As it had been a few years since Vince and I completed a bird race, we decided to have another go earlier this year. We don’t race against other teams, just the clock – with the aim of recording as many species as possible in 24 hours. This year we also had an extra member as Mike also wanted to join the fun (?)! Also this year we had a slight change in strategy as rather than a straightforward 24 hour day we decided to use 24 hours across 2 days and so use some of the night time to take up driving time. This enabled us to do some coastal Suffolk sites which is not usually feasible. Our previous best tally had been 132 species recorded of which 8 had been only heard, back in 2009. So our goal was to do better than that, with an ultimate aim of seeing if we could reach the 150 mark.
And so we found ourselves at 7pm on Sutton Heath in Suffolk in the evening of the 24th May hoping to start or list with a wood warbler that had been holding territory ……. But things took an unexpected turn when during the walk out a little owl flew across us! Too good a species to ignore we set the clock going there and then – and conveniently exactly 7pm! – we were off! The wood warbler soon followed and showed quite well in its favoured tree. Obviously easy woodland species followed too of which a treecreeper was probably the next best. It was then back to the car and off to Westleton, where a quick stop on the heath yielded Dartford warbler and yellowhammer. En route to Minsmere a few roadside stops added turtle dove, nightingale (heard only), sparrowhawk and stone curlew to the list, but sadly no bullfinch. At Minsmere a garden warbler was a bonus as we headed to the north wall and species mounted up quickly as we headed to the east hide. Highlights from the hide included a distant bittern flying over the reedbed, a few little terns, pintail and ruff. A quick conversation also led us to counting the barnacle geese which now seem to be fairly established in the area. Sadly though we did not manage to get med gull or kittiwake, which are usually present on the islands. As dusk was approaching we had to head back to the heath to try for some nocturnal species. First to fall was a distant calling tawny owl, but no nightjars!! We moved further down towards Dunwich and walked out on the heath there until finally the distinctive churring could be heard in the distance. One started calling much nearer as we walked back to the car, but sadly could not be located for a sight view. All in all a very fruitful couple of hours on the coast and as we left we were already in the 70s!
The drive to the Brecks converted tawny owl from a heard to a seen when one swooped in front of the car and a little further on we bumped into a barn owl quartering a roadside verge giving us excellent views. At 1am we reached Lakenheath to grab a few hours sleep – as it was a lovely day and warm evening (yes we were that lucky!), we just threw sleeping bags onto the grass and slept under the lovely starlit night.
A mere 3 hours later we were up and setting off down the track to head to the 3rd plantation. Dawn had broken by then and the chorus was in full swing, but one of the first birds actually seen was…..a little owl sitting on a sign-post – typical! Further on we were surprised to see the hobbies up and about already and bitterns were booming from the reedbeds. A couple of bearded tits also showed themselves as well as a cuckoo or 2. As we reached the 3rd plantation we heard a golden oriole, but were not able to glimpse this jewel and another heard only record was of a water rail as we reached the viewpoint at the end. Another barn owl gave a great display here and we also picked up a buzzard or 2, one of which mobbed another bird, which we were surprised to see was a short-eared owl – our 4th owl species and a real piece of luck. We were a little disappointed not to see the cranes though and as we were tight on time couldn’t give them long so we started the long walk back. Another bonus en-route was the whooper swan that seemed to have set up residence with the mute swans, but best of all as we passed the larger reedbed in front of the 2nd plantation, VK spotted a crane’s head virtually hidden in the reeds. Eventually 2 birds appeared in a more open area and showed really well! Back at the main lake, a drake garganey flew in just to complete the collection we needed from this site. All was going very well!
From Lakenheath we headed over to Santon Downham where a special treat came in the shape of an otter on the riverbank! Unfortunately though no sign of the hoped for grey wagtail there – although family parties of nuthatch, crossbill and siskin were all very nice! The real bonus here was mandarin on the river, which was completely unexpected. A stretch of nearby clearfell held tree pipit and woodlark. A stop off at Lynford stag added firecrest, but the hawfinch we had seen only a few weeks earlier at the arboretum, no longer seemed to be around.
We then headed up to Flitcham, adding tree sparrow along the way and a real bonus in the form of a fly over red kite well spotted by VK. Abbey farm at Flitcham immediately proved a worthwhile stop with a kingfisher sitting in front of the hide and grey partridge out in the fields – as well as our 3rd little owl! A brief stop at Hunstanton for fulmar and we were on to Titchwell, where again some key species fell quite quickly – specifically the waders (excepting bar-tailed godwit!), brent goose, gannet, eider, red-crested pochard, little gulls and a quite unexpected red-breasted merganser. A quick look in the bushes failed to get us bullfinch or lesser whitethroat though. We didn’t have to wait long to catch up with lesser whitethroat though as one was singing from roadside bushes at Choseley along with the target corn bunting. Breaking news of a temmincks stint had us heading to the marshes at Burnham Norton, where we also picked up spoonbill. Some people there had also just seen montagu’s harrier in another area, but a quick look proved fruitless for that species, so we decided to head to Sculthorpe Mill, which was apparently good for spotted flycatcher – upon our arrival we were not that hopeful, but then out of nowhere there was one in the bushes the other side of the stream – well spotted MB – and so off we went to Cley. By now though new species were becoming quite difficult, but a greenshank outside daukes was new and a cetti’s warbler materialising in front of us meant it moved from a heard to a seen record and from the beach we finally got sandwich tern and kittiwake. Frustratingly a drake teal was only seen by one team member before it disappeared from view so could not be counted in the final tally. With only about 30 mins of time left we decided to drive to the beachside pools at Salthouse, but the purple sandpiper which had been around for a few days was no longer present, so with our last 10 minutes and on 140 species we decided for a final effort to climb up on Gramborough Hill – a new site for MB who discovered for years he had been going up the wrong hill! A quick scan of the surrounding marsh by MC located a whimbrel and then our final bird was a whinchat sitting on some wires – 142 species recorded and all but 4 seen (nightingale, nightjar, golden oriole and water rail)! A great fun filled day and tiring day was had by all and we had a new personal best tally……not quite the 150, but tantalisingly close and left us ruing some misses such as teal, bullfinch, wigeon, bar-tailed godwit, med gull, spotted redshank, grey wagtail, yellow wagtail, wheatear, montys to name the obvious!
A special thanks to Stuart White of the Bird ID Company (http://www.birdtour.co.uk/) for his input to the planning of our day!