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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!


Monday, 11 May 2015

May 11th The Detail of a MEGA! Citril Finch, Friends and 76 miles cycled.

Monday 11th May
At the moment it's impossible to keep up the blog on a regular basis due to the following reasons:

  • every daylight minute is either spent birding or cycling.
  • Daylight is now from 5.00am to past 9.00pm so that's a lot of birding time.
  • Opportunities of getting on the 'net are limiyed in the area of Norfolk I'm in.
  • I fall asleep as soon as I hit the pillow!
  • I am camping at least 3 days out of every 4 and the B and Bs and youth hostel I have stayed at recently either hasn't had Wifi or it hasn't worked very well.

So please forgive me for the lack of updates. I am now in the one place I have found in Norfolk where there has been a great internet connection and that is the local library.

Now I am going to give a detailed account of yesterday first then return to give the highlights of the days since the last update so long ago.
5.00am up and out to explore Bernay Marshes RSPB reserve. 42 species including a couple of whimbrel and a lovely, almost calm morning with sunshine. A lovely change to the previous day's gales. Wind from the south as well, a new direction that may bring in some new birds. My plan was to enjoy the area, have a good look at the large windmill and then head off to Cantley and Buckenham RSPB reserves not to far to the west.
9.15am, a phone call from Phil Andrews and all those plans went out the window. In Phil's usual roundabout style he announced that there was a lifer for me. Then he said where it was before saying what it was, not by giving the name but by saying it was a small mountain finch!

Citril finch I screamed.

I started to pack and say many thanks to Jim, one of the the Bernay Marshes wardens. Jim, an old guard RSPB warden wih a twitching history, understood my panic and helped by suggesting the route. OS maps out, we plotted the way back to the north Norfolk coast, the way back to Holkolm.

The phone went again.

Antony Barter, a Birding Clam and another great friend, almost unintelligible with his excitement and poor signal told me of the bird. Yes, I did know and I would be on my way soon.
After a very quick up the windmill and down the windmill, I was off over the dirt track bridleway, over the concrete road after the first double gated level crossing and, after stopping to quickly see 7 whimbrel, over another double gated level crossing and onto the busy A47.
Acle, South Walsham, Wroxham and Stratton Strawless, I cycld through them like a man possessed. There had only ever been one citril finch in Britain before, a few years back and that had been on the remote Fair Isle.
Lunch quickly scoffed whilst sitting beside a main road; smoked salmon, Maltesers, jaffa cakes, cheese and milk.
Onward to Corpusty and then Thursford; I had left Bernay at 10.00am and I kept it in my mind that I would be at Holkham about 5.00pm. Would the finch still be there. I asked my guardian angels to ensure it would.
Texts and a couple of VERY IRRITATING phone calls told me that it was. I could just imagine the chaos there with hundreds of birders making the trek from Queen Anne's drive along the footpath to the extreme west end of Holkham Woods. I had been there just a few days ago, all by myself after pushing the bike over Burnham Overy's sand dunes looking for a ring ouzel.
A wrong turn bit no problem. I told myslef that the road to Wells via Binham and Warham was probably flatter than the more direct Walsingham road I'd missed somehow.
Into and quickly through Wells. Down to Queen Anne's Drive and onto the public footpath west. Birders were greeted with a hello as I weaved through them pedalling as fast as I could. A group of 5 straddled the whole path! “Get out the way! I need this bird!” I laughed at them. They understood, laughed back and I was through.
On reaching the mass of birders, I went to the first birder. “Where is it?” “Second sykamore back, to the right on the ground. I couldn't see it. I could see the Malteser-headed dome of Bart and rushed over. Jumping on his back, he asked the bloke in front to show me the bird.


What a bird, a male, blue-grey nape, green mantle and head, bright yellow rump, wing bars, yellowish orange breast. An absolute stonking CMF mega.

As quietly as I could I gave a fist pumping YEAHHHH. Birders around understood but couldn't have known that I had cycled over 50 miles to see this and had arrived at 3.45, not 5 o'clock.

More Midland friends arrived, Steve Nuttall, Steve Richards and the cycling birder Eric Phillips. I went to see them and then crawled under a pine closer to the bird and lay down under some branches to get my 'record shots' and hopefully the one minute video for Youtube. The bird wasn't too far away. From my horizontal position I could see it but standing birders around me couldn't.

Left of the second sykamore, find the small hawthorn behind a bramble. Follow the hawthorn trunk up until it goes towards 11 o'clock and then when it goes to 12 again look behind. It's on a small bit of a sandy bank.”

I photographed what I could see. I videoed it too. I watched this mega of a bird.

Time to celebrate with Bart and the immensely brave Steve, another Birding Clam.

The more local birder whom I had met at Weeting Heath, Ollie was there.

As were the Midland friends mentioned before.

A birder, Bert Mitchell, talked of his 20-odd visits to Fair Isle and had known of Gordon Barnes. We talked about him and I promised to try to send him a copy of Gordon's autobiography, 'An Unforgettable Challenge'.

A gentleman with a BTO jumper came over, I recognised the face bit couldn't remember the name. “Hunstanton,” I said. It was Steve Neuman from Hunstanton. In 2010 Steve and his wife Anne had put me up for the night and then accompanied me to near to here back in late November of that year to see a rough-legged buzzard. Replete with views of the citril, the Clams, Steve and I wended our way back towards Queen Anne's drive with birders who knew of my travels stopping to say hello, to say that they were following me on the net and in a couple of cases giving donations.

One such birder was a lady, Joan, who had come with the famous Lee Evans. She came and sat on a bench where the Clam, Steve and I had stopped to give Steve a well deserved rest. Another brder to ask how I was getting on was Somerset birder, Julian Thomas. We talked about what I had put on the Somerset bird blog back so long ago when I had cycled through there and laughed together at how I had gone to the wrong lake to get a ring-necked duck.

Donations, laughs and chat, the mood was definitely celebratory.

Phil Andrews, the brilliant birder and bloke who texts me all of the news, and who had phoned me to say of the citril in his cryptic manner arrived and quickly went past after a quick chat. He needed the bird.

Back at the Clams car and just before they sped off home, the Craigs, Chris, Helena and Mya.Rose arrived all the way from Chew Valley, Avon. The famous three shook hands and posed for photos before quickly heading off. They needed the bird.

News came from Phil via a text, a wood sandpiper was at Stiffkey Fen about 8 miles away. Had to see it and did. Bird number 219. What a day!

Now please have a look at my facebook page -

Also if you could please make a small donation to any of the charities that I am supporting then please click on the links to the right. I know I put this onto the end of every blog posting but I really get a boost from every donation. The RSPB, The WWT, Asthma UK and Chaskawasi-Manu. I would be so grateful if you could make a donation however small. Thanks.

All the very best everyone. Love to you all xx

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Eastern Moors RSPB - National Trust Partnership 23rd April

Thursday 23rd April

Up the hill to Eastern Moors RSPB Reserve with the continuing fabulous weather making the views lovely despite high pressure haze. Along a dry stone wall edge of the huge reserve I met one of the RSPB workers, Alex, working at removing old barb wire strands. He told me some of the things he knew about the reserve and pointed the way to the reserve offices. Through a gate and a push along a grassy path, I then met a couple of dog walkers, Graham and Gill, who obviously loved the area as they said they came regularly. Sam their dog loved it too, soaked and muddy and shaking it all over us all. Graham told me about one of the stone circles, yes one of them; there are a few around the moors and walked back with me to make sure I didn't miss the small path to the nearest one.

Walking and pushing the bike along the path a very small dark butterfly went past me. I thought it was a brown argus but couldn't re-find it to photograph and confirm.
The stone circle consisted of around 20 small rocks with a diameter of about 15 meters.

To the office where the RSPB project manager, Rachel and Danny the site manager were painting the walls of one of the offices.

Taken into another office for a coffee, Danny explained to me about the cooperative nature of the project, cooperation between the RSPB and The National Trust. Together they manage the Eastern Moors, a much larger area at almost 2,500 hectares than I'd thought with more upland areas coming into the management plans in November. I was given a booklet about the importance of the site and its future was fascinated by the prehistoric history as well as its natural.

Outside I went around to the site of a large damaged dam, breeched to remove the reservoir that used to be there a few years back. Not big enough to supply the water needs of nearby Sheffield, the dam had been opened up as maintaining it under EU laws was prohibitively expensive. Now there were just a couple of small pools with croaking frogs and a couple of reed buntings.

Down the path to head to the main road, I found a whinchat, bird number 190 for the year, and heard willow warblers in an area of birch trees. Away over the moor I counted 96 red deer and found 15 more later.

I met a birder, Pete who said that he regularly birded this path. Then it was to another stone circle with a large burial cairn behind it.

Down to the main road I met a birder who said he'd just had a female ring ouzel back at the dam. So cycling back along the main road back towards the offices, I went over the cattle grid, saw a male redstart here on a hawthorn and searched with Pete, who'd also come in search of the ouzel. We found 3 wheatears in the area but no ring ouzel. So ended my visit but it is definitely on my list of 'must go back to' reserves.
On the road again and a superb ride down to Ladybower reservoir and south to Bakewell and beyond. The day ended with me camping in a small woodland about 2 miles from Bakewell, the night being punctuated by a pair of tawny owls on branches just above the tent calling ke-wick constantly until I shone my torch to watch them for a while. Beautiful birds with a star-filled background.

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Bolton to Hathersage. Catching up on the blog despite no WiFi in the tent!

Tuesday 21st April

Early morning ride through Bolton. I didn't want to see Bolton School. That's where my late wife went and I didn't want to go through the memory trail in my head at that moment.

There was Bolton School!

On nearing Radcliffe I came across a visitor's centre for the Merseyside, Lancashire and something else Wildlife Trust. Got to have a drink, I went in. There was a fantastic group of old age pensioners there for a social and a walk around the local nature reserve. Brilliant idea and wonderful people.

Next it was through Oldham, meeting a lovely Muslim girl pushing a pushchair beside me as I pushed up the hill to the town centre. She was a Brummie and she put a donation in the robin. Great!

Now I had just bought a pair of cycling sunglasses and after I reached Dovestone RSPB reserve, I realised I had left them in a Nationwide branch in Oldham! I'd had them for all of 20 minutes. Twit.

Oh I forgot to mention stopping for lunch in Heaton park, the largest council-run park in Europe I was told.

Dovestone is a large pair of reservoirs surrounded on all sides by high hills with steep rocky cliffs, very imposing and impressive. I cycled along the dam wall and the pathway around to the second dam where a road took me back to the Holmfirth Road.

A long push to get to the top, is this a photo of a turkey?

Over the moor and down into Last of the Summer Wine country, I camped up after enjoying chips and fish from Compo's cafe.

Wednesday 22nd April

A long up and down cycle ride to Hathersage where I spent the night at the youth hostel there.

Now why can't the whole of the country lane network be treated as if it were part of the Tour De France? The tarmac along the sections that had been used in such a way had perfect, smooth tarmac and painted slogans of support for the fans favourite cyclists.

On one downward stretch of such tarmac I came across a group of 4 OAP birders who were looking for pied flycatchers. We didn't see one but I did find a beautiful male redstart, bird number 189.

Next highlight of the day was meeting two walkers both before the pub and at the pub. Andy and Kevin were obviously brilliant best mates to each other and their company and banter for over an hour was superb. A pub, The Strines, with over 40 peacocks, strange how the carbon twitching world went crazy over one Lady Amhurst's pheasant when there are breeding Indian Blue peacocks everywhere.

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Liverpool to Marshside & Hesketh Bank RSPB Reserves and Martin Mere WWT Reserve.

Saturday 18th April
On the road again! A bumpy cycle along the dockside road to Seaforth and views of the reserve through the fencing. In 2010 I hadn't been able to see much and it was only after I'd left that the news of a Wilson's phalarope came out. No news of such a quality bird today and I instead enjoyed close vies of a male wheatear.
Down to the beach to see the Antony Gormley statues and along to Hightown with beautiful sunny weather and a few willow warblers in bushes.

I reached Freshfields and went down to the red squirrel reserve to see the little tykes. Quite a few of them about and lovely to see.

Sunday 19th April

Up early from my wild camp tent and soon on the way to Southport via a cycle path that skirted Ainsdale sands.

Now I lived in Southport way back in 1978 and was keen to see the changes. First one noted was the massive spread of spartina grass on the seashore. In 1978 the saltmarsh grasses had stopped around the area where there used to be a sand-winning plant at the end of Marshside Road to the north of the pier. Today the whole of the beach length to Ainsdale, with the exception of a short area near to the pier, had extensive grass areas. I wonder how much higher the beach is nowadays compared to the 70s. I remember being told that the Ribble Estuary, for which Southport is at its head, is rising as London is falling supposedly due to the wobble that Britain is experiencing geologically. I wonder if that's true? Google!!

Other changes included a new cafe on the end of the pier and coastal road improvements. A large multiplex cinema on the seafront; now that hadn't been there before.

On reaching the start of the Marshside RSPB reserve, I stopped to look over a wet grassland area and immediately heard a whitethroat, bird number 184. A couple of ruff going into summer plumage were attractive birds and with the continuing sunshine, birding was going to be pleasant.

To the visitor's centre and no presence of any RSPB staff, I looked out over the reserve. Avocets, summer plumaged black-tailed godwits and quick fly through merlin together with a few swallows were amongst the masses of black-headed gulls and their clamour.

Leaving the bike at the centre I went over to the track the lorries used to take to win the sand and walked to the tide's edge. This was where the RSPB staff all were together with a group of people watching as the tide was swiftly coming in, inundating the saltmarsh. Today's tide was going to be one of the year's highest and cover most of the marsh at its height.

Large flocks of waders were going past, mostly dunlin and grey plover and on the sea there was a small group of eider, 3 males and 2 females. A pair of red-breasted mergansers flew past.

Now I hadn't looked over the whole of the wet grassland area that I'd seen the corner of earlier in the day so I walked over to view that. A first year little gull added another one to the year list and a group of passing house martins added another. A pair of adult Med' gulls and more waders in summer finery, I enjoyed the birding and company in the hide overlooking the area before retrieving my bike and set off north.

Villa! The FA Cup semi final against Liverpool. My team were at 1 – 1 when I found a pub at Banks that had a large screen and food. Carvery bought, I sat amongst the friendly Liverpool fans glad to see me in my celebration of 1982 Villa shirt. Were they thump! The Everton fans amongst the crowd were chatty but 2 Liverpool fans were a little 1970s with their comments.

Villa were the better team. Now that was a shock. Grealish took the ball forward, passed to Delph who turned inside 3 defenders and banged it in. I politely clapped. No I didn't. I went spare! GOAL!!!!!!

I actually got out of the pub at the end of the match unscathed.

Monday 20th April

Off to Hesketh Bank RSPB reserve, a simple flat road and a gorgeous day. Soon there and up the bank to the bus shelter-like viewing position. From there I could see over the maturing habitat that has been created by making a breech in the sea wall nearer to the Ribble Estuary. The hope is as that sea level rises due to climate change (not for the better!), high tides will bring sea water into the area making a new extensive saltmarsh. So far so good as when I last visited here, and slept on the bench in the shelter, the landscape had just been scraped and was bare and muddy. Now with grasses dominating, the landscape had improved. Birds seen were rather sparse but it was low tide. 6 white wagtails, the sub-species of our British pied wagtail, were seen and a couple of male wheatears. A few swallows were also seen but little else. A local birder told me that a dog walker who'd let the dogs off the lead had disturbed a pair of grey partridge. They would have been a year tick.

Off to Martin Mere WWT reserve, quickly reached on flat roads over the Moss. Along roads I knew so well from when I used to live in Southport, I went past a farm and saw a couple of alpacas! Memories of Peru. Hello Chontachaka! Hello Chaskawasi-Manu. Hello Mani & Katia and the boys! Love to you all.

Into Martin Mere WWT reserve and after a quick photo for their facebook page etc, I was off birding. A new to me walkway around the large reedbed behind the harrier hide brought me a couple of year ticks, common whitethroat and a yellow wagtail; the latter on the biological filters of the sewage works there. This I saw by climbing onto a fence post to get a view of the beds.

The best thing though was a fabulous stoat that was charging towards me as I scrambled for my camera. I eventually managed to get a short video sequence of it before it disappeared down a small dark hole very close to me. As I turned my camera off. It popped up vertically to check me out. What a photo that would have made.

Next it was to all of the hides skirting the mere itself, ending up at what I know as the Miller's Bridge hide. I was in there for over an hour when a strange text came from Phil Andrews. Spotted Crake, Martin Mere, seen from the hide I was in . . . all alone.

I ran out to see whether anyone else was around. I wanted that spotted crake. No one around. I ran back to the In Focus shop and received an explanation. A photograph of a spotted crake being disturbed by a stoat a couple of hours ago had just been posted on Rare Bird Alert. With just 10 minutes before closing time there was no chance of having a go for the bird. I left and started cycling for Bolton.

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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Last Days in Northern Ireland and a Day at Hoylake, Wirral

Saturday 11th April

She did too. Shirley brought me my breakfast suffering from a hangover. She had no knowledge of meeting me the night before. I have that effect on women!

Three Frenchmen joined me for breakfast and only wanted bread. My 'pigeon' French came in handy as they spoke almost no English. They were over here for a rugby game.

Another cycling day; too many of those recently. 35 miles to get to Ballycastle to catch a boat across to 3 RSPB reserves on the wonderful Rathlin Island. The first part of the road took ages as it was a long rise to the top of a high hill, not steep but too much for me to cycle up setions of it. On top there were 21 large wind turbines. I love them and think they enhance the scene. You may feel different but I remember blowing colourful smaller versions of these when I was a child. 21. I had plenty of time to count them as I pushed the bike up the hill.

Down the other side was superb, long and not too steep, it was one of those perfect downhill stretches.

A shelter under trees as a heavy hail shower quickly passed and then on to wards Ballycastle. Good to see that Ballycastle existed again on the direction signs. Back in 2010 all Ballycastle signs had been painted over. A Catholic town in a Protestant area, so I was told.

About 3 miles before the town I came across a Land Rover with a Help The Heroes poster over its bonnet. A coffee and cake morning in the local community hall. How could I resist?

Into the hall where tables with plates of cakes were arranged, I was immediately greeted by a friendly group. They wanted photographs of themselves with the stranger who had just strolled in. The stranger obliged with a bit of fun.

Coffee and cakes for a donation and a chat; I found out that some of the lads including father and sons were going to drive their Land Rover around parts of Europe to raise money for the Help The Heroes charity. They were also going to have a dinner for the same, tonight in fact.

On leaving I was given 2 packets of scones and a plate of cakes. They had so many spare and asked me to take more!

Into Ballycastle and after a bit of a wait, onto the boat over to rathlin Island. The sea was extremely rough and a conversation in the sitting area with a lady from Oxford who had moved to Rathlin quite a few years ago had to be stopped for me to get some air. Outside where I could see the sea and cliffs I had no problem. If I had been inside that cabin any longer I would have up chucked.

Outside on the car deck I sheltered behind a large trailer full of gravel, hoping that the thing wouldn't suddenly become loose from its moorings, as seawater splashed over it. The views of both the high Antrim cliffs and the oncoming Rathlin Island were spectacular as the boat lurched left and right in the swell.

Onto the quay and with the gale from the right I carefully cycled around the harbour and found Rathlin Island hostel, a superb hostel with a large kitchen overlooking the sea, a comfy lounge and usual bunk bed dormitory. As I placed the bike behind a stone storage building, a pair of chough went past. They briefly landed in a field next to the hostel before heading off towards the southern end of the island. I didn't know it then but these are the only pair of chough on the island.

Into the hostel, I met Sean, the co-owner and after a chat and a coffee I went for a walk to try to find the mythical Golden Hare.

Out into the still very strong wind, at least there was a lot of sunshine and from the top of a cliff on the east side of the island, I could see the Mull of Kyntyre easily. I'll be there in July.

On the way up the cliff there had been a flock of 30 odd greylags, a few hooded crows and a lot of meadow pipits. I had also seen over 20 Irish hares, a sub-species of the mountain hare. Amongst the 20 there had been 2 candidates for the golden hare. Is there more than one on the island these days? These two were a lot warmer in colour than the others. Maybe.

A better find, well to me anyway, was as I walked along a pathway along the cliffs of the east side. I found a flint arrowhead! It was white, completely smooth on one side and a ridge on the other gave two surfaces. Its sides showed signs of working that gave it the sharp edges it had required thousands of years ago.

To find one myself was thrilling and more than made up for the one I gave away five years ago.

Back to the road that leads down to the southern end of the island, I saw tufted duck on pools, a stonechat and the chough pair again. They were now feeding in a field of sheep just north of the largest lake on Ronvoolin RSPB reserve. The walking had been tough in the gale but the views made it all worth while.

I didn't go all the way to the end of the road, the sun was going down. So I didn't get to the area next to the small black and white lighthouse there. Instead I got to where I could see it against the Antrim cliff backdrop and turned back. I followed the road all the way to the hostel and relaxed with a plate of fairy cakes and a drink.

Sunday 12th April

A much calmer day with plenty of sunshine, the island looked wonderful as I cycled almost unladen towards the seabird centre at its west end. Birding all the way, a couple of lesser redpolls allowed some photographs. In the harbour over 90 eider were gathered, the males making their Frankie Howard pursued lip calls as they raised themselves from the water in display.
A group of Atlantic grey seals were resting on the rocks with turnstone and ringed plovers by them.
Up the steep hill and onto the higher plain I stopped at the RSPB viewpoint, an area devoted to the pair of chough. From this elevated position, the view was even better than down below and using my binoculars I could make out the famous ropebridge at xxxxxxxxxxxx

After over miles I eventually came around a corner to see the small croft used by the RSPB to house the volunteers that come in the summer. Here the tarmac road changed to bumpy stones and so I got off and pushed the bike for the last mile to the being built seabird centre.

Just before I rounded the last corner 3 wheatears gave me the first year tick of the day. Bird number 181.

With fencing around the hopefully soon to be completed seabird centre, I left the bike against the gate and walked around to the highest point to look over the extremely high cliffs here. I knew what I would see but was still excited by the prospect.

There was the old lighthouse on its prominent platform, closed at the moment but full of memories from my last visit. There were the tall stacks but here there was a major difference to 2010. There were no auks. Not one! Hundreds of kittiwakes yes but not the ten of thousands of guillemot, razorbill and puffins that would be there soon. They were still all out at sea.

Immediately in my head I changed my reserve itinerary! Bempton would have to be visited in June. I needed an auk fix of Bempton proportions.

Auks may not have been there but the views were fabulous nonetheless.

On retracing my tracks I stopped off at a house belonging to one of the RSPB people on the island and so met Alison. Over coffee she showed me her collection of Stone Age implements and a dolphin skull. It's great to meet people who collect these sort of things.

Back down to the harbour eventually to collect my things from the hostel and catch the boat back to Ballycastle. Actually I felt a little guilty at not staying longer on this wonderful island but the needs of the year list meant that time was at a premium.

After a much smoother passage than the previous day, with a couple of close manx shearwaters seen, I cycled to and met a great couple in a pub that advertised Bed and Breakfast. They were both passionate cyclists and so the next hour was spent talking cycling. No bed available after a pint that I actually enjoyed, Shipwick I think, I went to the next hotel and enjoyed a comfortable night.

Monday 13th April

Now I shouldn't have called in that pub and I definitely shouldn't have had a night in a comfy hotel. That had not been the intention. “Get as far as you can along the road to Larne before camping,” I had told myself. The weather is perfect so get the distance covered.

I hadn't and the weather Gods were going to make me pay for it. A strong gale in the face. Cloudy with a band of heavy rain as well. I made progress as well as I could and got to Larne after a few painful hours.

Along to the far end of Larne Lough to look for an American duck, a green-winged teal. Instead of finding that I found a pair of birders who told me that just a few days before the bridge that we were now standing on had been the scene of birding chaos. Police had been called to control the crowds vying for views of the vagrant.

The rarity causing such a fuss, an avocet.

With much improved weather, still windy but now with some sunshine, I was cycling back to the main road to head towards Belfast when a motorist stopped me and asked if he could take some photographs of me and the bike for the local Larne newspaper.

Castleferrgus and a few birds on the beach to watch, pale-bellied brents and golden plover; the latter sporting spangling summer plumage. Then to Belfast dock for the overnight ferry via a cycle way.

Tuesday 14th April

Straight from the docked ferry I went along the cycle path around the north of the Wirral. I knew this path well. It's the one I had cycled more than once in parts before heading for Northern Ireland. I was on my way to have another attempt at seeing surf scoter. Up to 7 had been reported from Hoylake beach in my short absence.

No sign of the laughing gull as I went past New Brighton's marine lake. Recently it had started to to go across the Mersey to Seaforth Docks nature reserve, adding to their extensive list of American birds.

Arriving at Government Road, Hoylake, I hid the bike behind some buildings and walked out to the distant tideline. There were already two birders, Lyndsey and Gareth from near reston, searching through the scoter flock but the sea was just too rough and the birds just too far out to be able to get a fix on any likely candidate. After a couple of hours of trying, with Lyndsey being very helpful to my cause by saying “your need is greater than mine,” when lending me her telescope, it was decided to have a break and try again later at low tide. The weather forecast for then was sunshine and less wind so hopefully better conditions for viewing.

Back around 12, I met another birder as I walked out further than before named Andy Vincent. He was actually going back to his car but turned around to 'have another go'. At the tideline now were a few birders all searching for the surfies. Lyndsey and Gareth returned and just after, with a much flatter sea and a bit of hazy sunshine, Andy shouted out he'd got one. Between turbine 13 and 14 from the left. Then I found it! It was to the right of turbine 14, level with a distant gas platform. Other birders got onto it as they say and so bird number 182 was added to the list and what a good one too, a '54' no less. I texted my birding friends and was told that a hoopoe had been seen first thing in the morning at Thurstaston but not since.

A pair of surf scoter were then found and seen by all, not the best views of this great little American duck I'd ever had but adequate and on texting Phil Andrews I received the reply that 3 was 2 more than I needed.

On leaving to head towards Liverpool for a few days rest I retrieved the hidden bike and started to cycle along the seafront road. After just a couple of hundred yards, Andy Vincent stopped me. He had been to look for little owls nearby and had found one. With his directions in my head I found the spot and indeed, there was a little owl difficult to see amongst the branches and leaves of a low down bush next to a large cracked willow. Bird number 183 seen and photographed, the owl became my Facebook heading photo for a week or so, a gorgeous little introduced bird.

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Sunday, 12 April 2015

Long Cycling Days. Armagh to Limavady.

Wednesday 8th April
A superb breakfast served up by the 'there's lovely' Alice. Goodbye and thanks to her and Dermot for a lovely night's stay and the long ride to Aghatirourke RSPB reserve began. At least the weather was continuing to be very kind to me, sunny and warm with just a little wind coming from the south west.
Puncture! Just before the Republic of Ireland border, reasonably soon fixed despite there being two small holes.
The mileage signs caused hilarity just before this happened. 11 miles then 10 to go to Monaghan, then 11 again, back to 10 and finally back to 11. I'd travelled 4 miles during this time and where they had gone for the sign makers I don't know.
Into and straight through Monaghan, into and straight through the Republic, I had no time to sightsee this time.
Blackcap singing in a thicket to the left and as i'm back in Northern Ireland I can count it on the BOU year list, number 179.
Willow warblers! Bird number 180 and conveniently sitting atop a small bush, photographed too.
Off onto a very small country lane and the largest gravelled tarmac ever, more like pebbles. No chance at cycling over it, off and push to the top of the hill.
Across the bridges of upper Lough Erne and around to the lane to take me to the ridge top that is Aghatirourke RSPB reserve.
Leaving my panniers under a hedgerow where I had camped back in 2010, I went up to the top and along to the end of the tarmac road. Skylarks, meadow pipits and a lone female stonechat were the only birds on the expanse of moorland that makes up the reserve. I walked up the nearest hill and looked all around, hoping to see an irish red grouse, a sub-species of the version in the rest of the UK. No such luck but the views were tremendous as the sun started to go down to the west.

Back to my stuff, tent up and a very peaceful rest under a star strewn sky.

Thursday 9th April

Up and packed early and off downhill and along the main road to Enniskillen for breakfast at a roadside cafe.
Off to the north west and along that side of lower Lough Erne, the views soon became amazing. Once again the weather made the waters blue and the islands shine.
At a garden beside the road I stopped to photograph an alien! As I laughed at the sight, the lady owner of the garden and large bungalow, Clare came around the corner and suggested I looked to my left.

I was in tears laughing. Look at the dog.
Clare was joined by her husband, Dennis and the next hour was spent enjoying their company over a coffee and biscuit. Fabulous couple, so in synch with each other, I really enjoyed meeting them both.
Around to the north coast of the Lough and down to the RSPB sign that states that there are 39 management reserves around the Lough! I explored this one, impossible to go to the others, the RSPB puts them all under the banner of Lower Lough Erne reserve.

Summer migrants had been around in force today with 59 singing willow warblers, 7 blackcaps and 8 chiff chaff doing the same and 8 swallows seen. No birds of prey today. The last one was a sparrowhawk that I saw yesterday. Where are they all?
To Kesh and then towards Castlederg, I stopped at a derelict Primary school building and went around the back to camp in private. Sad to see a grave in the playground for a teacher who had died at the early age of 23!

Friday 10th April

Another day cycling. I'll be glad when the balance shifts towards the birding side of the tour.
Through Castlederg and then on towards Strabane. Just before there, at Sion Mills I saw the church that had Jesus and his disciples above the entrance and I knew I'd been this way before.
Strabane and a foot-long sandwich at Subway with Wifi to catch up with facebook a bit.
On the way out of the city I found the musicians again, now fenced off. In 2010 I had fallen asleep against a grassy bank here and not had anything knicked whilst I slept, thankfully.
Into 'Derry to sort out a couple of financial matters and then to Lough Foyle. High tide at this RSPB reserve and very few birds. A number of mute swans were all really.
To Limavardy and into a pub B and B for a room, I was accosted by a couple of drunk girls who made me blush. I won't say how! There was a lot of drinking and laughter for a wake being held there after the funeral this morning.
Accosted again, this time by Shirley. “I'm making your breakfast tomorrow,” she told me.