15 May 2022

14 May 22 - FA Cup Day Birding

I had lost interest in football by the age of 11. I got into birding a couple of years later & still have no interest in football. However, the FA Cup Final day is the one day a year when I have a passing interest in the day, but not the game, as it falls about the time interesting spring migrants might appear on the South Coast. This results in an unusually quiet day for the time of the year, as many people stay home to watch the match.

Over the years I've seen some good Birds on FA Cup Final day including: a Ringtail Montagu's Harrier & two Savi's Warblers at Stodmarsh (1979), Broad-billed Sandpiper at Paulsgrove which was found by my good mate Keith Turner (1982), a self-found migrant Honey Buzzard North along Winspit (1996), a female Black-eared Wheatear sp. at Winspit (1998), and a near miss of a Bee-eater at Durlston (1999). There are probably a few other goodies that I've seen.

Moving onto 2022. With the winds dropping, I was overdue a visit to St Aldhelms. Walking down to Trev's Quarry, there wasn't a lot of signs of migration other than a few parties of Swallows hurrying North. A look in the Sycamores at Trev's quarry produced my first two Spotted Flycatchers of the year, along with two nearby Wheatears.

It remained uneventful until I reached Quarry Ledge. I opted for my Eastern seawatch location above 'Billy Winspit's Garden' which has now reverted back to an overgrown vegetated ledge in the sixty or so years since Billy had cultivating it. There was little on the sea: c250 loafing Herring Gulls, a few Black-headed Gulls & some arriving Swallows. Nothing was moving, barring what was probably a local movement of Black-headed Gulls. But conditions looked good for a Pom Skua to drift through, so I kept looking & enjoying the sun.
Panoramic view of the Garden and the St Aldhelms Underworld
At 10:50, I picked up a Raptor heading North over one of the distant buoys, about 2 miles offshore. I quickly got my scope onto it and could see it was either a Buzzard or Honey Buzzard. I watched it close, but it was still distant. Time to make a decision: keep watching it with the scope or grab the camera (as I had bothered to carry it with me this time). I opted for the camera & photographed it as it came in, albeit it probably passed over the Coastguard's lookout or further West still, which was at least a half mile from where I was sitting. Had I chosen my alternative seawatch position, it would have gone right over my head: c'est la vie. As it got close to the land, I switched back to the scope, but failed to get onto it before it was obscured by the headland. The photos aren't in focus, but looking at the original image, I'm lucky that there were good enough to confirm it was a Honey Buzzard. In hindsight, I could easily have found all the photos were rubbish & I had failed to identify the Raptor. It wouldn't have been realistic to try running back up the small track from the Garden viewpoint, to try to get back onto the Raptor. By the time, I would have been able to look towards the Coastguard's lookout, it wouldn't have been in view.
Honey Buzzard:  Showing the upperwing pattern
Honey Buzzard:  Showing the underwing pattern, small head and longer tail than a Buzzard
Honey Buzzard:  For those who think the above photos are crap, then this is the original of the first photo, but cropped to my standard 1.2 x 1 format
This is only my second Honey Buzzard for the St Aldhelms/Winspit patch and it is fitting it was seen on another FA Cup day.

In the evening, I had a walk up to Durlston to check if any Bee-eaters had arrived during the day. Durlston has a great track record for Bee-eaters and I've seen six on 31 May 1997, a single on 31 May 2012 and seven on 15 May 2019. Maybe there had been one earlier and like the 1999 FA Cup Durlston Bee-eater it had stayed twenty minutes before departing.

9 May 2022

8 May 22 - Palmate Newt

The other highlight of a walk around Greenlands Farm this morning was this Palmate Newt, which was noticeably smaller than the Smooth Newts I see in my garden pond. They like acidic heathland pools.
Palmate Newt: Male
Palmate Newt: Males have webbed toes on the rear legs in the breeding season
Palmate Newt: Male

8 May 2022

8 May 22 - Broad-bodied Chaser

The highlight of a walk around Greenlands Farm this morning was this showy Broad-bodied Chaser. I also saw a couple of Hairy Dragonflies and three Large Damselflies, but they didn't settle.
Broad-bodied Chaser: Immature males & females are this golden-brown colour

19 Mar 2022

11 Mar 22 - Finally A Short Trip Abroad

In Feb 18, I started the first part of a three month trip abroad, starting with a 3.5 week trip to Colombia with my late mate Brian Field on a Birdquest trip. When that ended, I headed down for two weeks of Birding in Chile on my own, before travelling to Ushuaia a few days ahead of the Atlantic Odyssey & West African Pelagic on the expedition ship Plancius which ultimately ended up back in Holland after seven weeks on the ship. I had a short minibreak abroad that Autumn on a Cetacean watching ferry trip to Santander & haven't managed to get abroad since then.

A new contract means I wasn't able to consider any foreign trips until Apr 20, when I was due to go on a private trip with some mates to Vietnam. Further trips were planned for Autumn 20 to Spring 21. Then C19 came along & blew all those trips out of the water. None are close to happening given the C19 situation & my cautious approach to C19.

But on a positive, my contract kept getting extended & this allowed me to save enough to be able to take early retirement at Christmas 21. The early retirement has given me to opportunity to go Birding every day so far in 2022 & it will allow me the opportunity on long distance twitches to not have to race home straight away. In Nov 21, a Northern Harrier turned up at Lough Boora in Ireland. There have only been ten accepted UK records up to the end of 2019 and no mainland twitchable records since the species was split from Hen Harrier. The majority of those records have been on offshore islands or single day sightings including the only Dorset record, which my mate Pete Moore jammed in on Portland. There have been a further eight Irish records. As the Northern Harrier settled down for the Winter at Lough Boora, I vaguely considered a trip, but the rising C19 rates didn't make it attractive. I reconsidered it at the start of 2022 when I had more time available given the early retirement, but I still was still concerned about travelling to Ireland due to C19. In late Feb 22, the mobile Egyptian Vulture was finally pinned down in Ireland and within an hour's drive from the Northern Harrier. Initially, I still wasn't tempted despite two British & Irish Ticks.

I have been across to Ireland on eight previous trips over the years since the 1988 Sapsucker twitch to Cape Clear. All the trips have been good fun & all, but one, have been successful. Having heard back from friends that the paperwork to travel to Ireland was straight-forward for C19, I looked into the logistics of an Irish trip. In the past it would have involved trying to coordinate a trip with some mates for a short break as foot passengers from South Wales & a hired car in Ireland. But having taken my car over for the Royal Tern, then taking the car looked to be a better alternative for a longer break. With my C19 concerns, I'm not comfortable about car sharing yet, so the costs of the trip couldn't be split across a group of friends. But this allowed me to consider a longer break & kipping in the car, rather than having to find B&Bs every night. Having spent a lot of nights kipping in cars on UK & foreign trips, I know that was a practical option to reduce the C19 risks and offsetting the costs of taking the car over. I also knew my Sat Nav worked in Ireland which was another benefit. I looked at various ferry options to travel across, but the cost of the car & my ticket was coming out around £320 - £400. This was before the costs of fuel were added. I put the plans for the trip to one side, as I had a few other commitments in early Mar 22.

My interest was kept warm, as other Birders posted results of their trips on twitter. With the Egyptian Vulture still being around on 10 Mar and no other commitments, I had another looked at travel options & found I could travel from Pembroke Dock on a three day mini break for £238. This was significantly cheaper than the previous quotes. I choose to give myself two full days in Ireland and then come back on the following daytime crossing, when I would be able to have a look for some Cetaceans on the way back. I had already checked there was no problem taking my car over following the problems caused by Brexit. My car insurance covers up to 90 days in Europe, but thanks to Brexit, it wasn't clear if my car insurance could be quickly sorted to travel. It sounds like it took some months post Brexit for the UK & EU to start agreeing new travel arrangements & rules for cars to travel abroad. Ireland has always been the easiest of countries to travel to with a car given they also drive on the correct side of the road. I was pleased to find that rules have settled down now for Ireland & all I needed to do was to confirm that dates & times I would be in Ireland to the insurance company. I booked to travel over on the ferry for that evening. Then I found my passport and panicked. One of the websites I looked at gave the list current documents needed to travel with & it mentioned a passport with six months validity left. My passport only had 25 weeks left. A quick phone call to the ferry company confirmed that a photo driving licence was enough to travel with. I took the passport with my anyway, but nobody asked to see it. Having planned the ferry tickets, I had time to pop out Birding locally for a few hours, as I didn't need to leave for Pembroke until mid-evening. I also had a kip that afternoon, as I knew I wouldn't get a lot of sleep on the ferry. In the end, I managed about 2.5 hours sleep on the ferry crossing. The ferry was relatively under-booked as it looks like they are keeping the number of vehicles low. But thanks to Brexit, a lot of the Irish freight traffic that used to travel into the UK from mainland Europe & then across to Ireland, now bypasses the UK on new direct routes from France to Ireland.

I was woken by an announcement about 06:00 to say we would be docking at Rosslare in about thirty minutes time. Once docked, we were all told to report to the car deck. Not long after I was back in Ireland & starting the 3.5 hour drive to the Egyptian Vulture site. In my rush to book the trip to get to the Egyptian Vulture one day ahead of the weekend Birders, I hadn't checked the weather. It was to be a wet day with the prospect of drying up in the afternoon on the West Coast. I arrived at the gate where Birders had seen the Egyptian Vulture to find nobody was there & it was still raining & windy. After pulling the coat on, I got out to scan the trees. No obvious sign of the Bird. I had assumed it would already have headed off looking for breakfast given it was now about 11:00. Then I looked in the field & found one sogging-looking Vulture, sitting there & not enjoying the weather. After a bit of manoeuvring of the car, I managed to park it, so I could watch the Vulture from the shelter of the car: one bonus of being the only person there.
Egyptian Vulture:  A very soggy Vulture photographed in fairly heavy rain
Over the next twenty minutes, I watched it as it sat in the rain & took some photos. I put the news out that it was still on view. Then I looked up in the gap between the gates which gave me a clear view of the Bird: it wasn't there. Jumping out of the car, I saw it was flying over the field. It did one loop of the field, before heading off South East & out of view. Time to consider my options for the afternoon.
Egyptian Vulture:  I picked it up in flight heading away from me
Egyptian Vulture:  Fortunately, it turned back over the field before heading off South East
The Egyptian Vulture treeline:  This photo was taken after it flew from just in front of the treeline
Given it was still raining heavily, I decided against heading for the Northern Harrier site as it would have been just as wet there. Additionally, there had been no news updates over the previous week, but I was hoping Birders would check the site out at the weekend. The added bonus of a longer trip. With the forecast to be brightening up on the West Coast during the afternoon, I decided to head for the Forster's Tern site near Kinvarra near Galway, for the late afternoon. It had stopped raining by the time I arrived, but there was still a strong wind blowing. I tried various viewpoints between Kinvarra & Tracht Beach. It's a great looking area, but unfortunately, I couldn't find the Forster's Tern which seems to feed over several miles of bays & rocky coastline. But it's a great area and in the three hours I was there I saw three Otters catching & eating crabs, several Great Northern Divers, several flocks of Pale-bellied Brent Geese, a male Long-tailed Duck with a long-tail, several Black Guillemots and a Sandwich Tern. One of my early long distance twitches was the original Falmouth Forster's Tern on its first twitchable day, but that was 1980 & it would have been nice to see another one on this side of the pond. Given I was on the West Coast, I decided to drive North that evening to look for the American Black Duck at Cross Lough on The Mullet. The Sat Nat was saying it was only 115 miles, but it took about three hours driving to get there. I found a quiet location close to the Lough to park the car for the night & some well-deserved sleep.
Looking back on the beach at Tracht

31 Dec 2021

31 Dec 21 - A Completed New Year's Resolution

I wonder what percentage of people who make New Year's Resolutions actually complete them. Well today I completed my 2021 New Year's Resolution. The plan was a Birders take on the Lands End to John O'Groats walk, which is around 870 miles depending on the route. That seemed something that needed improving both to make the route more applicable & interesting to a Birder & to make it more of a challenge. A bit of checking distances a year ago confirmed that it was possible to work out a route from St Agnes to Hermaness taking in three of the island groups well known to Birders, as it also included crossing the Orkney Islands. This also brought the distance up to 1001 miles (38.2 Marathons) which seems more of a challenge. That is 2.75 miles a day, so still not that challenging a distance to walk each day. In the end, I lost 68 days to work, weather etc when I couldn't get out, which meant I averaged 3.4 miles on walking days.

Given the logistic factors of still working & lockdown, then it clearly wasn't going to be possible to walk the actual route in 2021. However, it could still be walked as a virtual route with the rules allowing distances walked while birding. I wasn't counting distances walked on supermarket visits. In the end, only 27 miles were walked outside of the Historic Isle of Purbeck. I had hoped to complete the full distance within the IoP, but work & the weather towards the end of the year stopped that wish.
The 1001 Mile Challenge
As I was planning the route, I found a number of websites quoting the distance from Lands End to John O'Groats for cyclists or walkers, but I couldn't find any which provided a good route to follow. As a result, I ended up using Google Maps to plan a route which ended up with a lot of virtual walking on motorway hard shoulders. In the real world, this wouldn't be legal or desirable, but it made it a lot easier to work out the distances & the checkpoints along the way.

The other advantage of it being a virtual route was being able to catch virtual boats from beaches for the sea crossings. The exception was a virtual helicopter from North Ronaldsay to Sumburgh Head: as a virtual boat would have meant having to climb the cliff & that would have been a silly idea.

One of the bonuses of the walk is I'm a lot fitter than I was a year ago. Additionally, I've also lost a reasonable amount of weight & the BMI has been in the healthy range for the last 3 months. Still more work to do on the BMI for 2022, but it's going in the right direction.
I left the Scottish mainland at the end of October. At that point, my sister was so impressed with the way the virtual walk was going, that she suggested I needed to walk back South again next year. As a result, the 2022 New Year's Resolution is to walk back from Hermaness to St Agnes which will help will lowering the BMI as well.

The final thought having completed the virtual route was it might be fun to have a go at this for real in the future. That works out about 16 miles for two months, which doesn't seem impossible to complete during the summer months. Clearly, a lot more planning would be needed to work out a nicer route that avoided walking along the M4/M5/M6 & through the centre of some fairly horrible cities like Birmingham & Glasgow. It would also involve having to carry my lightweight bivi tent, a sleeping bag, thermarest, spare clothes etc to make it an unsupported walk. But it might be a fun challenge.

20 Nov 2021

20 Nov 21 - Reflections

Last weekend, a Little Auk was found in Weymouth Harbour, but I didn't hear about it till it was dark. It was relocated in the channel around the old town, but there was insufficient light to get there before it got dark. It was still around a few days later, & I tried for it one lunchtime. Unfortunately, it was AWOL for the limited time I had. While I connected on an early pre work visit on Friday morning, it was fishing actively and the best views I had was as it swam past me underwater. Keen to have another attempt, I had to wait till the Saturday lunchtime, thanks to a poorly timed flu jab. But this point, it was clear it was also spending time in the main marina: which perhaps explained its absence on the first attempt. I arrived to hear it appeared to be swimming back into the old town channel. Other Birders spotted in just down channel of Westham bridge & it finally stopped fishing & spent a few minutes on the water's surface. Unfortunately, it wasn't that close, but it was good to finally get some photos. Even better, were the reflections of a turquoise sign on the Southern quayside.
Little Auk

25 Apr 2021

25 Apr 21 - Nice, But Not Tickable

Whilst out today on one of the quieter back roads in the historic Isle of Purbeck, I came across three male Reeves's Pheasants. Their status in this part of Dorset is a bit of an oddity. Clearly released, but they are either still being released or seemly surviving OK. I was seeing them erratically & occasionally from 2008 to 2013 in this area, but it's an area I've largely neglected for several years. The other interesting comment I can make is, I've never seen any females. Have they been released as well, but are more likely to be mistaken as a Pheasant by the Pheasant-shooting brigade in this area & shot. Perhaps they are just more skulky. Either way it's a shame as they look cracking.
Reeves's Pheasant: Male. Turn the sound on