Wednesday 22 February 2023

The Great Grey Dot in the Distance

February half-term had been pretty good for the non-motorised year list with Green-winged Teal, Cattle Egret, Barnacle Goose, Woodlark, Marsh Tit, Dartford Warbler, Goshawk, Kestrel, Barn Owl, Bar-tailed Godwit, Crossbill and a slightly tardy Mistle Thrush adding a combination of quality and quantity. I had clocked up 111 miles for the week but as the weekend before my return to work approached, I was feeling the need to do something more, well, ambitious.

Great Grey Shrike in Wareham Forest, 8th April 2017
We haven't had a Great Grey Shrike wintering in Dorset since one in Wareham Forest in 2020, a convenient 4 miles from home. Although I had my eye on one at Shatterford in the New Forest at Christmas I was unable to go for it due to illness. It was still there last week, however, and at 40 miles away would certainly be a challenge, being 10 times further away than the last one I cycled to and in a different county! But the New Forest holds other species which are hard to come by in Dorset like Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Hawfinch, which added to the incentive to make the effort. 

The weather and the state of my knees, however, were both important considerations, and neither were in great shape. I could mitigate the pressures on the latter with some sturdy knee supports but the former was in the lap of the gods. The forecast suggested a brisk WSW breeze - fine to push me there, not much fun on the way back. But with only a 10% chance of rain I should stay dry at least. 

Great Grey Shrike, Wareham Forest, 8th April 2017
Given the wind direction, it made sense to take the longer but flatter coastal route on the way there and almost literally sail from Sandbanks to Southbourne with the breeze at my back. Leaving at 0620 meant it was pretty quiet on both the roads and the seafront and the wind certainly made the journey easier. But by the time I left the familiar route around Christchurch to head towards the New Forest on National Cycle Route 2, I had done over 20 miles already. 

At this point of a journey to the east I would normally be two-thirds of the way to the usual destination of Keyhaven/Pennington and feeling like I had broken its back, so it was sobering to realise I was only half-way to Shatterford. The right knee was also giving me a bit of jip with barely a quarter of the day's likely mileage behind me. Although I questioned the wisdom of pressing on, I didn't seriously consider stopping, instead consoling myself with the thought that if the Shrike wasn't there I could at least get the train home.

From this point on I was in uncharted territory cycling-wise, but route 2 is well chosen to provide a reasonably flat route all the way to Brockenhurst, and I was able to enjoy the glories of the National Park via quiet roads and forest tracks. The chain on the bike was already creaking a bit despite a good clean and lubrication the night before, but a conveniently placed bike shop in Brockenurst opened at 0930 just in time for me to get a small bottle of oil. The local cafes smelt divine but from there the Shrike site was still 6 miles away, so I resisted temptation and pressed on. Google maps for bikes took me through a disconcertingly wet bit of woodland and heathland for the last mile, but I was confident I was in the right place. The fact that I was appeared to be confirmed when I bumped into a birding couple, but they broke the unwelcome news that, despite a couple of visits and over an hour searching that morning, they had not seen the Shrike.

I knew that the Shrike could be elusive, with one well known twitcher declaring on Twitter with an unnerving level of certainty that it could take 'up to 4 hours to locate' (!). I didn't intend to stay that long, wanting to be back in time to watch the Liverpool game kick off at 1730, but at the same time I wasn't going to give up yet. I suggested to the birders who had been searching in vain that we swapped numbers and split up but they declined the offer as they were planning to leave. 

Great Grey Shrike, Wareham Forest, 8th April 2017
I pressed on towards Beaulieu Road Station to check a line of birches next to the railway which the bird supposedly favoured. After a thorough scan with no sign I turned 180 degrees to check the open heathland behind me. A white blob atop a small pine seen through the bins in the far distance merited closer inspection, and when relocated in the telescope, I was delighted to confirm that I had indeed relocated the Shrike! Another birder arrived who turned out to be from my home town of Wareham and was grateful for a view through my scope. She kept tabs on it whilst I set off on the bike to look for the birders I had spoken to earlier but they were nowhere to be found. 

Another couple joined us, again enjoying views through the scope, then all of a sudden when none of us were looking the Shrike vanished. At this point the first birding couple reappeared and I had to break the news that they had missed it again! It was now gone 1100 though and I had a long way to go, so I bid my farewells and headed towards Acres Down in the hope of bumping into a Lesser Spot or a Hawfinch, both of which had been seen there recently. On arrival 45 minutes later I enjoyed a packed lunch in a sheltered spot with views of a likely looking area. A couple of other birders came and went but after 2 hours we had seen nothing more than a few Crossbills. The birding couple who I first met at Shatterford arrived around 1400 - they had still not seen the Shrike - but with one eye on the clock and another on the weather (it had been raining for about an hour) I had to leave them to it in the hope their luck improved. 

Satnav wanted me to take a circuitous route back towards Ringwood so I ignored it and followed my nose westwards through the wood, emerging at the Canadaian War Memorial at Bolderwood. From there I headed NW under the A31 and climbed up onto Broomy Plain where the rain worsened and the wind strengthened, making for a miserable slog across the exposed plateau. The best part of 30 miles lay ahead of me and once again I was left to ponder the wisdom of my chosen mode of transport. But then one of the reasons we are seeing fewer Great Grey Shrikes in these parts is thought to be climate related, so by cycling at least I wasn't adding unduly to that particular problem. Smugness alone wasn't going to get me back to Wareham, however, so I pedalled on. 

As I dropped down from the New Forest towards the more familiar territory of Blashford Lakes the weather and my spirits improved a bit, at least until a greasy patch on a bend in the path forced an wholly unplanned and most inelegant dismount at speed! The bike slid from under me but I managed to stand up somehow and roll forward, landing heavily on the collarbone which I broke over a decade ago. Fortunately nothing more than my pride was seriously hurt, and I got gingerly back on the bike, thankful that my accident was nowhere near any traffic. 

The last 20 miles along the Castleman Trailway to Ferndown, then back on the tarmac to Longham, Upton and ultimately Wareham, were hard work but the desire to see the mighty reds in action spurred me on. I arrived home at 1830 with just over 80 miles on the odometer and made the second half, enjoying an away win and the satisfaction of a adding a highly desirable species to the non-motorised year list.

A very, very distant Great Grey Shrike at Shatterford in the New Forest

Sunday 19 February 2023

A dainty gull and a case of deja vu

With a week off for February half-term and nothing in particular planned I had two things in mind: some time with the family and some time out birding on the bike. The latter came first, of course, with a gentle 46 mile warm-up run along the coast on Saturday 11th in the hope of seeing a Green-winged Teal which had been making erratic appearances over the previous week at Stanpit Marsh. Despite grilling its favoured areas I couldn't find it, but a trio of Barnacle Geese out in Christchurch Harbour were a useful addition to the non-motorised yearlist.

Ross's Gull, Dorchester
Ross's Gull, Dorchester
Claire had Monday and Tuesday off work so Monday was earmarked for a National Trust day. Claire fancied nearby Kingston Lacy, I lobbied for the more distant Stourhead. By some miracle I won the argument so we headed north just over the border into Wiltshire with our reluctant teenager in tow. An enjoyable day was spent in the grounds where the birding highlight was a Marsh Tit. Then just as we were getting in the car to leave news broke of a Ross's Gull on the water meadows just outside Dorchester. 
The Ross's Gull gave just the one short fly-around in the time I was watching it
The pink wash on the underparts seemed more obvious in flight
Frustratingly, a quick bit of mental arithmetic suggested that there would not be enough daylight to get home, pack the bike and cycle the 16 miles to the other side of Dorchester. It was 1540 when we left, an hour to home, 10 minutes to change and pack the bike, and at least 1hr 15 mins to the site - an ETA of just after 18:00. Had I listened to my wife and gone to Kingston Lacy it would definitely have been on! Anyway, that was now academic and it was just a short detour by car on the way home so with the agreement of the family we headed straight there.

The Dorset birding grapevine was in fine form on Monday 13th February

On arrival it was all smiles from the familiar faces of local birders, particularly Steve Smith and Shaun Robson who had been away when the last Dorset Ross's Gull graced Lodmoor and Radipole Lake back in 2018. That was an adult, but this was a distinctively plumaged first winter bird, and it paraded at close range in front of the crowd of admirers. I got some reasonable photos and headed back to the car to the patient family. 
A remarkable find for an inland site
Looking good in late afternoon light
In the end the Ross's Gull stayed until 17:53 so had I attempted to twitch it by bike I would have missed it - a good call to go straight there as it was gone the following morning. Not that I could have gone for it anyway as we had a family day trip to London planned, baling out from which would have been a divorceable offence. Still, Ross's Gull would have been a mega bike tick and it was a shame it didn't linger. 
A brief swim for the Ross's Gull
Probably my best flight shot of the Ross's Gull
By Wednesday Claire was back at work and with the sun shining I headed into Wareham Forest on the bike to look for a few more 'firsts for the year'. Woodlark, Dartford Warbler and Crossbill were very much expected but stumbling across a pair of Marsh Tit was a bit of a bonus. After about 15 miles pootling around I was about to head home for a late lunch when news reached me that the Green-winged Teal was back at Stanpit. 
One of 4 Woodlark seen in Wareham Forest
After a moment's hesitation, I realised I had everything I needed except food and decided to go for it. Google maps for cycling wanted me to head back to Wareaham which would have been quite a detour so I followed my nose through the woods to Organford before briefly joining the perilous A35 near Baker's Arms (where a makeshift track on the verge spared me the need to use the road) and thence on to the familiar, safer route through Lytchett Minster, around Holes Bay, and back to the Bournemouth seafront for the second time in five days.
Marsh Tit, Wareham Forest
Marsh Tit, Wareham Forest
A forecast weather front was due to move in behind me and was now ominously visible so it would mean cycling back into the wind and rain. But I figured I would worry about that when the time came and in the meantime would take advantage of the following wind to spirit me to Stanpit, arriving with over an hour of daylight left. Christchurch Harbour stalwart Alan Hayden was on site when I arrived and had the Green-winged Teal pinned down to a marshy area, and although it was out of view it didn't take me long to relocate it. The light was fading rapidly - a combination of the deteriorating weather and the time of day - but I managed a few record shots and, after adding a couple of flyover Cattle Egret to the year list, I was on my way. 
Green-winged Teal, Stanpit
Green-winged Teal, Stanpit
As the 50 mile mark approached I was flagging, having stopped only briefly on the way to Stanpit for a drive-by flapjack lunch from a seafront kiosk 4 hours earlier. Being an elite athlete there was only one thing for it: a pit stop at the Phat Fryer in Upton where steak & kidney pie, chips and mushy peas provided a perfectly balanced meal. From there the last 6 miles were a bit of a slog carrying the extra weight - but all worth it to finally add Green-winged Teal to the year list at the second attempt. 
The 'cycle-helmet' head shape visible here
Probably my best views of this species

Tuesday 7 February 2023

Up and down

With Cirl Bunting and Shorelark already on the non-motorised yearlist for 2023, last weekend offered the chance of another rarity, a Richard's Pipit, which was discovered the previous weekend near Pirate's Cove, just west of Weymouth. I've seen a couple of wintering Richard's Pipits in Dorset over the years but never by bike, so it was the obvious target for the weekend. During the week reports also emerged of a very obliging Water Pipit the other side of Weymouth at Bowleaze Cove, offering the tantalising prospect of a quality Pipit double. 

Water Pipit, Bowleaze Cove

Water Pipit, Bowleaze Cove
I confess to being initially sceptical on hearing that a Water Pipit was giving walkaway views on a busy beach - surely Scandanavian Rock Pipit was the more likely given how notoriously flighty Water Pipits can be? But increasingly good photos were posted online showing all the key features - a paler, browner bird than Rock Pipit, with whiter underparts, more distinct streaking, pure white outer tail feathers, and a warmer brown rump. So kudos to whoever first worked it out!
Water Pipit
Water Pipit
As the weekend approached it was time to hatch a plan, and it seemed to make sense to go early and drop by the Water Pipit first before the beach at Bowleaze Cove got too busy, and then devote the rest of the day if needed to the Richard's Pipit which, by all accounts, could go missing for long spells. 
Water Pipit with Rock Pipit behind
The Water Pipit often sat up alert - it was generally alone apart from this brief encounter with a greyer Rock Pipit
Saturday's forecast looked grey but windless, fine for a bike ride, and I hit the road at 0630 to get ahead of the traffic and, I hoped, beachgoers. I was only partially successful with the latter as even on arrival at 0800 the beach had its fair share of dog walkers, and they all seemed magnetically attracted to the area of seaweed which I knew the Water Pipit had been frequenting. 
Water Pipit
Water Pipit
I covered a fair bit of the beach and after almost an hour of dodging pooches with no sign of the Water Pipit, I concluded that perhaps it was a late riser and started to think about moving on as the Richard's Pipit seemed to be more reliably seen in the early morning and late afternoon. Pausing for an indecently brief view of Golden Plover at Lodmoor, I was delayed slightly by dodgy satnav directions which took me along Granby Way and up the punishingly steep Lanehouse Rocks Road rather than the more direct route up Wyke Road. This cost me about 15 minutes in the end but positive news that the Richard's Pipit was still there at 0930 spurred me on. 
Close up of the Water Pipit's warm brown rump and white outer tail feather
Water Pipit
I arrived at the western end of the horse field frequented by the Pipit and it became clear this was no ordinary horse field - it was huge, spanning a deep valley and reaching half way between Camp Road and Pirate's Cove. Bordered by an even larger field frequented by locals, apparently for the sole purpose of emptying their dogs, every step carried a high risk of standing in something unpleasant. 
Water Pipit
Water Pipit
Treading carefully through this minefield of shite, I could see birders below me at the other end of the field so rolled the bike down to meet them. Rob and Steph Murphy, up from Devon, were among them and Rob broke the news that the Richard's Pipit had walked out of view about 15 minutes before my arrival. He kindly kept searching whilst I changed into a fresh top and even let me borrow his scope to scan the far corners of the field. We felt sure it was only a matter of time before it returned. But, to cut a long and tedious story short, over seven hours later I was still staring at the same empty field as what passed for Saturday's sun went down. 
Water Pipit
Water Pipit
It was a grim day but, having seen neither of my main targets, I at least had the option of getting the train home from Weymouth. Although this meant chalking Golden Plover off the yearlist, as the journey home would not be completed under my own steam, it was a small price to pay to save my 54-year old knees a 22 mile ride home. Solace was sought that evening in a Nepalese meal with the family, including the prodigal son back from Uni for a flying visit.
Stonechat, Bowleaze Cove
Grey Wagtail, Bowleaze Cove
The family meal theme continued into Sunday with Dad's Sunday roast, wolfed down by the prodigal before his train back to Uni. His mum agreed to drop him off leaving me free for the afternoon and, feeling surprisingly fresh after a good night's sleep and a couple of good meals, I made a somewhat rash decision to return to Weymouth for the Water Pipit - by bike. Sunday was much sunnier than Saturday but still windless, perfect for cycling, and travelling light I was able to up Saturday's sluggish average speed from 11 mph to a monster 12.5 mph, hitting Bowleaze Cove just before 1500. 
Stonechat at the Richard's Pipit site
Golden Plover at Lodmoor
I located the Water Pipit almost immediately, feeding with Pied Wagtails under the balcony of the Bowleaze 'Fantasy Island Fun Palace'. A less appropriately named establishment you will be lucky to find, being as it is neither an island nor a palace, and offering little in the way of either fun or fantasy. Although a bit flighty with so many punters on the beach it allowed a reasonably close approach and I filled my boots with photos. Having done so, the sensible thing would have been to head home with the sun on my back. But sensible wasn't going to add Richard's Pipit to my bike list so, flushed with success, I packed up the bike and continued west.

There had been no reported sightings of the Richard's Pipit since 0930 the previous day, but I figured there was a high chance it was still around, and possible that no-one was looking. As I arrived at the top of the horse field for the second time in as many days, the bottom of the valley was already in shade, but the sun was lighting up the higher slopes where Rob had been watching the Pipit the day before. I raised my bins and a pale bird catching the light immediately caught my eye. It could only be the Richard's Pipit and although at this distance views with bins were poor, zooming in on a photo was enough to clinch it. 

Richard's Pipit, Pirate's Cove
A bird I was very glad to see
At this point a previously unseen flock of Meadow Pipits took flight taking the Richard's with them. Visibly larger and with a more powerful flight, its hoarse call was clearly discernible. It dropped down near Pirate's Cove so I made my way down on the bike, approaching slowly as I approached the spot where it appeared to land. To my amazement the Pipit then walked out on the path in front of me and posed for a couple of photos before heading back to the horse field with a loud 'shreep'.

The gamble had paid off with both Pipits showing immediately, and the afternoon had been a complete contrast to the previous day with over 9 hours in the field seeing neither bird. I headed back towards Weymouth with a spring in my step, pausing only to add a female Goldeneye at Radipole Lake and Golden Plover at Lodmoor to the year list. The last hour of the journey home was completed by moonlight and I was back in Wareham before 1900. It had been an up and down 36 hours but, with over 70 miles on the clock, ultimately a triumphant one.   

Water Pipit - my best views of this species by some distance