My mate Darren Archer hit upon the idea of staging a Lockdown Garden Birdrace. This was envisioned as just a bit of fun between like minded people frustrated by our inability to get out and indulge ourselves in some proper birding. Or at least that was the plan….things have a habit of developing a life of their own, and in the birding world can get quite competitive, happily in a friendly, light-hearted fashion.
Using Twitter as a broadcasting medium the idea took hold, firing the imagination of people all over the country from Shetland to Penzance, and Pembrokeshire to the wilds of Norfolk. The challenge accepted, the rules made clear, the day was set, 16th May. The full 24 hrs to bird as the fancy took you. There were even prizes(?) to be won for those judged worthy victors of various categories. Sounded rather a jolly wheeze, let’s see what happened.
First The Rules: essential to avoid misunderstandings, misinterpretation and mischief.
All clear? then let us begin.
A single second after the last stroke of midnight on 15th May and time slipped smoothly into another day, Saturday 16th, and the start of the Lockdown Garden Birdrace 2020. All over the UK 1000s, well maybe 100s, Ok, Ok, dozens of twitchy birders were getting a few hours sleep with alarms set for stupid o’clock. Indeed some were huddled outside in thick coats under the late spring night, straining ears to catch the briefest call note of a passing bird heading north to Arctic lands.
I live in the middle of a north Norwich suburb. I know my garden, its inhabitants and the local birds pretty well. However much I strain my eyes and ears I can never hope to catch sight of passing coastal migrants or hear the booming of a bittern. On that basis I determined it would be pointless hauling myself out of bed before the usual 7am, a strategic decision that may or may not have been wise. But I’m a lazy bugger and that’s that. Others, I know, were far keener than me and were up before the lark, and some as we already have observed may not have gone to bed at all in the hope of catching a bit of nocturnal migration or nocmig as its commonly referred to nowadays. Needless to say their eventual lists were much greater than mine, but I don’t care. Much.
Anyway there I am in my dressing gown cuppa in hand. Poke my nose out of the door, take a seat and what do we have? Blackbird feeding their second brood, braying collared dove, warbling dunnock, lots of family groups of starlings, the inevitable woodpigeon crashing through the shrubs, marauding lesser black-back gulls, patrolling swifts and the nasal call of a greenfinch. Good start, but its chilly and sitting outside isn’t appealing at all, retirement to the study seems prudent. No blackcap which is a bit worrying, it’s been singing every day for the past month, but not yet this morning – perhaps its a bit too cold and windy at present. And where is that cheeky blue tit that flits around the rose bushes after aphids every morning? It’s bound to be there later.
From the elevated room that is my den/office/hideaway, I have a reasonable view of the garden and can scan the skies above and beyond. Not much about really, a few more swifts and another couple of LBB gulls, except one of the large shapes drifting towards me is not a gull, it’s a raptor. Red kite! I yell this out and tumble down the stairs with my camera. Throwing open the patio door I marvel at this gorgeous bird lazily spiralling above me, slowly heading eastwards to who knows where. I snap a few pics of the silhouette against a patch of blue and am ecstatic with this garden first and all round stonker. Only 9 species on the list but this is quality, and I wonder whether I would have seen it had I not been involved in this event. It was only on show for less than a minute – easy to miss whilst I slurp my porridge and trawl through the daily fiction masquerading as news. It just proved the fact that up there somewhere will be osprey, honey buzzard, bee eater and red-rumped swallow all ready and waiting for me to tick them. A man can dream!
Spurred on by this sighting I hurriedly change into proper clothes, don fleece and pick a sheltered spot to sit outside and survey my domain. Chaffinch and wren fall easily, whilst a fly by feral pigeon is scribbled down. I knew there would be some good uns out there. A cackling magpie perched briefly on the conifer looking for more fledglings to pilfer, but seeing me flew away empty beaked. Oh! a coal tit, that’s another one of those maybe/maybe not birds and most welcome as it forages amongst the holly bush for tiny morsels to feed its young. Tinkling goldfinches charm their way onto the growing list as I look up and espy a pair of buzzards tussling with one another high up against the gathering clouds. 16 species and time for a mid-morning break and a bit of shelter inside from this increasingly chilly wind and unfolding blanket of dark grey cloud. Was that a roll of thunder I heard? Whatever, I’m heading indoors for a spell.
Once ensconced in the study once more I scrutinise every gull for as far as I can see in the hope of hitting on a herring gull. They are outnumbered 10:1 by the lesser black-backs locally, but one or two pairs do nest on the nearby industrial estate. Eventually I lock onto a paler looking individual that, as it banks, reveals light grey upperparts. Herring gull, bird No 17 at midday. Time to return to the great outdoors with a bacon butty for that blackcap and blue tit.
A pair of great tits have a nest in the swift box I put up last year. Before today they have been regularly zipping in and out feeding their brood, but I suddenly realise I haven’t seen them yet today. Don’t tell me they fledged first thing this morning? Perhaps I should have got up earlier after all. No matter, a quick wander through the jungle and before long the angry chatter of a concerned parent strikes my ear, and there it is perched in a bush eyeing me warily. Hopefully the chicks are safely hidden away somewhere in the dense tangle, so I slip back to my seat content to have plugged at least one gap. Still no blue tit though which is a tiny bit worrying, but there’s still plenty of time – a classic ‘Big Day’ porky; there’s never enough time.
How’s the competition doing? A trawl through Twitter shows lots of great birds being seen and pretty impressive lists being developed. One guy has just seen his 50th species. What! Where does he live, in the middle of a nature reserve? Lucky bloke and I’m only mildly jealous, but then you see what you see and that’s all there is to it. It becomes clear that the combined species list is going to be pretty impressive. What is even clearer is that everyone is having a lot of fun and enjoying this novel way to bird enormously. I guess being restrained in where you can go tends to focus the mind and make everything you see precious. It also makes me think that there are an awful lot of really good records being made today; numbers of migrating buzzards and ospreys, arrival of hobbies, tracking of swifts and connecting with species that were never suspected of occurring where they were actually seen.
I had set myself a challenging target of 25 species today, with an outlying possibility of 30 should everything fall into place. I resumed the afternoon watch on 18 and within a very short time had broken the 20 barrier with a carrion crow mobbing another buzzard and a passing heron which I never expected. Looking in good shape. And then a mournful few notes from a robin bringing the total to 21.
I have local competition to converse with now and discover that after a slow start Allen Archer is making solid progress with 16, no make that 17 (jackdaw) as we speak. Hmmm he lives at Wymondham overlooking a patch of common land, great potential there. Another mate, Ros, lives in the middle of the South Norfolk countryside with a garden backing onto open fields, wonder what she is on. Just back from work she tells me she too has listed 21 species, seen before she did her lunchtime shift, with several gaps of things she expects to see soon. Oh dear, she lives in a zone where she really could get honey buzzard and all things exotic. I’m in trouble.
Another Norwich resident Vanna Bartlett is struggling to mount a big list, but she lives closer to the city itself so that will be limiting. She is nonetheless happy looking at invertebrates around her garden, and is simply enjoying the added dimension of the race. Think she may have the right attitude.
I’ve decided it really is too dull and chilly to sit outside now and once again resort to the study with the window open so that any snatch of blackcap song, which surely will be voiced anytime soon, will not be missed. And where is that blue tit? Time plods on with no new species. Scanning the skies doesn’t help and just reveals more of the same. I have a three way messenger feed now with live updates from Allan and Ros both of whom are forging ahead, 22 and 24 respectively. But it’s still close and I just need a bit of luck to catch them.
Early evening: things might be turning in my favour. One of the aforesaid is indulging in a little alcoholic refreshment which may send them to sleep leaving just two of us in the game. But no! I underestimated her tolerance to a drop of the good stuff (damn I’ve given it away) and she goes and gets house martin and is now expecting the local barn owl to make an appearance. I’m desperate for my blackcap and blue tit, or anything to be honest. Allan messages with an update – sparrowhawk and garden swallow, No 24. Where is my sparrowhawk I lament?
I sat there until it got pretty late, but I’m afraid no new birds appeared for me. In the meantime Allan clocked chaffinch and robin bringing his total to 26 and young Ros topped out at 28. Vanna managed 16 species, which for her location is pretty good going. Can’t help thinking we’re all going to be an awfully long way behind the eventual winners though. We’ve all got smiles on our faces though.
It was a great day which I feel worked on several levels. Certainly a focused birdwatch is always going to be good fun with the expectancy that any dot in the sky could be something new. It united everyone taking part with lots of toing and froing on Twitter with, I understand, the event actually trending at one point. The local competitive edge added a bit of spice, engaging us three in light hearted repartee. I fed the results into the national computer that is Darren Archer and the following day he published the final table. It’s pretty impressive:
74 participants seeing between them 146 species. That, I think, can be determined a success.
Thanks to Darren for organising the event and for every participant for making the whole day such good fun. Until next year…………..?
Postscript: needless to say the blackcap was warbling away the following morning and the blue tits were just outside the kitchen window picking aphids off the roses as usual. Then a jackdaw chirped overhead bringing a rueful smile. That’s birding.