Sunday 16 May 2021

A mere, 32 miles from home

The weather forecast for the weekend beginning 8th May looked atrocious. For the technically minded meteorologists out there, I mean two-raindrops-and-a-black-wind icon atrocious. This was unfortunate as, having survived and recovered from the 60 mile bike ride to Portland the previous weekend, I was tempted to venture down to Abbotsbury - a few miles less as the cycle trundles - where a Whiskered Tern had spent most of the previous week. Sunday's forecast looked drier and suggested that the wind would ease considerably, so I resolved to have a lie in on the Saturday and play it cool, hoping that the Tern would stay another day. The presence of a Tawny Pipit a few miles further along the coast at Cogden's Burton Mere offered the prospect of two good birds in the same trip, so the 'sensible' strategy seemed to be to wait until Sunday, go for the Pipit first and return via Abbotsbury hoping to see the Tern on the way back.

Tawny Pipit, Cogden Beach, 8th May
Sure enough Saturday dawned wet and windy and I was happy with my decision to stay in bed. But by 1030 the rain seemed to ease and the birding grapevine confirmed that both birds were still present. Suddenly playing it cool didn't seem like such a smart plan - what were the odds that both birds would still be there tomorrow? I panicked myself into action and was on the road before 1100. Taking the quiet back-roads from Wareham towards Dorchester, I was relieved to find the mature hedgerows along this route were largely protecting me from the southerly winds, despite them gusting at 40+mph. 

With a target to aim for I made good progress and seemed to be in Dorchester in no time. There had been no news on the Tern since 0930 so I contacted the Abbotsbury swan-herd Steve Groves for an update. Steve said he had just seen it and, as I was less than an hour away, I made the fatal mistake of deciding on a change of strategy: rather than go to Cogden first, I resolved to head straight for Abbotsbury, mindful that views of the Tern would be better there from the shelter of a hide which would be shut by the time I got there if I did the journey the other way around.

Swans at the Swannery - a shame the Black Swans aren't tickable!
But first I had to climb up to the summit of the mighty Black Down, atop which sits the Hardy Monument, in what appeared to be deteriorating weather, before I could begin the long descent to the coast. If you've ever seen the Monument, it's a 72-foot monolith pretty close to the road so difficult to miss, but to give an inkling of the conditions at the summit, although I could hear the wind tearing around it, I couldn't actually see it!

Common Tern at the Swannery
With such recent good news from Steve though I pressed on, arriving at the Swannery shortly after 1330. Steve was at lunch but his right hand man Kev kindly showed me and another birder looking for the Tern out to the bund where it had occasionally been seen perching. I couldn't take much more than five minutes of this though as the wind was cutting through my thin cycling jacket, so we headed for Helen Hide where where we hoped for a more sheltered viewpoint. Wellies would have been advisable to get there but I only had my cycling trainers and managed to tip toe around the edges without getting them too sodden. 

Helen Hide provided a bit more shelter but not much - the wind was howling through the front shutters and spray was coming through the floor. Worse, there was no sign of the Whiskered Tern. Reinforcements arrived in the form of Steve with a telescope, and I felt sure it was only a matter of time before he located the Tern at the back of the beach with his superior optics and familiarity with the bird's habits. Unfortunately Steve couldn't find it either and, as he left us to it, my cunning plan seemed to be falling apart.

The imposing Hardy Monument: visible on the way back from Abbotsbury but not on the way down - the conditions were appalling!
I had put on my spare jacket by now but was still shivering in the biting wind. The swan-herds kept an old fleece covered in Swallow shit hanging in the hide and I hope they don't mind me confessing that I borrowed it for half-an-hour of life-saving warmth! As 1600 approached it started to feel like the Tern was not going to show, and I concluded that if I was going to rescue something from the day, I would soon need to head for Cogden, where the Tawny Pipit was reportedly still showing on the beach.

I put the fleece back on its hook, splashed my way back to the bike and set off up the second daunting hill of the day just west of Abbotsbury. Before I left I had checked the forecast and it looked like the winds would ease off in the afternoon, but this turned out to be some way wide of the mark. The worst bit of the whole journey was in fact the last mile or so before Cogden, and for the first time this year I was genuinely concerned that I might get blown off the bike into oncoming traffic on the exposed coast road. 
Tawny Pipit, Cogden Beach, 8th May
Pulling into Cogden car park slightly shaken, I was buoyed by news that the Pipit was still showing and being watched by several birders. A few friendly faces, including Cliff Smith, among the trail of birders heading back as I was heading out urged me on but the last of these, Paul Welling, broke the worrying news that the Pipit had moved further up the beach and that I was going to have to relocate it myself as he and his son were the last people to leave.
Tawny Pipit, Cogden Beach, 8th May
The path was pretty sodden and the trainers took another soaking, and by the time I had walked miles past Burton Mere and further up the beach without locating the Pipit the situation was starting to feel pretty desperate. I had been telling myself all year that even if I cycled miles for a bird and didn't see it, I would still be getting good exercise so it was a no-lose situation. In those moments on the beach, the magnitude of this self-deception became fully apparent. The day had been a disaster, and I still had a long walk and a 32 mile bike ride ahead of me. 

I trudged back disconsolately, feeling certain that the birds I would see on the way back would be the same ones I saw on the way out: Wheatears skipping away from me with the flash of a white rump. Then as I approached the point where Paul had last seen the Pipit at about 1800, I noticed a bird skipping away from me along the beach which didn't have a white rump. I raised my bins and there was the Tawny Pipit. I sat down exhausted but relieved, let it get comfortable with my presence and crawled a bit closer for some photographs. I spent ten minutes with the Pipit as, both a bit windswept, we sought what shelter we could at the back of the beach, then headed back to the bike.

Tawny Pipit, Cogden Beach, 8th May
Seeing the Pipit gave me the shot in the arm I needed to convince myself that I could make the journey home without phoning home to beg for a lift or jumping on a train at Dorchester, which I would have been tempted to do had I not seen the bird. I clocked a record 35.8 mph on the downhill stretch to Abbotsbury, and was glad of some wind assistance as I began the long climb back up to the Hardy Monument, which was at least visible on the return journey. My customary cycling snack of a bag of chips in Dorchester provided much needed fuel for the last leg in the dark and although the wind picked up again in the last 5 miles or so, I knew the worst was behind me. 

I got home just after 2200 feeling utterly spent but at the same time deeply satisfied to have added Tawny Pipit to the year list under my own steam. I felt pretty unlucky to have missed the Whiskered Tern by less than an hour, and put it down in the mental note book as 'one that got away'.

I realised how far I had come when I could see the towering cliffs of Burton Bradstock to the west

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