Thursday 12 October 2023

BB 2010 On The Road Again Warwick to Otmoor.


4th January                               

We’re on the road to Nowhere 

Talking Heads  

I got up early having slept fitfully. So, at 3.00 a.m. I was on the computer, completing a PowerPoint to show to the Otmoor RSPB group and reading Roz Savage’s blog. More on her in a bit. At 8.30 a.m. I went to the nearby Royal Mail sorting office to see whether a new camera had arrived. My previous small digital camera, a Sony Sureshot, had been smashed by one of the Special Needs children in a class at the last school I was teach at full-time, Rigby Hall Special School in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. Bless her, she could not help it. This student was almost blind, had almost no vocabulary and her needs were communicated to any staff present by violent outbursts and one of the four utterances that she had practised. When she needed the toilet, she would scream “can I go to the loo?” in a strong Scouse accent. At least this time her thrown object was my camera and was not the desk where she worked with her teaching assistant constantly present, that she had thrown previously. Neither was it the chair that flew past my face cutting my lip on the first occasion of her being in my form. We soon learnt that one way to prevent her from throwing her desk was to place over twenty household bricks in the desk drawers. The first time she tried to even lift the overladen desk, her reddening face was a picture I wish I had taken. Her language was undecipherable! 

Mind you I was not that upset over the camera being smashed as I had had a lot of problems with it with the lens extension frequently jamming up. The worst occasion for this to happen was a couple of years previous whilst watching displaying Little Bustards one February in Spain. I had taken about six photographs when it jammed. No more could be taken on that holiday. Once again, I could not be too disappointed as their raspberry brrrrrrrp, Harry Secombe-like calls were so hilarious!

My new camera had not arrived, so back home for breakfast and last-minute packing. With everything that I could get into the panniers packed, well everything that I thought that I would need, the bike now was too heavy to lift! I had hoped to carry my telescope and tripod, a laptop and various booklets and stickers given to me by the Asthma UK charity and the Geography Association, from whom I had also been given fifty Barnaby Bear books. A few stickers and books were OK to take but the weight of the other items meant they all stayed at home. Would the lack of a ‘scope make a big difference? Time would tell. The lack of a laptop and hence lack of internet access would become a persistent time-eating problem throughout the year.

Out in the back garden, I had to brush thick hoar frost from off my bike but once having done so and having oiled the parts that nature can reach, Mum and Dad waved me off and despite the weight, the bike ran smoothly and easily. So, there we were on the road to Otmoor RSPB reserve. I say ‘we’ because I was not alone. I had a collection of cuddly toys with me precariously chained to the bike. At this point there was a large green frog to represent the RSPB’s rainforest at Harapan in Sumatra and the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust as I had bought it at their HQ, Slimbridge; a large cuddly Black-browed Albatross for their ongoing albatross campaign and a glove puppet teddy bear named Barnaby Bear. Barnaby Bear is more famous than I, not that I am jealous – much! He is the symbol of the Geography Association and teachers, children and parents delight in taking Barnaby Bear all over the World. There are websites of his adventures both on the BBC’s and the Geography Association. There are many books large and small and at Primary schools one of the Geography curriculum topics is entitled ‘Where in the World is Barnaby Bear?’ Well he was with me, freezing on top of my sleeping bag on the back of my bike. Poor Barnaby! At least he had fur. Imagine how a rainforest frog felt in this harsh winter freeze and 2010 was to have extreme cold weather and lots of snow at both ends.

After a few miles, my legs were fine, the initial stiffness having gone, and the cycling was exhilarating. The countryside, white with frost, had few birds and the roads were relatively free of traffic.

Heading south I crossed an almost empty M40, took a wrong turn just after that and stopped to check my maps whilst taking a breather and admired the view. Back on the correct road, I came to the first long, hard hill and had to push the bike up the last few metres. A Sparrowhawk [59] glided over a small attractive church atop the hill I had just climbed as I reached the top and I remounted my bike pleased to add another bird to the list.

Despite the cold, the effort of the cycling soon had me removing both woolly hat from beneath my cycling helmet and my gloves. The sun was low in the sky ahead of me as I headed south and I was beginning to realise that sweat would become a problem and, sorry to mention it but asthmatic mucus would need to be constantly blown and spat out. Lovely!

I was stopped along the back route to Banbury by a phone call from the WWT (Wildfowl & Wetland Trust) nature reserve at Barnes, London. They asked me to confirm what day and time I would be calling in so that local press could be arranged. Beside the road, in a field with a low depression sat around one hundred Lapwings together with a good number of the commonest bird seen during the day, Wood Pigeons. These were fluffed up and sitting on the ground pretending to be partridges which had me stopping on a couple of occasions to check out whether another year tick was in the offing. A smashing male Ring-necked Pheasant was the next year tick [60]. Otherwise only the occasional small flock of Fieldfare and Redwing was seen, together with sporadic titmice and Robins.

More phone calls stopped me as I cycled, mainly from a persistent teacher from a school in Slough. Tracy Ball from Penn Wood Junior School was eager that I visit and I was keen to oblige. The school visits were to be an integral part of the year, a chance to promote ‘Green’ issues with the people who will live with the consequences of our present eco efforts, or lack of them, children.

When three miles from Banbury yet another phone call, from Andrew Waters at RSPB Midlands HQ in, luckily, Banbury stopped me. “Come in and have a coffee,” Andrew said. How could I refuse? Once in the centre of the town I found the offices, after a chat with a proud local who wanted to and did tell me not only about how to find the RSPB but also told of the ‘fine lady with bells on her toes’ in the centre of the town.

What a welcome! I was greeted by hoots from attractive young ladies who leaned out of the office windows.

After coffee, and after being given some large RSPB stickers to place on the back of my florescent jacket and after being given a RSPB yellow collection can for the front of the bike, some photographs were taken with everyone outside for the use of the local press and RSPB newsletters. 

Then it was time to be back on the road again heading for Otmoor, the large RSPB reserve near Oxford.

On leaving Banbury I recalled my first birding experience of the town, well of the town's sewage works anyway. A day twitching with my then fiancée Jane back in 1982; a journey to a romantic location to bond our newish relationship. Sunny weather as we drove our old, clanging Marina away from our one-bedroomed bed-sit in a rundown area of Wolverhampton. The car had needed a push start as the starting motor was defunct and now the bearings on the right side gave their repetitive clunking sound as the A roads to Stratford Upon Avon and Banbury were travelled down. Our connection to the grapevine, the way birders found out about what rare birds were available by phoning each other up, was through one ‘Black Country’ John Holian. John was a TV celebrity back in 1983 when a program about birders was made on the Isles of Scilly. Bernard Cribbens had been the outsider to the twitching world and Black Country John, nicknamed because of his roots and TV requirements and not by anything that those who knew him would call him, was his guide for a few days of intense rarity chasing.

Well, John had given us the directions for Banbury sewage works and we drove through the gate to be greeted by a brave worker who told us the correct way down to the grass plots. A long walk along a muddy path towards a small group of birders and then there was the bird, a lifer for us both and an American far from home. A Lesser Yellowlegs in the Midlands, a good bird anywhere but extra special here, strutted around this grassy, wet meadow, accompanied by a few Meadow Pipits and a Water Pipit. The American wader's legs were indeed bright yellow and within the hour the bird had been well grilled and UTB. [Under the belt, a twitcher’s term meaning that the bird had been acceptably seen so one could tick it off on one’s list.]

Not satisfied with one lifer for the day, Jane and I headed off for Brill in Oxfordshire and having once past through the delightful village, we soon found a long line of cars with everyone focussed upon a haystack of a bird devouring some poor, unfortunate creature, actually a rabbit, about fifty yards away. Jane had not been too thrilled by the American wader but now she monopolised our telescope as she watched the ‘barn door’ tearing apart and eating the small rabbit. White-tailed Sea Eagle on the list, another lifer and so close that we could see every feature; its huge, hooked bill, its immense yellowish talons and large, cruel eyes. It was an immature bird so no bright white tail but that did not detract from the awe of seeing this wonderful bird of prey. One could hear the gasp from the birdwatching crowd as it took to the air, having finished its meal; the official term of ‘barn door’ being such an apt name for it. It was huge and it flapped over our heads and went away to the west. We followed its flight until it disappeared behind trees some way off. By now we were leaning against a five-bar gate from which we scanned the large meadow in front of us and found a Little Owl sitting on a fence post a little way off, enjoying the winter sunshine. A fox walked through the scope view completing the scene. A double tick day and all in my home area of the UK, the Midlands.

Back to 2010, eventually over the A34 and down towards Stanton St John, it was by now getting quite dark and I was exhausted. I was cold and the sweat from my excursions made me feel extremely uncomfortable. My decision to cycle the whole way from Warwick to Otmoor in one day was in retrospect a dicey one. I was not yet as fit and strong as I would later become and the last few miles were extremely tough. Yet a few chunks of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut, for yes, I am, like everyone else so the old advert sung by Frank Muir used to say, a bit of a Cadbury’s Fruit and Nutcase, gave me the energy to climb the last hill. Then, having found the correct turn off lane, I found the beautiful thatched, stone cottage of Richard and Lynn Ebbs, two professors at Oxford University now working at the John Radcliffe hospital: she a Professor of Virology, he a Professor of Bacteriology.

Once again, my mobile phone rang, this time almost immediately after I had arrived at the cottage. It was from Central News, the ITV news program for the Midlands. Could I come into the studios in Birmingham tomorrow for an interview? I declined the kind offer to cycle fifty miles back to Brum which would mean having to start the journey all over again. Anyway, I had already been booked by the Oxford BBC news program for the next day. TV celebrity! They will have me on ‘I’m a celebrity, get me out of here’ next and I will not abuse the insects!

Conversation, once I had had a hot shower and a change of clothes, turned to careers and recent holidays. They spoke of Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands and the need to step over the intransigent Blue-footed Boobies there and of meeting on another occasion the Mountain Gorillas of Uganda.

Then we were off to the local village hall up the road in the village where I was to give a talk about my adventure to the dozen or so who had braved the weather. My talk started with an image of a beautiful blonde woman sitting with a Mona Lisa like smile holding the tiller of a small boat. A strange way to start a birdy talk to a small group of local birders you may think but here was a photograph of the incredible Roz Savage, who if you do not recognise the name I will elucidate. Roz was an office girl in London, far away from her native Australia. In 2006 she suddenly decided that she wanted to do something more with her life. Therefore, she decided to row the Atlantic single-handed. Once the Atlantic was crossed, not content with that tremendous achievement, she thought that it would be churlish not to row home to Australia so, via Hawaii, another challenge was completed despite being told that her route included areas with impossible to pass waters. Spreading the word of Climate Change, oceanic plastic pollution and save the planet, Roz reached Oz in 2010. She then became the first woman to row across three oceans, completing her row across the Indian Ocean in October 2011. It is amazing what a commitment to advocating a Green life can have you achieve.                                                                


47.55 miles                                                                                    1841 feet elevation up  1651 feet down

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