For those unfamiliar with the term 'Bird Race', the aim is to see as many species of bird in one day as possible, usually within set geographical parameters, often either competing against a previous tally, or other teams. The Sussex Ornithological Society run a sponsored 'New Year Bird Race' each year, with teams taking part during the first two weeks of January, across the county of Sussex. This year was the third occasion the Midhurst Martlets team, of which I am a member, has taken part.
The core team of Hugh H, Peter P, Peter D, and myself met up for our usual 7.20am start, and we headed south from Midhurst, towards Selsey Bill and the sunrise, where we hoped to meet our additional team member 'honorary Martlet' Gary T. By the time we arrived at 8am, we had collected 10 common species - Robin, Blackbird, Carrion Crow for example, including our first raptor of the day, Kestrel, and had a very brief debate about whether or not we could count the Partridge pub as a species.
Next came the tricky part of the day - extracting identifications of birds between the waves with a spot of sea-watching, the joy of which divided opinion on the team. Never-the-less, as Great Northern Diver, Red Throated Diver and Red Breasted Merganser, along with beach-loitering Oystercatcher, Turnstone and Great Black Backed Gull joined the list, our running total was rising well into double figures.
But with a Bird race, time is everything and we had a long way to go!
Church Norton was next, scrunching over the shingle at a low tide, the winter wind scouring the air clean of even the sea-mud smell. A Moorhen was skulking around the moat that circles the historic mound, a Jay called and a Raven answered with two of these large corvids flying back the way we had come. Waders were rapidly counted and ticked off the list, an obliging Spoonbill slept soundly on the far side of the channels, accompanied by a Little Egret. The shoreline produced a Common Gull, whist a couple of Song Thrushes were the sole occupants of the churchyard, (bar a friendly tortoiseshell cat who's eyes were full of imaginary mice).
On the beach I also spotted a couple of shark or ray egg cases, known as 'mermaids purses', and quickly snapped some photos of (beside my notebook for scale) for later identification and reporting to The Shark Trust's Great Eggcase Hunt (http://www.sharktrust.org/en/great_eggcase_hunt)
The second raptor of the day was a Sparrowhawk, attracted perhaps by the same Great Tit that attracted us to the feeders outside Sidlesham Visitor Centre. Ferry Pool was busy - a mass of Shelduck and Brent Geese, and (when our view was not blocked by passing lorries) we picked out a number of other ducks and waders, and a Buzzard. Three wintering Chiffchaff made it onto the list as we returned to our cars bound for Apuldram Church and Fishbourne Creek. Stonechats flittered from bramble bush to bramble bush, Yellowhammer fed around the straw pile by the stables, and the flickering dart of a Jack Snipe brought our total to the mid 50's.
Time to head inland... but maybe a stop at Chichester Gravel Pits on the way is worth a try... after superb views of Kingfisher, and additional ticks of Pochard, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Red Crested Pochard and Long Tailed Tit, that would seem to be true!
At last we were bound for the Downs.
It was in the fields below Burpham that we found the congregation of Bewick Swans, whilst above them an airport style stack of circling Red Kites populated the skies. Grey Partridge inspected us from the longer grass of a field at The Burgh (we decided we couldn't count Turkey!), whilst more Red Kites momentarily distracted us from what was turning into increasingly wintery weather.
Pulborough Brooks provided our last few species, sadly not the hoped for Marsh Tit, Treecreeper and Nuthatch, but as dusk claimed the land, we were rewarded with a pair of Mandarin that whirred past, and the bat-like dash of Woodcock.
In total we tallied up 88 species, plus a possible heard only Whimbrel at Church Norton and Fishbourne Creek which would nudge our score over to 89...
Having parted company with Gary T. at Waltham Brooks where we failed to persuade a water rail to drag our score up to 90, it was long after dark when the original team meandered back into Midhurst, to our respective houses, dinners and well deserved beds!
I must say thank you to Tina Pettifer and her friend, who we met over the view of the Bewick Swans, and who kindly donated £5 to our sponsorship.
The award for best views of the day has to go to the Kestrels, not just spotted over the road on the first journey south, but hanging above our heads at Ferry Pool, and The Burgh also. With eyes pinned on the ground below them, each feather shifting and adjusting, they certainly lived up to their alternative name of Wind-Hover.