Thursday 30 December 2021

One last hurrah

By Christmas Day I had seemingly exhausted all the possibilities which Dorset offered to add to the non-motorised year list. At this late stage of the year, it would have been tempting to hang up my bicycle clips and settle for the grand total of 221 species which had been amassed thus far. But while the Dorset possibilities may have been exhausted, there was always Hampshire...

Following reports of a Great Grey Shrike in the New Forest earlier in the winter I had been contemplating a big day in the area. Unfortunately the Shrike had gone off the radar several weeks ago, but potentially three December 'ticks' were still available if I was willing to make the effort. 

Female Red-crested Pochard, Ibsley North
A good plan, some luck and preferably decent weather would likely be needed to see all three, and the last of these wasn't really an option as every day between Christmas Day and New Year looked wet and windy to varying degrees. Tuesday 28th looked like the least worst, with a strong westerly wind to hasten my passage over the county border. This wouldn't be much help on the way home but it was due to ease off and I figured I could cross that bridge when I came to it.
The cunning plan
A plan was therefore hatched on a scrap of paper the night before (see pic above) - all I had to do now was execute it. The first step - get on the road by 0830 - was straightforward enough. Packing the bike these days with enough clothes, food and fluids for a full day in the field without even needing to stop at a shop is quite a challenge, but I got it organised the night before and was out of the door a few minutes early. 

Red-crested Pochard (female), Ibsley North
First stop was Upton, just 7 miles from home, for another look at the Bean Geese which were looking good as the sun rose. John Wall arrived to pap them with his big lens, making my lame efforts at photography feel a bit redundant. And besides, there was no time to waste if I was to get to my next target - a Red-crested Pochard at Ibsley North lake, a further 17 miles to the east - by the allotted time of 1100. 

East Dorset birder Olly Frampton had been keeping tabs on the Red-crested Pochard, a female, which had been present a few weeks, and he very kindly confirmed its continued presence early morning, giving me the incentive to press on despite the deteriorating weather at my back. Google maps for cycling is pretty good, but on this occasion, having taking me over the Canford bridge - a narrow 3 plank job with gaps between the planks big enough for my wheels to slip through - it then directed me along the muddy bank of the River Stour to a double stile, requiring heavy panniers to be removed before the bike could be lifted over. Unhelpfully, the weather chose this moment to do its worst, and by the time everything was reassembled I was seriously wet and doubting the wisdom of the exercise. 

Essence of Fudge Duck (!), Kingfisher Lake
But since when did wisdom have anything to do with the non-motorised year list! I pressed on and found Ibsley North lake without too much trouble thanks to Olly's excellent directions. A couple of Portsmouth birders had just arrived and one of them located the RCP within minutes. I had lost a bit of time against schedule on the way over, but this quick result more than clawed it back. While a satisfying addition to the year list, this was not really a bird to quicken the pulse so after some manual focus record shots through the trees, I resolved to quickly move on to my next target a couple of miles back down the A338: the Ferruginous Duck at Kingfisher Lake. 

This returning bird has some notoriety as Kingfisher Lake is surrounded by a 6 foot fence, clad with a solid canvas matting to protect the bashful fishermen inside from view. Famously, therefore, visiting birders wishing to see the Fudge Duck are advised to bring a stepladder! Such a thing would not fit in my panniers, but the Portsmouth lads had brought one so I arranged to meet them there in case it came in handy. It turned out that standing on the bike pedals gave me just enough height to see over the fence,  but we scoured the fence line looking for a clear view in vain. 

Ferruginous Duck (left) with Wigeon
I found a candidate bird through a hole in the fence but it materialised into a female Tufted Duck. We eventually found a reasonable view point which revealed a flock of Goosander and other mixed duck in the centre of the lake. Picking through them whilst perched on the pedals, right at the back a dark bird with a white bum and peaked crown caught my eye. Views through the scope balanced on barbed wire, and a few record shots confirmed it was the Fudge Duck. The Pompey lads were delighted and I was pleased to have repaid my debt to them for finding the RCP.   

With two year-ticks in the bag, lunch - the inevitable leftover turkey sandwich - was taken sheltering from the rain and wind under a bush. The sensible thing to do at this point would have been to give up on the third target for the day - a New Forest Hawfinch - head home and be satisfied with the day's haul. But since when did sensible have anything to do with the non-motorised year list! The plan dictated that I would need to be at Blackwater Arboretum - a well known pre-roost site for Hawfinch - another dozen or so miles to the east - by mid-afternoon.

Ferruginous Duck showing sharply demarcated white belly
From Kingfisher Lake there were two options to head into the New Forest: east along Ivy Lane and across Broomy Plain before cutting under the A31 to Bolderwood and on to Blackwater; or south to Ringwood before heading east via Burley. Olly had advised that Hawfinches might be seen at Bolderwood so it made sense to try there first and, with luck, I could be on the way home well before dark. The ride through the New Forest was glorious, the sun came out for the first time all day, and I clocked an impressive 34.5mph as I coasted down through Slufters Inclosure to the A31.

As it turned out, I couldn't locate the target species at Bolderwood, so to Blackwater it was, with precise directions provided by Phil Saunders who had seen Hawfinch there within the last couple of weeks. As I rolled into the Arboretum, it was a nice surprise to see Garry Hayman, who has been present at the end of several of my long distance bike twitches this year, and his wife, obviously also hoping for a Hawfinch. 

The wheels at Bolderwood
The less good news was that they had been there since 1300 and not seen a thing! Still, I had come all this way - clocking up 40 miles by this point - so there was nothing for it but to set up scope and hope for the best. At 1545, scanning with bins in rapidly fading light, I noticed a previously unseen lump in the top of a distant pine and a quick check through the scope confirmed my suspicions: Hawfinch! I got Garry onto it and after a few quick record shots it was time to pack up and begin the long journey home. 

I took the Burley route back to Ringwood, crossed the Dorset border and followed the excellent Castleman Trailway as far as Ferndown before heading for the comfort of tarmac for the final 15 miles. At 1930 I completed the 73.5 mile epic - my second longest journey this year after Lyme Regis in June - and could safely chalk up three more additions to the year list. Barring something extraordinary happening on New Years Eve, that really does look like it for the year - a grand total of 224 species seen travelling under my own steam, all but 4 of these in Dorset. 

Hawfinch, Blackwater Arboretum, 28th December

Monday 27 December 2021

Christmas is coming and the Geese are, well, everywhere

With the obvious exception of the Greylag, the other 'grey' geese - Pink-footed, White-fronted and Bean - are pretty scarce in Dorset, so after failing to see any of the three at the end of last winter, I didn't hold out much hope of adding them to the non-motorised year list. The week before Christmas changed all that though as geese starting appearing all over the place, presumably in response to colder conditions further east. 

Tundra Bean Goose
On Monday a flock of Russian White-fronts appeared at Hampreston, scene of my successful Whooper Swan twitch earlier in the month, while on Tuesday a trio of Tundra Bean Geese arrived even closer to home in Holes Bay. Fortunately both species lingered long enough for me to catch up with them, the Beans, a particularly desirable species in these parts, requiring an early start before work. 
Tundra Bean Goose
It's about seven miles to Upton Country Park where the geese had been seen, and on arrival, even in the dark I could recognise the familiar figures of Rob and James who clearly had the same idea as me to have 'Beans for breakfast'. We went to the field where the birds had been reported but it was disappointingly goose-less. Just as my deadline to return home was approaching, the Birdguides app reported that the birds were still there - but the directions pointed to the empty field we were stood next to. The mystery was soon solved though when a phone call from Phil Saunders confirmed the correct field (to the west of the one we were watching). After a short sprint and I was there to enjoy good views in the half-light.
The three Bean Geese together at Upton
I figured (correctly) that the geese might be the last additions to the non-motorised year-list before Christmas Day, by which time other priorities, like spending time with the much-neglected family, would finally take precedence after a year in which most of my spare time has been consumed with cycling around looking for birds. Unfortunately 'spending time with the family' took on a cruel twist when my wife tested positive for Covid-19 and had to spend the big day in isolation. 
Tundra Bean Goose
She remains there as I write, ordering refreshments via the 'Room service' whatsapp group set up by my eldest when he was 'pinged' and forced to isolate back in the autumn. My youngest son (who caught Covid earlier in the year) and I (who had a booster jab a week earlier than my wife) have been testing negative on a daily basis so fingers crossed it stays that way.
Tundra Bean Goose
So it's been a slightly odd festive season, preparing meals, snacks and drinks, leaving them on a tray outside the plague-room door, giving it a tap to let the inmate know that they are there, and then running away before the virus can escape the strict quarantine imposed on its reluctant host. I feel like a cross between a night porter and a beneficent cherry-knocker.
Tundra Bean Goose
As for herself, fortunately the symptoms have been very mild, consisting mainly of a new, continuous craving for Netflix and, judging by the Christmas music coming from the bedroom, a complete loss of taste. Plus she's getting five-star catering, has a cast-iron excuse not to see the in-laws and doesn't have to share a bed with me. So I suspect she's secretly delighted to the extent that I am starting to wonder just how reliable these 'positive' lateral flow tests really are...
The Hampreston White-fronted Geese were a bit more distant than the Beans!
Anyway, there is precious little left of the 2021 and I'm not sure if I will be able to add to the yearlist, so there may not be many more of these breathless posts, which I'm reliably informed are almost as exhausting to read as the journeys on which they are based were to complete. So it's looking like the year may end on 221 (220 of which have been in Dorset). 222 would be a satisfyingly memorable number to end on of course, but not even Father Christmas can guarantee that!

A view of the orange legs of the largest (male?) Tundra Bean Goose

Wednesday 22 December 2021

Young, free and shingle

With less than a fortnight to go before the end of year, any opportunity to add to the non-motorised year list has to be taken at the moment. Last weekend offered two such opportunities but neither was going to be easy: a female Cirl Bunting consorting with a Yellowhammer flock at West Bexington, not far off 30 miles from home; and a Black-throated Diver which had spent the week in Portland Harbour, a significant detour on the way back which would extend the day's bike ride to about 67 miles in total.

No pics of the West Bex Cirl as we were watching through telescopes from a respectful distance - this is a female taken in Broadsands, Devon, last October
The forecast for Saturday and Sunday looked similar - dry but with full cloud cover and a brisk easterly breeze to keep temperatures below 10 degrees - not bad for cycling, except that Saturday's breeze would be a bit stronger making the return journey into the wind more of a challenge. Phil Saunders (Beardy Birder to Twitter followers) was keen to add Cirl Bunting to his Dorset list and given his superior eyes and ID skills I was keen to team up, so we arranged to meet at West Bexington shortly after 0900. For me this would involve leaving not long after 0600, and completing the first hour or so in the dark. 

After an early night on Friday, and with a following wind, this was no great hardship, and I made the familiar journey via the back roads to Dorchester before the steep climb up the Ridgeway to Hardy's Monument, where a Green Woodpecker was the first decent bird of the day. From this point the worst was behind me and I sailed down to Abbotsbury in no time. When I did this route to see the Cogden Tawny Pipit back in May, it never occurred to me to use the Coast Path to get to West Bexington, thus avoiding the long steep hill up out of Abbotsbury. An exchange of messages with Abbotsbury swanherd Steve Groves suggested that it would be worth it on this occasion, though he warned me that the tarmac road which runs along the back of Chesil Beach would eventually turn into a rutted track, and then shingle for the last few hundred yards. 

At least as I was prepared, but after some recent rain the track was pretty muddy, and the last mile was undoubtedly harder than any of the previous 29, and got progressively harder with the final push through deep shingle. There was more shingle to come though if I wanted to see the Cirl Bunting, so I tried to remain undaunted as I waited for Phil to arrive. He did so at about 0915 and we set off in the direction of where West Bex regular Mike Morse had advised we might see the Cirl Bunting.

Another West Bex stalwart Al Barrett was on site when we arrived and although he hadn't seen the bird that morning he advised us on features to pick it out from the Yellowhammer flock. Within the hour Phil identified a likely looking candidate and with careful study through scopes over the next few minutes we were able to nail the key features of a female Cirl Bunting - and one of the best additions to my bike list this year. We stuck around hoping for further views but the flock dispersed and it took another hour before the Cirl Bunting returned to sit up and give a good view of the grey-brown rump. Just as we were lining up a photo, the first walker we had seen all morning breezed past flushing the bunting flock!

By this time I was shivering and thinking about my second target for the day, but when I checked the likely cycling time to Portland Harbour I was a bit shocked to see Google maps estimate it at over 2 hours. Phil's parking ticket was also about to expire so we headed back, noting a Red-throated Diver on the sea before doing so. I bade farewell to Phil and ploughed back through the shingle, somehow losing not one but two rear bike lights on the way - a potential problem for the journey home. Fortunately there were still a few hours of daylight left and I got to Portland Harbour with just over an hour until dusk. 

As I passed Ferrybridge my heart sank as every inch of the harbour seemed to be occupied with a sail of some description, and the brisk wind made the waters pretty choppy. I continued south more in hope than expectation and set up scope by Portland Castle where a Great Northern Diver was offshore. A glimpse of a more distant, smaller diver encouraged me to go a bit further on to Castletown, where a period of late afternoon sun eventually illuminated the white flank patches of a Black-throated Diver. I was elated - a two-tick day in December was a cause for some celebration.

All I had to do now was get home in one piece. Fortunately the journey took me through Weymouth so I was able to stock up on rear lights at Halfords. Once again the Preston chippy came to the rescue just as I was close to expiring, and fortified with the contents of the deep-fat fryer, it was just a matter of time before I rolled into Wareham and home again. The day's efforts had seen the non-motorised year list push on to 219, bringing the prospect of 220 - an almost unthinkable milestone at the start of the year - a good deal closer.

Monday 6 December 2021

Second chances

Back in January there were various species wintering in Portland Harbour or on the Fleet which I would have dearly liked to have added to my non-motorised year list, but which at the time seemed too far away to track down by bike. They included such scarce waterfowl, in a Dorset context at least, as Red-necked Grebe, Velvet Scoter and Whooper Swan.

Whooper Swan (right), Hampreston
With my horizons broadened in the intervening months, today I wouldn't hesitate to 'pop down' to Ferrybridge or Abbotsbury. And one of the good things about year listing is that if you miss a species at the start of the year, there might be a chance to make amends when winter comes around again at the end. As November drew to a close, I had already caught up with a Red-necked Grebe at Studland, and the next 'second chance' species appeared in the same area, in the form of not one but four Velvet Scoter off Middle Beach.
Can I get a 'Whoop'? Apparently, yes.
It was late in the day when I first set off to look for them but, not for the first time this year, Garry Hayman was on site and kindly lingered until my arrival to point me in the right direction. The birds were extremely distant and the light was fading, so much so that I went back on the bike a second time later that weekend to see if I could improve on my views. They were a bit closer enabling some very poor record shots to be taken for posterity. In the middle of last week I had to give my son an early morning lift to work which is literally 200 yards from Middle Beach so I went for another quick look before starting work myself. It was a case of third time not much luckier but I did manage to photograph one Velvet flapping to reveal the diagnostic white wing panels.
    A record shot if ever there was one - but the double face-spots help identify this as a female Velvet Scoter
So two of the three wintering targets had been clawed back and sporadic reports of the third - a Whooper Swan at Longham Lakes - offered the prospect of completing the hat-trick. The problem was, with the dark evenings, I would be unable to get there mid-week, and last weekend was earmarked for a Uni friends re-union in Lyme Regis. In the end, after a lovely weekend and more ale than I can handle these days, I returned from Lyme a bit earlier on Sunday than expected, leaving the afternoon free for a bike ride. 
Another record shot showing the white secondaries of a Velvet Scoter
There had been no news on the swan all day, but after a couple of nights of over-indulgence, I was in the mood for some serious exercise so made the 14 mile trip to Longham in the hope of finding it. Conditions were a bit grim but not enough to stop me making progress, and I arrived at Longham about 1330. One other birder was present but neither she nor I could locate the swan on the lakes or surrounding Hampreston fields, and she left me to it. A second birder walked past and on enquiring if he had seen the swan he seemed reluctant to say and basically suggested I would have to find it myself - a most unusual response in the normally friendly world of birding.
A very distant Common Scoter (bottom left) also at Studland
This brought out my stubborn streak and I resolved that I damn well would find it myself, despite the hostile environment! I could see a few swans distantly but they were just white blobs through a hedge so couldn't be identified to species level. They looked nearer to Hampreston village, a mile or two away if I returned to the main road east of Longham, and a helpful couple explained that if I headed for the Church I should be able to view more fields from the footpath leading from there towards Longham. 
As I drove to Lyme Regis in foul weather on Friday night I was reminded that I had cycled the same 80+ mile return journey back in the summer to add Dipper to the non-motorised year list. This one was photographed on Saturday. 
On arrival I found what I assumed was the right footpath, signposted to Longham, and soon after located a decent herd of swans in the distance. Through my dinky MM4 scope they all appeared to be Mutes at first glance, but with some patient scanning eventually a slimmer, more elegant head and neck appeared and, at full zoom, the characteristic yellow wedge on the bill of a Whooper Swan came into focus. Success was sweet and the cold wind whistling over the fields immediately lost its bite.
Grey Wagtail, also on the River Lym this weekend
As I was watching the swans, the couple who had given me directions earlier appeared on another footpath apparently between me and the birds. I retraced my steps to the church, found the previously unseen right of way through the churchyard, and joined them on the public footpath to view the herd to the south. Through binoculars they hadn't been 100% sure that the bird they were focusing on was the Whooper but with the scope I was happy to remove any doubt for them and grab a few record shots for myself.
The Cobb at Lyme Regis with Golden Cap beyond
Mercifully, the wind was at my back for most of the journey home, and the year list had ticked over to 216. The next big milestone of 220 is therefore in sight, but for this to be achieved would require obscene levels of neglect of family duty as forthcoming weekends are earmarked for weddings, birthdays and Christmas gatherings. So as long as I don't change my behaviour too much I may well make it ;-).

Sunday 21 November 2021

Allez allez

Last weekend a Little Auk was reported late in the day on both Saturday and Sunday in Weymouth, so late in fact that going to see it wasn't an option. On the rare occasions that individuals of this species appear in these parts they are usually a bit windswept and prone to being eaten by large gulls, so regular re-appearances of this one throughout the working week seemed to confound the odds. With a full diary for most of the week and non-work commitments on Friday, I thought my only chance of seeing it would be if I made a very early start on Thursday morning, as it would surely not last until the weekend.

Little Auk in Weymouth Harbour
A cuddly toy amongst birds!
Little Auk can often look close to death but this one was pretty perky
While an early start didn't really appeal, Little Auk - or Alle alle to give it its scientific name - would be a highly desirable addition to the non-motorised year and life lists. Plus crossing another cycling rubicon - a pre-work twitch to Weymouth - felt like a challenge, and with my mid-week cycling greatly reduced since the clocks went back, I told myself the exercise would be good for me. 
The Little Auk in Weymouth Marina
It spent a good while preening and resting on the surface
A bit dark in the shade of the posh boats
Leaving at 0515 I was passed by just 23 cars during the 19 mile ride to Weymouth harbour, and it was still dark when I arrived. After a bit of a wait I enjoyed good if brief views of the Auk thanks to my ex-colleague Tom Brereton relocating it from a survey vessel as it was about to leave the harbour. I was delighted but had to hammer it home to get back for work which I managed in good time with the aid of a following wind. 
In the calm waters of the Marina
As close as it got to a flight shot!
Again a bit dark in the shadows of a 'Sunseeker'
On Friday I travelled back to my native Gloucestershire for the funeral of an old schoolmate. In our late teens, Vince was the charismatic front-man of our college band which briefly tore the pants out of several pub skittle alleys around the Forest of Dean. I spent a memorable few hours with a group of friends reliving happy memories of our mis-spent youth, but the long journey home was full of sadness for our friend who had been taken too soon.
The Auk showed so well that many non-birders also enjoyed the spectacle
While showy in the Marina, when feeding the Auk could travel long distances underwater and be difficult to relocate
Some half-decent reflections in the calm waters of the Marina
The endorphins from a good bike ride seemed like a good way to cheer myself up on Saturday so I resolved to head back to Weymouth hoping for more leisurely views of the Little Auk. Incredibly it was still around and an enjoyable day was spent chasing it up and down the harbour, taking pictures, eating chips, catching up with old friends and making new ones among the crowd who had come to admire the Auk. The bike came in particularly handy for bombing over the town bridge when the bird appeared on the 'wrong' side.
Just three more...
...for the Twitter trolls...
...moaning about too many Little Auk photos on social media ;-)
Bird Twitter inevitably featured plenty of Little Auk photos, mine included and, Twitter being Twitter, I noticed a few sarky posts like 'has there never been one in Dorset before?' or 'it's hardly a Varied Thrush'. Such comments seemed to be missing a few points. First, rarely is such an enigmatic species seen this well (and certainly not in Dorset); second, these birders who should no better seemed to be mistaking 'rarity' for 'appeal'; and third, what appears on your Twitter feed is a reflection of who you follow so you only have yourself to blame if you don't like what you see!
Fieldfare in the half-light of Thursday morning below the Nothe Fort

Purple Sandpiper on the walls of the Nothe Fort was unexpected on Saturday
Bearded Tit was on my yearlist as a 'heard' only but I managed to see several yesterday at Radipole Lake
Anyway, rant over, it was a joyous day, the memory of which not even the social media trolls could destroy and I'd have done it again this morning had my legs not been a bit burnt from two trips to Weymouth in 3 days, and a total of 88 miles cycled. Today required something more sedate so I bimbled through Rempstone Forest, finally adding Redpoll to the yearlist thanks to a calling bird flying over James Leaver and I in a spot where James has been seeing a flock recently. 
Cormorant in Weymouth Harbour with what fishy Twitter identified as a Sea Scorpion

Spectacular mist formations over the Jurassic Coast on Saturday
White Nothe from Weymouth's stone pier (taken with 400mm lens)
Phone pic looking east from the stone pier
From there I continued east and met up with the family for lunch at Studland, clocking up 3,000 miles on the bike for the year in the process. By the time I got home I had done 26 miles - not bad for a 'rest' day - and it is a measure of my improved fitness that when I did a similar distance on 1st Jan at the start of this caper it nearly finished me off! As the weekend draws to a close, the yearlist stands at 214, of which the Little Auk is right up there with the very best - evidence that accessibility, character and an ability to defy the odds can be more the key to a bird's appeal than its rarity.
White Sika stag on the Frome water meadows this evening
Sika deer
Corfe Castle from Soldiers Road