2003 Berkshire Bird Race

Fraser Cottington

My team comprised of ?Dinton Old Boys? Andrew Johnson and Adam Bassett, who in my opinion are top quality birders, veteran racers whom I have won a race with before, they know their stuff, are quick at getting on birds and know their calls.

I did check more sites this year and part of my mind said I didn?t care if we won, as long as we beat Marek?s team, but I did want to win and really thought we had a plan that would ensure we did. I believe that if you are serious about winning, then you HAVE to start at midnight.

After some deliberation and an 02:30 visit to Thatcham on my part the previous morning, I had my doubts that a midnight start here was the best option to go for, but I bottled it and knowing we would get several species immediately, we decided that starting here would create a good psychological start too. We noted how cold it was and this was affecting the number of night singing birds.

Our first bird was Sedge Warbler 00:00, then Nightingale still 00:00. Not a sound from Cetti?s or Grasshopper Warblers, but added Moorhen, Canada Goose, Mallard, Mute Swan, Coot and Reed Warbler, by the car and all before 00:30.

On to the Greenham area immediately getting Tawny Owl at 00:42, then quickly back to central Berks to attempt for night singing Woodlark and Nightjar, we listened for owls too and got lucky with Little Owl 01:03 & Nightjar 01:04. Things felt good and spirits were high.

Time for the downs, where it felt even colder, but we connected with Stone Curlew pretty quickly at 01:34 and with the exception of Lapwing 02:01, that was all that called. We did pass another team who said they had heard Whimbrel, we wondered wind up or real? We waited for as long as dared and then went on a blind site-by-site listen for Quail with no luck.

Feeling the tiredness already, we needed a boost and luckily it came in the form of a Barn Owl on a post near to East Ilsley 02:49, all of us saw it and we were pumping adrenalin again. We made a feeble attempt at another Grasshopper Warbler site, failing we did get Robin 03:25, realising we were nearly out of night, we sped back past Thatcham Station, getting Cetti?s Warbler as we drove past at 03:47.

Back to central Berks, for a Woodlark 04:00, several singing near the road, Pheasant 04:13 and after a panic and a very quick drive, we picked up Woodcock 04:18.

I often debate whether it is worth heading to Reading town centre for first light, with so many other bird rich places needing to be visited. We went for it and on the way, picked up Grey Heron, Song Thrush, Wren, Blackbird, Goldcrest & Great Tit, finally getting to our Reading site and seeing as well as hearing Black Redstart at 04:39.

On a quite respectable 27 species, we sped back out of Reading and headed back the way we had come. Hearing Blackcap at traffic lights, we also had Carrion Crow and Rook on the roadside. Our first stop was the Padworth area, where we got Skylark 05:02, then birds were being added very quickly, Cormorant, Chaffinch, Common Tern, Greylag all in a few minutes.

On to the gravel pits, we had Mistle Thrush, Tufted duck, Shelduck, Gadwall, Blue Tit, Greenfinch, Cuckoo & House Sparrow. Leaving we got Magpie on the road. Woolhampton was good value producing an immediate Kingfisher 05:20 and our 45th species. We also added Pied Wagtail, Feral Pigeon, Jackdaw, Goldfinch, Red-legged Partridge, Grey Wagtail, Great Crested Grebe, Whitethroat & Yellowhammer. Time to get to Lower Farm, adding Starling, Collared Dove, Kestrel & Dunnock on the way. 58 species before Lower Farm, I thought was pretty good going.

At Lower Farm we had all we expected, Chiffchaff, Swallow, Little Grebe, Little-ringed Plover, Redshank, Sand Martin, Ringed Plover, Reed Bunting & Great Spotted Woodpecker at 06:00 The previous early morning I had Ruddy Duck, Teal & Snipe, so we looked hard and only got one of them, Teal 06:14, then picking up Linnet & Swift too, putting us on 70.

Next stop Greenham, getting there ahead of the dog walkers being imperative. We added Willow Warbler, Coal Tit, Stock Dove, Garden Warbler, Meadow Pipit, Dartford Warbler, Stonechat, Green Woodpecker, Sparrowhawk, then our only migrant of the day, Yellow Wagtail flew over calling. We then picked up Tree Pipit, Long-tailed Tit & Treecreeper. We were on 83 and felt unstoppable.

We arrived at Hosehill 08:18 and immediately got Black-headed Gull, Herring Gull and Bullfinch, but proceeded to waste nearly another, hour failing to see or hear Turtle Dove or Lesser Whitethroat. This was the first of many occasions when we stayed too long and still failed increase the score. On to Field Farm picking up House Martin 09:16 and a lucky Common Sandpiper.

We had hoped Moatlands would do more, but were still grateful for Jay & Egyptian Goose. Burnt House Lane was calling as it was gone 9.30, we arrived at 09:38, picking up Lesser Black-backed Gull, Hobby, Pochard & Lesser Whitethroat. On to a secret Spotted Flycatcher site, where we also picked up Nuthatch, but is was 10:41, time was starting to slip away.

If we had been ahead of ourselves we would have gone to several other East Berks sites, but we needed to get to a particular gorse and heathland site before the whole place was overrun with people. Redstart showed quick enough 11:45 and Crossbill 12:02, but still cost of an hour. If only we had known there was a Wheatear in the middle, where we didn?t go. Despite Firecrest at 13:47 being our 100th species, it took over an hour and included too much time spent looking and not seeing Siskin or Redpoll, I was becoming very frustrated and the weather was starting to become overcast and colder.

We voted to skip Jubilee river, Datchet reservoir and Slough sewage farm and go on to a drive by Ring-necked Parakeet site, which was no problem 14:23. On to Cold Harbour, we picked up Corn Bunting, Common Buzzard and a very lucky or more like fluky Turtle Dove 14:37.

Well over due to head back West, we missed what we thought was a Red Kite in Reading and got onto the M4. Arriving near to the county boundary, we quickly picked up Curlew 15:36, but nothing else, drizzle making conditions very poor, we skulked huddled near a wood and tried to look confident when Marek?s team showed up. They also left before us and reminded us we should move on, but we moved around looking in vain for Grey Partridge and finally quit, with my temper becoming rather rattled.

We decided we had time for an attempt at Marsh Tit and dismissed Willow Tit as implausible given how late it now was. Arriving after 17:00 we spent nearly a whole hour searching, I finally lost my temper and then decided it was time to go, but just as we left the area, I heard Marsh Tit calling very close to the moving car, adding it 17:50, just over an hour to go, we still needed Mandarin and hoped for the Little Gull that had been lingering at Hosehill. We got Mandarin on the Thames at 18:38 and sped off for Hosehill.

Time to spare, we walked down to the lake edge and saw the Little Gull at 18:53, having discussed the likeliness of the Peregrine being on the pylon, we didn?t look. Another team we spoke to later said it was there at 18:55. (!!!)

We finished on 107 and had bad luck, or poor planning, all afternoon. All the teams had faced a day of virtually zero passage, meaning no extra waders at all. Our main missed birds in the order they were intended, were, Grasshopper Warbler, Long-eared Owl, Ruddy Duck, Snipe, Grey Partridge, Wheatear, Siskin, Red Kite, Montague?s Harrier, Raven, Willow Tit and Peregrine.

We can imagine that ?if only?, but we did manage to beat Marek?s team, although our team agreed that if we had done that little bit more pre race work, we could and probably should have clinched it. Oh well, maybe next year, another great fun and exhausting bird race over. Thanks to my team for working so hard and putting up with me. Well done to everyone that took part.