Saturday 16th May
With binoculars cleaned, posh picnic lunches packed, heated flasks of coffee and not a hint of a hangover; the Gatwick Greenspace Goshawks had reformed and were fighting fit, ready to make up for last year's legendary loss in the Mole Valley Bird Race!
With teams of local birders and conservationists, the aim of a bird race is to see or hear as many species as possible in just 24 hours, which is like a highly-caffeinated version of a 'Big Year'. As well as the egoic need to spot that incredibly rare migrant, our incentive is to generate additional biological records for the area and raise awareness of species conservation.
3.45am: Our team (Tom F., Tom S., Laurie and myself), met up at Capel village in the south of Mole Valley. Our painful pre-dawn start was made worthwhile; as soon as we stepped out of the car, we were greeted by a serenade of 4 incredible Nightingales in the darkness...
4.30am. National Trust site Leith Hill
It was a drive further north into Mole Valley, catching some Tawny Owl pre-roosting chatter as we jumped out of the car at Leith Hill. Eyes adjusting to the darkness as we wandered over the heath, we were up 10 species before dawn chorus had even started, including some rather elusive ones: Nightingale, Skylark, Cuckoo, Woodcock and Nightjar...
Pausing to listen to bizarre calls of Nightjar...
Meanwhile, the Twittersphere alerted us that other teams were out of bed and on the move...
Risky business disturbing the zombie cows this early in the morning.
Slowest ever Slow-worm
After some initial intense listing-madness, we had hit 20 species well before 6am with a lovely Tree Creeper bursting into its descending trill.
Views from the heath
As well as the chorus of songbirds, we picked up the rattling alarm call of Mistle Thrush, the chaks of Jackdaw and cheks of Great Spotted Woodpecker. A pair of Siskin passed us directly overhead and soon after 6am we had hit the big 30, which is our average score for the Gatwick bird surveys.
'Tripit' is Tom Forward-speak for Tree Pipit, a stunning thing to hear in full song and awesome to witness its parachuting flight down onto a perch.
There was a moment when we thought Tom F. might have lost it, but then we were greeted to clear views and the song of a Spotted Flycatcher! Apparently they must have only arrived in the area the previous day or so.
A quick coffee break at Leith Hill Tower and a moment to interact with the locals...
Elsie is apparently good mates with the Leith Hill rangers and a bit of a biscuit fiend.
Sorry Elsie, but we've ticked Chaffinch already!
We soon bumped into the National Trust rangers 'Team Rita'. Although an alliance could not be agreed upon, there was a moment of ceasefire to enjoy the views of Mole Valley and the songs of Firecrest which drifted up as clear as a bell.
We had hoped for a sneak peak through the enemy scope
Highly entertaining were the rangers' descriptions of Goldcrest song vs. Firecrest; apparently the former sounds like a fairy trying to start her tiny car which gives out at the end....
While the latter was described as a tiny, manic sewing machine...
Right you are, lads.
North of the wall
Time was a wasting and our distraction techniques of rare warbler songs as ringtones had got old, so we left the 'scopers' to their passive-birding and headed back down into the valley to find more action.
Lots of lovely Bilberry was coming into flower on the path edges...
Then soon after 8am we had ticked our 40th bird with the first raptor of the day, a hovering Kestrel.
Everyone else on the Twittersphere was being pretty covert about the scores so far... however, we were astounded to see that David's team at least wasn't miles ahead of us at this early stage!
A chancey detour from our planned route resulted in mopping up a few farmland beauties, including Yellow Hammer, Meadow Pipit and...
We had reached the big five-oh!!
Following the footpath through the fields, we spied our second raptor of the day in the form of a formidable-looking Red Kite.
From down on the ground we could see Leith Hill Tower again, which resurrected some (what I felt was rather tame) twitter banter...
The call of a Moorhen led to a map-interlude, as we tried to locate the invisible pond out in a featureless field...
We gave up on the pond and were on the move again, nipping to a certain site for a faithful Reed Warbler. Another check in with the rivals...
Our 3rd raptor species of the day then burst onto the scene; a speedy Sparrowhawk out on the hunt!
Over to Newdigate Lakes to boost our wetland species tally, and we were manically ticking as soon as we stepped out of the car: Great Crested Grebe, Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Moorhen, Mallard and Tufted Duck...
A lonely Ring-necked Parakeet squawked loudly from the trees and a Kingfisher let off a series of excited piping calls.
Carrion Crow and Common Buzzard were battling high above us, then a Hobby shot past low down in pursuit of unseen insect prey. We sat down to take a breather, hoping for further views of the Hobby. Instead we were rewarded with something else...
A Goshawk is a pretty awesome thing to witness, prompting us all to look twice in future at any raptors wheeling the sky! It hung around for the best part of 5 minutes before sailing lazily off into the distance.
It was a warbler-fest in the scrubby areas around the lake, with Garden Warbler and Common Whitethroat in good numbers. A short distraction by a Dingy Skipper Butterfly chase and a final bird in the form of singing Reed Bunting; we had made good at the Newdigate lakes.
It was then off to the River Mole to find the armies of Little Egrets, Grey Wagtails and Great Egret... maybe.
Not quite what we were looking for, but after the entertainment we finally saw Grey Wagtail.
It was then off to our 'wildcard site' at Fetcham Common, finally allowing ourselves a proper break for lunch. As we ticked off a seperate list for this site, we were serenaded by Blackcap, Common Whitethroat and Garden Warbler once again. Also knocking about were Stock Dove, Lesser Black-backed Gull and some screaming Swifts.
Passive birding; get somewhere high up and let them come to you
The raptors were practically flirting with us today, with Sparrowhawk, Red Kite, Common Buzzard, Kestrel AND a pair of Hobby overhead!!
London on the horizon... is that a Peregrine in the distance?
Now new raptors were appearing, so it was over to Buckland Sandpits to stake out for some elusive wetland species. All seemed quiet at first, but we put in the time to scan and watch, scooping up Gadwall, Egyptian Goose and finally, a small group of Sand Martin.
Suddenly, the day was drawing to a quick close and the 8pm finishing time loomed. It was then a mad dash to try to find an end-of-day Barn or Little Owl, driving around country lanes while frantically scanning fields and mature Oaks. Meanwhile, the other teams were using a more passive approach...
Tempting in Barn Owls with strong continental lager?
At 7.55pm we finally stumbled into the pub (the opposite to how it normally goes), giving in our list to adjudicator Derrick for the final species tally. Everyone was shattered, but the sense of achievement (and perhaps relief) was high.
So finally, the winning team was...
Sneaky moment with the unguarded trophy...
Nope, not us!
BUT...At 82 species we did come in at a close second to Mr Stubbs (84 species), plus we beat Mr Bayley of Leith Hill himself!
The winning team 'Out for a Duck', still on top