Monday, 12 July 2010

In Which I Acquire a New Patch...

Regular readers of this blog will know that as a family we often venture down to the Penwith peninsula which is the south-western most tip of Cornwall. We love it there for the wonderful rugged coastal scenery and the great beaches not to mention the fabulous birding. When we went there at Easter (see blog entry here) we came across a rather run-down cottage which was for sale and which we rather fell in love with and have since managed to buy. This will mean more frequent trips down there while we renovate it. It also just happens to be in Pendeen, which is of course one of the top sea watching locations in the country. This Friday, having finally completed on the purchase, we went down to see what we'd actually let ourselves in for. We accordingly made the long journey down en famille on Friday morning arriving mid afternoon. The cottage itself was full of mould and stank of damp but has lots of "potential". Much of the time down there was spent cleaning it out (it was left in a rather filthy state) and wrestling with the electrics but we did manage to find time to wander down to the coast near the lighthouse. As far as birding was concerned I did managed to find time to do a bit of exploring near the lighthouse, getting acquainted with my new patch and on Saturday and Sunday morning I got up at around 6a.m. for a couple of hours sea watching down at the lighthouse (well, it would be rude not to). I'd looked up to see what I might expect at this time of year and while it was rather early for the proper sea-watching "season" it appeared that the first balearic and sooty shearwaters were starting to move through now with the odd one being reported mostly at Porthgwarra (or "PG" as we locals call it!). In addition a few storm-petrels were being seen around the country so that was something else to look out for.

Saturday morning started grey and overcast and a bit drizzly (though it brightened up later) as I arrived for my first sea-watching session at the new patch. Round behind the lighthouse in the shelter of the lighthouse wall I found a nice concrete seat at just the right height. From there one had a good view of the rocks that lie just off shore which according to the OS map are called either "The Wra" or "The Three Stone Oar". I trained my scope on the left-hand most one and then moved it up so the rock was just out of view. This gave me a nice marker for finding my viewing spot each time so that if I moved off to follow a bird in flight I could always come back to my spot again. It was obvious from the start that there was quite a lot of activity this morning. To keep track of things I counted the manx shearwaters that went by and over the course of the two hours and twenty minutes that I was there I had a total of 480 birds which comes out at over 200 birds per hour so there was always something to look at. There were perhaps a couple of dozen auks that went through: a mix of razorbills and guillemots. Fulmars nest on the cliffs near the lighthouse so there were plenty of those around and a few kittiwakes flew through looking as beautifully elegant as ever. There were the ubiquitous gannets flying through and the resident shags on the rocks. At around 7:30 I picked up a shearwater that instantly looked different: it was bigger than the manxies and had a pot-bellied look and when it rolled to reveal its underside instead of being the clean white of a manxie it was rather a grubby pale brown with a smudged borderline between the brown upper body and the paler underbelly: a balearic shearwater - very nice! I watched if for a minute or so as it worked its way south-west. Later that day one was seen at PG so it may have been the same bird working it's way around the Land's End peninsula. At a little after 8 a.m. I decided that it was time to get back to the cottage as there was a mouldy fridge that urgently needed my attention and after that there was a builder to meet up with.

"The Wra". I used the left-hand one as my marker for my session.
As you can see it was rather gloomy to start with.

Later that day I did have time to wander around the various coastal footpaths near the lighthouse. Whilst the really famous Penwith vallies are further south (Cot, Nanjizal etc.) it turned out that there was a very small valley near Pendeen with a little stream flowing down to the sea near what's called Boscaswell Cliff. The terrain was a wonderfully overgrown mix of gorse, ferns and heather. It was full of birds as well with a very entertaining family of stonechats present: the youngsters would buzz around all over the place calling loudly whilst the parents tried to keep them in order. There were also linnets, meadow pipits, wrens, dunnocks, blackbirds, sedge warblers and whitethroats to be found in this area. I started to wonder idly whether some exotic vagrant might turn up in this little valley this autumn. Probably wishful thinking but you never know.

The lower half of the valley which leads down to the sea.

A digiscoped sedge warbler posing in a conveniently leafless bush

A digiscoped whitethroat in the same bush

One of the juvenile stone chats taken on my P&S camera

On Sunday morning I was back down at the lighthouse for another session. Whilst it had been very windy and rainy overnight, by morning it was calm and sunny, much more so than the previous day. I settled down in the same spot as yesterday and started watching. It was immediately obvious that things were slower than yesterday with a manxie rate of just over 60 per hour. Once again there were the usual gannets and fulmars as well as the shags that often rest on the rocks themselves. A few kittiwakes flew through and there were a few auks zipping about. A couple of rock pipits were having a squabble around the lighthouse walls and an inquisitive rabbit came quite close until I moved suddenly. About an hour into the session I picked up something much smaller fluttering along near a manxie. In size and with its white rump it looked like a house martin though the rest of its body was black. It had a very fluttery flight and would settle on the water for a moment before flying up again. I soon lost it amongst the waves but there was no doubting what it was: a storm-petrel - tick! A little while later I had an auk zoom through the scope's field of view which was different enough for me to chase it in the scope: it was smaller than then razorbills and guillemots, seemed to fly faster and I managed to catch a flash of red-orange colour on the bill: puffin! To round of the session I also managed to pick up the huge dorsal fin, smaller tail fin and rounded snout of a basking shark. I tried to video it but it was moving around a lot in the waves and it disappeared before I was able to record it. The Penwith peninsula is well known for it's marine mammals with sun fish, whales and dolphins all seen regularly as well as basking sharks. So all in all, despite the slower activity a most productive morning's session.

A meadow pipit on a rock (taken with my P&S camera)

Linnet on a wall (taken with P&S camera)

The rest of the day was spent sorting stuff out and making our way back home. It had been a most enjoyable introduction to my new patch. Unfortunately I'm not going to be able to visit it as often as I would like though we hope next to be back some time in August. On the tick front there were three year list ticks to add, two of which I'm embarrassed to say were in fact lifers. During the three years or so that I've been birding I've only managed a little sea watching so far which has meant that there were some rather glaring omissions to my sea bird life list. Now that I'm going to be down at Pendeen more frequently I hope soon to rectify this.

National Year List 2010
186 balearic shearwater 10/07 Pendeen, Cornwall (LIFER)
187 storm petrel 11/07 Pendeen, Cornwall (LIFER)
188 puffin 11/07 Pendeen, Cornwall

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