Corona Wildlife Diary: Day Seventeen

03 April 2020 | Posted in Michael Blencowe
Corona Wildlife Diary: Day Seventeen
Bullfinch / Derek Middleton

After I wrote about my Garden Bird List yesterday I was contacted by my friend Andy in North London who challenged me to a duel: a Back Garden Bird Race.

I'm always up for a challenge so I accepted...and I enjoyed it so much that I want to challenge you all to the same nail-biting, nerve-wracking contest too.

So here are the rules...

The Back Garden Bird Race

1) Stand / sit in your garden or look out of your window for one (specified) hour.

2) Note down all the species of birds you see or hear. (Native birds please, chickens and cockatoos don't count).

3) That's it. The person with the most bird species on their list after an hour wins.

So I'd like to challenge you all to a Back Garden Bird Race this Saturday 4 April between 10-11am.

If you can spare an hour I'd love you to join in. It's not so much about who wins - it's the taking part.

So who's with me? In these isolated times it'd be reassuring to think of all the people - individuals, families, children - across the county (and elsewhere) out birdwatching in their gardens / from their windows at the same time.

Sure, you probably wont beat me and my extensive ornithological expertise - but it would warm my heart to know that you tried - and I'd love to know what bird species you saw - even if it is just two Herring Gulls and a Starling.

It'll probably be easist to run this challenge on the Sussex Wildlife Trust Nature Table page.

I'll put a post up there today (Friday) and you can leave your results in the Facebook 'comments' section when we 'go live' between 10-11 on Saturday (if you don't have/like Facebook you can leave your results in the comments below this blog post).

Bird Race Banner

It was so much fun today to get out for a Back Garden Bird Race and really focus on something other than the news. I really felt engaged and relaxed for the first time this week and... well, let me tell you all about it...

The Back Garden Bird Race: Sussex vs North London

Just before the start of this hour-long challenge I thought I’d get outside to warm up – stretch my eyes and ears in preparation for the big match. Just as I reached for the patio door handle I froze…there were a pair of Bullfinches in the willow! I don’t often see them in the garden so this was a real treat. But if they could just hold on for 5 minutes I could add them to my bird race list. Sadly, they both flew off at 09:58 and never returned. Damn.


(the male Bullfinch that didn't want to take part in my bird race)

After missing out on the Bullfinches I took my position in the garden. I had thought long and hard about my approach to this challenge (I take these things very seriously) and I figured that any birds flying over the garden could really add to my score . For this reason I moved the old reclining chair from the front room out into the garden and tilted it back so it would give me a great view of the sky. I could also swivel on the chair to give me a 360-degree view of the garden. Perfect! I was all set.


10:00 And we're off!

The first thing I noticed was how loud it was out there in the garden. Not traffic, planes or people...just birdsong. There was a Wall of Sound. I scribbled down...

1. Goldfinch

2. Blue Tit

3. Blackcap

4. Carrion Crow

5. Blackbird

6. Dunnock

all in the first minute. Using my right foot I found I could slowly rotate the chair and as I spun I picked up birds flying through the garden including

7. Chaffinch and

8. Jackdaw. I can't believe how many Jackdaws there are in my street. While I was doing today's race I thought it must be seeing the same pair of Jackdaws doing the rounds - but I soon relaised there must be about five pairs in the neighbourhood. I'll have to look into this in the future. Where are they nesting? Anyway, no time to think about counting crows, I've got a race to win. The chair kept slowly rotating and I added

9. Great Tit in the neighbour's apple tree and a

10. Woodpigeon on the roof of the bungalow next door. Ten species and it was only 10:05.


The chair had now made one full rotation and I was already in double figures. Result!  As if to congratulate me a

11. Robin

appeared on the fence and started to sing. Some small birds flew into the willow. I couldn’t see them properly so I swivelled back anticlockwise to reveal a pair of

12. Greenfinches which was nice because I haven’t seen them too often in the garden over the past few years, although they certainly seem more regular now.  A raucous call from a

13. Herring Gull above me reminded me that I should be keeping one eye on the sky too. As I was staring skywards, watching the gull drift past, a pair of

14. Starlings glided low over the garden followed by a

15. Collared Dove

Then disaster struck. A neighbour a few doors down started using a pneumatic drill! This didn’t seem to bother the birds but it did bother me - I couldn’t hear birdsong. The strimmer did seem to encourage a

16. Chiffchaff which started competing with the drill with its monotnous two-note song. With my hearing disabled by the strimmer I tried to tune in to my other senses. Lying back on the chair I had the feeling that something was watching me. I stared into the neighbour's willow and was aware of a figure skulking at the back of the tree. I followed this shadow with my binoculars for a few minutes until a wary looking

17. Jay popped its head out from behind a branch. It watched me in my chair for a moment and then flew off into next door's garden. It was 10:27. The garden and the drilling had fallen silent. Reclining right back in the chair I enjoyed the empty sky above. Not a plane in sight. The last time I saw the sky so empty was during that Icelandic volcano eruption ten years ago. The world felt less cluttered this morning. I started to feel more relaxed and sank deeper in to the chair. I wondered how Andy was getting on in North London? 

Pants 1

(Andy's view in North London)

What species do they have in London that we don't have in Sussex? Could he beat me? I started getting a bit anxious. I hadn't seen a new bird in ten minutes but right then a


(spot the buzzard)

18. Common Buzzard glided lazily from east to west up in the clouds and focussed me back to the challenge.  As the buzzard drifted out of sight there was a sudden flurry of activity in the garden. In the willow above I could make out the lollypop shape of a

19. Long-tailed Tit which jittered about in the branches and a then, from somewhere over by the rhubarb, a

20. Wren launched into its explosive song. About time, I was getting worried about missing out on this little bird. With the drilling now silenced I could pick out the high-pitched call of a

21. Coal Tit a few gardens over. I spun the chair to the north and in doing so almost collided with a

22. Green Woodpecker that torpedoed over the garden fence, headed straight at me and then switched course at the last moment. Phew, wouldn't have wanted to have been on the receiving end of that beak. It flew into the willow, no doubt surprised by a man in a reclining chair in the middle of the garden, glowered at me and then flew off.

I glanced at the time: 10:37. The sun tried to emerge from behind the clouds, but gave up and went back into hiding. The garden fell silent again. I became aware of a rhythm to the life in the garden, a pulse, with bursts of frenetic bird activity followed by lulls. As my chair slowly revolved I was starting to feel that, after almost 40 minutes of this silent spinning, I was becoming part of the garden's rhythm too. I almost drifted off into some Zen-like contemplation and that's when I saw it.

It was just a distant dot at first, but it was getting closer. It looked big. I raised my binoculars but by the time I had a fix on the bird it had continued on its trajectory and glided behind some pines trees. I tried to get up from the chair to get a better view but by now I was so far reclined that my legs were higher than my head. I started to panic, fearing that I wouldn't relocate the bird again. Then the bird re-emerged from the other side of the pines, angled its wings, banked and revealed its forked tail. It was at that point I fell out of the chair.

23. !!! RED KITE !!! When I was about ten years old my dad drove me 200 miles to a Welsh mountain so I could see a distant Red Kite. Back in those days these birds were really rare but the species has since made a spectacular recovery and increased its range thanks to a number of re-introduction programmes. Now, in some parts of England, people no longer get excited when they see Red Kites. That doesn’t apply to my back garden. I was VERY excited. After falling sideways out of the chair I jumped back to my feet and watched, open mouthed, as this beautiful raptor glided high over my garden. This is only the second Red Kite I have seen over my garden in eight years. I should have taken a photo but I forgot in all the excitement. If I had, it probably would have looked like this:

Dave Kilbey

Red Kite photographed by Dave Kilbey

It was 10:37 and I still had 23 minutes of the challenge to go. I now entered a long, dry period where I didn’t add anything to the list until 10:51. It was then that the cavalry showed up. A flock of

24. House Sparrows crashed into the garden, chattering and squabbling. They soon fell silent when they saw me in the chair and flew back over the fence. In the final minutes of the race a pair of

25. Stock Dove flew over and two minutes later my alarm buzzed and it was all over.

After 11:00 I went back inside and anxiously traded scores with Andy in North London. Had he beaten me? His list was:

1. Sparrowhawk

2. Goldfinch

3. Woodpigeon

4. Magpie

5. Blackbird

6. Chaffinch

7. Collared Dove

8. Jackdaw

9. Blue Tit

10. Great Tit

11. Wren

12. Carrion Crow

13. Goldcrest

14. Coal Tit

15. Robin

16. Herring Gull

17. Greenfinch

18. Ring-necked Parakeet.

With the final scores on the doors as Sussex 25 - North London 18 it was an easy victory for the South Coast.

Sure, thrashing Andy at the Back Garden Bird Race felt good - but what felt better was linking up with an old friend at a time when it's easy to start to feel like we're on our own. It's good to know we can still have shared experiences.

If you have an hour on Saturday morning - wherever you are - it'd be great if you could come garden / window birdwatching with me. Get out in your garden / look out of your window and see what's out there  (and I know that there's people out there reading this blog outside Sussex, outside the UK and even outside the Northern Hemisphere. You're all welcome to join in too.  Although I'm now worried that one of you has a kitchen window overlooking an Ecuadorian rainforest).  

Back Garden Bird Race this Saturday 4 April between 10-11am.

Join in at Sussex Wildlife Trust Nature Table Facebook Page

Bird Race Banner



  • Tilly Martin:

    03 Apr 2020 18:10:00

    I’m in, Michael. My Grandmother pointed me to your blog (Valerie Blencowe), Take care, Tilly

  • Tilly Martin:

    03 Apr 2020 18:36:00

    I’m in, Michael. My Grandmother pointed me to your blog (Valerie Blencowe), Take care, Tilly

  • David Jones:

    04 Apr 2020 10:09:00

    Littlehampton, West Sussex
    1. Herring Gull
    2. House Sparrow
    3. Wren
    4. Blackbird
    5. Starling
    6. Blue Tit
    7. Carrion Crow
    Slightly distracted, so may have missed my communal gardens’ resident robin

  • Martin Buck:

    04 Apr 2020 10:34:00

    Results from Cuckfield. 19. Nuthatch, collared dove, great tit, goldfinch, wood pigeon, jackdaw, herring gull, wren, dunnock, blackbird, blue tit, greenfinch, starling, magpie, carrion crow, Robin, house sparrow, goldcrest, chaffinch. Martin

  • Ann Price:

    04 Apr 2020 11:26:00

    Results from near Dallington – seen and/or heard, but missing some regulars (eg dunnock, song thrush):
    Blackbird, goldfinch, siskin, coal tit, blue tit, great tit, wood pigeon, chiffchaff, blackcap, robin, greylag goose, wren, stock dove, pheasant, mallard, jackdaw, nuthatch, mistle thrush, buzzard, crow, great spotted woodpecker.

  • Gina Masero:

    04 Apr 2020 11:54:00

    Crows, goldfinches, seagulls, robin, starlings, sparrows, buzzard & we are pretty sure it was a swift or swallow?! But too early surely. Thoroughly enjoyed our birdwatch sitting on loungers with a cuppa- thank you!

  • R&R:

    04 Apr 2020 12:02:00

    From HOVE we had 9 species.
    We had Robin, wood pigeon, sparrows, dunnocks, seagulls, pigeons, blackcaps and crows. 1 small bird of prey that I couldn’t ID.

  • N Knight:

    04 Apr 2020 16:42:00

    23 – rook, blue tit, long-tailed tit, dunnock, great tit, goldfinch, blackbird, g s woodpecker, wood pigeon, house sparrow, jackdaw, crow, coal tit, chiffchaff, blackcap, nuthatch. HEARD only: wren, pheasant, Robin, chaffinch, greenfinch, stock dove, jay.
    Meon Valley Hampshire

  • Hi Mike really enjoyed reading your blog. All the best Shaun R:

    04 Apr 2020 18:55:00

    Hi Mike really enjoyed reading about the duel with Andy. All the best Shaun R.

  • Gisela Atkinson:

    04 Apr 2020 20:45:00

    That was so interesting to read .I love watching birds in my garden I can sit and watch them all day .

  • Ginny-Vic:

    17 Jun 2020 21:39:00

    I wondered where the idea came from! It was a really good one. I must admit it wasn’t until I was sat in my back garden looking for birds that I realised how few I knew. But fortunately there’s a very obliging help desk in Lancing and I have really enjoyed appreciating being in my garden. The Bird Race was a really fun way to learn something about wildlife. Even though I never have many different types it makes me happy to think they like coming to my garden!

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