Sunday 1 June 2014

Mole Valley Bird Race 2014

What's that? Not had enough sleep? Pulled a tendon from so much walking? It's a Bank Holiday weekend? Never mind eh, let's have a bird race!

Gatwick Greenspace Goshawks

A bird race is when teams of slightly odd, but mostly alright people run around the countryside, identifying as many bird species as possible in 24 hours. This event was organised by Viewpoint Outdoor in aid of the Gatwick Greenspace Youth Rangers, to promote this fantastic group and to raise money towards their equipment costs.

Four crack-teams went head to head for this challenge. The tradition is to name your team after a bird, so we were the Gatwick Greenspace Goshawks. As we are all Sussex-based and interlopers into Surrey, this was mostly unknown territory for us.

Introducing our team...

Tom 'Caffeine-power' Foward

Tom 'pretend map reader' Simpson

Laurie 'What do you mean, I'm competitive?' Jackson

James 'Let's have a nice sit-down. Ooh look, a pub...' Chapman

And last but not least, Rachel 'Can I sleep now?' Bicker

These were the basic rules:
  • The Race officially started at 0.00am, on Sunday 25th May 2014.
  • Sightings submitted by 20:00 at Leith Hill Place.
  • Teams can consist of 2-6 people.
  • A bird species cannot be claimed as seen or heard if it was not verified by at least two members of the team.
  • No domestic exotic pet birds or “obvious escapes” may be counted.
  • The use of playback and lamping of birds is prohibited.

Start: Newdigate Brickworks
We began just over the border at the Newdigate Wildlife Trust reserve, making sure we got the obligatory group photo... 


We had a pretty intense start with everyone calling species out as soon as we arrived: Canada Goose, Moorhen, House SparrowNuthatch, Song Thrush, Common Whitethroat, House Martin. A sudden burst of loud, incessant piping gave away a Kingfisher. We checked the woodland clearings carefully, trying to drum up an elusive Spotted Flycatcher, but sadly no luck there.

Newdigate Brickworks lake

After some time, we were also rewarded with a couple of difficult-to-tick species; a singing Bullfinch and a lone, soaring Red Kite. We left the site at 38 species and in good spirits.

A quick coffee break

Hammonds Copse and Ewood Farm:
We had a muddy trek through the woodlands...

Firecrest? Or just a Goldcrest....

On the way to the farmlands we ticked Goldcrest, Pheasant, Tree Creeper and Greenfinch.

Yet another bloomin' Red Kite! At first we tried convince ourselves it was a Common Buzzard (yet to be ticked), but to no avail.
   The tantalising, distant call of a Yellow Hammer had us all straining our ears. Then, as a group of cyclists meandered past us, something popped out on the path....

Yellow Hammer (If you were expecting good birding photos, you will be sorely disappointed).

Other species we mopped up here were Barn Swallow, Linnet and a group of Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Futilely, we spent some time with Tom F's scope, trying to turn a distant Carrion Crow into a Rook. It stayed a Crow. Finally, a cheeky Pied Wagtail made an appearance on one of the farm buildings.

Lost satellite reception. Recalculating

Once we had finally made it out of Ewood, it was on to Capel:

Our first Cuckoo of the day popped up here with its unmistakable call. They are only brief summer visitors and will soon be hitting the road back to warmer climes.
A non-birding interlude...

Fat-legged Beetle (Oedemera nobilis) male

Longhorn Moth (Nemophora degeerella)

A type of orchid...
Heads back in the game!
Another bloomin' Red Kite soared overhead, doing its best to make sure all other birds of prey stayed well away from us.

Soon after, a couple of Nightingales, invisible in the scrub, treated us to snippets of their song. A lone Reed Warbler also piped up in a pond screened by hedgerows.

There was a a conspicuous silence from the Lesser Whitethroat, despite the lovely, welcoming scrubby habitat. No matter though, as we had hit 50 species!

Moments after this, there was a loud clatter and an emergency stop; a pair of binoculars left on the car roof had luckily jammed in the roof rack. 
   On hearing about Dave Stubbs' team being over the 60 species mark, we started getting desperate (and lazy) for ticks....

We pretty much drove up to the first bridge we found by the River Mole to look for a Grey Wagtail... and by jove, we got one!

I didn't get a photo of a Grey Wagtail, so here's Laurie instead

Some more bad news from the Twittersphere...

...They nabbed our Spotted Flycatcher!

Buckland Sandpits:
It was time to step up the effort, so here the scope came back into play. We ticked Willow Warbler and a lone Little Grebe, aka 'Dabchick', which was on the water.

Getting only a couple of ticks at each location begins to take its toll on morale. This was where the term 'law of diminishing returns' really started to kick in.

Headley Heath:
This site provided a good mixture of both heathland and chalk grassland, so surely we could turn up some interesting species here...

A distant Marsh Tit called, but everything else was just the already-ticked warblers: Blackcap, Willow Warbler and Common Whitethroat.
Another non-birding interlude...

This male Brown Argus Butterfly cracking on to a female Grizzled Skipper. Silly.

Wild Strawberry and Germander Speedwell

Green Hairstreak Butterfly

By now, my contact lenses were making my eyes feel like they were about to pop out. So, with no more lenses and without any specs, I resigned as a look-out. A group of Swifts were swooping high above the pines; Tom S. and Laurie were then both lucky enough to catch a glimpse of an elusive Hobby as it shot over head, pursuing its Swift prey!
   The day was drawing on and we had a long overdue pub stop to work out some tactics. We had only a couple of hours left, it was then that we heard the other 3 teams had all topped 70 species.


Once again it was back on the road, with little time left we headed to some fishing lakes for more wetland stuff.

Walking yet another woodland path to some distant ponds

 ...which had nothing on them

Time (and energy) was now really running short, so it was up to Leith Hill to at least try to pick up a few more heathland species.
Birding from the ground

Amazing views...

The silent summer

We got sweet nuthin'! Our last bird was the Hobby at around 5pm and we'd had no new species in over 2 hours.
   We made it back to Leith Hill Place just in time to submit the results (by my watch it was more like 20:05 but no one seemed to notice). All the groups had arrived back and were tucking into some much needed food and caffeinated beverages.

And the results are in... 

We lost... And pretty badly, too!!

Dave Stubbs and his team came in at the top with 83 species, a full 20 species more than us! The two other teams came in at 74 and 75 species.

Collectively we recorded 89 species of bird, not bad for a land-locked county!

Well done to all! Though I'll just mention again that only our team got a Hobby. 

Somehow, GGP Goshawks were not quite 'all-birded-out', so we headed back out onto the heath at dusk. We were rewarded with a Woodcock which flew over head, squeaking loudly. Also, the beautiful and bizaare sound of European Nightjar, their strange silouettes flitting from tree to tree... 

We'll be back next year, and it's going to get tactical!!

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