Tuesday, 7 January 2014

A 2013 tale: One Family's One Hundred Bird Race

#18 Smew - Talkin Tarn, Cumbria
It might just be an impression from higher visibility thanks to social media, but there does seem to have been a recent trend for new variants in this game we call biological recording - from the challenge of identifying 1000 species in a 1km square to vying to be high-up the iSpot rankings. I have indulged in this this past year too, by racing my family to try and be the first to tick off a list of 100 bird species. Recording wasn't the main aim, but it has reminded me of the enjoyment of getting out and spotting stuff and that is where it all starts.

#32 Wigeon Wigeon Pigeon Wigeon - Caerlaverock, D&G
My family and I are not particularly experienced or knowledgeable naturalists, but we do all like
birdwatching. My parents "lit the flame" buying a bird book on a family holiday in Ireland in the late 1980s to identify a heron, and from there onwards family holidays were often designed to expand our West Midland horizons to extend our life lists. When my now husband and I first met we spent much of our time roaming the coast and countryside of mid-Wales in search of birds. Birdwatching has been a big part of my life and determined my career path into the world of nature data.

#86 Black Guillemot - Loch Ryan, D&G
These days I have broadened my interest, and now know even less about even more when it comes to nature. We have spent a lot less time in the pursuit of birds in the UK in the past few years, becoming immersed in moths and trees here and reserving birdwatching for trips to places such as the Cevennes, the Alps and the Ebro delta in Europe. So at the end of 2012 when my sister suggested a way that we might rekindle that early "building a life list" bird hunting incentive, it seemed like it might be a fun way to spend a year when we knew we wouldn't be travelling abroad.

The Players


Elaine, Tim and my Dad - Mullet, Co Mayo - July 2013
Main: Me. My sister Elaine. My dad. My husband Tim.
Supporting characters: My mum. My mother-in-law.

The Challenge


Identify (see or hear) all the 100 birds listed in Britain and Ireland in 2013.

The Birds


What 100 birds? We did some negotiating after Elaine first had the idea. The concept was that every bird on the list should be a nice to see bird. We wanted a mixture of common and widespread species and some more challenging or rarer ones. But what they all had to have in common was that spotting them should bring a gasp of delight, a shout of joy or a simple smile to your face.

We each nominated species. I live in Scotland near the Cumbria border, Elaine in Cardiff in Wales and my Dad in the West Midlands in England, so some species would be easier geographically for each of us than others. I must admit to nominating one or two things like black grouse where I knew I would have the edge! But this wasn't really about racing against each other, but just seeing how close to the magic 100 each of us could get.

Our target list, finalised in the 2012 inter-Christmas-New Year lull, was as follows:
Avocet; Barn Owl; Barnacle Goose; Bearded Tit; Bewick's Swan; Bittern; Black Grouse; Black Guillemot; Brambling; Brent Goose; Bullfinch; Chough; Common Gull; Common Sandpiper; Common Scoter; Common Tern; Crested Tit; Crossbill; Cuckoo; Dartford Warbler; Dipper; Eider; Fieldfare; Firecrest; Fulmar; Gadwall; Gannet; Garden Warbler; Garganey; Golden Plover; Goldeneye; Goosander; Grasshopper Warbler; Great Crested Grebe; Great Northern Diver; Green Sandpiper; Green Woodpecker; Grey Wagtail; Hawfinch; Hen Harrier; Hobby; Jay; Kingfisher; Kittiwake; Knot; Lapwing; Lesser Spotted Woodpecker; Linnet; Little Grebe; Little Gull; Little Owl; Little Ringed Plover; Little Tern; Long Tailed Tit; Manx Shearwater; Merlin; Nightjar; Nuthatch; Osprey; Peregrine; Pied Flycatcher; Pintail; Puffin; Purple Sandpiper; Raven; Razorbill; Red Grouse; Red Kite; Red Legged Partridge; Redstart; Redwing; Reed Bunting; Rock Pipit; Ruff; Sanderling; Sand martin; Sandwich Tern; Scaup; Sedge Warbler; Shag; Smew; Snipe; Spoonbill; Spotted Flycatcher; Swallow; Swift; Tawny Owl; Teal; Tree Creeper; Tree Sparrow; Water Rail; Waxwing; Wheatear; Whooper Swan; Wigeon; Willow Warbler; Wood Warbler; Woodcock; Yellow Wagtail; Yellowhammer

Quite a challenge, considering I'd never seen a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Dartford Warbler, Hawfinch or Scaup and only seen Crested Tit and Firecrest on the continent.

Winter: January - March 2013


New Year's Day
Not on the list!
#20 Red Grouse - Leadhills, South Lanarkshire
#27 Purple Sandpiper - Workington, Cumbria
#36 Barnacle Goose - Caerlaverock, D&G
Tim and I planned our first move. We usually go birdwatching on New Year's Day, there is something about getting that year list off to a flying start! Reviewing the target list, we settled on Lindisfarne as our destination, with the target species being Brent Goose. We saw a skein fly over - job done! And it turned out to be a fabulous choice, a beautiful day and plenty of birds. By the end of the day we were already at 13 of the 100, and we had of course seen some wonderful birds not on the list including very close-up views of a long-tailed duck in a pool right next to the path.

Over the next few weeks we got some great birds at Arkleton where we live - hooting tawny owls and nuthatches on the garden peanuts - and nearby. Occasionally one or the other of us would nudge ahead slightly - the parks of Carlisle were quite productive for me at lunchtimes. We'd venture further away when we could. Our very first twitch for the list was to rush to Tindale Tarn in Cumbria in pursuit of a reported Smew. We walked around the whole tarn and didn't see it... but stopped at nearby Talkin Tarn on the way home and there it was, phew!

We set up a Facebook Group for those of us taking part to keep each other update with our tally and latest record shots. For example a post of mine from January: "#20 Red grouse. We went north of Moffat chasing the sun from the Solway mists and found red grouse, also flock of twite, #21 Black Grouse (two flew just over us) and after a stop at Tesco in Lockerbie #22 a Barn Owl sitting on a post on the side of the road home." The nice thing about this of course is that although my family is spread out, it really felt like we were doing something together.

The challenge proved to me just how good the Borders region is for birds. Since moving up here I've been repeatedly told that Cumbria is great for wildlife - as long as you are prepared to work at it! And indeed, I got more ticks in Cumbria than any other county at 22 - just - beating Dumfries and Galloway by one.

A trip to Workington on the west Cumbrian coast gave great but cold views of purple sandpiper, one of my favourite birds: such characters with their silly yellow feet. Scaup was one of those birds Tim and I felt we should have seen, having lived near the Solway for a couple of years, and yet in the end it wasn't the visit to a supposedly good site for them, Powfoot on the Scottish Solway where we tracked them down (wasn't a wasted visit though, we ticked off pintail there in February). Instead Tim did one of his signature spot-bird-from-car-and-safely-stop-in-time-to-show-Teresa manoeuvres as he managed to clock one whilst driving home alongside Ullswater in mid-March after dipping on Hawfinches at Sizergh. Here it is, bobbing merrily along. Unexpectedly finding one of the birds on the list like this peppered the year with moments of childish excitement.

It became imperative on trips away to get out and look for birds which were proving harder closer to home. Spoiler alert - I didn't see the full hundred birds on the list. Bittern proved one my downfalls, despite multiple attempts at Stodmarsh in Kent, Leighton Moss in Lancashire and Kenfig in Glamorgan. Surprisingly the only place I saw Hen Harrier the whole year, despite hen harriers nesting successfully on the moors next to the valley where I live now, was at Stodmarsh in East Kent where I moved from in 2010. Slightly more predictably green woodpecker and red kite were easy enough to find by putting a few hundred miles under our belts, and Little Owl was another screech-to-a-halt drive-by in Cambridgeshire on a geocaching diversion from the A1 in early March.
#48 Waxwing - Alkborough, Lincolnshire

The winter ended for us with a trip to Alkborough in Lincolnshire to visit Tim's aunt. The Alkborough Flats are wetlands being created by a breach in the Humber sea wall, and every time we visit there is more to see. Knot and snipe were appreciated but not unexpected in such a wetland. But I had given up hope after chasing the ghosts of waxwings all winter, so for a single bird to turn up for five minutes in the back garden at dusk was a very welcome parting gift from Boreas.

So at a neat 50 birds out of the original 100 safely under my belt, I declared winter at an end on Good Friday March 29th as we headed to the Highlands for an Easter (i.e. early spring) holiday.

Spring: April- May 2013


Not on the list!
#52 Crossbill (Common, I think) - Culbin Forest, Moray
#58 Wheatear - Arkleton, D&G
#69 Pied Flycatcher - Ynyshir, Ceredigion
#75 Spoonbill - Middlebere, Dorset
So perhaps a snow bunting in the snow stealing sandwiches to the consternation of child skiers isn't the most spring-like of scenes, but it was only April. It was my first ever visit to the Scottish Highlands, so of course I had a lovely time and was pleased to be able to tick off both crested tit and golden eagle on my British List, although only the former was on THE list.

Back home, and I was eagerly looking out every day for the first spring migrants. A key part of every year, but this year there were rankings to be had! 15th April 2013 was the day, with flocks of hirundines suddenly back above the Esk, the river I follow from home to work. The next few days were wonderful, in quick succession those classic harbingers of warmer days to come - the cascading melody of the willow warbler, the chirpy sight of a wheatear and of course the two tone of the cuckoo.

The early spring bank holiday was spent in Pembrokeshire with Elaine and my Dad for Elaine's birthday. I gave Elaine a book on hoverflies and a net - a challenge for 2014 perhaps? A chance for us to compare notes. Tim and I were ahead, but Elaine was not far behind. And of course, Wales does offer some fantastic birding including trickier species like chough.

I heard, and saw, a wood warbler. The sound of a wood warbler is something that always makes me grin like an idiot. They say it sounds like a spinning coin. It does. Here is the first I heard this year, at my favourite RSPB reserve, Ynyshir on the Dyfi estuary,doing exactly what a wood warbler should, viz. sounding like a spinning coin. Two weeks later I was on the edge of our garden trying to photograph a garden warbler (number 71, in case you were wondering) when I heard that unmistakeable spin of a coin again. Hearing a wood warbler at Arkleton was really one of my nature highlights of the year, although sadly our woods weren't big enough for it to stay.

We headed south again at the end of May to Tim's home turf of Dorset. After many years of missed opportunities, I was determined not to be defeated by Dartford Warbler again. We went to Arne after the required spoonbills eventually rocked up at Middlebere. Tim's parents saw a DW. We didn't. But, goaded, the following morning we got up early and went to Tadnoll, a favourite spot where I saw my first nightjar some moons ago. The Dartfords didn't make it easy but then a female alerted us to her presence. And we were treated to spectacular tree pipit song flights (here's a vid); yet again the persuit of the list meant enjoying all of Britain's Best Birds.

Summer: June- July 2013


#78 Spotted Flycatcher - Arkleton
...came to stay...
...and multiply

Summer! And the last of our regular summer migrants returned to Arkleton on the very day there was a mass visible migration reported from Portland Bill, with Bird Track data showing they were at least two weeks late. In previous years we suspected the flycatchers nested in the nearby walled garden. We bought a nestbox to tempt them into our garden, which they inevitably ignored in favour of a old swallow's nest which has been unused for at least two years right outside our backdoor. It was the first time I've been able to watch any bird nest at such close quarters. Only one egg didn't hatch and four birds fledged.

We had one more major "guild" of birds on the list, so we headed to the seabird colonies of St Bees on the Cumbrian coast. This was a new site for us, with the list again offering an incentive to get out and explore nature. We saw three puffins. Popular puffins. Too gauche for me? Nope - seeing such ludicrous beasts on my (relative) doorstep was simply delightful.

For me the evocative sound of Nightjars is the soundtrack of June. We were fortunate enough to hear them from our garden in east Kent once a few years back, when the wind was in the right direction. Up north, tracking them down was a more challenging prospect. Luckily a friend had found a couple churring not too far away, and we made the pilgrimage on my birthday on June 26th. We waited as darkness fell. And waited. And waited. It's my birthday - surely I wasn't to be disappointed? And sure enough, I wasn't.

Autumn: August - October 2013


#87 Sanderling - Tramore, Donegal
My Mum and Dad tick off Bewick's Swan at Slimbridge
A wader's autumn starts early and the pace of the list additions slowed  too as only the harder birds remained. A week's holiday in northern Ireland and Northern Ireland only added to the tally by two, a black guillemot from the ferry as we left Scotland and a flock of Sanderling on Tramore Stand in Donegal near glorious Machair alive with butterflies.

Tim had seen a hobby whilst we were at Tadnoll in May, so it was with a great deal of relief that I caught him up when my mother-in-law spotted one circling over the forest whilst we were having lunch at Bedgebury in Kent at the end of August and once again we were level pegging with each other, with Elaine only a few birds behind. On the morning 5th September I left for the bus slightly early so was able to stop and stare from the Bridge over Ewes Water at Arkleton. Time always well spent, especially when a streak of electric blue appears from beneath you. I couldn't believe kingfisher had been so elusive all year! And for a few days it meant I was ahead, although I was of course pleased when Tim saw it a few days later on Arkleton burn... Pleased.

Our last trip of the year was in November to the Forest of Dean, with my fellow players, so a chance for us all to try and get a few more species ticked off. With perseverance, we all saw hawfinch at Nagshead, my third "lifer" from the list. On the way home a trip to Slimbridge, a place I spent some happy weeks during my PhD, was of course a must - not many Bewick's swans were back, but it only needed one. En route we tried for a firecrest, but it wasn't to be.

Winter: November - December 2013


That little speck over Warwickshire is #94 flying away!

#94 Great Northern Diver - Draycote, Warwickshire

With the reed hiding experts having expertly hidden all year and one or two summer migrants missed through inadequate planning, the 100 remained tantalizingly out of reach. But in the dying days of 2013, back in the West Midlands where I first started birding, I still managed to tick off one more species, the Great Northern Diver. Aptly, we saw it fly away*.

Great Northern? My 94th species of the 100 Challenge. Close enough, a 6% error. I was happy. I am happy. And in 2014 the family players will see who can mop up their few remaining species first. So if you can give me any tips on Bittern, Bearded Tit, Firecrest, Little Tern, Little Gull or Lesser Spotted Woodpecker...

*I am pleased to say others reported it did come back!

Elaine, me and Tim next to #94

Where and When - My 94. 



My list


1 Common gull 01 Jan Hawick
2 Reed bunting 01 Jan Lindisfarne
3 Brent goose 01 Jan Lindisfarne
4 Linnet 01 Jan Lindisfarne
5 Raven 01 Jan Lindisfarne
6 Goldeneye 01 Jan Lindisfarne
7 Eider 01 Jan Lindisfarne
8 Shag 01 Jan Lindisfarne
9 Teal 01 Jan Lindisfarne
10 Lapwing 01 Jan Lindisfarne
11 Red legged partridge 01 Jan Road to Lindisfarne
12 Fieldfare 01 Jan Road to Lindisfarne
13 Redwing 01 Jan Road to Lindisfarne
14 Dipper 05 Jan Auchenrivock
15 Woodcock 05 Jan Auchenrivock
16 Tawny owl 08 Jan Arkleton
17 Goosander 09 Jan Tindale Tarn
18 Smew 09 Jan Tindale Tarn
19 Nuthatch 10 Jan Arkleton
20 Red Grouse 11 Jan Leadhills
21 Black grouse 11 Jan Leadhills
22 Barn owl 11 Jan Lockerbie-Langholm Rd
23 Long Tailed Tit 16 Jan Carlisle
24 Grey wagtail 16 Jan Carlisle
25 Treecreeper 17 Jan Carlisle
26 Rock pipit 02 Feb Workington
27 Purple sandpiper 02 Feb Workington
28 Bullfinch 03 Feb Arkleton
29 Peregrine 08 Feb Bowness
30 Great Crested Grebe 17 Feb Kenfig
31 Pintail 23 Feb Powfoot
32 Wigeon 23 Feb Powfoot
33 Brambling 23 Feb Caerlaverock
34 Whooper Swan 23 Feb Caerlaverock
35 Yellowhammer 23 Feb Caerlaverock
36 Barnacle Goose 23 Feb Caerlaverock
37 Golden Plover 23 Feb Caerlaverock
38 Merlin 23 Feb Caerlaverock
39 Tree sparrow 23 Feb Caerlaverock
40 Red Kite 01 Mar A1 Yorkshire
41 Water rail 02 Mar Stodmarsh
42 Gadwall 02 Mar Stodmarsh
43 Hen Harrier 02 Mar Stodmarsh
44 Green woodpecker 03 Mar Wingham
45 Little owl 05 Mar Marholm
46 Little grebe 05 Mar Cuswoth Hall
47 Scaup 10 Mar Ullswater
48 Waxwing 16 Mar Alkborough
49 Knot 17 Mar Alkborough Flats
50 Snipe 17 Mar Alkborough Flats
51 Common Scoter 30 Mar Nairn
52 Crossbill 05 Apr Culbin Forest
53 Crested Tit 06 Apr Loch Garten
54 Swallow 15 Apr Road to Work
55 Sand martin 15 Apr Road to Work
56 Willow warbler 19 Apr Carlisle
57 Common Sandpiper 19 Apr Carlisle
58 Wheatear 21 Apr Arkleton
59 Cuckoo 27 Apr Elterwater
60 Redstart 03 May Dinefwr Park
61 Gannet 04 May Tenby
62 Sandwich Tern 04 May Tenby
63 Sedge Warbler 04 May Tenby
64 Chough 05 May Stackpole
65 Razorbill 05 May Stackpole
66 Fulmar 05 May Stackpole
67 Wood warbler 06 May Ynyshir
68 Jay 06 May Ynyshir
69 Pied Flycatcher 06 May Ynyshir
70 Swift 08 May Carlisle
71 Garden warbler 22 May Arkleton
72 Avocet 22 May Leighton Moss
73 Common Tern 23 May Brandon Marsh
74 Little Ringed Plover 23 May Brandon Marsh
75 Spoonbill 25 May Middlebere
76 Dartford Warbler 26 May Tadnoll
77 Grasshopper Warbler 30 May Arkleton
78 Spotted Flycatcher 01 Jun Arkleton
79 Osprey 08 Jun Threave
80 Kittiwake 10 Jun St Bees
81 Manx shearwater 10 Jun St Bees
82 Puffin 10 Jun St Bees
83 Nightjar 26 Jun ***
84 Green Sandpiper 26 Jul Longtown
85 Yellow Wagtail 26 Jul Longtown
86 Black Guillemot 27 Jul Loch Ryan
87 Sanderling 01 Aug Donegal
88 Ruff 21 Aug Stodmarsh
89 Hobby 27 Aug Bedgebury
90 Garganey 28 Aug Rutland Water
91 Kingfisher 05 Sep Arkleton
92 Hawfinch 17 Nov Forest of Dean
93 Bewick's Swan 18 Nov Slimbridge
94 Great Northern Diver 27 Dec Draycote Water




Scaup, Dartford Warbler, Hawfinch.

Regional Breakdown


North England 37
South Scotland 27
Wales 11
South England 11
Midlands 4
North Scotland 3
Ireland 1

County Breakdown

Cumbria 22
Dumfries and Galloway 21
Northumberland 9
Pembrokeshire 6
Kent 6
Scottish Borders 4
Ceredigion 3
Warwickshire 3
Lincolnshire 3
Gloucestershire 2
Dorset 2
Moray 2
South Lanarkshire 2
Rutland 1
Donegal 1
Glamorgan 1
Cambridgeshire 1
South Yorkshire 1
North Yorkshire 1
Lancashire 1
Highland 1
Carmarthenshire 1