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

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