Portland Bill & Beyond!
At 2.30a.m I left my house in Shrewsbury to head for Portland Bill (Dorset) for 2 days of birding. The previous few days had seen southerly winds bring in Woodchat shrike and Whiskered Tern into the Poole area. With Short-Toed lark and Long-Billed Dowitcher, also about, it looked a good bet for some year listing.
Although I have the week off I agreed, with my good lady wife, that Monday and Tuesday were the best days for me to go birding and so I thought I’d make the most of it and get to Portland for first light.
Driving on your own at night is never fun and after the first hour I started to feel myself flagging, not good, but then something happened to help me on my way. Radio 6 decided they would play a 2hr essential mix by Howie B (hip hop/ breaks producer) and so the volume went up and I rocked the party to old funk and hip hop classics. Niceness.
Once more I started to feel tiredness creep up on me so I sensibly pulled up at a services and had a 15-minute powernap. This did the trick but to doubly ensure my alertness I decided to open my first can of Red Thunder! Yes forget another well known red drink, this is Aldi’s version, laden with Caffeine and with six cans (£1.59) being about the same price, as one can of a more expensive brand, it was a no brainer.
On arriving on the outskirts of Weymouth the sun was just coming up and a lovely new dual carriageway appeared that brings you right into the town a lot quicker than in the past. On the link road to Portland I had a quick glance at Ferrybridge but realised quickly that I was too early for Little Terns and so headed onward and up onto Portland arriving jaded but enthused and first on the scene to begin a seawatch off the bill.
I was meeting up with another Shropshire birder who was already in the area. Sure enough Ian Grant arrived at 7a.m and we started a seawatch. Winds were from NW, which meant not an amazing chance of anything unusual but picked up Puffins, Gannets, Guillemots, Fulmar, Common Scoter, Kittiwakes, Shag and the usual gulls. Typically the previous day they’d had Black tern and Little Gulls off here.
The seawatching was so poor all the locals went back to the obs by 8 and so we joined them picking up Rock Pipit en route. My hope was to see the Short-Toed Lark in the ploughed field, by the obs, but alas this had done one! Aaaaaaaaargh!
There were plenty of migrants coming in but of limited variety and essentially every bird seemed to be Wheatear, Redstart or Swallow. There were lots of Skylarks and mipits about and the only birds of note were a Whitethroat and a stunning Stonechat, which I later learnt, was a continental bird of the Rubicola variety.
Stonechat of Rubicola Variety.
Next we headed for the Barleycrates lane area to look for Ring Ouzel and Gropper but got nothing other than Dunnocks ,Wrens and more Wheatears.
So we decided to head off to Radipole Lake RSPB to see what we could pick up here. En route we dropped into Ferrybridge as we had heard reports of 2 Little Tern but still none were to be seen. The only consolation was the locals pointed us to a local café and within minutes we were scoffing bacon and egg baps and drinking fresh coffee (and boy did I need it). At Radipole we went into the shop to see the list of birds they’d had and noted a recent sighting of bearded tits. Ian needed Cetti’s so it was a good spot for him and Sedge and Reed warblers were in. The now famous Hooded Merganser was still there and I hadn’t seen this so it was worth it for an insurance tick just in case it gets accepted? On the way round we had heard many Cetti’s and picked up a small party of Bearded tit, one Reed warbler in flight and one Sedge warbler singing in the usual difficult to see bush arrangement. Just as Ian was about to give up on seeing Cetti’s one decided to be unusually very vocal from the top of a bush right next to us. Indeed it was that close I had to step backwards to get it in focus.
A rare view of Cetti's Warbler.
Next we headed for Lodmoor RSPB and very quickly found the long stayer Long-billed Dowitcher which duly went to sleep just as I wanted to take a photo of it! Just up the road at Red Cliff we had seen a report for both Great Northern and Red Throated diver and so we spent a while scanning the bay here and picked them out pretty easily.
Distant Sleepy Head.
With no reports of the Whiskered Tern or the Woodchat Shrike still the only other birds of note reported locally had been 3 Firecrest the day before from Abbotsbury Sub-Tropical Gardens.
On arrival what we hadn’t realised was 1. The gardens were 20 acres big and 2. You had to pay to get in. We did a bit of detective work with the gardeners and then decided to pay our money and take our chances. The conditions were not favourable as there was a stiff breeze, which was ripping up the trees but after about 2 hours of searching we finally heard the high pitched loud calls we were after and picked up 2 birds high in the canopy. Job done.
So back to the obs via the local chippy and consumed them sat outside in the sun overlooking the Obs garden. Ian had to clear out to get back to Shropshire and I had to shower and rest for a bit as the early start was taking its toll. Eventually I stirred myself to go back out and walk the fields but all I picked up were more Wheatears and an obliging Kestrel.
Portland Obs Viewed from top fields.
So back into the obs and I sat and read the Bardsey Island bird report (and wondered why I have never been there) and drank 3 bottles of beer, Ironbridge brewery IPA, Ironbridge Brewery Golden Ale (which unfortunately tasted rancid and had to be dumped and it was meant to be bottle conditioned!) and Innis and Gunn Rum Cask, which tasted sublime. Conversation with the obs residents was “If you’re cold why are you wearing shorts lad!?”. Nothings changed here except the showers are revamped and the beds all have new mattresses! Debates were also had about the relationships between foxes and the obs cat Bess, the disappearance of the lark and what good birds would turn up tomorrow. All this for a bargain £15 a night. SLEPT LIKE A LOG. (They put me in the tower so my snoring could be used as a back up to the fog horn)
Day 2 had me up and out at 6. McVities farmhouse fruit cake for breakfast (not quite as good as bacon and egg) and a yomp around the fields. Nothing of note just loads of Wheatear, Skylarks and Linnets. I went back in the Obs and noted all the local old boys had decided to seawatch from the Obs as the winds were so poor. I did the same and picked up 7 Manx Shearwater but apparently the main Manxie flocks are late arriving this year. Nothing was being caught in the nets except a Blackcap and so discussions started about the road works in Weymouth, and what the hell are they doing with them they make no sense, and a local aerial fitter had had the cheek to tap into someone’s aerial but still charged their neighbour for the dish. The local youth, by the way, are referred to as “nippers” round these parts.
So another yomp ensued around the top fields and a local chap they call the “Director” told me he’d had Cuckoo and 3 Groppers at Barleycrates lane that morning. To be honest I was getting a bit despondent at this point and wondered what to do. There is a beautiful 2 seater bench on the top fields walk that you can sit on and take a rest and so I did just that, it looked so inviting (it’s built into the dry stoned wall) and I thought to myself what do I do now. I found myself actually close my eyes and have a ponder and opened them again to feel like the bright sunshine was just that little bit brighter and I decided that Portland wasn’t going to do it for me that day. I needed to accept that and get off the bill so that I could pick up a 3G phone signal and get the bird news. So at 11a.m I said my goodbyes to Martin Cade, after having a chat about cameras and lenses, and made my way off the bill and in the general direction of home. I dropped into Barleycrates lane again but no sign of Gropper or Cuckoo but did get a good photo of Wheatear at last.
So back on my journey and every so often I would stop the car and look at the bird news but nothing was about other than a Woodchat Shrike in Glamorgan on the Gower and no way was I gonna go for that. Eventually I got to Bridgewater services and stopped for a coffee and a sandwich. At this point I still wasn’t certain about what to do but quickly realised it was all about attitude and decided that maybe being mad was good and at this point I decided like the Woodchat Shrike was a good bet and anyway it was an adult and I’d only ever seen a juvenile in the UK before (Great Orme). So fully fuelled I got back in the motor and headed up the M5 onto the M49 and then onto the Severn crossing and the M4. It was at this point that panic struck as I had £4 cash and the toll is £5.70 and they don’t take cards. There was no way of turning back so I thought all I can do is go up to the kiosk and see how they handle me. On arrival I looked sheepish and said “I’ve messed up I’m afraid I haven’t enough cash” at which point the words “don’t worry love, we take cards these days ever since we had the Ryder cup” GAME ON!!
I sped onwards with joy in my heart and got up to Swansea and thought I need some gen. Matt Meehan wasn’t answering his phone so I called another birder I know from down here called Paul Roberts. He answered his phone and sounded out of breath “ don’t worry Rich I’m just climbing a mountain I’m not doing anything I shouldn’t” LOL. So a panting Mr Roberts gave me instructions on where to aim for at Llangenith. On arrival at the caravan park I parted with £3 and parked up. No other birders in sight. No sign of where the footpath was through the dunes. I needed more gen and so phoned Robbo and he told me what the pager said and then it all clicked where the path was. I started to walk/run and then almost fell in a watery ditch, as the path wasn’t well marked. At this point excitement and my bladder didn’t mix and I had to find a safe relief stop out of harms way (note to self. Large amounts of coffee and walking don’t mix). All I could think of was I hope it’s still here. Eventually I came to the first patch of buckthorn and on my left saw 3 birders at distance. I put up my bins and half way between them and me was the bird. I had done it. I crept round to join this birding family and they had been a bit worried when they saw I had a camera as they thought I would probably spook the bird. I reassured them I was a birder first and photographer second. We all watched this bird for about 30 minutes. It frequented the same bush and every so often dropped down and caught large black beetles and then hopped back up onto the bush to eat them.
All of us decided that the bird would allow us to go nearer and it did but we were still some distance away. The family started to move around to walk back home and I stayed put. Their movement cause the bird to go to another bush further away from me and out of sight. I used this timeframe to position myself in a dip in front of the main bush it used and I sat down and waited, out of the wind. Within 5 minutes the bird returned to the perch and my finger pressed firmly on rapid fire on my camera. I had got the shot I wanted.
I moved away slowly and went back to the car happy with my lot but no one to celebrate it with. Then a Ford Transit pulled up with a screech next to me. These were birders, actually these were birders I knew, it was Matt Meehan and Steve Hinton. I jumped out the car and celebrated! How random was that.
So I had a long but happy journey home, called in the chippy at Pen-Clawd and picked up Little Egrets as a year tick. Another can of Red Thunder was drank, a radio 4 comedy had me laughing out loud (Down the line) and eventually got home at 9.11pm to find an Indian meal waiting for me. Life is sweet. Maybe having that little ponder and changing my attitude changed my luck? Who knows eh?