Friday 25 June 2021

Unhinged Melody

I've been sleeping well lately thanks to a Christmas gift of a set of Bose earbuds, which play a variety of white noises to drown out traffic, snoring and other nocturnal disturbances. A little too well it appears as on Thursday they caused me to miss a couple of early morning phone calls from friends alerting me to the presence of a Melodious Warbler just down the road at Middlebere. 

Fortunately my wife was up and about to hear the landline and shake me awake in plenty of time to dash there, grab a few photos and get back before starting work. My heart was pounding when I arrived, a result of tanking it to Middlebere on the bike before being fully awake I think, and while I'm pretty sure I did the 4 mile journey in record time, I can't prove it as I left in such a rush that I didn't even grab my GPS milometer on the way out of the door.

Remarkably, the Melodious Warbler was singing like a bird possessed - even more remarkable when it emerged that it had been there for over a week before being reported and identified. I returned on Thursday evening to find that the bird had gone to ground, apparently as a result of someone rather unwisely playing a sound recording of Melodious Warbler right below one of its favoured song-posts. It did eventually reappear but was much more elusive than it had been in the morning. 

Third time lucky tonight then, when I trundled back to Middlebere in pleasant evening light, and the Warbler sat out beautifully and continued to sing like a crazy man on meths. If the song of Icterine Warbler is based on mimicry, I would say the song of Melodious Warbler is based more on paraphrase - at times it sounded a bit like a Tree Pipit, a Sedge Warbler, a Dartford Warbler and a Goldfinch - but never exactly like any of them. A lovely composition to hear in the Dorset countryside anyway, and the first time I have heard one giving the full repertoire. Plus an excellent addition to the non-motorised year list in an otherwise quiet June, bringing the total for 2021 to a chunky 192.

The shine was only taken off the evening by discovering that the camera, recently the subject of an expensive repair job, seems to be failing to produce the previous sharp image, so apologies if these pictures look a bit over-sharpened - the only way to rescue them from the digital graveyard!

Saturday 19 June 2021

Quailty not quantity

June 2021 has produced some spectacular records of rare birds around the UK, mostly on offshore islands, but, as expected, migration of commoner species has slowed to a trickle at the same time. Although the month started with a bang with my mammoth mission to Lyme Regis, a trip from which I'm still not sure I have fully recovered, it's been a bit slow since then. That said, there have been two further additions to the non-motorised year list and from a family which might be surprising given its relatively small size in UK terms - namely, the gamebirds. 

'What can he mean', I hear you ask - 'Pheasant, Red-legged Partridge, Grey Partridge, isn't that it for Dorset'? Believe it or not, Black Grouse is actually on the Dorset list but they haven't been seen lekking on our lowland heaths since the 1920s. Quail, by contrast, seems to be on the up in recent years with several calling birds returning over the last few summers to the area around the National Trust's Kingston Lacy estate. I went to listen to them in a weedy field last June (seeing them being seemingly impossible) which was a riot of colour with poppies and other wildflowers providing cover not just for the Quail but numerous pairs of Skylark and Corn Bunting. 

The new chariot: a reward to myself for all that cycling - 1,500+ miles so far in 2021
Five calling males were reported in the same area in early June this year and while still a bit bushed from the exertions of Lyme Regis, I thought I should make the effort as they were just a dozen or so miles away. Having had my fill of busy roads, I stuck to the tracks through Wareham Forest for the first half of the journey, but inevitably there came a point where I needed to cross, and briefly follow, the A31. I managed to find a route which required only about half-a-mile on this busy main road, but that half-mile was as scary as any of the 20+ miles I travelled on the A35 a few days earlier! I was glad then to return to minor roads and head for the relative quiet of the agricultural areas to the north. 

The only one of June's mega-rarities which was realistically 'twitchable' for me was the River Warbler over the border in Somerset

The large field preferred by the Quail was bisected by a public footpath and after walking its length and concluding that at least two birds were singing, I adopted the same strategy as on my visit last year: sit down quietly with a good view of the path and hope beyond hope that one would walk across! This strategy failed miserably last year, though on this occasion one calling bird seemed to be getting closer and closer as it responded to another male calling further down the field - so close in fact that I couldn't quite believe it wasn't visible. I could even hear what the guide books describe as the creaky 'mau-wau' introductory notes before the classic 'wet-my-lips' song (just about audible towards the end of the clip above, just after the Corn Bunting jangle).

At 60 miles the River Warbler was beyond my cycling range so I indulged myself with only my third out of county car trip of the year
I remained motionless and after several more bouts of close calling the Quail took off with a clatter of wings, treating me to a brief flight view. It turned out that it was in fact still a good distance away, despite sounding so close, attesting to the ventriloquial quality for which the species is known. Although I decided back in January to tick 'heard only' birds for the purposes of the year list I was delighted to have seen one for only the second time in over 20 years of birding.
We saw a River Warbler on our last Shetland holiday, but I couldn't resist a spring male in full song

A fallow period then followed with no new birds for the year between 3rd June and today - the longest gap I have experienced between additions to date. The deadlock was broken by another gamebird, one of Dorset's better kept secrets, in the form of a Golden Pheasant. This introduced species makes it onto category C of the British list by virtue of self-sustaining populations in the wild, mainly in Norfolk - but Poole Harbour also hosts a population which has survived if not thrived in the fox-free Rhododendron thickets of Brownsea and Furzey Islands. The invasive Rhondodendron has been cleared from much of Brownsea, reducing habitat for the pheasants there, but it remains abundant on Furzey, and birds can occasionally be seen near the island slipway by desperate year listers with telescopes viewing from the Redhorn Point area.

A lovely bird and worth the slightly agraphobic feelings on leaving Dorset and meeting other birders!
My friend Steve Smith regularly sees Golden Pheasant from here though typically from the comfort of a car with a flask of coffee - clearly not an option for the non-motorised year list. This made picking the right conditions important - the light can be tricky and heat haze at this time of year can severely hamper viewing. With not much better to do this afternoon, I thought I'd take my new bike, a nifty hybrid number acquired earlier in the month from the excellent Wareham Cycle Works, for a spin to Studland on the off-chance of seeing a Golden Pheasant. The conditions looked ideal - cool enough for there to be no heat haze, bright enough to get a decent scope view, very little wind and warm enough to sit around for what I anticipated would be a long wait. 

Looking out to Brownsea and Furzey from Redhorn
In the end a long wait wasn't necessary, as within a few minutes of setting up the scope, two small dark pheasants ran across the road looking most unlike Common Pheasants and very much like Golden Pheasants. I assumed they were females and as I phoned Steve to break the good news, a gilt-maned male strutted into view to remove any doubt about the identification. The list had crept up to 191, and the seemingly impossible milestone of 200 came another step closer. I'll still need a decent autumn to get there, but suddenly it doesn't seem quite as outrageous a prosepct as it did back in January.

The Furzey Island slipway digiscoped from Redhorn Quay - a distance of just over a mile. Patient viewing can produce occasional sightings of Golden Pheasant crossing the road beyond the slipway.

Saturday 5 June 2021

Bad camping karma

Long-term readers of this blog may recall how, as nature abhors a vacuum, so I abhor camping. Whitsun Bank Holiday is a favoured time for the family to spend a few nights under canvas - an activity which, I feel obliged to point out, most of the rest of the world only subjects itself to in the event of natural disasters. My folks don't even bother asking me to go with them now, as by the time biting insects and sleep deprivation have taken their toll, I make the whole experience such a misery, apparently. This is a situation which I think we have all come to realise is best for everyone.

Red-baked Shrike, Portland, 30 May
This bank holiday weekend I at least turned up on the first evening to cook the Saturday barbecue before retiring to a comfortable bed with its complete absence of midges and very limited prospects of deflating in the middle of the night. And with the rest of the crew away, I was free to go birding early on Sunday morning. This time last year I found a Temminck's Stint and a Marsh Warbler at Swineham, so I headed straight there hoping for something of equivalent rarity value. Whilst at the apex of a large meander in the River Frome - about as far away from home as it's possible to be at Swineham - news broke of a Red-backed Shrike on Portland.

I hadn't envisaged a long bike ride as I was saving myself for a planned trip to Lyme Regis, and as by the time I got home I would have walked about 5 miles already. But Red-backed Shrike is a species which might well not turn up within reach during the rest of the year so I quickened my pace with a view to getting home, packing the bike and going for it. A helpful tweet from Portland Bird Obs suggested that the Shrike was looking settled which stiffened my resolve as I set off on the long road to Portland. 

It was Sunday of a Bank Holiday weekend so traffic was fairly busy, and I took advantage of a few more available stretches of footpath than on other recent trips to Weymouth. It is an iron law of twitching Portland that passing trains will enforce a long wait at the level crossing in Wool, and it appears that this law applies to cycle twitches every bit as much as the car-based version. Compared to my last journey in this direction (for a Bonaparte's Gull at Lodmoor) though the conditions were pretty good, with just a light headwind which was at its strongest as I made my way along the causeway from Ferrybridge.

As I reached Culverwell, Julian Thomas was just leaving and kindly pointed out the Shrike so I could tick it from the road - the pressure was off. Then a quick yomp up the hill for a better view and some photos which were obtained shortly before some horse riders flushed the bird, after which it seemed to get a bit restless. It went missing for the next four hours, so I had arrived just in time. A chat with Garry Hayman and Roly Pitts about what else might be around for the year list concluded that a quick seawatch would be in order before the return journey, but an Arctic Skua, a few Manxies, Kittiwake and a possible Little Gull with a distant feeding frenzy of Gulls were the best we could manage. 

After this little sit-down, I knew I needed to conserve as much energy as possible for Lyme Regis, so I headed straight home rather than checking out other parts of the island as thoroughly as I would have liked. As I passed Lodmoor, the phone rang and it was my wife asking if I had the house keys. I replied that I had my house keys and, in response to further questioning, explained that, no, I couldn't just get the train home to let them in. It turned out they had left a couple of sets of keys at the campsite and returned home expecting to find me there - a very unsafe assumption given my recent habit of spending pretty much every spare waking hour out and about on the bike. 

Suggesting that the other three members of the family, with their cumulative 82 years of life experience, should be able to remember to carry at least one set of keys between them did not go down well and the exchange was terminated with a metaphorical slamming down of the phone at the other end. To be fair, the inability to find anything is one of the many things I hate about camping, but while I empathised with their predicament, I didn't feel I could take responsibility for everyone else's forgetfulness in this instance. Karma clearly disagreed, however, and within a minute of the call ending, a loud pop announced the rapid deflation of my rear tyre.

After the ensuing tube replacement, the rest of the journey home was a slog to say the least - harder, in fact, than any part of the Lyme Regis marathon. This was possibly because the trip was unplanned, which I always find harder to prepare for psychologically compared to a 'scheduled' journey. The icing on the cake was provided by a second puncture in as many hours. At least this one was just on the outskirts of Wareham, so for the second time this year I was subjected to the indignity of limping home pushing the bike rather than sailing down West Street, arms aloft, like the triumphant winner of the Giro d'Dorset from my dreams.

The Shrike was to be my final addition to the year list for May, which saw 16 new birds added in total - my third highest monthly tally after January and April. I cycled 355 miles during the course of the month, just 5 miles shy of my highest monthly total of 360 in April, bringing the year list up to 187 in the process.

Red-backed Shrike, Portland, 30 May

Wednesday 2 June 2021

Lyme and soda

I didn't intend to go to Devon when I set out yesterday morning, it's just how it panned out. After surviving Cogden in a gale, I had come round to the idea of cycling to Lyme Regis where Dipper is reliably seen on the River Lim. So with a week off, and good weather ahead, putting a day aside to make the 40 mile journey seemed like a good option. So the plan was: (i) avoid the bank holiday weekend traffic (ii) go early the next available day (iii) spend rest of week recovering. Tuesday looked ideal with a sunny day forecast and a fresh easterly breeze to push me there and cool me down on the return journey.

Grey Wagtail (juv), Lyme Regis

Psychologically, I had broken the journey down into thirds - home to Dorchester via Tincleton would, I knew, be a quiet first 15 miles. And indeed it was - 2 Lesser Whitethroat and a couple of singing Woodlark cheered me along the Puddletown Road. The middle third (Dorchester-Bridport) would be a more challenging 15 miles on what I hoped would be a relatively quiet A35. It was indeed fairly quiet, and while lorry and bus drivers were invariably considerate, a few car and van drivers came close enough and fast enough to cause some discomfort. Camper van drivers seem particularly oblivious to the width of their vehicles, perhaps being car drivers mid-week they 'forget' the extra foot or two of girth they are packing at the weekend. 

Anyway, once I had reached the zenith of this stretch at Askerswell Down with spectacular views of the Jurassic Coast, the long descent into Bridport was a breeze. I clocked a respectable 36.7 mph with the following wind on the steepest part, ticking Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer for the day list in the process.

The final third (Bridport-Lyme Regis) was the shortest at 10 miles but also the most daunting - it would be later in the day and the hills up to and out of Chideock, and the final push up Raymond's Hill to Lyme Regis, would be a struggle in the rising heat. And so they were, though there was just enough 'hard shoulder' to push the bike where needed and feel reasonably safe on the narrowest parts. 

Having left at 0500, I arrived on the outskirts of Lyme Regis just after 0900. The obvious thing to do was start at the 'top' of the river and make my way down through town, a strategy that usually doesn't fail to produce a Dipper. It did on this occasion unfortunately, but no matter, I thought, I will just go back up that way having first paid a visit to the Harbour for the chance of another year tick: the long-staying drake Eider. 

I knew this bird was still around following recent news from another Purbeck resident, Garry Hayman. Sure enough, he was, sitting on a dinghy, and I enjoyed a late breakfast/early lunch in his company whilst catching my breath and contemplating my strategy for the return journey. I had hoped to see Dipper fairly promptly and be away by 1000, but it was already that time so I decided to head back up the river slowly towards Uplyme, for as long as it took to see this river-dwelling speciality.

Eider, Lyme Regis Harbour

It was now a pleasant morning but warming up rapidly so I was glad of the shade by the river and the smell of wild garlic added a spring-like feel. Juvenile Grey Wagtails called from the banks but of Dipper there was no sign. I continued on up and realised I had gone too far, literally and metaphorically, when I came across a sign saying - 'No cycling: Devon County Council'! I crossed the border, mainly so I could say I cycled to Devon in a blog post, and headed back down.  

Coming to Lyme Regis and not seeing Dipper would have been a disaster, so although I knew it was only a matter of time, I also had my eye on the clock and half a mind on the gruelling return journey. Garry had seen Dipper by a small footbridge above town, away from the crowds, which had been a Dipper-free zone on the way down and up, so as I reached this point for the third time I resolved to stake it out until one appeared. As I walked to the centre of the bridge and looked upstream a tiny bow wave in the water caught my eye. Then through the wave broke the unmistakeable shape of a Dipper. It sat up on a rock mid-stream, bill full of prey, bobbed as if to curtsey after a bravura performance, then flew literally underneath me downstream to where I presume young birds were waiting to be fed. Success!

Dipper, Lyme Regis

To add Dipper and Eider to the list now required one more small thing: get back in one piece. National cycle route 2 is the 'official' cycle route for this part of the south coast, but the stretch from Lyme Regis to Bridport involves a fairly massive detour, so I thought I would retrace my steps on the A35 and see how it went before rejoining route 2 there for a quieter journey home. The Charmouth bypass was easy enough - a broad hard shoulder felt like a luxury - but I knew the road would narrow on the long climb to Morecomblake. I needn't have worried though as traffic was by now at a standstill and I was able to crawl past in first gear! A few motorists gave me dirty looks, as if I, not they, was the cause of the congestion. Remember chaps: you're not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.

Not the best way to see a Weasel but it was on the road next to...

...a Field Vole. I presume the Weasel killed the Vole but got run over whilst dragging it across the road.  I avoided the same fate by only snacking in lay-bys on the A35.

Steaming down the hill into Chideock, I realised I needed more water and fizzy drinks (there you go, if you were wondering where the title of this post fitted in) before the hellish ascent out of the village. The local shop for local people had run out of big bottles of water, so a Lucozade Sport (downed in one) and a Lemon Fanta had to suffice. Traffic was again crawling up the steep incline, and while I did my best to keep pace the early start was taking its toll, and I had to take advantage of the only pull in half way up to let a truck past. It was more of a drain than a lay-by, just about big enough to get the bike off the road, but an appreciative double thumbs up and blast on the air horn from the driver made me smile. Once at the top, I rolled down into Bridport and knew that the worst - in terms of traffic if not distance - was behind me.

The start of cycle route 2 east from Bridport involved another massive detour so I followed a likely looking shortcut on a bridleway from Bothenhampton to Shipton Gorge. This started well enough, but the bridleway was not one of those nice gravel jobs, rather a proper horse track, deeply pitted with hoofprints, and petered out into a footpath which was barely more than a dry stream bed overgrown with vegetation. I pressed on and was relieved to reach the bright lights of Shipton Gorge soon after. Route 2 from then on was a delight - although a bit up and down, it avoided the fierce climb up to Askerswell Down, and took me past inviting country pubs and the chocolate box villages of the Bride Valley. An idyllic place that should be full of purring Turtle Doves and jangling buntings, it was slightly depressing to find it relatively birdless.

Portland from the Hardy Monument

After a final long climb up to the Hardy Monument, I knew the worst really was behind me now and I could take the rest of the journey easy. One more quick stop in Dorch was required for additional soda intake and I was home shortly after 1830. 88 miles had been travelled, 10 hrs 40 mins in the saddle, with a monster elevation gain of 7,710 - the equivalent of going up Snowdon twice from sea level. I consumed about 3 litres of fluids and almost as much sun block, knowing that dehydration and sunburn were probably my two greatest health risks, after getting mown down on the A35 of course. I'll probably never do it again, at least not via the A35, though I'm glad I did!

In a previous job I had the pleasure of looking after the Dorset AONB team - one of their many successes was bidding to get these monster pylons removed from the landscape. It's taken many years but work is now underway - the 'scar' on the right shows the route of what will now be the underground power lines. Taken near Black Down.