Thursday 3 September 2015

Wacky races

On Sunday last Steve Smith and I formed a two-man team to take part in a Poole Harbour bird race (read the official, totally ungloating write-up by a member of the winning team here). This was my first summer one since moving to Dorset in 2007 and while we made a respectable total of 114 species heard or seen between 0430 and 1900, when we met up with the other teams for a social, this was still only enough to earn us joint 4th place (out of 8). So where did it all go wrong? 
We saw three Osprey on the bird race, this one nearly took our heads off as it flew low over Brands Bay

Wryneck at Greenlands: bird of the day by common consent, and #217 on the photo yearlist
Steve obviously blames me for dawdling (momentarily, I should add) to add a few species to my photo yearlist as we went. Birdracers who take themselves far too seriously would not have allowed a camera to even be taken, let alone used, he pointed out. I obviously blame Steve for dawdling (momentarily, he would say) in the hope of adding Wryneck to his patch list for the year. He managed it, but only, I would argue, because I dawdled to add to my photo year list at Greenlands just long enough to give the Wryneck time to reappear.
Whinchat at Greenlands (#218)

Redstarts at Greenlands - two of about a dozen seen in the area on bird race day
We started well enough, bagging Tawny Owl and Nightjar in the dark, adding waders and terns at Pilot's Point at dawn and collecting most of the regular migrants at various hotspots of the Studland peninsular by mid-morning, before heading off to Brownsea over lunch. This was a good decision as it produced our only Spoonbill, Little Tern, Spotshank, Knot and Barwit of the day.
Spotted Flycatcher - five were in the same tree at Greenlands
Willow Warbler - in with a loose flock of Stonechat, Whinchat, Spot Fly and Redstart at Greenlands
The afternoon then became increasingly fraught as we realised we were going to have to dip on some potentially fruitful sites, and pay flying visits to others where it would have been preferable to linger. Hence not seeing the almost guaranteed Yellow-legged Gulls at Middlebere or a recently reliable family of Woodlark at Soldiers Road.

Wheatear - another Greenlands tick for the day
Yellow Wagtail - one of a flock of 20 on Ballard Down - thanks to Steve for the loan of his SX50 to take this, #219 for the photo yearlist. And yes, that is allowed - photographer has to be me, kit can be anyone's.
In the hardest choice of all, as we made our way clockwise around the harbour in the late afternoon, my own patch of Swineham was jettisoned in favour of Lytchett Bay, a treachery of which I remain thoroughly ashamed. Swallowing our pride and holding our noses we headed for this most inhospitable of sites, only to find it adorned with welcoming signs, well-positioned viewpoints, and, worst of all, wheeling flocks of waders over acres of muddy pools. The only thing missing was a visiting RSPB group carrying foil-wrapped sandwiches, a flask of weak lemon drink and a packet of bourbon biscuits, asking us if the local Oystercatchers were in fact Black Storks. Certainly not the Lytchett Bay I remember from our last bird race: they've really let the place go. But with 4 species added in less than 4 minutes of viewing, I have to concede it provided pretty good value for money.
Believe it or Knot, a photo year-tick (#220) on Brownsea
I thought I had missed Little Tern for the photo yearlist having driven past the colony at Ferrybridge several times without managing to stop - so this one on Brownsea was a bonus (#221)
The Wryneck was an undoubted highlight of the day and was seen by less than half of the teams - not even the winning team saw it with their record-breaking total of 130. Comparison of their list and ours, however, shows where we really slipped up. We did OK with quite a lot of scarcer or unpredictable species which can catch you out on a bird race - as well as the Wryneck, we added Marsh Tit, Lesser Whitethroat, Grey and Yellow Wagtail to the day list. But we failed to see several commoner birds like Mistle Thrush, Skylark and Lesser Black-backed Gull. Time pressure also cost us - taking in Swineham would probably have added Little Grebe, Gadwall, Cetti's Warbler, Tufted Duck and maybe Marsh Harrier, birds which remained conspicuous by their absence from our list at the close of hostilities. The winners, by contrast, saw just about everything you could hope to see with the right combination of good planning, good luck and a handful of time-saving parking violations (not that we're bitter).
And in an overdue return of the 'terrible photos of tiny waders' feature on this blog, here's a Little Stint (#222) at the Bay which shall not be named.
Continuing the terrible photos of tiny waders theme, Ruff (#223) was also at Lytchett, though this one was photographed at Middlebere as the ones at the Bay were too distant. It's not that good. 
As with our winter birdrace a few years ago, I made it through the day only by grazing constantly, barely surviving on the paltry ration of a cheese baguette, four doughnuts, three packets of crisps, two each of apple and satsuma, a Mars bar and a multi-pack of Jacobs Orange Club - not as much as it sounds due to the pervasive pressure of shrinkflation. Steve, by contrast, would have got by on half a cheese and onion pasty had it not been for the doughnut donated by yours truly. With so many birders up early in the field and snacking unhealthily, some care had to be taken with the 'heard only' rule due to the similarly between the call of the Little Bustard and the sound of distant flatulence carrying on the thin morning air. The risk of confusion, however, substantially reduced by the absence of Marcus this year.
Unless it was tinnitus, I was hearing Green Sandpiper all day, but Steve just couldn't tune in to them. Then 4 flew over Middlebere together and he couldn't fail to tick them. This one was photographed at the same site earlier in the week.
Spoonbill - so far I have a 100% record with this species on my Dorset birdraces. 15 were on Brownsea.
All the while Poole Harbour distinguished itself with its incredible birdlife and habitats. Migrants seemed to drip from the branches, and my attempts to immortalise them on film were constantly photo-bombed by the normally elusive Sparrowhawk (we saw five). Numbers of Spotted Flycatchers were such that it's a wonder there are any flies left. And we pretty much had to beat our way through flocks of Ospreys, removing their talons from our binoculars one by one and telling them to back the hell off so we could fit them in the frames of our cameras. The day total of 136 species seen by the teams collectively tells you all you need to know about the diversity of birdlife on offer in Dorset in early autumn. The event was organised by Shaun Robson with the skill which can only be honed by half a lifetime in local government, so a big shout out, as they say on the wireless, to him for taking the initiative, and to the other participants for making the day such a success.

1 comment:

  1. Must admit I wouldn't have worried if we came last after seeing the Wryneck for my Studland/Ballard patch year list. A great day out, good company & good curry in the evening. Have to do another one (without cameras) next Autumn.