Thursday, 19 February 2015

Wednesday 18th February: Maenporth & Swanpool

Having looked at the forecast I knew that the weather was going to get very windy from tomorrow onwards and that today was going to be the last good day. Readers may have noticed a distinct lack of me chasing after my target bird list for this week and I felt that it was time that I made amends. In particular I wanted to see the King Eider over at Maenporth – a really rare species for Cornwall that I would really like to have on my county list. So the previous evening I’d floated the idea of dropping the rest of the family off at Lelant Saltings so they could catch the train to St. Ives for a spot of shopping whilst I headed over to Falmouth to try and catch up with the Eider.

Things didn’t start very well: I woke up at just after 3 a.m. feeling a bit strange and I couldn’t really get back to sleep again after that despite a generous glass of whisky for medicinal purposes. I was still feeling rather unwell the next morning and almost threw up in the kitchen sink ten minutes before an electrician was due to come around to chat about the work that we needed done. I managed to pull it together for the interview and they seemed to know what they were talking about so we’ll probably give them the job as long as the quote comes back OK.

My VLW asked me if I felt well enough to carry on with our plan for today - I knew that this was going to be my last chance for the week so I steeled myself for what might be a day of endurance birding and answered in the affirmative. Thus it was that around 10:30 a.m. I dropped the rest of the family off at Lelant Saltings and then pointed the Gnome Mobile west towards Falmouth. I didn’t really feel up to eating at all so I bought a couple of bottles of Lucozade to keep me going and took it nice and slow. Thanks to the trusty Sat Nav I arrived about an hour later at the pretty sandy beach at Maenporth and tooled up. Slowly I wandered up the coast path to the south of the beach and prepared to work my way along the coast. According to reports, the bird was usually hanging out with a female Eider often at Bream Cove which was over towards Rosemullion Head though it had been seen just south of the beach on the last couple of days. I therefore gave the area a good grilling when I got up to the first vantage point though the only birds that I could see were Shags. Conditions were great for viewing though: whilst the forecast was for a bit more wind, it was in a south westerly direction and over here on the east coast the sea was lovely and flat and the light was good with a bit of cloud preventing too much glare.

Having had no luck at the first viewing point I made my way (rather slowly given my lack of energy) southwards along the coast, stopping to scan at every vantage point. The scenery was quite pretty though with none of the wild beauty that you get down in the far south west. Eventually I arrived at Bream Cove where I found a couple of Slavonian Grebes and then joy of joys I spotted a duck on a rock! A quick look through the scope and there was the female Eider. However, there was no sign of it’s rare companion. At this point another birder turned up: MB from Devon down for the day with a son and large dog in tow. We got chatting and it turned out that he and three other Devon birders had been scouring the area for about an hour and a half with no luck at all. Things were starting to look rather bleak and my heart sank: I’d made all this effort to get out there when I really should be tucked up in bed and I wasn’t even going to see the bird after all. It had done a bunk a couple of weeks ago, disappearing for a while before it came back to the same area again but it was most unlucky for this to have happened on the one day that I’d been free. That is birding though. The others were ready to give up: they’d had a rather disappointing day so far having dipped the American Wigeon at Plymouth and now the King Eider as well. The other three were going to go on to the Little Bunting at Penzance and MB was going to go to Swanpool for the Ring-billed Gull. I’d mentally pencilled in a stop-off at Swanpool myself so I quizzed him about where to go: half way down the east side by the benches apparently. We all made our way back along the coast, stopping off for a scan where possible though in my weakened state I soon lagged behind.

At the last viewing point I caught up with MB having a final scan with the other three having already headed off back to the car. As this was the spot where it had been seen most often over the last couple of days I resolved to give it a final go before admitting defeat. MB found a pair of adult Med Gulls on the sea and there were a few Shags about. We started looking over the far side of the bay to the north of the beach but it was all deserted and it seemed hopeless. A quick final scan out over the sea itself with my bins and I spotted something bobbing up and down at some distance – thank heavens the sea was so flat you could see for a long way. I got my scope on it and low and behold there it was, the King Eider in all its loveliness. I told MB that I had it and he manged to get on it as well. He then made a frantic phone call to his friends to come back. Apparently they were just about to turn the ignition key to head off when the call came through and they raced back. They were all very grateful to me for having found the bird and I reflected that there’s nothing quite so gratifying as a last gasp success – one really feels that one’s earned the tick. I spent a while trying to video the bird but it was so far away that it was little more than a “record vid”. Still one could see all the salient features including the prominent yellow bill and forehead patch that the males of the species have. With time marching on I headed back towards the car, saying good bye to my grateful birding companions though MB soon followed behind me. On the way back I spotted a pair of Stonechats working their way over the grassy field next to the coastal path.

By far the best photo of the Maenporth King Eider that I've seen, "borrowed" from the CBWPS web-site and originally taken by John St. Ledger (c), presumably at much closer range than I saw it!
Back at the car I set the Sat Nav for Swanpool and headed off, noting MB’s car following behind me – he was still keen on checking out the Ring-billed Gull himself. It was only a few minutes away and I duly parked up on the east side of the 500m long pool near some other cars. I could seen MB park up ahead of me by the benches and by the time I’d got my gear together he was already on the bird! In fact it was so ridiculously close that you could literally tick it without getting out of the car if you were parked by the bench. Someone had been feeding bread to the gulls and it was the closest gull there, swimming up and down no more than 10 or 15 yards away. What a complete contrast from the King Eider!

I sat on the bench and busied myself with some photos and video using my trusty superzoom camera. The birds were all very tame here: a couple of coots were foraging in the reeds not more than two metres from where I was sitting. MB managed to find an adult Med Gull up near the north end. After a while he headed off to the top to see if he could find the Long-tailed Duck whereas I stayed put in order to admire the RBG. I’m always keen to see this species as it’s one that I’d love to find on my home patch at Port Meadow. The trouble is, as a relatively inexperienced birder, I only have limited experience with them so I like to take every opportunity to see them when I can. I’d seen the annual adult Gosport bird a couple of times and now here was a chance to see a first winter bird. The classic confusion species is supposed to be Common Gull though there was no way that this bird could be confused with one: it was a big hulking brute by comparison to a dainty Common with much thicker bill more curved on the upper bill than the lower (Common Gull of course have the thin more symmetrically curved bill) and pale grey mantle and coverts complete with brown flecks on the scaps. To my mind the main confusion species was going to be with a 2w Herring Gull though it was of course noticeably smaller and it’s plain tertials and less chequered coverts told it was for what it was.

The confiding 1w Ring-billed Gull
Having had my fill of the bird, I sent a text to the St. Ives party saying that I was going to head back to rendezvous with them. They replied that they were more or less done anyway and would meet me back at the Leisure Centre car park in about three quarters of an hour. I got back into the Gnome Mobile and decided to follow the Sat Nav which wanted to take me cross country back to the A30. This turned out to be a bad idea as there were road works in Falmouth itself and then I got stuck behind two oil tankers so I ended up arriving about fifteen minutes late.

The others had had a good time: L had bought some trinkets, they’d had pasties for lunch though B was feeling distinctly under the weather. She’d come down with my VLW’s cold and probably should have stayed in bed. What a bunch of invalids we were – only L was his usual self! Anyway, we headed back to PZ where we nipped into Sainsbury’s for some shopping before heading back to the cottage. There I had a bowl of soup (my first meal of the day) and I retired to my bed to recuperate. Whilst resting I reflected on my successful day out birding: I’d managed to get two Cornish ticks (I’d needed the RGB as well for the county), one of which had been very hard won and one had been ridiculously easy. Birding - it's a funny old game!

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