Monday, 4 January 2021

Not Quite Visiting Portland

The Isle of Portland is just down the road from where I live, and yet I never go there. I don't really know why not, and at some stage I'd like to rectify that. The famous Portland Bird Observatory has seen me even less - I've been through the gates just two or three times ever. And yet I visit the PBO website most days. I cannot explain this seeming paradox. It just is.

My first visit to Portland was in the summer of 1982. Sandra and I had been to Radipole to see a Squacco Heron, and followed it up with a quick look at the nearby place of legend. I think we knew there was a bird observatory at Portland Bill, but were too new to birding to have the confidence required to tread hallowed ground. Instead we sat on a nearby clifftop and watched our very first Puffin. Simple times.

The next visit was on 28th May, 1985. An easy one to remember...

A 'birder's photo' I'd like a chance to recreate one day. Black-eared Wheatear.

Film grain, dust on the negative, mirror-lens doughnuts... Retro!

The rest of the '80s and all the early '90s are a bit blurry, and I cannot recall any Portland trips, so I'll skip straight to October 1996...

I wasn't doing much birding by this stage, but had succumbed to the temptation to twitch a Northern Waterthrush. My memory of the day involves a flyover Lapland Bunting, several Firecrests and the downer of dippage.

In 2003 we had recently moved to East Devon and I was just beginning to take an interest in birding again. On the last day of August I drove to Portland with Rob. Our eldest son has zero interest in birding but is very tolerant, and was happy to tag along with the old man. My intention was for us to just have a pleasant walk, with me pausing from time to time to look at birds. Obviously I was aware that it was peak migration season and therefore hopeful of something interesting, but I was totally out of any bird-news loop that existed then. Not far from the observatory we spied a little crowd of birders, so wandered over. I asked the obvious question, and got a very unexpected answer...

'Olivaceous Warbler, mate.'

And there it was, creeping about in the bush opposite. Nice. Later we saw a juvenile Rosy Starling on a roof, and I also have a memory of a distant Ortolan Bunting, but don't fully trust it. But anyway, quite a haul for a chance visit. I thought to myself, 'Must come again soon...'

My friend Derek coaxed me to visit again in the spring of 2004. First, in April, when we were fortunate enough to witness a Wryneck in the hand. That fired me up a bit, and I took very little persuading when he suggested a dawn raid on May 3rd. And so it was that I spent the morning of my 45th birthday seawatching...

That's me on the left, with the astonishingly brown hair. Coincidentally, Steve Waite and his dad, Ian, chose that day for a visit too. Ian is in the foreground, with Steve between us.

So, did we see anything? Not many!!! Two - that's TWO - adult Long-tailed Skuas! I also remember a close dark-phase Pom, but it's the incredibly early Long-tails which stick in my mind. Obviously.

Strangely, since that day I am pretty sure I've not been birding on Portland at all. A summer visit with Sandra last year - for butterflies - was the closest I've got. As I say, that is something I plan to rectify. But in the meantime I shall content myself with a regular read of the daily PBO sightings page. Why, if I don't go there? Well, there is often bird news that has local relevance, so that's one reason. But there's another...

It so often makes me smile!

Though we have corresponded on the odd birdy matter, I've not knowingly met Martin Cade. But, boy, do I love his reporting style. Here's an example from yesterday...

That Meldrew-ish first sentence... Reading it again, I'm smiling right now.

And in the caption to the Redpoll photo, this: 'we used to think it's Fat Hen and have now forgotten what we've been told is in fact its correct identity'. I laughed out loud! That's exactly what I'm like with almost anything but birds, and especially plants. And I'm not that bothered by it either.

So, assuming that we are not all locked down again this spring, I plan to visit the home of my favourite bird news output. And judging by my Portland track record, there ought to be something notable...


  1. With your track record for the Bill, I'm amazed you don't spend more time there but, I fully understand it. I'm the same with some waters. Maybe it's a bit like living over a sweet shop.

    1. Ha ha! Maybe...
      Birding locally is more appealing to me though. Not much travelling, good potential and very few other birders. Still, no harm in an occasional visit to the sweetshop, is there? 😉

  2. Gav, I saw Puffins there for the first time as well.

    I also saw a Rock Thrush there as well. I'm sure most others there dipped. It was out of sight over the brow of a hill in a field, but I got a sight line by climbing atop a huge boulder stationed behind the masses.

    I saw it well, and also when it flew off into hedge just as the place fogged over. I have the feeling it was never seen again.

    1. What a bird! Portland had a spring male in consecutive years, Ric. A few days in April '88 and another on May 6th, 1989. Do you remember the year? Bet it was the' 89 bird.