The book version of my 2005 big bike year is now available for sale, priced just £5, with ALL PROCEEDS going to the Sri Lanka tsunami relief administered by my employer, Winchester College.
For ordering details, see this page.
The book version of my 2005 big bike year is now available for sale, priced just £5, with ALL PROCEEDS going to the Sri Lanka tsunami relief administered by my employer, Winchester College.
Seriously, honestly, truly: I wrote the last posting on New Year’s Eve 2005. And what happened today? A phone call from Chunky at the Sewage Farm – ICELAND GULL! What?!?
Well, it had to be done - a nice bright New Year's Eve morning, no commitments, and the joys of my trusty old one hour ride around Cheesefoot Head to behold.
Acting on a nice little snippet of information gleaned from HOSlist, I set off in temperatures of about -4°C at 0830 – it never got above freezing all morning, making this certainly my coldest ride of the year.
With a belly full of Christmas dinner and a bit too much booze, I crawled into bed after Eastenders and set the alarm for some illegal time in the morning – Slavonian Grebe and Scaup were calling!
After taking a rather risky week off in the sun in the Canary Islands (all currently recognised and marginal endemic species seen, plus Blue-winged Teal, Houbara Bustard, Cream-coloured Courser, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Trumpeter Finch etc.), it was back to the grey and cold wastes of Hampshire, where what I hoped would be one last ride to Titchfield Haven was on the agenda. Bitterns are regular at this site, and perhaps two had been seen intermittently this winter.
Today I was due to go flying with a colleague, to gather some photos for the Geography Department, but sadly we had to cancel on account of low cloud.
With a full service of my bike completed, new brake pads/cables and a new chain fitted, I was ready for a pretty serious undertaking – a mega-early (0530) start and off into the sub-zero Hampshire countryside, heading for Portsmouth. The temperature on departure was -2.9°C, which gave a windchill ‘real feel’ of -10.5°C at 24 km/h! Brrrr! So it was on with the full thermal gear, plus two pairs of gloves, waterproof Merino socks, neoprene overshoes and a beanie hat under my helmet.
Another bitterly cold morning, but I overcame the little demon saying ‘stay in bed’, pulled on my alarmingly kinky, brand new neoprene overshoes, and pedalled off into the sub-zero dawn.
Today I was finally able to combine my personal year-list pursuit with the best bit of my job – taking some of my students out into the field to see birds. The Winchester College Natural History Society was founded in the 1860s, and ever since has had a small but keen following.
While I suspect I've seen the rarest Hayling bird of the last week, Andy Johnson continued his 'purple patch' today by finding a Hoopoe at Sandy Point. Absolutely no chance of me getting down there to see it, however!
A true anecdote (you’ll have to take my word for it): about a month ago, when contemplating the likely autumn cycle rides, I casually mentioned to Julia that it was amazing Hayling Island never seemed to get really rare birds. I reckon it’d be good for a Desert Wheatear in late October or November, I said.
Yesterday (Friday), a juvenile Sabine's Gull was found on the shoreline of Hayling Island, and showed well all day. This would be a Hampshire and (of course) a year-tick for me.
I set out for a winter afternoon's ride in search of two species I really should have seen before - and scored with both!
While I was half-expecting to visit Gosport once more this winter, probably in search of a returning Iceland Gull, little did I expect to be making the mad dash down there today to see a first for Hampshire - but that's exactly what happened!
Red hot news this morning of a confiding Hampshire tick near Titchfield - but I couldn't get into the field until mid afternoon - would it stay?
At long last, I today achieved what I thought would be pretty much impossible back in January - 200 species in Hampshire in a year, by bike and on foot.
A fantastic stroke of fortune this morning – a year tick not 300 yards from home!
Feeling very optimistic, I set off after lunch on Saturday in search of the Red-necked Phalarope found the day before at Lee-on-Solent. The bird was still present at 1100, and I had high hopes of completing the county Phalarope grand slam for the year. No such flippin' luck! No sign of the bird at all, at a spectacularly grotty pond by a new housing development - just 2 Little Grebes and a bunch of gulls by way of compensation. And to cap it all a (predicted) cold front arrived just as I gave up, and I got cold and wet all the way home. The only thing achieved today was the km/species count creeping up to 19!
After a poor September (nearly a month since my last new species), Pennington came up trumps again. After two days of sweating, I was finally able to head off early across the New Forest, and shortly after arriving, locked on to the juvenile BAIRD'S SANDPIPER which had been present since Thursday.
I'd been waiting for the last few commoner passage waders with increasing trepidation as September began, and at last information arrived of one of them at The Vyne, with the bird still present this morning. I headed noth-east for the long, straight and rather boring ride to Basingstoke, and beyond the town to the flooded watermeadows where the bird had been reported. It didn't take long to find - Wood Sandpiper on the list! Many thanks to Martin Pitt for the very accurate local knowledge. Also a few Green Sands, Snipe and a young Peregrine here, the latter panicking all the waders just as I was leaving.
Another snappy response to the pager called for today, but it was with a sense of foreboding that I went off in search of the Wryneck reported at Farlington - it's a tricky area to work for passerines (and near-passerines!), and I've dipped the species before there.... On arrival - no sightings for over three hours....oh dear. I worked the bushes with some success - a Grasshopper Warbler was a real bonus, plus several Garden Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats, and lots of Common Whitethroats. After about an hour of wandering around, I returned to the area where a few people were looking, and a distant wave and point suggested the bird had been relocated. After just a minute or two I had brief flight views, and then a cautious approach resulted in good views of the bird perched warily in brambles and elders - Wryneck safely on the list! Pretty elated, I pedalled home in bright, warm sunshine, feeling good. But I did ping two more spokes on the rear wheel somewhere en route....damn.
More hot pager news had me saddling up and heading south-west through squally showers to Pennington this morning - it really is a long ride (2 hours+), but I was rewarded immediately on arrival with good views of the juv/1st winter Grey Phalarope found by Russell Wynn this morning, on Butts Lagoon.
A hot pager bleep at Sunday lunchtime had me flinging on the hot weather kit, and heading off for the coast. A record run to Farlington (1.5 hours) and the juvenile WILSON'S PHALAROPE was still showing very well on the main lagoon to the assembled crowd.
A hot tip from Simon Ingram had me pedalling the half hour down to Lakeside Country Park in Eastleigh for my first Whinchat of the year - hardly a species I was worried about seeing eventually, but nice to get it under the belt and to keep the species total ticking over. Now only Yellow Wagtail remains on my list of 'shoo-in' or 'gimme' species!
Having missed the species at the same site back in January, it was good to get a second bite at the cherry at Ibsley Water today - the GREAT WHITE EGRET was not too hard to find, wading about in a good looking muddy area with a few Little Egrets. A not completely unexpected (but pleasantly surprising) bonus bird was a juvenile Black Tern over the same pit. Also around the gravel pits were three Green Sandpipers, an LRP, a few Common Terns and very large numbers of Sand Martins, Grey Herons and Mute Swans. 100km under the belt today, making it a total of 3140km so far!
A very long ride to north-east Hants today (and even over the county boundary into Berkshire at one point). First to be unblocked (after the totally plastic, ringed bird at Titchfield Haven) was Egyptian Goose - 19 of them looking completely unconvincing but as wild as Gyppos ever look on a small pond near Eversley Church. There were two more looking slightly less dubious at Eversley gravel pit, but no sign of the much harder Snow Goose there. I checked various nearby waters, and scanned various farming vistas, without luck, and was thinking about giving up, when two white blobs in flight near Hartley Wintney resolved themselves into Snow Geese! They carried on and then appeared to drop, out of sight, into some stubbly fields in the distance. I'm pretty unhappy about adding both these to the list, really, but they appear in the main section of the Hampshire Bird report, and that's the rules - so there! Also a Hobby and a Kingfisher at Eversley today. The ride home was long and tiring, and into a headwind - not much fun! Today's ride took me over both 3000km and 16km/species....
In what is turning out to be a pretty good raptor year, I added Osprey to the list today, at Lower Test Marshes. After a false start, where I broke a spoke and warped the rear wheel within 5 miles of home (bizarrely, Chris did exactly the same thing today in Norfolk!), I went home, changed bikes, and was at LTM by 1000. Chunky and Simon were waiting glumly, not having seen anything, so it wasn't looking good - but at about 1020, all the gulls went up, and the bird cruised in from the south, circled, and perched in one of the dead trees. This may well be the bird which has been in the general area since about May - it's a very rare bird in Hampshire in summer.
A long ride today, to Farlington in the hope of seeing the reported White-rumped Sandpiper. The tide was unfavourable, alas, and there was no sign of the bird - small recompense was had by way of a Whimbrel, Greenshank, a few Sedge and Reed Warblers and numerous Little Egrets. Titchfield Haven 'on the way' home (actually quite a big detour) was also disappointing - no sign of the Black Tern, which would've been new for the list, nor any Roseate Terns - just a single juvenile Med Gull as a consolation prize.
With the birding year having turned, but no new species since May, it was time to nail one of my three remaining shoo-ins, and an evening ride down to Eling Marsh at high tide duly turned up 5 or 6 Yellow-legged Gulls loafing about. Hardly the most exciting way to start the autumn run, but they all count!
I headed out again late afternoon to try for the singing Quail, which Julia and I had actually managed to hear earlier on a car-based jaunt - success! A territorial male Quail whetting away in the flowery fields.
What turned into another night ride, acting on information received of a singing Quail not far from Winchester - but unsuccessful. Four Little Owls and several Tawny Owls were nice, but nothing 'wetting-its-lips' at all....
Acting on hot gen from the Test valley, I left home after work commitments at about 2215, towards the end of extra time in the Champions' League final. The familiar 45-minute run was marked by a Liverpool triumph and warm, still night air, and by 2300 I was on site in the valley. Past the squeaky juvenile Tawny Owls, my quarry was singing loud and clear - a territorial Grasshopper Warbler. Result!
Three new ones in three days - motoring nicely just now. The now familiar ride to the New Forest was well-rewarded, with (after about an hour of waiting) an absolutely stunning sighting of a male Honey Buzzard lifting out of the very closest trees, circling and gaining height rapidly. It was within not more than 40 feet at first, close enough to see every feather and the striking yellow eye. Awesome. Also at this site were a big fat female Goshawk, many Common Buzzards, singing Woodlark, Redstart and Cuckoo, and a Raven. Elsewhere on the ride there and back, I had a Firecrest in song - didn't even have to get off the bike!
This was the toughest yet, despite it not being very cold, and it not being the longest ride. Acting on a pager update, I left home at about noon in torrential rain, getting freezing cold and utterly bedraggled as I cycled mostly uphill to the north-east of Winchester. More positive news steeled my backbone, and the uphill continued, albeit with a following wind. Exhausted and very chilled, I reached Odiham and Tundry Pond at about 1400, and ran (yes, ran) down the towpath - I was not going to dip for the sake of a lazy five minutes on foot! Immediately on arrival - contact! The very fine adult WHISKERED TERN was still present with three or four Common Terns. A Hampshire tick, my first BB rare on the year-list, and a right mega. I felt so smug alongside Simon Ingram and several other car-based Hants listers!
Acting on some nice specific gen from HOSlist, a short evening ride to Chilland near Easton in the Itchen valley produced a Spotted Flycatcher on a rooftop aerial. (We followed this with a slap-up meal at The Bush in Ovington!) The regular birds in central Winchester have not returned - yet?
Chris had been scoring very heavily this weekend up in Norfolk (Garganey, Montagu's Harrier, Woodchat Shrike and Stilt Sandpiper, no less!), so there was nothing for it but a bit of blind optimism, and the hope that the two Roseate Terns at Hill Head would extend their spring stopover to three days. So 1.5 hours of pedalling on a chilly morning saw me in place on the seafront by 0900, at low tide. Plenty of Common and Sandwich Terns about, and a single Little Tern flew past, plus about 40 Eider offshore, but an early scan of the distant shingle banks produced just a 'possible' Rosie which quickly got lost in a tern dread. Pinning my hopes on the rising tide, Julia (who had joined me by car) and I worked the reserve - plenty to see, including 2 Peregrines, several Buzzards and Sparrowhawks, four Avocets, a few migrant Dunlin, the plastic Egyptian Goose and a completely wild and genuine Red-crested Pochard (the same one I saw at Curbridge, AND AM HAVING - it was still hanging out with two Shelducks). Many Whitethroats, Cetti's, Sedgies and Reed Warblers too, plus a quick Hairy Dragonfly fly-by.
The first garden bird addition to the list since January 29th - a Hobby screamed around causing panic among the Swifts and Swallows this evening, effectively saving me several hours of pedalling about and scouring the skies in the New Forest! Only about our 3rd or 4th garden Hobby ever, and a really welcome boost in a hopelessly busy period at work. And the weather forecast for the weekend looks poor - so I may be getting a bit stuck....
After a couple of local dips for the species, I headed out east to Noar Hill, near Selborne, for a 64km round trip, with just one target species in mind. I arrived late afternoon just as some heavy showers did, and proceeded to dip horribly for about an hour - but finally, when the sun came out and the wind dropped, a single Turtle Dove started purring contentedly in the scrub on the east side of the reserve. Success! The ride home was pretty miserable, into a stiff headwind and a low, bright sun. Not much fun....
34km with no target species - no Turtle Doves to be found at the formerly regular site of Micheldever, alas. Dingy Skipper, Common Spotted Orchid and Twayblade provided the only compensation in sunny, but windy conditions.
A night ride, departing home at 2200 to ride 'a certain distance' in 'a certain direction' to 'a certain site', meeting up with 'certain people' at the far end. After a bit of getting lost in the dark, I found the right spot, and in between bursts of Nightingale song - there it was! A Spotted Crake proclaiming territory loud and clear in the marsh! Fantastic stuff.
145km today, starting at 0530 - I remain "Iron Man"! Off into the dawn and south through the New Forest (beautiful), arriving at Keyhaven at about 0800 - in thick fog! Oh dear....not good for seawatching.
After a very damp hour and a bit around Morestead Down in the early morning, I was beginning to think my target species had gone extinct. But a short afternoon ride in hot sunshine to Magdalen Hill Down provided that 'Ivory-billed Woodpecker' moment - a single singing male Lesser Whitethroat, rattling away unseen in the blackthorn scrub - also lots of Green Hairstreaks and some Orange Tips here today.
In the last week I have done 116km and seen precisely NO NEW BIRDS! The lastest failure was a cross-country hike in windy and cool conditions round Morestead Down on the MTB - no lesser Whitethroats or Turtle Doves, and nowt exciting at the sewage farm. At least there are hirundines and Swifts in in numbers now, but still virtually no Whitethroats, and few Sedgies either. Worrying.
With a stiff SE breeze and rain in the offing, things were looking good for a seawatch, and the three possible target species (Arctic Tern, Arctic Skua, Little Gull) had all been seen in the past 36 hours - so Stokes Bay it was! I set off at about 1600, riding into the headwind all the way to Gosport in about an hour and a half. On arrival, things looked quite bright, with several Barwits, Curlews and Sandwich Terns migrating past, and a few hirundines in off the sea - but then I sat and had nearly two hours of virtually nothing! Not even a Common Tern....
For the sake of comparability, I have succumbed to Chris's dubious taxonomic wisdom, and am treating Black Brant as a full species - at least we have both seen one!
Flippin' chilly this morning, in thick fog at times, and with a surprisingly chilly east wind. The 0500 wake up plan worked, and I was at Casbrook Common in the Test Valley by 0615, and hearing 2 singing Nightingales immediately on arrival - target species nailed instantly! One of them got very showy and sang right out in the open for several minutes. Also it was a relief (but hardly a surprise) to hear a Cuckoo singing distantly in the mist as the blood red sun got up.
An 0530 start, and up to Winnall Moors to try for a Gropper, completely on spec! No joy, although there were several new Sedgies in, and the usual three or four Cetti's in song. Then up to Morestead down to try my hand at Lesser Whitethroat - again, no luck, but there was a Common Whitethroat in song. No Cuckoos anywhere to be heard either, although I did finally catch up with the singing Cetti's Warbler by the Itchen south of the College on the way back - the first on territory there for some years.
Up at 0545, and swiftly out into the field – as we got my bike out of the garage, a guttural ‘growk’ overhead had us both looking up and calling “Med Gull!” – a garden and Sway tick for Steve – a good start! On the way down to Hurst, in frosty and very calm conditions, I heard a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker drumming – they’re clearly a bit commoner than you imagine sitting in a car!
I was pretty much ready to go for the ‘big weekend’, when breaking news of the reappearance of the “Longparish Chiffchaff” made me change my plans. I had missed this bird the previous week as I was up in London, but it had now been relocated, and informed opinion seemed to be inclining towards Iberian Chiffchaff – I couldn’t not go for it! So it was off on a 40km warm-up ride to the north of Winchester. I heard the bird immediately on arrival – and it didn’t sound quite right. It was pretty convincing for a while, but then slipped into pure ‘chiff-chaff’ song – at best a dreaded ‘mixed singer’, or maybe a hybrid? Certainly an interesting bird, but my legs could have done without the mileage! Never mind….
A specific and very local bike-pootle with Julia to Winnall Moors NR this morning produced a far from unexpected singing Sedge Warbler, but still no Cuckoo, House Martin etc.! Also a Cetti's Warbler in song - nice to hear this only 1.6km from home!
A day of two halves! A 33km 'mystery tour' in search of another rare breeder turned up distant but tickable views of a Red Kite 'somewhere in central Hampshire' - good average speed over hilly terrain, despite heavy legs! On my return home, and with a hot bath beckoning, I got a phone call from Simon Ingram down at Lakeside Country Park in Eastleigh - the Gropper he'd found this morning, and which I'd dipped on a brief car-based drop-in at lunch time, had been singing again at 1300! So I put my cycling kit back on, and made the 15km journey down the valley. He called again to say it was reeling at 1845 - I arrived at 1910, feeling pretty confident....and dipped horribly! I left after 2000, getting cold and with the darkness closing in - blast! Perhaps a dawn ride tomorrow? I'll wait for news before testing my legs still further!
In beautiful spring sunshine, I took a 77km 'mystery tour' of the downs north and west of Winchester, with one big target species, and the hope of a few early migrants in the warm valleys. None of the latter at all (apart from a few Swallows and lots of Willow Warblers), but a big Hampshire speciality nailed in the shape of a pair of Stone Curlews at a traditional (but necessarily secret) site, where I also had two Grey Partridges.
A speculative ride along the Itchen Valley today (30km) on a beautiful (if slightly windy and cold) morning produced precisely no new birds - none of the hoped for House Martin, Cuckoo or Sedge Warbler being in evidence.
No new species in today's 43km exploration of the downs, but another Swallow, lots of Yellowhammers (still in flocks), breeding Lapwing and good low-tempo muscle conditioning!
The forecast was grim, and at 0530 I had to make a choice – go for it, or roll over and postpone until another day. I made the right choice, and left the house by 0600.
A late afternoon trip to the sewage farm produced the much-anticipated Sand Martin (albeit grotty views of a very distant single bird!), as well as a pair of Yellowhammers down by the feeders, and a nice flock of 43 Golden Plovers over to the east, many of them in smart summer plumage.
On the road by 0630, and a rendezvous with Julian McCarthy, my non-birding cycling companion for the morning – I met him on the internet (ooer) when shopping for my Lemond bike back in February. Avoiding the matching ‘Harold & Hilda’ outfits to go with our matching bikes, we headed north-east out of town, and quickly onto quiet but very foggy roads around Micheldever and towards Basingstoke. This is an area of the county I hardly know at all, and it was good to see somewhere fresh so close to home.
A drizzly, damp dawn did not deter me from making the now familiar 50 minute trip to Curbridge, this time without any flat tyres, and with a more favourable tide. I walked along the muddy riverside path for over a mile, initially dipping completely, but having almost given up, I turned back, and there was the drake Red-crested Pochard sat on the mud with two Shelducks. I must have walked past it on the way down! Tickable, or plastic as hell? It stood up, revealing ring-free legs, looked nervous (with the old ‘bouffant hairstyle’), and promptly flew strongly off, with immaculate primaries. Good enough for me - for now at least, the bird gets the benefit of the doubt! Thanks to John Faithfull for the detailed gen on this one.
I was going to take a day off today, and Julia and I enjoyed a car-based early morning at Hengistbury and in the Avon Valley (Sand Martin, Wheatear, Sandwich Tern, Cetti’s and Dartford Warblers, LRP, Goosander and Goldeneye). But an email from John Faithfull got me going to Curbridge again – the Red-crested Pochard had been seen again! But once more, disaster struck, with another puncture, this time just south of Fair Oak. Cursing, I reached again for my spare inner tube – double disaster! I’d managed to bring the wrong size – the one I had was for my hybrid, not the road bike......grrrrrr. I had no option but to call for ‘back up’ – thanks for the lift home, Julia!