Three men on a bike...

(well, three bikes actually) - an alternative bird race

Chris Robinson

I enjoy the annual TABCG bird races but even though my main purpose is to raise money for charity I was beginning to develop a guilty conscience about using non-renewable resources (i.e: petrol) for this somewhat frivolous reason, especially as TABCG are supposed to be a conservation organisation.

"How about doing it on foot around the Theale area this year?" I ventured to my team-mates, "Martin Hallam once got over a hundred species doing this at Otmoor and I reckon we could get ninety or so...". "Well, perhaps not this year" they said. "OK, sod you, I'll form another team then..."

By the time the new team (Renton Righelato, Jim Burnett, myself) had taken shape the plan had changed a bit. Firstly we decided that bikes would be more practical and give us more range, although none of us were what you might call "serious" cyclists. We considered our options for routes trying to maximise our species count while minimising our riding miles. We were immediately confronted with problems like finding Stone Curlew (best done by call at night on the Downs) vs Corn Bunting (obviously, only doable by day but probably at the same location) - if we stayed on the Downs to get Corn Bunting we would miss nearly all the other night species but if we left earlier we would only have to return later - uphill!. We considered the idea of using public transport but decided that what we gained in range we would lose in time. We had a dilemma. This, and other conflicts, quickly convinced us that our species tally was inevitably going to have some gaps and there would have to be a trade off between what we would see and how far we were able to travel. Our final choice was a 4 a.m. start at Greenham Common followed by a leisurely (we hoped!) ride eastward along the Kennet and Avon towpath towards Theale taking in the key sites such as Bowdown Woods, Lower Farm and Woolhampton GPs on the way. After arriving in the Theale area we could cover the required pits and Burnthouse Lane and still have 2 hours left to mop up any missing species. Well, that was the plan anyway....!

The one weakness in our "green plan" was that we would have to use vehicles to get into position. Perhaps next year we will devise a way of being totally purist but this time we decided that Renton and I met would meet at the Fox and Hounds at 3.30, leave one vehicle there (for the return to Newbury at the end of the day) and head to Greenham where we would meet Jim who was coming from Hungerford.

Jim was in the carpark when we arrived and informed us that he had already had his first bird, a Tawny Owl calling near by. Needless to say it was now totally silent. We unloaded our bikes, turned on the lights and pushed them through the gate and on to the Common. A Robin sang distantly becoming our first official tick. Oddly, our next bird was a Skylark, singing happily aloft although it was still pitch black. This was followed by a Blackbird calling, then a Redshank. Then Jim called "Nightjar!" - excellent, they had arrived, there had been nothing here when I had checked two days earlier. Tawny Owl was heard by all of us this time and finally, the other "must have" night bird - a Woodcock, grunting quietly as it passed nearby.

It was starting to get light and we rode slowly round the western end of the common and the woods to the south, with the species list slowly building. No sign of the hoped-for Barn Owl but we get Blackcap, Nightingale, Wren, Pheasant, Song Thrush, Great Tit, Willow Warbler, Woodpigeon, Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Chiffchaff, Blue Tit, Garden Warbler, Jay, Magpie, Green Woodpecker, Dunnock. Twenty five - is that all, it's 5.40 already? Don't worry, we don't have to be at Bowdown until 7.30 but where are all the heathland birds? Carrion Crow, Jackdaw, Linnet. Finally Jim spots something moving in the heather. Is it more Linnets? Not sure, they've disappeared. Ah, it's a couple of Woodlarks. We get nice views of one as it moves up into a tree and then a Dartford Warbler obligingly sings behind us. Good, that'll save a search further east. Now where the heck are the Tree Pipits? We head off round the woodland area again and the strange sounding bird heard singing earlier near the silos has now extended its song enough to make it recognisable as the required Tree Pipit. A Cormorant flies over as we head off to the main heath where we find Stonechat, Feral Pigeon (flying over) and Meadow Pipit. A flat-capped head sticking out of the gorse in the distance can only be Gordon Wilson with the Horscroft team but why have they got four people on their team? Ah yes, it's one of Will's cameramen capturing the event for posterity (and an MSc thesis); why does he look so bored and cold I wonder?

We decide (wrongly we learn later) that there are no Wheatears here today and head off for Baynes and Bowdown Woods. We get Lesser Black-backed Gull flying over on the way and are still nearly on schedule. The main target here is Marsh Tit, which we fail to get, but do find Mistle Thrush, Goldcrest, Cuckoo, Treecreeper, Coal Tit, Nuthatch, Long-tailed Tit, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Red-legged Partridge. We meet Robert Godden and his family team. They've just come up from Lower Farm, where we are just going, and give us news of Dunlin and Yellow Wagtail.

We arrive at Lower Farm only ten minutes behind schedule with the species count on 44 and leave an hour later having elevated it to 73. We have added Black-headed Gull, Canada Goose, Common Tern, Coot, Dunlin, Gadwall, Great Crested Grebe, Grey Heron, House Martin, House Sparrow, Lapwing, Little Grebe, Little Ringed Plover, Mallard, Moorhen, Mute Swan, Pied Wagtail, Reed Bunting, Reed Warbler, Ringed Plover, Ruddy Duck, Sand Martin, Shelduck, Starling, Swallow, Swift, Teal, Tufted Duck and Whitethroat. No Yellow Wagtail - never mind we have a site later for them (we hope!). We also have a fleeting visit from Fraser's team, being trailed by Will and his camera, who tick off their target species in about ten minutes flat and exit rapidly. They bring news of a couple of Arctic Terns at Woolhampton so that's something to look forward to.

Thatcham Marsh is next; hardly necessary since we are bound to get Cetti's Warbler further east but a Grasshopper Warbler is supposed to be here so it's worth a look and listen. We don't find it but pick up Collared Dove and, of course, Cetti's. Renton and I hear a Bullfinch but Jim's ear is not tuned in so we can't tick it yet. Now it's time for a bit of serious cycling. We head back to the canal towpath and realise one drawback of birding by bike - they have to be lifted over stiles and gates! Once on the towpath we make reasonably rapid progress to Woolhampton GPs in an attempt to get back on schedule (which fails). On the way we get Lesser Whitethroat, Buzzard and Stock Dove but are getting concerned about the lack of Grey Wagtails - there ought to be one at every lock and weir so where are they?

Woolhampton pits are teeming with Swifts and we spend some time trying to convert Common Terns into Arctics; without convincing success. While we are doing this a Hobby appears, making several passes over the water and we see either this or another bird several more times over the other pits later. A tour round the rest of the lakes does not produce the Pochard reported by Marek a week ago but we add Kingfisher, Yellow Wagtail and Turtle Dove to the list. Jim finally hears a Bullfinch much to everyone's relief. We also get wet in two, thankfully short, downpours but eat our lunch in the sun - a day of climatic variation!

On the way back to the canal we check the Little Owl site with no luck but we have a Plan B for this species so no worry yet. Now we really must find Grey Wagtail and the other major "missing bird" Goldfinch. We finally catch up with the former at Alermaston Wharf but the latter eludes us until Ufton Nervet. We collect Kestrel and Rook on the way bringing the total to 89 and close to the "respectable total" of 90.

It's now mid afternoon and we were supposed to be at Bottom Lane at 1:45. Just as well we have two hours latitude built into the schedule! Bottom Lane gives us Greylag Goose (ninety!) and a bonus of Egyptian Goose which will save us hunting around Theale Main Pit. Still no Marsh Tit though. We have a quick review of the schedule and decide that Burnthouse Lane and Searles Lane are the first essentials since we have two almost certain new species there. Time for some more serious cycling! On the way we have a quick check at Theale Main Pit for terns (nothing) but at Burnthouse Lane we find the desired Little Owl and another Dunlin, despite the yobbos careering all over the embankment in a buggy.

More high(ish) speed cycling follows as we head for Searles Lane, scanning across to the Reading municipal tip on the way. Luckily they seem to be doing some work there today and there are lots of Herring Gulls in the air above it; no Red Kite though.... At Searles Lane, after a short hunt, we find the hoped-for pair of Mandarin and then it's full speed back along the canal to Theale. A moment of panic as we realise that we are heading the wrong way down the towpath, then Chis's telescope strap breaks and it hits the deck with a sickening clatter at about 15mph! No serious damage though and good Boy Scout Renton has the necessary spare shoelace and penknife to make a running repair.

We flash past Cath and Derek's team at the top of Moatlands but it's getting close to the deadline so there's no time to chat. We have allocated five minutes at the Water Ski point to scan for terns and we're in luck - there really are Arctics here! That's ninety five, although at this point we think it's ninety four - keeping a tally on a moving bicycle can be quite challenging!

We started this experiment not knowing if the schedule would work or how difficult "bike birding" would be. In the end it proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable day; our plan worked pretty well and we visited all the sites we had planned to, although we were a little pushed for time towards the end (but who wasn't?!). Total distance travelled during the day, according to Jim's GPS, was 58km. Our total of 95 species for the day was close to prediction and, satisfyingly, was good enough to beat a couple of the "conventional" teams. Next year the target will be 100!

© 2005 Chris Robinson

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