Friday, 12 August 2011

Cornwall in August - Part II

Thursday 4th August
Another coastal walk today from the Gurnard's Head back to Pendeen. The weather was wonderfully sunny to start with but soon clouded over. Not much of note on the bird front though I managed a few photos.

Wheatear on a wall at Pendeen
A couple of Wall Brown butterflies near the Gurnard's Head
A rather tatty Meadow Brown

Friday 5th August
This morning I thought that I would take a look at Cot Valley. It was too early for interesting wind-blown vagrants but some crossbills had been seen there a couple of times so I thought that I would have a try for them. It was remarkably quiet there and the only point of interest was a hidden but noisily squawking juvenile bird of prey. It took a while to ID it but by flicking through my BirdGuides call recordings I managed to pin it down as a juvenile sparrowhawk.

Our family outing for the day was over to the beach by St. Gothian NR. On the way there I got a text from John Swann saying that there was a wood sandpiper at Drift reservoir. As I still needed it for the Cornish list but was en famille for the day, I had to grin and bear it, hoping that it would stay until the evening. Whilst at St. Gothian I took the opportunity to have a quick walk around the pit though the only bird of note was a common sandpiper.

St. Gothian Common Sandpiper

On the way back from our day out I asked to be dropped off at Drift reservoir to see if the sandpiper was still there. From the hide I managed to pick out 6 common sandpipers, 1 greenshank and a single green sandpiper but there was no sign of the wood sand. I knew, though, that there was a blind spot right in the corner of the north-west arm which I wanted to take a look at. However, as I went to take a look something must have spooked the hidden waders because suddenly a flock of a dozen sandpipers flew up calling loudly. The birds seemed all to be green sandpipers but then I heard the distinctive call of the wood sand. The flock circled around together for a while but rather high so I couldn't pick the target bird out from the flock. After a while it split off from the rest and flew around calling for a few circuits on its own before I lost it from sight. It hadn't been the best view of a wood sandpiper that I'd had but it was nice to get it on the the Cornish list.

Drift Reservoir, looking quite tranquil this evening

Moth du jour: Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing - ID courtesy of John Swann as always. I don't run a trap but instead take a look at any moth that I come across. I do occasionally switch the outside light on for an hour or so to try to attract the odd moth but my ID skills are so lamentable (I think that I can ID half a dozen species only at present) that I would be overwhelmed if I had more than one or two to deal with each day.

Sunday 7th August
Saturday was rather quiet: I chose to have a lie in rather than getting up early and for our family activity we mooched around Penzance and Marazion so I only managed a quarter of an hour at Jubilee Pool where I picked out another ocean sun-fish as well as 1 sandwich tern and 1 fulmar. I did get a call from John Swann saying that his moth trap was heaving with moths so I went over for a brief look. I came away completely amazed at the sheer variety of moths which to my inexpert eye all looked confusingly similar but John and his wife were expertly sorting through them all.

Whilst I was out and about on Saturday news came through on the information services about a probable Atlantic Petrel that was watched for five minutes off Porthgwarra which got me thinking about paying a visit there. The Sunday forecast was for a moderately strong south-westerly wind so I got up at six and was sitting down at Gwennap Head at around 7am. In previous posts I've discussed how locals tend to use Hella Point instead of Gwennap Head but I wasn't sure today whether there would be many other locals about as the wind forecast was only moderate so I'd decided to seek out the Sea Watch team to be sure of company on the two hours that I'd allotted myself for my morning session. There were a couple of chaps at GH whom I assumed were part of the Sea Watch South West team but later learnt that they were just a couple of birders and that the SW team normally watch from lower down the Head. They were both very proficient though (certainly more than me anyway) and were continually calling out very distant birds in a very helpful manner including marking the moment when the bird was actually passing over the Runnel Stone, giving one a good chance of finding it had one not already connected. One thing that I noticed was that it was much more convenient having the Runnel Stone directly opposite rather than diagonally distant as it is at HP.

There's always a problem with what to do about photos when blogging about a sea-watching session. I took along my Canon super-zoom to try it out on the Runnel Stone which is about 1.5km south from Gwennap Head so the fact that you can just about read the writing on it is quite impressive. I did try taking photos of Cory's as they went by but failed miserably to capture any of the birds.

It turned out that I'd jammed in on a really good Cory's day and during the two hours I was there I personally saw 19 Cory's, 6 sooties, a bonxie, 6 or so balearics, one common and half a dozen commic terns. The two chaps had a few more birds that I didn't get on to and had seen one or two Great Shearwaters go by before I arrived but none passed while I was there. It was good to get more hours sea-watching experience under my belt though I'm going to have to work on my stamina: at present I find that after a couple of hours my eyes grow rather tired and I find it difficult to focus, especially on the tiny specks that are literally a mile away. I can only assume that this comes with practice.

On the way back to the car at PG I came across these two Small Pear-bordered Fritillaries. The upper one is presumably a tatty old first generation (Ed.: apparently this is not actually likely according to John Swann) and the pristine new lower one a second generation. It's only the south-west apparently that has a 2nd generation of SPB Frits.

I'm sure that you must all be agog with anticipation, wanting to know what today's moth is going to be. Well it's apparently (thanks to John Swann once again) a Bright-line Brown-eye.

Monday 8th August
With the wind forecast to be reasonably strong and to swing round from south-westerly to north-westerly overnight naturally my thoughts turned to Pendeen this morning. It seemed like I wasn't the only one to think this and when I turned up at 6:30 there were already half a dozen people there with more arriving whilst I was there so that there were at least a dozen by mid morning. As usual I only had a few hours and had to be back at the cottage by 9:30 but that still gave me a good three hours watching. Unfortunately the birding didn't quite live up to expectations and things were a little slow. There were a few sooties going through and the odd balearic but by 9am it was starting distinctly to slow down. I managed to pick up a stormy briefly though lost it again almost as soon as I found it. Other bits and bobs included a bonxie (which I didn't get on to), an arctic tern and a swift (!) travelling low and fast with the manxies. That's what makes sea-watching so fascinating: yesterday when the wind wasn't that strong there was a huge Cory's passage and then today with a much better wind it was all somewhat disappointing.

In my previous posting I mentioned the fact that I was struggling with my eyesight after a couple of hours of watching. Today I had a policy of religiously swapping eyes at frequent intervals in order to avoid getting over-tired and this seemed to work well. What I also clearly need to work on is where I sit: this morning I plonked myself down in front of the others only to find myself rather exposed in the wind. When Dave Parker arrived he sat down next to me only to remark immediately that it was too windy and he promptly moved. The issue that I have with the wind is that it tends to make my eyes water and then I can't see so clearly. Today I took to shielding them with one hand as I watched and this worked rather well. I also found that this also blocked out peripheral light which made it easier to concentrate so I am considering rigging up some kind of wind & light shield to attach to the scope. I remember reading in some book of birding anecdotes that someone always used to sea watch with a tea towel over their head, presumably for the same benefits that I mentioned above. Clearly something to work on.

As usual it's rather difficult to provide a sea-watching photo so
here's a rock pipit that I took yesterday whilst down on the beach
with my son L.

Moth du jour: a Brimstone, part of the huge
catch in John Swann's trap the other day

Tuesday 9th August
Today was down in the planner as a DIY day. Our various relatives had all finally left (not that we hadn't enjoyed their company) and with a rendezvous planned tomorrow with some friends who were holidaying in the area, today was the only free day to make inroads into the outstanding decorating tasks. With no decent sea-watching wind forecast I allowed myself a lie-in this morning as these early starts had been catching up with me.

I was in full flow painting a door when I got a text from Dave Parker saying that there was a turtle dove (which I still needed for the Cornish list) in the car park at Drift. However, there was too much decorating to do and I had to reign in (with help from my VLW) my instinct to drop everything and head off to see it. Later on, however, the children had reached their limit for amusing themselves whilst we worked (you can tell this by the amount of noise that they start making) so I took the two younger ones off to Marazion for the traditional café drink and snack by the beach. On the way back we stopped in at Drift briefly where the turtle dove was still there feeding on the bowl of grain that has been placed just outside the house there. Unfortunately I didn't know about the bowl until I'd put up the four doves (there were three collard doves in addition to the turtle) which went to sulk on some telegraph wires. The best photography angle was from the road so we ended up doing a drive by shooting with my daughter Beth manning the camera as I crawled along in the car. Unfortunately I'd set the exposure far too high (I'd been trying to photograph the bird into the sun beforehand) but it's still come out OK. Beth is actually proving quite a dab hand with the camera.

The Drift turtle dove (c) Beth Hartley (aged 13)
The overexposure is my fault and I had to
PhotoShop out some blurred foliage but it's still not too bad.

Wednesday 10th August
We were due to head back home tomorrow so today was the last day for an early morning outing. The forecast had originally been for a good south-westerly throughout the day but it changed to fairly calm first thing and then strengthening during the day. Nevertheless, with lots of DIY to do and some friends coming over in the afternoon, the only opportunity that I was going to have was first thing in the morning and I would have to make the best of it.

I arrived just before seven o'clock and with only one local at Hella Point I decided to head to Gwennap Head. Up on the cliffs I came across a pair of chough loafing around at a very short distance and rather looking as though they'd just woken up. Cornwall has enjoyed a good breeding year for chough with four pairs producing a total of 15 fledglings so it was great to see these iconic birds making a come-back. At Gwennap Head this time I actually managed to locate the Sea-watch South-West team including Chris Griffin who'd put me onto the black kite recently and who'd found the plain swifts. There was also another birder there who was going to have to leave shortly as his family would be waking up soon so I was thankful that all mine like a lie in whilst on holiday so that I could at least get in a few hours birding in the morning.

The two chough. Unfortunately they were in the shade
otherwise this photo could have been nice and sharp.

In terms of the birding itself, conditions were rather calm and it soon became apparent that sightings were going to be thin on the ground. The highlights were 1 sooty, 3 bonxies, a few balearics, 3 common scoter and 1 juv. Med. gull.

I know that readers must be wondering about my on-going crusade to improve my sea-watching viewing techniques. I'm still swapping eyes over regular which I find most helpful and today I made a great break through in terms of my wind & light shield: I'd borrowed my five year old's waterproof and threaded the eye piece of my scope through the sleeve (it was just the right size) so that the main body of the coat could be draped over my head, strategically blocking out all the wind (not that there was much today) and light (of which there was quite a lot). Whilst Luke will want his coat back I at least now knew what I needed to find so I'll perhaps take a look through his old coats for something suitable.

On the way back to the car a Painted Lady flew in off the sea and settled, exhausted on the heather for a short while before flitting off inland. I also found a holly blue on the way down to the car park.

Thursday 11th August
Well, our two weeks down in Cornwall have passed all too quickly. With lots of packing to do and a long drive back there was no question of getting up early for a cheeky bit of birding and there are no further sightings to report.

It was a shame in a way that we'd come down at the start of August rather than the end of it when there was likely to be more interesting birds to chase but I can't really complain. At the beginning I'd said that chasing passage waders and sea-watching were likely to be the main activities and so it has proved. I was pleased to have caught up with the Drift wood sandpiper and the black kite was a wonderful bonus. I also found myself enjoying the sea-watching more and more and can't wait to return and do some more. I was really lucky to have jammed in on the one good Cory's day that there was and it was great to see more of these elusive large shearwaters. I even managed six new Cornish ticks during the two weeks.

I also wanted to make some initial comments on the new Canon SX30IS after a couple of weeks of using it. My initial response is that I'm very pleased with it. The super zoom is pretty amazing, in fact I did a test with my brother in law who had a 300mm lens on - we both zoomed in fully on the Pendeen lighthouse and then compared image sizes: mine was twice as large. Does that mean that the effective lens length is therefore 600mm (I'm not sure if that's how it works)? Anyway, for my purposes it's great because it's so light that you don't even notice carrying it around at all and even at full zoom there is no noticeable distortion. The only downsides to the camera are:
  1. it's crap at macro shots (well what do you expect with a superzoom camera) and I use the old TZ7 instead for macro work
  2. It's very slow between shots with a delay of between 1 and 2 seconds so you can't rattle off a burts of shots quickly. However if you need to take a lot of shots then you can always shoot some zoomed in HD video and do a grab.
All in all, it suits my purposes admirably and I'm very pleased with it. The rate at which new superzoom cameras are improving is pretty amazing so I dare say in due course one will be able to get a super image-stabilised zoom and the ability to shoot rapidly all in the same camera.

In terms of coming back down to Cornwall there is still lots of wood work to paint so "regrettably" I'll have to come back down again in a few weeks time. I get a sense somehow that there will in particular be a lot of work that will be required in October ;-)

I leave you with another photo of that most iconic of Cornish birds, the chough

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