as they left pretty soon, by then we had added Little Grebe. We searched for what we had come for and as luck would have it, the female Ruddy Duck swam left past where my scope was trained! Nothing much else and still no extra waders, we left.

With ?The Plan? now running about 40 minutes behind, we headed further West and decided to invest more time looking for Wheatear, in vain. But at least we got Goldcrest ! It was time to have our woodland walk.

Coal Tit followed by Long-tailed Tit and Willow Tit - this was too easy, we hadn?t even got to the wood yet! Tree Pipit displayed ahead of us, then another Spotted Flycatcher, although we had to look a bit harder for the last of the Tit family, Marsh Tit eventually calling twenty minutes later. Walking back a Buzzard rose on the quickly warming air, (09:39) marking our 95th species.

Time for a different downs setting, but on the way AJ knew of a Cetti?s site where we might get lucky. In a way we did, but it cost us even more time, although what was to become our only Lesser Whitethroat of the day flitted past us, just clinching it?s I.D. before it dived into the dense cover (10:09)

Arriving at our site, we got Curlew immediately and headed off down the path for a hoped for bonus bird. AJ picked it up, but over Oxfordshire, not Berkshire, and it then disappeared mobbed by a Lapwing. For only a few but still frustrating minutes we scanned, suddenly locating it again. This time it soared further and further left and towards us. When it finally crossed the county boundary we proudly added a splendid male Montagu?s Harrier to the list.

No sign of Corn Bunting and a species we missed last year, Grey Partridge, so we headed off to back up site 1. It was wall to wall horse riders and the land now had a private sign up, so having used up even more time without result we headed for the motorway, we had a long way east to go.

We were now seriously behind schedule and discussed our next chance for our last no-show birds. We checked the map, agreed we might not get back this way at all and decided to change the plan. With some trepidation we decided to go to backup site 2 with a mind that we could not fail to see both species. It paid off with Grey Partridge added after a longer than anticipated search. I got a call on my mobile just before midday and as I spoke, a Corn Bunting sang in the background. Trevor Guyatt was the 4th person to know we had hit 100 at precisely 12:00!

Rather pleased with ourselves, we got back in the car and I began to study our plan and look for weaknesses, I was immediately nervous about Red Kite, which we also missed in 2003, Hobby were not guaranteed anywhere, both were pretty regular over Lavell?s or the tip where I had seen both the day before! We were still missing Kingfisher and did not have a proper site. Mandarin was not a problem, then I realised we still didn?t have Jay, surely not a problem?

Rather than head straight for the conifer forests as planned for months, we set our minds on Lavell?s. We knew about the roadworks where the A34 is crossed by the M4 near Newbury, AJ assured us it shouldn?t be an issue, I have to say I had my doubts!

30 minutes and about 3 miles of stop & start later, we were almost on the M4, I got on 2 large gulls high up, but a caravan pulled along side me so lost them immediately. As we then sped west, past Reading, a Hobby flew over to our right, (12:40), now that was lucky! As we came to the A329(M) turnoff we saw 2 Red Kite circling (12:57), before we even got onto the Bader Way.

We went on to Black Swan Lake anyway, just in case some gulls were there, nothing doing we were able to bypass the need for Turtle Dove & Lesser Whitethroat, so headed off to Dorney Wetlands, knowing Black-tailed Godwits had been reported early morning, could they still be there?

As we approached the wader areas we got Shelduck (13:40) and then got on to the 5 Black-tailed Godwits (13:43), then a Dunlin (13:44). We turned east and picked up Lesser Black-backed Gull (13:49), Herring Gull (13:57) and then while I was scanning for waders a Kingfisher flew into my scope view, (13:59) yelling in a panic in case the guys didn?t get on it, no problem and we had just jumped forward another 6, putting us on 108, with guaranteed birds yet to come. We moved on to QMR, just in case a Black Tern had dropped in on this warm day. No such luck but as we were leaving a small flock of Black-headed Gulls appeared on the corner, prompting us to wonder if we should get out and check them all and look round that corner, we elected not to and later heard Dave Parker had Common Gull on the opposite side of the reservoir earlier, but that it was with Black headed Gulls. Oh well, we didn?t know that at the time!

On to Wraysbury gravel pits, not a favourite or very profitable site for our team in previous races. We were here for a Pochard AJ had found. Greylag appeared at 14:56, then Ring-necked Parakeet 14:57 and then the Pochard 15:01. Wraysbury had done us proud, getting our target birds in minutes and now on 111, but the afternoons in the forest can be deadly quiet, I thought.

At our first ?guaranteed? Redpoll site, there were over 60 over-60?s loitering at the precise spot we wanted to be! We walked around and around without adding a species for over an hour. We tried the next site guaranteed to give us Siskin: nothing! We were crushed and exhausted.

Even more fed up we headed to our last site and marched up the dusty tracks with determination, AJ was on the case and got on a Redstart immediately (17:05), over 2 hours since we last added a species. We walked on and Siskin called overhead (17:08), this was better, we picked our pace up and just as I was saying ?this is where I had the...?, we all heard the Firecrest sing (17:23).

Unbelievably we still hadn?t had Jay, but it was possible at the Mandarin site, which was duly added at 18:00. Jay was not.

I explained to my team mates I had only actually seen the male once but the fishermen had told me where to look. Adam was already on the bird when AJ and I arrived at the lake edge, over the far side and well found at that distance, the male Red-crested Pochard sat preening (18:20).

?Well that?s it? I said, we had no more extra birds to go for, it was too late to get back to Thatcham for Cetti?s now, but we might stand a chance at Moatlands? As we drove over we said, ?everyone always has one bogey bird, and ours is flippin Jay?. We passed Paul Cropper?s team walking out to the viewpoint for our first time that day; they looked like they had their own ups and downs that day. AJ & Adam scoped the lake for terns or anything, whilst we listened for Cetti?s, the motorway hindering the task severely.

Then Marek?s team arrived and all got very excited when the Common Sandpiper showed for them, they obviously needed it. As I spoke with Marek, over his team flew a Jay (18:37), all I could blurt out was ?gggggguys, look?, as we all clenched our fists in joy, ?yessss?.

Still leaving enough time to take a last look at the pylons, we then headed for the Fox & Hounds, by then a calm sense that we had probably done enough?

?Yep definitely 117? I said, as we pulled into the car park. We were all proud of our achievements, but couldn?t help saying ?if only? about the Cetti?s, Barn Owl, Redpoll, Crossbill & Common Gull.

Now for next year, if we can get them Water Rails and Black Redstart return next year, that record might just fall yet!?

© 2004 Fraser Cottington

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