An Early Start
If you were to ask most people what the most exciting days are in a calendar year, most would say Christmas Day, New Year’s Day or their own Birthday. Not me though, for me, it’s all about the West Midlands All Dayer. It’s a magical day where birders from right across the region visit their local patches and record as many species as possible. It’s a rare opportunity to not only showcase your own little corner of the region, but also to see how it stands up against similar patches.
This would be my second time tackling my own patch, and on the evening of May 3rd, the eve of the All Dayer, I promised myself an early night in order that I could wake before dawn feeling nice and refreshed. But after clambering into bed at shortly after 9 pm, my brain refused to switch off. I was like a kid trying to sleep on Christmas Eve, as I daydreamed about finding a rarity on my patch. I’m not quite sure when I did actually drift off, but fortunately my alarm was set for 4:30 am. Barely half an hour after clambering wearily out of bed, I was in the car park on Tanhouse Farm Road gazing across at a wonderfully deserted Elmdon Park. The dawn chorus was in full swing, and I eagerly ticked off the common songbird species such as Robin, Blackbird and Wren. As I approached the lake, I heard a sound that I don’t often hear my patch, the nasal honk honk of the otherwise common Canada Goose. They’re fairly scarce on my patch, and in the early hours of May 4th, I would discover why that it is. No sooner had I reached the lake, the big male Mute Swan, the Lord of the Manor launched himself at the two intruders from the far side of the lake, resulting in the pair taking flight rapidly not to be seen again.
By 6 am, I had already recorded 30 species, just 30 short of my target, based on my results from last year. I’d picked up a flyover Cormorant and caught glimpses of the Park’s exotic Ring-necked Parakeets. Rather disappointingly though, I had failed to pick up Reed Warbler, a species that had bred on my patch for each of the past three years. Thus far though, there was no sign of any at all.
The Song of the Willow Warbler
The First Highlight
As the clock ticked towards 7 am, I found myself walking around Elmdon Manor Nature Reserve and listening to not just one but three Willow Warblers. I’ve heard and seen Willow Warblers at Elmdon before, but they’ve often been just single birds passing through on migration. This was the first time that I had knowingly heard more than one bird on my patch. Two more highlights would soon follow, as careful scrutiny of the woodland on the top of the hill produced a Lesser Whitethroat and Garden Warbler. The former in particular being almost unheard of on my patch. Things were going tremendously well; however, with the day now in full swing, the park began to fill up with dog walkers. A quick check of my phone revealed it to be 8:15 am. It’s amazing how quickly time passes when you’re having fun, so I decided to retreat back to the car for some much needed refreshment.
Rather amazingly, my tally stood at a healthy 49. In contrast, on the previous All Dayer it had taken virtually all day to get anywhere near 50. With the day still in its infancy I was only 11 species short of my target. My next addition to the list would come in the form of a fine looking male Pied Wagtail that strode confidently across the car park wagging its tail incessantly. With the half ton comfortably in the bag, I felt that time was right to pay my first visit of the day to the other part of my patch, Castle Hills.
I’ve been visiting Elmdon Park for over 30 years, but have only been recording the birds there on a serious note since 2016. This year though I made an astonishing discovery a mere stone’s throw from Elmdon Manor on the other side of Damson Parkway. It all happened by chance really. I regularly record my data on an excellent site run by the BTO called BirdTrack. BirdTrack also allows you to glance at other people’s sightings via a map, and I often use it to check whether anybody else has visited my patch. I often used to see sightings posted a short distance from Elmdon Park on a patch of farmland known as Castle Hills. I had always assumed that the land was private, so deduced that the visitor had gained access to the site through obtaining permission from the landowner.
Then one night in late March this year, I was browsing at an online OS map and after checking Elmdon Park I scrolled eastwards and to my amazement, found a footpath that led from Damson Parkway right across the fields, up to Castle Hills Farm and beyond into more fields and finally into Bickenhill Village. How had I not heard of this before? I’d driven up and down Damson Parkway countless times, how had I missed the sign? The very next day I drove up the aforementioned road and sure enough, almost directly opposite the entrance to Elmdon Park was a public footpath sign half concealed by an overgrown hedgerow. I promised myself that on my next day off that I would pay a visit, and I did. Castle Hills proved to be a hidden oasis, tucked away, forgotten, bereft of people but teeming with wildlife. I quickly expanded my local patch to include this small farmland oasis.
Castle Hills provided me with a few more additions to the list, including notably Buzzard, Linnet, Kestrel and Skylark. Although the normally common Kestrel did give me a little bit of difficulty. However, the main highlight of my first visit to Castle Hills was a beautiful Yellow Wagtail that showed briefly in one of the Horse paddocks near the Farm.
Back to Elmdon
Just before midday I dropped in back at home for a short rest, and to collect my dog who would try and help me for the rest of the day. My list stood at 56, just four short of my target, but I was already starting to wonder whether I’d peaked too early. By the time I was once again walking around Elmdon Manor, I was subjected to the raucous noise of Solihull Moors’ crucial playoff game next door. However, my thoughts were on more pressing matters. Firstly, Elmdon Manor had failed to yield its star species, Little Grebe. They breed on the pool every year, and earlier in the spring I had indeed seen a pair, but a dramatic drop in the water level had seemingly caused them to flee, and so Elmdon Manor didn’t feel quite the same as normal. Moreover, another walk around the main lake failed to produce any Reed Warblers. I didn’t want to admit it, but both my heart and head told me that they had simply failed to return this year. I was disappointed, it felt like another hammer blow delivered shortly after the Little Grebe absence.
Being at Elmdon in the middle of the day was decidedly uncomfortable. The calm serenity of dawn replaced by the madness of a sunny weekend day. Almost every square inch of the park was occupied by somebody, mostly families and dog walkers. The careful scrutiny of the morning gave way to mere glances, as my brain screamed at me to get away. I retreated back home once again for lunch without adding to my score.
Castle Hills Produces the Goods
After lunch I returned to Castle Hills with much needed reinforcements in the form of my girlfriend Paula and her dog Eddie. The serenity returned, as I thanked my lucky stars for stumbling across this lost world tucked away on the edge of the West Midlands. Neither me nor Paula saw a single other person whilst we over there. At a little after 3:30 pm, a single Swift zipped past the farm, to give me my first addition to the day list for a few hours. In the following hour, I added two more species to bring myself level with the score I had achieved the previous Autumn. Firstly at just after 4pm, a Hobby flew over one of the fields, followed half an hour later by a single Lapwing flying over Damson Parkway, the latter was picked up through a chance scan with the binoculars from Castle Hills Farm. There was still plenty of daylight, and I was confident of reaching the magic 60 or even beyond. A perusal of my checklist showed that I was still missing Sparrowhawk and Raven. The latter would most likely be a flyover, but the former is resident at both sites. Moreover, Sparrowhawk is my favourite bird, so how fitting would it be if that turned out to be the 60th species.
We returned home again for tea and to also deliberate on where to see out the day. As dusk approached, I had conceded that I was now unlikely to see a Sparrowhawk, so it was down to the Owls as far as I was concerned. Elmdon was the safe bet as Tawny Owls are resident, whilst Castle Hills was a gamble. I had been told of Barn and possibly Little Owls being on site, but at that point I’d yet to see or hear either one. I decided to play safe and finish where I started, Elmdon.
The Magic 60
We returned to Elmdon at shortly after 8pm for a gentle walk round. By now the majority of the masses had departed, leaving the park almost as serene and peaceful as it was as a dawn. We had come full circle, and I could scarcely believe that the All Dayer was coming to an end. Once again, we walked around the lake and once again as we passed by the reedbeds I listened for Reed Warblers, as they often do sing well into the dark hours, but the silence was deafening. With the sunlight beginning to fade, we noted a few bats zipping across the water...then my head turned sharply to the east towards the hill...I’d heard a noise, it sounded like an owl, but it may have been the wind. I asked Paula if she’d heard anything and she shook her head.
I’d definitely heard something, so I led Paula and co along one of the paths that led towards the steep climb. I stopped a couple of times after thinking I’d heard something, but my senses couldn’t quite confirm what it was. Then I heard another noise, and my mind screamed ‘Tawny Owl!’ Paula picked up on the noise too, but after a few moments of careful study, we figured out it was a dog barking, the wind and our tired minds distorting the sound somewhat. I remember shaking my head and saying to Paula that we should head back- a glance at my phone revealed it to be gone 9 pm, and the park was now almost totally cloaked in darkness. By now I was lost in my own thoughts, but Paula shook me awake: ‘That was it!’ I turned round, and soon enough we were both listening to the splendid song of a male Tawny Owl. The magic 60 had been achieved, and fittingly it had been done right at the end, back where I had started the day. We journeyed home happy and content, and once back in the warm, we were able to digest the day as a whole. Astonishingly, Ladywalk in Warwickshire recorded 102 species. To put that into context, on the same day Titchwell in Norfolk, one of the best places for birding in the whole of the UK recorded 112 species. A fantastic effort by them, and by everybody else covering their local patches.
The Complete Results
Middleton Lakes: 97
Branston Gravel Pits: 90
Brandon Marsh: 90
Upton Warren: 84
Salford Priors: 84
Sandwell Valley: 84
Marsh Lane: 82
Doxey Marshes: 70
Venus Pool: 69
Daisy Farm Nature Reserve: 65
Morton Bagot: 61
Elmdon Park & Castle Hills: 60
Avon Meadows: 58
Halesowen Patches: 57
Edgbaston Reservoir: 55
Sutton Park: 51
Fen Pool & Saltwells: 50
The next West Midlands All Dayer will take place on the 7th September 2019, less than a week from now as I write.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 James Kenny
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on September 05, 2019:
Thanks Peggy. Got the autumn one in two days time. Hopefully I can reach my target again.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 05, 2019:
Happy for you that you reached your target number. Those dogs are both cuties!
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on September 02, 2019:
Thank you xxx
Paila on September 02, 2019:
This was a special day.. Fabulous article.. You have no idea of your talent xxx
James Kenny (author) from Birmingham, England on September 01, 2019:
I know. I should write more of them really. I'll have probably done the Autumn one by this time next week
Liz Westwood from UK on September 01, 2019:
Pleased to see that you reached your target. It's been a while since I have read one of your bird watching articles.