The 2002 Berkshire Bird Race

Marek Walford

In 2001 I took part in the Berkshire Bird Race with Mike McCarthy. We were unable to find a third team member and despite doing no planning at all we finished joint third with a respectable 92 species. However, this year we were going to do it properly. Firstly we recruited Paul Bright-Thomas as our third team member. Secondly, we made the decision to start at midnight. Finally, we planned it properly; we had one serious planning meeting, countless discussions over email and conducted several weeks of reconnaissance. We were confident of beating last year?s score. We had also worked out that 110 were a realistic target. This is an account of the day. In the interests of the welfare of scarce breeding birds I hope you understand that I have felt it necessary to be vague about some of the sites we visited.

The plan was to start at midnight at my house in Caversham where a Tawny Owl had been calling every night since January. Mike planned to arrive at about 11.30pm but Paul arrived at about 9pm with the intention of getting a couple of hours sleep in the spare room before we left. We went to bed at 10pm and the owl was reassuringly calling as I fell asleep. I woke up at 11.30pm and Mike arrived about ten minutes later. There wasn?t a sound from the owl as I helped Mike put his things in my car. At 11.50pm it was still deadly quiet. However, much to my relief it resumed calling just before midnight and we were able to tick it at 00:01.

Having ticked Tawny Owl we left Caversham and drove through the roads of Oxfordshire to the Downs. It was very quiet apart from the occasional plane and some distant music. However, a bird was moving in the hedge and eventually revealed itself as a Blackbird as it rattled off its alarm call. We walked a little way along the track and paused when Mike thought he heard a Grasshopper Warbler. We listened intently and I soon tuned my ears into its incessant reeling. Paul still couldn?t hear it so we continued along the track. We must have got within a few feet of the bird but still didn?t see it. We could also hear several calling Tawny Owls. I was quite pleased with my guaranteed Tawny Owl right outside my house so it was a little annoying to discover that we could have started on the Downs at midnight and would still have recorded Tawny Owl.

After twenty minutes we still hadn?t heard a Stone Curlew and a Lapwing calling wasn?t much compensation. However, five minutes later we heard the distinctive call of one nearby. As we carried on along the track something burst out of the hedge with such gusto that it could only have been a Woodpigeon. A few minutes later we reached a small wood. We stopped and listened and could immediately hear the eerie whining of a young Long-eared Owl. We returned to the car feeling very pleased with ourselves. We had got both our target birds (Stone Curlew and Long-eared Owl) plus a bonus Grasshopper Warbler. After a brief and unsuccessful listen for Quail we got back into the car. Shortly afterwards Mike lost the pencil for the first time. I say first as during the early hours of the morning he managed to lose another two! Luckily I was prepared for such emergencies and had six spare pencils with me. As we were leaving a red car was coming the other way. We assumed it was one of the opposition and cheerily flashed our headlights at them. We later discovered that it was Fraser Cottingtons team.

Our next stop was Kintbury, allegedly a regular site for Barn Owl. None of us had ever seen a Barn Owl. In fact none of us had ever been there at night but it was worth a try. It was too dark to see anything and shining our torches across the fields didn?t illuminate any owls. Several Sedge Warblers were singing but we didn?t add anything else.

As we drove east along the A4 we kept a constant look out for Barn Owls but it seemed we were destined to dip out. We arrived at Thatcham at 2:55. As we got out of the car a Robin was singing under the light of the street lamps. Three minutes later we heard the explosive song of a Cetti`s Warbler shortly followed by the squeal of a Water Rail and the quack of a Mallard. We continued along the path expecting to tick Reed Warbler but couldn?t pick any out from the numerous singing Sedge Warblers. Surprisingly we didn?t hear Nightingale or Grasshopper Warbler making the downland bird even more significant as it meant we wouldn?t have to spend time searching for them at Wraysbury.

Having been so successful on the Downs and at Thatcham we were heading for our Woodcock site too early! A decision was made to make a short detour to a Black Redstart site. It was 3:30 in the morning and still pitch black but as we had already had a Robin singing we saw no reason why a Black Redstart wouldn?t. Suffice to say it didn?t but the unplanned detour didn?t disrupt out plans to arrive at Swinley Forest for 4:15. Three minutes later we ticked Woodcock by its "quip" call and even had brief views as it flew over the trees. We decided to spend ten minutes listening for Nightjar but with no luck. It was too cold and probably too early, although we had recorded Nightjar at a site not far away during last years bird race on the 5th of May.

We arrived at Moor Green at 4:45 and the dawn chorus was in full swing. Birds fell quickly: Song Thrush, Canada Goose, Pheasant, Coot, Blackcap, Whitethroat, Common Tern, Great Tit, Tufted Duck, Great Crested Grebe and Wren. As the light got better two geese on the island revealed themselves to be Egyptian Geese, one of which had a white head. This was another early bonus saving us time at Dinton Pastures. Two Redshanks were on the island and Carrion Crow and Reed Bunting were heard. As we walked down the footpath towards the river a small duck flew over our heads and across the lake. It was a Mandarin and one of the reasons why we were at Moor Green at dawn. Shortly afterwards our other target bird fell when Paul picked out a Little Owl sat in an oak tree at the northern end of Colebrook Lake. He had seen it fly up from the ground and I must admit the grey blob I was looking at it could have been anything but I was assured it was a Little Owl.

Another good bird, and the only one we saw all day was a female Teal on the scrape. A Moorhen and a Pied Wagtail were also on the scrape while the first Chaffinch of the day started singing. As the light got better we were able to pick out two Little Ringed Plovers on the island. Commoner birds continued to be added to the list as we returned to the car: Great Tit, Grey Heron, Jackdaw, Yellowhammer, Stock Dove, Mistle Thrush, Rook, Greenfinch, and Green Woodpecker. A small diversion to a field that had recently held Wheatears just produced Magpie, Skylark, Starling and Long-tailed Tit.

Mike suggested we drive round to Horseshoe Lake and check the river where he had recently seen Grey Wagtail and Kingfisher. Grey Wagtail was easy, which we first heard calling and then saw under the bridge. We walked a fair way along the river hoping for a Kingfisher but we were out of luck. A Garden Warbler was singing which we were also able to get nice views of. Singing Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff were surprisingly the first of the day. A Cormorant flew and over and as were returning to the car I pointed out a Jay (a potential dip bird) which turned out to be the only one of the day. We left Moor Green at 6.10 with a reasonably healthy score of 54.

Our next stop was Wishmoor Bottom. On route we ticked off Collared Dove in Sandhurst and Feral Pigeon in Camberley. We parked at the top of Kings Ride and headed north along the footpath. It was only when we got to the bridge (the county border) that we realised we had been in Surrey for the last fifteen minutes so Feral Pigeon, Goldcrest and Goldfinch had to be struck off the list.

The first bird we ticked back in Berkshire was a nice male Redstart that Mike picked out at the top of a pine tree. Coal Tit and Goldcrest followed shortly afterwards. As we came out into the more open area we could hear several Tree Pipits singing. It was after several minutes that we realised that a Woodlark was also singing and just to be sure it fluttered down from a great height onto a nearby pine tree, clearly showing its short tail. A Dartford Warbler called and then flew across the path reminding us how we had dipped Dartford Warbler last year.

As we headed north across the heath a Great Spotted Woodpecker called. We paused to scan the heath and Mike soon picked out a male Stonechat that was then joined by a female. Our only remaining target birds were Siskin, Redpoll and Crossbill. Redpolls were surprisingly abundant; we had one flock of about forty birds and several smaller groups. Siskins, on the other hand were notable by their absence. We didn?t see a single bird and it was probably the worst miss of the day. Crossbill was always a long shot so we left fairly content at having got most of the target birds. As we returned to the car we all heard a Yellow Wagtail call. We also picked up Goldfinch, one of the birds we had to strike off earlier because it was in Surrey.

Our next stop was Lavell`s Lake. On route we picked up a Lesser Black-backed Gull from the car at Winnersh. At Lavell`s we walked north along the River Loddon still hoping for Kingfisher. We were out of luck with Kingfisher but all three of us got onto a one second view of two Bullfinches flying over the river. This was particularly pleasing, as we had missed Bullfinch altogether last year.

North of the green bridge I wandered off to scan the pool to the east of the river. This could have been a mistake but I got onto the Herring Gull that Paul and Mike found just before it disappeared into the clouds. I picked out a pair of Gadwall on the pool and got the others onto it. As we headed back to the car we picked up Dunnock and Blue Tit; two birds that hadn?t been seen by the whole team earlier on. We still hadn?t seen a Kingfisher so we had a quick look at Sandford Lake but drew a blank. Had we not seen Egyptian Goose at Moor Green we would have checked Black Swan Lake but decided it wasn?t worth bothering with. This was a little unfortunate as at least one other team had a Little Gull there.

Our next destination was Burnthouse Lane and we wanted to be there for 8:20 as a lot of the waders seen there move on quite early. We were running slightly behind schedule as it was 8:21 when we ticked Blue Tit at Lavell`s. On route to Theale we ticked a calling House Sparrow from the car at Winnersh, a Kestrel at Lower Earley, Feral Pigeon at junction 11 of the M4, and Swallow at Grazeley. We arrived at Burnthouse Lane at 8:55. A Shelduck on the spit was immediately obvious and almost simultaneously Paul picked out a Dunlin as we all heard a Linnet fly over. Two minutes later I found a female Wheatear and Paul found a Ringed Plover.

All three hirrundaines, plus swift were hawking over Pingewood and provided a quick succession of ticks. Mike got onto a large raptor sat in a tree at the very back of the pit. Paul couldn?t see it and nor could I but in looking for it I noticed a female Red-crested Pochard on the water right in front of the tree in question. Paul and Mike soon got onto the Pochard but when we turned our attention back to the tree the mystery raptor had apparently disappeared.

A small group of Black-headed Gulls flew over shortly followed by our only Sparrowhawk of the day which luckily we all got onto before it disappeared into Pingewood. A Little Grebe was on the middle pit. As we were driving along Burnthouse Lane Paul called a Buzzard sat in a tree. I stopped the car and quickly got onto the bird but despite presumably looking straight at it Mike didn?t see it. After what seemed like minutes, but was probably seconds the bird flew and Mike finally saw it.

We decided to have a quick look at Burnthouse Lane North where a White-fronted Goose had been for the previous couple of days. It wasn?t that we thought it was particularly wild but knowing that Richard Crawfords team had counted what was presumably the same bird last year we felt we had better see it. Unfortunately there was no sign of the bird although we did tick Greylag Goose.

Our next scheduled stop was Moatlands but we made a quick stop on route to check Field Farm and Burghfield Mill. Neither was very productive but the Mill gave us our first Reed Warbler of the day. Moatlands was a little quiet but Paul pointed out an Oystercatcher (probably our best "find" of the day) and there was also a Lesser Whitethroat singing near the viewing spit. Two Egyptian Geese were on the island, one with a white head; surely not the same birds we saw at Moor Green earlier? As we returned to the car we met John Andrews team who had recorded a Marsh Harrier over Moor Copse!

Our next stop was a Firecrest site that Mike had discovered last year. I saw two birds there last year and got brief views of a non-singing bird when I checked it a few weeks before the race. Mike had also been there recently and heard one bird singing but didn?t see it. It looked like it may not be a quick stop and it wasn?t. In fact it took us forty-five minutes but we did eventually get reasonable views of a bird singing from the top of a birch tree. We also recorded our only Cuckoo of the day.

We arrived at Theale Main Pit at 11:15 and promptly ticked Nightingale. There was no sign of the Turtle Dove and neither was there anything of any interest on the pit. Hosehill produced two target species: Ruddy Duck and Pochard and one bonus bird: Common Sandpiper. At 11:36 we were on 99 species. What was to be species number 100 and would we get it before midday?

Aware that we hadn?t seen a Treecreeper we made another unscheduled stop along Bottom Lane. Paul had seen a pair there very recently and I had seen birds there in the past. We gave it ten minutes and were just about to leave when my "bird caller keyring" tempted a bird into view. It was our hundredth bird and we saw it just before midday at 11:45. We carried on along Bottom Lane and stopped by the gate to scan the floods next to the road but there was no sign of the Green Sandpipers that had been seen there recently. We parked at the house along Bottom Lane and walked along the public footpath towards the canal to view the main flood. Having been unable to find any Wigeon or Shoveler this was our best chance but unfortunately it didn?t deliver. However, I did find our only Hobby of the day flying over the south floods.

Our next stop was to be Combe Wood but we decided to have a quick look at Englefield for partridges. I did pick out a small group of Red-legged. This was a little disappointing as although they were new birds for the day they would be easy on the downs and Grey wouldn?t. Even so it was one less bird to look for later. We turned back to head towards the M4 and Combe Wood but decided on a change of plan and go to the downs first for Red Kite, skip Compton and get Corn Bunting at the Jubilee River and skip Lower Farm hence freeing up more time to get Parakeet at Wraysbury and leave an hour at Theale. It was a big gamble but we felt it was worth it although I had reservations about skipping Lower Farm.

We stopped on the downs at a site where I had said I could guarantee Red Kite. It was a frustrating few minutes before Mike picked one out in the distance that eventually flew across the valley below us giving good views. It was a Berks tick for Paul but the two wing tags did lessen its wildness somewhat. However, it didn?t matter as we had another four birds; at least one of which was untagged.

We didn?t want to leave the downs without getting Grey Partridge so stopped at a site overlooking the valley where I had seen both species of partridge before. There were several Red-legged plus a couple more Kites. After about ten minutes I picked out a distant partridge that I felt was a Grey but it was difficult to see through the heat haze. We all trained our scopes on the bird that eventually adjusted its position to show its dark belly and clinch it as a Grey.

It was a long drive from the downs to Combe Wood and it was just over an hour before we ticked our next bird, Nuthatch at 14:34. I had guaranteed Nuthatch and Marsh and Willow Tit so the pressure was on. However, as we reached the top of the hill we all heard a Marsh Tit call. I was confident that a particular corner of the wood would produce Willow Tit and sure enough after a couple of minutes "squeaking" my keyring a pair called and then showed themselves.

As we returned to the car we met Derek Barkers team who were looking uncomfortably confident and even claimed to have been every where and seen everything and were just wasting some time at Combe. Mike thought they were bluffing but it made me feel particularly uneasy.

Our original plan was to go back to my house in Caversham at about midday so Mike could pick up his car and do the driving for the rest of the day. However, with time at a premium this would have disrupted our plans immensely and besides I felt fine at the time. However, by the time we left Combe at about 15:00, and despite drinking several cans of Red Bull, I didn?t feel fine at all. In fact, I was knackered!

As we headed towards Newbury along the A4 I made a last suggestion that we should go to Lower Farm. However, the consensus was that if we went to Lower Farm we wouldn?t have any time to dash around Theale. We later discovered that there had been a Little Gull there all day plus Wigeon and Snipe so we could have added another three to our total.

It had been my suggestion to skip Compton earlier on in the day as I promised that there would be singing Corn Buntings at the Jubilee River. To my relief two birds were jangling away as we arrived at the site. The usual plovers were on the scrapes but there weren?t any waders that we hadn?t seen earlier. However, Paul found the first of two good late birds with a superb summer plumaged male Whinchat perched on a fence post. The Wheatear he found shortly afterwards was another good find but we had already had one at Burnthouse Lane.

The Whinchat was number 109 and we knew we had a guaranteed tick in the form of Ring-necked Parakeet at Wraysbury. It was only another twenty minutes to Wraysbury and we headed straight to Magna Carta Lane. I think Paul was the only one to see the Parakeet perched at the very top of a large oak but Mike and I both heard it. It was bird 110 at 17:25 leaving us nearly an hour to potter round Theale and maybe pick up a passage wader or the elusive Turtle Dove at Main Pit.

Back at Theale our first stop was Burnthouse Lane where we managed to tick the White-fronted Goose for "insurance purposes". There was nothing else to add on the pits so we headed over to Moatlands. It was at Moatlands where Paul pulled another late bonus bird out of the bag with an Arctic Tern. There had been a great deal of debate over a possible Arctic Tern at Moatlands a few weeks before so we wanted photographic evidence of this bird. Unfortunately the bird only stayed still for one shot and managed to position itself in such a way as to hide every single diagnostic feature. As it happened, other teams recorded Arctic Tern at Burnthouse Lane so there wasn?t any debate as to its identity.

With ten minutes to go we raced back to the finishing point at the Fox and Hounds pub at Theale, making an unsuccessful stop to listen for Turtle Dove on the way. Surprisingly the results didn?t filter through to us before the official announcement so it wasn?t till then that we discovered we had won. Owing to a mix-up over whether we had counted the White-fronted Goose in our total our score was reported as 110 when it was actually 111. Naturally, we were extremely pleased to have won and can put our success down to meticulous planning and a lot of luck although we would also like to think some degree of birding skill was involved.

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