This was the ninth Ayrshire Winter Bird Race (our fourth), the point of which is to find as many species as possible between 0830h and 1630h within the county of Ayrshire in south-west Scotland. As usual the 'race', for me at least, began the night before as I boarded the overnight bus from London to Glasgow in an attempt to get to down to Ayrshire and meet the rest of my team (The Drift Migrants) for the starting call at 0830h.
As we departed Wardneuk on the stroke of 8:30 am, a Collared Dove was already singing in the garden, and Robin, Jackdaw, and Black-headed Gull were logged before the doors of the car even closed. In a bird race, all birds are equal, so a sparrow is worth just the same as a Ring-necked Duck! We initially wasted some time in Bonnyton of all places, trying to locate some of the Waxwings which were present just a week ago. Still, our first location proper was a rich farmland habitat where Tree Sparrow is almost guaranteed - a species that is difficult to locate elsewhere in Ayrshire at the best of times. As we walked along the disused railway line from Springside towards Knockentiber we observed several good passerines including Tree Sparrow, Lesser Redpoll, Yellowhammer, and Bullfinch before heading to the nearby wetland at Capringstone [25 species].
Capringstone farm at Bourtreehill on the edge of Irvine has one of the best small wetlands in central Ayrshire and several interesting wildfowl were logged here including the long-staying Green-winged Teal among its Eurasian relatives, four Shoveler, and the usual flock of 300 or so Wigeon [36 species].
Nearby at Warwickdale, we trudged into the juncus rush marsh in the hope of some Jack Snipe. Though we only managed to ruffle up some Common Snipe, the recently discovered Green Sandpiper did us a favour by remaining for the bird race. I would have missed one of the best birds of the day (head fixed to the ground for Jack Snipe) if my dad hadn't been taking in the wider view when a fine male Hen Harrier flew up in front of us before circling around the site [40 species].
Next we headed south to some mature woodland at Auchincruive estate via the more interesting route on the back road from Crossroads to Sandyford. Of course none of last weeks 'checked' species were in place today - not even the road-loving pheasants which had probably all been shot out! The riverine woodland strip at Auchincruive was pretty much dead but at least the Dippers performed with a courting pair engaging in some midwinter duetting! Goldcrest, Treecreeper and Great Spotted Woodpecker were also logged before we got stuck in Ayr for around 30 minutes due to a combination of football and racing (of the horse kind)! Still, a prize awaited at Rozelle in the form of Ayrshire's most recent colonist, the Nuthatch. We had to wait around a while for it, but after six species had visited the 'doggy' bin for seed, a Nuthatch appeared briefly. Angus and Don's team then turned up with an example of the length some bird racers will go for a tick... some peanuts for the Nuthatch! And it reappeared again. While they went off to tick the dodgy Wood Duck, we departed for Sessionfield to tick the dodgy Snow Goose [53 species].
After optimistically mentioning that the weather was not as bad as the forecast had predicted, the wind increased to near gale force and the rain came down. We searched through the geese at Sessionfield, finding Greylag Goose, Pink-footed Goose, and the white one. Shortly after at Martnaham as we tried to hold down the tripod and 'scope long enough to find the loch's specialities we logged Ring-necked Duck, Goosander, Great Crested Grebe, Goldeneye and Raven in the dreich conditions. At this stage we knew it was going to be yet another year with a low total - we hadn't even been to the coast yet and it was getting on for 1330h [66 species].
Giving Doonfoot a miss, we headed straight up the coast to Barassie and Troon harbour where the weather conditions looked set to remain on the rough side for the day. Still, a few waders were accounted for including Bar-tailed Godwit, Turnstone and Ringed Plover. In the shelter (?) of the harbour the Eider flock was dodging the Grey Seals and we saw both 1st-winter and 3rd winter Iceland Gulls though in actual fact there had been three juveniles present! Black Guillemot and Shag were ticked before we risked being blown into the harbour [79 species].
We had now reached that point in the day, approaching three in the afternoon, when the light starts to fade... and we get desperate! Three pairs of Gadwall were bagged (not literally) on the main pit at Shewalton and we ticked the Drybridge Whooper Swan flock though the rain-streaked windows of the car. By 1530h, some teams were already seen packing up for the day and retreating to the Ship Inn. This may have been the more sensible approach. At this stage, Bogside was barely visible from Irvine harbourside but Red-breasted Merganser was added before some fruitless attempts at Irvine Bay and the Magnum pool. With 40 minutes to go we started driving north. I'm not sure why but maybe I thought we could make it to Auchenharvie and back with Scaup and Pochard on list. About half way there my dad suggested we turn back as it would probably be too dark to see anything... Lisa, you did pack the infra-red 'scope didn't you? We arrived at the finish line of the Ship Inn to one of the best turn-outs for bird racing in Ayrshire with eight teams assembling which just goes to show that Ayrshire birders take this sort of weather in their stride [82 species].
The Drift Migrants finished third equal with Angus and Don's team, just behind the Goatsuckers on 83 and Cumnock Crew, the winners on 84. Yep, we should have carried on to Auchenharvie!!
The full species list can be found here: www.fssbirding.org.uk/articleayrsbirdrace09w.htm