2005 Berkshire Bird Race

Bruce Archer

With Chris Robinson resorting to his bike this year, Tim Ball came in to join John Lerpiniere and Bruce Archer for the 2005 TABCG Bird Race. A planning session before John went off to Estonia and a bit of reconnoitering by Tim and Bruce lead to a realistic schedule being drawn up that had us back in the Theale area before 5pm. Previous years experience was that we never had enough time in the county's top birding area.

The team met up at the Fox & Hounds at 23:20 and after loading up we set off in Tim's car. The schedule called for a midnight start on the Downs for Stone Curlew. So, in the best tradition of Bird Racing, we headed off in the opposite direction for our sure-fire Barn Owl location. After 15mins there with no sign of Owls, we reverted to the original plan and headed for the Downs.

On route we could not resist stopping at another Barn Owl site and struck lucky with a sighting of a hunting Owl. Other stops for Tawny and Little Owls were not productive. The brisk north-westerly wind was no deterrent to us, but perhaps it was to the Stone Curlew because we did not hear bird sound of any kind on the Downs. With no choice but to push on and try to catch up later, we headed for Thatcham. Arriving at 01:30, behind schedule and with a count of one - quality rather than quantity was our consolation. After collecting a few common species we came upon the continuous reeling of a Grasshopper Warbler - this immediately improved the night schedule by avoiding a planned trip to Lavell's. We failed to collect Cetti's Warbler and Water Rail, the latter being a long shot.

Making our way across county, we stopped at likely locations and collected Tawny Owl before arriving at Swinley Forest. A mid-week pre-visit had failed to locate any Nightjar, but we soon heard two calling and later briefly churring as we searched for, and found Woodcock. During the entire visit, a Tree Pipit was belting away.

Wishmoor yielded several common species and all the usual heathland specialties, including 4 Redstart, and oddly 2 Grey Heron flying over. Sadly, no Crossbills or Redpoll this year, but we did stumble upon a couple of Siskin, and heard another Tawny Owl.

On the way to Moor Green we picked up, among others, Mistle Thrush and best of all a Sparrowhawk flashing across the road in front of the car, the first of 4 seen during the day. Kingfisher, Snipe and Wheatear were the highlights at Moor Green along with the expected Mandarin Duck, but missing the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker on the bulrushes by about 10 minutes was a definite low.

On route to Jubilee River, Tim slapped on the breaks as he spotted a Little Owl on a telegraph pole beside the road, the first of 3 seen during the day. We also collected Buzzard and Kestrel along the motorway. The lack of shelter from the wind at Jubilee River hampered things, but a calling R-N Parakeet flying over was our key target species in the bag along with Herring and LBB Gulls.

Running about an hour behind schedule and with a count of 80, we headed for our daylight visit to the Downs. By concentrating on the sheltered areas, we eventually gathered our target species: Corn Bunting, Grey Partridge and Curlew. We left for Combe without R-L Partridge, Meadow Pipit and Stone Curlew.

A serendipitous stop by a river bridge on route collected Grey Wagtail and a pair of R-L Partridges in the middle of the road as we dropped down into Combe valley kept up the enthusiasm required for the long trek to Combe Wood. About a mile from the car, with talk of turning back, we eventually heard Willow Tit, Marsh Tit and L-T Tit in quick succession. "Three tits together" remarked someone, which immediately became the unofficial team name. An overdue Greenfinch tick and a useful Treecreeper kept us going on the return trek.

As we came off Combe Hill, we looked down on a Red Kite - all our raptor ticks were collected on the move. Lower Farm served us well with a bonus Teal, Ruddy Duck and a few others, but the previously reported Dunlin and Yellow Wagtail were not to be seen.

We were now in catch up mode. A much abbreviated visit to Greenham Common collected Meadow Pipit, but the quick visit to Bowden Wood failed to get Nuthatch. A revisit to Thatcham for Cetti's Warbler also added Nightingale.

Woolhampton failed to turn up anything new on a brief visit, so on to Theale now pretty much back on schedule with a score of 100 and 2 hours to go. The expected Greylag were on Bottom Lane, but no sign of Spotted Flycatcher or Nuthatch. Even a piece of cheese and onion pasty on the bird table failed to attack anything other than a passing glance from a Marsh Tit. Reed Warbler at Hosehill filled a gap.

As we grabbed scopes from the car at Burnthouse Lane a chorus of "Yesss" rang out in response to the rattle of a Lesser Whitethroat in the hedge nearby. This completed our full set of Warblers; the Dunlin on the pit was an unexpected bonus. Searle's Farm Lane provided the Red-crested Pochard and a Common Sandpiper hiding behind a Tufted Duck at Moatlands got us to 106. A dash to the finish line meant we did not have time to catch an evening Hobby and possibly a Turtle Dove at Hosehill.

We were amazed to find we had the winning score given the results of previous years. We can only presume that the windy conditions caused problems for those teams with tight schedules and lots of pre-arranged targets. Our experience was that the pre-arranged excursions for Barn Owl and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker took up time and failed to deliver. We basically found all our birds on the day at traditional sites, we found nothing rare and very few uncommon birds, Nuthatch was our only common bird missed, and we never did go back for Stone Curlew by daylight. A satisfactory day.

© 2005 Bruce Archer

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