Tuesday 9 January 2018

Dawn 'til Dusk Part Two: Into the Valley

Welcome to the second installment of the Team Nevermind the Woodcocks Mike Clegg Memorial Bird Race adventure. 

First stop, Adam Firth's house in Elvington where we had a tip off that he had Bramblings visiting the feeders in the field behind his house. And sure enough, within a short while, Rich picked up a bird in flight which fortunately landed atop a distant tree allowing us all to get on it. Even better, two birds dropped in much closer in a bush by the feeders, allowing us to gorge on tangerine orange and white and dark chocolate. This was a good species to see as I knew they were thin on the ground round York this winter. Thanks Adam!

Nevermind the Woodcocks at Melbourne, early afternoon.

Next, the valley proper, with our first stop Church Bridge, Melbourne. A stunning Red Kite was  a great spot over the road as we approached the village - nice work Emanuela. Lesser Redpolls were in the Alders near the bridge, just as Craig Ralston had instructed - nice one Craig! But sadly, the ethereal Kingfisher failed to fly along the Canal as we stood atop the delightful humpback bridge. Nearby, our Jack Snipe site from last year also failed to produce anything more than one Common Snipe. Things were starting to go wrong! Down to Field Lane, and things picked up a little with a sizeable flock of Corn Buntings flying around over the kale field, and a good flock of Tree Sparrows jumping in and out of the adjacent hedge. We saw Tundra Bean Geese here last year along with some Pink-feet, but despite our wishing history to repeat itself, we couldn't turn any of the Greylags into anything better.

We had high hopes for East Cottingwith, where we would look over the southern edge of Wheldrake Ings. The water levels were really high but there was a large number of Wigeon and other wildfowl present, so we soon added Shelduck, Pintail and Shoveler. A flock of Ruff flew strongly past, accompanied by some comparatively tiny Dunlin. Rich and me grilled the Wigeon flock for our American friend, but sadly, he remained aloof, failing to give himself up. The light wasn't helping and time was pressing. A Peregrine or Marsh Harrier would help right now, but all was tranquil over the reserve.

Adam arrived and we left him to it. Ellerton was devoid of birds indicating either a sea-eagle (unlikely) or a dog walker (likely) had flushed everything. Only a small herd of Whooper Swans had the grace to offer themselves a place on our list, whereas the Ruddy Shelduck had seemingly departed with every other living thing. The Barn Owl had left plenty of signs of recent presence in the church porch, but the Sunday worshipers had long since flushed it from its roost.

Aughton is always worth a look, and Rich pulled a fine male Stonechat out of the bag as it fed from the tops of reedmace on the edge of the marsh. A good scan of the distant ducks revealed little, so we moved on quickly. North Duffield Carrs was our next target. Things were beginning to feel a bit out of reach now. We were unlikely to see Willow Tit now. Kingfisher seemed impossible. We had no more sites for Jack Snipe and not enough time to nip on to Skipwith for a crack at Green Woodpecker. My mind span. What to do! We still could see the remaining 'possible' waders such as Redshank, Curlew and Golden Plover at North Duffield and Barn Owl was a dead cert. We could score raptors here too. Should we take our feet off the gas and just enjoy the last hour of light at North Duffield, rather than continuing the chase? We would spend more time birding at least, rather than driving. But to do so, would be to concede and give up on the birds we could still see.

Let's get to the hide and think.

Shortly after arrival, a superb Marsh Harrier came in, a juvenile bird in immaculate plumage. It flew the full length of the ings, straight towards us, passing within 20 metres giving us all amazing views in the soft late afternoon sunshine.

This was a magical moment and reinvigorated us. We came to a decision simultaneously. We had to keep going. With Marsh Harrier, we were on about 88. With three owls up for grabs, a couple of waders and a gull or two coming into roost, we could just match last year's total. We could do this! We headed up through the valley to Thorganby. As if to prove a point, within moments of arriving at the platform, Rich picked up a Barn Owl quartering the ings, apparition-like in the failing light. Within a minute, I had jammed a roosting Little Owl in a Hawthorne near the farm, close to where I saw one a couple of weeks ago. Game on!

We checked out the ferryboat, but the water was too high and we couldn't see anything from there. We moved on quickly, time was critical now. Up the road to Bank Island, and up the steps on to the platform. It was all or nothing time.

The Bank Island tower.

Gulls were cruising over. We checked each one. Boy, we needed a white-winger right now. Suddenly, Rich announced Golden Plover, and we all got on a flock of these fast-flying waders, heading in a V over the ings. 91. Emanuela and me then heard a Curlew call from the direction of Wheldrake, but alas, Rich and Paul missed it, so we couldn't count it. Damn!

Peregrine! We all looked up to see an adult Peregrine leisurely flying straight over us, catching the last rays of the sun. No wonder the incoming flocks of Black-headed Gulls were coming in low and fast - they looked palpably nervous. They clearly didn't want to be dinner. 92.

Still no white-winger. The light was failing. A strange trilling call was heard. What was that? Snow Bunting I offered. Surely not! It wasn't right to be honest. But what was it. Tired minds, it had been a long day. It called again, seemingly from the same place. I had to check this out. I legged it down the steps and through the field. There in a ditch was a Little Grebe. I had not heard this call before. We'd all learned something today!

It was getting too dark now to do the gulls. Stoical smiles and tired eyes replaced enthusiasm. But then we remembered that we could still get Woodcock if we could only get through the flood on to the bailey bridge at Wheldrake Ings. And Tawny Owl should be easy. So we could get to 94 at least....

Down the lane we went. Duncan, Adam and me had waded through the flood the other day in wellies, with about 1 centimetre to spare. The water was much higher today, surely? Rich wasn't put off and waded confidently/recklessly out into the water. As he did so, he flushed a Woodcock from the edge of the road. Damn it! nobody saw it properly except for Rich, although I did hear the noise of it breaking cover. As luck would have it, as we waited for Rich to sink into the flood, or make it, another Woodcock came over, this time silhouetted beautifully against the inky blue sky, allowing us all to get a view. 93. Out of the darkness, Rich shouted 'Curlew! There's a Curlew calling!' We couldn't hear this one, but adding to our 2/3 earlier, we could now count it - 94! Rocking. Two minutes later, the three of us had started to tentatively wade across. Rich shouted again 'Tawny Owl hooting', but we couldn't hear it. Pressure! We made it across the flood in virtual darkness. Straining our ears one last time, I have never been so pleased to hear the eerie, wavering hoot of a Tawny Owl. 95! We felt elated after the lows of earlier. We had matched last year's efforts. Great stuff.

Woodcocks wading

We headed to The Wenlock Arms in Wheldrake village where we met up with the York Upstarts (Chris Gomersall, Ollie Metcalfe, Georgia Locock and Paz Fletcher) who had scored a handsome 94, and the Chairman's Pick (Peter Watson, Rob Chapman, Duncan Bye, Masha Sitnikova) who had achieved a commendable 89. Incredibly, we had won! But only just. Wow! We never once thought we would beat the Upstarts. This was amazing!

A big well done to all the teams that raced this year, to the organisers, and to all the sponsors. Money is going to build a Sand Martin bank at Kilnsea Wetlands. Great stuff.

And lastly, a big thanks to Emanuela, Rich and Paul for sharing the highs and lows, the thrills and spills of this bird race. Bird racing is not for everybody, but is a real test of stamina, courage and persistence, as much as it is a test of birding skill.

Post script.

So it turned out we scored 96. Firstly, we felt gutted when Emanuela realised she had counted Hawfinch twice, so our score slipped to 94. Then, she noticed that she had not included Little Egret or Mandarin, so we went back up, but this time to 96! So we had beaten our last year's total, and also recorded the highest number of species of any Yorkshire team. Result!

Our Final List:

Species, site of first record    (Castle Howard - CH, Heslington East - HE, North Duffield Carrs - NDC, Yorkshire Arboretum - YA, Wheldrake Ings- WI)  
  1. Mute Swan, CH                                        
  2. Whooper Swan, Ellerton
  3. Greylag Goose, CH
  4. Canada Goose, CH
  5. Egyptian Goose, East Cottingwith Farm Pond
  6. Shelduck, WI
  7. Mandarin, CH
  8. Gadwall, CH
  9. Wigeon, CH
  10. Mallard, Bishopthorpe
  11. Shoveler, WI
  12. Pintail, WI
  13. Teal, Bishopthorpe
  14. Pochard, HE
  15. Tufted Duck, CH
  16. Goldeneye, CH
  17. Goosander, CH
  18. Red-legged Partridge, Rufforth
  19. Grey Partridge, Bishopthorpe
  20. Pheasant, CH
  21. Little Grebe, HE
  22. Great Crested Grebe, HE
  23. Cormorant, CH
  24. Grey Heron, CH
  25. Little Egret, HE
  26. Marsh Harrier, NDC 
  27. Sparrowhawk, Askham Bog
  28. Red Kite, Melbourne
  29. Common Buzzard, CH
  30. Water Rail, HE
  31. Moorhen, Bishopthorpe
  32. Coot, CH
  33. Golden Plover, Bank Island
  34. Lapwing, Thornton
  35. Green Sandpiper, Rufforth
  36. Curlew, WI
  37. Ruff, WI
  38. Dunlin, WI
  39. Snipe, Elvington
  40. Woodcock, WI
  41. Black-headed Gull, CH
  42. Common Gull, CH
  43. Herring Gull, Rufforth
  44. Great Black-backed Gull, Rufforth
  45. Rock Dove/Feral Pigeon, York ring road
  46. Stock Dove, CH
  47. Woodpigeon, CH
  48. Collared Dove, CH
  49. Barn Owl, Thorganby
  50. Little Owl, Thorganby
  51. Tawny Owl, WI
  52. Great Spotted Woodpecker, CH
  53. Kestrel, Claxton
  54. Peregrine, Bank Island
  55. Jay, YA
  56. Magpie, CH
  57. Jackdaw, CH
  58. Rook, CH
  59. Carrion Crow, Claxton
  60. Skylark, Rufforth
  61. Marsh Tit, Askham Bog
  62. Coal Tit, CH
  63. Blue Tit, CH
  64. Great Tit, CH
  65. Long-tailed Tit, YA
  66. Nuthatch, CH
  67. Treecreeper, CH
  68. Wren, CH
  69. Goldcrest, YA
  70. Cetti's Warbler, CH
  71. Robin, Bishopthorpe
  72. Stonechat, Aughton
  73. Blackbird, CH
  74. Fieldfare, YA
  75. Redwing, YA
  76. Song Thrush, Melbourne
  77. Mistle Thrush, YA
  78. Starling, CH
  79. Dunnock, CH
  80. Grey Wagtail, WI
  81. Pied Wagtail, Rufforth
  82. Meadow Pipit, HE
  83. Yellowhammer, CH
  84. Reed Bunting, CH
  85. Corn Bunting, Thornton
  86. Chaffinch, CH
  87. Brambling, Elvington
  88. Bullfinch, Askham Bog
  89. Greenfinch, CH
  90. Lesser Redpoll, Melbourne
  91. Siskin, CH
  92. Goldfinch, CH
  93. Linnet, WI
  94. Hawfinch, YA
  95. House Sparrow, Elvington
  96. Tree Sparrow, CH
Sites visited: Bishopthorpe Cycle track and Ings, Castle Howard, Yorkshire Arboretum, Rufforth Tip and Airfield, Askham Bog, Heslington East, Elvington village, Melbourne/Pocklington Canal, Thornton Field Lane, East Cottingwith/Wheldrake Ings, Ellerton Church, Aughton Church, North Duffield Carrs, Thorganby/West Cottingwith Ings, Thorganby Ferryboat, Bank Island, Wheldrake Ings car park.

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