The big Bloomsbury bird race

Marianne Taylor shares the drama of the bird race…

First light on a January morning, hot tea and bacon sandwiches in Nigel’s conservatory. There is a cheery babble of conversation around me but I’m not joining in, because I’m staring at a bird feeder. The birds come and go like lightning. I keep my binoculars up at my eyes, aimed at the feeder, it’s the only way. Then, sneaking in among the colourful Blue and Great Tits, a little mousy bird with black cap and bib. ‘Marsh Tit! On the feeder now!’ I yelp and everyone snaps round to look. There are congratulatory noises and I scrawl its name down on a list already more than a dozen strong. We’ve got what we were waiting for, now it’s time to go.

Foxes, Fairlight

Foxes, Fairlight

We follow tight, high-hedged country lanes towards the coast. In and out of Hastings town, then eastwards to Fairlight. We park up and scramble across a squashy mudbath of a field, over the pulled-down barbed wire to the crumbling cliff edge. A sheer drop and a wide, still expanse of English Channel lies before us. Nigel scopes the sea, the rest of us watch a pair of Foxes as they gingerly explore the scene of last year’s rock-fall over to our right. Out on the water bob rafts of Great Crested Grebes, among them the odd diver and scoter. Fulmars hang-glide over the tiny wave crests. Any moment now a Peregrine or Raven might round the Cliffside and give us a jaw-dropping flypast. But we have limited time and lots more to do.

Cormorant, Pett Level

Cormorant, Pett Level

Pett Level is just a few miles along. Here we look out across miles of intensely green, soaking wet pasture, interspersed with shallow pools that teem with wildfowl. The ecstatic whistled whoops of the Wigeons predominate, the soft purrs of the Teals provide a backing track. Lapwings and Curlews busily patrol the fields, further out a family of White-fronted Geese graze alongside their commoner Greylag cousins. Nigel finds two Peregrines having their mid-morning break on a picturesque wooden gate. The list grows and grows.

Rook, Pett

Rook, Pett Level

At Dungeness, we find a gleaming white male Smew among the Pochards on the ARC pit, and in the willow scrub there’s a split-second, heart-stopping glimpse of a Firecrest. A Cetti’s Warbler sings from some hiding place or other, rich, vibrantly fruity notes that sound out of place here in this chilly shingle wilderness. Our six sets of walking boots scrunch along the pathway back to the car.

Glaucous Gull, Dungeness

Glaucous Gull, Dungeness

Post-lunch, the light evaporating fast, we’re gathered at the end of a row of fishing boats, watching a great swirl of gulls. Among them flies a single Glaucous Gull, a great barrel-shaped bird, its wings tipped white rather than black like the others. Kittiwakes are commuting to and fro along the shoreline. Further out, there’s a melee of seabirds – Guillemots and Razorbills rubbing shoulders with grebes on the water, Gannets circling above. Once in a while a Gannet folds itself shut like an umbrella and freefalls headfirst into the water. I imagine the undersea chase, the Gannet gulping down its fish prey and fighting its way back to the surface. We head back to the Dungeness RSPB reserve.

Kittiwake, Dungeness

Kittiwake, Dungeness

Goldeneye, Dungeness

In near darkness, we’re all getting cold and ready to head for somewhere indoors. But Nigel stands on a hill of shingle til the last, watching and hoping for the Bittern that would bring our day list to 86. He doesn’t see it. Instead, a Water Rail squeals from the reedbeds, and far away a Sparrowhawk is hunting over the fields, hoping for one last meal before nightfall. It’s the last to join our list – 87 species in one January day.


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