Monday 30 January 2023

A rare beast over the border

After cycling 57 miles to see the Portland Cirl Bunting earlier in the month, slightly sore knees were the only physical ailment to last more than a couple of days, so I was ready for another long distance adventure as last weekend approached. Two good options were on offer - a Richard's Pipit to the west at Wyke Regis or a Shorelark to the east at Hurst Beach, over the border into Hampshire. I've seen a couple of Richard's Pipits in Dorset, and there was a good chance the Wyke Regis bird was wintering in the area, so I figured that could probably wait until a later date. 

Shorelark, Hurst Beach
By contrast, the closest to home I've seen a Shorelark (or Horned Lark to give it its modern name) is Surrey, and that was one of the American sub-species which appeared there in the winter of 2017-18, pre-dating my serious cycling days. I've seen them in Kent and Norfolk in the past but there hasn't really been a sniff of one on the south coast that I can recall since I moved to Dorset in 2007, and I think the last twitchable county record was 1988. So despite being the 'wrong' side of the border, the chance to see such a major local rarity relatively close to home was not to be missed.
Greenshank, Cut Bridge
The choice of whether to go Saturday or Sunday was dictated by the weather: Saturday's forecast looked perfect for a long bike ride: precious little wind, cold but not freezing, and even the promise of a bit of sunshine at times. Being of a slightly anxious disposition, the night before a long ride I sometimes find myself sleeping fitfully, worrying about all the things that could go wrong. Would the bird still be there? Would the beach be too busy for it to settle? Would the bike hold out? Would the knees hold out? These unhelpful thoughts played on my mind in the middle of the night but I managed to nod off again until the alarm went off at 0530.
The view of the Needles from Hurst Beach
The early start was necessary to arrive before the crowds and put at least one of my anxieties to rest and I was on the road just after 0600. Before I had gone far a horrible grinding noise from the rear of the bike caused a moment of panic but fortunately it was nothing more than the mudguard slipping from its clip and rubbing on the tyre. After another mile I started to feel some pain in my right knee which was a bit ominous with so many miles ahead of me. Fortunately it eased off with the gentle motion of pushing the pedals, and I didn't stop again until I reached the half-way point of the journey which was about mid-way between the piers of Bournemouth and Boscome.
Turnstone, Cut Bridge
After Boscombe it became apparent that winter storms had pushed a lot more sand onto the seafront walkway compared to my last visit here in December, which made for tougher going, but with that hazard negotiated, I ploughed the familiar route towards Keyhaven to which I cycled three times last year. On this occasion, however, I hung a right before getting there to head for Cut Bridge, at the base of Hurst Beach, arriving shortly before 0930 with just over 32 miles on the clock.
Spoonbills just outside Wareham - a bit dark and distant
Locking the bike up to the sturdy English Heritage sign for Hurst Castle, I changed into some fresh clothes, assembled the camera, unpacked my bins and headed off down the shingle spit with high expectations. These were soon tempered by a few gloomy looking birders returning from the direction of the castle having not seen the Shorelark. It was still early though, and I wasn't going to turn back now. I made my way slowly up the spit, heading for an obvious kink in the beach where the saltmarsh started on the inland side. 
Avocet, Holes Bay
As I approached the start of the saltmarsh, a couple of guys were walking back towards me with a bit of urgency and broke the welcome news that they had seen the Shorelark fly to just below where we were stood. Then a third birder 50 yards in the other direction gestured that he was watching it at the base of the beach. 
 A typical scene in Holes Bay!
Friends who had been during the week had warned me that the bird was easily flushed by people breaking the skyline above it so I approached carefully, getting low on the crest of the beach to enjoy good views and grab a few shots. The bird seemed settled and was feeding well but another camera-toting birder was a bit too eager to get closer and this appeared to flush the bird over the channel to the saltmarsh. 
Wigeon, Holes Bay
More birders were arriving by this point and fortunately the Shorelark was relocated via someone's telescope so that the growing crowd could all see it. Although my views had been frustratingly brief, I was unlikely to get closer to it with so many people now on the beach and resolved to head slowly back to the bike. These long rides take up a lot of time which, it is sometimes pointed out to me, could otherwise be spent at home with the family, so leaving now would also mean an earlier arrival back in Wareham in the hope of earning a few brownie points.
Teal, Holes Bay
I took it easy on the way back, initially to preserve the creaking knees but as the miles ticked by my speed dropped below 10mph more out of necessity than choice. Bournemouth seafront has a warning sign which comes on to alert cyclists if they are exceeding the 10mph speed limit but there was no fear of triggering it by this point! I made a few stops around Holes Bay on the last leg of the journey, adding Avocet to the year-list, and one final stop at the bike shop to book it in for a service in the hope of fixing some unhealthy noises from the transmission which started not long after leaving Hurst Beach. With that done, I was home by 1500. 
Wigeon (female), Holes Bay
Just as I was about to settle down for a well-earned cup of tea, some friends who have a view over the Swineham/Bestwall water meadows from their garden called to say they had just found a pair of Spoonbill. I could barely haul myself back on to the bike but five minutes later I was watching the Spoonbills, another good bird for the year, to cap off a thoroughly enjoyable day. I had wondered whether the Richard's Pipit might be do-able on Sunday morning but the knees were voicing severe doubts - a good chance then to catch up on some domestic chores and a bit of R&R. 
Holes Bay

Monday 23 January 2023

Picking up the pace

Following a trundle to Studland on 2nd January, opportunity and motivation to get out on the bike have been a bit lacking this month. The lingering illness which had so marred the festive season dampened my enthusiasm for getting out in the cold January air, and on the two weekends following the New Year I was happy to just catch up with various family members in Devon and Sussex, visits to whom had been cancelled due to the Xmas bout of poor health.

Cirl Bunting, Reap Lane, Portland

Cirl Bunting, Reap Lane, Portland
By this weekend the impact of being sedentary was taking a toll on my physical and mental health and with a decent forecast I knew I needed to get back in the saddle. Whilst there were plenty of species to add to the year-list locally, half measures wouldn't do. A long-staying Cirl Bunting on Portland on the other hand - well, now you're talking. This is a species which I was fortunate enough to see in Dorset in both 2021 and 2022, on both occasions at West Bexington. 
Purple Sandpiper, Portland Bill
One of a flock of ten
Although Portland is about the same distance as West Bex, it somehow feels closer, perhaps because it avoids the long and brutal climb up over the south Dorset ridgeway to the Hardy Monument. Instead it offers the short and brutal climb up onto Portland, which proved to be a particular challenge with the rear wheel spinning on the frosted pavements of the steepest bits. With that trial negotiated. it was all downhill to Reap Lane where the Cirl Bunting had set up shop. I had arranged to meet Jol Mitchell at around 1000 but I could see as I headed up to the barns that he had arrived before me and was standing with a group of birders 50 yards up the track. 
Drake Eider distantly in Portland Harbour
Robin, Swineham

Others on site told me there had been no sign of the Bunting but as soon as this bad news had been imparted I saw Jol grabbing his scope in the manner of a man trying to focus on a rare bird. Sure enough it was the Cirl Bunting and although it flew before I could get a good look at it, it quickly returned to perch up on a bramble long enough for me to retrieve my camera bag from the panniers, connect the body to the lens, fiddle with the settings and rattle off a few decent photos.

Hen Harrier at Swineham

As is often the way, it was almost past me by the time the camera was raised 
A juvenile Little Gull which had spent almost the whole week performing for locals, the work-shy and retired in the same field as the Bunting unfortunately chose Saturday to do a bunk - a shame as it clearly offered superb photographic opportunities. I consoled myself by rolling on down to the Bill where a flock of 10 Purple Sandpiper were near the Obelisk. A brief search for a Black Redstart was aborted when a report suggested that the Little Gull had returned and I was almost back at Reap Lane when news came through that the earlier report was false. 
White-tailed Eagle, Swineham

The Eagle flew up the River Frome

Though disappointing, I needed to get on the road anyway as time was pressing on, and I had plans to grill Portland Harbour for scarce waterbirds before the long ride home. This was only partially successful, with 3 Eider off Billy Winters and another off Sandsfoot Castle making up for the absence of the Black-throated Diver and Red-necked Grebe which were also on the target list for the day. My lack of conditioning made for a tough return journey to Wareham but I made it back by 1800 with 57 miles on the clock, feeling somewhere between satisfied and exhausted. 

Ravens at Swineham

Marsh Harrier at Swineham

As is typical after a big day out on the bike, the following day I was not much use for anything but a hobble around Swineham, currently holding a lot of standing water and, on Sunday, ice. These are usually the best conditions to go birding on the patch, and while duck numbers on the gravel pits were a bit disappointing, an eventful 20 minute spell produced my first sightings of the year of Bearded Tit, Kingfisher, Hen Harrier and one of the White-tailed Eagles from the Isle of Wight re-introduction scheme. 

Redwing, Swineham

Fieldfare, Swineham
A reasonable reward-effort ratio for the weekend then which has gone a long way to restoring my appetite for some more ambitious journeys by bike in 2023.

Kingfisher, Swineham
I left it too late in the day to drop by the long-staying Sabine's Gull on the way back from visiting my sister in Sussex - it was only about a mile off the main road - so photos were a bit dark!

Thursday 5 January 2023

'Are you that bloke...'

Several times last year I would arrive breathelss and sweaty at the site of a target bird to be greeted by a complete stranger with the question 'Are you that bloke who cycles everywhere to see birds?' At one level it's nice to be recognised, at another it's a bid sad that there are so few of us that the answer is 'probably, yes'! One of these new friends went on to ask if I was Nick Moran, a Thetford-based velo-birder who really would have been going some to turn up in Dorset, and I had to explain that, no, I was one of the other ones.

Sanderling, Studland, 2nd January
I suppose it's become an important part of my identity, and I guess it's better to be recognised for making a bit of an effort to reduce my birding carbon footprint and stay fit than for some of the other reasons why birders have become better known recently. 'I think you're mad' was another common greeting, often uttered by someone who had driven much further than I had cycled to see the same bird!

But it was poor physical rather than mental health which meant that the bike stayed in the shed for the final week of 2022 and the lingering sniffles even threatened to impinge on the usual New Year's Day effort to get the yearlist off to a good start. In the end I managed to flog around Swineham on foot, and whilst the birding was not exactly stellar, 53 species were logged, the best of which was a Firecrest brightening up an otherwise gloomy hedgerow. 

A ringed bird in full clockwork toy mode
Monday 2nd January would be my last day's holiday before returning to work and, determined to make something of it, I settled on Studland. Three years ago Studland by bike would have felt like a major adventure, but these days is considered sufficiently close to represent a gentle reintroduction to cycling after over a week up on blocks, even when not fully recovered. It was lunchtime before I left though so I eschewed the meandering off-road route taken by National Cycle Route 2 and followed the quicker route by road via the A351 to Corfe Castle, hanging a left towards Studland at the foot of the ruin, then left again onto Meadus's Lane to join route 2 in the middle of Rempstone Forest. 
Sandwich Tern, Studland, 2nd January
Just over an hour after leaving home I was approaching Jerry's Point, a good vantage point for scanning the inner harbour only to bump into my Wareham neighbour, Trevor Warwick in a rare foray outside of his 10km habo. Trevor was just leaving having searched unsuccessfully for a lingering Velvet Scoter but decided to stick around for another look when I arrived. We were joined by another Wareham birder, Hilary Jordan, and despite picking up Great Northern Diver, Black-necked and Slavonian Grebe without difficulty, the Scoter continued to elude us. 

Sandwich Tern emerging after an unsuccessful dive
Just when we were all thinking of giving up I managed to locate the Velvet very distantly off Furzey Island and we all enjoyed reasonable views. This was a good bird for the yearlist as it's easy to go a year without seeing one in this part of Dorset. A January Sandwich Tern overhead is not unheard of in these parts but still felt like a bit of a New Year bonus. A few other coastal species - Shag, Merganser and Sanderling - plus a selection of Brand's Bay waders were all firsts for the year, and a pleasant afternoon was completed when the family turned up for a stroll down the beach where two Sandwich Terns entertained us by fishing close in.
Just clipped the wingtip in this diving shot
Dusk was approaching so I bid farewell to wife and son to head back through the forest. I made the mistake of sticking to Route 2 only to find as I reached the point of no return that the Corfe stream had burst its banks and I had to negotiate a flooded area about 30 feet across and between 6-12 inches deep, and pass through three partially submerged gates. I somehow managed to get through it with only one wet boot, and had to part-squelch the last 4 miles home in darkness.

Studland is a reliable site for Mediterranean Gull
So a steady rather than a spectacular start to the year, but as the only hard-core velo-birder that I know of in Dorset I still fancy my chances of a top 4 finish! 

A busy Bank Holiday on Studland Beach (wife and son just right of the dog. I mean the left hand dog in the foreground. There are a lot.)

Tuesday 3 January 2023

My birding by bike stats for 2022

Some morsels of data on my birding year follow for the amusement of, well, mainly me. First up, the monthly species tally. All as recounted in torturous detail in my previous 'review of the year' post, but in a bar chart. Compared to 2021, the pattern for the first 7 months is broadly the same - peaks in Jan and Apr before the early summer doldrums kick in. After that though, this year differs from last in two major respects: late summer/early autumn was a fair bit more productive this year, but late autumn early winter the opposite: I accelerated from September onwards in 2021 but flatlined a bit after a good August this year. It was all riding on December which turned out to be, well, shite, for a variety of reasons.

And so to effort expended: my monthly mileage in 2022. A bit more erratic than 2021, when I started slowly until March and then did 200-350 miles per month for the rest of the year. This year holidays away from home and illnesses suppressed the distances I could manage in February, June, October and December. At 370 miles, however, August was the furthest I had cycled in any month, ever, so that was a milestone at least. Overall though, there's no getting away from the fact that my total miles cycled in 2022 of 2,600 was not as prolific as the 3,500 I managed in 2021, though a fair chunk of last year's mileage was purely for exercise, as evidenced by the correspondingly fair chunk which has reappeared around my waistline this year now that the cycling has been more exclusively bird-related!

Onwards we march then to the cramp-inducing dehydratathons of 2022: my top 25 longest bike rides. There ought to be an extra tarriff for those which take me west of Wareham, involving as they do more dangerous, heavily-trafficked roads and much greater elevation gain compared to the mostly off-road and flatter routes to the east. For this reason, as well as the sheer distance, the route which took me to Maiden Newton (Dipper), Bridport (Yellow-browed Warbler) and Portland Harbour (Red-necked Grebe) will live long in the memory as my most epic day of birding by bike in 2022. 

The route of my longest bike ride this year - 78 miles

I was on the move for just over 8 hours that day, hit my top speed of the year (36.9 mph virtually paragliding down towards Bridport from a high point of 991ft above sea level) and gained 5,695 ft in elevation - the equivalent of almost twice up Pen y Fan for those who know the Brecon Beacons. Four trips to Portland (including my first climb onto the island without getting off to push!) and five over the border into Hampshire over the course of the last 12 months also represented a fair amount of effort looking back on it.

Like last year, I remain unconvinced about the value of the next chart, as it really just shows you 'where I went' over the course of the year. That said, in comparison to last year it does illustrate that the relative importance to the yearlist of Swineham and Studland declined whilst that of Portland, Weymouth and Hartland Moor/Middlebere increased. As did the Dorchester and Keyhaven/Pennington areas, which don't show up in the key to the chart for some reason but which are the yellow and pale blue segments in the top left of the circle respectively. 

And finally to the ultimate measure of 'green' list purity - the number of species seen by non-motorised means expressed as a percentage of ALL species seen during the year. A fortnight in Scotland with the family at Easter, a week on Shetland in October and a bit of autumn twitching put a dent in this statistic somewhat and I ended the year on 88.80%, an improvement on last year's 86.15%. My Dorset stats were even better with only 1 of the 218 species I saw in the county in 2022 tempting me into the car (Black Kite). That was for an 8 mile round trip which, with hindsight, could have been done by bike as the Kite lingered for the best part of an hour against all expectations! But at 99.5%, it doesn't get much better, and it cements the pattern established in 2021 that I now do pretty much all my local birding (Dorset plus the bits of Hampshire I can reach) by bike. Hopefully I can make it 100% in 2023.

Well those are the scores on the doors for 2022 and if I can master the charts function in Word I'll try to make them a bit prettier next year!