Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Winter Challenge

Just how many species of birds are lurking in the dead of winter within the Ely 10. One way to find out is to go and look for them. Actually, come to think of it, that's the only way to find out. You don't have to try and find every one in just one day, but in this time poor world we live in it would be virtually impossible to account for the maximum possible total without a certain self-imposed pressure from the Beast that calls itself Bird-Race; otherwise valuable daylight is lost as soon as you find the first "special birding moment", and you lapse into mere birdwatching. Accumulation not appreciation is the name of the game- a game Duncan, Will, Bruce and myself played on Sunday last.

We set ourselves the target of 100- a nice round figure that seemed to be a reasonably attainable and reasonably impressive target, and as the faded light of dawn washed across the winterworn reedbed of Wicken Fen our chances of achieving this total seemed pretty good, as, floating up from its roost, a male Hen Harrier breezed past. this was one species that i thought may be hard to see without the luxury of time, and when three Cranes flew over a bit later on, another scarce bird that can easily disappear into the surrounding countryside, things were looking good. We left Wicken with over 70 species in the bag, confident that we'd be done by lunchtime.
But just as the final ascent to the top of Everest is the hardest part of the climb, the final few species got on a birdrace can prove very difficult. Our second stop was Chippenham fen, a radical change of habitat, and one which we thought would bring us all the woodland species that are absent from the rest of the fens. A Red kite was a lucky spot as we strolled down the path to the woods, but there was where our luck changed. Almost deathly quiet. The creaking of wind battered trees. Some Great Tits on a birdfeeder. Not even any water buffalo. Maybe this wasn't going to be as easy as all that.
returning back towards the middle of the '10, we stopped at Fordham Woods, a real slice of swampy willow carr-wilderness in miniature. Unlike Chippenham, Fordham was alive with birds, and good ones too. Treecreepers, Siskins and best of all Marsh Tits. I think all of us could have easily spent the day there admiring the friendly and very vocal tits- birds that are sadly all too absent from the rest of the Ely area.
Dragging ourselves away we headed to Ely for a contrasting ten minute trip to the sewage works, where we saw Chiffchaff and Grey Wagtail, and then on to the washes at Welney.
It was make or break time now, as we knew that if we were going to get anywhere near our total, we had to take a big bite out of the target here, with all the wildfowl and waders that frequent the washes in winter. There are still 600 Bewick Swans roosting at Welney, and we picked out a few in a Whooper flock just beyond Littleport, and on the reserve itself we were fortunate to find a Goldeneye and Smew amongst the more regular visitors. Sadly the waders let us down, and without Ruff or Curlew on the list we headed down the west side of the washes with a growing sense of desparation.
Hopes were raised somewhat at Manea, with Brambling and Tree sparrows taking our total to 95. If we stopped off at Mepal for Jack Snipe, we'd only need four gull species at the roost at Witcham for a down to the wire finish.
no Jack Snipe.
Hopes blown away by the now painful wind on the wash bank. worse than that it was becoming evident that the gull roost, usually so reliable was not developing, and only a fraction of the numbers were there as the light began to fade. Finally a Ruff was found and a couple of Yellow-legged Gulls arrived. A short-eared Owl flashed across the bank to leave the final tally on 99.
well..... what would we do next year if we'd cracked it this time?


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