4:15am. To most, this is an ungodly hour to get out of bed on most days, let alone a weekend. But for a birder, this is the norm, and for a biologist, this is called sleeping in.
Simon Buckingham, whom I met in Panama in February, arrived at Hinksey Golf Club with his good mate Howard Jolliffe at 5:00am. After a quick meet-and-greet, it was off to the southcoast in twilight. After about an hour of driving we stopped for essential supplies - coffee and a muffin! No time to waste eating in the shop though, as it was back on the road as we had a lot of ground to cover. It was evident that Simon was on a mission - to increase my chances of finding lifers and to not waste precious time. Zipping along the motorway at 70+ miles per hour, we picked up highway quickies - Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Wood Pigeon, Common Buzzard.
Our first port-of-call was, well, Portland Bill, a large rocky island connected by a narrow promontory and soon-to-be host site of the 2012 summer Olympics sailing events. But we were not there to sightsee; we were there to get birds. We made a few small stops on the way to the lighthouse to scan for birds, but generally it was slow going until we parked and took a short walk around the tip of the most southerly seaward bluffs. Within moments I had my first lifer - a Whinchat. This was shortly followed by lifers two, three, and four: Manx Shearwater, Razorbill, and Little Gull. We picked up a few other goodies along the way, including Black-legged Kittiwake, Northern Wheatear, Northern Gannet, Meadow Pipit, and Rock Pipit. Surprisingly, we also got a Common Raven, a year tic bird for Simon and Howard.
After searching for a few other highlights such as Ring Ouzel, and failing, it was soon decided that we press on. From Portland Bill we went to Raddipole, a small RSPB reserve in Portland. Here we were in search of marsh and reed specialties, and although we couldn't find Water Rail, I did get fantastic looks at two lifers: Cetti's Warbler and Bearded Tit. Overall, bird activity at Raddipole was somewhat muted, unless we counted the non-feathered variety of birds! A lady of the night walked by in shorts that could have been mistaken for a belt, and another woman taking photos of the local wildlife was dressed in a halter-top; we were bundled up in fleece coats and hats - it was only 8 degrees Celsius. Apparently we were wimps!
From Raddipole we made a long drive to the Thursley Common National Nature Reserve. Along the way we picked up sandwiches, snacks and drinks, and once again ate en route. One noticeable change from Portland Bill to Thursley was the weather. At Portland Bill it was lovely and sunny with a light wind - perfect for birding. Toward Thursley, thick dark clouds billowed in the distance, and as we approached the wind picked up and intermittent showers commenced. Once at Thursley we headed out into the great swamp - yes, a swamp. Despite earlier reports that England was suffering from an 18 month drought, it appeared as if any rain that did fall, fell on Thursley. The main trail was similar to the Dead Marshes from Lord of the Rings - or perhaps I'm embellishing a bit - there wasn't as many bugs or dead bodies than depicted in the books.
Birding at Thursley was pretty thin, as periodic showers and a cool breeze whisked across the open common. Highlights included two lifers: Common Redstart and Woodlark, the latter merely a speck in the scope but good enough to see key field marks. Other good birds included Peregrine Falcon, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Great Grey Shrike (a.k.a. Northern Shrike). We departed at about 3:00pm, and that was the end of a great day of birding. We arrived back at Hinksey at 4:15pm. Both Simon and Howard were fantastic hosts, and a true comical duo constantly teasing each other over birds seen, or not seen, by the other; Hooded Merganser was a particularly sensitive species for Howard. The day ended with an invite to join them on a trip to Ecuador in February - very tempting, and a very difficult decision. This will take a bit of time to decide, and perhaps some serious convincing of Joanna that it really is necessary to revisit the country. The major selling point is that the trip would be led by Tropical Birding, one of the leading tour operators for guided birding throughout the world. Tropical Birding was also the primary guide for the authors of The Biggest Twitch.
Thanks again Simon and Howard for 8 lifers.
Until next time, happy birding wherever you may be.