Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Trip to Portland and South-west England: The First Day in the Portland and Dorset

It’s 5:55am, and I’m abruptly woken up by the sound of my phone alarm ringing loudly inches away from me, piercing my poor ears with its monotone, crescendo and repeated beeps. Not the most ideal of awakenings, I know, but at least it made me get up. As soon as the alarm sounded I pounced out of bed and started preparing to go into the Observatory; I don’t think I had ever been so eager to get up in my life. Such eagerness came from the prospect of being able to properly explore the whole of the Portland area and visit other nearby places, and possibly seeing some good spring migrants. I opened the curtains to find that the skies were clear; was this to be a good thing or not? The ideal of course would be to wake up to low lying dense fog, cloud or mist, but what did it mean at Portland if the skies were clear. Would all of the spring migrants there on the previous day still be there? Put it this way, I wasn’t as hopeful as I could have been, but I was still excited nonetheless and I knew that unpredictable was possible; as it always is when you’re birding. After getting dressed and wetting myself with cold water to help me regain my senses my Dad and I headed into the Observatory. We arrived to find a sizeable group of birders, some of which we had been acquainted with the previous day, looking out to see from the balcony, including the warden of the Observatory, Martin Cade. Upon seeing him we greeted, and he quickly told us that not a great deal had happened thus far that morning and that even though it was early days he had been around and noticed that a majority of the hundreds of Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs that had been there the previous evening had moved on. This piece of information acted slightly as an ill omen for the rest of the day, as without bigger numbers of birds like Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler on passage the likelihood of something more noteworthy is not as reliable as it would be in conditions such as fog, mist etc. As I went out onto the veranda I looked out to see a breathtaking sunrise over the Dorset cliffs, which you can see in the picture below. I don’t think the picture quite matches the beauty of it, but you can see what I mean!

As I looked out to sea I quickly came to the conclusion that not a great deal was passing offshore, although there was a steady and fairly substantial passage of Common Scoters, flying in flocks of 3 or more. After a refreshing cuppa and some hobnobs, we decided to have a check of the Obs garden and go down to the Bill again as nothing of note was being seen from the Observatory itself. From Martin’s report I wasn’t expecting to see any signs of fall conditions. I was annoyingly correct in my expectations too, as despite a meticulous check of the Obs garden there were no signs of any of the scarcer species that had been present the previous day; not even any Redstarts. Maybe 20 each of Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff remained, but this was a significant decrease from yesterday’s numbers. One word was lingering in my mind, and that word, I thought, could well turn out to prophesise the rest of the day’s birding on Portland; quiet. What can one do though? Admittedly I was taken aback slightly by the sudden change from the previous evening (the change from definite signs of a fall and huge numbers of small birds, to very little indeed), but Portland is obviously one of those places that is dependent on certain winds and weather conditions for providing good birds. On the plus side, I was still very keen to explore other parts of the island, I could always go elsewhere and things could change. As I walked down to the Bill the atmosphere of the morning livened up a little as I discovered that the White Wagtail was still present, feeding busily with a few Pied Wagtails just a few paces away from the end of the huts round the Obs garden. As well as this I was delighted to come across 3 cracking male Wheatears flitting about on the rocks by the shore, their white rumps leaving me in a state of trance and allowing me to ID them instantly. These 3 birds were my first of the year and took the year list up to the big 150 mark. When we got to the Bill itself and had a look again out to sea much the same was passing, basically more Common Scoters plus a few Razorbills and Guillemots. Apart from that though, there really was very little happening, so we trudged back to the Observatory. Our entire walk and check of the Bill and the Obs garden took just over an hour, so by the time I returned to the Observatory it was coming on 8:00am. The sun was well up by now, shining high in the sky and casting an air of warmth on the area; it looked like it was going to be a lovely day. The atmosphere of the day birding wise remained negative though. Little did I know though that I was going to be in for a pleasant surprise when I got back into the Observatory...

I have to confess to being very hungry when I got back, and I decided to disregard birding for a while just so I could have some breakfast... toast had rarely felt as replenishing as it did then. Now for those who aren’t aware of this, a lot of ringing goes on in Portland, and every 20 minutes Peter will go around usually with a few visiting ringers and check if any birds have been caught in the nets. They leave the nets up from dawn till dusk, and anything that gets caught in them is taken out of the nets and is ringed (if the bird hasn’t been ringed already). Once ringed, if the bird is of the scarcer variety they will bring it up and show them to visitors in the hand, although sometimes I was told that they do bring up commoner migrants like Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers, Whitethroats and Blackcaps. I was yet to see a bird in the nets or being taken up to the veranda, so when I noticed people getting off their seats and stopping staring out to seas and going towards Peter, I knew that something had been caught, ringed and was going to be shown to visitors. The question was which species? With me noticing this, I left my toast and hurriedly joined everyone on the veranda. As I did so I could see Peter walking towards us with a bird in his hand, from a distance looking like a Phyllosc. I wasn’t able to see quite where it was from that distance, but as he got closer I could see that it was far too small (minute) to be a Phyllosc and that it had a bright, orange crest. As he climbed the stairs I could see a whacking great supercilium... It was a male Firecrest!

Suddenly, the negative atmosphere had completely alleviated, giving way to intense and total joy. Peter proceeded to walk right to us, and everyone crowded round the bird. With a big group of people towering round it, the poor thing must have been scared out of its wits! It definitely looked as if it was, looking around the place nervously and cautiously, eyes wide and riddled with fear. I admit to feeling slightly sorry for it. It was a beautiful bird though, its intense orange crest mixing perfectly with its black eyestripe, grey down the side of it its face and broad white supercilium. The plumage was a fine mix of olivey, yellow and bright green. Just beautiful! I stared at it in sheer admiration for a couple of minutes, taking a couple of photos whilst I was at it. There was something really special about seeing it. It felt very rewarding in that I had finally seen a bogey bird long sought after, yet getting to see such an exquisite little passerine at such close range also added to the fantastic sense of the occasion. Was this lovely little bird going to act as a kick start to a successful holiday? I couldn’t be sure, but it was a memorable experience nonetheless seeing it, a moment I’ll think back on nostalgically in years to come... After giving everyone plenty of time to see and admire the bird, Peter let go if and it flitted into a far off bush. Peter told us that there is quite often a bird that sticks around in the Obs for a while during the early parts of spring, and this bird had been one they had already ringed. I returned to my toast very pleased, consuming the rest of it with great ease. I suddenly felt hugely much happier than I h3d been, and was keen to see what the rest of the day would hold. It was only 9:00am by the time we had finished eating and got ourselves fully prepared for the day ahead of us, although it felt like it could be 11:00am. It was turning into a lovely day, with the temperature already have risen at least a few degrees over double figures. I anticipated that it would get a lot hotter, which was good in one way but bad in another. It would be a pleasant change from the chilly weather of Aberdeen, but may not be good on the bird-front... My Dad and I spent another 20 minutes or so standing on the veranda to see if anything would be caught in the nets or if anything was passing through, but it was much the same as it had been before the Firecrest, very quiet. Peter did come up and show us a Chiffchaff, which was lovely at close range. I photographed this bird too. After seeing that nothing much was going on and having a discussion with Martin Cade about the Hoopoe that had been at Suckthumb Quarry, we decided we’d go up to Suckthumb Quarry and have a look for it. Martin had seen it on the Tuesday evening, but whether it was still there we would have to wait and see. Here are a few pictures I got of the Firecrest, plus a picture of the Chiffchaff and where Suckthumb Quarry is located in relation to the Isle of Portland.

You can’t see it on the map above, but Suckthumb is situated between the small communities of Weston and Southwell. The quarry itself mines the famous Portland Stone, a type of limestone mined only on the Isle of Portland that has been used since Roman times and is the stone to have built several famous buildings such as Buckingham Palace and St Pauls Cathedral in London. We had been told that Hoopoe had been favouring some fields on the very edge of the quarry, pecking around by some horse paddocks. We were given precise directions as to how to easily access these fields, and were there by 9:45am. Parking up just as the fields came into view, we got out of the car and proceeded to enter the quarry. I set up the scope and scanned the whole field as meticulously as I could whilst Dad scanned through the bins. A few Pied Wagtails were scuffling around, along with at least 5 Wheatears (2 females and 3 males), which was quite nice. The Hoopoe, however, was conspicuous by its absence. There just wasn’t one there. Hmm, what to do... The best thing was just to have a look around the whole quarry for it, plus check for anything else. The bushes looked ideal for catching a fall or a rare passerine, but it was by no means the right conditions for this. We trudged round the quarry, sweating as the heat of the day intensified, with no success. The best that Suckthumb Quarry had to offer bird-wise was those Wheatears plus 2 migrant Willow Warblers. I wasn’t surprised that we had failed to see the Hoopoe. After all it was bound to have moved on due to the lovely weather and clear skies. Having done this, we decided it would be most appropriate to head to Radipole Lake RSPB, not far as it was only in Weymouth. There had been an Alpine Swift around there a few days before. Plus, Portland was destined to be quiet all day with the sheer lack of migrants passing through. We didn’t plan to go towards the Poole Harbour until the next day, so birding locally seemed to be the best idea. A couple of pictures taken at Suckthumb Quarry are below.

It took surprisingly long to get from Suckthumb Quarry to Radipole Lake, with traffic acting as a constant hindrance to our birding time (WARNING: The traffic is terrible in Weymouth). It probably took around 25 minutes to half an hour to get there, plus time spent getting food for the day. When Radipole came into view I couldn’t help but think about how strange its location was, a lake fringed by dense reedbeds in the heart of hectic Weymouth; convenient for those living locally, definitely. On our arrival we paid at the car park, and headed off for a look around. The species I was most wanting to see here was Bearded Tit, a specialist bird to the reserve and a bird that is very hard to see here in NE Scotland (although they are just about annual at Loch of Strathbeg but very elusive). I was also looking for Reed Warbler (even though it was a bit early for them), yet another bird that you don’t get in North-East Scotland. I had seen both species on plenty of occasions before, but to see them both would be very useful on the year-list front. As we crossed the bridge to enter Radipole I couldn’t help but notice the escaped Hooded Merganser hanging around and feeding with the Mallards in its semi-tame fashion, and decided to photograph it just because it was an aesthetically pleasing creature. See below for a photo. If it only it was wild... hey?

Looking out from the other side of the bridge, there were a variety of species of commoner ducks, ranging from Shelduck to Gadwall, as well as a couple of Little Grebes and plenty of Black-headed Gulls. I quickly felt the need to get away from the general populous and thus headed onto the reserve quite quickly. It wasn’t long before we heard the explosive song of a Cetti’s Warbler, and it wouldn’t be the last time we’d hear it, as there were plenty around on the reserve. A Sedge Warbler was also singing nearby to where we had heard our first Cetti’s. It was rather pleasant walking around and being surrounded by reedbeds in the sunshine and hot weather, a far more tranquil scene than the hecticness of the car park. As we walked towards the North Hide I had fleeting views of at least 3 Cetti’s Warbler, with one individual briefly hanging onto a piece of reed very close to us before flitting out of view. A few more Sedge Warblers were singing and one was seen. However, despite meticulously searching for them, there weren’t any signs of Bearded Tits. I found this somewhat odd as I had the impression that there were a good number of Bearded Tits on the reserve. Furthermore, I hadn’t even heard any. On a couple of occasions we came to openings in the reedbeds and had a look for avifauna, but there was nothing apart from the same variety of wildfowl that we had seen earlier on. The word was once again staring me in the face - ‘Quiet’. Mind you, what do you expect? There is minimal wind, the skies are clear and it’s hot! When we finally reached the North Hide, which was quite a walk, we had a look out. After sitting there for 20 minutes we had seen much of the same, which was perfectly nice but was not enough to keep us fully occupied. As I sat there, staring out onto the reedbed fringed lake, I felt slightly soporific. The fact that I had only had around less than 8 hours that night was starting to tell on me, and I was feeling somewhat tired. As was my Dad, so we headed back to the car park to have something to eat and drink to fuel us up, yet again failing to hear or see any Bearded Tits. I now knew that seeing Bearded Tits at Radipole wasn’t as easy as I had originally thought. My overall impression of Radipole was that it was a nice reserve and could easily have potential when conditions were better; however it was a little too disturbed for my liking.

Lodmoor RSPB, where I visited next, was much the same habitat wise but was out the town more and was more peaceful than Radipole. It seemed generally prettier too, and come to think of it I didn’t see a single person, birder or non birder, on my visit to the reserve. Soon after arriving I was pleased to latch onto my second Little Egret of the year gliding across the reeds, always a nice sight. On the lake there were notable numbers of Canada Geese, as well as 6 Gadwalls. Lodmoor unfortunately but predictably proved quiet like Radipole and unable to produce any Bearded Tits, but was probably that little bit better on the day. The Little Egret was nice to see, and hearing a Water Rail was also a good bonus. Both locations were pleasant, but unfortunately lacking in good birds. It was lunchtime by the time we had visited and been round both Lodmoor and Radipole, and I decided, having received no texts from Simeon, that I might as well check Birdguides. In doing so I discovered that nothing had been reported in Dorset whatsoever, save Spoonbill at Middlebere, where I was planning to visit the following day. After having lunch, it was kind of a sense of what to do next. After all, there wasn’t anywhere locally that may be worth visiting and nothing had been reported. In the end, we decided to spend the afternoon down by Chesil Beach at Langton Herring, where a long stay Hoopoe had been. However, having missed out on one Hoopoe that day and because of the weather I wasn’t hopeful that I was going to see this bird at all, but why not have a check when you’ve got nothing else better to do, I thought to myself, even when there’s 99% chance it won’t be there? Here are a couple of pictures of Lodmoor and Radipole respectively.

Langton Herring itself is a beautiful little village, and to access where the Hoopoe was hanging around you have to park at the end of the village and walk down through rolling fields towards the coastguard’s cottages by the beach. The field that the Hoopoe had been favouring was in fact before you reach the coastguard’s cottages, on the edge of the only oil seed rape field in the area. It took us a little while to find where we were supposed to be going to get into the area, but with the help of a birder (who unsurprisingly said that he hadn’t seen it) we found out where to go and proceeded to walk down. The area itself was very scenic, the ideal place to spend a sunny afternoon. When we reached the rape field, we walked slowly down the edge of it, seeing if we could flush up anything orange. But no, it wasn’t to be, as I had expected. Once we had walked down the side of the whole field we came to a lagoon, situated in front of the beach. It held a few species of wildfowl, the commoner suspects and, on the more notable side, at least 6 Red-breasted Mergansers. A Little Egret also flew by. Yet again though, it was quiet. With the feeling of quietude and being soporific, my Dad and I couldn’t help but just sit there and relax for a while, admiring the beauty of the area. After a while we moved on, slowly wheeling round past the coastguard’s cottages and back up the track towards the car, with still no sign of the Hoopoe. Not that I felt at all disappointed though, I wasn’t expecting to see it by any means. From here we couldn’t really think of much else to do or anywhere else to go. It was nearing 4:30pm, and we were both feeling tired. We both agreed that we might as well go back to the Observatory. Below is a picture of Chesil Beach.

And we did return to the Observatory, to find out that nothing but a few more Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and Blackcaps had been ringed. Nothing new had been seen apart from that. Dad was more tired than me, and shortly after we arrived back he had a kip. I had a brief look around the Obs garden, but with little success, the best I could see being a few Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers. At this point, I gave up for the day, and woke Dad up. We spent the rest of the day sitting in the Observatory chatting to other birders, and as it got dark, went to the local pub with one of the birders and the ringer Peter. Overall, a very quiet day, which was frankly rather disappointing, what with the fall on the previous day. However the Firecrest was lovely. Without that, it could have been even worse. Not the ideal start for the holiday, but there was room for improvement. The next day we would spend the day in Poole Harbour, which we hoped would prove more productive. Whether it would or not is a story yet to be told. For more on that, tune in to my next post.

Thanks for reading,



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  2. Sounds like a really good holiday, shame about dipping the hoopoe but c'est la vie. At least you had a firecrest whilst down there! Really stunning birds. I really enjoy reading your blog, you write like a pro man!

  3. Hi Louis, thank you so much for your kind words, I really appreciate them! I would hardly call myself a professional nature; more like middle of the road lol. The Firecrest made up fantastically for what wasn't a great day overall, but as you said, its life! Will post about my Poole Harbour ASAP, which you'll find out was that bit better than Thursday!


  4. Hi Joseph , another very enjoyable read , really like the picture of the sunrise , and the Firecrst is a stunning bird to see especially in the hand , atb Rob

  5. Hi Rob, thank you for the complimenting this latest entry and the pictures in it. I have to admit that sunrise was just beautiful, and I couldn't resist photographing it. Seeing the Firecrest in the hand was the best I could have hoped for, just stunning!