I've been doing this January bird race with assorted chums for about 11 years now. Nigel, who instigated the whole tradition, has been doing it for a lot longer. He has kept meticulous records of what's seen each year, and they make interesting reading. Some species used to be dead certs but have become rare and infrequent (eg Scaup). For others the reverse is true (eg Little Egret). The average day count is 82, the record is (tantalisingly) 98. The cumulative list stands at a pretty impressive 151.
So on Thursday evening I stayed at Nigel's house, where he and Cheryle were so lovely and welcoming that it was ridiculous, and I had an early night in the hope of being up early enough Friday morning to hear the local Tawny Owl. I didn't manage this, but Nigel did, so it was the first bird on the list. My first bird, though, was the Robin who sent a tendril of song through the bathroom window as I got out of the shower, still well before first light.
The house is out in the wilds of rural Ninfield, and the garden attracts plenty of worthwhile birds. The bird race, therefore, always begins in Nigel's conservatory, drinking hot tea and squinting out into the garden as the growing light gradually reveals the bird feeders. Ticking off the likes of Blue and Great Tit, Dunnock, Wren, Chaffinch, Blackbird, Woodpigeon etc is a piece of cake. The real prize though, is Marsh Tit. For some reason Marsh Tits don't get up as early as their relatives, and we were still Marsh Titless when Nigel went out to collect Alice and Jasmine from Battle station. I stayed put, eyes glued to the feeders, added Coal Tit and Collared Dove. Nigel returned with the girls, served a fabulous breakfast, and Rob and then Jim rolled up as 9 o'clock approached. Then the Marsh Tit finally deigned to show its face, we added a close-range Goldcrest, and then it was into the cars and off to Fairlight cliffs. On the drive there we added Goldfinch, which had been a no-show in Nige's garden, and a few other sundry items.
Telescope views of the Foxes brought smiles to everyone's faces, and much comment about how much better-looking they were than the average London street Fox. Bird-wise, things were a little disappointing, but Nigel's hard work scoping the sea produced a few goodies, best of which was a small party of Common Scoters. We also got the expected Great Crested Grebes, Fulmars and Red-throated Diver.
A waddle back across the fields, and then on to Pett Level. Here, there is wet pasture and some large shallow pools, home (hopefully) to waders, wildfowl and geese, and on the other side of the road a high bank separating road from sea. We parked up and scanned the fields, wherein were Lapwings, Curlews and Starlings in abundance. We added Turnstone and various ducks, and a Marsh Harrier sulking in a bush. The full power of the Swarovski scope was deployed when Nigel picked up two Peregrines sitting companiably on a very distant gate.
Next stop was Scotney, the huge gravel pit that straddles the East Sussex/Kent border on the road through Camber towards Lydd. Often there is a rare grebe, duck or diver lurking somewhere out there but not today.
We carried on, Dungeness-wards, and took a detour down Dengemarsh Road and back, as this often yields partridges and sometimes wild swans. Today it didn't, but we did catch a lucky break when Nigel found all three of our missing thrush species - Mistle Thrush, Fieldfare and Redwing - feeding together in a roadside field.
We picked up some 'gen' in the hide that there was a Firecrest around, keeping company with a tit flock. So after leaving the hide we had a little search and in the scrubby willows nearby picked up the various 'pip' and 'prrp' and 'ping ping prrrr' sounds of the tit flock, but seeing the actual birds through the mesh of twigs was difficult. We spread out along the boardwalk and around a corner - I was on my own when I raised my bins to check the second bird I saw, a tiny mite monentarily in plain view on an exposed twig. I was so bowled over by its sheer prettiness that I didn't have the presence of mind to raise my camera, but I did start yelping 'Firecrest! Here! I'm looking at it!'. I heard Nigel exclaim that he could see it too. Then it dropped down. I hurried back to join the others but the Firecrest didn't reappear, though we found three or four Goldcrests.
By the time we'd finished our huge platefuls, it was getting on for 3pm. Short days really do help focus the mind. We decided to head for the beach next, in hope of finding our bogey bird - Glaucous Gull.
The Dungeness 'Glonk' is back for its third winter. In the course of its stay I've dipped it about five times, including twice on bird races. Nigel has seen it about five times (but not on a bird race). I really, really wanted to see it but couldn't help but feel pessimistic, especially as when we checked the regular beach flock it was a) very small and b) didn't have the Glaucous Gull in it. There are of course gulls elsewhere on the beach, lots of them, but we just didn't have time to check that many different places. Nevertheless, I stomped seawards, really in hope of seeing if all the Gannets were still around. Near the shore, I could see a large number of gulls flying about near the fishing boats, and a birder standing nearby, pointing his scope at them. Nigel went off to swap 'gen' with this birder, while the rest of us got distracted by a sea that was busy with Great Crested Grebes and auks (Guillemots and Razorbills both present in good numbers).
It was nearly 4pm now and there was really no light to speak of. So the camera went back in the bag for the last bit - a quick look at the RSPB reserve. We got in just before the centre closed, and headed for the big hide set on the corner of the pit, from where we found another newbie for the day list - Pintail. We also got another Great White Egret here. Then we went out to scan across the reedy bits of the reserve in hope of catching a Bittern going to roost.
All credit to Nigel - he stood up there on his shingly knoll until it was almost dark, after the rest of us had given up. But his patience was not to be rewarded with a Bittern. Instead, he found a distant Sparrowhawk, and we all heard the pained squealing of a Water Rail. The day total was 87, Glaucous Gull a new addition to the cumulative list, and everyone was tired but happy as we said our goodbyes and made our separate ways homewards. This could be the last bird race, as Nigel's looking to move to Norfolk - if so, I think it was a fitting send-off for what's been a highlight of my birding year for a long time.
ETA - here's the list, for anyone interested...
Blackbird, Black-headed Gull, Blue Tit, Brent Goose, Canada Goose, Carrion Crow, Cetti’s Warbler, Chaffinch, Coal Tit, Collared Dove, Common Gull, Common Scoter, Coot, Cormorant, Curlew, Dunnock, Feral Pigeon, Fieldfare, Firecrest, Fulmar, Gadwall, Gannet, Glaucous Gull, Goldcrest, Golden Plover, Goldeneye, Goldfinch, Great Black-backed Gull, Great Crested Grebe, Great Tit, Great White Egret, Greenfinch, Grey Heron, Grey Plover, Greylag Goose, Guillemot, Herring Gull, House Sparrow, Jackdaw, Jay, Kestrel, Kingfisher, Kittiwake, Lapwing, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Little Egret, Little Grebe, Long-tailed Tit, Magpie, Mallard, Marsh Harrier, Marsh Tit, Mistle Thrush, Moorhen, Mute Swan, Nuthatch, Oystercatcher, Peregrine, Pied Wagtail, Pintail, Pochard, Razorbill, Redshank, Red-throated Diver, Redwing, Reed Bunting, Robin, Rook, Sanderling, Shelduck, Shoveler, Smew, Song Thrush, Sparrowhawk, Starling, Stock Dove, Stonechat, Tawny Owl, Teal, Tree Sparrow, Tufted Duck, Turnstone, Water Rail, White-fronted Goose, Wigeon, Woodpigeon, Wren.