February half-term had been pretty good for the non-motorised year list with Green-winged Teal, Cattle Egret, Barnacle Goose, Woodlark, Marsh Tit, Dartford Warbler, Goshawk, Kestrel, Barn Owl, Bar-tailed Godwit, Crossbill and a slightly tardy Mistle Thrush adding a combination of quality and quantity. I had clocked up 111 miles for the week but as the weekend before my return to work approached, I was feeling the need to do something more, well, ambitious.
|Great Grey Shrike in Wareham Forest, 8th April 2017|
We haven't had a Great Grey Shrike wintering in Dorset since one in Wareham Forest in 2020, a convenient 4 miles from home. Although I had my eye on one at Shatterford in the New Forest at Christmas I was unable to go for it due to illness. It was still there last week, however, and at 40 miles away would certainly be a challenge, being 10 times further away than the last one I cycled to and in a different county! But the New Forest holds other species which are hard to come by in Dorset like Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Hawfinch, which added to the incentive to make the effort.
The weather and the state of my knees, however, were both important considerations, and neither were in great shape. I could mitigate the pressures on the latter with some sturdy knee supports but the former was in the lap of the gods. The forecast suggested a brisk WSW breeze - fine to push me there, not much fun on the way back. But with only a 10% chance of rain I should stay dry at least.
|Great Grey Shrike, Wareham Forest, 8th April 2017|
Given the wind direction, it made sense to take the longer but flatter coastal route on the way there and almost literally sail from Sandbanks to Southbourne with the breeze at my back. Leaving at 0620 meant it was pretty quiet on both the roads and the seafront and the wind certainly made the journey easier. But by the time I left the familiar route around Christchurch to head towards the New Forest on National Cycle Route 2, I had done over 20 miles already.
At this point of a journey to the east I would normally be two-thirds of the way to the usual destination of Keyhaven/Pennington and feeling like I had broken its back, so it was sobering to realise I was only half-way to Shatterford. The right knee was also giving me a bit of jip with barely a quarter of the day's likely mileage behind me. Although I questioned the wisdom of pressing on, I didn't seriously consider stopping, instead consoling myself with the thought that if the Shrike wasn't there I could at least get the train home.
From this point on I was in uncharted territory cycling-wise, but route 2 is well chosen to provide a reasonably flat route all the way to Brockenhurst, and I was able to enjoy the glories of the National Park via quiet roads and forest tracks. The chain on the bike was already creaking a bit despite a good clean and lubrication the night before, but a conveniently placed bike shop in Brockenurst opened at 0930 just in time for me to get a small bottle of oil. The local cafes smelt divine but from there the Shrike site was still 6 miles away, so I resisted temptation and pressed on. Google maps for bikes took me through a disconcertingly wet bit of woodland and heathland for the last mile, but I was confident I was in the right place. The fact that I was appeared to be confirmed when I bumped into a birding couple, but they broke the unwelcome news that, despite a couple of visits and over an hour searching that morning, they had not seen the Shrike.
I knew that the Shrike could be elusive, with one well known twitcher declaring on Twitter with an unnerving level of certainty that it could take 'up to 4 hours to locate' (!). I didn't intend to stay that long, wanting to be back in time to watch the Liverpool game kick off at 1730, but at the same time I wasn't going to give up yet. I suggested to the birders who had been searching in vain that we swapped numbers and split up but they declined the offer as they were planning to leave.
|Great Grey Shrike, Wareham Forest, 8th April 2017|
I pressed on towards Beaulieu Road Station to check a line of birches next to the railway which the bird supposedly favoured. After a thorough scan with no sign I turned 180 degrees to check the open heathland behind me. A white blob atop a small pine seen through the bins in the far distance merited closer inspection, and when relocated in the telescope, I was delighted to confirm that I had indeed relocated the Shrike! Another birder arrived who turned out to be from my home town of Wareham and was grateful for a view through my scope. She kept tabs on it whilst I set off on the bike to look for the birders I had spoken to earlier but they were nowhere to be found.
Another couple joined us, again enjoying views through the scope, then all of a sudden when none of us were looking the Shrike vanished. At this point the first birding couple reappeared and I had to break the news that they had missed it again! It was now gone 1100 though and I had a long way to go, so I bid my farewells and headed towards Acres Down in the hope of bumping into a Lesser Spot or a Hawfinch, both of which had been seen there recently. On arrival 45 minutes later I enjoyed a packed lunch in a sheltered spot with views of a likely looking area. A couple of other birders came and went but after 2 hours we had seen nothing more than a few Crossbills. The birding couple who I first met at Shatterford arrived around 1400 - they had still not seen the Shrike - but with one eye on the clock and another on the weather (it had been raining for about an hour) I had to leave them to it in the hope their luck improved.
Satnav wanted me to take a circuitous route back towards Ringwood so I ignored it and followed my nose westwards through the wood, emerging at the Canadaian War Memorial at Bolderwood. From there I headed NW under the A31 and climbed up onto Broomy Plain where the rain worsened and the wind strengthened, making for a miserable slog across the exposed plateau. The best part of 30 miles lay ahead of me and once again I was left to ponder the wisdom of my chosen mode of transport. But then one of the reasons we are seeing fewer Great Grey Shrikes in these parts is thought to be climate related, so by cycling at least I wasn't adding unduly to that particular problem. Smugness alone wasn't going to get me back to Wareham, however, so I pedalled on.
As I dropped down from the New Forest towards the more familiar territory of Blashford Lakes the weather and my spirits improved a bit, at least until a greasy patch on a bend in the path forced an wholly unplanned and most inelegant dismount at speed! The bike slid from under me but I managed to stand up somehow and roll forward, landing heavily on the collarbone which I broke over a decade ago. Fortunately nothing more than my pride was seriously hurt, and I got gingerly back on the bike, thankful that my accident was nowhere near any traffic.
The last 20 miles along the Castleman Trailway to Ferndown, then back on the tarmac to Longham, Upton and ultimately Wareham, were hard work but the desire to see the mighty reds in action spurred me on. I arrived home at 1830 with just over 80 miles on the odometer and made the second half, enjoying an away win and the satisfaction of a adding a highly desirable species to the non-motorised year list.
|A very, very distant Great Grey Shrike at Shatterford in the New Forest|