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Portland Bill: An old stomping ground

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Chris Packham Chris Packham | 11:19 UK time, Thursday, 8 October 2009

Portland Bill is an old stomping ground of mine. I started visiting this migration hotspot in 1980 when I began to spend most Saturdays there during the spring and autumn peaks of activity. We would journey down from Southampton to arrive at first light at Ferry Bridge or Radipole Reserve before moving onto the bill itself.

There weren't so many birders in those days and even when our trips coincided with 'big twitches' there weren't too many people or any woeful behaviour. I recall some great birds too: woodchat shrikes, quail, wrynecks and, during a brief foray into the world of 'sea-watching', various vagrant skuas and shearwaters. Sleeping off the early start after a pint or two in the pub before a late afternoon round up before heading home was also a pretty regular scenario too.

So this week I was pleased to head back to reacquaint myself with this unique part of the UK. The landscape is pretty harsh, barren even, perhaps even hostile on the wrong day. Our Monday dawned mildly hostile: mist, rain and the wrong wind for our migrants. However, by lunchtime things had cleared up and we had an afternoon of sunshine.

A few swallows were heading out from the bill and a couple of great skuas were spotted wending past far out to sea. We went inland to Weymouth, where we enjoyed a real treat, an intimate insight into the roosting habits of the pied wagtail.

This evolved into a quintessential Autumnwatch piece - technology and imagination revealing something totally unexpected about a very familiar species, a bird we all think we know but which very few have had the chance to examine in this revealing way. I was genuinely very, very excited and it was nice to bump into local wagtail watcher Steve Hales in the car park and to be able to invite him in to enjoy our views first hand.


Me and Kate at Radipole Lake Reserve

Next morning... it was raining, no good for mist-netting. But Kate persevered and caught a couple of interesting birds and a bit later I went through the moth trap at the Bird Observatory with the brilliant Martin Cade. I've had the privilege of working with Martin on a few previous occasions and I always learn new things. He is not only one of my teenage heroes (his notes in the British Birds Journal were legendary) but one of the nation's most modest yet greatest naturalists. And he's a really nice bloke to boot. As usual the Obs was busy with other blokes birding about and mulling over stuff. Teas were served, slurped and savoured. Then we went to Radipole Lake Reserve .

I like 'Radipoli' as I like to call it. It glamorises the Weymouth resort by adding a little Italian pizzazz to it. I've seen some really good birds there over the years. It and its sister Lodmoor have sadly shrunk over the years due to repeated developments and I have long felt that it hasn't really maximised its potential as a fabulous urban reserve in terms of visitor facilities.

It's one thing appealing to bitterns and marsh harriers, which bred this year, but putting people in contact with birds is perhaps more important in sites such as this. Thus I was delighted to learn from the hospitable and extremely helpful staff and volunteers that there are some really exciting plans for the reserve's future, starting with a re-fit of the centre in February of next year. Fingers crossed that the mix of conservation and engagement comes to fruition soon.

A massive thanks to all, especially on the second day when their help meant that we were able to do a short piece about... bearded tits. Super-dooper birds .

Roll on Friday...


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