Sunday 1st May 2016

Of course, returning home after a week-long trip away, getting out in the field birding was not a priority (or an option!). Even though it was in the middle of the migration season, I spent most of the rest of April with the family.

On 22nd April, the weather was very misty and drizzly and perfect-looking for migrant activity, so I took the little ones for a stroll along my local patch, on the coastal path between Pulias and Portinfer. There was definitely a bit of a fall happening as there were a few Willow Warblers present in the bushes adjacent to the pond and a Sedge Warbler in Tamarisks. There were Willow Warblers in every bush we passed more or less, along with a few Blackcaps and Whitethroats. As we passed Baie des Pecqueries a group of 5 Common Sandpipers fed on the shore and some Whimbrel flew around. Offshore a group of 4 Common Terns flew past. It was one of those days that you are desperate to be out finding something but are frustrated to not be able to. There were also 2 Willow Warblers and 2 Blackcaps in the tree behind the house when I got home.

Two days later on 24th April, I took the kids for another walk, this time to Bordeaux and there was a Whinchat and a Redstart on the top of the hill.




So its Sunday 1st May and its the annual island Bird Race.  At about 5 am I met the guys at Rue des Bergers (like I always do) and they'd already ticked off Barn Owl (like they always do). This is fine as only 3 out of 4 team members need to see a bird for it to count as the total. This is for practical and safety reasons - for example one person may be driving, or in the toilet, or in a shop, or asleep. We got some common species in the darkness here, but went straight to Claire Mare for first light. The first surprising bird was in the half-light of 0525 when we spied a Guillemot swimming off the beach, just to the east of where the car was parked.

From the hide there was nothing too important seen but a group of Dunlin feeding on the mud were useful. By 6 am we had checked the Shingle Bank and checked off Whimbrel for the day. Round at L'Eree we saw the first 'good' bird of the race when we spotted a Great Northern Diver feeding far out in the bay. These have usually gone well before bird race day, but recently they seem to be lingering longer into the spring. This was underlined when we spotted a second bird further south towards Fort Grey.

We moved on up to Pleinmont, the make or break moment of the bird race, where we find out if there are enough land migrants around to make a large total. And the answer There was not many migrant birds on the headland, just a few each of the common warblers and a few Wheatear. We did tick off Peregrine easily and the best bird was a Lesser Whitethroat. There was birds around, but it lacked variety up there.

We'd hit 50 species before we descended the headland and we checked a few west coast bays again, with 3 Bar-tailed Godwits present in Perelle. We headed for Saumarez Park before it got too busy to search for woodland birds. We ticked off some expected species but a bonus bird was a Garden Warbler in the trees by the back car park, which was bird number 60 and it wasn't even 9 o'clock.

Back on the coast, we called in at Fort Hommet to look for any migrants in the plantation or waders on the beach. What we didn't expect was the female Merlin that circled above the car park briefly - a pretty good bonus bird that we have rarely recorded previously. Inland next, to Grande Mare Golf Course, which is worth checking out as there is often a wandering duck or wader on the ponds. There wasn't, but we did find Willow Warbler and Bullfinch in the trees round the tees.

Species were already starting to run out and we made our way up the west coast. The next new bird was Stonechat (65) at Pulias, then at least 5 Common Sandpipers (66) were feeding at the Vale Pond. A Sparrowhawk (67) drifted over the car park. Our next site was the Grand Pre to listen out for the singing Cetti's Warbler (69) which we didn't have long to wait for, and we also had Sedge Warbler (68) from the hide. A quick check at Fort Doyle brought the expected Meadow Pipit (70) but not any more bonus migrant birds as we had hoped for. Looking out to sea, towards Herm, two Razorbills (71) swam around.

Heading further south we stopped at Bordeaux where we finally ticked off Sand Martin (72) and saw a single Brent Goose (73), not in the harbour but on the adjacent beach. We decided that, since we had two auks already and also Brent Goose on the list, a trip over to Herm was probably not a valuable use of our time, as Puffin would be the only target there. Belle Greve Bay was dead - as it tends to be nowadays - and, after a short wait, one of the long-staying Iceland Gulls (74) flew into the harbour.

It still wasn't midday and we were pleased with our total so far. We couldn't see any Turnstones in the harbour, but we still had a few nailed-on species to get. We drove across to Petit Bot where a pinned-down Firecrest (75) was singing away and then continued to Le Gouffre where Raven (76) was easily lopped off (see photo above). Cutting back inland we headed for the central valleys to search for Great Spots and Long-tails. We couldn't locate any at our first couple of stops but eventually we had a drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker (77) above Kings Mills, where there was at least 3 or 4 Firecrest showing well.

It was at this time - quarter-past one - when we hit THE WALL! As usual on the Bird Race, sometime in the afternoon, wherever you go, you just can't find anything new. We tried lots of the typical migrant spots, a few beaches and ponds, but there was nothing at all. We didn't really have any locally-breeding species still to see (apart from those bloney Long-tails!) as we had done so well for the resident birds all morning. And the less you see, the more tired you get, and the less you look, and the less you see.

Eventually, at ten past four, we finally had a group of Long-tailed Tits (78) at the Reservoir, breaking our bird-fast. With this little boost, we targeted waders, which often appear in the late afternoon after being elusive all day. We returned to the Town Harbour where some local knowledge from Chris found us some Turnstones (79). We then tried the Track Marais, as this can sometimes pull out a surprise. The only surprise we got was when I walked a little bit into the marsh to check out an unfamiliar plant, and a Snipe (80) flushed up from my feet!

Hitting 80 species is always the minimum target for us, so pleased with that we headed up to check the west coast beaches again. Eventually we found something new with a Redshank (81) feeding on the beach at Rousse with a few other waders. This species is only very rarely seen on the bird race. Then soon after, scanning out from Rousse headland, we saw a couple of Sandwich Terns (82) fishing over the rocks. This species we always get and would have been a real miss. We checked every single beach and finally found Ringed Plover (83) at Vazon, another species which we would have been disappointed to miss.

By this time, we had flogged a whole herd of dead horses, and couldn't face checking any more bays, so we headed for the traditional tea-time fish and chips. We then headed for Chouet for the usual evening seawatch, where we generally pick up one new species at least, but not today - it was quiet out there. All the other bird race teams had congregated here as it was now more or less dusk and we chatted away to them. Unfortunately, we took our eyes of the ball, and we should really have been in position for the Long-eared Owls to come out. But we weren't and we missed them! A ridiculous error. Serves us right for being all sociable. We did see a Barn Owl however for our last bird of the day.

So we ended on 83 species which, although was the highest of all the competing teams, was not a very high total for us. And the most disappointing thing about it was that we felt we had actually done really well, seeing all the resident birds quickly and easily, with only the aforementioned LEO considered a 'miss'. Year on year, our totals are going down and down. Fair enough, some breeding species are disappearing from the island, but an equal number are appearing. Discussing this, we feel that peak migration is no longer in early May, but now is in mid to late April. Looking at the sightings from a couple of weeks ago, there seemed to be much more variety reported than there was today. I think there's a good chance that we may have to change the traditional May Day Bak Holiday race in future for a date in April. Something to think about for next year.

A chart showing the decline in bird race total recorded by the Sultans (a 3 yr mean has been used rather than individual yearly-totals)

A chart showing the decline in bird race total recorded by the Sultans (a 3 yr mean has been used rather than individual yearly-totals)