GUEST SPOT: IMMY, A LOVE LETTER TO SNIDLEY MOOR

Since the creation of bikes and bird hides last year, Immy has been a big old supporter and now even co-hosts the monthly Bikes and Bird Hides Culture Club, so it seems only right that she shares her beautifully penned love letter to her local spot, Snidley Moor, on the blog!

There is a small spit of woodland near my house. You access it by a tiny dirt track alongside a static caravan park; in the summer it becomes a tangled knot of vines. If you don’t know it exists, it doesn’t exist. A few meters ahead and on the right is a path to the sandstone trail, so most people don’t notice this tiny little entrance. Their eyes slide from the horses in the paddock, to the caravan park, and back to the cut stone steps to the trail. You can slip undetected into a shaded dappled path and out of sight.

The woodland here is ancient. There’s oak, beech and hawthorn, but it is mostly dominated by silver birch now, which has been coppiced for the past century. In the winter, the flexible poles creak and sway in the wind, and the whole place becomes ghostly. You can cycle if you are careful and keep to the bridleway. Mountain-bikers, drawn here by the steep root-bound descents, have caused a lot of damage to the ground flora over the years, and so cyclists are treated with suspicion.

It’s strange how the birds react when you visit. The little song thrush that sits at the mouth of the wood is more concerned with being louder than you are; the crows call angrily at their sanctum defiled by humanity, but mostly it goes silent as soon as you enter. It is very obvious you are being watched.

The gravel track is rutted and grooved deeply from small rivulets in clayey soils that have worn away over the years. Blackbirds, wrens and little dunnocks will follow you, flitting between the bracken on your left for a short while, but will leave you as the sandstone walls rise up. On your right is a gnarled and twisted silver birch – one of the oldest in the UK. In its trunk is a small brown notebook in a plastic bag, and people have been writing messages in it since the 1920s. Children leave toys and food for the birds. It is quite normal in this area for people to leave gifts at the base of trees. Further on is a tree where all manner of things are left: One week I saw a mug with a bear in it, and another time a small tin watering can. Other trees have people leaving small piles of sticks in trunk hollows, or dried flower bundles at the roots. I wonder what private traditions these are, and what draws them to specific trees or spots. I can’t find anything on the internet about them, so assume they are personal rituals held tightly in people’s fists and pocketed.

Whichever way you walk, you are met with steep vertical inclines to the top. From here you can see all the way to North Wales and if you fancy it, Liverpool. Beneath you is a severe cliff face, carpeted in the summer by bright blustery rhododendron. I know they are considered to many a pest, but this smudged ribbon of purple, thumb-smeared roughly across the cliff face always cheers me up. It cheers the birds up too. The chaffinches, goldfinches, coal tits and various other warblers make ample use of the thickets and, mostly undisturbed by humans (so few know about this place and even less can be bothered with the climb), jabber away a sparkling cacophony of little voices regardless of the season. Once, I heard what I think was a black cap. It sounded like two marbles being clacked together sharply, and I enjoyed listening to it. I saw a Jay too, planting acorns, and heard the distant high whistled ‘pheee-yew’ of a buzzard. We first learnt to identify buzzards as children with my dad, who would lazily point to the daub of hovering black in the summer, and say ‘look, buzzard’. As an adult, I realised that beside the robin and the blackbird, the buzzard was the only bird he really recognised. He still spots them first though, from miles off, and gestures with the same mild indifference that only dads possess. I listen out for them now, and hear the whistle weave in and out of range.

There is a wooden bench, and I like sitting here. Time doesn’t really exist in this woodland. I could sit for 5 seconds, 5 minutes, or more than an hour: It doesn’t matter – I know I am always late home if I sit.

There is something magical about this woodland. Just two miles down track are thick ridges of sandstone, so in the summer the soil becomes blood-red and glows in the late evening sun. In winter, ice laces the littered blocks of stone (felled from years of quarrying and erosion) in thin egg-shell crusts that crunch very softly when you tread on them. They glitter like quartz, and one year I remember walking when it began to snow. A sudden hush came over the woods, and the silence pressed heavily before the whole forest exhaled. Nothing stirred, and within minutes a white sheet had carpeted the trail. The sandstone cliffs in the hollow – deep auburn and decidedly saharan- appeared unnervingly at odds with snow. It was like the two scenes had been clumsily photoshopped together.

Carved into the sandstone walls are initials of those from 1668, 1917, 1942, 1986 and 2011. Some have left softly warped shapes and pictures alongside the dates and initials; moss and lichen have rooted into the grooves, and as I trace the lines with my fingers I consider that the significance of these stick-scratches has died alongside their authors. Their motive, energy, thoughts, worries, enjoyments have all dissolved back into the earth, and we know nothing of ‘AF’, ‘SY’ or ’T.C.’.

Beyond, you can still see the ramparts (the outer defensive wall) of the iron age fort that once dominated this woodland. I had my sandwiches on it once, completely unknowingly seated on bits of stone laid by men and women around 1,300 years ago. A mile onwards is Jacob’s Ladder, precarious steps cut into the rock face in the mid 19th century. There is a famous picture of two young girls in white dresses and wide hats and leather boots sat unsmilingly on the steps that I have seen in our local Morrisons. I always think of that picture when I climb them, and I wonder how many times they climbed.

That’s what is magical about the woodland. There is so much human history here, warped and twisted alongside the ancient rocks and roots. The sandstone cliffs here are about 30 million years old, and I take great delight in telling people that humans have only been in existence for about 1.6% of their lifetime. The stone hasn’t even noticed us yet.

But as you walk, the left disintegrates into tangled cliff faces, and the right is tightly separated by three lines of barbed wire. There is a golf course here, and the tidy lawns stop sharply at the wire, and seem utterly incongruous with the gnarled and ancient ridge-line. This is humanity. I once saw fox pick it’s way lightly across the green and it seemed absurd. The birds quieten here, and even the wren – the most obnoxious of all the small birds – knows it is not its place to speak, and it shuts up. The further you trek, the neater the edges, the softer the stone, the louder the unending drone of the distant motorway. You’ll reach a very straight edge of tarmac that butts sharply against the sandstone track. The two meet, but they do not mix. This is Carriage Drive and this is the end.

Skipwith Common and Kiplingcotes Chalk Pit Nature Reserve : A weekend in East Yorkshire

With May half term signaling the end of a hectic term at work, I seized the opportunity to leave the Lakes and head back to East Yorkshire for some much needed rest in familiar scenery. Some beautiful weather was forecast for the weekend, it seemed only right that the bikes should be loaded up onto the car to make the most of the Wolds. One of the great things about the Wolds is it’s extensive bridleways that follow old railway lines, having previously done the Hudson Way (a ten mile track from Market Weighton to Beverly), I decided to head the other way towards Selby and the Vale of York along the Bubwith Rail Trail. Looking on a map, it was easy to see that Skipwith Common could be used as an extension to the ride – a 40 mile round ride was created!

The rail trail cuts through the arable land of East Yorkshire, lined with thick hedgerows opening up onto vast views of green and yellow fields. The hedgerows seemed alive, goldfinches, bullfinches, and tree sparrows all darted between branches and flew alongside us, and buzzards and kestrels soared over the crop filled fields. The trail itself is quiet, and like much of East Yorkshire and the Wolds it gets overlooked for its nearby counterparts. The small village of Bubwith makes a great spot to stop, there’s a good coffee and cake stop at the Jug and Bottle plus plenty of areas to stop and sit by the River Derwent.

From Bubwith you take quiet country lanes to Skipwith Common – the common is SAC (special area of conservation), and is one of the last remaining areas of northern lowland heath in England. It’s an incredible sight and a stark change in environment after riding past endless open fields. It’s 270 hectares of open heath, ponds, mire, fen, reed-bed, woodland and scrub and thankfully has several bridleways that cut through the heart of it allowing cyclists to explore some of the landscape easily on wheels.

The woodland areas were full of bird call, and it was brilliant to see longhorn cattle and hebredian sheep being used for conservation grazing on the site. With much of the site only accessible through walking, it’s definitely one to revisit and spend an entire day there particularly as there are Bronze Age burial mounds to see! The rail trail was used to fly along back towards Market Weighton.

The next morning, I headed along the Hudson Way to Kiplingcotes Chalk Pit looked after by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. It’s a small site formed from an old chalk quarry. Although small, it’s well worth a visit with the scrub filled with yellowhammers and red kites flying overhead. In late summer the grassland supports Pyramidal orchid; Common spotted orchid and Common twayblade. It makes the perfect place to stop if you’re doing the Wolds Way or even just continuing on the de-commissioned railway line to Beverley.

Routes for both rides can be found on komoot here! Happy bike birding!

Torver Common – Cumbria

This post is going to be a little different, yes there will still be bikes, yes there will still be birds, but there will be no hide and there will be the admission that this ride was not planned with birdwatching in mind – it was simply to get out in the sunshine and explore the bridleways around Coniston. We set off from Tarn Hows and used the bridleway that runs below the crags of the Coniston Fells.

After skirting along the shoreline of Coniston on the permitted cycleway, we hit Torver and were greeted with a bevvy of steam engines outside the pub. We couldn’t not stop, and after chatting we were told the one I was swooning over was actually an ammunition carrier from World War One that had been restored. Built in 1917 and working in France, it was incredible to see, especially as they were so targeted and so few brought back post-war. Even better, the gathering was for a stag do!

After tearing ourselves away from the engines, we headed out to Torver Common using a single track bridleway to get to Throng Moss Reservoir. The views back to Coniston were incredible, but Torver Common was to bring out the real sights and sounds. As we made our way along the reservoir we spotted what we thought *could* be a cuckoo, but we knew we’d need ‘audio confirmation’ to be sure. And we got it, sitting eating our sandwiches we heard it’s distinctive call. We were ecstatic – our first cuckoo of the year! Following this, we sat and watched/listened as a willow warbler made it’s way from tree to tree. As if it couldn’t get any better, we were the treated to a lizard basking in the bracken next to the track. Heading down past Stable Harvey the common was littered with wheaters, stonechats, and meadow pippets. I have no apologies for the amount of photos to follow.

Subberthwaite, Blawith and Torver Commons is an SAC (special area of conservation) which is made up of a range of upland habtitas, including twenty-nine types of mire plant communities, heath, open water, base rich flushes, acid grassland, bracken and some woodland and juniper scrub. It has a network of bridleways running across it, and it’s important due to its sensitive nature to stick to these! Torver Common is looked after in part by the Duddon, Seathwaite and Torver Commoners Group, who are currently working hard to restore extensive native tree and scrub habitat across the area.

We took the main road back to Torver, passing by the convey of steam engines by the lake shore, before heading back up to Tarn Hows via more bridleways. It had been an incredible day – full of unexpected wildlife watching, firsts of the year, and some beautiful riding. A cracking day out and one that will definitely be repeated. As always, the route can be found here on komoot!

Brockholes: Lancashire Wildlife Trust

Since 2007, The Lancashire Wildlife Trust has been working to create a mosaic of habitats at Brockholes… from wetlands to woodlands and this helps attract a wide range of wildlife.

Lancashire Wildlife Trust: https://www.brockholes.org/wildlife

Brockholes Nature Reserve was one of the first sites I wrote on my ever expanding list of ‘post-covid’ visits, and whilst I’m well aware we are far from being ‘post-covid’ when the news broke that we could meet others to enjoy the outdoors with I knew I wanted to get to this reserve ASAP! Thankfully, Immy (who runs BBHCC with me), didn’t take any persuasion to finally meet up and get some bike birding done. We agreed to meet at Brockholes, and then head off around Preston using the circular Guild Wheel route, with neither of us knowing the city we thought this would be an easy way to get a taste of Preston without getting too lost!

Brockholes is situated just off from the M6 and by all accounts is a relatively new reserve, with Lancashire Wildlife Trust beginning their incredible work in 2007. It’s transformation from quarry site to nature reserve is incredibly impressive, and when you’re there you get the impression it’s always been like this. Immy and I meet up in the car park and quickly unload our bikes before heading to the floating visitor village to grab a coffee. The visitor village is nestled among the reedbeds on the Meadow Lake and the open space gives incredible views out onto the lake which is home to nesting geese, coots, and mallards. The nearby motorway is drowned out by the electronic calls of lapwings who are wheeling across the sky from shore to shore.

We do a loop of the site, making sure we push our bikes when necessary, before joining the Guild Wheel route that cuts through the site. Before we leave the reserve, we head into a hide overlooking ‘number one pit’ which is a previous gravel pit that has been reshaped to create underwater ledges and peninsulas to encourage birds to roost and feed here. Again, we’re hit with a cacophony of lapwing calls alongside geese and gulls all calling to one another.

After pushing our bikes up and out of Bolton Wood, we started following the blue signs waymarking Route 622. Passing through fragments of parkland and woodland, we find ourselves along the Lancaster Canal and decide to make a stop on its banks. From here we sit and watch nuthatches work their way up and down the trees which lean from the banks over the canal.

We continue on, enjoying the sunshine and riding at a steady pace – which is only broken when we physically can’t stop laughing and have to double over our bikes and try to regain our composure (unsuccessfully…). In no time at all, we find ourselves on the banks of the Ribble, Preston docklands stretching out before us, the route then takes you along the Ribble skirting the bottom of Fishwick Nature Reserve. The sandy banks of the Ribble were teeming with sand martins becoming re-acquainted with their nesting sites – tunnels carved into the river banks.

We make it back to Brockholes, greeted by hovering Kestrels. I can’t speak for Immy, but I’d had one of the best rides out in a long time – the peaceful nature of the Guild Wheel route allowing you take in the changing scenery and ending at an incredible reserve that shows how well nature can reclaim spaces. The route can be found on my Komoot here, but as you can see we made a few turning errors, so always worth double checking those blue signs!

APRIL READ: BIKES AND BIRD HIDES CULTURE CLUB

This month’s book is ‘Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and Its Birds’ by Benedict Macdonald, winner of the 2020 Wainwright Prize for Writing on Global Conservation. We’re really excited to read this highly praised book which delves into the desperate need for rewilding, nature restoration, regenerative farming and the widespread reintroduction of lost species to the UK. It’s going to be an incredibly interesting read, and hopefully one which will leave us ready to ask some big questions about the state of nature in Britain.

Here’s the official synopsis to get you excited: Britain has all the space it needs for an epic return of its wildlife. Only six percent of our country is built upon. Contrary to popular myth, large areas of our countryside are not productively farmed but remain deserts of opportunity for both wildlife and jobs. It is time to turn things around. Praised as ‘visionary’ by conservationists and landowners alike, Rebirding sets out a compelling manifesto for restoring Britain’s wildlife, rewilding its species and restoring rural jobs – to the benefit of all.

There’s a great review here if you want to look into the book a little more.

If this sounds like something you’d enjoy, join the group to chat about the book on Monday 3rd of May at 6pm via zoom – to ensure you get your invite fill out this form!

Meathop Moss – Cumbria Wildlife Trust

This nature reserve is an internationally rare lowland raised peatbog. High and stable water levels are essential to the health and long term future of the bog.

https://www.cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk/nature-reserves/meathop-moss

A last minute Saturday morning decision was made to exploit the spring sunshine and spin out to Grange-over-Sands via Route 70, Bay Cycle Way We knew we’d pass birding spots such as the River Kent, Sizergh Castle, and Foulshaw Moss. What we’d totally overlooked was the fact that we’d ride straight by the smaller Cumbria Wildlife Trust site of Meathop Moss.

After a quick coffee stop at Sizergh, we decided on using Ashbank Lane as a quick way to cut across the bottom of Sizergh Fell and down into Levens, rather than slogging it up Sizergh Fell Road (it always feels like a slog to me…). The view across the valley floor with the towering fells in the background was exceptional, and I felt incredibly grateful to have pushed myself to get out on the bike, and on a route I’d recently been dismissive of. After dropping out of Levens, it’s straight onto flat causeway roads that follow the A590.

Skirting around the bottom of the ever impressive Whitbarrow Scar, you start to see Foulshaw Moss in between the trees – you can turn off here easily to head into the reserve just before you get to the bottom of Mill Side. The roads are insanely quiet, almost traffic free apart from the lambs and ewes being guided to their new pastures.

After diving into the Witherslack Community Shop for a sweet treat and a chance to actually enjoy the sunshine, we crossed under the A590 passing along the outskirts of Foulshaw Moss. We’d always assumed it was just pastures beyond the site, but we soon saw reedbeds and slowed down. We’d come across Meathop Moss, completely unexpectedly! Heading down a public footpath which was enclosed by dense hedging, we got to my favourite nature reserve feature – a boardwalk.

The site itself is best known for it’s incredible summer visitors: green hairstreak butterflies, emperor moths, large heath butterflies, and a myriad of dragonflies. The site is also home to adders, red and roe deers, plus sedge warblers, reed buntings, snipe, stonechats, and tree pipits. At the first viewing point we heard the incessant call of a reed bunting and took the time to read up on what had recently been spotted. This first section overlooks a small pond which is surrounded by dense reeds and willow.

The boardwalk then loops around a section of the site, moving through a small section of woodland filled with birch and scots pine, before heading out over the bog, It’s a short walk, but offers up plenty of stopping points to take in the rich plant life, and as always it’s going to be a fantastic site to revisit in summer!

The ride to Grange-over Sands continues on flat lanes, gliding over drainage canals, and taking in the glimpses up the valley. Just outside Grange-over-Sands we stood mesmorised by a little egret, it’s distinct yellow feet an easy identifier. Behind us a rookery came to life, as the crows began circling together over the tree line. They’d clearly been disturbed by something, but weren’t chasing, we strained to see what was causing the commotion. A peregrine falcon glided into view, swooping over the trees and down the rock face before circling up again. It’s distinct ‘roman helmet’ head a clear sign of the falcon.

We followed the same route back, following the blue signs back to Kendal. Another nature reserve ticked off the list, but added to the ‘revisit in summer’ pile. The ride certainly ticked a lot of boxes, and it’s got the cogs whirring about upcoming group rides! As always, you can find the ride on my komoot here! Happy bike birding!

Barkbooth Lot – Cumbria Wildlife Trust

From the combination of bracken and violets in the grassland forming perfect breeding conditions for the nationally scarce high brown fritillary butterfly – to the tarns that are home to the rare medicinal leech – to the wealth of woodland birds and carpet of bluebells in the spring, Barkbooth Lot is important for wildlife year-round. 

https://www.cumbriawildlifetrust.org.uk/nature-reserves/barkbooth-lot

The Lyth Valley is a mesmerising place, nestled between Scout Scar and Whitbarrow with the River Gilpin coursing through the pastures up to the dense woodland. It’s full of unassuming country lanes, that rise from the flats of the valley into the smaller hills that appear by Winster.

The original plan had just been to escape the same roads, and explore the valley. I’d planned a ride, heading out of Kendal using Gamblesmire Lane to cut across Cunswick Scar and into the valley, this wasn’t supposed to be a ride with a wildlife reserve on it….but I couldn’t help myself when I saw the Cumbria Wildlife Trust sign on the side of the road. I’d read about Barkbooth Lot on the Cumbria Wildlife Trust website after spending more time than I want to admit trawling through their website for new sites to visit. Being relatively small, at just 27 hectares, I’d always pushed it to the bottom of the ever growing list of reserves I wanted to visit. Coming across it on unexpectedly on a ride felt serendipitous, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

Crosthwaite derives its name from the old Scandinavian word, “thwaite”, meaning a clearing in a forest or a piece of land, which has been enclosed. This was blended with “Cross”, which may reflect the earlier Christian connections with the Irish or Angle missionaries of the sixth or seventh century. The Norsemen also gave the Lyth Valley its name; “hlith” means sloping hillside

https://www.crosthwaiteandlyth.co.uk/index.php

Heading out of Crosthwaite Green up Totter Bank and turning off the main valley road before Damson Dene Hotel, I found myself on roads lined with woodlands, light piecing through the thick canopy of bare branches onto the tarmac. After spotting the Cumbria Wildlife Trust logo, I pulled into the site, dismounting my bike and walking up to the sites information panel. I was instantly excited by the variety of habitat being offered to explore, from open fell made up of grassland, scrub and two small tarns, a small meadow, and a mature Oakland. I noticed that on the side of the display board was a box holding a memo book for nature sightings. Flicking through, it was clear the site had a lot to offer: owls, warblers, red kites, woodcocks, red squirrels, buzzards, warblers, and so so much.

Heading first to the woodland, Low Fell Plantation, which is now fenced off from deer to try and allow natural regeneration of understory shrubs . The woodland is littered with dead wood, fallen and standing, creating a wealth of habitat. Moving through the woodland, taking care to push my bike gently along the permissive footpath where moss is encroaching, I can hear the persistent call of blue tits, nuthatches, and the sudden call of red kite soaring high above the trees, diving down behind the hills out of sight. Walking along the path, I am taken down to Arndale Beck, lined with Alders, the spring sun creating long shadows across the beck.

After circling through the woodland, it was time to make my way onto ‘Barkbooth Lot’ – a mixture of habitats, scattered scrub, two ponds, acid grassland, and bracken. The bracken, although broken was still knee high in parts, and the tracks made by previous grazing cattle were faint as I picked my way through the grassland. Long-tailed tits, robins, and warblers all called to one another from the scrub. At each of the pools of water I disturbed resting herons, who glided over the grassland into the neighbouring woodland.

The ride back was a simple but hard one – using bridleways that cut across waterlogged fields, still drenched from the early February rain. In the end, I stuck to the country lanes, leading me out of Winster down to the shores of Windermere, from there taking the easy Route 6 track back to Kendal. It had been an unexpectedly long day out, I’d been totally mesmerized by the reserve and spent a lot longer taking the sights in than I’d expected.

As always there’s a Komoot ride, which you can find here. Happy bike-birding!

MARCH READ: Bikes and Bird Hides Culture Club


This month’s book is ‘Gears for Queers’ by Abigail Melton and Lilith Cooper, a fairly recent publication, and one that has garnered a lot of attention when it was selected for 2020’s Kendal Mountain Literature Festival. We’re excited to discuss it, as it investigates different voices not often vocalised in the cycling world, and explores a ‘beginners’ perspective of bike touring. It’s an insightful examination of what it means to be a cyclist, and the difficulties often faced by those who don’t traditionally conform to the cycling stereotype.

We’ve included the official synopsis:

Keen to see some of Europe, queer couple Lilith and Abigail get on their old bikes and start pedalling. Along flat fens and up Swiss Alps, they will meet new friends and exorcise old demons as they push their bodies – and their relationship – to the limit.

But Abigail and Lilith describe the themes of book as investigating:  queer and non-binary [lifestyles and barriers], cycling long distances as a complete beginner, disability, mental health, ethical travel and toilet etiquette

If that sounds like your cup of tea, join us on Monday 5th April at 6pm to discuss it more! Simply fill in this form to let us know you’re coming!

We’ve set up a Bikes and Bird Hides Culture Club page on bookshop.org – this is an online bookshop with a ‘mission to financially support local, independent bookshops’. This is an affiliate link and the book club would receive 10% of any purchases you made through this link but at the end of the year we’d take any money made and donate it to a charity we as a club agree on! We’ve added nearly all of this years book on there, just in case you want to get a jump start.

A tumble into archives

With my half-term break being halted by a tumble into a fence post, that subsequently meant bed rest, I turned to my other love. Archives. Being a student of history (and a teacher of it…), I always find comfort in going down a bit of a rabbit hole in archives, and I thought it could be fun to take you on this one. Initially, I started looking into historic ‘bike birding’ and whilst I have no doubt it’s existed for a while, there is very little online archive evidence for it. So I broadened my search and came across some images labelled up on the Historic England photographic archive as ‘”Countyman Cruise”, a bird watching cruise from Plymouth along the River Tamar onboard the boat “Scomber”. My interest was piqued.

A quick google of the organiser of the cruise, Tony Soper, did not disappoint. If you’re a birder or a keen naturalist, it’s probably a name you’re more than well aware of. Shamefully, it’s not one I recognised. But what a life! Born in 1929 in Southampton by 1947 after not following in his father’s footsteps at the wharf he was working as Youth in Training for the BBC with an illustrious career to follow. Tony started of as World Service Radio Technical Assistant, before moving on to work at the West of England Home Service, in 1950 he worked as a producer on programmes such as ‘The Naturalist’ and ‘Birds in Britain’. by 1957 he’d co-founded the BBC’s Natural History Unit and began producing incredible programmes such as ‘Plapp’ the story of a cormorant that was weak due to oil pollution – this aired in 1958 on Christmas Day! To see the incredible life of Tony Soper head to his website here.

After detouring in Tony’s life and awesome body of work, I was back onto the initial interest – his tours of the River Tamar. On his website Tony mentions that the cruises were started with the purpose of ‘supporting an RSPB appeal’, this of course sent me off track into a different rabbit hole. It’s been difficult to find any mention of a specific RSPB appeal in 1967, however this was the year of the horrific Torrey Canyon Oil Spill. A disaster which saw an estimated 117,000 tonnes of crude oil being spilt into the sea off the south-west coast of England (making it Britain’s biggest oil spill), impacting the coastline which the River Tamar feeds into. The Torrey Canyon oil spill was an ecological disaster through which it is thought 15,000 sea birds were killed, despite heroic efforts from the RSPCA, RSPB and Wildfowl Trust – which you can read about in this report. So perhaps this is what Tony was raising money for on his cruise – the clean up effort? Perhaps not…

This initial date of 1968 didn’t match up with the photographs I’d come across – 1973, so the reading continued. It turns out that in 1973 and 1974 Tony was living a self-describe ‘Walter Mitty’ period as captain of his own 60ft passenger vessel the ‘Scombar’. Tony labels these as ‘avocet cruises’, so that’s the next bit of research. Why avocets and why the Tamar?

The River Tamar is a natural county border between Devon and Cornwall, starting just miles below Bude on the Cornish coast and meeting the sea 50 miles later in Plymouth Sound. Another quick tangent playing around on Magic Map allows me to see the significance of the landscape surrounding the River Tamar, heavily patchworked common land, areas of outstanding natural beauty, nature reserves, and sites of special scientific interest. A hint as to why birdwatchers would love it.

Flanked by ancient woodland along lengthy stretches, the river also provides rare habitat. The intertidal systems are perfect for mudflats, saltmarshes and reedbeds – all home to birdlife, including the avocet. The woodlands are also a haven for birds and butterflies as well as rare lichen and orchids. There is important heathland up-river as well, where rare birds like the Dartford Warbler can be found.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/devon/hi/people_and_places/nature/newsid_8897000/8897885.stm

Avocets are one of those incredibly unique success stories of protection and conservation projects in the UK. They returned to specific areas of East Anglia in droves when areas were flooded to protect against invasion, subsequently creating the perfect habitat for breeding. Since then their numbers in the UK have been on the rise, with 50% of avocets nesting on RSPB reserves – no wonder it’s their logo! Overwintering on the South West coast the River Tamar plays host to huge flocks of avocets, making it the ideal place to host winter wildlife river cruises! These are still running by Tamar Wildlife who also have an incredible list of ‘where to watch birds’ – if you’re local these will definitely be worth checking out, and I shall admire from afar (for now…).

Having been inspired by so much of this research, I have of course created a Komoot wish list tour of the River Tamar – skirting as close to it as I can. Not knowing the area at all, I’m sure I’ve made some blunders and would love to hear from locals (or previous visitors) about spots that shouldn’t be missed on the River Tamar!

If you want to hear Tony Soper talking about sea birds you can catch him on BBC Sounds ‘Soper’s Sea Bird Safari’. A great listen! Plus a quick search for his books shows up some real treats! I’m so pleased I came across his story and was submerged into researching a variety of tangents to come back to the simplicity of birdwatching.

GUEST SPOT: Angus Croudace with an East Lothian bike and bird hide

Back in December 2020, Angus Croudace shared a great shot to @bikesandbirdhides from a route along the East Lothian coastline with stops at the Musselburgh Lagoons and Aberlady Bay. I’m really pleased to be able to share with you Angus’s own words and images from this ride! It’s certainly gone on my birdwatching bucket list.


[Edinburgh and the Pentlands in a resplendent winter coat as seen from Gosford Bay.]

Ok, it’s one of 2020’s most clichéd lines, but it is only recently that I have truly appreciated my more local nature reserves. I think that this year in particular has helped show a lot of people what we have previously neglected on our doorsteps. With the lure of the mountainous north and wild west coast on hiatus, there were big outdoorsy boots to fill for many. These two marvellous sites rise to the occasion and have become a new regular stomping ground for me.

Musselburgh Lagoons occupy old ash waste deposits from Cockenzie Power station, much of which is now a popular nature reserve (aka Levenhall Links). Three brick hides provide a vantage point from which to observe the birds roosting at high tide, although they’re often bitterly cold. The hides are always worth a stop, but you can often see just as much, if not more by peering over the 2.5km long sea wall. Waders flood the muddy expanses at low tide, and many ducks, geese, and gulls bob on the waves at high tide.  Slaloming around the wide puddles that litter the parallel gravel track is a blast, especially with a tailwind. There is plenty of space to share the area with other users, and sections of it are paved too.


[One of the hides at Musselburgh. My bikepacking gear is invaluable for transporting layers, ID guides, binos and cameras, and of course snacks and warm drinks]

On a dawn raid recently, I had the privilege of slowly passing a Peregrine Falcon ~2m away on a fence corner near the hides, and then watching it lazily rise into the bright early morning rays. It was one of the special moments that you treasure. Other recent highlights have included a large deceit of lapwings playfully circling the scrapes, and roosts of several hundred Wigeon. I have also spotted Red Breasted Mergansers, nearer the mouth of the river, which are a favourite ever since I regularly saw a pair whilst staying on Arran for a few months. Earlier in the winter, geese and swans in huge numbers noisily clattered around the shore. The omnipresent oystercatchers skid along like speeder bikes in Star Wars, and there are plenty of smaller waders too, the likes of plover/redshank, which I need to get better at identifying!

15km further East is Aberlady Bay, with a huge tidal range that reveals mudflats and saltmarsh surrounding the mouth of the Peffer Burn. WWII submarine wreckage and the rib cages of shipwrecks pierce the horizon – but beware the sinking sand in the bay if you are approaching them!  An attractive wooden footbridge provides easy access to paths on the eastern side, where a tranquil dune environment provides a welcoming environment for both birds and birders. ELC Rangers provide excellent protection and seasonal signs and updates, and The Scottish Ornithologists Club have a beautiful visitor centre, exhibition space and HQ just before you enter Aberlady.

There is usually a flock of sheep too, nibbling at the grass as part of conservation grazing initiatives. For those of a geological persuasion, there are some interesting volcanic outcrops on the coast too, and to be honest #bikesandrockoutcrops should probably become a thing! The Fife and East Lothian coastlines have a world class haul of interesting rocks and fossils…

[Inset shows the bright green dolerite, photo taken at Gullane Point. Geological map is reproduced from the BGS. (www.bgs.ac.uk/data/maps/maps.cfc?method=viewRecord&mapId=10808)]

On my first visit I was lucky enough to see a Little White Egret stalking through the saltmarsh. Recently I spotted Shelducks dabbling in the shallows, a Grey Plover, fields full of Curlew and Deer, and a pair of Teal. The Sea Buckthorn was mobbed with Fieldfare and Redwing in their hundreds.

Not only are the two sites veritable wildlife havens, but the coastline between them is dotted with small coves and harbours which often provide yet more to see. I have spotted Goldeneye all along the coastline from Musselburgh to Cockenzie, unmistakable, not just with their gold eye (they’re not the only species with one!), but with the white stripes along the back.


[Golden eye.]

I was delighted to see a pair of Eider in the harbour at Cockenzie and Port Seton and stopped for a wee look and some photos. Content, I carried on no more than 20m before looking into the second half of the harbour where a huge raft of Eider and gulls had gathered. Bingo!

At Longniddry, a boisterous Stonechat posed for a photo whilst overseeing the kingdom of Fife. As I then proceeded to follow the trail towards Aberlady, startled Fieldfares skipped to new branches, and the alarm calls of blackbirds rang out.


[Stonechat overlooking Fife.]

This section of the route is a real gem. The stretch of John Muir Way between Longniddry and Aberlady meanders through the sandy backshore, allowing a cyclist to zip through tunnels of Sea Buckthorn like orange kaleidoscopes before later dodging the stark contrast of concrete anti-tank defences.


[Trees from Middle-earth, street furniture from Armageddon?]

The infrastructure actually allows for lots of subtle variations on the route, and fine tuning to the type of bike or people (kids etc) you are with. The route along the coast has a fairly spacious main road that is a very popular road cycling route.  Sustrans cycle paths weave through parks, seawalls and housing estates and the John Muir way has plotted a quiet route for walkers and considerate cyclists alike. The Komoot tour is a rough template, use your nose to explore, safe in the knowledge that you can’t really go wrong!

I am glad to have found these local reserves. Not only do they provide a means of outdoors escape quieter than many other honeypot sites, but they also help me combine a passion for cycling with a passion for nature. The array of species constantly helps me improve my identification skills. I look forward to my next visits, and who knows what I’ll see?!

Hopefully, this wee write up helps point out some beautiful spots that so many cyclists likely pass by, unaware of just how much life thrives there. In fact, most of the best vantage points are arguably directly on the cycle route! Next time keep your eyes peeled, and of course please treat the sites and wildlife with the respect that they deserve.

You can find Angus’s route idea here: https://www.komoot.com/tour/309447938/

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