A Bird Race to Remember For All Sorts Of Reasons In North Wales 16 May 1998

Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl was bird number one of our May bird race in North Wales.

It was midnight and Owen was banging on the door. Three hours sleep is nowhere near enough! We stumble down stairs and grunt a greeting to Owen and get the kettle on.

Owen is wide awake having driven north from Pembrokeshire – a mere four hours – to join our North Wales Bird Race. We need one more member of our team before we can begin our race; we meet Ken Croft in Bangor. It is now 2am and we are off! Our meeting place, a wood by the Menai Straits, has Tawny Owls and usually provides bird number one for our bird races, not a hoot or any bird sound at all, zero.

Ken is not saying much, perhaps the ungodly hour and total lack of bird noise has affected his usual good humour?

We jump back into the car and head south through Snowdonia, Owen and I enthuse about the ideal conditions – calm, dry and mild, just what we had prayed for. So often in the past our big days had been ruined by gales and rain. Ken is not speaking, probably planning the day ahead? Five minutes later we could not see more than ten meters! Thick fog engulfed us; we could not believe it, so soon after us celebrating “ideal weather”. Somehow we manage to find the layby we were looking for and we stood in the thick fog, listening, to….nothing! Again not a single avian sound, this was bad.

We moved on, still in thick fog, up into the Gwydir Forest. Our first stop and a babbling stream drowned out all the calls of Nightjars and owls, one hour in and our score is zero!

Further into the forest and we find a place with no stream but again not a bird to be heard, what is going on? We notice that Ken had adopted a new listening technique – crouching down one hand gripping the car door handle. Should we all try this new approach? We need a change of luck. Perhaps this is the break we need. Ken straightens up and promptly throws-up! Maybe the new technique is not all we hoped. Now doubled over in pain Ken is obviously very unwell and seems on the verge of collapse. Not a hope of him continuing with the race, back in the car we dash back to Bangor and drop Ken off at his car, in hind sight rather harsh to abandon him, but we were losing time and still had not recorded a single bird! Hang on, what’s that? Yes, Tawny Owl calling and immediately followed by a calling Common Sandpiper – at last we were off the mark. With a distinct feeling of Deja vous we headed south back to the Gwydir Forest minus poor Ken.

Common Redstart June 2017 3

Singing male Common Redstart was a nice bonus roadside addition to the day list.

Near Capel Curig we spot a car on the side of the road, looks familiar, brake, reverse. Yes, it’s our opposition! Our rival bird racers were also having a nightmare with a broken down car. We offer sympathy, but no help, and tick off a singing Common Redstart by the stricken vehicle and leave them to it. No time to chat about our slow starts we were off dashing back to the Gwydir Forest before dawn. The fog still shrouds the pines but now birds are calling. Our number one target bird, Nightjar, is giving its amazing “churring” call and we even see one, this is more like it. Woodcock and Cuckoo quickly followed amongst commoner species. Into the car again and a short drive to our “staked out” Pied Flycatcher and it does not let us down, behind the public toilets lovely! We lose time as the loos are used. Now day light and new birds are coming thick and fast we feel our luck has changed and big score is on.

Another short drive and pile out again, we are on twenty seven species with some good one under the belt. We have information on a Spotted Flycatcher nest the info is good, tick and move on. The river has Grey Wagtail but not the hoped for Dipper. Off again, the pace is fast. Another river and leap out and scan, Goosander! But where are the Dippers? We are dipping again, not good; a Bullfinch in trees by the river is a good pick up. Then suddenly there is a Dipper hurtling across the water but it lands out of sight before we all pick it up. Tense wait as the clock ticks on, where did it go? Then it pops up on a rock and we all enjoy a great look, we are off again!

Heading deeper into Snowdonia the fog envelopes again, very bad news, is there any point continuing with the race? This is typical of a bird race – ups and downs as luck ebbs and flows, but this fog was really knocking moral. Over an hour later and only a few common birds have come close enough to identify in the pea-souper and certainly not the hoped for Red Kite.

Red Grouse male June 2017 2

Red Grouse was a lovely bird to pick up on the heather moorlands, so many habitats in North Wales.

We decide the fog is here to stay and head off for the moors, as we climbed up we suddenly broke out into sunshine, wow! Now we need birds quickly to make up for lost time. We immediately got lucky when a superb male Hen Harrier floats across the purple heather, what a bird! We all stop and stare; some birds are too good to rush. Red Grouse tick. Skylark and Meadow Pipit, two ticks. Our score has suddenly surged to fifty-eight. Now what about that Red Kite? We headed back the way we had come not sure if it was a good idea, surely our luck has changed? We have Hen Harrier under the belt and sunshine! No, we were soon back in the fog, not good, we find the parking spot and sit in dense fog not seeing a thing, clock ticking. Then a miracle, we can see blue sky above and the fog melts away yes! We can see the hillside and even better a Red Kite soars above us another brilliant bird of prey. The kite drifted away only in view for two minutes, whew! We were back on the road and driving fast.


Lots of new birds came quickly at RSPB Conwy another new habitat including Gadwall.

RSPB Conwy and we skid into the car park and jog down to the Benarth hide by the Conwy Estuary. New species come thick and fast as this is our first wetland of the day so even Mallard is a new bird. A most unexpected Barnacle Goose, of unknown but good enough origin, is a bonus species. We learn from the staff that our rivals have not reached the reserve yet; perhaps they were being towed home by the AA? No time to think about others we needed more birds.

At Llanfairfechan promenade we were met by a bank of, yes you guessed it, fog. We wander about in the vein hope of seeing the Garganey that was seen here the previous day, not a hope. We had hoped for a nice selection of waders here too, not one new one. With the fog so thick we could barely see ten meters we again cut our losses and moved on.

Back into the hills and we had three important targets here, miss them now and we would not see them again during the race – Ring Ouzel, Whinchat and Twite. We looked hard and scored none out of three, very bad. A Green Woodpecker was our only new bird.

Black Guillemot

Black Guillemots are such smart birds in breeding plumage we love them!

It was gone 4pm when we crossed the Menai Straits onto the island of Anglesey far later than planned, how many more birds could we find? There were plenty of possible species and we could still amass a reasonable score if we had a run of good luck. We raced towards Penmon Point where many easy birds should be waiting. Bang! A large pothole destroyed one of the front tyres! Oh no, not now. We worked to fit the spare wheel as Owen scanned the Menai Strait for new birds. Luckily Owen finds a Black Guillemot and break off for a quick look in the scope, tick. Spare fitted we are off again but more precious time lost. We are in sunshine at Penmon Priory but as we near the point we hit the dreaded fog again. It seems to be following us, determined to spoil our day. Not a single new bird added at Penmon Point where we hoped for at least half a dozen and our only chance of Eider, very bad.

We decide to roll the dice again and dash from south-east Anglesey to north-west Anglesey and RSPB South Stack, long drive but a lot of birds possible. We stop briefly on route at a lake and do well adding five new birds, one hundred and seven and still four hours of daylight left, hope springs again.

The Inland Sea next and we jam in on a very late Brent Goose. Beddmanarch Bay next in the hope of adding those missing waders. Of course no waders, but Great crested Grebe was new, somehow we had missed this up to now! Alan checked a small flock of gulls hoping for a Mediterranean Gull, panic, binoculars were quickly swapped for the scope and could it really be possible? Bonaparte’s Gull!! A mega rare bird in Wales and we had just found one, no hang on, we had just found two!! Yes two Bonaparte’s Gulls on the mud right in front of us with Black-headed Gulls, we were elated. All thoughts of the bird race forgotten, mobile phones were hot as we telephoned every birder we could think of. Ken! We jumped back in the car and tore in to Holyhead and dragged Ken off his sick-bed, we figured however ill he was he would not want to miss these mega birds so close to home.

Bonapartes Gull Ste

Bonaparte's Gull is a vagrant here in North Wales so two together was mind-blowing!

Back at the bay our roller coaster luck continues, the gulls have flown off, no! We wait with a gathering crowd of birders but no sign of the rarities. Ken is looking very ill, we decide to look for the gulls, with Ken slumped in the back we race back to Holyhead Harbour. The Bonaparte’s Gulls had flown that way and we figured they might end up in the harbour. No, not here.

A group of Red-breasted Mergansers were in the harbour and we hardly gave them a second glance, we were looking for gulls. But something made us look again, one bird was different, surly not? But oh yes it was a fine drake Ring-necked Duck! Another American rarity we were on fire! Wow what a day! Even Ken was able to enjoy this cracking bird which showed off below us, amazing.

Ring necked Duck close up

Not very many days you find two Bonaparte's Gulls AND a drake Ring-necked Duck!

Our final score was one hundred and twenty six species not bad at all considering the fog and a puncture and giving up when we found the Bonaparte’s Gulls. Truly a day to remember.

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