Setting Off From Sandwell valley

Saturday, 2 January 2010

I'm Off and Cycling! Biking Birder hits the road. Sandwell Valley RSPB Reserve

An early morning walk to try to hear tawny owl and therefore make it first onto the Big Green Year Bird list was cold, very cold but a clear sky, free of any cloud, with the almost full Moon setting and a red Mars was brightening to the east. The first sunrise of the new decade was an hour away. 7.12am and a crow beat the owl by seconds. 2 on the list and a quick retreat to the warmth of my sister Donna's [Donna Ralston, married to Charlie Ralston] kitchen.

Sunrise was seen over Waseley Hill as I was being interviewed on radio WM - 8.17am and by now the list was up to 17 with goldcrest and siskin written down together with common garden birds.

Late for the Big Off; 20 minutes late and the icy roads ensured a careful descent of a very steep road. Only around 5,000 miles to go and the first hill up had me thinking of what I was doing and what was I doing here. The ascent was a struggle, not helped by the fact that I didn't know how to change the gears on the new Cannondale bike. Would I get to Sandwell Valley RSPB reserve for 11.00am? Friends, family and maybe the press would be there.

I needn't have worried. The rest of the way through the Black Country via Blackheath and West Bromwich was delightful. Hellos and Happy New Years shouted to the Black Country folk with the comments being mostly reciprocated favourably. Arrived at the reserve at 10.20 and was greeted by the Upton Warren birders John Belsey, Dave Walker and Gert. A million thanks to these wonderful lads.

Ian and Ste' arrived - the T.I.T.S were together again [Terpsichorean Inspired Twitcher Society] - bearded tit Ian, Great tit Steve and Tom Tit me. The group nickname from the last Big Year 2005 was resurrected. In that year the 3 of us had travelled all over Britain, by car to be truthful, to try to see 300 bird species. Ian had managed it actually reaching 350!

Phil Andrews and his partner next.

Paul my brother was lost, had gone to the wrong Sandwell Valley centre. Phone call instructions and general amusement amongst the birders. Eventually he arrived with my children Rebecca and Josh. So proud to have them there.

By now Chris and Lee had opened up the centre and warm views through the window using the 'scopes soon gave the listers snipe and bullfinch.

An Express & Star photographer arrived to, well take photographs. His final one for a staged final farewell was the one everyone really wanted; a multi-fingered salute to get me going. Actually the guests were the ones who left, each taking their cue and turn. This left me at 1.00pm with a couple of hours to birdwatch alone and explore the frozen reserve. Circumnavigating the lake anticlockwise brought me to a small area of open water where duck, geese and a couple of mute swans were congregated waiting for food from the many New Year's day walkers. 6 goosanders were the star species but there was also the expected range of common duck, mostly in 2s. 2 male wigeon, 2 male pochard for example. A male gadwall and many mallard and tufted duck also here.

Photographs using the mobile phone taken by a Walsall angler to prove I had been there and only had around 190 more reserves to visit in 2010.

A long chat with a Dudley Birder Chris, memories and highlights shared. A fox went along the edge of the reded and flushed a few snipe. There was also a scampering water rail skating across the ice.

Back to the now closed centre and a meeting with birders Stephen and Tracey Potter. How does a birder male find a birder female? [and a fanatic Villa fan to boot] Great people and a pleasure to talk too.

If you do go to Sandwell Valley in winter then take a little bird seed to feed the very tame robins.

By now 39 bird species on the year list and time to cycle to Four Oaks near Sutton for a night's accommodation with Mary & John Evans; a fabulous couple who's passion for cycling was apparent from the moment they opened the garage. A line of quality cycles had an addition for the night.

Thanks to everyone who in their own way made my first day of the year so memorable.


  1. Good luck Gary and happy birding for your epic journey 2010... I'm off to Upton Warren to help with a work party at the flashes on Sunday (today) I've put a link on my website to your website ( ~ Simon :-)

  2. Thanks Simon. Have a great photo of you at the last work party on my mobile. I'll try and get it to you. All the very best to you.
    Can I just say to everyone who has donated money a huge thank you? I ahven't worked out yet how to thank each of you personally but will do once I've worked it out. THANKS>