Saturday, 12 May 2018

Mole Valley Bird Race

That special diary date came around once more, the annual battle for the coveted MVBR trophy. This year the Nightingales of Laughter comprised just me and Ian J, a MVBR first-timer. We started ridiculously early, climbing up Leith Hill in the darkness for the classic suite of pre-dawn heathland songsters. The choir was a couple short this time, with no Tree Pipit or Woodlark in foggy conditions, but it was magical to hear at least three of both Woodcock and Nightjar, as well as a brief burst of Redstart song and a minimum of five Tawny Owls and three male Cuckoos battling for airtime. Once it was vaguely light we proceeded to walk through some of the woodland on site, adding a singing Marsh Tit and a few Treecreepers. Small numbers of Garden Warbler, Willow Warbler and Whitethroat were in voice and a Hawfinch provided a welcome bonus as it ticked above the canopy (although it didn't count towards the race total as Ian didn't hear it). Two Greylags were notable for the site. Driving towards Capel, the craziest encounter of the whole day ensued as a Barnacle Goose flew from Broom Hall Lake with two Canada Geese! A Red-legged Partridge narrowly escaped becoming an RTA but was nice to get on the day list early.

Next up was Capel, where we heard a distant Nightingale singing, as well as three Garden Warblers, and a Cormorant flew over. On the drive out of here near Beare Green, our only Red Kite of the day flew over the main road. Newdigate Lakes, our next venue, always makes for some pleasant birding and the sound of Reed Buntings and Reed Warblers was uplifting both for our spirits and race total. A Yellowhammer sang from an adjacent field and a Sand Martin was seen with a mixed frenzy of House Martins, Swallows and Swifts. Two Little Grebes and 18 Tufted Ducks were counted but we made a hasty retreat when loud machinery made the birding a grating experience.

At Buckland Sand Pits, Ian M served as our guide for a couple of hours. Here we added a Raven, a pair of Grey Wagtails, three Egyptian Geese. Grilling the over-flying gulls paid off with singles of Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed - important day ticks. Seven Sand Martins, a Garden Warbler and a Reed Bunting added to our site tally, while a Grey Heron, two Mistle Thrushes and seven Great Crested Grebes were new for the day. Crossing the road, Lawrence Lane hosted another Yellowhammer and two Red-legged Partridges of note. A short visit to Betchworth Quarry only added a Nuthatch but this turned out to be the only example we saw all day!

Raven at Buckland

Grey Wagtail and Egyptian Geese at Buckland

The weather had closed in by now and was rather damp and miserable so getting to 80 species was looking like a struggle, with passerine activity dulled down. A stroll along the River Mole just south of Leatherhead produced a Little Egret and yet another Yellowhammer (we struggled with this species last year!). After this, we returned to Leith Hill via a blank stop at Friday Street pond (where we hoped to find Mandarin). Searching the Rhododenron Wood and a couple of the car parks, eventually we found a singing Firecrest. A return to Newdigate Lakes seemed fruitless but our two target species showed up at the eleventh hour, a pair of Common Terns passing us, followed by a Hobby which took a break in a nearby tree. Things were looking up. We felt that, considering the weather, we were probably doing well and, now on 80 species, were hoping to add a couple more in the final couple of hours. At Parkgate, it was satisfying to track down a Lapwing, a bird we missed last year, and here we saw another pair of Mistle Thrushes. We were still missing Kingfisher and the most productive thing we could think of doing in the final hour before the 20:00 finishing line was to drive to Brockham and hope that one flew along the Mole. Alas, that did not happen but we enjoyed watching a pair of Grey Wagtails.

Feeling cautiously confident as contenders for the trophy, we entered the pub at 20:00 with the feeling of a job done well, given the challenging weather. It was a bit of a knock down, therefore, to hear team 'Linnet to Win It' once again claimed top prize with 89 species, some eight more than us. A damn fine effort on their part. It seems a strong 90+ total is necessary for any hope of pipping these guys, and some detailed planning for next year's race...