Wednesday 6 January 2021

Ice Road Birding: The Mike Clegg Memorial Bird Race 2021


It was to be an unusual Mike Clegg Memorial Yorkshire Bird Race this year. Due to Covid restrictions, the only way the race could take place was if we avoided the use of cars, to reduce the risk of virus transmission. Therefore, the new rules allowed you to take part on foot, or by bike. This conferred another benefit of course, of being far better for the environment. Teams of one were permitted, so this was what I opted to do. 

This year we were/are raising money to buy satellite tags to put on Hen Harriers in order to be able to track this species which is being heavily persecuted by criminals working for shooting estates. 


With snow and ice in the previous days, I was a little apprehensive as I set foot outside into the dark and cold pre-dawn. Sure enough, the pavements and road outside my door were coated with a veneer of transparent evil: black ice! This was going to make cycling 'interesting'. My plan was to try and nail a few tricky birds which I knew to be in and around Bishopthorpe and then head east along the York to Selby Cycletrack to Riccall and then the Lower Derwent Valley.

First up, Grey Partridge. There is a small population of this much-declined gamebird just south of the village and they frequently call just as the first suggestion of dawn is made in the eastern sky. Sure enough, within a moment or two of arriving at the site, the characteristic creaky sneeze of a Grey Partridge added itself on to my list in third place, behind Robin and Blackbird. 

The view at dawn from the cycletrack at Bishopthorpe (on a nice day!).


I headed down the cycletrack to the iron bridge over the River Ouse, keeping my ears peeled for Little Owl, or anything else interesting. This is where my plans started to falter. The cycletrack was like a skating rink! I could not walk on it without nearly falling flat on my face. I pushed my bike on to the verge and struggled along the frozen muddy grass. I had five and a half miles of this to do to reach Riccall - no chance! It then began to sleet. Doh! Not to be deterred, I slipped and slid to the bridge. Within moments, a Kingfisher whistled as it hurtled upriver. Class. Not a guaranteed bird on bird race day. Two minutes later and the excited call of a Grey Wagtail drew my attention as it bounded overhead, wingbars flashing. Another really good bird and one that I often miss, despite being widespread round here. Redpolls and Siskins called overhead and Teal peeped from the flooded ings. The wintering Chiffchaff was 'hweeting' by the sewage works, still surviving despite the bitter conditions. As is often the case, wildlife lifted my spirits and I felt ready to take this on.

Next up, the Archbishop of York's palace grounds. I cycled up the road which was mostly ice free as it had been gritted. I arrived to find a tit flock bustling around the woodland edge, which gave me Long-tailed, Coal, Blue and Great. Right on cue, my target, a Nuthatch added its liquid voice to the melee. There was little else I was likely to find here, so I headed home. Apart from Little Owl and Goosander, I had nailed all my early targets, so full of renewed enthusiasm, I picked up my scope and bags and headed east. My wife and kids just looked at me as if I was barmy...

News came through that birding mate Adam had fallen on ice and broken his scope- nightmare! There was no way I could risk the cycletrack. A new plan was hastily made, to bike along the back roads, through Naburn to Stillingfleet and then on to the A19, where I could gun down to Barlby and then turn for North Duffield. This would add a few miles on to my journey, but at least I might arrive in one piece!

The ride was hard but the road was fine and I added Skylark, Corn Bunting, Yellowhammer, Mistle Thrush and Bullfinch to my tally. All good birds on bird race day. As I went up and over the cycletrack near Escrick I made a snap decision to drop down on to the cycletrack as I just didn't fancy a long ride on the busy and fast A19. Getting on was not easy! The access ramp was like an ice slide, my bike overtook me and I had to drop it. It rapidly slipped down the steep slope and into the brambles at the bottom. I looked away and couldn't help a little giggle. I then traipsed through the brambles - the only safe descent- to retrieve it from the bottom. I was hoping the rain would have thawed some of the ice, but apparently not. I headed slowly east along the ice road towards Riccall on a deserted track: no Sunday morning joggers or bikers today. Near Riccall, I met a lone dog walker who told me to watch out for the ice as she'd already fallen over three times!

The ice road to Riccall

By sticking close to the edge of the track I was in a good place to fall on to the grass, or even better get some tyre purchase if I began to slide. This tactic worked well and I limped into Riccall without a disaster. The rain stopped adding to the relief I felt as I finally rolled out on to the grippy surface of the A19. At last! Another mile up the road, I hung a left and then headed up the road to North Duffield ('just' four more miles). Sadly, there were no gulls near the airfield which I was hoping for to give me an excuse for a rest and maybe add a few good birds to my list. 

Ticking off Whooper Swans just past North Duffield Carrs, I u-turned and went back to the reserve. A check of my watch showed I'd done 15 miles already, not too bad, but I was feeling shattered. The three birders in the hide hadn't seen much of note but there was still plenty of species I'd not seen yet to be ticked off. 

I checked a small flock of Teal resting on the ice a few hundred metres away and was gobsmacked to see the vertical white breast stripe of a Green-winged Teal sitting among them! Kapow! A nice chestnut and green head lacking any yellow borders, uniform dark grey flanks- all spot-on. Ironically, on the bird race list it counted no more than the Wigeon it was sitting next to! You'd think it would be worth two at least...

Green-winged Teal among its Euro cousins.

I put the news out and carried on birding. Pintail, Stonechat, Marsh Harrier, Golden Plover, Ruff, Redshank, Dunlin, Shelduck and an unexpected Willow Tit on the feeders next to the hide, were all welcome additions to my growing list. 

Time was getting on, so having taken on some energy and running out of birds to tick, I took to the saddle again, heading back to North Duff, then up the road to Skipwith. The ride was lucrative, with two different Marsh Tits and Great Spotted Woodpecker being the highlights. 

Up the road to Thorganby and I really hit the wall. I don't think I'd eaten enough at the Carrs to replenish my lost calories and I felt pretty shaky. I stopped for a Tunnocks caramel wafer and a quick drink. This gave me a boost on to the village, where I had lunch proper, whilst scoping the ings. Three Pink-footed Geese were on the floodbank, but I couldn't find any White-fronts or Barnacles. I moved on to the Thorganby platform and another 65ish Pinks flew over, heading north. 

 No sign of the regular Little Owl here, sadly, so I moved on to Bank Island and hooked up with Duncan Bye. The next two hours were enjoyable and relaxing birding at Bank and overlooking Wheldrake Ings which was teeming with birds. 

Sadly flooding prevented access and no doubt cost me a few extra species. Nevertheless, I added on about ten more species, with a female Goosander flying north being an unexpected highlight along with a gorgeous Barn Owl which emerged from its roost early.

I was too exhausted to ride the eight miles back to Bishopthorpe so rang Vicky to come and rescue me, for which I was very grateful! I ended the day on 86 species, which equalled my previous solo effort in the York area, but that was done with a car. The Young Upstarts (Chris Gomersall, Tim Jones, Ollie Metcalfe and Jack Ashton-Booth) put in an impressive effort riding 33 miles and recording 96 species - really brilliant!

I missed several 'easy' birds, partly due to the freezing conditions and partly due to a lack of time and energy!! It was great fun nevertheless and collectively we have raised over £5,000 for Hen Harriers - brilliant. Big thanks to all the messages of support I received during the day and to all the people who donated to such a worthy cause.

Same again next year?

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