Thursday, 7 May 2015

The longest day

Last weekend most sensible birdwatchers took in their local patch or, like Will, stayed at home and enjoyed the fruits of Spring, just happy to have birds around them. Some of us had bigger fish to fry- and by fish I mean birds- and by fry, I mean see- and by bigger, I mean as many as we could in a twenty four hour period- some of us had as many birds to see as we could in a twenty four hour period. Within the county. This is their story.
Many years ago I joined Duncan, Mark, and Jono on a birdrace around the county. We set a new inland county record that was broken the following year. Now we wanted that record back. With Jono up north somewhere, the first thing to do was recruit a fourth member of the team. Simon stepped up to the plate. The four of us had already embarked on some great birding feats together- driving for a week across the land of the Midnight Sun in Norway and Finland, circumnavigating the Mahgrebian desert, attacking ships on fire at the tannhauser gate- no hang on – that last one’s from Bladerunner- did I dream about rescuing a couple of droids from the Empire……yes, I think that was a dream. I am still very tired.
What was not a dream was meeting up with the team at Woodwalton Fen at midnight on Saturday. Now, the first rule of birdrace is that you make sure you get enough rest beforehand. With this in mind I was up at 5:30 am, Saturday morning to do a bit of last minute reconnaissance. I fully intended to get some sleep in the afternoon, but the excitement was too much and I arrived at Woodwalton having had a total of one hour’s interrupted sleep in the last eighteen. This was a worry.
The weather report was unfavourable, but the night had yet to turn for the worse as we set off. We were soon surrounded by singing Sedge Warblers and Grasshopper Warblers, and deer rustled in the darkness ahead of us- but there were no Nightingales and no owls. In the past these species were a given here, but the lack of piercing melodies and squeaking gate calls cast an ominous pall over our carefully planned stratagem. Fearing that the weather would break soon we rushed over to the Nene Washes. A gentle breeze was blowing, but we heard Spotted Crake and Corncrake, and our confidence returned.
Dawn revealed to us that our new found confidence was maybe akin to that shown by a mouse who walks into a catshop after his friends have told him that if he holds his breath, the cats won’t see him. After twenty minutes it was obvious that the cats could see us. The washes were dry. There were no flocks of waders and waterfowl, no great masses of herons, no cranes. A Whooper Swan was there, and we foolishly took this as a sign of encouragement. Breakfast at McDonalds- felt dirty.
It started raining, and we started driving. I have no idea where we went- I was in the back of the car and I don’t know the west of the county that well anyway. We stopped at some kind of industrial complex and saw a Peregrine perched on a tall chimney. It took off almost immediately and was lost to view- we were lucky. Then we found ourselves at a lock looking for Grey Wagtail. We were not lucky. This could a problem. We needed the easy birds to be, well, easy. If they were going to play hard to get this whole record breaking attempt was going to be like trying to convince an American that intelligent life exists on all six of the other continents- difficult and ultimately futile. Somewhat tired now- eat some peanuts.
Things improved at Monk’s Wood, where, in the space of five minutes and standing in one place, we saw Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Marsh Tit- it was back on. If we kept this rate up we could smash the record in four hours! Bombay mix!
Four hours later we had not even come close to breaking the record. We’d be lucky to do it in four days if our luck didn’t change. Paxton gave us some hope, with a Great Northern Diver, Red Kite, Whimbrel and Bar-tailed Godwit encouraging highlights, but we began to fall into a trance every time we stood and scanned the scene before us through our telescopes. The car journeys between sites became quieter, and despite Dunc’s rousing call to arms- if you can call it that- it was more like a tired plea from an orange suited victim to stop the waterboarding- we were beginning to face up to the fact that we might well fall short. By mid afternoon we had still not seen a Sparrowhawk.
The odd good bird here and there kept us in the hunt but it wasn’t enough. A Mediterranean Gull at Needingworth, Hobbies at Ouse Fen, Wheatear at fen Drayton, good birds one and all and would have normally meant that a good day’s birdwatching was being had, but where were the kingfishers, the Turtle Doves and the Corn Buntings? Very tired now. Get the muffins out.
At Wicken we bumped into the Balmfords as they enjoyed a nice stroll round the fen, and I envied their unhurried afternoon birding. We had no time to stand and stare, and left having not seen the Black-necked Grebes. Only the day before I had arrived at the same spot and seen them immediately, and I quite reasonably assumed it was going to be simple to see them again, when it mattered. With time beginning to run out we had to start making difficult choices, and we couldn’t hang around looking for just one bird. As we drove away James Hanlon sent us a picture he had just taken- of a Black-necked Grebe.
I think it was that moment that finally broke us. We soldiered on to Isleham and then to Pymoor, dropping in to Tony Martin’s place on the way, and Ruff, Caspian Gull and Wigeon were added to the list. Very, very tired.
The birds had simply not been there. The migrants had not migrated and the residents were not at home. The Glossy Ibis had suddenly decided that after weeks of being at Fen Drayton it no longer liked the place. We could have carried on into the night, and bystanders would have seen four ghostly shapes haunting the edge of Cambridgeshire like zombies, listening for the wailing of Stone Curlew, crunching the last of the Bombay mix- but enough was enough and we resigned to our fate, retreating from the battlefield before total annihilation.
120  was the final score. It felt like a heavy loss and we couldn’t quite believe we had fallen so far short of the magic 136. Four days on and I still haven’t seen a Sparrowhawk. There was a Turtle Dove purring down at Roswell Pits this morning- where was that on Sunday?