Saturday, 18 September 2021

A Friday Wryneck

I had cycled to Portland Bill four times this year prior to the end of August, but invariably on a weekend or a holiday when there was plenty of time to complete the 55 mile round trip. While sorely tempted to make a midweek dash for the Chough which appeared there back in early May, I worked out that it would be dark before I got there, so took the drive of shame for that particular bird. 

Wryneck, Portland Bill, 3rd September

I knew I could 'do' Lodmoor by bike after work, as I had successfully twitched both Black-winged Stilt and Bonaparte's Gull there. I had even managed to get to Barton-on-Sea over the Hampshire border on a school night for a Black Guillemot, which was about the same distance as Portland Bill, albeit on a flatter route. But I had yet to attempt twitching Portland by bike after work. As September began, the nights had started to draw in, and it felt like there might not be many more opportunities to try. But the presence of a Wryneck at the Bill - two in fact - on Friday 3rd September provided one such opportunity.

Wryneck, Portland Bill, 3rd September

News on the Wrynecks had come through in the morning and updates had been a bit sparse thereafter, but an exchange of messages with Martin Cade confirmed they were still there mid-afternoon at least. So I was away sharply after finishing work and, in pleasant conditions, began the familiar slog through Wool, Winfrith, Warmwell, Weymouth and Wyke Regis before dropping down to Ferrybridge to ruin the alliterative string of place names en route to the Bill. I pushed myself pretty hard and completed the 27 miles in just over 2 hours, the quickest I had managed for that particular journey.

Wryneck, Portland Bill, 3rd September

The Wryneck at the Obs Quarry was reportedly 'showing well' so I went straight there. Digi-scoping expert Paul Hackett had been there a while and broke the unwelcome news that there had been no sign of the Wryneck since his arrival. Weirdly, given the experience of several decades of regular dipping, I hadn't considered the possibility that I might not see the Wryneck. To make matters worse, I had underestimated how quickly the sun would set and it was dropping fast - not great when looking for a warmth-loving, ant-eater of a bird as the base of the quarry was now in full shade. At least one of the resident Little Owls was out enjoying the last few rays so that was something.

Wryneck, Portland Bill, 3rd September

A flattened patch of grass on the lip of the quarry suggested that this might be the best place to look for the Wryneck, so I flopped down there for a breather and decided to call Pete Coe who I guessed might know something of the birds habits. It transpired that he hadn't been down to look for it but before he could finish his sentence explaining as much, a movement caught my eye - it was the Wryneck which promptly sat up in front of me. I alerted Paul, and we enjoyed good views as it made its way around the quarry, perching in brambles and the branches of a dead elder.

Wryneck, Portland Bill, 3rd September

I was delighted, the gamble had paid off and another cycling rubicon - the post-work Portland twitch - had been crossed. Most of the journey home had to be completed in the dark, but after the traditional pit-stop at the Preston chippy, I didn't mind that at all and slept like a log that night with the year-list up to 203.

Little Owl, Portland Bill, 3rd September

Friday, 17 September 2021

Binge biking

Since returning from the family holiday in mid-August my cycling/birding seems to have settled into a pattern of big bike rides on a Saturday or Sunday (sometimes both) and not much in the week as pressures of work and shorter evenings reduce the opportunities to get out and about. And as my non-motorised year list gets longer, so the number of species I can realistically see in what remains of the year gets smaller. That said, we're now well into autumn migration, bringing the opportunity to catch up on a few species I missed during last winter and the spring.

Black-necked Grebe, Abbotsbury, 30 August

Among these was Ruff, a species I knew I would see eventually so hadn't made a particular effort to catch up with. I was in need of some serious exercise as the last weekend of August approached, so the Lodmoor/Portland combo seemed like a good option, and I had a good chance of at least one year tick with a striking white-headed Ruff at Lodmoor, presumed to be the same bird which has returned over several winters. 

Black-necked Grebe, Abbotsbury, 30 August

Spooked by what seemed like an exponential increase in dangerous driving over the summer months, and tales of friends of friends falling victim to similar, suffering various fates up to and including death, I have been a bit more wary on the roads for the last few months, so took a slightly longer than normal route to Weymouth to avoid the main drag as far as possible. The Ruff was indeed present at the end of the 18 mile journey to Lodmoor, and feeling fresh I pressed on the additional 10 miles to Portland. 

Black-necked Grebes, Abbotsbury, 30 August

The Bill seemed busier than usual and the reason soon became apparent as a hideously noisy powerboat - the first of many in some kind of dick-waving sea race - thundered past. I couldn't stand the noise so after my second Arctic Skua of the year, which gave a double-take with a 'wtf' look on its face as it trundled past the speed-freaks, plans for a leisurely sea-watch were abandoned.

I guess these budget-Bransons will have spaffed more carbon by the time they crossed Lyme Bay than I've saved all year by swapping car journeys for the bike

I had done 55 miles by the time I got home so I felt like I'd earnt a rest day on the Sunday. of four Goosander at Silverlake - about 14 miles from Wareham - reached me via Geoff Upton. Goosander is a tricky species in these parts, as they tend to secrete themselves in inaccessible stretches of rivers and gravel workings. 

Pintail, Abbotsbury, 30 August

Silverlake was as good a site as any to see them but having discussed with Geoff earlier in the year, he had advised that they were still very hit and miss. This foursome were newly arrived though and potentially a bit sleepy as they seemed to be roosting up on the edge of an island.

The four Goosander at Silverlake, 30th August 

Within minutes I was off, and was watching the Goosander before other birding friends who knew I needed this species for the year-list had even had time to relay the news. Flushed with success, I noticed that a couple of Little Stint were still at Abbotsbury, as they had been all week. I wouldn't normally consider cycling that far for such a common species, but they seemed nailed on, I was over half way there already, and it was the weekend after all.

Mute Swans at Abbotsbury, 30th August

The sprint to Silverlakehad taken more out of me than I realised, and the onward journey to Abbotsbury, though pleasant, was tough going, at least until I reached to top of the Ridgway and could free-wheel the last few miles to the Swannery. Handing over my £10 entry fee, I was shown to the Meadow Pool hide by a helpful warden only to find the Little Stints had moved on! 

Black Swans at Abbotsbury, 30th August

It was the third time this year that I had cycled to Abbotsbury and not seen my target bird - though in all three cases (Whiskered Tern, Roseate Tern and Little Stint) I would eventually catch up with the species in question. A trio of Black-necked Grebe close-in at the Swannery provided some consolation, and a few Wheatear and a flock of Yellow Wagtail on the way home helped overcome the disappointment of dipping the Stints. 

Whooper Swan, Abbotsbury, 30th August - not tickable as thought to be an escape

The satisfaction of doing over 110 miles on the bike in a weekend overcame any lingering regret at returning from Abbotsbury emtpy-handed, and the green year list had moved up to 202 as August drew to a close. 

Yellow Wagtail, Abbotsbury, 30th August

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

200 up!

The non-motorised year list sat in suspended animation on 199 for a couple of weeks in August as we enjoyed a family holiday in Northumberland. Although I took the bike, a nasty fall (on foot, not off the bike) prevented me from using it much. This was a shame as we were just 5 miles from the sea, from where a good cycle route would have taken me up and down a very birdy bit of coast, to sites including Druridge Bay, High Hauxley and Cresswell Ponds. I made it to the coast by bike just the once, though the Tree Sparrows I saw could not be added to the 'non-motorised' year list as the unwritten rules mean that only birds seen on trips from my permanent address can be ticked.

Spotted Crake (with Green Sandpiper in foreground), Lodmoor, 22nd August
Friends have queried the stringency of this rule but it seems reasonable to me - if it didn't exist, there would be nothing to stop richer and less fully employed people than I trundling round the country on their fancy bikes, camping [*spits*], staying in bird observatories and racking up massive lists. Frankly, I could do without the competition. 

While away in Northumberland, I was relieved that I hadn't missed much back at home - a one-day Spotted Crake at Lodmoor in the middle of our final week was about the only year tick on offer. On our return, it was only a matter of time before I reached the milestone figure of 200 species, and I suspected it would be either Ruff or Little Stint which I hadn't managed to see in the spring. We got back on Friday 20th August but on the Saturday afternoon, after several days unreported, the Lodmoor Spotted Crake re-appeared. 

It was late in the day, and the weather had detariorated badly on the way down, such that I was in drowned rat mode by the time I arrived. Julian Thomas was already standing sentry but despite an hour or so of diligent watching we could not relocate the bird. I resolved to stick it out until near dusk then bale out and get the train home if there was still no sign. There wasn't, so I let the train take the strain.

The nagging feeling that the Spotted Crake was still there, and the desire to have a cool species such as this as my landmark 200th of the year, motivated me to repeat the 17 mile journey to Weymouth the following morning and try again. The muddy edge at the back of the 'postbox pool' was more clearly visible this morning in brighter weather, and after half an hour of staring at nothing but Green Sandpipers, a movement in the shade caught my eye which on closer inspection materialised into a juvenile Spotted Crake. 

Whoever described it as 'showing well' the previous day must have had better optics and/or eyes than me, as it was a long way off and not at all easy to pick out as it crept stealthily along in the reeds, often partially obscured. But the views were conclusive, and even if my photos were terrible, I was delighted to get to 200 species in a year travelling under my own steam. It was a figure I never thought possible in January, and there were still four months of the year to go.

22nd August was good day for big milestones - 200 species for the non-motorised year list and 2,000 miles on the GPS clocked up since I bought it in mid-February - an average of 10 miles per species!

Saturday, 11 September 2021

The race to 200

When I started the non-motorised year list caper in January, I figured that I could probably see around 170 species if I was prepared to put in a reasonable amount of effort, and 180 at a push. I had an 'easy' target list, a 'possible' list of just over 30 species, and a 'bonus' list of about the same number. The 170 estimate was based on seeing all of the 'easy' list and a few possibles, and 180 on just under half of the 'possibles' and a few of the 'bonuses'. By the end of July, I had in fact seen almost everything on the 'easy' list, almost half of the species from the 'possible' list and, to my surprise, 16 from the 'bonus' list, plus a few species that never even made it onto the 'bonus' list including Whiskered Tern and Tawny Pipit.

Curlew Sandpiper, Lytchett Fields, 5th August

This meant that as August began the list stood at 198, tantalisingly close to the landmark 200 figure. We had a 2 week family holiday booked in Northumberland from 6 August so there wouldn't be much time to get there before we left, but I was keen to give it a go. The first few days of the month offered nothing within reach but the night before we were due to leave a Curlew Sandpiper was found at Lytchett Fields, the site which also delivered my previous year tick, a Wood Sandpiper, at the end of July. 

Although I really should have been packing for the holiday, I was ready to roll soon after finishing work. A quick phone call to volunteer warden Shaun Robson before leaving confirmed that the bird was still present, and I completed the 6 mile journey in a respectable 30 minutes. Shaun was still there but had to break the bad news that he had lost sight of the Curlew Sandpiper minutes before my arrival. Fortunately I was able to re-find the bird - a moulting adult - soon after on a neighbouring pool and my tally moved to 199. 

With Ruff and Little Stint still needed for the year, this was as good a place as any to look for them but try as I might I could not locate either. So 200 would have to wait, and it seemed likely that one of those two species would eventually be the one to get me there.

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