Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Cornwall in February

I'm running out of titles for my various Cornish trips so this one is just "Cornwall in February". As usual, this is a compilation of the various entries from Pendeen Birding.

Wednesday 1st February
I was due back down in Cornwall for a very brief interlude, chiefly just to drop off some final missing items and one piece of furniture (a blanket box in which to keep the spare house linen). Therefore I would only be down a few days though the whole family would be coming down again some time in the next couple of weeks for the February half term. With there being no birds of interest to stop off at en route I thought that I would take the opportunity to do some work on my fledgling Cornish list and also to get to know some more Cornish birding sites "up county". The plan was therefore to stop in at Golitha Falls again to see if I could catch up with treecreeper and also marsh tit, both of which I still needed. Whilst I was in the neighbourhood, it would be rude of me not to drop in at the lesser scaup at Drozmary and I also wanted to take a look at Colliford Lake. After that I thought that I would visit Treraven Meadows at Wadebridge and perhaps nip in to Chapel Amble for the glossy ibis.

Golitha Falls is a very beautiful spot

I left on time at a little before 9 a.m. and after a couple of minor stops (Homebase for some bits and bobs) and a fill-up of petrol I was soon on the road. The traffic was light and so I arrived without incident at Golitha Falls, my first stop, as I expected at around 12:30. I'd visited this beautiful location previously where I'd managed to see my first Cornish nuthatch but was back today to try for treecreeper and marsh tit. In the car park I met a local birder who'd seen a couple of treecreepers though he'd not seen any marsh tits that morning so I set off at least partially encouraged by this report. Of course, looking for small birds in woodland involves a lot of moving slowly, looking and listening and though it was sunny it was extremely cold and I found that the lack of movement didn't help with keeping warm. I managed to see at least three nuthatches, a few goldcrests and the usual tits, including a couple of coal tits and finally just as I was returning to the car park I found a treecreeper doing its thing on a tree right next to the path. So one out of two wasn't too bad for the first stop.

Golitha birds. Unfortunately, the tree creeper was in such a
gloomy part of the wood that the only shot that came out
was this one without it's head, so strictly record shot only

Next it was a quick stop in at Drozmary Pool which was back up the road towards the A30. I already had lesser scaup on my county list from the same location the previous year but this was reportedly a first winter drake and so couldn't have been the returning bird but I was still keen to get better views after the very distant and gloomy sighting of last time. I walked down the track to the pool and almost immediately found the bird remarkably close in and reasonably positioned with regards to the strong light so I had a go at digiscoping it. Unfortunately, though, it was diving actively and so I only had a few seconds between dives to try and get something. Given the cold, I didn't stay long but soon headed back to the A30. I decided to go via Colliford Lake just because I'd not visited it before but it was remarkably empty with just a cormorant, a crow and a couple of gulls for my trouble.

A couple of video snippets of the Drozmary scaup. At the time
of seeing it I was more concerned with trying to get some footage
than anything else but now that I've had a chance to review it I'm not
altogether convinced about the ID.

Next stop was Wadebridge to Treraven Meadows which was another site I'd not previously visited. It's a regular site for local birder Colin Selway and recently he'd unearthed an interesting pipit which after some deliberation he'd identified as a buff-bellied pipit. Sightings of this bird were rather irregular and I wasn't holding out much hope of seeing it but I thought that at least I'd get to know another Cornish site. It turned out to be a lovely flood Meadow filled with large numbers of muddy puddles and pools. I love this sort of habit as it's similar to my own beloved Port Meadow patch back home though that tends to have one large extended flood area rather than lots of small ones as this did. Although there was a small hide, the floods extended quite some way and couldn't all be viewed from the hide so in the end I worked my way along the path, scrutinising all the pools carefully as I went. The results of my labours were: 1 green sandpiper, 10 dunlin, 1 redshank and 1 shelduck on the river behind the floods, about 50 teal and 30 snipe, a couple of dozen canada geese, a few pied wagtails, a single grey wagtail, one curlew and a couple of meadow pipits. I was a little disappointed not even to turn up a water pipit but one can't have everything.

Treraven Meadows

It was getting late now so I thought that I would just nip in to nearby Chapel Amble where there'd been a glossy ibis for the last few days. I soon found the site which was a fantastic flooded field though there was unfortunately no sign of the bird. Given the lateness of the hour it may have gone off somewhere to roost. By way of compensation there were large flocks of starling heading off somewhere to roost and I saw several thousand go by as I drove around the area and headed back up the A39 in order to rejoin the A30.

The rest of the journey was uneventful and after stopping in at Tesco for a spot of shopping I arrived at the cottage at around 6:30, tired but pleased with my "up county" en route birding.

Thursday 2nd February
The main purpose of coming down had been to deliver a few items to the cottage and so first thing this morning I unpacked everything from the car and installed it in its proper place. I had a brief meeting with the builder to clarify the work that he was going to do and after that I didn't really have that much to do. I spoke to my wife and we discussed the possibility of my returning home tomorrow so that she and our two daughters could go on a shopping spree to London on Saturday whilst I stayed behind with our five year old son. As there was not much that needed to be done whilst I was down in Cornwall I couldn't really think of a good argument against this. However, if I was going to be making the long journey back home so soon I felt that at the very least I deserved a good solid day's birding today by way of compensation. Thus it was that at around ten thirty I left the cottage intending to pack in a fair bit of birding into what was left of the day.

The overnight news from around the county had been quite interesting: a red-head smew (not that common in the county) had turned up on the Loe Pool at Carminowe Creek, a ring-billed gull had been seen at Marazion briefly and a juvenile glaucous gull had been seen at Newlyn Harbour. With some new county ticks to chase I decided to start first with the smew. I'd not been to the Loe Pool before so this was also an opportunity to learn about another Cornish birding site. There I met Paul St. Pierre who'd just seen the bird and was now looking to see if he could spot the bufflehead all the way down at the other end of the pool. We spent a little while discussing the merits of the Drozmary lesser scaup before I went on to look for the smew. It turned out to be easy to find though it was a reasonable distance along the Creek in the company of a couple of tufted duck. On the way back John Foster turned up - this was clearly a popular bird with the locals.

Digiscoped smew

The next stop was Helston boating lake and sewage works, both new sites to me. The former held plenty of gulls which could be viewed at close quarters though nothing of note. The sewage works was alive with chiffchaffs, there must have been at least 20 all flitting around the settling tanks. After getting their fill of flies they would then go and sunbathe in the hedge by the fence where they would be remarkably docile and approachable. I did find one bird which looked spot on for a tristis though unfortunately it never called and I wasn't able to photograph it. A grey wagtail was also kicking around though there was no sign of the swallow that had been reported for a few days.

A sun-bathing chiffy

After that it was on to Marazion. There I immediately found the long-staying water pipit by the Red River mouth though there was no sign of the ring-billed gull in amongst the beach loafers.

The upper water pipit photo was taken with the
super-zoom and lower one was digiscoped.

Continuing with the gull theme it was then over to Newlyn. A brief look in Sandy Cove revealed nothing of note so I parked there and walked back towards the harbour. At the South Pier I soon found the juvenile glaucous gull. It's head and mantle were so bleached that for a while I struggled to age it. However, the eye was all dark and there was no blotchiness about it so it had to be a first winter. I wandered down into the harbour where I met Alex Mckechnie (a local) and also a visting birder whom I met earlier at Helston. We chatted for a while, watching the glaucous from a distance and also a first winter kittiwake that was flying around the harbour.

The Newlyn glaucous gull

As it was getting on, I decided to head back to the car with the intention of checking out Tolcarne beach and then back to Marazion. However after finding nothing of note at the first location and as I was by now feeling rather tired, I decided instead to head back home to Pendeen via a quick stop off at Sennen Cover to look for the recently-reported Iceland gulls. There were a number of gulls loafing on the Cowloe but I couldn't find any white-wingers in amongst them so I headed back to Pendeen. It had been a most successful day with two new county ticks for me.

Friday 3rd February
Today I was heading back home again. With nothing of note that I was interested in twitching on the way home I decided to do some more work on my county list. I was all packed and out of the cottage door by 9 a.m. and I chose to explore the Falmouth & Truro area en route.

First stop was Loe Beach at Feock where one can view the strangely-named "Carrick Roads", the large centre of the Falmouth estuary complex. This spot was well known for over-wintering black-necked grebes and red-breasted mergansers, both of which I needed for my county list. It was stunningly sunny and the estuary water was flat calm when I arrived. As I was setting up my scope a raven flew over cronking loudly. Scanning all around the bay I managed to find at least 40 black-necked grebes with all but one of them right in the hazy distance, together with dozen or so red-breasted mergansers. Whilst I was there a party of school children were on the beach and one of the teachers, seeing me with my scope, came over and asked that I didn't include any of the children in any photos that I might take. The birds were all too distant for even me to bother with digiscoping but whilst I can understand the sentiment behind her request surely legally there is nothing to stop one taking photos of anyone that one wants to in a public place, or am I wrong? Anyway, I wasn't going to take issue with it but having got my two target birds I headed off.

Loe Beach was very bright and sunny

I'd noticed just as I turned off for Feock that Carnon Downs was just on the other side of the A39. There yesterday a yellow-browed warbler and a Sibe chiffy had been reported at the sewage works so I thought that it would be rude not to pop in seeing as I was in the neighbourhood. The only problem was that I didn't know where the sewage works were. I asked a couple at a bus stop though they were visitors and didn't know. I also rang Dave Parker and asked him though he wasn't sure either. In the end I was just driving back to the main road when I drove right past it. I pulled in where there a couple of birders looking at the settling tanks. As soon as I got out of the car I spotted the yellow-browed flitting around in the conifer tree under which I'd parked and indeed it stayed in the tree the whole time that I was there. It turned out that some bird ringing was going on that morning and the two ringers came back to announce that they'd just caught a couple more yellow-browed warblers! I watched as they went through their ringing bags, carefully processing each occupant. It was most interesting as the chief ringer would point out what he was finding on each bird. One chiffy had a fault line across the tail and very short legs. This fault line apparently corresponds to a period with a shortage of food so the feathers aren't so strong in that area and consequently are more prone to breakage. He also showed how by blowing on the belly feathers you can expose the skin to see how much fat there is. Apparently, when cold weather is due birds change their behaviour to put on more fat reserves. Normally, they only have to feed in the morning and evening to get enough food but by feeding longer they can put on reserves to help survive the cold. The downside of extra reserves is that they become heavier and consequently slower moving and are therefore more prone to predation. The ringers very kindly posed for some photos before releasing the two birds. It's not every day that you get to see three different yellow-browed warblers so well, especially when I think back to how elusive the pair at Kenidjack were last autumn!

yellow-browed warblers in the hand

Next stop was St. Clements to the Tresillian river. I'd been here in the autumn for the lesser yellowlegs but today's target was a couple of avocet which had been reported on the river though they'd not been mentioned for at least a week so I wasn't holding out much hope. There were loads of redshank and a few curlew, shelduck and dunlin along the river shore and at Tresemple Pool a single spotted redshank was struggling in the largely-frozen pond though there was no sign of any avocet.

The spotted redshank

I was more or less ready to head for home but I thought that I would make one final detour to try for the glossy ibis at Chapel Amble again. Although I'd not see it on the way down it had been reported again yesterday so I was wondering whether that day I'd got there too late and it had gone off to roost somewhere. However, today I arrived to find the flooded field largely frozen and no sign of the bird so no luck once again. By way of compensation I did come across a flock of five red-legged partridges wandering around in the road nearby. It was getting on now and I didn't want to be too late back home so I headed off up the A30, arriving home safe and sound a few hours later.

Thoughts on the Drozmary Scaup
Back on the 1st February I mentioned in the caption under my Drozmary scaup video that I wasn't completely convinced on the ID. Since I've come back home I've had more time to look back at the videos that I took and am now content that it's a lesser scaup. Below are some grabs showing the salient features. When I saw the bird it was diving in the company of a female tufted duck and I can confirm that the scaup was of comparable size to the tufty.

Showing a nice micro-tuft just past the peak of the head...

...The nail looks good...

...and the back colour looks OK as well.

Here is a compilation video of all the footage that I took of the bird.

I also asked my "go to" ID guru, the long sufferring Ian Lewington who patiently puts up with a lot of my often ignorant ID queries, what he thought and he couldn't see any problem with it being a lesser scaup. He said that it definitely wasn't a greater scaup but he couldn't tell from the video whether it might be a hybrid. I guess that a decent open wing view will clinch it for definite but for now it's going down on my year list.

I like to reflect on my trips down to Cornwall, on what I enjoyed and what I didn't. Although this last one was only three days I found it to be very enjoyable. Interestingly, the weather played no small part in this: whilst it was very cold it was wall to wall sunshine the whole time and I spent much of the days outside so was able to enjoy this dose of sun to the fullest. At this time of year sunshine is a precious commodity which we don't see very much of so I'm sure that this contributed in no small way to my enjoyment of my time down in Cornwall. The bright light also helped tremendously with my photographic efforts and I took far more successful photos than usual. By "successful" of course I merely mean that you can actually see what the bird is but I was pleased with my efforts.

As far as the birds were concerned there was nothing out of the ordinary. In terms of scarcities there was just the lesser scaup and the yellow-browed warblers but much of the enjoyment actually came from chasing down county ticks. I managed five of these this time: treecreeper, smew, glaucous gull, black-necked grebe and red-breasted merganser and am now poised just a couple of ticks below my paltry Oxon county total. In terms of what I missed marsh tit and avocet were the main ones and I notice that the day after I left some avocet were seen at St. Clements on the river but that's birding for you.

Highlight of the trip has to be the trio of yellow-browed warblers at Carnon Downs sewage works though I also really enjoyed picking through the chiffies at Helston sewage works and finding the tristis in amongst them. Low points? To be honest there weren't any, it was all too much fun.

Here is some "left-over" video footage of some dunlin at St. Clements. Unfortunately, I didn't check the vignetting before I started shooting which somewhat spoils it but the light was good and the birds were reasonably close.

Anyway, I'm coming back down in a week or so with the family for half-term. I don't know how much birding time I'll have with the rest of them around but I'm sure that I'll manage to squeeze something in.

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