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Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Sunny Dorset (including a Wryneck!) - 6th to 13th September, 2014

At the beginning of February, I visited Charmouth in Dorset for a week which I intended to be split between fossil hunting and birding. This turned out to be the week with the worst storms seen for decades, which made for great fossiling, but was a disaster for birding, causing me to go home a day early.

When my wife decided, a few weeks ago, that she needed a holiday as soon as possible, I suggested Charmouth, and she liked the idea. This was to be the first holiday that we had taken together since May 2013, due to one of us needing to stay at home to look after our ailing cat - sadly now departed. In stark contrast to February's experience, the weather this week couldn't have been much better!

Saturday 6th September

Rather than race down the motorway to give us a journey time of a little over three hours, we decided to make the journey part of the holiday by keeping to relatively minor roads, and taking a picnic lunch. This should have given us a journey time of just over five hours, plus stops. A large part of this journey would be down the Fosse Way - an old Roman road that was built to link Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) with Lincoln (Lindum Colonia), the distance between these two places being 230 miles (370 km). The road is remarkable in that, for the northernmost 182 miles (293 km) of its length, the road didn't deviate from an absolutely straight line by more than 6 miles (10 km)! As the road has been downgraded to a relatively minor status, many of the roads that cross it have priority.

We soon found that traffic was much heavier than we had previously experienced on the route, and well before Moreton-in-Marsh, we virtually ground to a halt. What I hadn't foreseen was that it was the weekend of Morton Agricultural and Horse Show, with access to the showground being off the Fosse on our side of Moreton. A self-imposed diversion brought us to a comfort stop at a place in the country which specialises in Tibetan artifacts - fascinating, but pocket contents remained intact! We then took some country lanes, stopping for our picnic in the countryside, which brought us into Moreton beyond the hold up - the queues of traffic in the opposite direction went on for miles!

The rest of the journey was uneventful apart from a stop at an antiques centre, with the only expenditure being on superb ice-creams - I had mango ice-cream (not sorbet), and this was to be the first of an ice-cream laden holiday!!

We checked in and found that we'd been allocated exactly the same cottage (Amber Cottage) in the excellent Char Valley Cottages complex as I'd been in in February.

That evening we had a wander round Charmouth, enjoyed a drink at the Royal Oak, followed by an evening meal sitting out on the terrace at the Charmouth Fish and Chip Bar. Our position enabled us to observe the bizarre situation here. It seems that the average wait time for a takeaway meal was in excess of half an hour! My calamari, served with chips and a salad, was delicious, but far too big a plate-full.

Sunday 7th September 

My wife loves to wander along beaches, and Charmouth has a reputation for being one of the best fossiling places in UK, so our morning (in glorious sunshine) was spent fossiling on Charmouth East Beach. Unlike in February, the finds were almost non-existent. One of the beach wardens informed me that there was a new 3ft (1 metre) layer of sand, washed in by the sea, covering everything up.

Lunch was taken at the Soft Rock Cafe on the beach, after which we went back to the car and set off to explore the byways and coves to the east of Charmouth, taking a picnic tea with us.

We had now completed day two and were having a marvellous time, but without a single photo being taken! However, it does get better (much better!!), I promise!

Monday 8th September

On this day our objective was the island of Portland. We'd booked an early afternoon boat trip on The Fleet (the tidal lagoon which lies behind Chesil Beach. Chesil Beach is a shingle beach, 18 miles (29 km) long which connects West Bay with Portland. 

We'd intended to have lunch at the fabulous Crab House at the landward end of the Portland causeway, but found that it was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so headed off to the Chesil Beach Fine Foundation Visitor Centre, by Ferry Bridge, for an early lunch of crab sandwich.

I left Lindsay (my wife) sitting finishing a pot of tea whilst I went outside to try and get some photos of the birds by the centre. There were three distant Dunlin, a small flock of Linnet, and three juvenile Ringed Plover in the area.

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) - Ferry Bridge
Linnet (Carduelis cannabina) - Ferry Bridge
This was to be my best shot of the Linnets, but I spent a long time standing as still as a statue, and the Dunlin and Ringed Plover slowly made their way towards me.





Dunlin (Calidris alpina) - Ferry Bridge
Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) (juvenile) - Ferry Bridge
I'm not very good at waders, and I'm a bit worried that the three 'Dunlin' seem to be of differing sizes, so if I've got the ID wrong, please tell me.

The session broke up when a woman with dog (off leash) approached and spooked the birds in spite of signs saying that dogs weren't allowed - why do so many dog owners think that the rules don't apply to them?

The boat trip on The Fleet, in a boat with a glass bottom, was splendid, and very interesting, but the photos aren't too special.

We then returned to the Visitor Centre for an Ice Cream and I took a few more photos of the Ringed Plovers.


Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula) (juvenile) - Ferry Bridge
After this, we headed off to Portland Bill where I left Lindsay to admire the scenery whilst I went off to check out the small quarry just below the Observatory. This place is famed for harbouring rare birds during migration. I arrived to glimpse a familiar-looking shape disappearing into a hole in the quarry. A quick word with the person already there confirmed that it was a Little Owl! I'd no idea that they were on the island. I didn't have to wait too long before it emerged again.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Portland Bill
For the next half hour this bird kept me entertained with a big grin on my face, before it disappeared back into the hole and I decided that it was time to rejoin Lindsay.





Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Portland Bill
I found Lindsay by the lighthouse, looking out to sea. A juvenile Cormorant was close by.

Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) (juvenile) - Portland Bill
There were quite a few Wheatear around, ready to head across the English Channel in the morning, but the sun was sinking fast and, unless you were facing the right direction, the light was difficult. This was the only bird that I managed to get in a good position, but I'm quite pleased with the result.

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) (female) - Portland Bill
That evening we had our picnic meal back at the cottage.

Tuesday 9th September

Today we used our bus passes for a short trip into Lyme Regis. It's many years since I'd been to Lyme, and I was very pleasantly surprised. A walk onto The Cob, was followed by an ice-cream and, twenty minutes later, another ice-cream, after which we visited some of the many attractive shops. Having returned at the front of the top deck of the bus (not done that for decades!) we had lunch at The George in Charmouth, before a fossil hunting session on Charmouth West Beach - which was even less productive than it was on the East Beach.

That evening we had our picnic in a field beside the River Axe near Whitford, after which we did a bit of exploring. This resulted in our only disaster of the holiday. I was, as Lindsay described it to our daughter, skipping over the rocks in the River Coly in Colyton when I found a slippery rock and fell backwards into the river, striking my binoculars on a rock as I went in. One side of the bins filled with water (the seal had been broken and the gas escaped), and I suspect that they're beyond repair. As I write this they're in for assessment. Fortunately I only suffered bruising (to both body and reputation1), but it was a week before I could sit comfortably! As luck would have it, I didn't have my camera and, in fact, apart from a few photos taken in Lyme Regis, this was another photoless day.

Wednesday 10th September

We'd managed to get a lunch booking at The Crab House by Chesil Beach, and so headed off towards Weymouth. We first called at the RSPB Reserve at Radipole Lake. I was given a couple of hours to visit whilst Lindsay went shopping, before we had to set off for The Crab House.

Although it was another sunny day, it was a bit more breezy than previous days. There were a few Migrant Hawker and Common Darter dragonflies around, but I failed to get any photos of them. There were also plenty of Comma butterflies around. For my overseas readers, who may not be familiar with this species, the highly sculpted wing shape is not wear and tear, but normal. In the following images you can see this, and the marking on the underside of the wing from which the species gets it common name.


Comma (Polygonia c-album) - RSPB Radipole Lake
Further on I couldn't resist a shot of the Cormorants.
Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) - RSPB Radipole Lake
I'd been debating whether to go to North Hide, as it's out on a limb at the most distant part of the reserve, but I chatted with someone returning who told me that there was a Red-backed Shrike showing well there. As this is a far-from-common bird in UK and would be a UK first for me (only previously seen on Sardegna) my mind was instantly made up. In the event, it remained at about 120 yards (metres) distance, so only record shots were obtained.

Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) - RSPB Radipole Lake
After ten minutes here, it was time to rush back to meet up with Lindsay, who was waiting in the car, and head off to The Crab House.

We had eaten at The Crab House once before, several years ago, and it's a splendid place, so we were pleased to get a reservation. Our lunch, which we had decided would be 'the meal of the holiday', was rather indulgent and utterly wonderful!

Suitably replete, we headed off for Portland Bill. I was keen to look for the Little Owl again, and try and learn some more about them on the island. On the Monday I'd been told that they'd been around for years, although previously in a hole higher up in the quarry. I knew enough about Little Owls to be certain that, in order for there to be a sustainable population here, there must be other Little Owl sites around. I found that I'd mistimed my arrival and the sun had not yet got round to shine on where the owl was, although it was shining brightly on the surrounding rocks. This made photography a little difficult.

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Portland Bill
Whilst waiting for the sun to come round I chatted to some other birders who were familiar with the area, and who confirmed that there were other LOs around, living in various disused quarries. I'd heard of LOs in quarries before, but never seen any before this holiday. A quarry like this seems to be a superb nest site. During these conversations I learned of a bird, just a couple of miles down the road, that I really couldn't afford to miss.

By the time the sun came round, I was champing at the bit to go off and find this 'other bird'. I grabbed a few shots before I headed off to collect Lindsay. Here's one of the owl trying to mimic a Nightjar

Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Portland Bill
I arrived at the Bill to see the lifeboat speed past on its way to an incident.

RNLB 'Earl and Countess Mountbatten of Burma' - off Portland Bill
When I eventually found Lindsay, she was busy watching the drama unfolding out at sea. I just hope that the people on the yacht were OK.

Rescue at sea - off Portland Bill
Having collected Lindsay, we quickly made our way to Weston, where I left Lindsay in the car while I quickly made my way up the Barleycrates Lane footpath and was immediately put onto the bird by the only other birder there.

Piece of tree bark? - Weston, Portland
The bird was seen by looking through a gap in the vegetation which coincided with a partial breakdown of the field boundary wall, but it was a bit distant. I then found a similar gap somewhat nearer to the bird and managed two sessions of approximately 5 seconds each, peering round foliage without disturbing the bird.


Wryneck (Jynx torquilla) - Weston, Portland
I can see from the photo data that I remained here for almost exactly ten minutes. I could have enjoyed the sight (a 'life bird' for me) all day, but I was concerned not to disturb the bird so that others could enjoy it afterwards, although it did seem very confiding (as is quite common with this species). A brief stay also earned me 'brownie points' with Lindsay!

Thursday 11th September

This was another day without photography. We started with a fossil hunting session at Seatown, with very little being found. A very good lunch was taken at the newly refurbished Anchor Inn right by the beach at Seatown, followed by more fossil hunting. The jury is still out as to whether I found anything worthwhile - everything is still wrapped up, pending preparation work.

In the evening we had tickets for a concert by Chantel McGregor, at the amazing Electric Palace in Bridport. We arranged to arrive early and had a picnic tea in the playing fields behind the church. 

The concert was excellent and the supporting act, solo artist Del Bromham, was also superb.

Friday 12th September

Our last full day in Dorset started with a revisit to Charmouth East Beach. This time I was a little more successful in my fossil hunting, having found an area that was relatively rich in fossils.

We then set off back to Bridport for lunch in an Indian restaurant, before heading back to Portland. Our main objective was the Tout Quarry which has been turned into a sculpture park and nature reserve. We didn't see much of the nature, but I did get a photo of a Small Heath - I don't think I've photographed this species before. 

Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus) - Tout Quarry
At one point, the views over to Chesil Beach were wonderful.

Chesil Beach from Tout Quarry
The sculptures were many and varied. I was a tad disappointed with the Anthony Gormley piece, which might have looked better if it wasn't in strong shadow for its lower half - but perhaps that was the point! The following was, perhaps, my favourite of the pieces - and I've only just found the name of the piece!

Fallen Fossil by Stephen Marsden - Tout Quarry
By the entrance to the quarry is an area named The Circle of Stones. A group of Dutch Sculptors visits for two weeks every year and each works on their own particular project, returning the next year to do more work on their pieces.

Following this visit, it was getting quite late, but I wanted to make a brief visit to 'the Obs' quarry. En-route I stopped to photograph a Small Copper. It's a poor photo but possibly the only one of these beautiful little butterflies that I've seen this year.

Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) - Portland Bill
I arrived at the quarry to be told by the only person there that an owl had just flown from down in the quarry, just above where I'd previously seen it, into its old haunt up in the higher rocks above the quarry. I had to wait a while before it appeared again, but it was worth the wait in order to get some images of it in a slightly different location - even if it barely moved for the whole time that I was watching it.


Little Owl (Athene noctua) - Portland Bill
Whilst waiting for the owl to do something interesting, a Rabbit was foraging nearby.

Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) - Portland Bill
After this, we headed back to Charmouth.

Saturday 13th September

We had to be out of the cottage by 10:00 so the morning was taken up by packing and clearing up. Our return route was similar to the outward, but slightly different, and we had a very good lunch at the Inn on the Marsh, Moreton in Marsh, and were home by about 15:30.

It had been an extremely enjoyable holiday, even if the fossil hunting was possibly not so good as it was in February - I'll know more when I get round to sorting things out in a few months time!

Thank you for dropping by.