Thursday 13 May 2021


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 mile 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 by 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

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