Cromer to Dover -completing the England section of the NCN1

Last week we completed the England section of the National Cycle Network route 1. It’s taken us three weeks, over the past three years, to cycle from Berwick-on-Tweed, on the Scottish border to Dover. This latest stage, being just short of 350 miles, took us from Cromer – following the coast of East Anglia, around the Thames estuary, through Canary Wharf & Greenwich, via the Medway towns and the East Kent resorts of Sandwich & Deal  – to Dover. The longest single day was 72 miles from Maldon to the Isle of Dogs. For me, the stand-out sections were: the ride through the gentle rolling countryside of the Suffolk Essex border, the route down the Lee Valley past the Olympic Stadium into the heart of the capital, discovering the previously unvisited southern stretch of the Thames Path opposite Canary Wharf and the coastal path from Sandwich to the busy cross-channel port of Dover. Although definitely not a birding trip, we did manage to clock-up a total of 86 species, seen or heard whilst speeding (an average of 10 miles per hour!) through the English countryside – for more details visit Aylmerton Nature Diary.

Here’s us at the start of this final section of the NCN1, from Norfolk to Dover

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Our first night’s stay was at Beccles – picture of the parish church


Framlingham Castle – Day 2. Last visited 45 years ago when we took the kids from the Children’s Home on their summer holidays


One of our birding highlights was a pair of singing Turtle Doves in mid-Suffolk – having no proper camera this iPhone record shot is the best I could do!


On the approach into Maldon – Bry & Neil at the scenic Heybridge Basin


You do see nature up-close on a bike – this unfortunate Grass Snake was a roadside casualty


The route into London follows the Lee Valley from the M25 to the Olympic Park, avoiding any roads – quite remarkable!


A view of Canary Wharf  (night four) – from the Greenwich side  


Looking up stream to the Thames Barrier 


Deal Castle – part of the Cinque Ports complex 


Journeys end – arrival into Dover. Three weary, relieved but delighted bikers!


That’s it for England – next year we turn our attentions to Scotland and the next section from Berwick-on-Tweed to Forfar.


Return to Fuerteventura – ten years on

The island’s only endemic – the must-get Canary Islands Chat

We’ve just returned from a ‘cheeky week’ birding on Fuerteventura, with friends Bob & Sue. We flew with Ryanair from Stansted, stayed at the Eurostars hotel in Caleta de Fuste – central for visiting all parts of the island, and hired a car from Goldcar – where the guy behind the counter gave us an excellent recommendation for a tapas bar with live music, the El Capitan. It turned out to be a superb place – we eat there every night!

You certainly don’t go to Fuerteventura expecting a big list – or if you do you’ll be sadly disappointed – but what you do see is pretty special. As well as the must-get desert species: Houbara Bustard, Cream-coloured Courser, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Barbary Partridge, Trumpeter Finch & Lesser Short-toed Lark, we caught the tail-end of Spring migration with Iberian & Spotted Flycatcher and Melodious Warbler being’ the high-lights. The ever-present Spectacled Warbler, Berthelot’s Pipit and Canary Islands (Fuerteventura) Chat, interspersed with African Blue Tit, Canary, Egyptian Vulture and Barbary Falcon all made for a great birding experience. On an island where fresh water is at a premium – average annual rainfall is only 200mm – we saw some interesting ‘water birds’ – Little & Cattle Egret, White Stork and Spoonbill, but ‘star bird’ was, without doubt, the long-staying, though seemingly increasingly elusive, African Dwarf Bittern. It took us seven visits to Barranco de Rio Cabras and more than 15 hours solid observation to finally get acceptable views of this ‘5th for the Western Palearctic’.

The desert species can take some finding – 25 of these Black-bellied Sandgrouse were found at a well-known mid-morning drinking pool


Harder to find were Houbara Bustard – record shot taken in the heat of the afternoon sun


Found whilst looking for the bustards – one of a small flock of Lesser Short-toed Lark


The Micronesian endemic – the ubiquitous Berthelot’s Pipit – found pretty-much everywhere on the island


Raptors are thinly distributed but we did find seven Egyptian Vulture together in one spot – we also came across a breeding bird on it’s nest


Turtle Dove, though near-mythical now in Norfolk, were present in good numbers on Fuerteventura


along with a few well-dispersed Laughing Dove, and African Blue Tit



Spring migrants were scarce, most having already gone through, but we did find Melodious Warbler and Iberian Pied Flycatcher together in Barranco de la Torre



The resident shrike is the koenigi race of Iberian Grey Shrike


Unlike on the mainland, Spectacled Warbler are easy to find on Fuerteventura


A splash of colour was provided by Trumpeter Finch, with their unmistakeable ‘toy trumpet’ call


But the ‘bird of the trip’ was, without doubt, the long-staying African Dwarf Bittern – finally seen well after seven visits and over 15 hours intensive observation!


Other wildlife highlights included two special dragonflies: Broad Scarlet & Epaulet Skimmer



and Fuerteventura Green-striped White butterfly



Day 60 – So how did we do?

Pilated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker (photo from the internet)

By the time I publish this post – my last of the current trip, we should be back in the UK and on route for Norfolk. So how did we do? Well, before I divulge the numbers and offer a few more general reflections on our trip, an update on this mornings final efforts to add one more species to the Great American Birding RoAd Trip list. The species in question was Pileated Woodpecker – a not inconspicuous bird, well distributed across much of America. One we’d previously seen well in parks and suburban gardens in Florida. But could we find it on this trip? – could we feck. We’d scoured every wood from Houston to Seattle – a little of an exaggeration perhaps, but we did look pretty hard. In a final, last ditch attempt on our way to the airport, we stopped off at Billy Frank Jn National Wildlife Refuge, at Nisqually – Jane having spotted on eBirder a cluster of recent sightings in the area. We got our permit and spent a good hour walking the trails, dodging the downpours and seeing a few good birds, but with little success regarding our target, except for a couple of distant calls. We got back to the car and were just driving out when a large black woodpecker-like bird flapped in front of us. Despite it responding to play-back, we didn’t see it again! It just about makes the list! 

So, turning to the numbers; in total we visited seven States (with a ‘touch-down’ in Canada), drove 8765 miles, and saw 462 species (still checking on a couple of possible extras) – taking my personal all-time America total to 513. Texas accounted for well over 300 species – no other State came close, underlining it as a top, world-class, birding destination. 


Alongside seeing some fabulous birds – tracking their migration from Mexico to the Canadian border, and the awesome scenery, we’d always hoped that the Great American Birding RoAd Trip would show us something of real America – Trump’s America. I’m not sure how representative or insightful our experience has been but here’s a few personal observations, for what they’re worth.

America is a BIG country, with vast tracts of ‘nothing’ – it was mostly mountains and desert from mid-Texas to Oregon. We drove through many small towns – ironically most called ‘cities’, and passed through several vast low-rise conurbations on six-lane highways. Place sign-boards often indicated date of founding – rarely earlier than mid-19C, altitude – high or low, and population – down to the last individual. They cherish their heritage – practically every small community had a museum. Restrooms are everywhere – even in the remotest locations and, in the main, spotless. They are an ethnically diverse nation, with Spanish commonly spoken right up into Washington State. We saw affluent housing, clustered around golf courses or marinas – much of it gated, but we also saw plenty of folk living in caravans, trailers and sheds. Issues of homelessness, unemployment and respect for veterans were universally apparent. There was a formulaic predictability to most places we visited – the same shopping malls, fast-food outlets, churches, drive-through this, that and the others. Yet you can get anything you need, day or night. Schools and hospitals were almost all new buildings – generally imposing structures. In contrast, the distinguishing features of most native American communities we saw were run-down housing, a casino, multiple evangelical churches, social security offices and police stations. The notable exception being Neah Bay and the Makah Tribe, who appear to be managing things very differently. One recent development, which caught us by surprise, is the legalisation / tolerance and public sale of Cannabis in most States we travelled through. This, together with the apparent universal acceptance of gun ownership and hunting makes for an interesting juxtaposition. Most American TV is punctuated with large doses of advertising – usually for some obscure medical condition (with symptoms most of us would recognise) for which there is an ‘over the counter’ cure or for lawyers who will act for anyone in respect of anything – for a fee. The American political / civic system, difficult for an outsider to fully grasp, appears to be under-pinned by the basic democratic process of election – everywhere we went there were bill-boards for candidates seeking appointment to a wide range of posts and positions. Everyone we met from Texas to Washington (with very few exceptions indeed) were welcoming, talkative and resilient people – proud of their place and keen to share it with strangers. We mostly felt safe and oddly ‘at home’. If these are the impressions, accurate or otherwise, formulated during a few weeks travel through some of America what, I wonder, do Americans who visit the UK make of us? Is there a ‘special relationship’ between us or are we just two nations divided by a common language?


Day 59 – Homeward bound


Spotted Sandpiper – one of a handful of species we saw in every State we visited. This one, in summer plumage, is easy to separate from our own Common Sandpiper, but in winter they are much more tricky. Now that would be something special to find at Felbrigg!

Today is our final day in the USA – we fly from Seattle to Manchester, via Iceland, this afternoon. By the time we’ve driven from our comfortable and well-located base for the past three days in Hoquiam, ‘Lumber capital of America’, to the airport, returned the hire car and checked in, there is very little time for birding, but we do hope to make one last stop in search of a particular species which has evaded us for the entire trip! On the whole there have been very few species which we have missed along the way but inevitably there’s been some. We’ve ‘twitched’ quite a few American rarities and managed to connect with a lot of the regional specialities as we’ve made our way north. Some of the long-distant migrants have followed us (or rather, we’ve followed them) from Mexico to the Canadian border. Other widely distributed species have, of course, popped up everywhere. Surprisingly perhaps, during our journey from east to west and south to north, we’ve only visited seven States and one of them – New Mexico, we drove through in a day. Nevertheless there’s half a dozen or so species which we recorded in every State, which include:

Red-winged Blackbird


Turkey Vulture – photo courtesy of Jane

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Black-headed Grosbeak


Cedar Waxwing


and Lesser Goldfinch


There’s a lot more editing to do before I get my photographic record of GABRAT into shape, but it’s a pleasant task, bringing back instant memories of hundreds of birding encounters we’ve had over the last two months.



Day 58 – Our last day of birding

New birds: Red Knot


Red Knot, probably our last addition to the GABRAT list

Today was our last full day of birding in America. We spent it around Grays Harbour looking for shorebirds, visiting Bottle Beach and the National Wildlife Refuge in the morning and, perhaps fittingly, the poo ponds (Hoquiam water treatment plant) in the afternoon. Given that it is now mid-June, it’s not surprising that the vast majority of shorebirds have long-since departed this area for their breeding grounds further north in Canada, Alaska and beyond. However, there was one last species we hoped to see before drawing our GABRAT list to a close. Some excellent detective work by Jane discovered a sighting of our quarry, just a week ago, at a nearby location and we set-off in pursuit. What a difference a day makes up here in respect of the weather. Yesterday it never stopped raining, today, wall to wall sunshine – perfect for birding. We arrived at Bottle Beach and started searching for waders on the incoming tide. Grays Harbour is gigantic and the few remaining shorebirds could be anywhere. As luck (skill?) would have it we quickly located a small group of roosting Grey (Black-bellied) Plover with a few Short-billed Dowitcher amongst them. Further down the beach a party of Greater Yellowlegs and a few gulls. On our way back to the car I decided to give the waders one last look. In amongst them was one bird with a brick-red breast and grey scalloped back – Red Knot, probably the last one on the entire estuary! After that the pressure was off and we could enjoy seeing what was around. At the poo ponds in the afternoon I added a few State ticks, including several duck species, out of the nine present. Finally I spent a happy hour trying to make sense of the numerous gulls dotted along the shore. With the various ages, established hybrids, etc. I’m not sure I made much progress, but it was fun anyway! Not a bad way to end the day and draw to a close this remarkable journey.

Greater Yellowlegs, in summer plumage – one of a handful of waders remaining in Grays Harbour


Day 57 – A complete wash-out


Jane on the National Wildlife Refuge board-walk at Grays Harbour this morning

We woke up this morning and it was raining – as I write this blog this evening, it’s still raining. This is the first whole day of rain we’ve had in over eight weeks of birding and the steady down-pour has significantly restricted our activities. As a consequence, for only the second day of GABRAT, we’ve failed to add a new bird to the trip list 😦 We did visit the near-by Hoquiam water treatment ponds a couple of times, the excellent (in better weather) Grays Harbour National Wildlife Refuge and, this afternoon, the agricultural areas around the Brady Loop Road. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve seen some nice birds, but we’ve got pretty wet doing so and our optics have remained covered up for a lot of the day.

Most interesting bird of the day was this bedraggled summer plumage Western Sandpiper


Runner-up was this colour-ringed Raven – any help from American banders, on the origins / history of this bird, would be much appreciated. Seen at Hoquiam water treatment plant


Day 56 – Quinault Rainforest & Grays Harbour

New birds: Sooty Grouse (confirmed)


Yesterdays record of Sooty Grouse was premature, as we hadn’t fully considered Dusky – these are recent splits of Blue Grouse. Now confirmed by better views, range and call. This ‘psycho’ male kept us under constant observation

It’s a relief to be staying somewhere with reasonably good WiFi again.

This morning, after a relatively late start, we birded first around our accommodation – getting much better views of Rufous Hummingbird and then later birding along various walking trails in the temperate rain forest, on the western slopes of the Olympic National Park. Apparently, this area gets twelve foot of rain a year – no wonder everywhere is so green! Yesterdays report of Sooty Grouse was, on reflection, premature as we hadn’t fully considered Dusky Grouse. So this morning we drove back to the location where we’d had brief flight views of the grouse yesterday. As we approached the spot we commenced carefully scanning the adjacent vegetation in the hope of another glimpse – no need to bother! From behind us the ‘psycho Sooty’ dive-bombed our car and landed in a road-side tree, from where it kept us under close and constant observation. We later watched it do the same to a passing vehicle – flying along-side and hitting the drivers wing-mirror! This sort of behaviour of ‘hormonal’ males has been reported on more than a few occasions. Net result, we got excellent and conclusive views. After lunch we recceid the birding sites around Grays Harbour but, since it was low tide at the time and it’s now getting late for Spring migrants, we saw very few shorebirds. However, today was a day of extraordinary views of some of the more ordinary species.

Male Rufous Hummingbird – remarkably these little creatures breed right up into Alaska. This was the twelfth species of ‘Hummer’ we’ve seen on the trip


The fascinating historic homestead at Kestner Creek, encountered on one of our walks this morning

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A young American Dipper, watched being fed by the adults


For the past week or so we’ve been travelling with my brother Robin and his wife Gi. In the small hours of this morning we got the news that Gi’s Mum Gwen had sadly passed away. Not completely unexpected, Rob & Gi had already made plans to return home early to Australia, but a shock nonetheless. Our thoughts are with them..

Day 55 – Olympic Peninsular birding

New birds for the day – Hooded Merganser


Hooded Merganser – Neah Bay harbour

Today we travelled down the west coast of the Olympic peninsular, from Neah Bay to Quinault. A brief stop at the harbour produced the first new bird of the day – Hooded Merganser. Another one of those birds we thought had got away from us. We had a very entertaining and illuminating coffee stop with a delightful member of the Makah tribe, before heading south. This afternoon we birded the temperate rain forest, producing another potential new bird – a probable Sooty Grouse, and providing much better views of American Dipper and Varied Thrush. Our motel room this evening is situated just a few hundred metres from the worlds largest Sitka Spruce – close on 1000 years old, with a circumference of 60 feet!

A slightly better photo of Varied Thrush – seen this afternoon in the Quinault rainforest



Day 54 – More Cape birding

New birds: Red-throated Diver, Northwest Crow


Northwestern Crow – Neah Bay

Woke up this morning, scanned the ocean from the chalet balcony and the first bird I found was a Red-throated Diver – new for the trip. Quickly followed by ‘crows on the beach’. In this remote corner of Washington State, the crows are considered to be Northwestern Crow, which breed from Alaska, south to British Columbia. A few have crossed the Straits of Juan de Fuca and colonised Neah Bay. Not reliably separable from American Crow, other than by location and something to do with bristle hairs! We did a nice six mile walk through the rain forest in a forlorn search for Pilated Woodpecker, before rain set in for the afternoon. On the drive back to our accommodation a very obliging Ruffed Grouse appeared at the roadside. 

A rather more obliging Ruffed Grouse than our first one at Hatfield Lakes


Day 53 – Neah Bay, home of the Makah Tribe

The Indian Reservation on which we’ve been staying unfortunately lacked any effective WiFi, so I’m playing catch-up.

New birds: Rufous Hummingbird, Tufted Puffin, Ancient Murrelet & Red-necked Grebe

Record shot of Rufous Hummingbird – observed whilst checking in to our ocean-view cabin

This morning we drove west along the Straits of Juan de Fuca to Neah Bay – home of the Makah tribe. With the benefit of an early check-in at Holbuck Beach Resort – ticking up Rufous Hummingbird as we were filling in the Registration card, we unloaded our luggage and headed for the Cape Flattery trail in search of some oceanic species. Tatoosh Island, which lies just off-shore, is the most north-westerly point of the 48 (contiguous) States and practically our journeys end. With the aid of a telescope we could see several species of Alcids, off-shore, including Pigeon Guillemot, Common Murre, Marbled Murrelet and Rhinoceros Auklet. With a bit of persistence we did managed to find several distant Tufted Puffin, which breed in small numbers on the island. Perhaps the bigger surprise came when we drove back to Neah Bay and scoured the harbour and surrounding waters for possible sea ducks. We quickly found White-winged and Surf Scoter, Greater Scaup, Harlequin Duck, Common Loon and Red-necked Grebe, along with Pacific Cormorant and Rhinoceros Auklet. A quick look over the outer harbour wall and a ‘black and white’ auk-like bird immediately caught my attention. I was pretty confident that it was an Ancient Murrelet – the identification later confirmed from photographs. Although this species does occasionally turn-up along the coast it’s much more likely to be found out at sea on a pelagic. A very welcome and unexpected addition to the list. 

Tufted Puffin, seen off of Cape Flattery – record shot

Ancient Murrelet, Neah Bay, outer harbour