Thursday 18 January 2024

Family first(ish)

Whilst I do almost all my local birding by bike these days, and would be the first to recommend giving it a go, I try not to be preachy about it and am certainly no saint, still enjoying the occasional foray further afield in the car. I try to keep the emissions down even then, sharing with friends wherever possible or combining family visits with birding opportunities when I can. This strategy proved quite effective over the last year or so due to some happy coincidences of where my relatives live and where some good birds happened to turn up.
Baikal Teal (male), Greylake, Somerset December 2023
Baikal Teal (male), Greylake, December 2023
Baikal Teal (male), Greylake, December 2023
My parents live in North Devon and whilst not the best location for rarities, they do have a semi-resident population of Glossy Ibis just down the road. But with only short detours en route, I was able to catch up with Isabelline Wheatear and Baikal Teal on the way to or from successive Christmas visits in 2022 and 2023.
Isabelline Wheatear, Seaton Marshes, Devon, December 2022
Isabelline Wheatear, Seaton Marshes, Devon, December 2022
Isabelline Wheatear, Seaton Marshes, Devon, December 2022
My sister moved to Seaford in East Sussex just over a year ago and on our first visit to her new place I took the short detour off the A27 to see the long-staying Sabine's Gull at Budd's Farm on the Hampshire coast on the way home - just a mile off the main drag. 
Sabine's Gull, Budd's Farm, Hampshire, January 2023
Almost dark by the time I called in on this long-staying bird
Sabine's Gull, Budd's Farm, Hampshire, January 2023
Sometimes I confess it's a case of a family visit being incidental to seeing the bird rather than the other way around. Such was the case last year when my friend Jol Mitchell asked if I fancied seeing the long-staying White-crowned Sparrow at Seaford Head, about a mile away from my sister's. I jumped at the chance and it would have been rude not to make a family visit of it whilst in the area! 
White-crowned Sparrow, Seaford Head, East Sussex, April 2023
White-crowned Sparrow, Seaford Head, April 2023
White-crowned Sparrow, Seaford Head, April 2023
The furthest flung part of my side of the family is my brother in Stirling, and we usually manage to call in on the way to or from occasional family holidays in Scotland. We didn't make it that far north as a family last year but I managed a brief stopover on the way back from a week on Shetland in October with my other 'family' - the birding family of David Bradnum, James Lowen and Phil Saunders who I teamed up with on a couple of occasions last year. 
Waxwing, Farnham, Surrey, December 2023
Waxwing, Farnham, Surrey, December 2023
Waxwing, Farnham, Surrey, December 2023
Visits to relatives on my wife's side of the family in the Home Counties over the Christmas holidays put me within reach of a flock of Waxwings in Farnham and the long-staying Canvasback at Abberton, which also held a trio of Smew including a stunning male.
Canvasback in the sunshine (Abberton, Essex, 31st December)

The Canvasback was much closer early morning before the sun came out

Canvasback with Pochard in the foreground
I passed a personal 'brown' birding milestone in 2023, reaching 500 species seen in the UK in September. We were on a family trip to Bristol to visit the eldest son at University, and as we enjoyed a pre-shopping hotel breakfast on the Saturday morning news broke of a Canada Warbler in west Wales. Being in Bristol I was over half-way there. I looked at my wife who said 'just go, you'll be an arsehole if you don't'. It was probably true, so I took the invitation to avoid the retail hell of Cabot Square at face value and went. 
Gorgeous drake Smew at Abberton, 31st December

Smew, Abberton, 31st December

Goldeneye, Abberton, 31st December
It was possibly the least pleasant and most frustrating twitch I've been on, as it took me ages to get a conclusive view, but when I eventually stationed myself at the end of the crowd and waited for the Warbler to make its way towards me, I was rewarded with an excellent view of the golden underparts, slaty upperparts, black spotty necklace and big dark eye of a Canada Warbler. A pretty special bird for 500 BOU anyway, even though I couldn't do it justice with the camera. My enthusiasm for twitching has waned significantly since reaching this milestone and whilst I can't say I have kicked the habit completely I aim to be even more choosy about what I 'go for' in future.
Magnolia Warbler just up the road from the Canada Warbler

Magnolia Warbler, St Govan's Head

I can just about put this on my photo list as a Canada Warbler (St Govan's Head, 23rd September)

Friday 5 January 2024

Heavy going: the lowlights of 2023

I get a lot of satisfaction and reward from birding by bike, but if this blog gives the impression that life is just one long freewheel through glorious sunny countryside, after which I screech to a halt and punch the air on seeing my target bird, I'm afraid that wouldn't be entirely accurate.

Isabelline Wheatear at Seaton Marshes, Devon in December 2022 - only 2 people saw the first Dorset record at Swyre Head on 2 December 2023 and I was not among them! I went the next day in foul weather but it had moved on.
December 2023 was a particularly grim month bird wise. First, it was that time of year when you get up in the dark and finish work in the dark, so opportunities to get out birding were pretty much limited to weekends. Second, familial duties like fetching the first born back from University and visiting relatives (more on which in my next post) further narrowed the bandwidth for getting out on the bike. And third - perhaps most importantly - the birds themselves were few and far between, and those which did turn up were not really available to those of us in the thraldom of wage slavery.

I was watching this Long-tailed Duck at Jerry's Point when news broke of a 'late Wheatear' at Swyre Head on 2nd December
The nadir of the month - and the most painful near miss of the year in fact - came on 2nd December when, with nothing in particular to go for, I headed out mid-morning to Studland to meet up with Phil Saunders, hoping to see some of the decent birds which had been frequenting the waters just off Jerry's Point. We ended up watching freezing fog for several hours, enlivened only when a wintering Long-railed Duck loomed briefly out of the mirk. 
I didn't get the chance to go for the Wyke Down Pallid Harrier by bike - this one was in Somerset in October 2011
We eventually gave up about lunchtime, and although news of a 'late Wheatear' at Swyre Head had filtered through before we left, the grim conditions, and the fact that Northern Wheatear was still the most likely option, put me off the idea of adding an extra 15 miles, and a brutal climb up over the Purbeck ridge, to the journey home. It turned out that Swyre Head was fog-free and had I made the effort I would have been in with a shout of seeing Dorset's first Isabelline Wheatear. 

Black-winged Stilt was one of several species I dipped in Weymouth in 2023 - this one was at Abbotsbury a few years ago
In fact the only person to see it was James Leaver who made the effort to check it out, and if anyone deserved to see such a local rarity it was James who puts in more than his share of legwork to find good birds in the Purbeck area. I went back early the next morning in the hope that it was still there and was first on site - not surprising really as it was hammering down with rain and blowing quite hard, and I gave up after a few hours searching in vain with Jol Mitchell and Steve Smith, returning home like a drowned rat.

Ferruginous Duck is already on the bike list thanks to a bird in Hampshire in 2021 - but this one at Radipole Lake which I drove to see was not present when I went back on the weekend on the bike
The previous month saw me on another very wet ride to Weymouth during which I became a drowned rat with a puncture - though I did at least see my target bird (American Golden Plover) on that occasion. In fact Weymouth turned out to be a bit of a bogey location for me in 2023 - I dipped Richard's and Water Pipit in the area in February, Black-winged Stilt in April, and spent several hours searching in vain for a Purple Heron there in May. I knew there would be a good chance of it being seen towards dusk but I couldn't stay that long so had to await the inevitable posting of superb photos of it in flight as it left Lodmoor for the last time. Later in the year a similar thing happened with the Ferruginous Duck which commuted between Weymouth and Abbotsbury - it was absent on the only day I could get down to Weymouth on the bike, but I did at least see the bird to add to my Dorset list in a mad lunchtime dash via motorised means a few days prior to this.

I saw my first Dorset Purple Heron in Weymouth in October 2012 - but I wasn't as fortunate this year: I spent 4 hours looking for an elusive one at Lodmoor but it flew off a couple of hours after I left.
For all the time I've lived in Dorset a couple of hours at Portland Bill at the right time of year has been enough to see a Great Skua passing on the sea, but such is the decimation of their breeding population by Avian flu I didn't see one this year despite three extended seawatches from the Bill in spring and several more from Durstlon in the autumn. This species was therefore probably the most upsetting omission from the 2023 non-motorised year list. Let's hope they start to recover next year.
No Great Skua for the non-motorised year list in 2023 - this one was on Handa Island in May 2007
On top of dips there were a few frustrations at good birds for which the opportunity to go by bike didn't even arise - any one of the Dorchester Ross's Gull, the Wyke Down Pallid Harrier or the Silverlake/Brand's Bay Blue-winged Teal would have been a bike mega - but looking on the bright side I still saw more than I missed in 2023 and I suppose I have to be grateful for that.

Blue-winged Teal would have been a bike tick, but not a Dorset tick - this female was at Longham in December 2011

Thursday 4 January 2024

Birding by bike: the year in review

So 2023 ended with my main birding focus, the non-motorised yearlist, on 218 species - 4 short of last year's total and 6 short of my record of 224 from 2021, but still a reasonable return for 2,335 cycled over the course of the year. A poor autumn for rare and scarce migrants proved to be my undoing, and whilst a bit of low hanging fruit remained unplucked at the year's end (Jack Snipe, Hawfinch, Bittern), I kind of gave up when it became apparent that the record was out of reach. 

Nine new species were added to the non-motorised life list during 2023: Shorelark, Richard's Pipit,  Dotterel, Sooty Shearwater and Storm Petrel, plus four 'Yanks': Surf Scoter, Forster's Tern, Spotted Sandpiper and American Golden Plover. The closest of these nine was the rarest (the Forster's Tern), whilst the furthest was one of my favourites: the Shorelark, requiring a long trek east along the coast to a chilly Hurst Spit in Hampshire. Those are the headlines, gory details month-by-month below if you have the stomach for it.


As in previous years, Swineham and Studland got the yearlist off to a good start but it took a Cirl Bunting to inspire my first 50+ mile bike ride of the year to Portland. I have seen this species in each of the last 3 years and it feels like it is only going to get easier as it continues its eastward expansion from Devon. Bird of the month though was the Shorelark, a rare enough bird on the south coast to tempt me on my first out of county bike ride of the year.

Cirl Bunting, Reap Lane, Portland, 21st January (58 miles by bike)

Sanderling, Studland, 2nd January

Shorelark, Hurst Spit, 28th January (65 miles by bike)

This was a month for second chances: after a disastrous day during which I spent 7 hrs dipping Water Pipit and Richard's Pipit in the Weymouth area I bloody-mindedly returned the following day and had great views of both. Later in the month I went even further to dip a Green-winged Teal in the other direction at Stanpit, returning 4 days later to see it at the second attempt. A few days after that I completed my longest bike ride of the year (and second longest ever) - an 80 mile epic to Shatterford in the New Forest involving wind, rain and an involuntary dismount at speed, fortunately nowhere near any traffic.

Richard's Pipit, Camp Road, nr Chickerell, 5th February

Water Pipit, Bowleaze Cove, 5th February

Green-winged Teal, Stanpit, 15th February


The high point of March's birding by bike was a mega-double on 19th - the day started early in a chilly Asda car park in Bournemouth where an Alpine Swift seen the night before failed to emerge for breakfast, only for another to be relocated 6 miles further along the coast at Christchurch. I tore along the seafront and caught the Swift shortly before it was lost to view. Bouyed with success I pressed on to Pennington in Hampshire where great views of a Surf Scoter capped a memorable day. A quick dart for a Glaucous Gull at Silverlake and a patch tick of Mandarin Duck at Swineham provided the other highlights of the month.

Glaucous Gull, Silverlake, 12th March

Ring-necked Parakeet, Studland, 26th March

Surf Scoter, Pennington, Hampshire, 19th March (70 miles by bike)

A local Hoopoe on the 2nd boded well for the month and it did indeed turn into a busy and productive few weeks with four 50+ mile bike marathons: to Maiden Newton (Dipper), Iford (Night Heron), Portland (Ring Ouzel) and Keyhaven (for various spring migrants). The birding highlights, however, came closer to home. I had just arrived at Lodmoor early on the morning of 29th only to find that a pair of long-staying Black-winged Stilts had moved on when Phil Saunders found a Dotterel at St Aldhelm's Head. I got the train back to Wareham, returning to the house briefly to pass the self-imposed test that a bike twitch should be 'door to door' from home, and high-tailed it to St Aldhelm's, just catching the stunning Dotterel before the mist lifted and it flew north. Best of all though was a two sprint day on 25th - to Lytchett Bay before work for the Forster's Tern (the second rarest bird on my bike list after Short-toed Eagle) and to Herston after work for a Woodchat Shrike. At 374 miles cycled, it was my most energetic month of 2023.
Forster's Tern, Arne, 29th July - better views than its first appearance at Lytchett Bay in April

Night Heron - one of two at Iford Bridge on 9th April

Woodchat Shrike, Herston, 25th April

After the exertions of April, May turned out to be pretty uneventful by comparison. A disappointing seawatch at Portland on 13th produced precisely no Skuas, and dipping Purple Heron on the way home just rubbed salt in to the wound. A visit to Dancing Ledge a few days later at least produced the hoped for Puffin. Time off at Whitsun enabled two long distance trips to Hampshire: first to the New Forest to add Wood Warbler to the bike list, then three days later to the more familiar Keyhaven where Black Tern was a bit of a bonus on top of the target Stints (Temminck's and Little).
Weasel at Swineham on 18th May offered my best views yet of this species

Puffin, Dancing Ledge, 20th May

Little Tern, Keyhaven, 31st May

June saw me undertake yet another border crossing to Hampshire - to Martin Down for Turtle Dove. Very sad that this is about as close as they breed now but a lovely ride to a spectacular location. With hindsight I should have made the effort to cycle the extra couple of miles to cross the Wiltshire border and add a new county to the bike list - maybe next year! Unfortunately this trip put me at the wrong end of Dorset to catch up with a showy Red-necked Phalarope which spent the same day at Ferrybridge, though I did at least manage a Quail on the way home - one of only two 'heard only' species on the 2023 yearlist, the other being Tawny Owl. July offered not much to write home about, featuring another disappointing Portland Bill seawatch, though I did manage to add a Furzey Island Golden Pheasant to the list for the third year running. East Anglian boffins have declared this species functionally extinct and thus untickable in the UK following its extirpation from Fenland haunts, but we stubbornly continue to tick the Dorset birds which seem to be doing ok on the predator-free, undisturbed islands of Poole Harbour. 
One of the re-introduced White-tailed Eagles at Arne, 28th July

Turtle Dove, Martin Down, 10th June

Honey Buzzard (location undisclosed), June

After a slow early summer period, August perked up a bit with seawatching from Durlston Head proving more productive, and a lot easier to get to, than Portland Bill earlier in the year. As well as seeing Long-tailed Duck and Balearic Shearwater there, I managed to find a Sooty Shearwater - a Dorset tick for me as well as a bike tick. September was, however, a bit disappointing, the highlights being a Red-backed Shrike found by Phil Saunders at St Aldhelm's Head and a Glossy Ibis which required a late afternoon trundle along the coast to Hengistbury Head to see it come into roost at dusk. The disappointing theme continued through October, with a Grey Phalarope off Chesil Beach, snaffled up the day after my return from Shetland, the only real highlight, though Durslton again delivered some overdue year ticks in the form of Brambling and Redpoll during an early morning vis-mig session.
Eider, Studland, 2nd August

Glossy Ibis, Hengistbury Head, 16th September

Red-backed Shrike, St Aldhelm's Head, 2nd September

I needed a good late autumn/early winter to catch up on previous year's stats, and for a while in November it looked like it might be 'on': the non-motorised yearlist increased by 7 species during the month including two of the best rarities of the year - a Spotted Sandpiper found by Mark Wright at Studland, and an American Golden Plover found by Daragh Croxson at Lodmoor. Storm Petrel at Peveril Point after a wet and wild bike ride to Swanage was another highlight, and another tick for the non-motorised life list which ended the year on 267 species. I was unable to add the Ferruginous Duck in Weymouth to the yearlist, dipping early in the month, but it was still not a bad haul for November.

American Golden Plover, Lodmoor, 25th November

Spotted Sandpiper, Studland, 5th November

Snow Bunting, Studland, 11th November

I had my fingers crossed for a cold snap in December to push birds down to Dorset, as realistically this was the only way I was going to add significantly to the yearlist at this late stage. In the end it didn't happen, and Ring-necked Duck over the border in Hampshire was the only addition to the list for the month - my worst month by that measure since I started birding by bike in earnest in January 2021. Nevertheless, it had been another rewarding year of birding by bike and my enthusiasm for another effort in 2024 remains undimmed. With thanks again to the friends and strangers who found the birds whose pursuit provided me with a lot of pleasure, and a fair amount of exercise, over the course of the year.

Ring-necked Duck, Blashford Lakes, 23rd December