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. 


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.

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