This was my team's fifth Ayrshire Winter Bird Race, the point of which is to find as many species as possible between 0800h and 1630h within the county of Ayrshire in south-west Scotland. The Drift Migrants consists of: Lisa Ketchen, a partial migrant who had flown south from Aberdeen; Alistair Simpson, an Ayrshire resident; and myself, a drift migrant who had travelled north from London on a third-world bus service.
This year we were all in situ at 0750h on the old disused railway line at Springside waiting for the hour to chime. Several species were noted but the first officially logged was a Lesser Redpoll in the alder trees. Common farmland and woodland species were singing and the site again was successful in providing Bullfinch. Normally the race is held in early January but by early March many more species can be detected by song. Skylarks were singing and Tree Sparrows were uttering breeding vocalisations outside their nest holes in the beech trees. Six Yellowhammers were singing between the village and the metal bridge over the Garrier Burn to the west - one was still producing 'plastic' song while another was topping its 'cheese' with the more rarely heard high-pitched 'tseee' note rising to 9 kHz. After 53 minutes we had exhausted the green corridor and headed to a small wetland site nearby [28 species].
We met Bruce Kerr at Warwickdale who confirmed that the Green Sandpiper was still present but despite the time (52 mins) spent here and getting to the next site, just Green Sandpiper, Stock Dove and a displaying Lapwing were all we had to show for it. Capringstone was the next stop as it is one of the few sites in the county for Shoveler. A pair was present, though tucked into the corner, almost eluding us behind the small brick ruin. An expected run of water birds followed and a couple of Snipe flew in. As I 'scoped the area of grass on which they had settled I found two Jack Snipe tucked down and were so camouflaged that fellow team members failed to see them... until they got their eye in. The double yellow stripes on the scapulars were a perfect match for the dried grass in which they were hiding [45 species].
Heading east, we cut across the south side of Kilmarnock on A71, picking up the first of many 'roadside hawks' - a Common Buzzard. A brief stop was made at Shaws Mill Bridge on the Cessnock Water to check for Dipper. The sun came out and the warmth of the sun could be felt on our faces as we located Pheasant, Grey Heron, and Siskin. I expected a Peacock or Small Tortoiseshell to appear but we has no time to look for lepidoptera. Continuing south west on the A719 towards Tarbolton, we scanned every field for geese and wild swans but a brief look at Lochlea provided nothing new. The next location at Auchincruive, site of the Scottish Agricultural College, was visited to search for Grey Wagtail and Dipper along the River Ayr (both easy enough this year) and woodland species. Treecreeper, Goldcrest and Coal Tit were singing but otherwise it was quiet and we departed for Martnaham Loch at 1120h [55 species].
Martnaham Loch is Ayrshire's premier inland wetland site and would hopefully provide several additions on arrival. Great Crested Grebe is a rare breeding bird in the country (though more easily found on the coast at this time of year) and this was our most wanted at this site... along with, perhaps for some birders, the least wanted - Canada Goose. Still, on a bird race all species are equal (except for Wood Duck). Fine views of displaying Goldeneye and fishing Goosanders in glorious sunshine were a real highlight, until we headed back towards the car and a young male Peregrine appeared overhead, later settling on a post just a hundred metres away. This individual was quite noticeably small, and just marginally larger than a big female Kestrel [61 species].
Rozelle was the next port of call, mainly to tick Nuthatch which can almost be expected coming to the top of a waste doggy bin topped with seed. Just as we arrived I saw Angus Hogg and his team departing but we caught up to exchange news of successes and misses so far. Angus had provided some fresh seed but the Nuthatch had not appeared, yet we heard a singing Song Thrush which briefly uttered a small phrase of Nuthatch mimicry! Later it soon became clear why all the passerines had cleared off when several high-pitched 'hawk' alarm calls were heard. Moments later a female kamikaze Sparrowhawk was zipping around after everything that moved and at one point almost defied belief as it somehow disappeared into an almost impenetrable shrub and emerged less than a second later. You have to admire these birds and this sort of encounter is so much more rewarding than hanging around waiting for a small brown warbler to appear. We waited no longer, but my dad and Lisa heard a drumming Great Spotted Woodpecker nearby. I eventually heard it and its selected tree provided a particularly beautiful resonance (unlike one I'd heard last week drumming on a flag pole!) [63 species].
The remainder of the day was spent on the coast where we hoped to clean up with a good diversity of species as we worked our way north from Doonfoot to Irvine, via Barassie and Troon. On arrival at Doonfoot, it soon became clear that the flat calm conditions earlier in the day had dissipated by the time we saw the sea at 1319h. The amount of dog walkers also meant that some key species had been disturbed including the Greenshank and Bar-tailed Godwits. On the sea we still managed to locate Gannet, Red-throated Diver, Shag, Eider, Red-breasted Merganser and Razorbill and the shore provided Dunlin, Redshank, Turnstone, Ringed Plover and Great Black-backed Gull. A single Stonechat was eventually located in the Marram grass of the dunes and we suspected that this species may have suffered badly over the winter [76 species].
By now, we realised that despite the perfect conditions we were not going to make the ton - fewer species were around than expected and some in very low numbers! A brief stop at Loans failed to produce Pink-footed Goose but Barassie provided a single Bar-tailed Godwit though the hoped for Mediterranean Gulls were elsewhere. Heading round to the south side of Troon harbour at Ballast Bank, Purple Sandpiper and Rock Pipit were faithful to their habitat and offshore we 'scoped Common and Black Guillemots [81 species].
After a fruitless scurry up to Drybridge to try and locate Whooper Swan, the Shewalton Sandpit at Meadowhead was checked for the only guaranteed Gadwall (a pair) of the day and a much needed Little Grebe. A single male Pochard was also found with the Tufted Ducks and Goldeneye - just what has happened to wintering Pochard in Ayrshire? Five Mistle Thrushes were the only other addition before we headed to our final destination at Bogside and Irvine harbour close to the Ship Inn, location of the post-race meet-up. Finally Kestrel was added and despite repeated scoping the final tick was Shelduck as we finished on 87 species. Angus and his team still needed Peregrine and just five minutes after they headed indoors, one flew right overhead along the harbour wall!
The Drift Migrants finished second with Angus, Dick and Don's team, winning on 90. The cumulative total for all teams was 106 species. We have already tightened up our itinerary for 2011, eliminating areas and sites yielding low numbers in relation to time and effort. Several glaring omissions included Meadow Pipit and Reed Bunting which may have been hit badly by the severe winter, and both Fieldfare and Redwing were nowhere to be found. The day was also notable for the lack of scarce birds too. Despite seeing around 15 Buzzards, Kestrel was surprisingly difficult and it was not logged until 1605h at our last site - what a change around in the status of these raptors from 20 years ago in Ayrshire! Well done to Lisa, who bravely carried on despite a painful back. The things we do for birds...
The full species list can be found here: