Wednesday, 26 May 2010

TABCG Berkshire Bird Race 2010.

No sooner had I returned from the TABCG Wales trip my attention turned to the TABCG Berkshire Bird race on 15th May. In 2000 the TABCG re-started the yearly event of bird racing in Berkshire , it involves 3 people per team which must identify(see or hear) as many different species from midnight till 7pm. The current Berkshire Bird Race record is 121 recorded by Andy Swash, Ian Collins, Neil Bucknell and Steve Abbott in 1990 and equalled by Fraser Cottington, Adam Bassett and Andy Johnson in 2006.

Since I started bird racing in 2004 I have never broken the 100 species barrier, a few close calls with 98's left our team reeling that we hadn't enough time to get to another site or that we'd missed this or that, 2 species that's all we needed! The teams that usually win are extremely devoted and spend many hours in the field checking numerous sites before the race and thus giving them a better chance at finding those elusive species and getting a good total, our team on the other hand turn up at midnight and do the best we can. Over the years lessons have been learnt, new sites discovered and this year I decided to plan our route with a bit more precision and the added luxury of a few back-up sites should we need them. The team remained the same as last year with Roy Rose, Cathy McEwan and I.

As some of the species and sites are sensitive I have omitted them from the race report.

I met the other team members at 11:30pm in Englefield and by midnight we found ourselves walking along a stony track somewhere in Berkshire. It was a cold clear night and as we continued on foot 2 teams passed us in vehicles on their way to their starting points. At 12:01am a Wood Pigeon suddenly flushed from a Ivy clad tree next to the track and we were off and running. It didn't take long to add our second species as in the stillness of the early hours we picked up on a call coming from the hedgerow a little further down the track. I recognised this call straight away, it was the begging calls of 3 young Tawny Owls which continued to call at length. This hadn't gone unnoticed and we were soon joined by another team as from out of the darkness appeared Roger Stansfield, Robert Godden & Ken Spring, a bit of early morning/bird race banter ensued and we departed on foot leaving the other team searching for the mysterious calls coming from the hedge, In good nature and the spirit of the bird race I did tell them that it was young Tawny owls but they wanted to see for themselves so we left them to it and continued on. Arriving at our next point a Lapwing called from nearby rolling the tickometer on to 3, it wasn't long after this that we passed another team as they left the area, last years winners Marek Walford, Derek Barker & Paul Bright-Thomas. For the next 30 minutes we walked slowly and quietly listening out for bird calls and being rewarded with a sort after species during this period, it was time to leave and we headed off back to the car saying our goodbyes to Roger Stansfield & co as we passed them. We hadn't gone far when we heard something on the track in front of us, suddenly 2 maybe 3 Badgers came running towards us and almost through our legs, then scurrying off in to the bushes. Pulses back to normal we headed onward. We arrived at the car just in time to hear another crepuscular species calling as it flew overhead, good timing as it meant that we didn't have to go looking for another later on. We departed at 1am with the tickometer now on 5.

The night time stint can be hard work and although you have until around 4am when you need to be somewhere for dawn chorus time passes quickly especially when searching for Owls, Nightjar and Woodcock. We always seem to have a hiccup with one of these species, we either can't locate one of the Owls or can't find Nightjar or Woodcock which is a real kick in the teeth when you're only a short way in to the bird race. If you miss some of these species during the twilight hours there is very little chance of getting them later in the day. We decided to try a few locations that had been fruitful on previous years drawing a blank at the first one, it was then off to a location that had once been good but not so over the last few years, we were passing and it made sense to stop off. We pulled up in the car hearing an Owl calling down the road behind us, Roy was sure it was a Barn Owl but I knew different, I had heard this strange echoing call often outside a cottage we lived in some years back, I had even filmed the culprit and added it to my youtube page. The calling continued and at first I had a little trouble convincing the team it was in fact a Little Owl, as we walked down the lane towards the call I did my best to impersonate a Barn Owl screech to show the others that's what a Barn Owl sounded like. It wasn't a great impersonation by any means but suddenly a Barn Owl called out from a farm building no further than 20ft away from us, I can tell you it sh*t the life out of me, re-covered from shock and now laughing I looked at Roy and said "that was a Barn Owl and the other a Little Owl, lets go" . This meant that by 1:31am we had ticked all the Owls and the tickometer now showed a huge 7. We then spent time checking a few sites for Nightjar and Woodcock getting nothing extra other than a Pheasant, the decision was made to cut our losses and head towards Hosehill Lake LNR where we added Black-headed Gull, Nightingale and Sedge Warbler before heading off towards East Berks.

I had already seen a flaw in my route with the lack of Nightjar and Woodcock, we should have been closer to our dawn chorus site if not on it listening for these 2 crepuscular species that had now slipped by which was a major blow. We continued eastwards picking up a singing Robin in the streetlights and then had a few difficulties finding a site which was new to us all, in fact we lost a lot of time while we drove round looking for a parking spot but eventually made it to Caesar's Camp in Bracknell. We were behind time as the sun was already starting to rise but a quick walk along the footpath brought us to our destination. A crescendo of bird song filled the cold still morning air, a few of the common species were soon heard followed by both male and female Cuckoo, Tree Pipit, Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Blackcap, Song Thrush and Chiffchaff. We left Caesar's Camp at 5am with 23 species under our belt and headed off towards Windsor Great Park. This was another area we had never tried before but within 15 minutes of being there we had added another 10 species including Ring-necked Parakeet which saved us another stop elsewhere, we left with Slough in our sights picking up another 7 species as we drove.

Slough Sewage Farm

Another new site greeted us in the form of Slough Sewage Farm, from a M4 motorway bridge you can view the majority of the pits that host a number of wildfowl. A Pied Wagtail took us to 41 and after a 25 minute scan of all the viewable pits and wildfowl we left heading towards the Dorney area with our total now standing at 51. A flyover Egyptian Goose kept the score ticking over followed by a Green Woodpecker, at Dorney we added another 10 to the list which included Great crested Grebe, Greylag Goose, Reed Buning, Goldfinch, Reed Warbler, Cormorant, Willow Warbler, Sparrowhawk, Greenfinch and Swallow.

M4 Slough(6:17am)


Leaving Dorney at 7:30am our total now stood at 63, the weather was now much warmer with the sun beating down, in fact it was the complete opposite of the cold twilight hours that had greeted us some eight or so hours before. We arrived at our next destination, Wishmoor Bottom, with the hope of finding a few of the elusive heathland species. The first few hundred yards of this site are in the county of Surrey so until we reached the boundary we couldn't start counting, it was handy as nothing really showed until we made our way out on to the heath. We soon found Stonechat followed by a number of other species and before long we had covered the heath on foot and found ourselves at the woodland edge, we listened for Crossbill with no joy. Plenty of birds were flitting about but all species we had seen already until Roy picked up on a bird feeding on the floor at the edge of the wood, it continually dropped from the tree branches to the woodland floor giving us a difficult time trying to identify it as it was out of sight. Eventually it perched long enough for us to add Redstart to the days total along with Treecreeper, Coal Tit and Siskin. The long walk back to the car added nothing new although we did have some excellent views of Treecreeper, the tickometer now stood at 70 but time was ticking away.

Wishmoor Bottom

It was now time to head eastward stopping off at Moor Green Lakes first, here we added 4 species to take the total to 74, Long-tailed Tit, Nuthatch, Common Tern and Redshank and then on to Lavell's Lakes in Hurst. Here we added another 5 species with Grey Wagtail, Kingfisher, Sand Martin, Dunnock and Little Egret taking the total to 79 before setting off towards Burnthouse Lane in Theale. The idea was for us to make our way westward stopping off at a few of the Theale area gravel pits before continuing on to sites such as Lower Farm GP's, Thatcham Discovery Centre and Greenham Common.

It was now approaching 2pm and the time where you are repeatedly seeing already recorded species, this point can be a bit of a low as you are now starting to feel the effects of being on the go for 14 hours. I feel that adding a few species here and there is vital, whatever you do you need to keep the score ticking over, it's certainly a morale booster. We had a good site 3 stops along the next part of our route, somewhere that should get us a few of the harder found species and by the time that we had arrived there we had added Red Kite, Little Ringed Plover and Kestrel along the way. We entered the woods at Roundoak Piece again, this time in daylight and bathed in full sun unlike the cold and silent twilight hours when we had stopped here and failed to find Nightjar or Woodcock. Our luck was much better this time around finding 7 species that we desperately needed, these included Bullfinch, Crossbill, Goldcrest, Mandarin Duck and Hobby, we were now on 89.

We continued west stopping off at Padworth where we met the cycling team of Mike Taylor, Phil Bysh and Adrian Lawson, they looked a little red in the cheeks but in good sprits. Nothing to add here so we left for Woolhampton only adding 2 species in House Martin and Cetti's Warbler. Crookham Common was next, this area is at the far eastern end of Greenham Common and hosts a few small wader pools with some gorse bushes dotted around the returning heathland, the pools were quiet with nothing new to add. At 4.50pm we finally added Linnet to the list as one flew overhead calling and just as we were about to leave I found a Wheatear which now took us to 93.

Crookham Common

Greenham Common

Our next stop was Lower Farm where after parking up we made our way to the hide. It came as a bit of a surprise to see the water level very high and most of the scrub on the islands very overgrown making it very difficult to view certain areas of the lake, there was little about which we hadn't seen already until at 5:45pm a Pochard appeared at the far end of the lake taking us to 94 for the day. Thatcham Discovery Centre was our next port of call where we hoped to find Red Crested Pochard, unfortunately it was nowhere to be seen. Time had now got the better of us and any hopes of making it to Combe Wood and the Berkshire Downs soon evaporated, it was disappointing to say the least as making it to these sites could well have added another 6 species to the list. We decided that we would head back towards the finishing post and stop off at a couple of sites on the way, we still needed to find Yellow wagtail and Grey Partridge so headed towards Englefield.

Reaching Englefield we headed straight for a usually productive spot, in previous years we have found Grey Partridge here but despite searching the surrounding fields only Red-legged Partridge showed, there were no Yellow Wagtails either. A small consolation was finding a Mistle Thrush that now saw us on 95, the 100 mark was now well and truly gone and at 6:40pm we arrived at the finishing post with 20 minutes spare to check out the surrounding gravel pits.

We took a quick walk across to Hosehill LNR where Roy and Cathy found a Dunlin feeding on the island shoreline which was added to the list, with nothing else new for us on the lake we made our way to the finishing post with a few minutes to spare. The tickometer had finally stopped on 96.

Congratulations to the winners Marek Walford, Derek Barker & Paul Bright-Thomas who won with an extremely good 113 species on a day when there didn't seem to be many migrants passing through. As for us it's back to the drawing board, we seemed to have a good route planned this year but just ran out of time. On any other day a list of 96 species would be good going but not when your bird racing against some of Berkshires finest ;-)

2010 TABCG Berkshire Bird Race Results

1.Marek Walford, Derek Barker, Paul Bright-Thomas 113
2.Fraser Cottington, Adam Bassett, Andy Johnson 107
3.Hugh Netley, Steve Ricks, Martin Hallem 102
4.Andy Horscroft, Ken Moore, Nigel Cleere 101
5.Robert Godden, Roger Stansfield, Ken Spring 99
6.Ashley Stow, Roy Rose, Cathy McEwan 96
7.Chris Robinson, Renton Righelato, Jim Burnett 92*
8.Mike Taylor, Phil Bysh, Adrian Lawson 91*
9.Jan Main, Hilary Morton, Maryanne Thomas 72**

*Entire Race Completed On Bicycle
**Most Of Race Completed On Foot
The "Bird of the Day" was Teal, recorded by Mike Taylor's team

Our List For The Day
  1. Little Grebe
  2. Great Crested Grebe
  3. Cormoant
  4. Grey Heron
  5. Little Egret
  6. Mute Swan
  7. Greylag Goose
  8. Canada Goose
  9. Egyptian Goose
  10. Shelduck
  11. Mandarin Duck
  12. Gadwall
  13. Mallard
  14. Pochard
  15. Tufted Duck
  16. Red Kite
  17. Common Buzzard
  18. Sparrowhawk
  19. Kestrel
  20. Hobby
  21. Red-legged Partridge
  22. Pheasant
  23. Moorhen
  24. Coot
  25. Little Ringed Plover
  26. Lapwing
  27. Dunlin
  28. Redshank
  29. Black-headed Gull
  30. Lesser Black-backed Gull
  31. Herring Gull
  32. Common Tern
  33. Feral Pigeon
  34. Stock Dove
  35. Wood Pigeon
  36. Collared Dove
  37. Ring-necked Parakeet
  38. Cuckoo
  39. Barn Owl
  40. Little Owl
  41. Tawny Owl
  42. Swift
  43. Kingfisher
  44. Green Woodpecker
  45. Great Spotted Woodpecker
  46. Skylark
  47. Sand Martin
  48. Swallow
  49. House Martin
  50. Tree Pipit
  51. Meadow Pipit
  52. Grey Wagtail
  53. Pied Wagtail
  54. Wren
  55. Dunnock
  56. Robin
  57. Nightingale
  58. Redstart
  59. Stonechat
  60. Wheatear
  61. Blackbird
  62. Song Thrush
  63. Mistle Thrush
  64. Cettis Warbler
  65. Sedge Warbler
  66. Reed Warbler
  67. Common Whitethroat
  68. Blackcap
  69. Chiffchaff
  70. Willow Warbler
  71. Godcrest
  72. Long-tailed Tit
  73. Coal Tit
  74. Blue Tit
  75. Great Tit
  76. Nuthatch
  77. Treecreeper
  78. Jay
  79. Magpie
  80. Jackdaw
  81. Rook
  82. Carrion Crow
  83. Starling
  84. House Sparrow
  85. Chaffinch
  86. Greenfinch
  87. Goldfinch
  88. Siskin
  89. Linnet
  90. Crossbill
  91. Bullfinch
  92. Reed Bunting

Friday, 21 May 2010

TABCG Wales Trip 02/05/2010

A year soon rolls round and with it the annual pilgrimage to Wales with the Theale Area Conservation Group. A chance to get some great views of species such as Dipper, Redstart, Wood Warbler & Pied Flycatcher amongst a whole host of other welsh specialities. I have been coming on this trip with the TABCG since 2004 and it's certainly the highlight of the spring calendar for me, a chance to see some fantastic birds and enjoy the welsh scenery.

We arrived at Goldcliff with some familiar faces greeting us as we meet up with the rest of the TABCG group, even a Chiffchaff calling from the same tree in the car park just as it has on previous years was in full song. As the rest of the group had already walked the site and the fact that some members of the group were already tucking in to their packed-lunch boxes it was a good time for Roy and I to head off and have a look. We were told that it was a bit quiet but a Spotted Redshank was present on the far side of pools.

As we approached the first screen a light drizzle began, the pools themselves were very quiet and I can't recall seeing them quieter than this on previous visits. A solitary Redshank appeared then disappeared, Shelduck were present along with Lapwing and what looked to be a Plover that disappeared round the back of the main island and out of sight, It didn't reappear. As I scanned through the gloom and around the back of the wetlands a pair of Avocet were being harassed by a Shelduck, this continued until all three took flight and headed off across the wetlands. As I viewed the far side of the wetlands I noticed a small black blob which could be seen hugging the waters edges around the reed beds. It soon became evident that it was a Adult Spotted Redshank, it was a pity we couldn't have had better views of it due to the weather and distance but it was certainly nice to see. Black-tailed Godwit also present. It soon started to rain again and the decision was made to head back to the car and catch up with the other at RSPB Newport Wetlands.

We arrived at RSPB Newport Wetlands and headed out on to the reserve to meet up with the group, it was cold, wet and windy so there would be little chance of us finding any Bearded Tits but try we did. As we walked up the path towards the wetlands Cetti's & Willow Warbler could be heard along with a few Chiffchaff calling from nearby. From the first screen we scanned the reed bed where we had seen them on previous years, Reed & Sedge Warbler were present and could be heard signing from the Reeds, the odd Reed Bunting appeared clinging on to the reeds in the wind but little else. On the water was Little Grebe, Pochard and Tufted Duck, a few Mute Swans, Canada Geese and Coot.

Roy and I continued to the lighthouse to find the group on their return, the tide was in and there was little to be seen and of course the weather was still sh*te. We wandered back to the first screen for one last view before a cup of tea in the visitor centre and got some great views of large groups of Swallows clinging to the Reeds, you know I've never really given it much thought to why they do this? is it to take a breather from all that frenetic energy whilst on the wing? are they watching insects rising from the water and picking them off as they do so? or are they simply getting out of the weather? oh so many questions and so little time!

We made it back to the visitor centre dry but a little cold, a cup of tea was on the menu for some while others perused the shop. We soon met an incredibly nice gentlemen who works at the reserve, in fact I'm pretty sure he is the reserve warden(apologies if I'm wrong), anyway after introducing himself as Matthew Meehan we had a good long chat with him, he gave us a few more sites to visit for next years itinerary and whilst we were chatting I noticed the new Collins Bird Guide 2nd Edition. I'm going to digress for a minute so please bare with me as it will all make sense in a minute or so. I've been wondering whether to buy the 2nd edition since it's release and every time I am somewhere where it's on sale I have a look at it, unfortunately these are usually brief glimpses as I flick through the pages. I know all of us will have a variety of favoured bird guides but for me the Collins Bird Guide is the best, I was first introduced to it by my late father back in 2002 ish when he gave me a spare copy of his when I took up birding again. He thought of it so highly he referred to it as his bible and as such I saw it fitting to place his copy in his coffin when he passed away in 2004. It soon became a favourite of mine and is always close to hand, those of you that haven't got a copy then the new 2nd edition would be highly recommended. So anyway back to the RSPB visitor centre at Newport Wetlands where I giving close scrutiny to the 2nd edition and also chatting with the group and Matthew Meehan, I'm thinking to myself which species needed improving in the old edition and I'm soon heading to the Shrike page to see if the Brown Shrike has been updated...... it has and just as I view the pictures in the book the conversation around me turns to the Staines Moor Brown Shrike, freaky moment as nobody saw what page I was on!!!! (I have since bought the Collins 2nd Ed from Amazon at a bargin £8.99) From the visitor centre windows a Cuckoo was found perched on a dead tree bow, it remained in sight for a few minutes giving everybody a chance to see it, we were fortunate as we didn't get to see or hear anymore during the trip. As we left the visitor centre we were halted in our tracks by a singing Lesser whitethroat in the hedge, patiently we waited for it to show which it did before quickly dropping down in to the hedge again, Chiffchaff were present as was a Blackcap singing from the car park.

Our next stop is one of my favourites on the day and has remained a very faithful site over the years to see Dipper. A small bridge with room for one car to pass over at a time straddles a fast flowing river with rock formations pertruding from it's stony bed, the bridge itself has a number of small viewing places along both sides allowing views up and downstream. After leaving the Newport Wetlands amongst wet and cloudy skies it was uplifting to see the sun breaking through the clouds, the glints of sunshine seemed to bring life to the river below and on which we looked down upon. No sooner had we arrived at the bridge a Dipper was spotted below, it sat preening on the rocks at the waters edge giving great views of this fantastic bird before darting under the bridge and downstream, a quick shuffle to the other side of the bridge brought the bird back in to view. I've been trying for as long as I've been coming on this trip to get some decent photos of the Dippers here but due to their inability to sit still for too long they can be difficult to digiscope at the best of times, the fast flowing water doesn't help with the auto-focusing either and the majority of my attempts end up in the recycle bin. I seemed to have a bit better luck this year when I was lucky enough to have a Dipper sit on a rock just upstream from the bridge, I managed to grab a few shots just before it flew off which are certainly my best attempts to date. Also from the bridge a pair of Common Sandpiper were together on the rocks at the waters edge and also the regular sighting of Grey Wagtail. I could stay here all day and watch the Dippers they really are fascinating to watch as they search for food under the fast flowing water but time was ebbing away and it was time to leave for our next destination.

Common Sandpiper.


We headed off to Llangorse Lake in Powys with the hope of seeing both Garganey and Whimbrel that had been reported the day before. As were driving along the tight country lanes I suddenly recalled a visit here 2 or 3 years ago when we arrived just as a local church was emptying, it was mayhem as there is very little space to let cars past but luckily we were later this year and had missed the church turn out. As soon as we got to the car park we immediately spotted 6 Whimbrel sat on the waters edge, most of them were preening except one individual who was stood up and obscuring another wader in front of it. Whilst we waited for the unknown wader to show itself I spotted a male Garganey next to one of the nearby islands, it was hiding behind a rock formation and often going out of sight but despite this when it was on show it looked stunning. The unknown wader appeared from behind the Whimbrel and to our delight it was a Bar-tailed Godwit which was a very pleasant surprise, the Godwit remained with the Whimbrel feeding in the grass along the edge of the lake giving really good views and I can't recall ever seeing one so close. The skies above the lake were filled with Swift, Swallow, Sand & House Martins busily feeding on the wing and in the hedgerow next to the car park a Garden Warbler sang at length giving us time to track it down and see it.


Whimbrel & Bar-tailed Godwit.

Bar-tailed Godwit.


Whimbrel & Bar-tailed Godwit.

Bar-tailed Godwit.

Whimbrel & Bar-tailed Godwit.

I have to say that I love the Welsh countryside, the rolling hills and steep mountainous terrain, the fast flowing streams and rivers and more importantly the vast open desolate spaces devoid of human interference. Maybe it's because of this that our next stop is my favourite part of our trip to Wales. I was inspired the first time I came to the Elan valley, not just because of the bird species that I would see here but the overall grandeur of the place.

Elan Valley.

Roy and I headed off towards the footpath that leads across the river and zig-zags up the side of the hill on the edge of Cnwch Wood. We hadn't gone far and were approaching the bridge when we heard and spotted a Pipit singing from a tree about 100yards in front of us, it was slightly obscured by branches so we moved to a suitable position to get a better look and were rewarded with great views of a Tree Pipit. It continued singing from the tree before taking flight and rising upwards in full song, once at a suitable height it held it's position in mid-air whilst still singing until it changed song pitch and spiralled back down to the tree. It's been a bit hit and miss over the last few years catching up with them here so it was a good start to the walk, unfortunately only 4 or 5 people from the group saw it as it flew off when a car drove down the visitor centre road.

Pied Flycatcher.

We continued across the river and to the beginning of the footpath stopping immediately as we neared the gate, a Pied Flycatcher was calling and it was close. We stood scanning the trees whilst it continually called and then suddenly it dropped down from a tree and in to view, we had fantastic views as it flew to the trees beside us and it remained in the area that the rest of the group caught us up and got to see it as well. It had a lot of brown in the wings especially the primaries and some on the head, nape and shoulders, possibly a 1st Summer bird. Frustratingly it didn't sit around long enough for me to get more than a couple of photos at a time which wasn't ideal.

A Redstart called and appeared soon after followed almost immediately by a calling Wood Warbler and a Treecreeper, we hadn't even started up the footpath so things were looking promising. A few hundred yards along the path and a crescendo of Warbler song greeted us, Wood, Garden & Willow Warbler all singing along with Chiffchaff and Redstart, what made life a little easier for us was the fact that many of the trees still had very few leaves on them. They seem to be 2 or 3 weeks behind the trees in the home counties in leaf foliage. By the time we reached the top of the hill we all had seen some great views of the species we set out to see, Goosander, Red Kite, Common Buzzard and Raven added to the sightings but sadly no Tawny Owl or Peregrine this year.

Garden Warbler.


Fox Moth Caterpillar.

Before we head for home we always stop off at a few locations up in the hills near Elan giving us the chance to look for Wheatear, Stonechat and Whinchat. Leaving Elan a pair of Goosander were seen flying over a reservoir and at our final destination both Wheatear and Stonechat were present along with Meadow Pipit. So it was an incredibly long day but despite the initial cold and wet weather it was very enjoyable with some added additions to our usual trip sightings.