I have to admit to wondering why I had suggested the idea as I switched off my 6 am alarm in the early January gloom. There could be only one reason for my being up at this time; it was bird race day!
(Each year, in the first two weeks of January teams of Sussex Ornithological Society members come together to attempt a sponsored birdwatching day with the target to seeing as many species on the British list as possible in one day. There are rules and varying tactics and plenty of friendly competition!)
Keen to start the year as I planned to go on, I first put the idea of a Midhurst bird race team to Hugh Horne, who drafted in Peter Davis and Peter Plant as re-enforcements and obtained a bird race pack from Val Bentley. We soon all became involved in our separate Christmas obligations and family duties until on the last day of December when free at last we gathered in a Midhurst coffee shop to study the rules and maps, plot a route, and importantly discuss a team name. With the aid of draft itineraries on the back of Christmas card envelopes we soon had our route planned out. The boys themselves admitted that the meeting had something of a “last of the summer wine” element to it! And so, after some strong coffee and mugs of tea washed down with some friendly leg-pulling, the Midhurst Martlets were ready for the big day!
We pinned all our remaining hopes on Pulborough Brooks. I had promised the team water rail and thankfully the regular individual from the visitor centre windows didn't disappoint. The fields around the reserve offered up the winter thrushes we had been struggling to find elsewhere whilst treecreeper popped out on cue to be added to the list. A lovely pair of Bullfinch was another Pulborough Brooks speciality we were pleased to see. We finished our visit here off with barn owl hunting along the distant river bank, with thanks to the hide’s occupants who kindly pointed us in the right direction. The feeders by the visitor centre and a nuthatch in the car park provided chance to compare lists with rival bird-racers, before heading to Waltham Brooks with gadwall in mind. We scoured the ducks in the gathering gloom to no avail and were about to pack up to head to our last stop of the day when we were rewarded with stunning views of a beautiful barn owl. Our ooh and aahs were interrupted by the unexpected cry of “Harrier!” as a ringtail hen harrier crossed our scope views behind the hunting owl. Almost as soon as the harrier appeared it had dropped out of sight and we were racing to Burton Mill Pond for the elusive last few birds. However out stop at Waltham Brooks had slowed us down and it proved too dark to pick out bittern amongst the reeds. As night fell the tawny owls started hooting from the wood and signalled that it was time to head home to find our hot dinners and beds! We were pleased with our total of 90 species but still couldn't resist a car-headlight-view of the resident Egyptian geese at Benbow Pond as we were passing!
A fantastic day was had by all and we would like to thank all the friends, old and new, who guided us to those trickier species along the way. Thanks are also due to Hugh for driving and Peter Plant for scribing! Now…time to collect those sponsorships!