Wednesday 19 June 2024

Building the bike list in 2024: the story so far

My plan, hatched in January, to concentrate this year on new birds for the non-motorised life list (as opposed to yearlisting) has one significant limitation - namely, the appearance of birds which I haven't already seen. With the list standing at 267 species at the end of 2023, most of the 'easy' stuff, quite a few minor rarities and even a couple of 'megas' were already on the list, and the options obviously narrow with each new species seen. The first sniff of a new bird in 2024 - a Little Bunting at East Morden on 4th February - evaporated no sooner than it had been discovered, and I had to wait almost until the middle of that month for the opportunity to get to 268. 

Red-breasted Goose, Normandy Lagoon, 10th February
Red-breasted Goose, Normandy Lagoon, 10th February
Red-breasted Goose, Normandy Lagoon, 10th February
The target was a Red-breasted Goose on the Hampshire coast at the Keyhaven/Pennington complex of coastal lagoons. I was therefore up bright and early on the 10th to take advantage of a reasonable forecast for the 35 mile trek to the east. Despite most of it being on tarmac I thought the new mountain bike would be a good option to negotiate the sand covered stretches of Bournemouth seafront and the gravel tracks of Keyhaven, and it did indeed perform pretty well on both without being too sluggish on the roads.
Red-breasted Goose, Normandy Lagoon, 10th February
Red-breasted Goose, Normandy Lagoon, 10th February
Red-breasted Goose, Normandy Lagoon, 10th February
With tubeless tyres the risk of punctures was negligible, and the ability to raise and drop the saddle from a lever on the handlebars - a new feature to me which I thought at first would be a gimmick but which has turned out to be a game-changer - meant that I travelled in comfort as well as style. The omens were good with reports of the Goose being present on Normandy Lagoon coming through as I headed along the coast. Although this meant a couple of extra miles would be added to the journey to get to the eastern end of the complex of lagoons, the main thing was that the bird was there, and it gave excellent views as soon as I arrived. 
Red-breasted Goose, Normandy Lagoon, 10th February
Red-breasted Goose, Normandy Lagoon, 10th February
Red-breasted Goose, Normandy Lagoon, 10th February
Red-breasted Goose is one of my favourite species, and this individual performed wonderfully, showing aggression towards nearby Brents, and eventually giving a close fly-past before heading west. This was my cue to head home, but not before adding Eider, Spoonbill, Ruff and a smart drake Scaup to the non-motorised year list. It would be difficult for the rest of February to top that experience, but it came close on 24th when news of a Yellow-browed Warbler in Dorchester broke sufficiently early in the day for me to complete the 34 mile round trip, adding a bonus Redpoll to the year list at Thorncombe Wood on the way home. The Warbler was not a bike tick, as I saw this species on a long trip to Bridport in 2022, but still a good bird this early in the year.
Pintail, Pennington Marshes, 10th February
Scaup (drake), Pennington Marshes, 10th February
Wigeon, Pennington Marshes, 10th February
Yellow-browed Warbler, Dorchester, 24th February
Redpoll, Thorncombe Wood, 24th February
It was another two months before the next opportunity for a 'bike tick' arose and it felt high risk: on the evening of Friday 19th April a Marsh Sandpiper was located on exactly the same lagoon as the Red-breasted Goose - but would it be there in the morning? I gambled, setting off early the next morning, and, re-tracing my steps from February's trip, was again pleased when news of the bird's continuing presence was reported as I made my way along Bournemouth seafront. My photographs weren't brilliant looking into the low morning sun, but telescope views of this delicate wader - the first of this species I had seen in 20 years - were very good.
Marsh Sandpiper, Normandy Lagoon, 20th April
Marsh Sandpiper, Normandy Lagoon, 20th April
Marsh Sandpiper, Normandy Lagoon, 20th April
The next opportunity to add to the bike list came with the start of passage of Pomarine Skuas past Dorset's coastal headlands in late April and early May. I've done plenty of seawatching on bike trips to Portland Bill over the last few years but have not managed to connect with this species so made a plan to head for Portland on Saturday 4th May - peak Pom season in theory. It felt like a really early start would be advisable to get in position at the Bill, so I set off in the dark at around 0400, flushing a Tawny Owl from the roadside just outside of Wareham. It got light much earlier than I anticipated and I started to wonder if I should have left even earlier. 
Avocet, Pennington, 20th April
Eider pair off Normandy Lagoon, 20th April
Great Crested Grebe, Pennington, 20th April
Rolling along the cycle path at Ferrybridge I passed Debbie and Pete Saunders but didn't stop to ask if they'd seen anything. I immediately regretted this and remembered that they post sightings on the Bluesky app so quickly checked it out. At the top of my feed was a post from Joe Stockwell: 'Dark morph Pom Skua slowly east off the Chesil'. The post was timed just after 0600 - and it was just after 0600! I had Joe's number in my phone and called immediately - it turned out that I had already overshot his position on Chesil Beach with Paul Harris, as I was already near the skate park at the southern end of that stretch. Retracing my steps would surely mean missing the bird and urgency was added when Joe reported that a second Pom was now in view.
I know I've cycled a long way when I can see the Isle of Wight ferry - 35 miles from home
Greenshank at Baiter Park on the way to the Marsh Sandpiper

The Needles from Pennington Marshes, 20th April
Following Joe's advice I headed up onto the the crest of Chesil Beach at the earliest opportunity - easier said than done as the heavily laden bike sank into the shingle and my body, tired from the early start and the 22 miles already on the clock, was quickly exhausted. Once there, telescope, tripod and binoculars had to be retrieved from panniers, assembled and de-steamed before I could start scanning the distant horizon. No Poms were in view but after another call to Joe who described their location relative to a distant buoy, their position was soon triangulated and I was treated to the glorious sight of a pale and a dark morph Pom, both sporting ridiculously long, spoon-shaped tail feathers, floating slowly towards, and eventually beyond, Portland's west cliffs.
Lesser Whitethroat at Stanpit on the way home from the Marsh Sandpiper
Wheatear at Stanpit, 20th April
Wheatear at Stanpit, 20th April
After this triumphant start to the day, I pressed on the the Bill, sure that even more Poms would filter past. As I approached Culverwell I could hear an unfamiliar warbler song and tuning in eventually concluded it was probably a Subalpine Warbler. A poor signal led to a garbled phone call to Martin Cade but before I could try again a ringer pulled up and confirmed that I was right to suspect I could hear a Subalp - but wrong to think it was coming from a bird as it was in fact coming from one of his tapes! 
The Poms were too far out to photograph and this Arctic Skua wasn't much closer (Portland Bill, 4th May)
My second sighting of Common Dolphin off the Bill (4th May)
Another good bird distantly off the Bill - Puffin (4th May)
I was not best pleased, particularly as this was wasting valuable seawatching time, but when I finally got to the Bill there wasn't much to write home about: a couple of Arctic Skua and a lone Puffin were the highlights of the next few hours staring at the ocean. I started the long journey home but not before a quick look in the Observatory garden for a reported Spotted Flycatcher. The Flycatcher didn't show but the ringers redeemed themselves by pulling a stunning male Hawfinch out of a net. This was a huge bonus on top of the Poms especially as it will save me contemplating a long, cold trip to a New Forest roost site come the winter.
Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, Lodmoor, 4th May
Hawfinch, Portland Obs, 4th May
Hawfinch (male), Portland Bill, 4th May
Three new birds for the non-motorised list at the mid-point of the year then - let's see what the autumn brings.


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