Wednesday 20 July 2022

Friday night's alright for biking

With a title like that you might be hoping this post features rock n' roll exploits such as heavy drinking and drug-taking, but unless you count copious amounts of water and hayfever tablets, disappointment awaits. I confess to doing coke, but just the one can, to wash down fish and chips at Stanpit last Friday night. 

But this particular story starts two days before on Wednesday when work took me to Reading for a couple of days. Thanks to a post-pandemic flexibility on the part of my employer, a presence in the office is only required for things which are best done face-to-face, which translates to being there roughly once or twice a week. They are long days by train but productive, providing concentrated work time and the ability to manage the inbox thanks to the now ubiquitous onboard wifi. 

Caspian Tern, Stanpit, 15 July
Despite being relatively infrequent, however, these visits seem to have an uncanny habit of coinciding with the arrival of rare birds back in Dorset which would otherwise have been within cycling distance. This year alone I have missed Red-necked Phalarope, Rose-coloured Starling and Alpine Swift when in Reading, though I did at least manage to catch the Swift at the second attempt. Wednesday's visit provoked the arrival of a Caspian Tern at Stanpit Marsh. Its appearances were erratic but it was seen early and late on the Wednesday, causing me to wonder if I could get home on Thursday night in time to go for it.

My train was due to arrive back in Wareham at about 1900, and google maps suggested that if I got a shift on I could complete the 21 miles to Stanpit by 2045, assuming the journey home went smoothly. It did so until Bournemouth when, for reasons best known to themselves and their shareholders, South Western Trains decide that the westbound service to Weymouth would no longer stop at Wareham or anywhere else for that matter, rendering it useless for 95% of the hot and frustrated passengers turfed off at Bournemouth. 

Caspian Tern with juv Med Gull in the background
To compound the problem they simultaneously appeared to come to the conclusion that passenger information about the timing of any later trains was entirely superfluous. The line was clearly in some chaos and a taxi home seemed like the best option - but certainly not the cheapest! Despite my best efforts to persuade others in the queue to share, they all seemed to be travelling on business expenses and not interested, so I arrived home at 1920, £45 lighter in the wallet.

I had pretty much given up hope of making it to Stanpit, but info from Olly Frampton reminded me that it was 2125 before the bird had appeared the night before, so I decided to go for it against my better judgement. I made good time in the cool of the evening and arrived at Fisherman's Bank in Stanpit, from where the best views had been obtained, just after 2100. One other birder was present and we 'scoped the area in vain for the next 40 minutes before reluctantly giving up. Checking the live departure boards for the trains online I was surprised to find that order had been restored so, having dipped, I was at least able to take advantage of the unused portion of my ticket from the earlier journey to complete the Christchurch-Wareham stretch to home.

I put the Caspian Tern from my mind and hit the sack exhausted, rising bright and early for work the next morning feeling surprisingly fresh. Reports of the Tern still being present on and off throughout the day got me thinking about a re-match. The sensible thing to do might have been to leave it until the weekend, but that would have meant cycling into the rising heat of what was forecast to be one of the warmest days of the year. In this context, heading out on Friday evening as soon as work allowed was the better option, and with the bike already packed from the night before I made a prompt getaway, cutting the corner off the flatter but longer coastal route to climb up to the Wallisdown Road some 12 miles from home before dropping gently down the remaining 9 miles to Stanpit.

Arriving shortly before 1830 there was no sign of the Tern but I passed the time chatting to Charles Stubbs, editor of the Christchurch Harbour Ornithological Group's annual bird report. He had been out of the country, making him one of the last locals not to have seen the rare visitor. 

Charles mentioned that he had to leave at 1900 for a pre-ordered meal from the chip shop on the corner. The mere mention of food reminded me of the need to eat, and Charles kindly agreed to watch over my bike and optics while I ran to grab some sustenance. We exchanged numbers 'just in case', and after a bit of a delay to my order I was heading back in his direction, supper in hand. As I was about 100 yards away my phone started to ring and I could see Charles holding his mobile to his ear, obviously watching the bird in his telescope. 'On my way!', I yelled, quickening my pace.

Within seconds I was enjoying good views of the Tern as it rested on the mud in front of Fisherman's Bank. Charles suggested I might consider heading further east, over the border into Hampshire to add the Lesser Yellowlegs at Normandy Marsh to my bike list. Whilst the possibility had occurred to me, I hadn't given it serious consideration, but was now starting to do so. I resolved to make a decision by 1900 which would still leave plenty of daylight to get to Normandy. 

Charles headed off for dinner with my expressions of gratitude hopefully ringing in his ears while I stuck around for a few record shots. Another birder then arrived and after getting him onto the bird, and a jolly exchange of the 'are you that bloke on Twitter who cycles everywhere to see birds?' variety, I made the decision to go for the double. Although Normandy Marsh is 'just along the coast' from Stanpit for the driver, to the cyclist it meant another 13 miles worth of pedalling in the heat, followed of course by a 34 mile journey pedalling home.

Although I could have done without even the gentle ups and downs en route, I made reasonable progress to Normandy arriving around 2015. There was no sign of the bird on its preferred lagoon so I headed for a couple of birders - the only birders - further along the sea wall. Fortuitously, their telescopes were pointing out towards the Solent - and straight at the Lesser Yellowlegs! The gamble had paid off and for the second time that evening I found myself being grateful to fellow birders for making it so easy for me. We had a lovely chat as Little Terns, Redshanks and Oystercatchers bombed around and I even added a bonus Eider to the year list thanks to a small flock on a distant mudbank. My new friends seemed a bit incredulous that I had cycled from Stanpit, even more so when I told them that I started the journey in Wareham, and would be returning there later that night!

The Lesser Yellowlegs was a long way out but the telescope enabled good views of the legs, needle-thin bill and other features
It was a beautiful evening with the Isle of Wight as a backdrop, but as dusk was approaching I needed to get on the road. Retracing my steps as far as Stanpit, I then turned south to the coast to take advantage of the flat run home via Bournemouth seafront. Although hard going into a stiffening breeze, it was an enjoyable journey, the highlight of which was a huge moon, reddened by Saharan sand, just above the horizon as I passed the pier. 

I arrived home half an hour after midnight with 68.63 miles on the clock, shattered but content. Moreover, I had added two species not just to the non-motorised year-list (moving it on to 189) but also my non-motorised life list. The latter now stands at 247, offering the tantalizing prospect of attaining the landmark of 250 before 2022 draws to a close.

The closest of half-a-dozen Eider on the Solent