Thursday, 3 January 2013

Bird Race 2013 - The Midhurst Martlets

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!

As I joined my comrades in the car outside my house in the dark morning of January 2nd a robin was singing sweetly from the bushes by the lamppost at the edge of the street. The first species on our list! We were up and running! Hugh had kindly volunteered to drive while the rest of us peered out the car windows at the lightening sky hoping for an identifiable feathered silhouette to add to the list. We arrived at Pagham North Wall as the sun was breaking the horizon. Green woodpecker flew overhead and magpie joined the list. Soon we were out on the north wall, gazing across lakes and wet grassland to one side and low tide mudflats at the other. Ducks dabbled at the edge of the channels and waders probed the deep mud with their beaks. The clouds and mud alike were tinted glorious colours by the sun and the red sky triggered mutterings of ‘shepherds warning’ morning. The sun also reflected off the underside of the swans. On wide wind-whistling wings they passed to and fro over head in small groups, an awesome sight. The iconic kingfisher made its way onto the list early on, bringing instant smiles to the whole team. A wader amongst the lapwing proved cause for some discussion but was promptly pinned down to Ruff and popped onto the list. A brief comfort break on passing Sidlesham provided a tally of another half dozen species of tit and finch on the visitor centre feeders before we headed down to Selsey Bill for a spot of sea watching. A little apprehensive of our chances of spotting many species between the waves, we were very pleased to find selsey regular Andrew House already in position on the shoreline. Andrew’s trained eye lead us to a flock of common scoter and multiple grebes and divers. An eider near the mile basket was a welcome addition. A flock of common scoter flew in from the east among which a larger bird landed, flapping its wings and showing patches of white – a velvet scoter! Luckily I had my eye pinned to the scope at the right moment as both these, and the subsequent merganser that flew past were new birds for me. A great northern diver bobbing about on the water’s surface was another tick and another addition to the growing list. Feeling fairly optimistic our next stop was Church Norton to pick up a few missing waders. Great-spotted woodpecker, greenfinch and siskin all made it onto the list here almost before leaving the car park. The flocks of waders out on the saltmarsh almost appeared to be massing for attack! Vast numbers of dunlin, knot, black tailed godwit, along with golden plover and some grey plover boosted our total, joined by little egret, grey heron and little grebe. Lunch stop back at Sidlesham was disappointing with only buzzard, long-tailed tit and shoveler joining the list, but at over 60 species we were pleased with our running total so far. Once Hugh had re-located his keys we were back in the car and decided on a change of habitat. Raptor city was calling us and so we made haste to Burpham and the downs. We started to worry when the flooded fields below Burpham village proved empty of anything except a few pairs of mute swans and a small flock of black headed gulls. A wren in the roadside hedge looked for a moment to two to be the only addition to our list from this location, however having friends in the right places paid off and we were pointed towards a kite on the horizon. We squeezed grey partridge and linnit out of a short walk before the mist and drizzle forced us back to the car to polish off the last of Peter Davis’s Christmas cake and head down into the valley. Now we knew the brooks below Amberley would be flooded but the extreme water levels took even us by surprise. It looked as if gannets may appear at any moment, and our hopes of spotting the bewick swans fell flat. The vast area of water and distance any bird species could be spread over made any attempt to add to the list from here look pretty futile. 

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!

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