Saturday 18 September 2021

A Friday Wryneck

I had cycled to Portland Bill four times this year prior to the end of August, but invariably on a weekend or a holiday when there was plenty of time to complete the 55 mile round trip. While sorely tempted to make a midweek dash for the Chough which appeared there back in early May, I worked out that it would be dark before I got there, so took the drive of shame for that particular bird. 

Wryneck, Portland Bill, 3rd September

I knew I could 'do' Lodmoor by bike after work, as I had successfully twitched both Black-winged Stilt and Bonaparte's Gull there. I had even managed to get to Barton-on-Sea over the Hampshire border on a school night for a Black Guillemot, which was about the same distance as Portland Bill, albeit on a flatter route. But I had yet to attempt twitching Portland by bike after work. As September began, the nights had started to draw in, and it felt like there might not be many more opportunities to try. But the presence of a Wryneck at the Bill - two in fact - on Friday 3rd September provided one such opportunity.

Wryneck, Portland Bill, 3rd September

News on the Wrynecks had come through in the morning and updates had been a bit sparse thereafter, but an exchange of messages with Martin Cade confirmed they were still there mid-afternoon at least. So I was away sharply after finishing work and, in pleasant conditions, began the familiar slog through Wool, Winfrith, Warmwell, Weymouth and Wyke Regis before dropping down to Ferrybridge to ruin the alliterative string of place names en route to the Bill. I pushed myself pretty hard and completed the 27 miles in just over 2 hours, the quickest I had managed for that particular journey.

Wryneck, Portland Bill, 3rd September

The Wryneck at the Obs Quarry was reportedly 'showing well' so I went straight there. Digi-scoping expert Paul Hackett had been there a while and broke the unwelcome news that there had been no sign of the Wryneck since his arrival. Weirdly, given the experience of several decades of regular dipping, I hadn't considered the possibility that I might not see the Wryneck. To make matters worse, I had underestimated how quickly the sun would set and it was dropping fast - not great when looking for a warmth-loving, ant-eater of a bird as the base of the quarry was now in full shade. At least one of the resident Little Owls was out enjoying the last few rays so that was something.

Wryneck, Portland Bill, 3rd September

A flattened patch of grass on the lip of the quarry suggested that this might be the best place to look for the Wryneck, so I flopped down there for a breather and decided to call Pete Coe who I guessed might know something of the birds habits. It transpired that he hadn't been down to look for it but before he could finish his sentence explaining as much, a movement caught my eye - it was the Wryneck which promptly sat up in front of me. I alerted Paul, and we enjoyed good views as it made its way around the quarry, perching in brambles and the branches of a dead elder.

Wryneck, Portland Bill, 3rd September

I was delighted, the gamble had paid off and another cycling rubicon - the post-work Portland twitch - had been crossed. Most of the journey home had to be completed in the dark, but after the traditional pit-stop at the Preston chippy, I didn't mind that at all and slept like a log that night with the year-list up to 203.

Little Owl, Portland Bill, 3rd September

Friday 17 September 2021

Binge biking

Since returning from the family holiday in mid-August my cycling/birding seems to have settled into a pattern of big bike rides on a Saturday or Sunday (sometimes both) and not much in the week as pressures of work and shorter evenings reduce the opportunities to get out and about. And as my non-motorised year list gets longer, so the number of species I can realistically see in what remains of the year gets smaller. That said, we're now well into autumn migration, bringing the opportunity to catch up on a few species I missed during last winter and the spring.

Black-necked Grebe, Abbotsbury, 30 August

Among these was Ruff, a species I knew I would see eventually so hadn't made a particular effort to catch up with. I was in need of some serious exercise as the last weekend of August approached, so the Lodmoor/Portland combo seemed like a good option, and I had a good chance of at least one year tick with a striking white-headed Ruff at Lodmoor, presumed to be the same bird which has returned over several winters. 

Black-necked Grebe, Abbotsbury, 30 August

Spooked by what seemed like an exponential increase in dangerous driving over the summer months, and tales of friends of friends falling victim to similar, suffering various fates up to and including death, I have been a bit more wary on the roads for the last few months, so took a slightly longer than normal route to Weymouth to avoid the main drag as far as possible. The Ruff was indeed present at the end of the 18 mile journey to Lodmoor, and feeling fresh I pressed on the additional 10 miles to Portland. 

Black-necked Grebes, Abbotsbury, 30 August

The Bill seemed busier than usual and the reason soon became apparent as a hideously noisy powerboat - the first of many in some kind of dick-waving sea race - thundered past. I couldn't stand the noise so after my second Arctic Skua of the year, which gave a double-take with a 'wtf' look on its face as it trundled past the speed-freaks, plans for a leisurely sea-watch were abandoned.

I guess these budget-Bransons will have spaffed more carbon by the time they crossed Lyme Bay than I've saved all year by swapping car journeys for the bike

I had done 55 miles by the time I got home so I felt like I'd earnt a rest day on the Sunday. of four Goosander at Silverlake - about 14 miles from Wareham - reached me via Geoff Upton. Goosander is a tricky species in these parts, as they tend to secrete themselves in inaccessible stretches of rivers and gravel workings. 

Pintail, Abbotsbury, 30 August

Silverlake was as good a site as any to see them but having discussed with Geoff earlier in the year, he had advised that they were still very hit and miss. This foursome were newly arrived though and potentially a bit sleepy as they seemed to be roosting up on the edge of an island.

The four Goosander at Silverlake, 30th August 

Within minutes I was off, and was watching the Goosander before other birding friends who knew I needed this species for the year-list had even had time to relay the news. Flushed with success, I noticed that a couple of Little Stint were still at Abbotsbury, as they had been all week. I wouldn't normally consider cycling that far for such a common species, but they seemed nailed on, I was over half way there already, and it was the weekend after all.

Mute Swans at Abbotsbury, 30th August

The sprint to Silverlakehad taken more out of me than I realised, and the onward journey to Abbotsbury, though pleasant, was tough going, at least until I reached to top of the Ridgway and could free-wheel the last few miles to the Swannery. Handing over my £10 entry fee, I was shown to the Meadow Pool hide by a helpful warden only to find the Little Stints had moved on! 

Black Swans at Abbotsbury, 30th August

It was the third time this year that I had cycled to Abbotsbury and not seen my target bird - though in all three cases (Whiskered Tern, Roseate Tern and Little Stint) I would eventually catch up with the species in question. A trio of Black-necked Grebe close-in at the Swannery provided some consolation, and a few Wheatear and a flock of Yellow Wagtail on the way home helped overcome the disappointment of dipping the Stints. 

Whooper Swan, Abbotsbury, 30th August - not tickable as thought to be an escape

The satisfaction of doing over 110 miles on the bike in a weekend overcame any lingering regret at returning from Abbotsbury emtpy-handed, and the green year list had moved up to 202 as August drew to a close. 

Yellow Wagtail, Abbotsbury, 30th August

Wednesday 15 September 2021

200 up!

The non-motorised year list sat in suspended animation on 199 for a couple of weeks in August as we enjoyed a family holiday in Northumberland. Although I took the bike, a nasty fall (on foot, not off the bike) prevented me from using it much. This was a shame as we were just 5 miles from the sea, from where a good cycle route would have taken me up and down a very birdy bit of coast, to sites including Druridge Bay, High Hauxley and Cresswell Ponds. I made it to the coast by bike just the once, though the Tree Sparrows I saw could not be added to the 'non-motorised' year list as the unwritten rules mean that only birds seen on trips from my permanent address can be ticked.

Spotted Crake (with Green Sandpiper in foreground), Lodmoor, 22nd August
Friends have queried the stringency of this rule but it seems reasonable to me - if it didn't exist, there would be nothing to stop richer and less fully employed people than I trundling round the country on their fancy bikes, camping [*spits*], staying in bird observatories and racking up massive lists. Frankly, I could do without the competition. 

While away in Northumberland, I was relieved that I hadn't missed much back at home - a one-day Spotted Crake at Lodmoor in the middle of our final week was about the only year tick on offer. On our return, it was only a matter of time before I reached the milestone figure of 200 species, and I suspected it would be either Ruff or Little Stint which I hadn't managed to see in the spring. We got back on Friday 20th August but on the Saturday afternoon, after several days unreported, the Lodmoor Spotted Crake re-appeared. 

It was late in the day, and the weather had detariorated badly on the way down, such that I was in drowned rat mode by the time I arrived. Julian Thomas was already standing sentry but despite an hour or so of diligent watching we could not relocate the bird. I resolved to stick it out until near dusk then bale out and get the train home if there was still no sign. There wasn't, so I let the train take the strain.

The nagging feeling that the Spotted Crake was still there, and the desire to have a cool species such as this as my landmark 200th of the year, motivated me to repeat the 17 mile journey to Weymouth the following morning and try again. The muddy edge at the back of the 'postbox pool' was more clearly visible this morning in brighter weather, and after half an hour of staring at nothing but Green Sandpipers, a movement in the shade caught my eye which on closer inspection materialised into a juvenile Spotted Crake. 

Whoever described it as 'showing well' the previous day must have had better optics and/or eyes than me, as it was a long way off and not at all easy to pick out as it crept stealthily along in the reeds, often partially obscured. But the views were conclusive, and even if my photos were terrible, I was delighted to get to 200 species in a year travelling under my own steam. It was a figure I never thought possible in January, and there were still four months of the year to go.

22nd August was good day for big milestones - 200 species for the non-motorised year list and 2,000 miles on the GPS clocked up since I bought it in mid-February - an average of 10 miles per species!

Saturday 11 September 2021

The race to 200

When I started the non-motorised year list caper in January, I figured that I could probably see around 170 species if I was prepared to put in a reasonable amount of effort, and 180 at a push. I had an 'easy' target list, a 'possible' list of just over 30 species, and a 'bonus' list of about the same number. The 170 estimate was based on seeing all of the 'easy' list and a few possibles, and 180 on just under half of the 'possibles' and a few of the 'bonuses'. By the end of July, I had in fact seen almost everything on the 'easy' list, almost half of the species from the 'possible' list and, to my surprise, 16 from the 'bonus' list, plus a few species that never even made it onto the 'bonus' list including Whiskered Tern and Tawny Pipit.

Curlew Sandpiper, Lytchett Fields, 5th August

This meant that as August began the list stood at 198, tantalisingly close to the landmark 200 figure. We had a 2 week family holiday booked in Northumberland from 6 August so there wouldn't be much time to get there before we left, but I was keen to give it a go. The first few days of the month offered nothing within reach but the night before we were due to leave a Curlew Sandpiper was found at Lytchett Fields, the site which also delivered my previous year tick, a Wood Sandpiper, at the end of July. 

Although I really should have been packing for the holiday, I was ready to roll soon after finishing work. A quick phone call to volunteer warden Shaun Robson before leaving confirmed that the bird was still present, and I completed the 6 mile journey in a respectable 30 minutes. Shaun was still there but had to break the bad news that he had lost sight of the Curlew Sandpiper minutes before my arrival. Fortunately I was able to re-find the bird - a moulting adult - soon after on a neighbouring pool and my tally moved to 199. 

With Ruff and Little Stint still needed for the year, this was as good a place as any to look for them but try as I might I could not locate either. So 200 would have to wait, and it seemed likely that one of those two species would eventually be the one to get me there.