I always find it really hard to put into words these social rides, I mean how do you effectively convey the utterly wholesome feeling of a group of people getting together with the sole intention of riding to spot birds? But I guess that’s what I’m about to try and do! I’d visited South Walney back in November of last year, on a day when the headwind seemed to follow you no matter which way you decided to ride, but even from that bitterly cold visit I’d hoped to make a social ride that explored this often forgotten peninsula.
We met outside Dalton Castle, a 14th century tower which used to be the manorial courthouse for nearby Furness Abbey, a practice which continued even after the dissolution of the abbey in 1537 – whilst the castle isn’t open you can explore its history by looking through the online collection held by the National Trust which includes some pretty impressive armour! After thoroughly embarrassing Nathan with a plethora of badly made home gifts for his birthday, it was along country lanes to Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve. Sandscale Haws is predominantly a dune habitat which famously hosts Natterjack toads which are best spotted in late spring across the site. It has a great etymology with the name ‘Sandscale’ coming from Scandinavian words: ‘sandur’ for beach ‘skali’ for hut, and ‘haws’ meaning hills. Cumbria GeoConservation have created a really informative leaflet about the makeup of the dunes and their importance.
For us, it served as the perfect first spot – with big open views across the River Duddon estuary to Hodbarrow and the chance to delve into some delicious birthday blondies from Rosanne!
Although bird spotting here was limited (gulls, swallows and a potential stonechat), it was a great spot to bask in some unforeseen sunshine before heading through the busy town of Barrow-in-Furness. Crossing the bridge over the Walney Channel out of Barrow gave us our first glimpse at the flat island and the stretched out marshes of Walney which seemed to disappear into the horizon. As we rode along Carr Lane shouts from the group of ‘Curlew’ and ‘Egret’ could be heard as we spotted birds in flight over the saltmarshes, the sense of excitement building as we neared the reserve! We pulled in by Hare Hill to watch as Starlings seemed to practice their murmuration technique, gathering on the telephone wires before swooping down as one great mass of birds (apart from a few stragglers who we were happy to critique).
After locking up the bikes on the edge of the reserve, being given a quick run through of the rules of the site, and hints as to where to spot what, we all clambered into the aptly named ‘sea hide’. From this viewpoint we could make out eider, oystercatchers, gulls, shags and cormorants.
A walk along the beach, following the red route, led us past the lighthouse to the bay hide which overlooks the lighthouse pool and lagoons – remnants of the islands industrial past when in the 19th and 20th centuries salt, gravel and sand were extracted. Little Egrets, Redshank, Godwits and Mallards lined the lagoons, moving along when they inevitably disturbed one another.
The next hide offered incredible views across the mudflats to Piel Island, we sat and took in the last of the big views as a group, watching two more little Egrets move along the channels of water. It was here we were able to spot a migratory female wheatear – I’ve only ever spotted these little birds in valleys so it was a real treat to see it on the coast!
After walking back along the shingle causeway, spotting more Redshank, Greenshank, Gulls and Wheatears, we stuck to Sustrans Route 700 to loop us past Rampside, Leece and back into Dalton. It had been a long day, meeting at 10am and not arriving back into Dalton until gone 6 – but I came away brimming away with joy at not only what we’d managed to spot but also the atmosphere that this incredible group of people always seems to create. Thank you so much as always to those that take the time out of their lives and commit to a day of riding around looking for birds – it always baffles me (in the nicest way possible!). Can’t wait for the next one!
As always the route can be found here on Komoot! Happy bikebirding!