Average Birding

Cliffe Dipping

Previously, we failed to find Red-necked Grebe on Loch Spynie. A week later, the quest for Red-necked Grebe is back on; there have been several sightings of a pair on the Alpha Pool at Cliffe Pools.

Pronoun guidance: AB1's on his bike. This post covers the events of December 9, 2018.

A cycle, to Cliffe, for Red-necked Grebe

This is a bold choice. My knowledge of how not to cycle to Cliffe has expanded (i.e not along the Saxon Shore Way, for it is made of mud), but there's no guarantee that the alternative approach (stick to the slightly less direct cycle route) is any better. And it is considerably colder than the last attempt.

Thankfully, the cycle route is much better (who knew that national cycle routes actually worked? Thanks, route 1 and 179 maintainers), and I reach the reserve in good shape just after half past one. I play with the idea of having a proper explore of the reserve, but it's clear after half an hour that: a) there's not much about, b) I've not got enough time to do the reserve and look for RNG and not least c) I'm cold, and have only limited patience. I lock the bike to a nearby handy gate (internally, I worry someone might shut and lock the gate before I come back. I assess the risk of this is low, and that even if this does occur, I can climb over/lift the bike back if I need to).

The path to the Alpha Pool. Or not.

I confidently adjudge that the way round to the Alpha pool is via a well-signed public footpath and set off along it.

I am quite surely wrong. This is a cow-path, at best. What was that sign actually pointing at? Various spiky plants become determined to make their mark on my legs, arms and face. I am glad to be a glasses wearer, for once! Soon, further indication is given that this is not a path, as the only way across a watercourse is to shin along some pipes that span the gap. We've come too far now to go back though, so pipes it is.

A small group of ponies awaits in the short scrubby area beyond. They scarper to my left as I approach. As I reach where they were, I enter the land of Fieldfares. Or rather, as I approach, they begin to exit, in droves; with each step I take ten or fifteen birds fly off, and I feel progressively worse at having followed this non-path.

Final confirmation of non-pathness is achieved as I reach the sandy edges of the quarry that sits at the Northern corner of Alpha pool; there is clearly no earmarked route for a person on foot to follow. I pick my way around the border of the sand, and this leads me on to the actual path, which, I now remember, more carefully traces the banks of the Thames and Cliffe Creek. Oh well, we're here now.

A quick traverse around the quarry and Cliffe fort (the tide is high, making the bank upon which the path runs feel quite excitingly perilous; the river is one mis-step to my right away) and the Alpha pool's full extent is revealed.

Alpha Pool

This is a giant body of water, and it is covered in grebes. Scanning it for RNG is going to be tough - it's windy enough for there to be waves (and, on top of the bank, to make any view rather shaky), and the opposite bank is, in many places, beyond the reach of my scope. A quick scan of the water nearest the fort and the quarry yields loads of Little Grebe, but nothing else.

At the earliest possible opportunity I descend from the bank to the somewhat more sheltered shore of the pool to have a more relaxed look. I'm sort of at the apex of a corner that juts into the pool like an arrow pointing due East when I spy a fellow birder skulking around from the opposite direction. He too is making frequent stops to survey the lake from multiple angles, and I assume he's having about the same amount of luck as I am, given the fact that he isn't stopping for very long.

I play the waiting game - there's a lot of lake for me to survey from here, and a lot of possible floating/diving things that could be RNG to look over. The light from here is borderline helpful, too. A few birds give me brief pause, but they're all either Little or Great-crested Grebes after extended observation.

My once distant birding companion is now mere metres away and showing every sign of wanting to be sociable. He is in luck - after an hour and a half of being blown about and not seeing anything, a brief break to talk to another human would be most welcome. He's been circuiting the reserve to do the December Wetland Bird Survey (or WeBS count as it's known); with some diligence it seems - a well-worn notebook is produced that is full to brim with observations. We chat about our various routes to our current position - as far as I knew, the path he's just taken is strictly verboten, but no, apparently just strongly discouraged by the quarry folks, who have health and safety concerns. We laugh off my bramble and Fieldfare-disturbing route here and then I gently prod for information regarding grebes.

The news isn't good - the Red-necked have been seen, but right over the other side of the lake, and he hasn't clapped eyes on them on his way round. He has seen at least a pair of Black-necked, though. Hrmm. We chat a bit more about WeBS, the slow whittling down of people who volunteer (through, uh, old age), how good it is to find someone young (me!) doing some birding, and how I would happily do a WeBS count or two, if my nearest wasn't more than two hours away (and I wasn't full-time employed)! One day. This has turned into a birding conversation good enough to have made the trip worthwhile - its always great to come across someone with such an enthusiasm for it.

The light is fading though, and I haven't quite extinguished the last hope of finding an RNG. So I bid this chap (he did tell me his name, but I instantly forgot it) farewell and follow in his footsteps along the edge of the lake. Many stops are made to stare into the heart of the water, but there's nothing doing - I'm either unable to find the birds, or they've spent this whole time keeping the whole lake between me and them, where they are still effectively anonymous. I clamber back up onto the official footpath, exit through the main quarry works (still on the actual footpath, punching the air) and scoot back into the reserve to pick my bike up (no gate shenanigans required).


As I cycle out of the reserve, I internally admit that Red-necked Grebe is just not going to make the 2018 list. This is mildly annoying. The last (and only) time I saw one was when I was last year listing, when I came across a beautiful summer plumaged bird at Frodsham Marshes. That was, I remember, a pretty epic ad hoc stop, bringing a couple of lifers (the RNG and a Lesser Scaup (also not on this year's list)) in under half an hour, at a place that just happened to be on the way to somewhere we were already going. Oh well. At least I had a nice chat with the WeBS counter, and I'll know how to get here more effectively on the bike next time.

I veritably fly back to Gravesend on the cycle path (not least because it is unlit, and my bike lights are not strong enough for me to confidently take my time and be able to see all the way there), where I have enough time to grab a commiseratory Mcdonalds before boarding the train back to St. Pancras.