In 1983 Bill Oddie was on Out Skerries writing up his bird race. Monday morning, I am back at my new office -dining table, a few hours before the start of the new normal working week. However, if it wasn’t for Covid-19 for a brief while this dining room table and the garden attached to it would not have been centre of the Universe.
By the end of April a big day birding in May is always a great conversation. I had some great days out in Norfolk with @BarryMadden12 -128 including Lark Sparrow was a highlight in 1991 and the Pacific Swift in Norfolk in 1993 was one of the last great years. We tried it in the North East on a day it raining nearly continuous until 2pm -it wasn’t the same.
Anyway, we had been locked down for 6 weeks with the prospect of it running through May too. So why not do a birdrace from the garden. The first time I suggested it there were a few comments about it not being interesting enough; too late in the year; too early in the year; it’s not my job to organise bird races. Seems its true I don’t listen when people tell me things as I turned those comments into FAQs. And if I am honest, I did make a few up. But not the roof sitting one. That did come as a real question and a real answer from @Stewchat.
One I added for fun was if you see a Turtle Dove on the race you must tell Jonny Rankin. What a piece of luck as Jonny AKA @Dove_Step saw this and it sparked a whole new level. By way of introduction. On 15th June 2013, while I was tweeting about how amazing it was to watch Swifts along the cliffs at Hawthorne Dene, Jonny was finding a Pacific Swift at Trimley Marshes. From there I have continued to follow him on Twitter as he raised awareness and money for Turtle Doves including walking from Tarifa to the Bay of Biscay. Very few ‘real’ birders put much effort into conservation. So, it was a bit of luck that someone like @Dove_Step would be interested in #gardenbirdrace. It was going to happen.
However, at this stage it had no hash tag. Randomly, this was another piece of luck. I had followed @stuttonsparrows from a random tweet he posted years ago about how well his newly planted hedge was doing. And here he was suggesting #gardenbirdrace a phrase to trend on 16th May for a while at 20. Just wow. And with @barrymadden12 and his Wildwings2020 challenge postponed to 2021 we started.
It was all meant to be a bit of fun, but we had the right rules from the start which worked. The only new question seemed to be could people count toy birds. I am surprised people didn’t ask can I count every species that my local Starlings impersonate. That loop hole is now closed.
It was meant to be a bit of fun to take away some of the misery of lockdown. More and more people started to say yes just by word of mouth. At the time I was disappointed we had no RT from RSPB, BTO garden or Birdtrack, but now I am happy with that. They have missed out. We did get some RT from organisations, authors, illustrators and a few companies that deserve a special thanks at the end of this piece. I continued to produce a few tweets comparing my garden habitats to places I would love to be -May Day Farm, Titchwell, Strumpshaw, Sicily and Minsmere. @Dove_step responded by setting up Suffolk’s newest and as far as I know only inland bird observatory.
The worry was that as the Government changed the lockdown rules in England and on 13th birders were getting back to normal. Did this mean the race was going to crash and burn. Now though we were getting #gardenbirdrace TV from Suffolk from @dove_step. So even if it was just a few folks I was still going to enjoy a full days birding. What indulgence.
Via Twitter some people were still taking this seriously and from Orkney a tweet on Friday 15th from someone sounding a bit desperate that he had not registered, and could he still join. That was really heart-warming.
I did not have a tent so was happy to put on my lucky @yolobirder Henharrier Hat and my ‘Be more Tim’ Bristol Rovers scarf as well as a body hugging Cape May ‘Gone Pishing’ shirt through several other fleeces and step out at 3am into the darkness. It was also quiet apart from the traffic going past the Metro Centre. Perhaps people were right I should have done it last weekend. I would not have been so bloody cold and there may still have been migrant waders. Nothing until three Blackbirds set up their duel. What volume! It was truly uplifting. Robin and Crow before sun up then my only Grey Wagtail flew over -first for the garden this year. A Chiffchaff briefly sang and that was it for the day so two birds worth getting up for. It got colder.
Eventually, the sun came into the garden and I could sit to warm up a bit. Suddenly, our neighbour was shouting over the fence asking what I was doing. Apparently, his wife had seen a ‘militant’ in our garden and was worried. Luckily, my wife arrived, asked why I was wearing so many layers and made breakfast. 8:30. I had not at that stage made 20 species. But Twitter was fired up. The hashtag was trending, and would have trended more if I had my reading glasses and was actually writing it correctly. From up and down England and Scotland and Guernsey people were out watching birds in their garden with the competitive zeal reserved for ‘proper’ listing. Wow. I am still humbled by this.
Everyone it appeared was seeing their garden afresh. Many people were racking up higher than normal garden totals and many were adding new species to their garden list. A DM from @patchbirding told of a of a Red-footed Falcon he had just watched coming in off. He apologised that he was going to try to relocate it, but still returned to the race later. Just wow. Truly wow.
Having seen Tweets about peoples first garden Ospreys I too managed one. You know that weird call Crows make when they are alert to a bird of prey. I still hadn’t seen a Sparrowhawk by then so was amazed that I too now was watching an Osprey fly over the garden. The neighbours did not hear my ‘militant’ shouts apparently. Sparrowhawk did arrive and took a House Sparrow. Still no Coal Tit -the little shits; I was not alone in this regard. By 4:30 I was flagging and even though other people were still adding birds and at the party I went up to our bedroom. Not for a sleep but from there I could see up to a garden who I think puts out bits of dead things for a pair of Kites who turn up at 5pm. Today they were late but, I still added my 29th and final species by 5:30pm. 14 and a half hours. I was done.
We went out for our evening walk and suddenly I was getting GS Woodpecker and other things not on my garden list. And it included two pairs of Spotted Flycatcher. Twitter was still alive when we got back, and people’s lists started arriving by 11pm when I went to bed. By 7am I turned on my phone and located 76 lists. One was sent in for 1pm and not 1am -read the question. Anyway 146 species what a hall from so many gardens. Whilst the admin was hard it was a great and satisfying thing. Especially as @cerilevy said he had a great day. People were even asking about next year.
Winners were anyone who took part I feel. It was set out as fun and it looks like people enjoyed it. Life in the time of Covid-19 has become creative.
Most species @PAABaxter in Aberdeenshire 66
Most from indoors @barrabirder 65
Sweepstake 146 species closet was 144 by @leeharris71
Most time in field @colonelbirder inawful conditions on Fetlar.
Rarest bird @patchbirding with Red-footed Falcon. Cranes, 1 and then 2, were second.
Best picture @boltonbirder of a Med gull he took while standing on his roof. @Dove_step has provided prizes for this.
Til next year. Thanks everyone for making it special.
Special thanks for RT and comments to
@gazatkinsonoptics for providing his artwork in 2020 calendars he was using to raise money for CALM.