Tuesday 10 January 2012

The Mike Clegg BirdRace 2012 - the real story Part one

As I traipsed through the dark along a muddy riverbank with three sombre blokes trying to flush a usually common, but of late (well, today) a very elusive bird,  I did begin to wonder that I should have taken up surfing

At 7am I answered the phone to an amazingly calm John saying that he had had a blow out in his truck on the A1. Yuk! Poor bloke and not the best start to his day or the teams' birdrace. With short days and short attention spans, time is key so losing an hour or so wouldn't be good, especially when John was our Johnny Marr and we needed him to find all the good stuff.

As a valid team member myself, naturally I headed out to pin down some difficult species before Russ and Andy came to pick me up as I floundered helpless or rather, transportless in Bish. In reality, I decided to have a nap and a cup of tea. On realising this would look a bit naff, I downed the cuppa and headed down the river, where I soon met up with the guys and the race was on!

Sadly, Russ hadn't washed the landy. Don't you know image is everything here in posh Bish?!

Andy on the landy

We were all over some difficult birds early on - Kingfisher, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Goosander and our only Pochard of the day, hanging with the Tufties down on Church Ings. Failed to persuade Russ and Andy that we could go back to mine for a brew, so we headed down to Askham Bog for some Woodcock and Tit action.

Despite my inability to identify calling Willow Tit (far easier than a non-calling Willow Tit) one metre from my head (that noise was my birding cred evaporating) was rectified a little by flushing a Woodcock from the exact spot where I said it would be. A quick drop into Moor Lane Pond revealed the sought Great Crested Grebe and a lot of odd glances from papershop-heading locals - and another Goosander (I really should check this spot more often). I attempted to tempt the guys with Tesco's cafe but they had wills of iron, so instead we headed into the vale looking for partridges, buntings and 'hammers, generally with great success. However, our tour of the York area's sewage treatment works began, with a rewarding visit to Naburn's plant, which stank and did not hold a Grey Wagtail. This site really was the mother of all sewage works, although the beauty at Elvington came a close second.

We did fairly well in the countryside, less well in Escrick Park, though a briefly calling Nuthatch gave itself up somewhere in the slums (joke) of Escrick village. If Russ hadn't have been checking his Facebook page again, he might have even heard it himself! By now, JB had got to Bank Island and was in full flow, nailing Marsh Harrier, Grey Wag and even a possible Rough-legged Buzzard near the oddly-named Cheesecake Farm (though we couldn't count any of these for the list). We, on the other hand were struggling to identify geese in the middle of nowhere, along the Escrick - Wheldrake road. We named them as everything, before John rang to inform us of their identity.

Shortly after 8.30, well, 11.15, the LDV race team finally came together. We were doing well, with some good species under our belt. The 'String Quartet' (Ollie Metcalf, Tim Jones, Chris Gomersall, Jack Ashton-Booth) informed us that they were having a belting time, and seemed to be just ahead of us in terms of species they had seen. And I think looks might have been on their side too...

From L to R: Andy Walker, Jono Leadley, John Beaumont, Russell Slack

We briefly saw John's cheesecake buteo which face-on looked pretty good for a rough-leg, being very pale with a sharply-demarcated solid black belly. Nice one. Sadly, when it flew the tail just wasn't right. It cleared off and we had to leave it. The Grey Wag put in another appearance flying on to Wheldrake sewage works (next to Bank Island) but Andy was checking his ample beard out and I was trying not to get run over by some Sunday birders and so only Russ and John connected. Hurrah, we would have to visit some more sewage works!

Off we pootled round the LDV checking out our well-reccied sites* (* not at all) for Jack Snipe (missed), various geese (not there) and a total of 34 different sewage works and 19 canal lock systems for Grey Wagtail. Sadly, the Grey Wagtail plague has clearly killed them all and we found nothing. Highlight was getting the 4 wheel drive landy stuck in a field. Oops.

I was anxiously wanting to get back on the 'right' side of the valley (the west side) and back to Wheldrake Ings, where I knew our list would get a good boost. However, I hadn't counted on the LDV duck hit squad being out with their canon and consequently once on site we realised that everything I had seen here yesterday had flown to Lancashire. So, no Redshank, no Golden Plover, no Curlew - sorry, there was some Curlew - and no Goldeneye - at least not until dusk anyway. Things began to hit a spirit ditch and we were all feeling pretty glum, having been confident we could really get a good total. This was exacerbated by the young 'uns who by now had beaten the previous record of 86 and were rapidly approaching 90! Doh! Good on them though we all agreed, and there was no note of sour grapes on our part at all. Oh no, none...

It was left to eagle-eyed Walker to pull a couple of  really unexpected and equally scarce LDV Short-eared Owls out of the bag to lift our spirits. Great views, followed moments later by a Barn Owl, then a calling Tawny Owl, then a squealing Water Rail (which could have actually been the noise made by long-abandoned stomach). The race was back on!

It got dark. Still no Redshank. We joked about whether we could tick Goldeneye on their distinctive wing-noise. Moments later, the whistling wing noise of passing Goldeneye helped us make the right decision! We ran into the Pool Hide where Andy and Russ were pointing into the gloom. Modern bins are fantastic and I could make out the white bodies and black heads of a pair of drake Goldeneye and could even hear their excited calls as they displayed to some unseen females. Nice! A quick tally and we were on 90! Awesome. Radio silence from now on lads. Our friends and rivals had called it a day on 90, despite still having a chance with Water Rail to get to 91. We still had a chance of Redshank in the dark on Thorganby river bank and Little Owl surely was a dead cert in the lanes around the area. So 92 was possible and a glorious victory to boot!

Round and round the lanes we drove, Andy burning the retinas out of dog walkers, their dogs, rabbits and passing motorists, with a second world war searchlight. Bemused farmers and passers by must have assumed we were lamping - for squirrels. Despite the perfect conditions, the hordes of Little Owls that usually terrorise the worms and beetles in these parts had agreed to all have a lie-in and we failed to get even a sniff. So we decided to try walking the River Derwent bank to try and flush a Redshank.

Birdracing is wierd as despite being incredibly aware of the passing of time and the loss of daylight,
your complete focus really affects your sense of reality and by dark, it felt like 10pm, rather than 5.30pm.

As I walked through the dark, I reflected on what a great day I had had with a bunch of people I didn't really know until recently and what camaraderie and fun we had shared, despite numerous set backs in pursuit of a bunch of birds. I was thrilled that we had got such a good total, but frustrated knowing we could have easily got 5 or 6 more, had we have been a little luckier. Surely 100 must be possible in the York area in January? And the good thing about all this is the money will help pay for some conservation work at a local birding site - great. So we all shook hands and went our separate ways. A great day and some cracking birding at some great sites and in great company. Who said birding sucked?

And we never did find a Redshank along that riverbank...

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