Friday, 30 April 2021

April Visit

Because of Covid restrictions we had not been able to get down to Cornwall at all since last summer. We were presently in two minds about whether to let it out again for what would no doubt be a summer of high demand or in fact to sell the place given the extremely buoyant property market in the South West. In either case I needed to get down to sort the place out from its winter storm battering. There just so happened to be some good birds down in the South West, namely the Norther Mockingbird at Exmouth and the American Herring Gull as Newlyn. So it was, after rather a restless night in anticipation of finally getting out and seeing some birds again, that I was on the road shortly after 8 a.m. along the familiar route to the South West. News of the Mockingbird had already dropped on RBA so I was in a relaxed frame of mind as I steered the Gnome-mobile on her course. The traffic was light and I made excellent time down to the Exmouth turn-off when some ten minutes later I was parking up in Iona Avenue and getting tooled up. I had done a fair bit of pre trip research in order fully to acquaint myself with the location - for this particular site, knowing all the viewing angles from the different sides was more important than usual due to social distancing considerations and also due to rather strained relationship with some of the neighbours who had got fed up with birders climbing their walls and breaking their fences. So I had carefully read up all the gen on the BirdForum thread on the bird. 

To start with I went to the main road where I found a couple of birders peering through a gap in someone's fence into the neighbouring gardens where the favoured Holly bush and Palm trees could be seen. A quick enquiry revealed that they had not yet seen the bird in the twenty minutes that they had been there. I decided to do a quick tour and found the infamous alleyway which was very narrow indeed and no place for any social distancing so I decided to steer clear of there. Down Cauleston Close there was a narrow gap between the houses where the Holly tree could be viewed but it was hardly ideal and felt rather intrusive on the locals. Back on the main road the two birders told me that the neighbour whose fence gap they were looking through was getting very cross and kept putting up barriers to try to block the view. In the end it was obvious to me that the best viewing point was on the opposite side of the road where you had perfectly good scope views of relevant trees without having to intrude on any of the neighbours' privacy. Having duly set up it wasn't long before the Mockingbird appeared in it's favoured tree again. In colouring it very much reminded me of a Thrush sized Barred Warbler though with it's long tail and bill that was as far as the comparison went. It would sit still for long periods of time so there was no issue with tracking it or taking photos. It seemed relaxed and content and indeed during the entire time I was there I only saw it fly into the neighbouring Palm trees in order to feed on two occasions so I guess that it had already done much of its feeding for the day. I spent some time digiscoping it and some of them came out OK.



There were not many birders on site: during my time there I saw a total of six others. With the "stay local" restrictions having been eased at the end of last month most people who were going to come to see this bird had already done so. Most of the time the bird was on view, sitting in the tree and doing not very much. The original pair had gone down the alleyway to try their luck but the rest of us stuck to the far side of the road. After about an hour I decided that I had had my fill and headed back to the car. Having now got my head around the geography of the place I realised that, near where I'd parked, there was a narrow gap between the houses on Iona Avenue where one of the Palms could be seen. Just as I took a look the Mockingbird flew up into it and gave me what were the closest views of the entire time while it fed briefly before heading back to the Holly Tree (which was hidden from this vantage point).

 



This was a great finale for my visit and well satisfied but with much still to do ahead of my I fired up the Gnome Mobile and headed back onto the road. There had been no news on the American Herring Gull so far that day but an hour from Penzance the reassurring "still present" message came on my RBA app and I could relax for the rest of the trip. Arriving in Penzance I navigated my way straight around to Newlyn Harbour. I had intended to park at Sandy Cove, an area of hard-standing near the shore just as you leave Newlyn but there were loads of "Private Land" message showing everywhere so I guess that this was no longer possible. As I headed back I noticed a parked car on a single yellow line just above the beach where the gull was located. Remembering that it was a bank holiday I realised that I could park right on site and duly did so.

I got out of the car, to be greeted by a stiff northerly breeze. From my vantage point I could look right down on the beach which I recognised from various on-line photos of the bird and which I knew well from many past visits. There were only half a dozen gulls loafing on the beach and none was the bird I was after. Somewhat deflated I suddenly realised how tired I was. Was I going to have to come back later to see it? I stared disconsolately out at the harbour. A few gulls had noticed me lingering and flew closer to investigate - on the off-chance that I might feed them, I guess. One of them immediately stood out in flight as having very dark tail coverts. Even in flight I could also pick out the paler head and the "Glauc" like pink bill with a dark tip. Bingo - I had my bird! Rejuvenated by my success I decided to take my packed lunch and flask of tea down to the beach and to enjoy the company of the bird.

My first view of the American Herring Gull, looking down from where I had parked the car
 

Down on the beach near the tiny memorial chapel there were a couple walking their dog and throwing sticks for the dog all along the beach. I went over towards the gulls and decided to chuck in a few pieces of bread, as much to try and disuade the dog walkers from encroaching in this area as attracting the gulls. Fortunately, the dog people got the message and kept their activities to the far end and with my bread throwing I had got the attention of all the local gulls, numbering some three dozen or so gulls in total. Most were first winter birds, mostly Herring with a few Great Black-backed in amongst them and of course our Neartic interloper as well. From the numerous photos on the internet of this bird, I already knew how striking it was but it did really stand out from the crowd. To my mind it had almost a Glauc feel to it, with it's pale coffee wash to it, it's chunky size and of course the pink bill with the dark tip. The head was pale and it had a nice milky-coffee wash to the breast. The upper and lower tail coverts were strikingly dark and it had the pale bases to the greater coverts, at least on the outer edge of the wing. One thing that really struck me what the head shape which was noticeably different from the other Herring gulls, with a more rounded shape to it. All in all a pretty classic "smithy". I say all this with all the assurance of someone with only text book knowledge of them and who'd never actually seen one in the field before. It was great though that my first should be such a classic bird and one that was showing so well. 


I particularly like this photo which nicely shows just how
stand-out the AHG was compared to the local birds


The obligatory UTC shot

 

I sat and munched my lunch, sharing bits of it with the assembled throng. The AHG actually hung back from trying to fight for scraps and merely watched from a distance. Still it was close enough that I could shoot some video by balancing my superzoom camera on my knees.



Between myself and the gulls we soon managed to polish off my lunch and after a couple of reviving cups of tea from my flask it was time to get on. 

My first stop was just down the road a Jubilee Pool in order to see if there were any roosting Purple Sandpipers. Sadly the tide was too far out but I did manage to see a few on the small rocky island opposite the monument next to the pool. Then it was on to Sainsbury's in order to pick up some food for my stay before heading over to open up the cottage. With lots to do in a short space of time I cracked on with making a start on the preparations until I was too tired to work any more and so I turned in, dreaming of Mockingbirds and Gulls.

I woke up early the next day with much to do. I won't bore readers with a blow by blow account of all my DIY preparatations - after all this is a birding blog rather than anything else. I did manage to get out briefly in the morning with one of the Pendeen locals who showed me an aberrant Chiffchaff singing in a nearby plantation. So most chiffchaffs go: "jit ja ja jit..." etc. Iberian chiffies go: "jit ja ja jit, weet weet, cha cha cha cha" (as we all learnt to our cost in Oxon with a weird aberrant bird a few years ago). Well, this bird was going "weet, weet, jit ja ja jit" - a sort of backward half Iberian. It also never once dipped its tail which was most unusual. Not sure exactly what it was then but it seemed to have some Iberian influences. You can listen to a recording here.

Later that afternoon I went up the carn behind Pendeen village to look for a female Ring Ouzel that had been seen there but in the strong wind I could not find it. Once again I worked until I was too tired before turning in for the night.

Pendeen Stonechat

The obligatory Chough photo

I had intended to leave promptly the next morning but in the end I had things to finish off so it wasn't until midday that I finally left. I decided that after such an intense DIY-filled visit I would take a rather leisurely approach to the return journey as a reward for all my efforts. My first stop was at Drozmary Pool near Bolventor on Bodmin Moor where I soon had distant views of the long-staying female Ring-necked Duck and the adult male Scaup. The only other birds there were a female Tufted Duck and a Gadwall.

I also stopped at a service station to eat my lunch and to have a cup of tea before heading on for my third stop at Frampton-upon-Severn Sailing Lake for the long-staying 1w Bonaparte's Gull. This turned out to be a lovely site. After the harshness of the Cornish landscape everything was "soft" and more spring-like. There were hirundines everywhere hawking over the lake with singing Willow Warblers in the bushes. Unfortunately the gulls were all right in the far corner and despite grilling them all very carefully a number of times there was no sign of the Bonaparte's. In the end I gave up and headed on for home, arriving back feeling very tired after an intense few days away. Still I'd managed to see a couple of new birds and things were ready to move ahead with the cottage. 


Addendum

The Mockingbird did its credentials no harm by leaving a few days after I saw it. Amazingly, it was picked up in Pulborough, Sussex where it spent one day before moving on. My sketchy understanding is that the eastern subspecies is largely resident whereas the western ones do undergo a migration of some sorts so this could be one of those that has somehow (perhaps with the aid of a ship) made it to our shores. In any event it was a great bird to see.



Sunday, 30 August 2020

Sea-watching

Part I
The last three days we've had proper stormy weather and raging southerly winds. As a birder of course this should be music to my ears in August but as I mentioned previously I've been feeling rather unwell. All this meant that I didn't feel up to getting up at the crack of dawn in order to spend all day on a windswept headland. In any event, I've never been a great fan of Porthgwarra - the light and the lack of shelter and the fact that I can't hear what people are calling out half the time all makes for a rather unenjoyable experience. Also, I'm on a family rather than birding holiday and to take off for the whole day with the car would be very much frowned upon. So instead, for the last three days I've gone down to Pendeen lighthouse at whatever time I've happened to wake up to try my luck there instead. Of course the wind direction was completely wrong for Pendeen and indeed the first two days were completely useless and I was reduced to picking out the few Mediterranean Gulls that were passing the Watch. 

On the third day, I was down at the Watch at 9 am to find one other person there. He'd been down at PG earlier but it had been such rubbish that he'd decided to try Pendeen instead. He was in two minds about whether to have a go but after seeing all the benefits of the shelter and the great light he was persuaded. He and I enjoyed a nice chat whilst we tried to winkle out some birds of interested and we even managed a couple of Sooties for our troubles. A third PG refugee turned up who turned out to be a birder all the way down from Aviemore in Scotland. He was younger and frankly more sharp-eyed than either myself or my original companion and things started to pick up with his arrival. We added quite a few more Sooties and a couple of Stormies to the tally and even an Ocean Sun Fish. The pick of morning though was an adult summer plumage Sabine's Gull that he managed to pick out well past the left hand rock. Somehow I too managed to get on it with my bins before it passed the lighthouse wall of oblivion though sadly my original companion never managed to connect.

As time passed and word seemed to spread of the comparative better pickings on offer at Pendeen more people arrived from PG and the session turned from our enjoyable trio who were able to chat amongst ourselves, instead to a large scale watch with more than a dozen hardcore sea-watchers. I tend to enjoy such sessions less, finding them rather intimidating for calling stuff out and I was getting tired anyway so called it a day at that point. Still I couldn't complain: Sabine's Gull was a personal Cornish tick.

Sea-watchers


Part II
I woke before the rest of the family to find the wind was as forecast, namely a moderate south-westerly averaging about 17 mph according to the BBC weather app. So, OK but not exactly classic sea-watching weather. Certainly in theory this should be another Porthgwarra day and as I got tooled up and wandered down to the lighthouse for a brief spell of sea-watching I expected to find myself pretty much on my own. I turned the corner to find thirty or so birders occupying the area below the lighthouse. Indeed there were so many people that I couldn't see anywhere to sit down and so had to retrace my steps back to the cottage to get my chair to sit on - I don't normally bother with it as I can sit on the concrete ledge. It seems that the recent poor PG performance had been enough to relegate it to below Pendeen for a south westerly.

As I've said previously, I'm not a great fan of the large watch but I managed to find a spot tucked right in the corner out of the wind and I was reasonably close to a couple of people who were helpful in passing on calls and all in all it was actually quite enjoyable. Looking around I recognised quite a few of the faces including my Aviemore companion from yesterday. I'd asked how things had been so far and the answer was pretty great! A Wilson's had gone past pretty early and they'd also had a couple of Great Shears and 6 (!) adult Sabine's Gulls. Pretty good stuff! Of course I could have been kicking myself over having missed the Wilson's but I have come to realise that sea-watching is such a brutal game that if you start going down that "if only..." route it can quickly "do your head in" completely. 

It's always interesting to look around at the assembled birders. It's funny how you can tell the serious battle-hardened watchers from the tentative beginners who won't call anything and rely on others to find and identify things. Myself, I suppose I fall somewhere in between the two camps. Compared to many I'm still relatively inexperienced and also I have issues with my eyesight which mean that I can't seem to see the same detail as some people. I also find that my eyes get tired easily and quickly glaze over staring at a blank seascape so I have to rest them regularly and I get tired after a couple of hours of watching. I'm a real light weight I guess! There weren't any locals on show and I've since leaned that they tend to prefer watching together from the lower car park away from the hoards.

I settled down and even managed to find and call a couple of Stormies myself. A couple more Sabs were picked up which I managed to get onto and with a couple of Bonxies and a couple of Sooties it was a pretty good sea-watch, especially for the wrong wind direction at Pendeen. 

A Rainbow over the Pendeen sea-watch

After a good couple of hours things started to go a bit quiet and as a fair portion of the other watchers started to leave, I too followed suit. With another couple of Sabine's under my belt it had been another good session.

Part III

With conditions looking  good for another Pendeen session I mentally pencilled in heading down to the lighthouse once more. However, still feeling poorly and having to do some DIY tasks meant  that it wasn't until late morning that I was finally able to get down there. I elected for the lower car park this time where I soon met up with my local friends P&H who informed me that there had been a number of Wilson's sightings that morning - Gah! Still, there was nothing to be done and in lovely sunny conditions and being pretty sheltered from the wind I had a good chat and managed to see some good birds as well. It was mostly Skuas with Arctic and Bonxies seen as well as some Sooties and Stormies but no large Shears and sadly no more Wilson's. 

After heading back to the house for lunch I elected to come back mid afternoon. Things had gone quieter but later on SR who was sitting next to me, managed to pick out a Wilson's! This was what I'd been waiting for but sadly it kept going down on the sea and he lost it before anyone else could get on it. So frustrating, but it's pretty hard picking out someone else'e Petrel at the best of times and there was nothing I could do. I eventually headed for home and tried to be philosphical about it, though it wasn't easy.

 

Part IV

The day before we were due to leave I had one more go on the sea. Once again from the lower car park though this time the wind was more northerly (perhaps too much so) which meant that it was much colder. It was a very difficult watch - I was feeling cold and ill, all the birds were very distant and I just couldn't seem to get on most of them though I did add a Sootie and a few more Skuas to my tally. In the end I gave it up as a bad job and headed back to the cottage


Pendeen Gannet


Saturday, 29 August 2020

Marazion

One of our favourite family past times when then weather is stormy is to head down to Marazion to sit on the sea front, sipping coffee from a flask and watching the waves crash on the shore. One time we also walked from there to Little London to have our tea and look for sea glass on the beach. There's not been anything particularly interesting on the shore but it's always fun to rummage through the waders and gulls in the hope of finding something interesting.


I always enjoy picking out the Med Gulls from the flock

Ringed Plover

Sanderling

Med Gull in amongst the Black-headeds


Friday, 28 August 2020

Pendeen

I have not been so diligent in my surveying of Pendeen each morning as I have in the past. The truth is that it's a little too early in August and to be honest I've just not been feeling it. Still in passing I've managed to see a few things. The highlight was a lovely female Common Hawker that settled right next to me and allowed some photography at point blank range. This species is pretty rare on the Penwith peninsula and in all my years of coming down it's only the second time that I've seen it. In discussion with local resident JS he says that he's only seen three during his time here.

Female Common Hawker

A few Pied Flycatchers were being reported passing through the county and one day I managed to find one in the Old Count House garden. The trouble is that there is so much cover there that it's very hard to see anything and after about 30 seconds it had disappeared.

Pied Flycatcher


Small Copper

On my regular strolls down to the lighthouse I'd often spot a Wheatear in the fields or posing on a wall.


Wheatears

 Apart from that it was the usual species doing their usual thing. The two Ravens were still around and a pair of Chough have taken up residence in the area.


Monday, 17 August 2020

17th August: Drift Reservoir

With the rest of the family choosing to have a lie-in on our first day in the cottage I decided to head off reasonably early to see if I could see the Drift Spotted Sandpiper - the one rare bird that was around on the Penwith peninsula at the moment. I was about half way from Pendeen to Drift when the heavens opened so I decided to head first to Sainsbury's to do a spot of shopping. This worked out quite nicely and I'd just finished as it started to ease. I duly arrived at the reservoir car park, tooled up and headed off. I soon realised that I'd made a mistake in not wearing my waterproof trousers: whilst it was no longer raining, there was a lot of vegetation to walk through and my trousers were soon soaking. I worked my way around the west shore, hoping that I would strike lucky at the first corner by the boardwalk which certainly used to be it's favourite corner but sadly it was empty. Having failed here I was pinning my hopes on finding it in the north west arm past the hide where waders usually like to hang out. Here I found three Green Sandpipers, a Wood Sand, 2 Common Sand, a Greenshank, a Snipe as well as a few ducks, a Little Egret and a couple of Grey Herons but sadly not the bird I was looking for. Eventually I had to give up and head back home to dry out.

After lunch, we decided to do something that we'd been meaning to do for years, namely climb the hill behind Pendeen itself. It didn't take too long but once we'd left the village the scenery changed and there was a wonderful tapestry of heather and gorse which looked stunning in the afternoon sunshine. 

Heather & Gorse

The view at the top of the hill was definitely worth it and we all wished that we'd done it years ago. After a while we headed down to the  churchyard where after a wander around the churchyard we sat down with our flask of tea and our snacks. We'd just finished when news came through on RBA of the Spotted Sandpiper still present at Drift. As we about to head home anyway I quickly dropped the others off at the cottage and headed off to Drift with my younger daughter along for the ride.

I arrived about the same time as two other birders who were also keen to catch up with the Spotted Sand. The news had said that it was along the east shore 100 yards from the dam wall. This was pretty precise information but despite the three off us searching we couldn't see it. With nothing else to do the three of us worked our way back along the west shore just as I'd done in the morning. Sadly the outcome was the same as in the morning with no sign of the target bird though the number of Wood Sandpipers had now grown to three. One of the party decided to head on whereas myself and the third person both had to head back due to limited time. My daughter and I lingered a bit as the other person yomped on ahead. Back near the dam I thought I'd just take one last look on the far shore just in case. "Was that movement I saw in my bins?" I pondered. I got my scope out again and checked and wouldn't you know it, there was the bird! Had it been there all along but skulking on the shoreline? Certainly as it worked its way in amongst the stone blocks near the dam it was easy enough to lose sight of it. I whipped out my digiscoping gear and took a bit of video footage.

Some video footage of the Spotted Sandpiper on the far side of the reservoir

Having snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and with a shiny new personal Cornish tick now in the bag, it was with a feeling of achievement that we headed back to the car and drove back to the cottage for dinner.

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Coming Down

It was time to come back down to Cornwall for our summer holiday. This year, because of the exceptional conditions and with so much uncertainty regarding overseas travel we decided just to go to Cornwall and to take two weeks ourselves.

The big news locally was the horrible pop-up camp site that had appeared right  by the Coastguard cottages at Pendeen. So many of the village locals are up in arms about it as of course  are we and all our neighbours. However due to the exceptional covid situation the Council are encouraging camping in the area and there seems to be no chance of stopping it this year. Instead people are trying to make sure that it doesn't happen again next year. Anyway, we did our best to ignore it and to be honest, given the unstettled weather there weren't that many people there most of the time so it wasn't too bad for most of our stay. Let's hope that this is a one-off event.

On a personal level, myself, my wife and eldest daughter are still recovering from a long-term albeit rather low level virus that had been plaguing us for some months now. In discussion with two different doctors, they both said that our symptoms sounded exactly like "post Covid" symptoms  where, after getting Covid itself, some people seem to have a very long recovery time. Indeed my wife did play tennis with someone who definitely came down with Covid a few days later and I'd been commuting to work in London so it's very likely that we both got it. Thankfully in both cases our symptoms were so mild that we didn't even know we had it. However the low level "post viral" symptoms that come and go have been dragging on for months now and we both are finding that if we over do it then we start to feel under the weather again. Whilst we've been lucky to have been so lightly affected in the first place, the length of time for the recovery is becoming very frustrating.

Anyway, that's the backdrop to our trip down to Cornwall. Despite starting off doing day by day postings, I soon got fed up doing that and since coming home I've amalgamated my news into a few summary posts instead.

An Orange Swift that came to the "moth light"




Sunday, 19 July 2020

5th July

It's been nearly a year since I was last down in Cornwall. The terrible Corona virus put the kibosh on our usual Easter visit down and indeed we weren't sure if we were going to be open for the summer at all. In the end restrictions were eased just in time for us to get down to do some blitzkrieg decorating and repairs before our first visitors were due to arrive. As I am presently working full-time (originally in London though now thankfully from home) it had to be a weekend visit so it was a case of coming down, spending a day decorating and then heading off again. Given that the far south west has mercifully been free from Covid so far we made the deliberate decision not to go to any shops whilst down so as to make sure that we didn't in advertently import it ourselves. Accordingly we came with all the provisions that we needed for the weekend so we could hunker down and get on with things.

Given the full-on DIY workload this left very little time to apprectiate any of the nature that keeps me coming back year after year to this wonderful part of the country but I was able to do a bit of sea watching from the house where I was able to add the usual sea birds to my modest year list including a Balearic Shearwater. I don't really "do" year listing but I like to keep a tally all the same and this was my first opportunity in the year for sea watching of any kind. Given that it was blowing a gale all weekend we didn't do much in the way of a family walk so  it was all very low key. Pendeen valley was full of young birds all blundering around in the undergrowth and it was all looking as lovely as ever. Below are a few photos that I was able to take during snatched moments in between sorting out the damp and redecorating.

Gannet off Pendeen Watch

One of several young Whitethroats

Hunting Kestrel

I don't usually see Rooks down at the far end - they're usually up by Manor Farm