Monday, 28 February 2011

Cornish Listing

Friday 18th February
I was due back down in Cornwall to make a start with decorating the cottage and the plan was that I would go down on the Friday to get on with it and then the rest of the family would come down at the start of next week which was half-term. This arrangement of my travelling down on my own suited me fine as it meant that, now that I was busily engaged in getting my Cornish list off the ground, I would be able to get in some birding en route at the "top end" of the county. I had been thinking of exploring the Fowey valley for some of the woodland species but I was also keen to stop off at Walmsley Sanctuary by Wadebridge as there were a few species there that I needed to catch up with. In the end I decided to stop off very briefly by the Fowey for a lunch break before heading on the Walmsley for a more prolonged birding session. I also wanted to nip in at St. Gothian to see if the ring-necked duck was around there though it had not been reported for a couple of days now and I was not overly optimistic.

The journey down from Oxford was uneventful and it was at around lunch-time that I turned off at Bolventor for the River Fowey. This turned out to be a beautiful small, shallow and clear river running down the valley, often tree-lined for part of the way. I could imagine just how stunning it must look in spring and summer but even now in the depths of winter it had a great charm to it. The river looked spot-on for dipper and sure enough I soon spotted one as I drove along beside the river though it sped off before I could get off a record shot. I stopped off in a layby for lunch which I ate with the windows open so I could listen out for birds. I was soon rewarded with the sound of a male reed bunting singing away and I quickly spotted him on the telegraph wires. Why so excited about a reed bunting? Well, since I've been compiling my Cornish list I've had to think carefully about certain species as to whether I've actually seen them in the county. Reed bunting was one bird in particular that I kept saying "I must have seen one somewhere" but I couldn't actually think of an incident when I had so it was nice to get a confirmed sighting. I didn't spend much time in the valley as I wanted to make sure that I had enough daylight for my other en route visits so I soon headed back to the A30.

Next stop was Walmsley where there were supposed to be some spoonbills, a variety of over-wintering geese and a "tundra" peregrine: a northern sub-species of peregrine that had been around for a while. I'd not visited this site before so it was also a chance to get acquainted with it and to suss out things like parking etc. As I was walking across the field to the site I met a birder who was just leaving. We got chatting and it turned out that he used to live in Oxford. He was most excited to meet someone from his old home town and we chatted for some time about his old haunts. When I arrived at the Tower Hide (made famous or rather infamous by the recent American bittern twitch) I found that my key wouldn't work in the lock. After some five minutes of trying every conceivable trick to coax it open in the end I admitted defeat and resorted to peering around the side of the platform by the door. I could make out the three spoonbill asleep on an island and in the distance was the goose flock and I soon picked out the bean goose and the three pink-footed geese though there was no sign of the barnacle geese. Down at the bottom of the steps there was a gap in the fence and from here I did some more scanning spotting a number of duck including tufted duck, pochard, shoveler, pintail and there were also some curlew and snipe dotted about the place. At the back of the area near where the geese were there was a large earth mound and on top of this I spotted the tundra peregrine: it's amazing how raptors like sitting on earth mounds. It was large and had very distinctive pale head markings so it looked quite different from our normal peregrine. I was taking some distant record video footage when two other visitors turned up so I was finally able to get into the hide itself. I took the opportunity to compare keys and it was clear that my key was missing an extended middle prong which was why it wasn't working. I took some video footage of the geese and chatted for a brief while with the visitors before I had to head back to car as time was marching on.

Three sleeping spoonbills

A resting curlew

Some record video footage of the distant bean goose

The "tundra" peregrine on the earth mound

My third and final stop of the day was St. Gothian LNR at which I arrived at around 4pm. It was threatening to rain as I got out of the car and by the time I'd got half way around the pool the heavens opened. I gave all the ducks a thorough grilling but the best I could come up with was the adult female scaup which I'd seen last time I was down and there was no sign of the drake ring-necked duck. In the downpour I didn't linger but instead headed off to Penzance to get some provisions and then to head over to the cottage to see what sort of state the builders had left it in. Fortunately they'd done a good job of clearing it out and I was pleasantly surprised at how comparably habitable it looked.

Saturday 19th February
Although I was on my own until Monday evening when the rest of the family were to come down this didn't mean that I could spend all my time birding: I needed to have some good decorating progress to show for my time down there. Nevertheless it would have been churlish not to do at least some birding and as I needed to head over to Penzance for some random DIY items on Saturday morning I thought that I would pop in at Drift reservoir to see if I could finally connect with the Greenland white-fronted goose that I'd been trying to see for some time now. In addition there was the small matter of a rose-coloured starling in Penzance to which I ought to pay my respects.

At Drift reservoir there were actually loads of geese visible, which was more than could be said for my previous visits though despite my carefully scouring of every last goose there was no sign of the white-front. A flock of six geese, with the greylag goose in amongst them, flew over honking loudly and landed somewhere out of sight, so there were clearly some goose parties out and about elsewhere and my target goose was in all probability somewhere close by. I gave the gulls a good grilling but there was nothing out of the ordinary there either.

There were plenty of these about at Drift

On to the Penalverne estate in Penzance for the starling. I was a bit reluctant about this as residents can sometimes understandably object to having birders staring in at their gardens. However it turned out that the bird was visiting the back garden of one of the houses and the best viewing spot was down a back alley where one wasn't overlooking any house. There were three birders at the appropriate spot and sure enough within ten minutes the bird appeared in a tree where it was on view preening for a few minutes before it flew off again. I hadn't bothered to bring my full digiscoping gear so I didn't take a photo but it was nice at least to see the bird.

I didn't hang around as I wanted to get a full day's decorating in so got my shopping and hurried back to the cottage. My niece was coming over at lunch-time from Truro where she's now working to help out with the decorating so there weren't going to be any further birding opportunities for the rest of the day anyway. The only other thing to report was that during my lunch break I was staring out over the moorland when I spotted a ring-tailed hen harrier quartering over the gorse, a lovely bird to have as a garden tick!

Sunday 20th February
My niece left reasonably early in the morning so, after applying another coat of paint to some walls, I decided to head out for a quick bit of birding whilst it dried. My destinations were the same as yesterday, namely to Drift reservoir for another stab at the goose and then to the Penalverne estate, this time with digiscoping gear to have a go at photographing the starling.

This time when I arrived at Drift there were some geese on the field on the other side of the reservoir directly opposite the car park and I could immediately see that both the grey lag and the Greenland white-fronted goose were in amongst them. I took some record shot video of the goose that had managed to avoid me for so long and then had a look through the gulls. A little gull had been reported yesterday afternoon and sure enough I soon found it bobbing up and down in amongst the black-headed gulls.

At last, the elusive goose is on display

A videograb of the 2nd winter little gull

Next it was back to the Penalverne estate where this time I found myself on my own. An inquisitive local was asking about the bird and I explained what it was to him. The bird itself turned up within 10 minutes again and this time I was ready for it with my digiscoping gear and managed to rattle off a few shots before it flew off again.

The rose-coloured starling

Having got some photos of all my target birds it was back off to the cottage for a hard day's decorating. After spending most of the day with flecks of paint in my hair and the smell of paint fumes in my nostrils, come late afternoon I was thinking of calling it a day and getting out for some fresh air. Fortunately there was a CBWPS field outing to Men-an-Tol to help with the hen harrier roost count happening so I decided to nip over there just to get outdoors if nothing else. There I met up with Dave Parker (who was running the outing) and John Swann (who was helping out and who had been helping me with my county list) as well as a dozen or so other hardy birders who had decided to brave the drizzle and mist. We walked for about twenty minutes to the watch point and then stood around peering into the mist. Fortunately one harrier was soon spotted, probably hunting rather than coming into roost but the weather conditions gradually worsened and the mist closed in until nothing could be seen at all and we called it a day, with just the one bird seen. Still, I'd not been walking on the moors at all so far and it was great to get acquainted with such wonderfully wild countryside.

The hardy few staring out into the gloom for harriers

Monday 21st February
I was due to pick up the rest of the family this evening as they were coming down on the train. With the weather misty and rainy, I spent most of the day decorating flat out though come about 4pm it suddenly brightened up and I'd had enough for the day anyway so I decided to head out for a spot of birding, especially as my birding options would be severely curtailed once the family arrived.

I first nipped over to St. Gothian: there had been no further reports of the ring-necked duck but I was hoping at least to catch up with the water pipit there. However, despite carefully scanning everywhere, there was no sign of it and the best I could manage was a Med. gull which flew low over, the black markings on its wingtips marking it out as a 2nd winter bird. I had a quick look around the settling tanks near the first layby there and a bit of "pishing" soon drew a couple of chiffchaffs closer though there was nothing rarer.

This jackdaw was close enough for me to attempt a point & shoot shot
of it though the strong, low light means that its front is rather in shadow.

Next it was over to Marazion where I still needed to catch up with a bittern for the county list. There had been several over-wintering on the marsh but for some reason I'd always manage to miss them. I arrived to find Dave Parker there and he told me that a bittern had been showing very well along the front of the reedbed not half an hour earlier. Fortunately after a reasonably short period of time it chose to make a reappearance and I was soon enjoying cracking views of a bittern hunting along the edge of the reeds. I stayed until dark at the viewing point hoping to get a glimpse of a cetti's darting between the reed clumps though in the end had to be content with just hearing several birds singing. There was also a "squealing" water rail (again heard only) and a chiffy flitting about in the reeds which kept getting me excited, thinking that it was a cetti's.

Fortunately the light was really good so these digiscoped
bittern shots haven't come out too badly

Eventually it got too dark to see so I went off to buy some provisions for the family and then picked them up from the station.

Tuesday 22nd to Friday 25th February
With the family now down with me my birding opportunities were much more limited. However, I tend to get up before the rest of them and would often choose to nip down to Pendeen watch to see what was about. On Tuesday I chose to wander along the coastal path and down to the sea a few hundred yards west of the lighthouse itself and from here I spotted loads of auks, kittiwakes and gannets sitting on the water and I managed to pick out a single manx shearwater in amongst them. I wondered whether the birds were roosting there overnight or if they were being drawn in by some close-in bait fish in a similar manner to Carbis bay. This was nevertheless enough encouragement for me to resolve to do a proper sea watch down at the lighthouse the next day.

Tuesday afternoon we went for a walk en famille along the beach at Marazion into Marazion itself where we had a nice cream tea at the Godolphin Hotel. On the way back I spotted a black redstart on one of the buildings near the end of the causeway.

A herring gull at Marazion

Wednesday was fog bound and I didn't bother to go to the lighthouse at all. Later in the day I sneaked in 10 minutes at Jubilee Pool where I all I could manage was one diver though I didn't get good enough views to identify it.

Thursday morning was mercifully fog free so I went down for an hour and a half's session at the lighthouse. Once again there was a wide variety of birds on the water though as I watched they gradually dispersed. I adopted my usual tactic of setting my scope just beyond the left-hand most of the Wra which meant that birds were reasonably close and I wasn't straining to identify things as they were passing in the distance. During my session I spotted 8 manx shearwaters, 4 balearic shearwaters, 2 puffins, a diver species (probably red-throated though I've yet to get to grips fully with flying divers in winter plumage) and huge numbers of auks, kittiwaks and gannets. In addition a raven was working it's way along the cliffs. As I walked back to the cottage I heard the plaintive cry of a plover. Whilst it was probably a golden plover one can't help but wonder given that one is right on the west coast whether it might be some American plover vagrant calling out with joy at finally making landfall. As I never saw it I'll never know but that's one of the great things about Cornish birding: all these rarities are a real possibility.

Later that day most of the family went to the cinema so after dropping them off I elected to go and stare at the sea instead. At Jubilee Pool the usual purple sandpipers and turnstone were about and looking across towards Long Rock I managed to spot the Pacific diver and a great northern diver together. I was lucky enough to get both birds in the scope at the same time which gave a great opportunity to compare and contrast the two species.

The purple sandpipers were around and as delightful as ever

Friday morning I was back at Pendeen again and once more there were large numbers of birds on the water. Today I counted 2 manx shearwater, 1 balearic shearwater, and another probable red-throated diver. In addition I spotted an interesting large gull on the water that caught my attention: it had a strongly streaked head though the streaks were very confined so that it effectively had a hooded appearance. The wing and mantle colour was rather pale, far too pale for a great black-backed and even looked too pale for a lesser black-backed though definitely darker than the argenteus gulls that were also about. Given that I was in Cornwall where several had already been spotted this immediately got me thinking of Azorean yellow-legged gull, a species with which fortunately I was familiar having seen the bird a couple of years ago at Appleford in Oxon. Unfortunately the bird flew off as I was reaching for my digiscoping camera and I wasn't able to do things like age it properly. This was important because, according to Martin Elliot with whom I spoke later that day, fully adult birds would have lost their head streaks by now. It would have to remain a "possible/probable" though nevertheless a most interesting sighting.

After a final bout of painting it was time to head for home. It had been a great week in my favourite part of the country and a wonderful opportunity to add to my Cornish list.

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