Friday, 1 May 2015

On bird racing in London

For a number of years in the Nineties, I took part in what used to be called simply the Bird Race - later, the Birdwatch UK Bird Race. At its height a nationwide event which raised significant funds each year for BirdLife International, it was a county-based contest every May where teams of up to four birders spent a day trying to see and/or hear as many species as possible. In London, any day total reaching 100 species was considered very respectable, and occasionally we just exceeded this figure. But on 7 May 2006, the last time the somewhat fluid line-up of the 'North London Old Boys' took part, Bob Watts, Roy Beddard, Andrew Self and I were fortunate in setting a new record for the capital: 113 species.

Eurasian Whimbrel on the Thames foreshore at Rainham today - a difficult 'big day' species.
Such was the exhausting pace of the event that, despite some good birds, it could rarely be called fun. It's essentially about local knowledge, logistics and listing as much as bird-finding, and there's precious little quality time to actually enjoy the birds you do see. That's the price of getting a good total. And having got the best total nine years ago, none of us has since felt any real inclination to have another go - until now.

My first of the year in Britain, this cracking male Whinchat was on the Rainham patch today.
Featuring a slightly tweaked line-up, with Paul Hawkins taking Roy's place, we are back this year to try again. Whether or not we get anywhere close to the 2006 record remains to be seen, but it's worth a shot. And that means preparing hard, which is why my alarm went off at 0300 hours this morning and I then spent 10 hours in the field checking sites between the Lea Valley and the Thames for our upcoming 'big day' on Monday 4th May, a Bank Holiday with a decent weather forecast (currently) of south-east winds and a mixture of sunny spells and rain showers.

A record shot of today's Pectoral Sandpiper, a genuinely rare species in national terms in spring.
Today's scouting trip produced many good birds, including this Pectoral Sandpiper at Rainham Marshes RPSB which was originally found two days ago by Andy Tweed. It took an hour to relocate today, and in fact probably came in with a flock of c20 Dunlin to the Target Pools at c1250. It was my first at the site and officially my 200th 'patch' species - a positive omen for the challenge ahead?

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