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Tears, Tantrums and Triumphs: Bird Races for Beginners

Bird race

Over the years, we’ve been involved in a fair few bird races. Usually, they are a heady mixture of highs, lows and complete exhaustion. They are also, though, a fantastic way to make money for charity while out birdwatching. Not for the fainthearted, there are definitely ways to maximise your chances of winning the day as well. So, without further ado, here’s the Purple Plover guide to bird races for beginners.

What Are Bird Races?

First things first. You may be wondering what a bird race actually is. Essentially, a bird race is a competition between birders, usually in teams, to see who can see or hear the most species within a certain time period. Most races take place over 12 or 24 hours. Because they are competitive, there are often a set of rules to follow too so that every sighting falls into the same criteria. Often this means that if the race is a team event, at least two of each team has to hear or see each species for it to count. Birds’ welfare is also more important than the competition. This means that flushing or tape-luring a hiding bird to bring it into the open is a definite no-no. The great thing is that, in a traditional bird race at least, all birds count the same. So, it is as important to see a feral pigeon or collared dove as a rarity.

Collared dove
In a bird race, common species such as this collared dove score the same as rarities

Bird races are often held for charity. Teams or individuals often pay an entry fee and/or get sponsorship to raise funds for conservation causes. One of the most famous bird races is the Champions of the Flyway event. Held in Israel each year, the race raises money and awareness to help stop the illegal killing of migrating birds. Every year has a specific focus, with money raised going towards a particular region or species under threat. Many large races now include a virtual element as well. This allows teams to enter from all over the world and count birds wherever they are rather than all travelling to the same place, racking up a huge carbon footprint in the process. Other sustainable options are races competed solely on foot or bike or even public transport.

Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail

If you are organising a bird race yourself, the best time of year for one is almost certainly late spring. Although you only have to hear a bird for it to count, having more hours of daylight makes it easier to rack up more birds as many go to roost during the hours of darkness. It also means that you give yourself a better chance of accurately identifying a species by sight as well as sound. Many of us find bird songs and calls much harder to pin down to species than actually seeing a bird, after all.

Brent goose
Winter visitors like this brent goose could still be around for a spring bird race

Spring races also maximise your chances of seeing lingering winter visitors alongside newly arrived summer ones. We organised a few races in the mid-2010s and always held them in mid-May for this reason. There were always plenty of winter geese still about but most of the UK’s summer migrants had also arrived by then. Do try and avoid bank holiday weekends though; something we learnt the hard way after getting stuck in holiday traffic for far too long one year in the middle of Great Yarmouth. Even if you aren’t organising a race and just taking part in one, preparation is key. If it’s a 24-hour race, decide if you want to be hardcore and go out for the full-time span or just start at dawn. For the really competitive, it pays to be out for as long as possible. You’d be surprised how many species you can tick off just after midnight, and not just hooting owls. Our first bird one year was a calling moorhen!

Moorhen bird races
Our first bird one year was a moorhen at midnight!

Route planning is another crucial part of bird racing. Work out beforehand what species you are likely to see where and what time of day is best for them. Then work out how your chosen sites fit together in the most efficient way. Local knowledge or a pre-race recce is always useful to help this and can highlight any potential pitfalls such as traffic bottlenecks and roadworks. It is also worth deciding beforehand how much attention to pay to local sightings reports. It is really tempting to sign up to a bird news service and dash off to any locally reported rarity to add it to the list. However, there is a huge risk that you may just waste time and miles haring after just one bird that you might not actually be able to track down when you get there anyway. Remember: all birds count the same! Visiting a nature reserve with lots of species may serve you better.

Classic Bird Races

Our set of bird races in the 2010s were inspired by a classic series from the early 1980s. Two teams, one racing for the Flora and Fauna Preservation Society (ffPS) and another racing for Country Life Magazine, competed against each other to claim bragging rights and raise money for conservation causes. The ffPS team included the late John Burton, (later founder of the World Land Trust) and television presenter and Goodie Bill Oddie. Country Life’s team included writer David Tomlinson and the RSPB Minsmere manager of the day, Jeremy Sorensen. The hard-fought races took place over 24 hours in East Anglia with the Country Life team always coming out on top. Such was the interest, Tomlinson and Oddie even co-wrote a hilarious account of the races, The Big Bird Race, now sadly out of print. Oddie also went on to endorse a bird racing board game co-created by the Biggest Twitch’s Alan Davies in 1988.

Andrew and Bill Oddie
Purple Plover’s Andrew Whitelee with Bill Oddie and the famous trophy

The most recent bird race we organised, in 2017, managed to rope in John Burton and the World Land Trust, with all profits raised going to one of their appeals. John offered the Trust’s office in Suffolk as a finish line, and the charity entered their own team. We even managed to get a photo shoot with Bill Oddie! Even more incredibly, David Tomlinson very kindly donated the original trophy to present to the winners. This beautiful trophy was actually a Victorian egg warmer. The real prize, and a link to birding royalty, was its contents, however. Founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Peter Scott, donated a signed Hawaiian goose, or nene, egg to go with the trophy for the original races and this piece of birding history was offered to us as well.

Nene egg
The Hawaiian goose egg donated by the late, great Peter Scott back in the 1980s
Andrew and John Burton
Andrew and the bird race king, David Tomlinson

How to Survive a Bird Race

So, what can you expect of the race itself? Judging by our own previous experiences and the accounts of others, most follow quite a similar trajectory. Despite the fact no one will have had much sleep before a midnight start, bird races usually begin with lots of enthusiasm. As mentioned, with proper planning, it is surprising how many species you can rack up in the early hours of the morning and this certainly gets everyone fired up. Some of our night-time highlights include beautiful nightingale and wood lark songs, churring nightjars, hooting long-eared owls and the banshee cries of stone curlews. The latter was, alas, nearly drowned out, however, by the exceptionally long and loud peeing of one team member after drinking too much coffee. In fact, drinking too much coffee is a bit of a double-edged sword. Yes, it will keep you going when you might otherwise start to flag. But too much caffeination definitely frays the nerves. This can lead in turn to team members getting more than a bit tetchy when someone just can’t seem to see a bird that is obvious to everyone else.

Stone curlew
Can the sound of one man peeing drown out a wailing stone curlew? You’d be surprised…

The biggest threat to team morale, though, is the seemingly unavoidable slump occurring in mid-afternoon. By around two or three o’clock, not only is everyone extremely tired but suddenly it seems like very few new birds are being added to the list. This is partly because many passerines are fairly inactive at this time of day and hard to see or hear. Cue lots of despondent bird racers, worried they won’t see another bird for the rest of the day. These doldrums can easily be compounded by deciding to chase hither and thither after vague rumours of rarities so it’s important to resist the temptation to panic. Once you’re through the mid-afternoon slump, things do pick up again. And as dusk approaches, you get a second chance to catch up with any nocturnal species you missed at the start of the race. By midnight, whatever the result, a combination of too much caffeine, too little sleep and memories of a fun, if slightly unhinged, 24 hours often result in euphoria all round.

Last Tips for Racers

We’ll finish this guide with a few last tips for prospective bird racers. First, do make sure you have organised time off work to take part. We once had to sit in complete silence in the car while one of our teammates left a recorded message to call in sick for his work. The slightest peep from any of us could have given the game away and resulted in lots of grief for him. Second, it pays to be reasonably sure of what you are looking at before drawing the rest of the team’s attention to a potential tick. You should at least make sure it is at the very least a bird before shouting. That mid-afternoon slump, when nerves are jangling, is a classic time for error. One of our teammates will never live down the shame of screaming ‘red kite’ at us only for it to turn out to be a Cessna light aircraft. Oops…

Red kite
Red kite or Cessna?

Don’t forget that the birds always come first. A tick is never more important than a bird’s welfare and you shouldn’t hassle or disturb them in any way, especially during the breeding season. Make sure you are familiar with the list of Schedule 1 birds that have extra protections at or near the nest as well. Trespassing, blocking people’s drives and general anti-social behaviour are also completely unacceptable. Consider keeping your race as low-carbon as possible. Back in 2017 we experimented with an electric car. At that time, just turning on the heater or air conditioning reduced the car’s range, and charging points were few and far between. These days, though, things have moved on and using one would be a great option. Most important of all, though, is to have fun and enjoy the day. You may win, you may lose, there may well be tears, but bird races can be great experiences, creating lots of memories. And if you manage to raise money for charity, no one loses. So, what are you waiting for?