Wednesday 30 March 2022

Take these chains...

A recurring theme on this blog is my persistent neglect of family duty whilst going awol in search of birds. But with my eldest son on a tour of Europe, youngest on a Duke of Edinburgh camping trip and wife spending time with her beloved allotment, the boot was on the other foot last weekend, opening up the opportunity for a long bike ride. 
Dipper, Maiden Newton
After an energetic January during which I cycled 300 miles in search of birds I've been slacking a bit, clocking up only 104 miles in February and, until this weekend, a mere 77 miles so far in March. With a couple of weeks in Scotland planned at Easter, I was keen to get a few more tricky species under the belt for the 2022 year list, and the fine weather was also not to be wasted. Plus I had just spent £238 on a new transmission system so it was time to give the 'as new' chain and gears a good thrashing.
Dipper, Maiden Newton
An early start on Saturday was therefore needed to head first for Maiden Newton, a regular site for Dipper and, at about 25 miles, the closest one to my home in Wareham, (extralimital records notwithstanding as they have been seen on rare occasions within a few hundred yards of home on the River Piddle). I went to Lyme Regis last June to see this species (along with the then resident drake Eider), an 88 mile trek that I promised myself never to repeat due to the extreme distance and the perils of travelling on the A35. Maiden Newton, by contrast, offered a much more civilised alternative, being accessible via quiet back roads to Dorchester followed by a stretch on national cycle route 26. 

The 'Strawberry Line', as it's also known, is about as delightful a bike ride as West Dorset has to offer, with gentle gradients through sleepy hamlets and mostly surfaced cycle routes or quiet lanes, and only the last few miles to my destination deteriorating into a dirt track. The sun brought out Lesser Celandines on the verges and more fragrant plants in cottage gardens which in different times might have flown the Union Jack but now displayed the blue and yellow ensign of Ukraine. A Blackcap singing near Bradford Peverell became my first year tick of the day and as I approached the centre of the village a calling Grey Wagtail indicated the presence of the River Frome.
Yellow-browed Warbler, Bridport
It all looked a bit Dipper-less at first glance but within 20 minutes my target species sat up briefly on the wall in front of the Mill before darting back under it and heading off upstream. After such an early success - it had only just turned 0900 - a half-baked plan to continue west to Bridport to look for an unseasonal Yellow-browed Warbler started to solidify. I could really have done with confirmation of its continued presence before adding what would be a minimum of 20 extra miles to what was already going to be at least a 50 mile trip, but enquiries via Twitter produced no fresh news. I did hear from two locals though, Luke Phillips and Tom Brereton, who both thought it unlikely that the Warbler would have moved on - both top birders whose judgement I respect so that was enough for me to press on hoping for the best.
Yellow-browed Warbler, Bridport
The day was warming rapidly and a long climb up to the appropriately named Shatcombe Lane - I was certainly shat by the time I reached the top of the combe - forced me out of the saddle to push the bike. But once at the top I enjoyed a wind-assisted bimble across the plateau followed by a precipitous drop to Askerswell during which I matched my top speed for this bike of 36.7 mph. Stopping to check a stream on the outskirts of Bridport I met a jogger who guessed correctly that I was looking for Dipper but he said there hadn't been one there for years. I told him I'd seen one earlier 10 miles to the north east in Maiden Newton - 'that's a good run' he commented, and I didn't have the heart to explain that I had started the day 35 miles away in Wareham!

Continuing towards town it was straightforward to find the spot behind the Co-op where the Yellow-browed Warbler had been seen in previous days, but it looked like it might not be so straightforward to find the bird as a couple were there before me and hadn't been able to locate it. I stuck around its favoured area as they moved along the River, and within a few minutes located it in the outer canopy of a willow. I whistled to the couple, who had been joined by two other birders, and we all eventually enjoyed reasonable views. As well as an addition to the 2022 non-motorised year list, the Warbler was also an addition to the non-motorised life list and the first species I have seen this year which I didn't see in 2021.
Red-necked Grebe, Bincleaves
This was all proving too easy so I thought I would increase the difficulty level by detouring home via Portland Harbour where a Red-necked Grebe had been reported the previous day. The coast road would be the quickest route but also the most heavily trafficked. Google maps said it would be 23 miles following designated cycle routes, but these involved some serious detours, so I split the difference turning inland at Burton Bradstock to follow national route 2 before hurtling down into Portesham to rejoin the coast road to Weymouth. I felt pretty fresh when I left Bridport but the wind in my face and the steeply undulating route made it hard going on the return leg.
Red-necked Grebe, Bincleaves
I persevered, aiming for Sandsfoot Castle on the north shore of Portland Harbour which I knew would afford views of the Bincleaves area where the Red-necked Grebe had been seen, and I soon located it with a small raft of its Great Crested cousins. Closer views were obtained by heading back up to the Bincleaves coastguard building - my third good bird for the day safely seen and photographed.

All that was required now to add them to the 2022 non-motorised year list was to complete the final 20 or so miles home. But first I would need refreshment, having guzzled the three flasks of water I had started the day with. I stopped at a convenience store in Preston and locked the bike outside, but on exiting the shop was dismayed to find the combination wasn't working and the lock had stuck fast. 

A moment of panic where I thought I might have to phone home for a lift or somehow get back to Weymouth for the train, thus rendering the birds seen earlier in the day 'untickable', was followed by a moment of clarity where I realised that cutting the cable of the (ageing and inexpensive) lock would be the best option. All I needed was a bolt-cutter or a hacksaw! As luck would have it, a landscape gardener had pulled up next to me in a van and when I inquired if he possessed such a thing he whipped out a hand-held circular saw which dispatched the chain within seconds. We agreed it was a good job neither of us were actual bike thieves and, duly liberated, I was soon on the road again!

I reached home almost exactly 12 hours after leaving. 8 of these had been spent in the saddle, puffing my way to a total of 78 miles, gaining 5,695 feet in elevation to complete my second longest bicycle journey ever, and one of the most enjoyable. The non-motorised year list had risen to 141, two more than where it stood this time last year.
Grey Wagtail, Maiden Newton