Saturday, 31 May 2014

Welsh May birdrace 2014 - By Zac Hinchliffe

So the current record for a May bird race in Wales in 143. This was set on 18th May 2008 by Marc Hughes, Chris Jones, Mike Duckham, Rob Sandham and Dewi Edwards. Back in the 1980s, a Welsh bird race featuring more than 120 was considered a good day, so 143 was astonishing. This record has yet to be broken, and the closest I personally have come was 133 back in 2012 featuring 3 of the current record holders. But as we all know, records are made to be broken!
As a result, 2014 was well thought out and following a relatively similar route to the record breaking day of 2008, we had a target set of 144. So how did we do?

Well, before I get to that, I'll paint a picture of what the day actually entailed.

I had intended on getting an early night the night before, but a late goal from Sergio Ramos put a stop to that! In the end, I think I actually fell asleep at about 1am (a mixture of excitement and the worry of not waking up to my alarm!) which made my 01:30 alarm seem all the more hideous! How was I going to last in a 24 hour bird race on 30 minutes sleep! Well, I didn't know, but a quick shower, cereal and some sandwich's made, I was picked up outside at 02:40 by Derek Evans and we rushed over to RSPB Conwy to meet Marc Hughes, Mike Duckham and Henry Cook. This was the first time an NGB was officially in the Welsh Bird Race, so I was keen to make an impact! We pressed 'go' on the bird race with a calling Water Rail, Sedge Warbler, Greylag Goose and Oystercatcher at 03:06.
Dawn birding on World's End
We started the first hour in a car, adding nothing to the list except a singing Robin and Blackbird before we arrived at our first major stop: World's End. (Well they do often say, the best stories start at the end! Then again, do they say that or have I just made that up?) Here we picked up some bird race goodies, such as Red Grouse, Whinchat, Red-legged Partridge, Tree Pipit, Bullfinch (a species that regularly gets missed!) and best of all Black Grouse. The site is famous for it and you couldn't go anywhere without hearing that fantastic bubbling and hissing of the lekking males...superb! Leaving World's End with 47 species on the list, it didn't take long to pick up Starling, House Sparrow and Lesser Black-backed Gull taking us to 50 by 06:08.

Adding Coal Tit to the list and getting remarkably excited...this is why bird races are brilliant!
Next stop was Shotwick boating lake, which is about as close to the English border as it's possible. Half the birds we saw here were in England on Burton Mere Wetland RSPB, but we were in it counted! A shout of 'Spoonbill!' saw me get on the bird as it fed in long juncus, swaying its head side to side. Something wasn't quite right though, which was soon evident when it lifted it's head and revealed a small orange bill! It was an 'Aylesbury Duck'! Potentially the mis-ID of the century! Things got a lot better with flying Avocet, Yellow Wagtail, Black-tailed Godwit, Teal (very hard to get at this time of year in North Wales!) and Wigeon. Mike came up with the bird of the site though by scanning a small pool and picking up a fantastic drake Garganey. Brilliant! That took us up to 75 species by 07.08.

Next stop, Gronant to visit the Little Tern colony. Here we got a couple of seabirds such as Gannet, Common Scoter, Sandwich Tern and a fantastic flock of at least 300 Little Tern, plus a bonus Grasshopper Warbler reeling in the dunes.

Now, to a place, I didn't really even know existed: Bodelwyddan Castle. Here we saw one of my favourite species: Marsh Tit, plus Jay and Long-tailed Tit. Two species that can be really easy to miss on birdraces.

Needless to say, we'd covered quite a lot of habitat at this point and the site visits seemed to be only picking up one or two birds, but there was still a lot of quality to add. A very very brief stop at Llanbedr-y-cennin saw 2 Hawfinch fly over calling, literally 10 seconds after setting foot out the car. Brilliant! Heading up onto the fields above Llanbedr, we got our 100th species at 10:35. Yellowhammer! Again, a bird in North Wales that are very few and far between.

Moving down the coast, we stopped off at Llanfairfechan to try and gain a diver sp to the list. This didn't disappoint with 9 species added to the tally including loads of Red-throated Diver, 3 species of auk, Common Gull (try and reliably see Common Gull in May in North Wales away from Aber Ogwen or Llanfairfechan...It's not easy!), but potentially the highlight of the day came from Marc who picked up a flying female/immature Velvet Scoter at 12:27. I soon got onto it as it flew into the bay with a couple of thousand unseasonal Common Scoter. What a cracking bird with massive white speclums!

I was nervous for the next bit... I was in charge! Some of you may know that I am studying a Research Masters at Bangor Uni specialising in Twite in the Nant Ffrancon Valley. It would be rude not to pay the valley a visit, so we did. I had a few targets set in my mind: Twite, Ring Ouzel, Common Sandpiper, Wheatear, Green Woodpecker and Wood Warbler. First off, we made a stop at the mouth of the valley and got a calling Wood Warbler. Next, we looked for Green Woodpecker and had our hopes raised by a few undulating Mistle Thrush, but sadly no peckers! The day prior, I was in the valley doing fieldwork and a bit of a raccay. I promised a 99% chance of Twite, a 90% chance of Ring Ouzel and a 100% chance of Common Sandpiper, however the previous day, I had to try really really hard to see a Wheatear...I was worried. Stepping out the car, I was pleased to hear a singing Ring Ouzel and within a few minutes, we'd picked up two Twite in almost the exact spot I said they'd be in! A Common Sandpiper was singing around us too. Leaving the valley, we made a mad stop on the A5 as Henry spotted a Wheatear. This was actually the only Wheatear we saw all day! We left the mainland on 120 species by 13:30 (I'd been awake for 12 hours at this point!)

 Orange, Blue, Lime - One of two Twite that featured in the bird race.

The very rare looking breeding Northern Wheatears lacking almost any orange.

Anglesey is a must for any Welsh bird race (OK, maybe not if you're basing your race around Pembrokshire). We had a target list of about 20 species which would take us to 140 and dangerously close to the Welsh record of 143!

As I said though, we had all been awake for 12 hours at this point, so a quick pit stop was in order. Our first Anglesey stop was at Penrhos Coastal Park. Yes, because it has the chance for decent waders and also because it has a really good burger van! We gave the incoming tide a really good luck and Henry picked up what looked like a black rock on the other side of the bay and claimed it looked like a Brent Goose. As Brent Goose had never been seen on a May bird race before and this must've been almost a kilometre away, I was somewhat sceptical, but the rock suddenly started to waddle and the sun caught it revealing a pale belly. It was a Pale-bellied Brent Goose! We also had Arctic and Common Tern here too. Next stop was South Stack which saw us pick up Puffin, Rock Pipit, Peregrine and Kittiwake.

The collie at Penrhos whom is the perfect tool to bring in the customers to give up lots of money! (it worked on me!)

Moving back across Anglesey now, we had Reed Warbler, Cetti's Warbler, Pochard, Barnacle Goose, Sand Martin and rather surprisingly a drake Ruddy Duck. My first since 2011 (and they were on 'The Reservoir' in Central Park, New York!). It's a shame their libido is so unstoppable because they are stunning birds!

They are both a beauty and a beast!

We made a quick dash to Cemlyn before heading up to the moors above Betws-y-coed. At Cemlyn, we managed Lesser Whitethroat, Mediterranean Gull, Sanderling, Turnstone, Manx Shearwater and a fantastic Little Owl. So that was us leaving Anglesey and we managed 19 ticks taking us to 139! This was already equalling 2013's bird race and we still had quite a few birds left to get. Sadly, we dawdled a bit getting off the island trying a couple of spots for Barn Owl, which failed horribly and also meant that we wouldn't be able to get above Betws-y-coed for about 21:20, which meant we weren't able to do the moors looking for Hen Harrier, Short-eared Owl or Merlin, which was really gutting as we'd have to mop up in the Gwydyr for crepuscular and nocturnal species if we wanted to break the record.

Approaching Capel Curig, the heavens opened. This was our worst nightmare! It would mean species like Nightjar and Woodcock might be reluctant to venture out and I can't see owls calling in heavy raing. Luckily, it was just a passing shower and it was relatively nice weather when we got up to the Gwydyr. It wasn't long before we heard our first churring. Nightjar 140. We were set for a decent next couple of birds, so we tried for drumming Sniper, but there was complete silence! There was possibly a very distant roding Woodcock, but we just couldn't clinch it. We decided we'd call it a night and we might get lucky on the drive back to Conwy. As luck would have it, Mike opened his window and heard the characteristic hissing of juvenile Tawny Owls. 141!

Despite being tantalisingly close to the record, but there were no likely species we could now try for, so getting back to the other car at Conwy RSPB at 11:30, we called it a day with 141 species which is the 2nd highest 24hr Welsh May Bird Race ever. I'll take that!

There are always some species that you should really have got on a bird race and this year was no exception. Try as we might, we couldn't get Sparrowhawk or Spotted Flycatcher, despite lots of trying and Marc and I seeing a Sparrowhawk fly over the A55 but no one else saw it, so we couldn't count it!

Thanks to Marc for driving and the rest of the team for the gen and making it so brilliant!

Species List: 141
Arctic Tern
Barnacle Goose
Black Grouse
Black Guillemot
Black-headed Gull
Black-tailed Godwit
Blue Tit
Brent Goose
Canada Goose
Carrion Crow
Cetti's Warbler
Coal Tit
Collared Dove
Common Gull
Common Sandpiper
Common Scoter
Common Tern
Feral Pigeon
Garden Warbler
Grasshopper Warbler
Great Black-backed Gull
Great Crested Grebe
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Great Tit
Grey Heron
Grey Wagtail
Herring Gull
House Martin
House Sparrow
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Lesser Whitethroat
Little Egret
Little Grebe
Little Owl
Little Tern
Long-tailed Tit
Manx Shearwater
Marsh Tit
Meadow Pipit
Mediterranean Gull
Mistle Thrush
Mute Swan
Pied Flycatcher
Pied Wagtail
Red Grouse
Red Kite
Red-breasted Merganser
Red-legged Partridge
Red-throated Diver
Reed Bunting
Reed Warbler
Ring Ouzel
Ringed Plover
Rock Pipit
Ruddy Duck
Sand Martin
Sandwich Tern
Sedge Warbler
Song Thrush
Stock Dove
Tawny Owl
Tree Pipit
Tufted Duck
Velvet Scoter
Water Rail
Willow Warbler
Wood Warbler
Yellow Wagtail

-Zac Hinchliffe
When Zac's not counting birds on patch (or making references to Star Wars), he's usually ringing birds on his regular Bangor site or is depressed that he does't have the money or time to twitch the latest big thing. Zac is 22 and currently studying a Research Masters at Bangor University and investigating Welsh Twite; adding a touch of science to his birding.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Really good blog and a breath of fresh air guys. Worlds End etc is an old stomping ground of mine so great to see it on the map. It brought back some good memories. Excellent read and keep up the good work!

    Andrew of the EFRS