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Wednesday, 4 November 2015

A little near death scenario to keep me thinking.

It is now Wednesday the 4th of November. I am in a hotel room just south of Aberdeen being a little nesh as it is raining outside.

Last Saturday I experienced the worst moment I have ever had whilst cycling. The police are involved but the chances of a prosecution are extremely slim. I can't put any of this onto facebook as my dear Mum is watching my every step/pedal.

So here's my book text for the day.

Saturday 31st October Fresh SE AM to light S PM Very dark, low cloud and rain AM, very sunny & warm (14C) PM Stunning sunset.

The ferry is rocking due to the swell and waves as I awake on the floor of the cinema, my usual sleeping location on the Aberdeen to Northern Isles ferry.

We dock at 7 and by 7:15 I am cycling through the empty Aberdeen streets in the heavy rain. My progress is good and before 9 I reach Newborough and spend some time birding the Ythan estuary. A wader flock, mostly dunlin, reels around like a starling murmuration before landing on the nearby shore. It is incredibly dark for the time of day. The cloud seems to be just a few feet above my head. At least the rain has slowed to a light drizzle. By the bridge there is a group of forty or so whooper swans. I am too lazy to count them. In fact I am not lazy, I am just engrossed with being on the mainland again with trees and corvids, titmice and flocks of birds in the hundreds. A small plantation on the other side of the road, beyond the ***** National Nature reserve, has blue and great tits as well as a number of goldcrests. It has been almost ten weeks since I last saw titmice. The colours seem extra vivid.

Magpies, two of them; I haven't seen them for a long time either.

About five miles north of the Ythan is Meikle Loch, my next RSPB reserve to visit. I find it easily enough, a small loch about half a mile from the main road. There are hundreds of pink-footed geese here and a few barnacle geese with them,

Back onto the main road a small bird crosses it low in front of me and dives into the long grass. On investigation a black redstart comes out and flies along the road before perching on a fence post near to a hedge. Before I can photograph it it dives into the hedge. Patiently waiting it eventually does come out and despite the gloom I get some photographs. Two black redstarts found in two days and both rare birds in their respective locations.

Today is the fortieth anniversary of an immensely sad day for my family. Forty years ago my four year old brother Christopher John was killed; run over as he ran to see his Mum and dad from a child-minders.

Today I very nearly join him. I cycle along the **** road and a bus approaches me from over a small rise. To my horrow a speeding black car comes from behind it to overtake. The driver sees me and takes no action to try to avoid me. There is no room for me and the grass verge is only a yard wide before a barbed wire fence. There is also a rise of almost a foot before one can get on the grass. I scream “no!” and crash over the handlebars and onto the grass. The car just misses me and the bike ends up on top of me.

I look along the road and see that the black car hasn't overtaken the bus. Neither has the driver decided to stop to see if I am alright. The next passing motorist does though. He comes over and together we check both me and the bike. My inner thigh is cut and bruised and the front pannier is completely useless with the connections broken off. The back mudguard is also broken. At least I am alive. Idiot!

I cycle again with the broken pannier hanging from the handlebars. This is by far the worst experience I have ever had on the road when cycling and I shake as I pedal.

No way can I put this onto facebook or onto the Bikingbirderridesagain blog; my eighty-three year old mother watches those and I don't want to worry her. Neither do I phone the police. I have no car number and am relatively unscathed, despite my bloody thigh. I do wonder whether the bus company has a CCTV camera which would have recorded the incident or whether the driver took the number. Whatever.

I carry on and find brake problems which I fix.

By-passing Peterhead, I reach Loch of Strathbeg reserve and after looking at the white-rumped sandpiper present there with a local birder named Derek (thanks for the use of your telescope, Derek), I am given coffee by the reserve's warden, Lorna. I am still very shaky and feel a bit dizzy as we sit and chat.

Lorna has recently come to this wonderful RSPB reserve from Orkney, where she worked for eight years. She has a work party to go and supervise but she leaves me in the volunteer's house kitchen to help myself to another cup. I wash up, dry and put away. It settles me down.

Outside I meet Mrs Meeks, the wife of Eric Meeks who used to be the RSPB man in charge of all of the Orkney reserves. She is about to take a school party out but before she goes we look in the reserve freezer in a long barn and find, not the expected corncrake that I remember from my 2010 visit but a pristine and very freshly dead little auk. She takes it show the children.

I go birding. To the Tower Pool hide, by now the cloud has all rolled away and the afternoon promises to be a very warm and sunny affair. The view from the hide is extremely beautiful and the sun gives everything a golden appearance. There are large flocks of pink-footed geese with a few dozen barnacle geese. Out on the loch itself there are rafts of wigeon, thousands of them and a few hundred whooper swans with more arriving. Four raptors pass; female peregrine, sparrowhawk and merlin and a male kestrel.

As dusk falls and after the best sunset I have seen all year, water rails start squealing and snipe tazz about. A roost of one hundred and twenty five pied wagtails comes on and starlings murmurate. All of this is shared with another local birder, Hugh Addersee. He is obviously very knowledgeable and a very good birder and he shares his views on the RSPB at Loch of Strathbeg.

A couple of hours later all is dark and, with a totally clear sky, the Milky Way is a pathway of stars.

41.5 miles 1405 feet elevation

Monday, 26 October 2015

Goodbye Fair Isle.

It is time to leave Fair Isle. Overall I have been on this magnificent island for five weeks, with a break to go to all of the RSPB nature reserves on Shetland in the middle.

Highlight birds :-

arctic warbler
2 citrine wagtails
pallid harrier
109 yellow-browed warblers
4 common rosefinches
3 Richard's pipits
red-flanked bluetail
lanceolated warbler (my only lifer)
radde's warbler
ortolan bunting
pallas' grasshopper warbler
Siberian rubythroat
Blyth's reed warbler
2 red-breasted flycatchers
Lapland bunting
3 long-eared owls
over 20 short-eared owls
many jack snipe
masses of redwings

Greeted by very curious fulmars and bombarding bonxies (great skuas). There were 300 of them when I arrived in September; now down to ten.

Then it is also goodbye to the Bird Observatory staff, the birders and the Fair isle residents. It has been wonderful to see Neil Thompson again, especially when he has been playing one of his guitars.

Many, many thanks to David, Cairan, Chris and especially Lee Gregory. These four have found all of the major birds over the autumn period and their skill is phenomenal.

It has been lovely to stay at the Bird Observatory. Such a luxurious bedroom. Such a huge quantity of great food!

Goodbye to Setter and Pund.

The Good Shepherd will hopefully (60% chance of going tomorrow - wind and swell depending) be taking me, the 'Lads' and the bike to Grutness. Then it's a cycle to Lerwick to get the ferry to Kirkwall. Repairs to the bike there means that I will have a couple of days to go and see the chestnut bunting before heading for Aberdeen and the journey south along the East coast.

Year list is 277, 26 more than the previous 'Green' record. Mind you I still maintain that Chris Mills has the purest 'Green' record as he didn't take ferries as I have had to do. Maybe next year I can achieve my dream of 300 as it is looking unlikely that I will do this year. Mind you I still feel it is going to be close. Yes, I am planning to be cycling and birding again next year! Different route, different times and more birding time.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

It's Just a Perfect Day . . Cairngorms. 9th August

Sunday 9th August fresh SW in the valley, very strong and cold gale on the mountain tops cloud just touching tops. A few showers and a little sunshine. Scottish mixture...Four seasons.

Awoken by screams of “what's leaking?” in the early hours, Simon the occupant of the bed next to mine in the youth hostel dormitory, discovers that the person in the bunk above him has just relieved himself down onto his pillow! It shines out like a shaft of gold when all is dark.

Simon, in disgust, an after using invective to tell the midnight pisser what he thinks of him, goes and sleeps in his car. I fall back into my exhausted stupor glad it wasn't me below.

Breakfast is superb and Simon comes into the dining area a little the worse for wear but drier.

Outside clouds are scudding the tops of the Cairngorms where I will attempt to find ptarmigan today.

Setting off, I cycle around a mile and then push. Real lycra-clad cyclists pass on their painful lactic acid climbs but I want to see more birds and enjoy the siskins and titmice along the way up. A large growth on a pine tree is intriguing, caused by a ****

The last section is above the treeline and the views over the glen are superb. Loch Morlich looks so small from here and Aviemore seems to be no more than a model village.

I arrive at the ski centre and go into the rangers office to ask for some advice over finding the main target bird, ptarmigan. Snow buntings I know I will see later in the year, probably December when I plan to go to the North Norfolk coastline.

Rauri, a younger than me (who isn't?) ranger, is fantastically helpful and very enthusiastic over telling me about not only ptarmigan but also ring ouzels, snow buntings and wheatears.

Leaving the office, and after hiding the bike, I start the long walk up the Cairngorm Hills. The intention is to search the areas suggested and also reach the summit.

I take what's called the Windy Trail and it is indeed that with a gale much stronger than yesterday.

On the car park before setting off for the summit, I had talked with two young German girls from Berlin and here they were coming down the trail towards me. “It's too brutal,” one of them told me. “We're going to take the train.”

On his way down further up is a silver-bearded gentleman with expensive binoculars around his neck and a large black dog on a lead. He turns out to be the bird recorder for the Cairngorms, Peter Gordon. He has just been to the summit and has seen and heard ptarmigan up there. He also tells me he had an usual group of five ringed plover up there. I love meeting birders!

An hour or so later I reach the Ptarmigan cafe and sit outside for a short rest. A Polish family arrive and tell me that one can enter the cafe if one signs the book. Well I know that people who arrive by using the funiculaire can't access the hills but have to remain inside the cafe but I didn't know that I could go in having walked up.

I sign the book, enter tha cafe and join the queue. The Polish family come over and invite me to sit with them. At the table I enjoy the superb hot chocolate but can't eat the appalling oven chips and onion gravy. A campaign should be started for real chips! Anyway the conversation with Cudak and Michal, Jan and Piotr and another gentleman who's name in my note book I can't read is mostly led by the eleven year old son. He tells us all the Polish people have no sense of humour and proceeds, with his brother to relate various Simpsons episodes with glee. He is very straight yet very animated.

We talk about favourite films and Poland. They are mostly from the wonderful city of Krackow; all except Michal who lives in Calgary, Canada.

An hour goes past quickly and I should be outside searching for the birds. Piotr braings me a very large coffee just as I am preparing to leave. Half an hour passes.

I am outside. I walk maybe two hundred yards up the hill. I small rck looks a bit bird-like. It turns around, just the head peaking out about real rocks. Ptarmigan!

Five ptarmigan are just over the ridge and slowly walk away from me, understandably, as I try to get views. Thrilled to get them at last having failed in 2010 I celebrate in a football goal style which brings a man to ask why the cheering.

After enjoying bird number 249, I carry on up the hill but not for long, a female snow bunting is almost under my feet! Bird number 250 goes onto the list and I sit down to watch this confiding bird. It rushes around searching for food and suddenly takes a short flight towards a small bit of tussocky grass. Behind it there is a juvenile which she quickly feeds with a shrill brief twip.

The next half hour I spend watching the antics of the pair and notice that a meadow pipit seems to be following the female snow bunting around.

With both birds photographed I proceed to the summit, take a selfie and explore around the boulder strewn landscape.

On taking a way down half way between each of the two official paths I turn around to look behind me, for what reason I don't know but maybe I am lucky to have a sixth sense. There are fifteen ptarmigan staring at me. More appear from between the boulders and once again they slowly move away; no rush just a slow ponderous walk away from the stranger.

I am over the Moon! Three target birds had over the last couple of days and the thought of having to return to the area in October can be dismissed.

A juvenile wheatear is very obliging as I sit down to watch it.

Time to go back to the ski centre and retrieve my bike. The weather although accompanied by a viciously bitingly cold wind has been mostly dry but rain starts to fall heavily. Still it doesn't last long and I soon dry in the wind.

At the bottom of where in the winter The White Lady ski run ends I find a family of three ring ouzels; two juveniles and what I presume is a female. She doesn't seem to be bright enough and black enough to be a male. The white crescent on the upper breast is pronounced but not pure white. Anyway I photograph all three, notice that they are all wearing small silver BTO rings and have yet another species photographed for the year.

There's a gentleman resting upon two walking poles. His name is Peter, there's been quite a few Peters recently, and a conversation with him is informative. Peter used to work for Shell in Venezuela and we share views on the oil issue, fracking and finally life with arthritis which is why Peter is standing there. He is incredible in that despite being almost crippled by the pernicious condition, he still walks the hills, albeit slowly.

It takes me ten minutes to hurtle downhill once I have the bike again. It is the fastest I have gone all year and an absolute thrill.

Back at the hostel I am floating with the exhilaration of both the ride down and the birds seen. I talk to everyone. Germans, Spanish and a superb French family from a village just south of Paris, the Feraud family. They are originally from Brittany and the men wear blue, black and white kilts with long knee-length white socks. Wide black leather belts and black shirts complete their smart outfits.

Two Scottish visitors are in the kitchen later, Callum a ten year old boy and his Mum. “Callum is a Gaelic bird,” he tells me. “It means dove.”

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The Outer Hebrides. Stuck there due to ferry break down.

I'm stuck on North Uist. The ferry from Lochmaddy to Uig has broken down and they are not sure when it will be fixed. So, an afternoon in a museum and café (hence the Wifi) and a night in a manger. Going to be comfortable. It's either that or the tent as all accommodation is taken by the stranded passengers. If the ferry isn't fixed by the morning then it will mean a cycle to Tarbet on harris to get across to Skye. This is all to cycle from uig to the mainland to see a ...very small island that is an RSPB reserve. then it's about face and cycle back to Uig to get to Harris.
Anyway, the last few days have seen me go from Oban to the Outer hebs via Lochboisdale.
The ferry two days ago had lots of great skuas over the sea but I missed the dolphins next to the boat as I was playing cards with a fabulous family from Doncaster.
I did manage to see a minke whale though! My first one.

Yesterday a short-eared owl flew past me as I cycled just before Benbecula and so became bird number 246 on the list. Just before seeing that thrilling bird a female merlin had flown close by.

 I camped at Balranald after birding with a lovely Dutch couple, Els and Rik, in the early evening.
Just before rain curtailed my seawatch a female hen harrier came close loking for oystercatcher chicks.

 The rain lasted fifteen hours and only stopped briefly as I got quite wet as I cycled to Lochmaddy. It stopped long enough for a peregrine to pass by and another female hen harrier was seen almost in the village itself.
After visiting a superb small museum dedicated to the World war One exploits of the islanders, I met a Lincolnshire nature reserve warden and a pale phase arctic skua flew overhead.
OK, hot chocolate to warm me up before my cattle shed night.

Monday, 29 June 2015

The Lake District - Half way and only 6 months to go.

Well today is the half way point. Over 5,000 miles cycled, 237 birds on the year list, 158 RSPB and 8 WWT reserves visited.
The next six months will see me cycling up the west coast of Scotland, going into central Scotland twice to visit Loch Lomond and Abernethy Forest/ Cairngorms, before heading to the north coast via Loch Shiel. Durness to John O'Groats and then onto Orkney in August. September and October on Shetland and Fair Isle and then the long cycle down to Norfolk before finishing in my native West Midlands.
It's been a fabulous six months and many thanks to all of the wonderful people I have met.
We live in such a beautiful, diverse country and to explore it so completely is a pleasure and a privilege.
So a few more miles to go, 63 birds to get, more people to meet and more places to see. Who knows, I may even find Ellie!
Thanks everyone. Xx

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Sunday morning breakfast reflections. June 14th 2015

Sunday 14th of June              Nr York.

Sitting at breakfast with steady drizzle falling, listening to Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love and wishing I could leap around but knowing that the other breakfast diners might be a little disturbed. A full English of superb quality goes down washed with 3 cups of the best coffee.

Frank Zappa's super fast Cruisin' for burgers next with that delicious guitar solo. So a French pastry goes in.

Something more sedate for the next course, I've got to look after my figure after all; Nick Drake or Pink Floyd to go with a bowl of summer fruits and yogurt.

So my day begins and the thought of the cycling over the Pennines towards Skipton takes over . . gradually.

A bath first and foot pampering with creams and talcs.

Reflections in my sonic cave, away from the general chatter overlaid by barely heard Beach Boys numbers. I prefer to listen directly and not be irritated by such great songs being used as musical wallpaper.

A PDF arrived yesterday from Jim Royer over in the USA. He's collated a list of Green Birders with reference to Big Green Years, World records and Big Sits, Big Green Days etc.

Got me thinking!

My American dream was taken away by Dorian Anderson last year. His score of over 600 birds seen during his spectacular Big Green Year cannot be beaten by me so what to go for once the 300 is had this side of the Pond?

World record..........? How safe would cycling from Lima to Puerto Maldonado in Peru be. More importantly I think naively, how many birds would I see? What birds? Los Pantanos to Tambopata and around to Manu.

Right, the route's decided upon...... dream on. What a way to get back to Chontachaka and Chaskawasi.

Meanwhile . . .

I could have been a sailor, I could have been a cook . . . . . .

Can't keep my mind from the circling skies, tongue-tied and twisted just an earthbound misfit I.

Now please have a look at my Facebook page for up to date information. -

Saturday, 13 June 2015

It's been a long time and so much has happened..... June 13th

As I said last time I was this way, as the daylight hours have extended to midsummer the chances of updating this blog have reduced. SORRY!

So what's happened in the last few weeks? Lots of new birds with great success getting the possible East Anglian birds on the Green Year list. In fact the only possible bird that I missed was golden oriole. Otherwise all from nightingale to honey buzzard were seen.
Rarities included the little bittern at Lakenheath, white-rumped sandpiper at Frampton and a bee-eater passing during a prolonged seawatch at Spurn Point. 3 different red-necked phalaropes can't be bad and a glaucous gull at Bower marshes RSPB reserve on a return trip to south Essex when trying to see the black-winged stilts was unexpected.

There was also an appearance on the BBC's Springwatch. In the morning I was on Springwatch Extra with Brett Westward. In the evening there was the pleasure of being on Springwatch Unsprung. Chris Packham hosted and the whole experience was wonderful.

I am now just north of York on the way over to Lancashire where the big trek north really begins. The RSPB Ribble Discovery Centre on Wednesday 17th of June will be followed by Leighton Moss the following day. I'll be meeting RSPB staff at Eric Morecambe's statue that day and we'll be cycling together to the reserve along the route that I wrote about in the May edition of Birdwatch magazine.

Through The Lake District and into Scotland after a few days for bike repairs and servicing will have me getting to Orkney by early August. Then the following weeks will decide whether I beat the magic 300 total I wish for. Orkney and Shetland may give me the rare birds I need to reach that target.

Anyway with my total as of today on 235, 32 ahead of where I was back in 2010, I feel positive that I have a good chance of beating the 300.

Watch this space!