Thursday, 6 May 2021

(A complete absence of) April showers: part 2

With the lighter evenings, regular visits to Swineham after work kept the non-motorised year list ticking over during April with Reed Warbler (5th), House Martin and Yellow Wagtail (7th) and a Common Sandpiper (9th). But to keep up the pace I was going to have to travel further afield and push myself beyond the local patch. 

Glossy Ibis, Stanpit, 14th March
With a week's leave from 10th-18th April, the opportunity to do so arose and I planned a big day out to the eastern extremity of Dorset where I had my eye a couple of tasty potential additions to the year list. But first there was the business of a Glaucous Gull to attend to. A juvenile of this species had been reported once or twice at the lesser know birding mecca of the Alderney Water Treatment Works between Bournemouth and Poole, and it or another had also put in various appearances on the Brownsea Island webcam earlier in the winter. Glaucous Gull was on my 'maybe' list for 2021 so when it was reported on Friday 9th, with nothing better to do on the Saturday, I thought I'd take one of my regular exercise rides, which by this time were running to 15-20 miles, to Alderney, a round trip of 24 miles, to check it out.
Glossy Ibis, Stanpit, 14th April
It took just over an hour to make the journey, at the end of which I found myself peering through an ugly metal fence at an unprepossessing pair of water tanks holding about half-a-dozen large gulls. After a couple of hours, not unexpectedly given the infrequency of previous reports, there had been no sign of the Glaucous Gull so I headed home. 
Glossy Ibis, Stanpit, 14th April
Walking through the garden gate around 1800 I checked my phone to see I had missed a call from Phil Saunders (of Red-rumped Swallow heroics - see my last post) - Phil must have arrived shortly after my departure and had seen not just the Glaucous Gull but a Caspian Gull - a very difficult bird to catch up with in these parts. We worked out that had I got Phil's message when he called and gone back, I would have missed the Glauc, which didn't hang around, but would have seen the Casp! We concluded that the white-winged beast must be dropping in and out fairly regularly and seeing it again ought to be possible if one was prepared to invest the time.

Glossy Ibis, Stanpit, 14th March

The rotten luck of the Saturday brought out my stubborn streak so I resolved to retrace my steps the next day and stay as long as it took to see the Glaucous Gull. Arriving early, Phil joined me for the first couple of hours of the vigil, a few other Dorset birders including Shaun Robson dropped by for a chat, and their company over the course of the day lifted my spirits and helped persuade me to stick it out when I felt my enthusiasm waning. 

Glossy Ibis, Stanpit, 14th March
It was a cold day so I had wrapped up warm, but still wasn't expecting the snow flurries which hit Canford Heath as the afternoon wore on. Despite the grim surroundings and conditions, giving up too soon could also have lead to a repeat of the previous day's experience of someone else seeing the bird after I left, which would have been unbearable. So, as the last two sightings had been between 1700 and 1800, I resolved to stay until 1830 before giving up. 1830 came and went and I reluctantly conceded defeat.

Jay, Hengistbury Head, 14th April
I had plenty of time to think that day - the birding was slow to say the least, the flyover Little Ringed Plover which Phil and I saw early morning being the highlight - and I realised that I had probably spent longer standing around waiting for the Gull than I had for any other bird, ever, including some extreme rarities. Having cycled all that way, nipping back and forth wasn't really an option, so while it would be a stretch to say that the cycling was making me more patient, it certainly appeared capable of changing the dynamics of my birding and improving my tolerance of lost causes!
Jay, Hengistbury Head, 14th April

If it weren't for the approaching week off, I don't think I would have invested the best part of a weekend in trying to see a single bird, and with so much good exercise the time wasn't exactly 'wasted' - but it did leave me wanting my next long journey to be for something more, shall we say, reliable. The long-staying Glossy Ibis at Stanpit Marsh fitted the bill and although this was the furthest I had been by bike for a specific bird, it was a pretty flat run around Poole Harbour and across Bournemouth seafront.

Stonechat, Hengistbury Head, 14th April
After an early start and a smooth journey I arrived as Stanpit to find the Ibis somewhat disconcertingly not on view. It soon appeared from a ditch though and flew closer as the morning progressed to a pool close to the path. After a few photos, I headed around to Hengistbury Head where another 'sitting duck' awaited in the form of Purple Sandpiper on the groynes. I had to go all the way to the final groyne to see them but half-a-dozen birds showed well so it was worth it.
Purple Sandpiper, Hengistbury Head, 14th March
On the way home I decided to give the Glaucous Gull one last go as it was barely a detour to Alderney. Meeting up with Marcus Lawson who, remarkably, had found another Caspian Gull at the water treatment works earlier that day, we spent another fruitless hour and a half looking for the white-winged apparition without success. 
Redshank, Stanpit, 14th April
Marcus left at about 1730, joking that his departure would guarantee the arrival of the bird, so I thought I might as well give it another half-hour to see if he was right. Amazingly, he was and the Glaucous Gull dropped in for a quick bathe and a drink at 1745. It was present for barely two minutes, just enough time for me to balance on the bike pedals (the only way to get a clear view), press the lens against the waterworks fence and grab a few shots whilst passing white van men shouted 'f*****g paedo'. Being innocent of this charge, I couldn't have cared less: after more than 15 hours, 3 trips and 70+ miles cycled I had seen the Glaucous Gull. 
Glaucous Gull, Alderney WTW, 14th April
I felt I had earnt it and indulged with some celebratory cursing of my own. Following this triumph, the 12-mile journey home was a breeze. The year list had risen to 157 and there were still 2 weeks of April left to go.

Glaucous Gull, Alderney WTW, 14th April

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

(A complete absence of) April showers: part 1

No month can compete with January for additions to a year list, but April is expected to come a good second as spring migrants arrive in numbers. As my fitness improved, the distance I was prepared to cycle increased accordingly, opening up new possibilities to increase my tally during the month and to target species further afield which I was unlikely to see just mooching around the patch. 

Red-rumped Swallow at St Aldhelm's Head - a highlight of early April
Red-rumped Swallow, St Aldhelm's Head, 4th April
I figured at the start of the year that restricting the list to birds seen walking or cycling would impose a 'natural' limit on how far I was likely to go of about 10 miles, but resolved not to impose an arbitrary limit, as, if I was willing to make the effort to go further, any new bird would seem a legitimate addition. And there would be a certain natural justice in linking the physical effort expended to the reward in the form of an addition to the list.
Skylark, St Aldhelm's Head, 4th April
Skylark, St Aldhelm's Head, 4th April
The month started well with a perched Osprey eating a fish on 2nd. With various reintroduction schemes underway the 'tickability' of Osprey might now be open to question but this unringed bird at Middlebere had the necessary credentials to make the grade. The next day saw me back in Wareham Forest adding two more species: a Marsh Tit sneezing its way around a patch of wet woodland and an early Tree Pipit giving an electronic buzz from an isolated pine. 
Marsh Tit, Wareham Forest, 3rd April
Osprey, Middlebere, 2nd April
I took full advantage of the long Easter weekend with a pilgrimage to the Purbeck Coast on the Sunday. I had arranged to meet Phil Saunders at St Aldhelm's Head around 0700 hoping to benefit from his top bird-finding skills. He had elected for a more sensible means of transport and overtook me in his car puffing my way towards Worth Matravers - but I had already made a good start by then with a Willow Warbler in the half-light of Soldier's Road being my first of the year. 
Grey Partridges, St Aldhelm's Head, 4th April
Corn Bunting, St Aldhelm's Head, 4th April
One of my targets at St Aldhelm's was Grey Partridge, a difficult bird anywhere in Purbeck, best seen here in the quiet of early morning before the tourists arrive. On meeting Phil at the car park I was therefore a bit dismayed to see a party of dog walkers already returning from the Head. All was soon forgiven though as they flushed a pair of Grey Partridge into the field next to us! A singing Corn Bunting on the way out to the Head chalked up another target for the day and a smart migrant male Redstart at Trev's Quarry was added to the year list sooner than I expected. 
Redstart, St Aldhelm's Head, 4th April
Black Redstart, St Aldhelm's Head, 4th April
We spent an enjoyable couple of hours birding the area and met up with another friend, Steve Smith, checking out the quarried ledges below the Coastguards where a male and female Black Redstart entertained us on the cliff edge. I was about 50 yards away from the others when I heard Phil shout 'Red-rumped Swallow!'. I looked over to see them pointing to a patch of sky which was out of view from my angle so there was nothing for it but to sprint to the their location (not easy after an 11 mile bike ride) and hope the bird was still on view. Fortunately it was, and I managed a couple of record shots of it in flight before we scrambled up from the ledge to the coast path to find the bird perched on a fence.
Brown Hare, St Aldhelm's Head, 4th April
My trusty bike at St Aldhelm's Coastguard, 4th April
Some joggers were approaching the Swallow and we persuaded them to hold back while I attempted to get more photos against the light. One of them tried to snatch their own photo with a camera-phone which was too much for the Swallow and it took off to head inland. Red-rumped Swallow was not even on my 'maybe' list at the start of the year so this was a massive bonus for me as well as a feather in Phil's cap for another excellent find.
Pied Wagtail, Wareham, 5th April
Yellow Wagtail (and Green Sandpiper), Swineham, 7th April
It was still only lunchtime so I bid farewell to Steve and Phil and headed east along the Pilgrim's Way to Spyway Barn, where I locked up the bike and wandered down to Dancing Ledge in the hope of seeing at least one member of Dorset's tiny Puffin colony. It wasn't to be but distant views of a flock of Kittiwakes and a fly-past Whimbrel were both new for the year. A seven tick day which felt like just reward after a 29-mile bike ride, and the latter species bringing up the satisfying milestone of 150 for the year.
Not eligible for the non-motorised year list, as cycling to Portland Castle would have been a bit much at this point so I drove down, but this delightful Pied Flycatcher put on a great show early in the month

Monday, 3 May 2021

Friday fun

We interrupt this ruthlessly chronological series of posts catching up on my non-motorised year listing escapades to bring actual news i.e. less than 72 hours old. As the long May Day Bank Holiday weekend approached my ambition was increasing with my stamina, and I resolved to make the long bike ride to Portland on the Saturday.

Then news broke around Friday lunchtime of a pair of Black-winged Stilts at Lodmoor. This would be an excellent addition to the year list but the question was, should I wait until the next day and hope they were still there so I could see them en route to Portland? Or go after work and be more certain of success? It had been a tiring week - how much Zoom can a man take? - and I wasn't planning on ending it with a 35 mile bike ride but, equally, with the lighter evenings I calculated I ought to be able to make it there and back before dark. It was a pair of Black-winged Stilts, after all, so I resolved to make the effort.

With mind made up, a goal to aim for and all the steep hills being downhill on the way there, I made good time, leaving home at 1715 and arriving shortly after 1830 - slow by pro-cycling standards obviously, but quick by mine, and I almost triggered the 'lower your speed' sign on the way down into Weymouth.

On arrival at the north end of Lodmoor I almost cycled past the small group of familiar faces watching the bird, so well camouflaged were they, but their massive lenses gave them away and they kindly pointed out the Stilts and proudly showed me their Stilt-porn photos of the copulating pair. I didn't witness any such funny business but the Stilts did a tour of the pools and gave pretty good, if distant, views. I snatched some record shots and headed off, conscious of the long way home and the slow puncture I noticed on the way down, but didn't have time to stop for, and which had thus far held its own.

The sprint down to Lodmoor had made me a bit peckish, and being an elite athlete now, I was mindful of the need to treat my body with respect. So as I began the long climb out of Weymouth, supper at the excellent Preston chippy seemed the obvious choice. Duly fortified with grease, I headed up with gusto until indigestion enforced a steadier pace. 

With the pressure off, I could enjoy the little things on the ride home, like the newish stretch of tarmac east of Osmington Mills - smooth as a baby's bum, it was like a personal gift from Dorset Council to my own posterior and the bike positively purred along. Even when it came to an abrupt end with a pothole in Poxwell the occupants of a roadside Rookery cheered me on. And the sunset over Tadnoll and Winfrith Heath -  part of Egdon Heath in Thomas Hardy's novels - was redolent of one of his works, or would have been but for the field of Alpacas and caravans against the backdrop of the decommissioned nuclear reactor, none of which I guess were around in his day. As dusk fell I eschewed the main road from Wool to Wareham for the safer and more southerly scenic route along National Cycle Route 2. Mist was forming at waist height in the Frome Valley and a Skylark sang into the last of the light.

As the refreshing effects of chip fat wore off, I hit 'the wall' and progress slowed still further. Then the slow puncture became a fast one when I was two miles from home. I had forgotten to bring my little tube of nitrous oxide for rapid tyre reflation which is probably for the best as I would have been tempted to inhale it rather than use it on the bike. And it was too late and too dark to bother changing the inner tube so after pumping it up a couple of times, diminishing returns eventually kicked in and I pushed the bike for the last half a mile. But although I had limped home, the gamble had paid off: the Stilts were gone the next morning, and I could add another top drawer species to the list of birds seen travelling under my own steam. 

At the start of 2021, I calculated that I could get to 170 by the end of the year. The Stilts brought the list to this number by the end of April, so it seems I had underestimated both the potential and myself in terms of how far I would be willing to go to add to the total.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Mad March haring around

I was not expecting my 'green' year list (birds seen on foot or by bike) to see too many additions in March and the first week of the month largely lived up to expectations. It was not, however, without incident on the bird front, it was just that some of the best birds were not 'tickable' for the purposes of the year list. Specifically, I had my first encounters with one of the satellite-tagged White-tailed Eagles from the Isle of Wight re-introduction scheme, and a small flock of feral Reeves's Pheasant which are tucked away in various parts of Purbeck.

White-tailed Eagle, Stonehill Down, 1st March
White-tailed Eagle, Stonehill Down, 1 March
Both birds were seen en route to Stonehill Down, an impressive hulk of chalk to the south of Wareham in the care of the Dorset Wildlife Trust, reached by a gruelling climb on the bike which had become one of my preferred lockdown exercise routes some time before the 2021 year list caper began. With reports of the Eagle tantalisingly close to home I headed up after work on 1 March into rapidly fading light, not really expecting to see a giant raptor anywhere in the absence of its beloved thermals. 
Reeves's Pheasant, Blue Pool, 3rd March

Reeves's Pheasant, Blue Pool, 3rd March
I almost didn't bother to stop at the top but bumped in to a local birder, James, who had the harassed look of a man who had been chasing an eagle all afternoon. And sure enough, as we got talking, it emerged that he had been. We were joined after a few minutes by James's cousin Rob, also Eagle-hunting, and, with the sun well below the horizon, we spent a few minutes speculating about where the Eagle might have gone to roost. Just then I spotted a huge shape lumbering up out the valley in the half-light. It was heading straight for us and within seconds was cresting the ridge of the Down just to the west. There was just enough time to grab the camera from the pannier bag and rattle off a couple of silhouetted shots before it headed north - in the general direction of my garden! It was dark by the time I headed home so a Barn Owl flying parallel to the bike on Soldier's Road took the title of the first new bird of the month.
Reeves's Pheasant (female), Blue Pool, 5th March
Reeves's Pheasant, Blue Pool, 5th March
Heading back to the Down a few nights later I stumbled across a couple of male Reeves's Pheasant foraging on the verge which posed obligingly for photos. They were still there a few nights later with a female bird and, triangulating with reports of other locals, we concluded a minimum of five birds (3 males and 2 females) were in the area. A beautiful bird, but not a species considered self-sustaining in the wild, hence not capable of addition to the year list unfortunately.
Mandarin Duck (female), Wareham, 16th March

Barnacle Goose, Rempstone Forest, 21st March
Tick-able wildfowl in March appeared in the form of a flyover pair of Mandarin Duck on the outskirts of Wareham and a lone Barnacle Goose (I suspect the same bird which spent much of the winter at Swineham) hanging out with Canada Geese deep in Rempstone Forest which I bumped into during a long bike ride.
The first Little Ringed Plover of the year was at Swineham on 26th March

Bittern leaving Swineham in the dark (!), 9th March
One of the best new birds for the month required a dusk vigil at Swineham in the hope of seeing a migrant Bittern leaving. These birds don't winter at the site but are thought to use it as a staging post during spring migration, leaving on the cusp of darkness when their characteristic hoarse calls can be heard. I first heard one on 8th but it was too dark to see. Returning on the evening of the 9th produced a sighting as a bird flew overhead before circling high into the night. A single Great White Egret on 26th and a flyover flock of 5 breeding plumage Cattle Egret on 31st made it a good month for rare herons on the patch.
Great White Egret at Swineham on 26th March
3 of 5 Cattle Egret over Swineham on the last day of the month
A few more early migrants - Blackcap on 21st, Little Ringed Plover on 26th, Wheatear on 27th and, most surprisingly, a Sedge Warbler on 31st, my earliest record of this species by some distance - brought the year list up to 139 by the month's end. 
At least 4 singing Firecrests were within cycling distance of home in March
After all the cycling I indulged myself with a short trip to Weymouth to see this Desert Wheatear on 29th March - my first car trip to see a bird in 2021. I couldn't get there before dark on the bike and it was gone the next morning!

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Early migrants

At first glance February appeared to offer limited prospects for adding to my 2021 non-motorised (walking and cycling only) year list. But with a week off at half-term there was always the chance of sweeping up some species which I had missed in January. Unbelievably, these included Skylark which had somehow evaded me at Swineham in January. The patch also produced the year's first Green Sandpiper and Jack Snipe in February, as well as the two star birds of the month: a dainty adult Little Gull which spent over a week on the Piddle Valley floods, and a lovely winter plumaged Red-throated Diver which treated us to an extended stay on the River Frome.

Red-throated Diver, River Frome nr Wareham, 14th Feb

Red-throated Diver, River Frome nr Wareham, 14th Feb
The Diver, found by Garry Hayman and family, was unusually far upriver towards Wareham town centre, and interrupted the traditional Valentine's Day argument about why one of us no longer gets a card (point of order: the 'one of us' is me) and gave me the perfect excuse to storm out in an apparent huff. But only after donning wellies, waterproofs (it was raining cats and dogs) bins and camera, which, by the time I was ready to leave, had rather dampened the dramatic impact of my strop. Attempting to photograph the Diver well became something of an obsession for the rest of February half-term week. When preening or resting on the surface it could show incredibly well, but when feeding (which was most of the time) it could appear 100 metres or more away and lead the would-be viewer on a merry dance - a merry dance in wellies up and down the Somme-like bank of the Frome which caused my calf muscles to scream on more than one occasion.
Little Gull, Piddle Valley, 22nd Feb

Little Gull, Piddle Valley, 22nd Feb
The Little Gull required much less effort, having been located on 22nd by my friend and fellow Swineham regular Trevor Warwick, who was having a good month as he also discovered a Ring-necked Duck on one of the gravel pits, presumed to be one of the Binnegar birds which I saw in January. I went to look for it and stumbled across a second Ring-necked Duck - obviously the other Binnegar bird relocating. Thanks to Trevor's prompt passing on of news I was able to see both the Little Gull and the Ring-necked Duck on the day of their appearance in the sliver of daylight between finishing work and dusk.
Two female Ring-necked Ducks (with Tufted Duck), Swineham, 13th Feb

Jack Snipe, Swineham, 13th Feb
The Little Gull was still present and performing well on the evening of the 26th and as I watched it I was surprised and delighted to see the joyous shapes of the first Sand Martin and Swallow of the year bouncing over the flood meadows of the Piddle Valley - my earliest records of both species at Swineham. Wareham Forest became a favoured haunt of mine during the lockdown of last spring, and February saw me back there to add Yellowhammer and a bonus Red Kite on 28th as my last new birds of the month, bringing the year list to 129 species.
First Sand Martin of the year - 26th Feb

First Swallow of 2021 - 26th Feb
I haven't kept any kind of year list for, well, years, so it was amusing to be reminded how doing so requires one to do silly things like twitching a local Red-legged Partridge, again thanks to prompt news from Trevor - not an easy bird in these parts. Heading out to Holme Lane to see it brought the added bonus of a Merlin scudding over the gravel pit - a species which had eluded me in January. More worthy of a twitch was the 22-strong flock of another local scarcity, Golden Plover, discovered by Marcus Lawson on 12th a short bike ride away at Holton Lee. I snaffled them up with a late evening two-wheeled sprint, like an unfit, old, slow version of Mark Cavendish. In wellies. On a crap bike.
Golden Plover, Holton Lee, 12th Feb