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.


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