Sunday 21 November 2021

Allez allez

Last weekend a Little Auk was reported late in the day on both Saturday and Sunday in Weymouth, so late in fact that going to see it wasn't an option. On the rare occasions that individuals of this species appear in these parts they are usually a bit windswept and prone to being eaten by large gulls, so regular re-appearances of this one throughout the working week seemed to confound the odds. With a full diary for most of the week and non-work commitments on Friday, I thought my only chance of seeing it would be if I made a very early start on Thursday morning, as it would surely not last until the weekend.

Little Auk in Weymouth Harbour
A cuddly toy amongst birds!
Little Auk can often look close to death but this one was pretty perky
While an early start didn't really appeal, Little Auk - or Alle alle to give it its scientific name - would be a highly desirable addition to the non-motorised year and life lists. Plus crossing another cycling rubicon - a pre-work twitch to Weymouth - felt like a challenge, and with my mid-week cycling greatly reduced since the clocks went back, I told myself the exercise would be good for me. 
The Little Auk in Weymouth Marina
It spent a good while preening and resting on the surface
A bit dark in the shade of the posh boats
Leaving at 0515 I was passed by just 23 cars during the 19 mile ride to Weymouth harbour, and it was still dark when I arrived. After a bit of a wait I enjoyed good if brief views of the Auk thanks to my ex-colleague Tom Brereton relocating it from a survey vessel as it was about to leave the harbour. I was delighted but had to hammer it home to get back for work which I managed in good time with the aid of a following wind. 
In the calm waters of the Marina
As close as it got to a flight shot!
Again a bit dark in the shadows of a 'Sunseeker'
On Friday I travelled back to my native Gloucestershire for the funeral of an old schoolmate. In our late teens, Vince was the charismatic front-man of our college band which briefly tore the pants out of several pub skittle alleys around the Forest of Dean. I spent a memorable few hours with a group of friends reliving happy memories of our mis-spent youth, but the long journey home was full of sadness for our friend who had been taken too soon.
The Auk showed so well that many non-birders also enjoyed the spectacle
While showy in the Marina, when feeding the Auk could travel long distances underwater and be difficult to relocate
Some half-decent reflections in the calm waters of the Marina
The endorphins from a good bike ride seemed like a good way to cheer myself up on Saturday so I resolved to head back to Weymouth hoping for more leisurely views of the Little Auk. Incredibly it was still around and an enjoyable day was spent chasing it up and down the harbour, taking pictures, eating chips, catching up with old friends and making new ones among the crowd who had come to admire the Auk. The bike came in particularly handy for bombing over the town bridge when the bird appeared on the 'wrong' side.
Just three more...
...for the Twitter trolls...
...moaning about too many Little Auk photos on social media ;-)
Bird Twitter inevitably featured plenty of Little Auk photos, mine included and, Twitter being Twitter, I noticed a few sarky posts like 'has there never been one in Dorset before?' or 'it's hardly a Varied Thrush'. Such comments seemed to be missing a few points. First, rarely is such an enigmatic species seen this well (and certainly not in Dorset); second, these birders who should no better seemed to be mistaking 'rarity' for 'appeal'; and third, what appears on your Twitter feed is a reflection of who you follow so you only have yourself to blame if you don't like what you see!
Fieldfare in the half-light of Thursday morning below the Nothe Fort

Purple Sandpiper on the walls of the Nothe Fort was unexpected on Saturday
Bearded Tit was on my yearlist as a 'heard' only but I managed to see several yesterday at Radipole Lake
Anyway, rant over, it was a joyous day, the memory of which not even the social media trolls could destroy and I'd have done it again this morning had my legs not been a bit burnt from two trips to Weymouth in 3 days, and a total of 88 miles cycled. Today required something more sedate so I bimbled through Rempstone Forest, finally adding Redpoll to the yearlist thanks to a calling bird flying over James Leaver and I in a spot where James has been seeing a flock recently. 
Cormorant in Weymouth Harbour with what fishy Twitter identified as a Sea Scorpion

Spectacular mist formations over the Jurassic Coast on Saturday
White Nothe from Weymouth's stone pier (taken with 400mm lens)
Phone pic looking east from the stone pier
From there I continued east and met up with the family for lunch at Studland, clocking up 3,000 miles on the bike for the year in the process. By the time I got home I had done 26 miles - not bad for a 'rest' day - and it is a measure of my improved fitness that when I did a similar distance on 1st Jan at the start of this caper it nearly finished me off! As the weekend draws to a close, the yearlist stands at 214, of which the Little Auk is right up there with the very best - evidence that accessibility, character and an ability to defy the odds can be more the key to a bird's appeal than its rarity.
White Sika stag on the Frome water meadows this evening
Sika deer
Corfe Castle from Soldiers Road

Monday 15 November 2021

A spritely sprint

My last post was a bit of a downbeat reflection on the relatively poor returns for significant investments of time and energy put into the non-motorised year list last weekend. A bit self-pitying it may have been, but it seems someone was listening with a more balanced reward-effort ratio achieved this past couple of days. 

Pallas's Warbler, Durlston
Sitting around waiting for news is rarely a good strategy for seeing new birds but after an intense working week it was all I could manage on Saturday morning. I had no real plans and set about tidying the house which had been so neglected the previous weekend. By about midday I had the downstairs at least looking respectable, and as I sat down to contemplate lunch, news broke of a Pallas's Warbler at Durlston Country Park, scene of my recent successful Snow Bunting twitch.
Note the lemon yellow rump
Lunch was quickly forgotten, panniers were packed and pedals were soon being pushed in the direction of Swanage. I eschewed the usual scenic back route to Corfe Castle and hit the main road, as the A351 between home and there is more direct and has a hard shoulder wide enough to cycle in. After that, the stretch from Corfe to Harman's Cross would normally also be fine but was made less so on this occasion by the occasional idiot passing too close. I deal with my fear on such occasion by hurling curses at the backs of their vehicles, a quite therapeutic if pointless activity, and no doubt slightly disturbing for any innocent resident standing in a roadside garden wondering if the passing cyclist has Tourette's.
This bird had a couple of mis-placed feathers on the right shoulder
I kept up a pacy 14mph average speed as far as the outskirts of Swanage but this dropped to 12mph as I climbed the steep hill out of town south towards Durlston. James Leaver had overtaken me somewhere near Corfe, and as I hit the first speed bump at the entrance to the Country Park, Jol Mitchell did likewise. Both James and Jol have been regular sources of encouragement throughout my year list quest, as have Steve Smith, Rob Johnson and Phil Saunders who were already on site, and it was good to know these 10 sharp eyes would be looking for the bird by the time I arrived. In fact it was just 8 as I overtook Jol fumbling with change for the car parking ticket machine - but a phone call from Steve just before had already confirmed the continued presence of the Pallas's Warbler.

Sometimes known affectionately as the 'seven-striped sprite' - 3 on the head and 4 on the wings
The original finder of the bird had moved on but it had been re-found not long before by Rob. I joined him and the others and as we watched from the bridge just below the Castle, Phil alerted us to its presence a bit further down the slope. We enjoyed exceptional views as the energetic sprite fidgeted constantly around a Sycamore, on occasion being joined by Chiffchaff, Firecrest and Goldcrest. 

My 2nd of this species at Durlston and 5th in Dorset - but the first by bike
It had been a triumphant twitch and there was enough daylight to set a more leisurely pace for the journey home. As I hit the A351 news came through of a Little Auk in Weymouth and while I momentarily considered going for it, I quickly ruled it out having remembered that it was no longer British Summer Time and it would be dark at least an hour before I got there!
The highlight of 27.5 miles cycled on Saturday
I toyed with the idea of an early start on Sunday to make the 18 mile journey to Weymouth for the Auk, but the Swanage sprint must have taken a bit out of me and by the time I rose it was already light. A stroll around Swineham seemed like a better option but produced not much to write home about so I returned to the house to drag children out of bed and force them to honour the two minute silence at 1100. 
Pallas's Warbler, Durlston
After an early lunch, a foray into Rempstone Forest seemed to offer as good a chance as any to try to add Redpoll to the yearlist. As I lingered in a spot where James had seen a small flock recently, I thought I could hear the flight call of a distant Redpoll but before I could tune into it a phone call from Paul Morton brought exciting news of a Red-necked Grebe in the mouth of Poole Harbour at Studland. I was almost half-way there already and with plenty of daylight left there was no question about not going for it. I tore through the forest, pushing even harder than the previous day's sprint to Durlston, and completed the 6 mile journey in less than 30 minutes.
A Firecrest was sharing the same Sycamore as the Pallas's Warbler 
I was travelling light without a scope but fortunately Steve came to the rescue again and his was trained on the Grebe as I arrived at South Haven and we enjoyed decent views, later catching up with James. Being well placed in Rempstone I had got there before most of the locals and before Jol had even managed to relay the news! Just before starting the 11 mile journey home Steve alerted me to the fact that the Little Auk had been relocated in Weymouth, but again it was too late to contemplate an attempt at this highly desirable species. I didn't mind though, it had been an excellent weekend in good company with 53 miles cycled, 2 high quality additions to the year list and, best of all, zero punctures.
Red-necked Grebe, Studland, 14th November - 212 on the non-motorised year list

Tuesday 9 November 2021

The hard yards

Lest recent scribblings in this space give the impression that life for me is a constant succession of perfectly planned, smoothly executed bike rides which end happily with me connecting with my target species, allow me to shatter the illusion. This weekend - a long one, as I had a day off on Friday - was earmarked for sweeping up a fistful of late autumn migrants and early winter arrivals. 

Water Pipit at Lytchett Fields (pic from 2016)
Friday dawned bright and clear but after working late the night before - the inevitable consequence of trying to take a day off - I didn't get out as early as hoped. With nothing in particular to chase, I thought I would start with a leisurely twirl around Swineham. No sooner had I left the door than news broke of a Ring Ouzel at Middelbere, 5 miles away, so, this being one of my top remaining targets for the 2021 yearlist, I turned tail, saddled up and headed straight there. The finder Garry Hayman was still on site when I arrived but the Ouzel, which had been with a fresh-in flock of Fieldfare, had done one. 

I spent the rest of the morning checking out every available Rowan tree in the vicinity, but despite coming across several flocks of winter thrushes, I couldn't relocate the Ouzel. It or another had been seen just over the channel at Arne the previous day, so I headed there to check out yet more Rowans on the Raptor Trail. Again, Fieldfare, Redwing, Blackbird, Mistle and Song Thrush were all gorging on berries - but no Ouzel. Consolation was sought in a double egg bap at the Arne cafe, before I headed back to Middlebere for another extensive but ultimately unsuccessful search. 

By the time dusk fell, over 20 miles had been cycled, and a few more walked - but no Ouzels had been seen. So a frustrating day off, with an untimely puncture at the end of it. I had at least resisted the temptation of more distant rarities and, even with the extra calories from the double egg bap, I had shed a few pounds, or at least achieved 'net zero' weight gain, to coin the phrase of the moment.

Frustrated with a day of berry bashing, I needed a safer bet on Saturday morning. Helpful updates from Shaun Robson and Ian Ballam suggested that wintering Water Pipits were now back in reasonable numbers at Lytchett Bay so, having made a couple of failed attempts to see this species earlier this year, I decided to give that another go. Garry had the same thought and, having met on site shortly around 0800, after not too many minutes we picked out one of the Stour Ringing Group's yellow colour-ringed Water Pipits. This somewhat short-circuited the usual identification challenges associated with distant pipit identification. 

As we watched the Water Pipits - at least two, possibly three, were present - we noticed that they seemed to spend more time standing sentry-like on little tumps looking around compared to the Meadow and Rock Pipits which were constantly fidgeting and feeding. A quick call to Shaun confirmed that this was indeed 'a thing' - so a good identification learning point as well as a welcome addition to the year list - bringing it to 210, and possibly the last round '10' I would reach in 2021. 

Buoyed with success I returned home for lunch, then back to Arne (via the cafe's chocolate cake counter) and on to Middlebere to see if the black-and-white berry eater had returned. Needless to say it hadn't. I ended the day with an equally unsuccessful search for a male Hen Harrier which has been seen several times in the area - and another puncture. 

On Sunday I was faced with the choice of confronting all the domestic chores I had neglected on Friday and Saturday, socialising with family or friends who had been neglected over the same period, or go in search of Redpoll, possibly the commonest species not yet on my yearlist. I say 'choice' but I think you can work out where this is going. I had heard a Redpoll giving a distant 'jit-jit-jit' flight call at Arne on Friday, but decided not to 'tick' it on the basis that I ought to be able to secure stronger evidence of another one as the winter progresses.

I yomped around Wareham Common and cycled to Bog Lane which has acres of suitable habitat but of Redpoll there was no sign. A movement in a Yew had me dreaming of Hawfinch - which would have battered Redpoll in a game of Bird Top Trumps - but it turned out to be nothing more exciting than a Nuthatch. After a pleasant but brief lunch back home with the family I was still restless, and was somehow drawn back to Middlebere for a beguiling couple of hours in the hide watching the comings and goings of waders and Harriers (three Marsh, one Hen) - but still no Redpoll or Ouzel.

Another puncture was somehow a fitting finale to the weekend, totals for which were: 63 miles cycled, 10 miles walked, three punctures in as many days and just the one addition to the non-motorised year list. So it's not all plain sailing this green listing lark - but with the dark nights drawing in and not many weekends left to add to it, I don't intend to give up yet.