Thursday, 13 May 2021

Bill-bound

At the start of 2021 the very idea of cycling to Portland Bill would have seemed outrageous to me. By the start of May my stamina and commitment to the non-motorised year list were such that it seemed the obvious next step to add new species which I was much less likely to see closer to home. But Wareham to Portland Bill is still 27 miles so not a journey to be taken lightly - literally, in view of the need to carry heavy optics to make the most of the sea-watching opportunities at the Bill. 

Little Tern, Ferrybridge, 2nd May
I don't mind a bit of rain on the bike but wind is a killer, so Sunday 2nd May looked like a good option as the forecast suggested only a light northerly breeze to push me down to Portland, swinging around to the south west later to push me back. Plus there was a Bank Holiday to look forward to the following day so I would have chance to recover before returning to work. Light winds meant a lower chance of a good seawatch, of course, but this felt like a necessary compromise given my understandable desire not to die of exhaustion in the process.
Little Tern, Ferrybridge, 2nd May
Laden with double pannier bags bursting at the seams with telescope, tripod, camera, bins, spare inner tubes, lunch and fluids I left home with the sun still below the horizon and the aim of arriving at the Bill by about 0900. This would avoid the worst of the traffic, which I expected to be pretty unpleasant as people got out and about to enjoy the long weekend. The 20 mile journey as far as Ferrybridge was uneventful, with most of the steep bits downhill, but by this point I had already added two species to the year list without even getting off the bike: Common Tern over the road at Lodmoor, and Little Tern over the road at Smallmouth. The latter were perching and fishing close to the road so I took the opportunity for some photographs in lovely morning light. 
Little Tern, Ferrybridge, 2nd May
A quick look over the wall into the charming gardens of Portland Castle seemed worthy of a short detour, and when Pete and Debby Saunders advised that they had just seen a Pied Flycatcher there - a potential year tick for the bike list - it felt like more than a cursory scan was needed. Over the next hour Redstart, Willow Warbler, Blackcap and Garden Warbler appeared but no Pied Fly. However, my first Spotted Flycatcher of 2021 delivered the third year tick of the day before I concluded that it was time to move on or risk not making the most of the morning on Portland.
Spotted Flycatcher, Portland Castle, 2nd May
I baulked at trying to cycle to the Portland Heights and pushed the bike up the Old Hill footpath where a sleepy Garden Warbler posed for photos. It was a gruelling climb despite being out of the saddle, and I was glad to reach the top of the gentle slope all the way down to the Bill, interrupted only by a brief stop at Reap Lane to look for another Pied Fly and a Turtle Dove reported there earlier. Neither species appeared and time was ticking away so I headed to the Bill for the planned seawatch and an early lunch.  
Redstart, Portland Castle, 2nd May
As I had feared, the sea was hardly alive with birds, but after a couple of hours I had eked out a bit of quality if not quantity: both of the 'easy' Skuas (Great and Arctic) were added to the year list, while a Puffin (thanks to a shout from some fellow seawatchers at the Obelisk) and, most surprisingly, a drake Garganey drifted east on the fast moving tide. Further entertainment was provided by a middle-aged kayaker who manfully struggled against the infamous 'Portland Race' around the Bill towards Chesil Cove. 
Arctic Skua miles out at the Bill - the Bonxie was even further!
I watched him for a good 15 minutes in my scope paddling furiously but going nowhere before he gave into the brutal current and hurtled back in an easterly direction, sweating profusely whilst trying to look cool! I shook my head in pity at middle aged men pushing themselves beyond their limits in a vain attempt to turn the metaphorical tide of their advancing years, then remembered I was 52 and had a 27 bike ride ahead of me. I felt slightly ashamed and quietly applauded his efforts lest karma give me a puncture, or worse, on the way home. 

Garden Warbler, Portland, 2nd May
The sea may have been pretty empty but this time the Bill was crawling with visitors and a couple of their persistently whiny drones were putting me on edge, so I started the long journey north in the hope of arriving home at a sensible time. But before leaving the island there were a couple more potential year ticks to hunt down. A second visit to Reap Lane was more successful than the first when a female Pied Flycatcher revealed herself, but the Turtle Dove continued to elude me. The Little Owls had sadly deserted their normally reliable haunt of the Obs quarry but thanks to some local gen from Pete Coe I managed to catch up with one elsewhere before steaming back down the precipitous incline to Fortuneswell, disc brakes aflame.
Drake Garganey bobbing past the Bill, 2nd May
There was still a daunting distance to go before I could legitimately add any of the new birds for the year to the list - the journey home also has to be completed under my own steam for a full-fat tick. But, for those who like stats, after 60.17 miles, 3,907 feet of elevation gain, and 6 hours 8 minutes and 37 seconds in the saddle at an average speed of 9.8mph, I limped through the garden gate and had made it. 
Pied Flycatcher, Reap Lane, 2nd May
While it could have been better had the Turtle Dove or another good seabird appeared, I was pretty satisfied with seven new species for the year list, most of which I would struggle to see in the course of the year if I hadn't made the effort. The list had leapt from 170 at the end of April to 177 in one fell swoop, making it almost certain that I would get to 180, a figure I was doubtful could be reached at the start of the year.

Little Owl, Portland, 2nd May

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

(A complete absence of) April showers: part 3

I had done pretty well with additions to the non-motorised year list in the first half of April, and had a number of targets for the rest of the month which ought to fall into place if I was willing the make the effort. A 30 mile jaunt on 16th in the middle of a week's leave saw me heading back to Studland early morning (with the first Cuckoo of 2021 heard en route on Hartland Moor) to tick one of the tiny colony of Ring-necked Parakeet which resides there. 

Puffin, Dancing Ledge (16th April)
Puffin, Dancing Ledge (16th April)

Puffin, Dancing Ledge (16th April)
With Parakeet in the bag I returned to Dancing Ledge for a second attempt of the year at another tiny colony of colourful Dorset favourites: Puffins. I had arranged to meet the family there and we enjoyed a pleasant picnic lunch on the ledge - but of Puffins there was no sign.

Brimstone, Studland (16th April)

Shag, Dancing Ledge, 16th April

Fulmar, Durlston (24th April)
The rest of the team were getting restless after a couple of hours but I was determined to stick it out until a Puffin appeared so while they headed off, I nodded off as the exertions of the day took their toll. On waking, there was still no sign of a Puffin but within the hour a bashful pair dropped down from an unseen position on the cliff for a wash and brush up in the early evening light. As I was packing up to leave, my first Fulmar of the year floated past capping an excellent day.
Whinchat, Stoborough Heath (21st April)

Whinchat, Stoborough Heath (21st April)

Whinchat, Stoborough Heath (21st April)
Sunday the 18th was my last day off before returning to work and I headed out into Rempstone Forest more for some exercise than to add to the list. Whilst I was deep in the forest, news broke of a pair of Garganey at Longham Lakes on the other side of Poole Harbour. I dismissed the idea of going for them but after about an hour, I calculated that I could just about do it and still be back in time to cook my obligatory Sunday roast. From my position on the southern shore of Poole Harbour the quickest route would have been via the Studland ferry - but that would have involved motorised transport, so prohibited for the purposes of the year list. There was nothing for it then but to go the long way around.
Wheatear, Stoborough Heath, 21st April

A couple of Green Sandpiper were on and off at Swineham since January (taken 17th April)
At least 1 Little Ringed Plover was at Swineham most days through late April (taken 17th)
After a 20 mile canter I arrived at Longham to find no-one looking for the Garganey, but helpful directions on the local grapevine suggested I should head for a bench on the far side of the south lake. The same directions suggested that a telescope would be needed to see the distant birds. I didn't have such a thing about my person, but my trusty Swaro 10x32s soon picked up the Garganey scudding around an island on the lake and the camera enabled a couple of records shots.

Drake Garganey, Longham Lakes (18th April)

Pair of Garganey, Longham Lakes (18th April)

Wheatear, Stoborough Heath (18th April)
The gamble had paid off, and I was buzzing all the way home as a result of seeing these birds on the back of such an effort - a 44 mile day in total. Hilariously, four days later I would find my own pair of Garganey within walking distance of home at Swineham! But there were no regrets: the great thing about the cycling was that the exercise was doing me the power of good and there was no such thing as a 'wasted' journey.
I 'fell off the wagon' a couple of times in April, driving to Portland on rest days between cycling trips - once for this Wryneck on 17th 
Ring Ouzel also on Portland on 17th - this a male (by car)
Female Ring Ouzel, Portland 17th April (by car)
During the latter part of the month, Whinchat, Whitethroat, Swift and Garden Warbler were all added to the list closer to home on either Stoborough Heath or Wareham Common while an enjoyable afternoon visit to Durlston on 24th, necessitated by my failure to see Razorbill on two earlier trips to Dancing Ledge, saw me add not just that species but a bonus flock of Manx Shearwater in a brief seawatch. 

Razorbill, Durlston (24th April)

Guillemot, Durlston (24th April)

Razorbill, Durlston (24th April)
I thought that would be it for the month and that April would end with the tally on 169, frustratingly short of a nice round 170 - but a cheeky Stilt twitch on the final day of the month nudged me on to that important milestone. 
Durlston Auks, 24th April

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