Strictly Birding by Joy Croot
Joy is a Lincolnshire Bird Club member based in Healing, Grimsby, and sent this article about her big year in 2019;
It all began at Christmas 2017 when I received a DVD of the film ‘The Big Year’ starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson. Based on a true story, it relates the triumphs and tribulations of three Birders in the States who attempt to break the record for the highest number of birds seen in a year. It’s an hilarious, moving and inspiring watch and the kernel of an idea was hatched.
With retirement planned for the end of 2018, my husband John and I would spend 2019 challenging ourselves to see just how many bird species we could find in the UK. To add an element of competition and incentive, five birding friends in Cheshire agreed to join us in the endeavour, forming the ‘Birding Buddies.’. We did our research during 2018 and recce’d various locations and reserves; appropriate holidays were booked for throughout 2019, and we were good to go. We opened the curtains on January 1st: posing in pole position on the bird feeder was a handsome male Great Spotted Woodpecker. We had our first tick. By late morning, a trip over to Aldi in Hull, secured a Waxwing on the list. Our Big Year 2019 had begun. First trip was the aptly named ‘New Year List Booster,’ a guided-holiday in the Cairngorms, based in Nethy Bridge (think Spring Watch). We scooted round northern Scotland, with Ptarmigan, Snow Goose, Crested Tit, stonking views of Capercaillie, American Wigeon, and Black Grouse being highlights.
Valuable field craft was learned. For example, never have a sandwich in one hand whilst simultaneously holding a mug of coffee in the other. When the shout of “Goshawk!” goes up, moving binoculars to eyes becomes a dangerously tricky manoeuvre and the raptor is long gone. Nevertheless, I ended the holiday on 110, one more than John. He had made the big mistake of nipping into a village shop for a newspaper and missed the White-tailed Eagle drifting majestically across the horizon. Frustratingly, January ended on a dip for the Dusky Warbler but compensation came in the form of Shorelarks, after four perishingly cold trips to a Lincolnshire beach. A gorgeous, showy Great Grey Shrike in Clumber Park, on a bizarrely warm day, was February’s best tick. I was now on 148 and feeling hopeful that 200 (the original target) would be achievable. The Bird Guides app had become my best friend; an addiction of choice; a daily fix. Hawfinches can be elusive, but we knew of a dead cert place in Lancashire; Sizergh Castle. A hotel was booked; reports checked .... “yes, seen every morning” ....; long, twisty, dark, foggy drive across; for an early start next day. We arrived full of hope and expectation. We stared into the slowly clearing, dawn gloom for a long, cold, two hours. Nothing, not a thing. Maybe the ‘dead certs’ were indeed... well, er, dead? We retreated to the only place frustrated twitchers can go and warmed up with a Cappuccino. Obviously, the blighters showed well the next day when we were safely 175 miles away back home. Undaunted, (a useful attribute for a Birder), we trekked over to the same site a couple of weeks later and were rewarded with good views. Whilst we were on our ‘Birding Buddies’ territory in the west, our friend, Dot, helped us to find Ring-necked Parakeet, Willow Tit and Cattle Egret. A lifetime bogey bird of ours had always been Little Owl, but a tip-off about a breeding pair in a Doncaster cemetery enabled us to locate them, with much rejoicing complete with victory dance. (Probably not that appropriate for a cemetery).
Spring migration was now getting underway and we ticked off Ferruginous Duck (yes, I know, they can be of iffy heritage, these quackers), Spotted Crake, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wood Sandpiper, and an unusually showy and vocal Nightingale. One Sunday I was just about to put a chicken in the oven for dinner when news came through of a Black Tern 20 minutes away. A nanosecond of debate followed, about the merits of a dead Hen versus a beautiful, bouncy-flighted stunner. Needless to say, the Tern won and dinner that evening was an omelette. The first week of May saw us off to the Isles of Scilly for a couple of weeks. Before embarking the Scillonian, we bagged the long staying Glossy Ibis in Penzance, an easy twitch from the Cornish road. Hoopoe, Stone Curlew, Cuckoo, Black Redstart, possible Golden Oriole, Turtle Dove were notable spots in the beautiful isles. A Garden Warbler did me the honour of being my 200th bird. It’s a truism for the Scillies that you will always be on the wrong island. We had only just landed on Tresco from our base on St Mary’s, when we heard that a Lesser Yellowlegs was on Bryher. We downed our coffee and rushed back to the quay for the next boat to the neighbouring island. As we disembarked, vague queries were proffered regarding the returning boat to St Mary’s: equally vague replies were received. The familiar adrenaline rush, anxiety, half-jogging, frantic peering around for fellow twitchers, took over. Old Yellowlegs was duly found and admired, but our euphoria didn’t last long as it slowly dawned that we could have a problem. It became apparent that the last boat had left for St Mary’s precisely 5 minutes before: the next boat would be tomorrow. Stranded! Sleeping under the stars even on beautiful Bryher was somehow not appealing. Thank goodness for mobile phones, complete with a reasonable phone signal for, after much negotiation on the price, a rescue boat was arranged which whizzed us back to base in some style. On the long journey home to Lincolnshire , we pulled into a car park in Devon and there on a bush, straight in front of the car, was perched an obliging male Cirl Bunting. Easy tick. Unfortunately, our fellow competitor, Dot, hadn’t seen it, so we spent the next 3 hours trying to relocate one.
The next few weeks featured Baikal Teal, Temminck’s Stint, Serin, Great Reed Warbler (surely, one of the noisiest birds?). A foray into our garden one night, in jimjams and slippers, was probably our most eco-friendly twitch. Silhouetted on top of an oak tree, ‘our’ vociferous Tawny Owl made it on to the list.
Then a week in Suffolk produced Woodchat Shrike, Iberian Chiffchaff, Wood Lark (one of the loveliest singers), Lesser Grey Shrike, Little Owl (another, yey!), Savi’s Warbler, Caspian Gull, bringing my running total to 231. But it was bird 232, an almost mythical creature especially in the north, that gave me greatest pleasure. A few very wet hours in Thetford Forest finally yielded a tiny flying barcode over my head. Yes! A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Frustratingly, John was just too late to see it. A break in Anglesey secured us Black Guillemot, along with the usual range of sea birds. One of our targets was the scarce Roseate Tern. After a bit of research, we learnt it was breeding on an off-shore island: the only thing for it was to take an exhilarating Rib Ride, James Bond-style. The bird’s distinctive call enabled us to successfully locate it, albeit through sea-splattered bins. The following weeks produced Nightjar, Woodcock, White-rumped Sandpiper, Little Bustard, Marsh Warbler, Goshawk, Montague’s Harrier, but one of the most memorable was two displaying male Honey Buzzards. It was my third visit to the Raptor Viewpoint in an attempt to connect with them, so their awesome wing-clapping performance was all the more satisfying. By August my enthusiasm for this way of birding was starting to wane and I was almost dreading a report on BirdGuides of something scarce, with that dilemma of ‘do I really want to drive hours to see a Siberian Lesser-striped Do Da?’. Such a report appeared mid-afternoon at the end of August. We decided to go for it, grabbed our birding gear, loaded the car and sped off to Filey.
Sometimes seeing the target bird is the easy part but finding its general location can be the challenge and such was the case here. No-one locally seemed to know where this small pond on a farm was. After driving in ever decreasing circles, we bumped into a couple of local birders who, as the light was rapidly fading , pointed us in the right direction. Bingo! An elegant juvenile Black-winged Stilt. What a lovely bird for my 250th. A weekend at Spurn Migfest reignited our enthusiasm with some bracing sea-watching that enabled us to improve the pelagics section of our lists. A dubious bonus was that we became TV z-listed celebrities having been filmed for Look North, trudging down the road at an unearthly hour on our way to the sea-watch point. Autumn migration was now in full flow and as a warm-up for our next adventure we tracked down Little Crake, Red-necked Phalarope, American Golden Plover, all on our way to Manchester airport for a trip to Shetland. Yellow-browed Warblers seemed to be leaping about in every bush; Common/Mealy Redpolls, Short-toed Lark, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Olive-backed Pipit, Red-backed Shrike, Lapland Bunting, Iceland Gull, Greenish Warbler and the ever present pirates of the sky, Bonxies, were the standout birds. Perhaps the rarest flying creature that we saw was the huge Monarch Butterfly.
We were also very lucky to have several sightings of otter. Another Big Birding mistake is to check on BirdGuides for reports from the place you’ve just left. Don’t do it! The following couple of weeks in Shetland were off the scale for rarities. Nevertheless, I was now on 271, nip and tuck with my friend Dot, John 258. The other four were trailing in our wake: 280 seemed like a real possibility now. Next up was North Norfolk, accompanied by our Birding Buddies. The sheer number of birds along the coast was quite a revelation and was a stark contrast to the rather depleted biodiversity of my home patches in NE Lincolnshire and Peak District.
We twitched the Hooded Merganser and Grey Phalarope at Titchwell, en-route to Wells-next-the-Sea. Having several pairs of experienced eyes was a huge advantage and by the week’s end we had well over 116 species including Firecrest, Rough-legged Buzzard, Jack Snipe, Black Redstart, Little Owl (becoming a bit like buses now!), Ring Ouzel. A particular target was Common Crane. John and I set off to the location allegedly 1 hour away. After a tortuous journey, we arrived 2.5 hours later with light rapidly failing, and tempers well and truly frayed. All of a sudden, the sun emerged from the dusky gloom, catching the silvery feathers of a quartering Barn Owl whilst three Cranes strutted, flew, and called. All was well with the world again. What a treat. 277. East Yorkshire came up trumps towards the end of autumn migration with a 1st-winter male Bluethroat, Pallas’s Leaf Warbler and Black Brant (yes, I did tick it.. though maybe very strictly speaking, it is not a separate species ??!). Yet another Little Owl, peering out of a haystack, helped to make up for all those Little Owl-less years.
Much more of a tricky ID was the ‘mega’ bird down a remote lane near Bridlington. A confused and stressed gathering of twitchers earnestly tried to morph a Common Kestrel into its Lesser cousin. ‘Collin’s’ app was pored over and the finer details debated. Happily, our patience was rewarded when a couple of hours later two kestrels flew close together and the subtle difference was apparent. Relief. West Yorkshire was the site of our next adventure which involved a ducking and a duck. Squelching along a flooded, muddy mile-long path I heard a yell behind me. I looked around, and there was my husband emerging Venus-like from the waves having slipped on the mud and completely submerged in a pond. It was a commendable imitation of the diving duck we were pursuing. Unfortunately his camera didn’t survive the dunking but at least we did see the smart Ring-necked Duck. December was a lean month but determination paid off. Only a few hours of 2019 remained as we sped up to Saltholme on a sunny New Year’s Eve for our sixth attempt to locate a Long-eared Owl. Our luck was in with a well-concealed bird having been located by one of the wardens that morning. We came; we saw, and a traditional victory dance performed. Job done. A fantastic bird, which made for a quality finale to a memorable year. So, scores on the doors? John 269; Dot 280; me 283. Did I enjoy the year? Absolutely! Would I do it again? Absolutely not...... although.........there’s always my ‘All Time UK List’ to work on. Mmmm, I’m just going to click on the BirdGuides app.......!
2020 Postscript: In contrast to last year, I’m learning to appreciate the benefits of stress-free local patch birding during these constrained times..... not to mention our reduced carbon footprint!