Monday, 13 September 2010

Cornwall Again

One of the great advantages of renovating a cottage in West Cornwall is that you have to go down there frequently to do work on it. As the children had school to attend (even L our four year old is now going!) the plan was that I'd go down on Thursday in the car and then the rest of the family would come down on the train on Friday evening. This would give me time to do some quality birding work on the cottage before they arrived.

A stonechat on a wall near the cottage, (taken with my point & shoot camera)

The start of the week on the Penwith peninsula before I went down had been full of good birds with a Wilson's phalarope, a whole flock of Ortolan buntings, a citrine wagtail and more wrynecks than you could shake a stick at all around and just waiting to be seen. However by mid week most of them had gone leaving just a few wrynecks around when I set off on Thursday morning. I'd switched my Bird Guides text settings over to just Cornwall before I left and when I arrived a mere four and a quarter hours later (no traffic at all) I looked through them to see what was around. There was a report of one Ortolan bunting in a ploughed field near where the citrine wagtail had been at Nanquidno so I thought that I'd go and take a look on the off chance. It was quite a nice afternoon as I strolled up the hill towards the track and a couple of juvenile buzzards were flapping around and calling loudly as I walked by. At the top of the hill I came across a nice immature white wagtail which I examined closely to check that it wasn't the citrine wagtail but however hard I tried I couldn't turn it into one.

A videograb of a young white wagtail

As I walked along the track to Gurland farm (where the Ortolan field was) there were several wheatears ahead of me hopping on and off the posts and wires as wheatears are wont to do. By the field I found a fellow birder who said that he and two others had been scouring the field for several hours to no avail and that he'd had enough. It clearly wasn't going to be a successful trip but I thought that I'd have a look around whilst I was there. I checked out the field from all angles and also nipped over to see the "muddy puddle" behind the farm where the citrine wagtail had been just recently. There were several white wagtails hanging around, testament to the puddle's wagtail attracting qualities if nothing else. As I strolled back I found a whinchat in the field and more wheatears. Despite the lack of good birds it was very pleasant wandering around in the Cornish countryside in the sunshine.

The famous muddy puddle that the citrine wagtail frequented.
You know it's a poor birding day when you're reduced to photographing puddles!

No ortolan buntings here!

Whilst I was in the area I thought that it would be rude not to drop in at Land's End to see if any of the three (yes three!) reported wrynecks were showing though it was by now getting rather late and it had become a bit breezy. I wandered over to Hallan Vean (the boarded-up white house) keeping a look-out for lapland buntings as one had been seen there a few days ago though all was quiet. As I started down the cycle track towards Trinity Loop I met a fellow birder and we got chatting. He came down to this area each autumn and was keen to show me around so we walked along together scouring the area for wrynecks. There were quite a few stonechats about, sitting on tops of rocks and bushes as well as a couple of whinchat, a few whitethroat and wheatears but the wryneck were all tucked up in their hiding holes for the evening. As I walked back towards the car a female sparrowhawk shot over the field, looking splendid in the evening light. By the Land's End car park there was a whole family of stonechats hopping around at close quarters. It was now getting dark so I headed back to the cottage for the evening.

The next morning I planned to get up early to do some sea watching. With a strong south westerly wind forecast, rather than my local spot at Pendeen I was thinking that Porthgwarra would be a better bet. For a couple of years I'd been keen to visit the South-West seawatch that takes place there each autumn at Gwenapp Head so I thought that I'd have a go this morning. I met the official bird recorder for the day in the car park and we walked up together, rendezvous'ing with the mammal recorder on the Head. It was a very quiet start to the session with very few birds seen in the first hour. We had perhaps eight or so balearic shearwaters and even fewer manxies, a dozen or so kittiwakes, a few dozen auks, about three or four bonxies and an adult pale morph arctic skua.

In the strong winds a couple of ships got into difficulties
and the lifeboat went by a couple of times

After a couple of hours I decided that I had to leave to get on with some work down in the cottage so I made my way back to Pendeen. I spent the next few hours dismantling a bespoke MDF bookshelf that the previous owners had had installed. This was a rather tedious process as I only had a jigsaw to cut it up with but eventually I managed to get it all down. By now I'd had enough DIY for the day and as I was feeling rather dusty I needed some fresh air. With a melodious warbler belatedly reported in 60 foot cover as well as a wryneck at the Coastguard cottages at Porthgwarra it seemed obvious that I should head back there. I spent a brief time checking out 60 foot and the cottages but to no avail so I walked back up to the Head where I met up with the sea watch team again. The big news was the Runnel Stone, the buoy to mark the edge of the reef just of Gwenapp Head, had come adrift and was floating off. The coastguards had been informed and a boat was going to come down from Portsmouth to re-install it. On the bird front a sooty shearwater and a Sabine's gull had been the highlights whilst I had been away. I settled down with them for another hour which this time was much more active with plenty of birds coming through and we must have added at least 20 balearics during that hour alone. I then headed back to the cottage for dinner and then later that evening picked up the rest of the family at the station at Penzance.

The next morning I got up early and went back to spend an hour checking 60 foot cover some more for the warbler but without any luck. Back at the cottage I finished off sorting out the bookcase and then it was a day of family activities around the cottage and later in Penzance. We had lunch by the beach at Marazion and I took the opportunity to do a bit of digiscoping of the ringed plovers and dunlin on the beach though the light wasn't that great.

A juvenile dunlin having a good probe...

...and a juvenile ringed plover foraging

That afternoon it was rather frustrating to get regular Bird Guides text messages about how well the melodious warbler was showing at Porthgwarra albeit in a different location from before. A juvenile buff-breasted sandpiper had also appeared at Davidstow airfield though that was perhaps an hour away from Penzance. Unable to get out birding at all, we had a pleasant enough family afternoon in Penzance and L and I checked out the harbour's boats and looked in the rock pools whilst the others did some shopping.

Next morning at first light I was back yet again at Porthgwarra to look for the Melodious warbler once more. In addition, the wryneck had been seen again and a lapland bunting had been spotted yesterday morning on the cliffs by the coastguard look-out so there was plenty to look for. I checked out the trees where the warbler had been showing yesterday though without any luck so after I while I walked up to the Coastguard cottage for a snoop around (again no luck) and then on up to the look-out where I met a fellow birder who was also looking for buntings. Together we scoured the area, putting up all the meadow pipits in the process (there must have been at least 50). There was no sign of any buntings though we did have a calling tree pipit fly over by way of consolation.

I went back to the warbler spot and was just idly staring at the bushes again when the word went up that the wryneck had been seen again at the cottages. I nipped back to find several birders focused on a fence line from where it had flown down a couple of minutes ago. Thinking that it would probably return there I set up my scope and digiscoping gear in anticipation and sure enough a minute later it briefly showed on the fence again for a few seconds before disappearing once more. I managed to get just two shots off before it disappeared but they weren't too bad given the circumstances. I then when back to waiting for the warbler but it never showed and wasn't seen again that day.

A couple of record shots of the elusive wryneck whilst it was briefly on the fence

Back at the cottage I had to get the car loaded for a run to the recycling centre and then we had to pack and get ready for home. I did manage about ten minutes of sea watching at Pendeen Watch whilst on a break during which time, with a strong on-shore breeze, I saw hundreds of manxies and one arctic skua go through. Later it was reported that 15,000 manxies went through in five hours: an amazing 3,000 per hour!

After lunch we set off for home. As the sandpiper had disappeared from Davidstow, there was no need to persuade the rest of the family that they needed to make a detour on the way back to look at an abandoned airfield for a while: that would have been a rather hard sell anyway. Looking back on it, it had been a somewhat frustrating birding experience with many of the recent good birds having moved on before I arrived and the remaining ones proving rather elusive or at least not showing whilst I was free to go birding. Nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed the sea watching at Gwenapp Head and no birding trip can be that bad when one gets a sighting of a wryneck. It really is such a wonderful part of the country and I can't wait to get back there again.

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