The West Midlands All Day Bird Race Autumn 2018
What is the West Midlands All Day Bird Race?
Bird races have been a prominent feature of birding, from almost the very beginnings of the hobby in its modern form. Indeed, they've spawned books, and even a film, The Big Year (2011), which told the story of three North American birders that engaged in a race over the course of a year to see the most amount of bird species in a year. In Britain, most birders, including yours truly keep a year list, but bird races here, typically take place over the course of a day. The most famous of these is the Norfolk Bird Race, where teams of birders race around the birding hot-spot that is Norfolk to try and see as many bird species in 24 hours. Its all done for charity and the winners even get a nice little trophy.
In the West Midlands region, instead of teams of birders racing frantically around the region, you instead have a number of different birding sites competing with each other. Some sites will have a team of birders scouring every nook and cranny all day long, others will have a just couple, or even one birder on duty. There's no trophy or even any formality when it comes to entering. All you have to do is either turn up a reserve and inform the site leader of your sightings, or if you fancy entering your local patch, then simply inform the chap organizing it of your intention to enter, which can be done via social media e.g. Twitter.
The West Midlands All Day Bird Race takes place twice a year, firstly in May to coincide with the arrival of summer migrants such as Common Cuckoo, Barn Swallow and Common Swift. The next takes place in September to coincide with the departure of summer migrants and the arrival of autumn and winter migrants including waders and ducks such as Eurasian Wigeon. The most recent one took place just over a week ago as I write, and saw 19 different sites across Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire and the West Midlands county taking part.
The West Midlands Region
Entering the Race
The West Midlands All Day Bird Race has been an event now for a few years, and for most of that time, I've had to be a mere spectator due to work commitments. However, 2018 has proven to be the year where fortune smiled on me, as both the Spring and Autumn events fell on weekends where I was off work. For the Spring event earlier this year, I decided to help out the team at the RSPB reserve, Middleton Lakes, a wonderful mosaic of woodland, meadow and wetland located in the Tame Valley. It's the one of the top birding spots in the West Midlands region and therefore had the luxury of being well watched by a great many birders. Visits to Middleton are always highly enjoyable, but despite reveling in the soothing call of Common Cuckoos' I couldn't help but wonder whether I was in the wrong place. A quick perusal of social media showed that some birders had elected to enter their local patch, and as I photographed an out of season male Common Pochard over on Dotshill Lake, I couldn't help but wonder whether I should have entered my local patch. As I watched the results come in via social media, I resolved to enter my local patch for the next race.
Virtually as soon as the date for the Autumn West Midlands Bird Race was announced, I contacted the chap organizing it, and officially entered my local patch, Elmdon Park.
Where is Elmdon Park?
The Race Day
Shortly after daybreak on Saturday 8th September, I began the West Midlands All Day Bird Race by stepping out of my car, and listening to the cacophony of bird song that flooded my ears from the surrounding forest that characterizes much of Elmdon Park. Without moving an inch, I was able to record 15 species, including Eurasian Nuthatch and Common Moorhen, the latter I could hear calling from a nearby pool located in Elmdon Manor Nature Reserve.
As the day progressed, I quickly ticked off almost all the typically common species that I would expect to see on any given visit, although a few such as European Greenfinch, Common Kestrel and Eurasian Bullfinch would remain elusive almost right to the very end. However, the first of quite a few highlights would occur shortly before 10 AM. Prior to the race day, the weather forecast hadn't looked very promising, especially given the fact that unlike many sites, Elmdon lacks any sort of bird hide. Fortunately though, the rain had held off for most of the morning, but the first few spots of rain had begun to fall whilst I was gazing at four European Herring Gulls' drifting lazily over Elmdon Meadow. Their familiar laughing like calls conjured up memories of the seaside, but as the rain began to fall more persistently, I briskly walked back to the car. After exiting the meadow, I walked down a driveway, flanked on both sides by mixed deciduous forest and past the former home of the Spooner family, Elmdon Grange. Interestingly one of their members, a Barbara Spooner married the famous anti slavery campaigner William Wilberforce in 1797.
A little further up the driveway, I came to a quaint medieval church, the Church of St Nicholas, although it's sometimes known simply as Elmdon Church or The Church in the Park. Interestingly, the original church was demolished and subsequently rebuilt by the Spooner family upon their purchase of the Elmdon Estate in 1780. It was here in the midst of the Church and the surrounding trees, including giant Beech trees, that I heard a bird call from somewhere up in the boughs. The call sounded almost identical to a bird that I'd seen earlier in the day, a Willow Warbler- 'huit' 'huit', and at first I ignored it, but a clicking 'tick tick' call afterwards compelled me to look up and sure enough I found myself looking at a fabulous male Common Redstart. Within a matter of seconds it was gone, but still, I was thrilled. It was the first Redstart I'd recorded at Elmdon for over 20 years and the first I'd seen there as an adult.
Whilst the rain lashed down, I took the opportunity to return home briefly to stock up on snacks and collect my furry assistant, Marley. By the time I returned to Elmdon, the rain had fortunately passed by, so round two of the West Midlands All Day Bird Race could commence in earnest. However, by this time it was late morning and progress had slowed dramatically. Although, a medium sized Raptor soaring high above the hill just before midday warranted a few glances through the binoculars before I confirmed it to be another female Sparrowhawk. In fact, the drama was happening far away from Elmdon at a site called Whitemoor Haye, situated close to the village of Alrewas in Staffordsire. Whitemoor Haye was another participant in the race, and at the time only a few species ahead of me in the standings. However, the birder covering the site would post a picture on social media that would certainly cause a few birding hearts to skip a beat. He posted a picture of what he initially deemed to be a Eurasian Woodcock, but even upon first glance I could see it was a Snipe species. As I know all too well, mistakes can be made easily in birding terms, so there was no judgment on my part. However, this bird seemed remarkably well marked along its under-parts for a Common Snipe, raising the possibility that the birder had inadvertently found a very rare Great Snipe. After a fair bit of, at times heated debate the conclusion was reached that it was indeed a Common Snipe, albeit an unusual looking one.
The drama was a useful distraction from a rather slow period of the day at Elmdon, where the only birds of note were Common Woodpigeons flying overhead. As the time ticked past 1 PM, I walked out of the forest surrounding St Nicholas Church onto the hillside that overlooks most of the park and indeed much of the surrounding area, including the distant skyline of the City of Birmingham. Following the path down the hillside, I completed another circuit of Elmdon Lake, where I made note of 3 Canada Geese that conveniently dropped in to give me another species for the day. From there, I followed the course of Hatchford Brook, a small brook that feeds the nearby River Cole. There are several bridges that cross the brook, but the one that interested me mostly was one situated about half a mile upstream. Here the banks of the brook are coated with vegetation, in contrast to the bare banks that characterize the brook close to the lake. Earlier in the day I had glimpsed Grey Wagtails foraging close to the waters edge, and hoped to see them again. However, I would be greeted by a sight that would surpass anything a Grey Wagtail could offer. As I stood on the bridge gazing downstream, I heard it first, a short sharp whistling call that I recognized instantly as a Common Kingfisher. Then I saw it, a blue flash heading past my position, under the bridge and upstream where it was lost to view within a matter of seconds. What a privilege that was, I'd seen Kingfishers in the park as a child, but had never had the pleasure as an adult.
If that wasn't enough, barely a few minutes later, as I walked away from the bridge. I noticed a chocolate brown Labrador dog bounding enthusiastically towards the brook. A moment later my ears picked up a rather harsh crow like call. Wheeling around I beheld the elegant form of a Little Egret rising quickly from its hiding place on the brook, another new species for the day.
The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
The second half of the day after lunch, would see me joined by my girlfriend and her dog, and as the afternoon whittled on, we added a few more species including European Greenfinch, Eurasian Bullfinch and Common Raven. But, the main highlight of the day would come a little after 6:30 PM. We were walking around Elmdon Manor Nature Reserve, a tiny wildlife island characterized by a walled garden full of fruit trees, that reflected its bygone days as a productive orchard. To some its known as The Secret Garden, but to me its known as The Shire. I gave it the name after my first visit on a glorious summer's day many years ago. The sheer lushness of the place coupled with the abundance of wildlife made me feel like I'd stepped into the world of Tolkien so the name seemed apt.
I had already walked around 'The Shire' several times during the day, but on this particular occasion with dusk just around the corner, I was greeted with undoubtedly my biggest highlight of the day. Elmdon Manor has been known as a local hotspot for Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers for many years, as the former orchard serves as the ideal habitat for pairs to breed. However, these small sparrow sized woodpeckers can be frustratingly elusive and I'd failed to see one at 'The Shire' for over two years. During that time I had almost resigned myself to the fact that the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was now extinct in Elmdon Park. However, as I walked around the garden itself, admiring the ripening apples, I saw a small black woodpecker fly in a characteristic undulating fashion above my head and settle in a tree. I knew straight away that it wasn't the more common Great Spotted Woodpecker, as they are much larger, but as I turned round, raising my binoculars at the same time I caught a fleeting glimpse of the barred black and white wings which confirmed the ID for me. A fantastic sight.
Close of Play
With dusk approaching, we completed another circuit of the park. Each time I had walked around Elmdon Lake I had made note of the resident Mute Swan family. The large male is always a formidable sight and his devotion to duty is exemplary. In the past I've seen Elmdon's resident male or 'Cob' swan drive away geese, other swans, dogs and even people if they should happen to get too close. Earlier in the year, 7 cygnets hatched out of a clutch of eggs laid by the female or 'Penn' on the island in the middle of the lake. One of the cygnets disappeared around a month or so after hatching and was presumed to have died. Another was taken into the care of the Wychbold Swan Rescue Center near Worcester more recently after being seen to be struggling by local people. As far as I know, he or she is doing well in care. For the past few weeks then, there have been 5 cygnets on the lake, and hopefully with autumn in full swing, all 5 should fledge successfully and ultimately find their own territories.
A final walk around Elmdon Manor produced 3 species that brought my total up to a surprising 59. Firstly I found a Little Grebe on the algae covered pool. Little Grebes breed there every year but are usually elusive, so was overjoyed when I heard its distinctive high pitched call. Then, after exiting the garden, I glimpsed a male Common Kestrel hunting in one of the adjacent fields. Its characteristic hovering technique leaving little doubt regarding its identification. Finally, with the light fading, I heard the unmistakable hooting of a male Tawny Owl to give us our final species of the day.
Ultimately my total of 59 would result in my local patch finishing joint 18th out of 19 sites competing across the West Midlands Region, but my ranking was irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. My all dayer had been a resounding success. I had started the day with the hope of recording 50 species, so to record 59 was phenomenal. Moreover the rediscovery of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Common Redstart and Common Kingfisher at Elmdon left me with a renewed sense of passion for my local patch, and eagerness to do it all again at Elmdon in the spring.
The Complete List of the Birds Sighted
© 2018 James Kenny