Wednesday 5 January 2022

Yorkshire Bird Race - Terriers on Bikes!

This year's Mike Clegg Memorial Yorkshire Bird Race was, like last year, to be non-motorised. This suited me fine due to my aim to cut down on my driven birding miles in '22. Half of the Yorkshire Terriers - Rich Baines and me - decided to don our helmets and saddle up to ride around the north end of the Lower Derwent Valley. Unlike last year's icy fiasco, this year's race would take place in strangely clement conditions, with temperatures in double figures and under crisp, sunny skies: perfect for some biking action. 

We strode out into the darkness at Allerthorpe Common, realising we were a bit too late for Woodcocks and Long-eared Owls, as the skies were lightening rapidly as a crystal-clear dawn broke in the east. It was cool, as always, to hear our avian neighbours wake up, greet the day and go about their business. Robins, followed by Blackbirds, then an unexpected Bullfinch, flyover Carrion Crows and early-rising Woodpigeons. Distantly, a Tawny Owl gave it one last blast before retiring. Good numbers of Redwings tseeped overhead, the mild weather keeping lots in the York area this winter. A Redpoll was a welcome addition to the list, as were a small party of Siskins moments later. As we reached the eastern end of the pinewoods, a wheeze from a Brambling took us both by surprise, as did the dozen or so more, that got up from their roost in the pines and headed off over the heath. 

Clambering the fence into the YWT reserve, I regretted not putting on my wellies as the ground was wet and I was sure there would be a Jack Snipe lurking somewhere in the wetter areas. Common Snipe erupted as I made my way gingerly around the driest edge of the marsh (I still got wet feet); Rich counted 31, a great record for here. A Barn Owl took umbridge to my close approach to its nest box and glared out briefly, before flying out to another roost site. Sorry mate!

Stock Doves, Fieldfares and a Treecreeper crept on to the swelling list as we made our way back to the road under pungent pines. I was desperate not to leave without Marsh Tit, as I felt we wouldn't find suitable habitat again. We walked back up the main ride and a pair of Great Tits heralded the arrival of a small mixed flock. Long-tailed Tits and Blue Tits bounced past, followed miraculously by a dapper Marsh Tit, sneezing its call loudly in the dawn air. Nice. 

Three geese headed past as we got to the edge of the wood - Pinks? No, despite the dark necks, the bright orange beaks and bill bands, dark flanks and deeper calls revealed them to be Tundra Bean Geese! A massive bonus tick and the first of the winter for me. They headed southwest, presumably towards Thornton Ellers. I dashed across the road to get a view, but could not get back on them; a Red Kite was a good consolation, as was our first Buzzard of the day.

This was a great start. Now for some biking. Rich managed to put his helmet on back to front, demonstrating how frequently he cycles these days (see pic!)....We headed off into the bright sunshine towards Thornton, scanning the fields for partridges, buntings and the like. Large flocks of Fieldfares stalked the fields for worms, whilst Lapwings flopped across in the distance and nearby, two Pied Wagtails worked a flash in the middle of some winter wheat. We headed down Field Lane for Corn Bunting, and sure enough, near a cover strip, several of these bulky buntings were bumbling around crackling like electricity. A large flock of Linnets were seen with several Greenfinches, Yellowhammers and our only Meadow Pipit of the day. A large skein of Pink-footed Geese dropped south towards the Ellers - perhaps the Tundra Beans were with them, but they were a bit too far off to tell.

Back to Thornton where a Mistle Thrush was closely followed by a melee of Tree Sparrows on the farm bird feeders, bringing up the 50, and then south, to Melbourne. We detoured again, down to the reedbed east of Church Bridge, to listen for Cetti's Warblers. Sadly, nothing sang from the reedbed that swayed like the sea in the increasingly strong wind, but a Grey Wagtail called from near the bridge as we returned to the road, which was a definite bonus.

Heading west through Melbourne, we bumped into Neil Cooper - a birder tick! Neil advised us that he had heard a Cetti's in the very same reedbed earlier (doh!) and had also seen a Kingfisher nearby. It would be long gone sadly so there was no point chasing after it. We were certainly not guaranteed to find one during the day. In fact, Kingfisher was one of the commonest species we missed during our Yorkshire Big Day in 2019. 


Over Hagg Bridge and Rich picked a random spot for a rest under the guise of scanning for farmland birds! This proved to be successful as he picked up a couple of partridges sunbathing in front of a hedge. I dragged the scope out of the panier and identified them as Red-legs, as expected. Just need to find some Greys next. Into Sutton-on-Derwent and the next brief pause revealed our first Kestrel of the day and a flyover Great Spotted Woodpecker. Things were ticking along nicely.

Shortly things went weird for a moment! We stopped near the church just across from the river as we thought it might be good for Song Thrush, which so far had eluded us. Rich suddenly shouted 'Teal' and as this would be our first duck of the day, I looked up to see a small, pale, thin-necked duck heading over. That was no Teal - Goosander sprang to mind and lips, before Rich binned my suggestion and called 'Smew!'. I got my bins on it as the bird turned revealing a nice white cheek in a chestnut head. It swang south down the river and away past the church, leaving us punching the air and beaming. Smew, number 60. 

We now had a tough ride over the river, through Elvington and south to Wheldrake. The wind made the ride hard, but we agreed we'd reward ourselves with a pint at the Wenlock Arms pub in the village (we were clearly taking the race very seriously!). After a tough struggle, I was dismayed to find the pub shut! Nevermind, the village shop was open, so plan B swang into action. Apart from a disappointing lack of pies and pasties, I did secure a pack of mini pork pies and two bottles of Punk IPA. Perfect. Minutes later, we toasted our day from the top of the platform at Bank Island, whilst scoffing pork pies and adding our first real selection of wetland species to our list. A Marsh Harrier caused panic among the ducks, and a distant first-winter Great Black-backed Gull flapped onto the list at number 70. 

With full bellies and light hearts, we made our way down to Wheldrake Ings, where we bumped into a couple of fellow bird race teams. Just then, a Kingfisher whistled as it shot down the Derwent, unblocking that jynx. From the Tower Hide, we added Ruff, but frustratingly the regular pair of Stonechats had decided to do a bunk. A Willow Tit helpfully called along the riverbank before we bumped into James Robson who had just seen the Dusky Warbler in the reedbed near Swantail Hide. So it was still here! I have more than a little affection for this diminutive Sibe, so I was keen we add it to our bird race list. It would be the rarest bird we've ever recorded on the Mike Clegg bird race too. Unfortunately, it had vanished by the time we got down there, so I got back into bird race mode, quickly nailing Redshank, Water Rail and Little Grebe. A handful of smart Goldeneyes shone in the afternoon sun, bringing real character to the winter scene. At this point we realised the day was ebbing away, so we needed to make sure we hadn't missed any obvious species. Reed Bunting was one and amazingly, Moorhen was another! Surely not!

Shortly, Chris Gomersall called to say their team had refound the Dusky! Great - we shot down the boardwalk and with ears peeled locked on to the sharp tack of the little warbler as it furtively crept about in the back of the willow copse. Good work lads! We waited a while but there was no chance we would see it so decided to wander back to Tower Hide for the gull roost. A large flock of waders and gulls burst up from the refuge - there must be a raptor! I quickly picked up a falcon high up, causing the Lapwings to bunch together in panic - a male Peregrine. He hurtled southeast but not before Rich managed to pick it up - great! Number 85. Chris and co shouted to say they were watching a Merlin from further along the path. What?! Surely my ID wasn't that bad? As it turned out the Merlin had gone through low as the Peregrine had cruised off high- the two bird theory in this case was correct. Ollie had even seen both birds. Big smiles all round. A Reed Bunting then flew past calling. Sublime!

Down to Tower and the lads had picked up the regular second-winter Mediterranean Gull and also called an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull heading south. We locked on to both in quick succession. 


As dusk approached, the light failed and it was time to head back to the bridge for the traditional Woodcock ending. No Moorhens called as we went along the river. Unbelievable! The three teams gathered at the bridge - Chris, Ollie, Tim and Jack; Duncan, Jane and Rob, and ourselves. Sure enough, within a few minutes, Chris called Woodcock, but only Ollie got on it. Tense minutes past and then another Woodcock followed closely by two more flew over. Excellent! I checked the list, it looked like we were going to end on 89, unless we heard a Moorhen as we made our way along the river and back to Bank Island. Sadly, the local Moorhens were quiet. Rich even tried to play the call on his phone, just for pure craziness of trying to tape lure one of our commonest wetland birds. It didn't work. We settled with 89, it had been an excellent day in great company, with some great bonuses and adding Dusky Warbler to our bird race list was fantastic. It had been really good fun, raising money for Yorkshire's Turtle Doves and seeing lots of birders out enjoying birding in the York area - superb! 


As it turned out, I had once again under-counted by two, as our total turned out to be 91! Chris and co notched up an impressive 97 and once again won the Yorkshire Bird Race in fine style. To my amazement we came second, despite missing Moorhen and several other common species (Whooper Swan, Goosander, Little Owl, Grey Partridge, Green Woodpecker, Stonechat, Nuthatch etc), having cycled 22 KM and walked a further 16 KM. Not bad for two old gits!

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