Michael Clegg Memorial Bird Race 2015

Peregrine (Mark Pearson)

Peregrine (Mark Pearson)

The Michael Clegg memorial bird race is an annual event organised and run in memory of the well known Barnsley naturalist, star of Yorkshire Television’s Clegg’s People and a regular on Radio 4’s Natural History Programmes who sadly passed away in 1995. Each year teams from birding hotspots throughout the county attempt to see as many species as possible in their recording area in 24 hours. This year’s race took place on 4 January and saw FBOG enter three teams: the Filey Originals, the Black tailed Halfwits and Three Little Bustards (the latter name perhaps more in optimism than wit!).

The day dawned relatively calm and sunny following the previous few days of strong winds and rain, and hopes were high that a decent result could be logged. My team (Three Little Bustards) were keen to beat last year’s score of 73, and with that in mind were out before dawn in an attempt to score Tawny Owl. Despite checking two sites and much straining of ears, this species was to elude us; however, we were compensated by the superb sight of a Barn Owl quartering nearby rough grassland in search of one last meal before going to roost. With dawn now breaking we were beginning to pick up some of the more common species, and soon had birds such as Blackbird, Carrion Crow, a welcome early Sparrowhawk and Starling safely in the bag.

Teal (Mark Pearson)

Teal (Mark Pearson)

A large part of bird racing is down to strategy and tactics – do you target certain potentially difficult to see species early, or do you hit the hot spots to maximise your count and get the easier ones out of the way (thus leaving time left to search for the more elusive birds)? Our plan was to try and work our way logically through the recording area and spend the maximum amount of time in the field rather than the car. Beginning in the south of the area, we checked in at The Bay Pools and added Coot, Moorhen, Mallard and an unexpected Redshank to the list before calling at Primrose valley caravan site pond as we travelled northwards, adding Tufted Duck and Mute Swan plus a few more common species there.

Back on the road, we headed for the Brigg to pick up seabirds, waders etc, but quickly ground to a halt as we passed the Primrose Valley garage when Keith had a fly over Thrush he felt sure was a Fieldfare – with so few of this species around this year we were keen not to miss this one. Unfortunately the bird had gone by the time the other two team members could extricate themselves from the car resulting in disappointment all round. The Brigg and Top Scrub produced most of the expected species and quickly pushed our ongoing total to over 50, a bonus bird coming in the form of a Great Northern Diver picked out in the bay by the eagle-eyed Dan.

Great Northern Diver (Mark Pearson)

Great Northern Diver (Mark Pearson)

Carr Naze saw our first meeting with a rival team and much guarded banter took place between ourselves and The Filey Originals, all in good fun – it was clear both teams were thoroughly enjoying the day. From The Brigg we walked to the Old Tip and Long Hedge where checking the fields produced a Peregrine sitting out in the open but a worrying lack of farmland birds. Thankfully the thorough scanning was not entirely in vain, when Nick picked out five geese on the horizon to the north; a scope was quickly set up and we had the bird of the day in the bag – Tundra Bean Goose!

One previously agreed rule was that if any Filey team found a good bird for the area this info would be shared immediately to enable everyone to get chance to enjoy the sighting. Mobile phones were quickly deployed and the other two teams alerted, sadly to no avail as the five geese decided the Newbiggin area wasn’t to their liking and flew off high and out to sea. Although it’s always exciting to find a quality bird, we had a race to get on with and returned to our task ,eventually getting a single Gannet over the sea and a Great Crested Grebe from the sea front, taking our total to 61.

Tree Sparrow (Mark Pearson)

Tree Sparrow (Mark Pearson)

The next stop was to be for woodland species. Filey doesn’t really have an excess of this type of habitat, with the largest area being Primrose Valley, and so it was there where we spent a frustrating hour or so struggling, and failing, to find birds such as Treecreeper and Great Spotted Woodpecker. The general area did give us Coal Tit, Tree Sparrow and a pair of very smart Bullfinch amongst others, plus our only Greenfinch of the day.

The need for some food was starting to become a priority so we headed back to Primrose Valley to buy some typical birder’s fare at the garage there; this turned out to be a wise move, as we picked up a Fieldfare on the wires behind the garage (possibly the same bird as Keith had seen previously in flight). By now we were starting to target specific species, and knowing of a couple of Buzzards had been seen in the Reighton area the previous day, we decided to head down to the small sewage farm their to eat lunch and check en route. A smart Common Buzzard sat out at the top of a roadside tree took our total passed the 70 mark – If only all birding targets were this easy! Surely with the Dams still to go and several commoner species to get we should at least beat last years score?

Grey Wagtail (Mark Pearson)

Grey Wagtail (Mark Pearson)

A nice bonus at the sewage farm was a single Grey Wagtail, but nothing else was added and we headed for the Dams and East Lea to finish the day (getting an overdue Pheasant on the way). We were able to add another eight species to the day’s total, including a couple of calling Water Rails at the Dams and another bonus of Shoveler on East Lea, taking our total to 81 species. Despite a dusk finish at Filey Golf Course Pond we couldn’t add to this, but were very satisfied to have beaten our “personal best”.

It had previously been agreed that the teams would meet up at The Imperial in Filey after dark to discuss the day’s events and reveal our scores. A couple of drinks in and after much banter and leg pulling it finally transpired that our score of 81 had won us the day beating the Black tailed Halfwits by one species. Of course the day isn’t really about who wins, but how much money has been raised; the whole Yorkshire-wide event is a fund-raising exercise with the total amount from all teams being donated to a worthwhile conservation project within the county. The three Filey teams raised in excess of £300, with the final total for the whole event yet to come in.

This year the organisers of the race introduced a new handicap system, where the average of a team’s last five years scores was used as a baseline and this year’s score measured as a + or – of that. The three Filey teams scored as follows:-

Three Little Bustards +8
Black tailed Halfwits +7
Filey Originals +3

On a county basis the Filey teams came third, fifth and sixth out of a total of 11 competing teams.

Nick Carter