Thursday, 29 July 2021

Fields of Dreams

When I moved to Dorset in 2007 there was a friendly rivalry between the regular birders at Swineham, including myself, and those at Lytchett Bay, which is a few miles clockwise around Poole Harbour. Both sites had turned up some good species over the years, but both also had a reputation as being a bit 'hard work', not necessarily rewarding assiduous patch watchers as they might. 

Some years back, a breach in the sea wall at Lytchett changed all that, allowing the area now known as Lytchett Fields to flood on every tide, driving a transition to saltmarsh and the muddy habitats beloved of wading birds. As a result, it has developed a justified reputation as *swallows hard* one of the best wetland sites in Dorset.

At the same time, unsympathetic management prevailed at Swineham such that it became very much the poor relation, certainly since 2012/13 when a very wet period brought an unusually good selection of waders to the flooded meadows near the gravel pits. Swineham enjoyed another brief renaissance last year following construction of two new scrapes, when regular lockdown visits by yours truly and others turned up a Temminck's Stint, Pec Sand (x2), Marsh Warbler and Grey Phalarope to give Lytchett a run for its money for once. 

But the magnetic effect of the new scrapes seems to have worn off this year, and despite even more regular visits on my part, the site hasn't turned up anything rarer than a pair of relocating Ring-necked Duck at the back end of winter.

So with Swineham not delivering, and several waders still on my target list for the 2021 non-motorised year list, I guessed there would be a point this year where I would have to put petty rivalries aside and head for the Lytchett Fields of Dreams. The moment arrived sooner than expected on Tuesday night with news of a Wood Sandpiper at Lytchett and, rather than risk missing out on a potentially tricky species, I thought I had better strike while the iron was hot. 

The route to Lytchett Fields by bike is now a well trodden one as I have to head past it en route to most points east. It's also pretty flat so I was pleased to find I could complete the 6 miles from home in under half an hour. Unfortunately, for the last five minutes of this half hour it positively shat down with rain and I was drenched by the time I arrived.

Mercifully the storm passed soon after I stopped, enabling me to set up the scope to scan the pools where the Wood Sand had been reported without too much fogging up of the optics. Before long I had located the attractive wader which eventually made its way from the back of the pool to the front. The sun had come out by this time improving the prospects for photography as well as drying my clothes out surprisingly quickly. 

A Ruff, a Little Stint or a Curlew Sand would have been nice - all three would have taken the year list to 200 - but it wasn't to be and the Wood Sand brought it to 197. Still, autumn is young and there will be plenty of time to hopefully catch up with them, and I have a feeling I will be back at the Bay again before the year is up.



Sunday, 25 July 2021

Black Monday

Monday night is probably the point in the week when I am at my least energetic, especially after a day's work, but when a Black Guillemot was reported at Barton-on-Sea last Monday, I realised I was going to have to summon up something if I was to add it to my non-motorised year list. Barton is just over the border into Hampshire and although I had cycled further a couple of times this year than the 57 miles which would be required to get there and back, I hadn't previously cycled to Hampshire, or done that sort of distance on a 'school night' in the middle of a heatwave.

Home to Barton-on-sea is about the same distance as home to Portland Bill, to which I had cycled just 2 days previously, and I was still feeling the effects from that in my legs, so I confess to some doubts about the wisdom of going. But if this year has taught me anything it's that challenging myself can bring considerable rewards, and I rationalised that, even though it was a long way, the journey eastwards along the coast would be pretty flat. Plus, although cycle route provision isn't great anywhere in Dorset, it's at its best in the Poole bit of Bournemouth conurbation, thanks to a period of progressive thinking by the Council there which would make at least that part of the journey a bit easier and safer. 

A quick getaway after work was necessary to maximise my chances and having achieved this I hit the seafront at Sandbanks just after the prohibition on cycling was lifted at 1800. I had forgotten about the 10 mph speed limit on the beachfront but, it being a hot day, it turned out that breaching it would have been a nice problem to have as beachgoers were still milling around in reasonable numbers. I was therefore reduced to picking my way carefully through the crowds until they started to thin out around 5 miles later at Boscome. A few miles more and the climb up the cliff at Southbourne was as close as the journey got to 'hilly' and I was soon working my way over the River Stour and around the Christchurch by-pass.

Several roundabouts later and I was crossing the border into Hampshire and dropping down to the beach at Barton-on-sea. News on the Black Guillemot, a pretty rare bird in these parts, had been a bit scarce since lunchtime so I had made contact with a local birder, Olly Frampton, who I suspected might have been to see it. Indeed he had, at about 1530, and he kindly sent me precise directions and the useful advice that I should look close in to the shore as the bird had been just a couple of metres out. This gave me hope that I could see the bird quickly and begin the long journey home before it got too dark. 

However, there was no sign of the bird for some time after my arrival. A lady on the rocks said she thought she had seen something which fitted the description I gave about 15 minutes earlier but it had flown out to sea. I was pretty sure I was in the right area but not certain so dropped Ollie a line to check. He called me back with the bitter sweet news that birders on the clifftop above me had been watching the bird but had lost it to view. He surmised that it might have slipped around the headland into the bay to the east of where I was standing. I had scanned the same bay several times without success but tried again - without success. 

Things were getting desperate now and the sun was dropping below the horizon. I decided to have one more thorough scan of the sea before leaving but again this produced nothing. At least, having dipped, I would be able to get the train home. I packed away the camera and changed into a fresh T-shirt for the journey home but before packing the bins I glanced forlornly for the last time into the bay where Olly thought the bird may have gone. And there it was, at the far end.

I was keen to get a photo, but the long beach between me and the Black Guillemot consisted of deep shingle - not ideal for pushing the bike, even through the narrow strip of sand being lapped by the surf. I carried it for a bit but it was too much - it was still a warm evening - so ditched it at the base of the cliff, yomped the last few hundred yards and spent a happy few minutes papping the auk in fading light as it came within a few metres of the shore. In truth it looked a bit poorly, the flight feathers being badly worn, and at the time of writing it had indeed been taken into care.

Black Guillemot is one of my favourite species, so I was delighted to have seen one travelling under my own steam - though the down side of seeing it was that I was now going to have to cycle all the way back to add it to the non-motorised year list! I had been pretty exhausted on arrival, and the bird had taken much longer to find than I had hoped, so the last couple of hours would have to be completed in the dark. Fortunately, the journey was pretty straightforward, and the 10 mile beachfront stretch which had been so busy on the way over was delightfully empty but for a few late night revelers. I got back just before midnight, shattered but happy to have chalked up my 196th species for the year seen by bike or on foot.



 

Saturday, 24 July 2021

Roasting with a Roseate

The start of the recent heatwave seemed as good a time as any to do a 50+mile bike ride to Portland. In truth, I hadn't really planned to go that far, but when the dice fell my way last Saturday morning my sense of adventure took over. 

Roseate Tern, Lodmoor, 17th July

Roseate Tern, Lodmoor, 17th July
The day started badly with me sleeping through a 0500 alarm and waking instead at 0600. The plan was to make an early start and beat both the heat and the traffic to Lodmoor, where Roseate Terns - a highly desirable addition to my non-motorised year list - had been appearing sporadically all week. I was out of the house by 0615 and set myself a target of completing the 17 mile journey to Lodmoor by 0730, the time at which a Roseate Tern was reported as flying out to sea the previous morning having been on the reserve earlier.  
Roseate Tern, Lodmoor, 17th July

Roseate Tern, Lodmoor, 17th July
I just about met my target arrival time, requiring a respectable average of 13.5mph to be maintained in the rising heat of early morning. I needn't have rushed though as when I pulled up to the viewing shelter a few others had already been looking for Roseate Terns without success. But I was prepared to devote all morning to the search if needed, and the shelter at least provided some respite from the baking sun and a cool concrete bench on which to perch. 
Roseate Tern, Lodmoor, 17th July

Roseate Tern, Lodmoor, 17th July
It was a treat to watch the comings and goings of the Common Tern colony, which seems to have had a decent breeding season judging by the number of newly-fledged birds flying around. But there was no sign of a Roseate. Every now and then the colony would take to their air, 'shuffling the pack' and giving the three of us still scanning renewed hope. After a couple of hours of this, and yet another shuffle, Chris Courtaux picked out a dark-billed tern at the back of the scrape - Roseate!
Common Tern, Lodmoor, 17th July

Common Tern, Lodmoor, 17th July
The Tern did a bit of wing-stretching, treated us to a fly around and extended views on the deck before eventually flying out towards Weymouth Bay. Time for a decision then: call it a day and head back, or head to Portland Bill and try to add Balearic Shearwater to the year list? I was feeling pretty fresh and, with panniers well stocked with fluids and food, decided on the latter. 
Common Tern (juv), Lodmoor, 17th July

Common Tern (juv), Lodmoor, 17th July
It was another 10 miles to the Bill, and arriving in the peak heat of the day would not be ideal timing for a seawatch. But, despite the obligatory Weymouth puncture slowing progress momentarily, I was committed so pressed on. Stopping to see what a guy was filming, I jammed in on another Roseate Term, but it had moved on before I could even get the camera out.
Roseate Tern, Lodmoor, 17th July

Roseate Tern, Lodmoor, 17th July
The climb up to Portland Heights was rewarded with a sighting of a Chalkhill Blue, and after pausing for a few photos of that I was setting up the scope by the famous obelisk shortly after noon. The seawatching was uneventful, but eventually Harbour Porpoise became the first and only entry on my cetaceans-seen-by-bike list. A large feeding frenzy of gulls on the edge of the race provided the only other interest, but they were too far out to identify anything to species level, let alone pick out a Shearwater.

Chalkhill Blue on Portland

Chalkhill Blue on Portland
After a couple of hours it became apparent that the gull flock was coming closer, requiring a higher level of scrutiny than I had previously given it. The scrutiny paid off as a dusky brown, pot-bellied Shearwater soon appeared among the thronging larids - Balearic! Number 195 for the non-motorised year list had been added, and the Balearic became the 3rd addition to the year list for the difficult month of July.

Marbled White on Portland

Chalkhill Blue (male) on Portland

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Back in the saddle

After the pleasant surprise of a Melodious Warbler singing on 24 June just five miles from home, the opportunities to add to my non-motorised year list dried up to the extent that it would be another nineteen days before I could add to it - the longest period in 2021 that the list has remained static. 

Common Sandpiper, Abbotsbury, 11 July
Fortunately, early July offered plenty of distractions, sporting and otherwise, and while I still clocked up just shy of 300 miles on the bike during the month of June, it was in truth 'front-loaded' to the early part of the month. It was an unwelcome surprise, therefore, to look in the mirror one morning last week and find the shadow of my peak lockdown paunch starting to return.
Common Sandpiper, Abbotsbury, 11 July
The shock and disgust of this discovery was enough to prompt an ambitious trek back to Abbotsbury on Sunday, where the off-chance of bumping into a Roseate Tern provided a strong incentive to saddle up. I knew from a previous trip that the journey would a pleasant one on quiet back roads as far as Dorchester, followed by a dramatic series of climbs and drops down to the Jurassic Coast. Abbotsbury Swanherd Steve Groves had advised that although 4 Roseates had been seen the day before my visit, there was no particular pattern to their appearances, but his colleague Joe Stockwell kindly agreed to keep an eye out and relay news in any case. 
Common Tern, Abbotsbury, 11 July
As I climbed up towards the Hardy Monument on the South Dorset Ridgway, the heavens opened and the forecast, which was for a bit of light rain at worst, turned out to be wide of the mark. I pressed on and squelched into the Swannery where I was glad to be shown to the shelter of the Helen Hide by Joe. We couldn't locate any Roseate Terns but after he returned to work I was entertained for a couple of hours anyway by the comings and goings of the tern colony and a couple of obliging Common Sandpipers outside the hide. 
A distant Great White Egret perched on a gate at Swineham, 13 July
Just as I had dried out the rain started again, but time was pushing on so there was nothing for it but to strike out for home into the downpour. The benefit of dipping the Roseate Terns was that I felt no obligation to get all the way home under my own steam, and was able to jump on the train at Dorchester to avoid cycling the last 15 or so miles in deteriorating conditions. At 35 miles for the day, though, it was still a decent workout.
Yellow-legged Gull, Swineham, 13 July
The Abbotsbury adventure may have failed to deliver the first addition to the year list for July, but the patch delivered last night with a brutish adult Yellow-legged Gull, bringing the total to 193, my second Great White Egret of the year and my first record of breeding Egyptian Goose at Swineham. The scrapes have been topped up nicely by the recent rain so let's hope they start to pull in some returning waders soon. Ruff, Wood Sandpiper and Curlew Sandpiper all remain on my target list for the year - so I'll settle for any of those in the next few weeks!
Yellow-legged Gull, Swineham, 13 July

Friday, 25 June 2021

Unhinged Melody

I've been sleeping well lately thanks to a Christmas gift of a set of Bose earbuds, which play a variety of white noises to drown out traffic, snoring and other nocturnal disturbances. A little too well it appears as on Thursday they caused me to miss a couple of early morning phone calls from friends alerting me to the presence of a Melodious Warbler just down the road at Middlebere. 

Fortunately my wife was up and about to hear the landline and shake me awake in plenty of time to dash there, grab a few photos and get back before starting work. My heart was pounding when I arrived, a result of tanking it to Middlebere on the bike before being fully awake I think, and while I'm pretty sure I did the 4 mile journey in record time, I can't prove it as I left in such a rush that I didn't even grab my GPS milometer on the way out of the door.

Remarkably, the Melodious Warbler was singing like a bird possessed - even more remarkable when it emerged that it had been there for over a week before being reported and identified. I returned on Thursday evening to find that the bird had gone to ground, apparently as a result of someone rather unwisely playing a sound recording of Melodious Warbler right below one of its favoured song-posts. It did eventually reappear but was much more elusive than it had been in the morning. 

Third time lucky tonight then, when I trundled back to Middlebere in pleasant evening light, and the Warbler sat out beautifully and continued to sing like a crazy man on meths. If the song of Icterine Warbler is based on mimicry, I would say the song of Melodious Warbler is based more on paraphrase - at times it sounded a bit like a Tree Pipit, a Sedge Warbler, a Dartford Warbler and a Goldfinch - but never exactly like any of them. A lovely composition to hear in the Dorset countryside anyway, and the first time I have heard one giving the full repertoire. Plus an excellent addition to the non-motorised year list in an otherwise quiet June, bringing the total for 2021 to a chunky 192.

The shine was only taken off the evening by discovering that the camera, recently the subject of an expensive repair job, seems to be failing to produce the previous sharp image, so apologies if these pictures look a bit over-sharpened - the only way to rescue them from the digital graveyard!


Saturday, 19 June 2021

Quailty not quantity

June 2021 has produced some spectacular records of rare birds around the UK, mostly on offshore islands, but, as expected, migration of commoner species has slowed to a trickle at the same time. Although the month started with a bang with my mammoth mission to Lyme Regis, a trip from which I'm still not sure I have fully recovered, it's been a bit slow since then. That said, there have been two further additions to the non-motorised year list and from a family which might be surprising given its relatively small size in UK terms - namely, the gamebirds. 

'What can he mean', I hear you ask - 'Pheasant, Red-legged Partridge, Grey Partridge, isn't that it for Dorset'? Believe it or not, Black Grouse is actually on the Dorset list but they haven't been seen lekking on our lowland heaths since the 1920s. Quail, by contrast, seems to be on the up in recent years with several calling birds returning over the last few summers to the area around the National Trust's Kingston Lacy estate. I went to listen to them in a weedy field last June (seeing them being seemingly impossible) which was a riot of colour with poppies and other wildflowers providing cover not just for the Quail but numerous pairs of Skylark and Corn Bunting. 

The new chariot: a reward to myself for all that cycling - 1,500+ miles so far in 2021
Five calling males were reported in the same area in early June this year and while still a bit bushed from the exertions of Lyme Regis, I thought I should make the effort as they were just a dozen or so miles away. Having had my fill of busy roads, I stuck to the tracks through Wareham Forest for the first half of the journey, but inevitably there came a point where I needed to cross, and briefly follow, the A31. I managed to find a route which required only about half-a-mile on this busy main road, but that half-mile was as scary as any of the 20+ miles I travelled on the A35 a few days earlier! I was glad then to return to minor roads and head for the relative quiet of the agricultural areas to the north. 

The only one of June's mega-rarities which was realistically 'twitchable' for me was the River Warbler over the border in Somerset

The large field preferred by the Quail was bisected by a public footpath and after walking its length and concluding that at least two birds were singing, I adopted the same strategy as on my visit last year: sit down quietly with a good view of the path and hope beyond hope that one would walk across! This strategy failed miserably last year, though on this occasion one calling bird seemed to be getting closer and closer as it responded to another male calling further down the field - so close in fact that I couldn't quite believe it wasn't visible. I could even hear what the guide books describe as the creaky 'mau-wau' introductory notes before the classic 'wet-my-lips' song (just about audible towards the end of the clip above, just after the Corn Bunting jangle).

At 60 miles the River Warbler was beyond my cycling range so I indulged myself with only my third out of county car trip of the year
I remained motionless and after several more bouts of close calling the Quail took off with a clatter of wings, treating me to a brief flight view. It turned out that it was in fact still a good distance away, despite sounding so close, attesting to the ventriloquial quality for which the species is known. Although I decided back in January to tick 'heard only' birds for the purposes of the year list I was delighted to have seen one for only the second time in over 20 years of birding.
We saw a River Warbler on our last Shetland holiday, but I couldn't resist a spring male in full song

A fallow period then followed with no new birds for the year between 3rd June and today - the longest gap I have experienced between additions to date. The deadlock was broken by another gamebird, one of Dorset's better kept secrets, in the form of a Golden Pheasant. This introduced species makes it onto category C of the British list by virtue of self-sustaining populations in the wild, mainly in Norfolk - but Poole Harbour also hosts a population which has survived if not thrived in the fox-free Rhododendron thickets of Brownsea and Furzey Islands. The invasive Rhondodendron has been cleared from much of Brownsea, reducing habitat for the pheasants there, but it remains abundant on Furzey, and birds can occasionally be seen near the island slipway by desperate year listers with telescopes viewing from the Redhorn Point area.

A lovely bird and worth the slightly agraphobic feelings on leaving Dorset and meeting other birders!
My friend Steve Smith regularly sees Golden Pheasant from here though typically from the comfort of a car with a flask of coffee - clearly not an option for the non-motorised year list. This made picking the right conditions important - the light can be tricky and heat haze at this time of year can severely hamper viewing. With not much better to do this afternoon, I thought I'd take my new bike, a nifty hybrid number acquired earlier in the month from the excellent Wareham Cycle Works, for a spin to Studland on the off-chance of seeing a Golden Pheasant. The conditions looked ideal - cool enough for there to be no heat haze, bright enough to get a decent scope view, very little wind and warm enough to sit around for what I anticipated would be a long wait. 

Looking out to Brownsea and Furzey from Redhorn
In the end a long wait wasn't necessary, as within a few minutes of setting up the scope, two small dark pheasants ran across the road looking most unlike Common Pheasants and very much like Golden Pheasants. I assumed they were females and as I phoned Steve to break the good news, a gilt-maned male strutted into view to remove any doubt about the identification. The list had crept up to 191, and the seemingly impossible milestone of 200 came another step closer. I'll still need a decent autumn to get there, but suddenly it doesn't seem quite as outrageous a prosepct as it did back in January.

The Furzey Island slipway digiscoped from Redhorn Quay - a distance of just over a mile. Patient viewing can produce occasional sightings of Golden Pheasant crossing the road beyond the slipway.