Tattoos, turtle doves and a race against time

Now, a few weeks after the event, I feel able to revisit the mind-bending lows and spiralling highs of the Big Bird Race. The lead-up to the big day was an almost full-time effort – locating tricky species, publicising the event, and putting a link to our fundraising page in front of as many people as possible. Oh and getting tattooed! Having learnt about the decline of the Turtle Dove from the RSPB, I decided to get one etched on my body, as a permanent reminder of their plight and our fundraising:

Rob got also got a Turtle Dove inked to his arm, although I think his is less permanent!

None of us had done a full 24-hour bird race before. We’d all dabbled, going for big lists on the 1st of the year or in May, but we’d always started at a more sensible 3am. As such we were all blissfully unaware of the implications of staying up so long – we met up at my house, ate chilli, chatted nonsense and goofed around doing everything but sleeping. Not long after 11pm we set out to a nearby forest, well in advance of our midnight starting time, and marched deep into the centre to give ourselves the best chance of owls. We arrived early and spent an agonising 15 minutes watching the seconds tick by while straining our ears. There were no owls. Time slowed so much and my ears were straining so badly I could hear the blood pumping round my head! In fact I think I could hear the blood pumping round everyone else’s heads! Which reminds me, I’d better introduce the crack team of ornithologists I enlisted: 

Look at this lot! But, don’t look too long, as you run the risk of over-stimulation! Devilishly handsome. Anyway, Rob is an ecologist by trade and capable of seeing in 3D through 360 degrees at all times – I once saw him have a head-turning competition with an owl. Lee is a gifted ornithologist with encyclopaedic knowledge and supersonic hearing – he sometimes flinches at night because he can hear bat calls and those anti-social behaviour alarms they use to upset teenagers. Mal is a constant birder, encountering more birds per day than some people do in a year! I matched these skill sets with blind optimism and enthusiasm. Then the clock struck midnight – we were off! We lurched forward, deeper into the forest – there must be an owl in here! What would the first species be? Why isn’t there an owl calling? How long will we have to wait? Seriously, where are all the owls? Don’t they know we are bird racing? 
12:05 no owl; 
12:10 no owl; 
12:15 no owl; 
12:20 no owl; 
12:25 OWL!

After a short discussion about the Pinkfoot, which clearly had a wing-related ailment – it was missing half a wing – we decided to count it, at least until we got a better one. Rob is a huge wildfowl fan and didn’t want the wee blighter to go unrecorded and ignored. What happened next was unexpected and off the awesome scale – while scoping one of the pits Lee happened on a Black-necked Grebe, which in itself would have been ideal, but this bad boy was in full breeding plumage. Outstanding. High on the grebe we left Snettisham pumped and optimistic, and got our second unexpected bird – Red Kite! It soared straight over the car allowing us face-filling views. Although perilously near the royal estate this bird of prey was doing well. The Kite was our 124th species for the day. At this time we hadn’t really hit the north Norfolk coast and with five hours of daylight left it was all to play for... On arriving at Titchwell, the third and final of the RSPB reserves, we prepared for a bird binge! We still hadn’t had a Meadow Pipit or Little Grebe and we were really lacking freshwater waders. Titchwell provided us a clean 10 species but we’d hoped for more, in fact we’d expected more! Red-crested Pochard and Little Ringed Plover were crucial birds but there was no Spotted Redshank, Greenshank or even Ruff! We were in wader poverty! Our next stop-off was Holkham, where we mopped up some much needed wildfowl including Wigeon and a trio of geese – White-fronted, Pink-footed and Barnacle, all fully winged and happily feeding! At 7pm we had amassed 140 species. This was the same as our best previous total but we were lacking common waders, woodland birds and even Little Grebe! Only Cley could save us now. Upon arrival at Cley we grilled the sea anxious to locate a Gannet, merganser or maybe even an auk? There must be a Gannet out there – there’s always Gannet’s going past the coastguards’… There wasn’t – but then Lee let out a blood-curdling cry, a cry of sheer excitement and joy. MANX SHEARWATER! We needed this – we needed it numerically and also for our waning mojos. What an awesome bird. With a spring in our step we shuffled and tripped over the shingle towards the north scrape. Scanning from north hide we had three further bursts of excitement: 1 When a Spoonbill glided over - what an awesome profile they give in flight; 2 When we located the three Temminck’s Stints; and 3 When Rob finally located a lone Pintail through some rushes. Our very last species of the day came just before 9pm – as the sun set we watched two Short-eared Owls hunting over the fresh marsh. So, we started how we finished – completing the set of five owls in one day!

Although we had a couple more hours of time available to us there was little to chase – the woodland birds were in bed, we couldn’t find any more waders and it was too chilly for Nightjar. We settled on 145 species, happy that we’d done all we could. Where we’d been unlucky with Little Grebe and Gannet, we’d also been astronomically lucky with Black-necked Grebe and Manx Shearwater! An exhilarating, exhausting and awesome day and there’s always next year! The JustGiving page is still live so feel free to visit and even donate and I hope you enjoyed re-living the journey with us.

Hurrah! We were off! A big fat Tawny Owl had made us suffer a full 25 minutes, but finally it twit-ta-woo’d its chubby cheeks off! Thank goodness. Just one minute later we got our target species, the reason we’d walked several miles/minutes into the woods – calling Long-eared Owls. What an awesome bird. This was surely a good omen for the day. You can easily go a whole year without hearing or seeing Long-eared Owl and just 26 minutes into the day we’d achieved it! For the next couple of hours the pace was slow, although the quality remained high; Nightingale, Stone-curlew, Cetti’s Warbler ,Little Owl and even a fly-over Dunlin were all encountered. But by 3:30am we’d still only seen or heard 15 species! It was also around this time that I realised how disgustingly unprepared I was. It gets very cold in Breckland at night, with temperatures plummeting before dawn. We were looking over a forest clearing, hoping to hear Nightjar churring. I was freezing, and then I realised I was swaying and my eyes were closing against my will. I hadn’t slept for over 20 hours and we still had over 20 hours left to do! I retreated to the car to let my body address the situation. I managed 10 minutes sleep before the dawn chorus erupted – jolting me awake and getting our list moving! From here on in it was a campaign against tiredness – we would consume anything to stay awake. No junk food remained safe, caffeinated drinks were downed by the minute and we even took to smoking. We don’t smoke. Chemicals and sheer bloody mindedness would see us through! High on the dawn chorus and pulsing with caffeine, nicotine and sugar we arrived at Lakenheath RSPB for a tick-athon. Lakenheath is an awesome reserve at the best of times and it excelled for us with a near constant stream of birds, for two hours! Bitterns were booming, all the warblers were singing – including Grasshopper – two Avocets flew from the wash and then a call pierced the morning air - a beautiful fluty call… Golden Oriole! What a privilege. Walking along the river gained us Garganey, two Cranes and a less expected Whooper Swan – a straggler from the winter flocks. We left Lakenheath just after 7am having encountered over 75 species! We also had Turtle Dove, which we heard purring from the other side of the river. Tellingly this was the only time we encountered Turtle Dove all day. It was a welcome reminder of why we were sleep-depriving ourselves and walking miles through the night! Turtle Doves need our help – you can read why over on the Operation Turtle Dove page and even support the campaign via our JustGiving page. The next couple of hours we turned our attention to woodland birds, walking miles through known Willow Tit and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker territory. Not a peep! Not a drum. Nothing. Despite being in premium habitat we had a very slow couple of hours – not even a Crossbill! It was around this time that I had another sleep-deprivation-induced moment of delirium – I halted the group and shouted ‘look’ where I saw a pair of Goosander! The others saw what was actually a pair of Tufted Duck! I was off my face on tiredness! I had witnessed a Goosander mirage! Before leaving the comfort of Breckland for the Norfolk coast we cleaned up a few local birds – Stonechat, Tree Pipit, Wood Lark and Redstart were all safely OTL (on the list). Driving towards the coast we were collectively delirious. Those that weren’t sleeping played word games to stay awake, where you say a rude word and the next person has to say another that starts with the last letter of the preceding one. Often we would string together rude and common words – with hilarious effect. Well hilarious if you’ve not slept for 28 hours. Our second RSPB reserve of the day was Snettisham. Much like Lakenheath it was superb and gave us piles of new birds – Grey Partridge, lots of waders and even a Pink-footed Goose: