Friday, 30 March 2012

Early Spring in Cornwall

Once again this entry is an amalgamation of my Pendeen Birding blog entries.

Tuesday 27th March
It had been about a month since my last visit down to Cornwall and I was starting to get withdrawal symptoms which were being exacerbated by the wealth of good birds that had been turning up including several night herons, hoopoes and a blue-winged teal to name but a few. With the holiday season about to kick off properly and our cottage booked up for the whole of April I thought that I would nip down just to check up on the small building projects that had needed finishing off and to sort out a gardener to look after the outside.

It was going to be another flying visit, down on Tuesday, do stuff on Wednesday and return on Thursday so I wouldn't have a great deal of time whilst down there but I was hoping to sneak in at least a bit of birding en passant. As usual I looked around to see what was of interest en route but the only bird that I could find was a very elusive little bunting at South Milton. I spoke to a local about it who informed me that the bird was occasionally coming to a pile of seed put out under a tree but one could go many hours without seeing it so it was a bit hit and miss. Nevertheless, with nothing else picquing my interest I decided to have a go for the bunting on the way down.

I set off from Oxford at around 9am and with the roads being nice and clear I arrived in South Milton at around 12:30. There I found a couple of other birders who were also trying for the bunting and one of them informed me that it had in fact been seen by some others earlier on. I decided to give myself a time limit of two hours and dutifully kept watch over the seed pile as birds came and went. There was quite a variety with reed buntings, chaffinches, goldfinches, great and blue tits, robins and dunnocks all visiting the seeds. While we waited a Cetti's would call occasionally from deep within the nearby reeds. The others gave up after a while but I dutifully stuck it out for my allotted two hours but without success. Disappointed with my failure, I returned to the car and headed off for Cornwall.

Once on the Penwith peninsula I decided that I would take advantage of the extra daylight to go and check out Kenidjack to see if I could find the elusive Night Heron that had been lurking along the stream for a couple of weeks now. It was rather breezy though very sunny as I made my way down the valley. I soon discovered that the big problem with trying to see this bird was the fact that it was often impossible to see the stream as it twitsted and turned down the valley and there were large sections that were invisible from the main path. After some exploration I managed to discover various other paths on the other side of the valley and by working my way along them I was able to cover more sections of the stream. However after a good hour and a half of searching I failed to come up with the bird at all. A grey heron was flapping around for a while but nothing more exciting than that. Disappointed with another failure I decided to head home and to boot up the cottage.

A great tit, taken at Kenidjack

At least I got to explore the many tracks surrounding the
stream. This is from the Mill Pond looking back towards the chimney ruin

To add to what was turning out to be a rather bad day, I arrived at the cottage to find that there wasn't any electricity. Readers may recall that this wasn't the first time that I'd turned up to find that something wasn't working: last time it had been the central heating. After some phone calls I'd ascertained that the neighbours seemed to have power so it must be a problem at my end and as the meter was completely blank power wasn't getting inside at all. I called the power distrubution company who said that they'd send someone down some time in the next four hours(!). Fortunately he came in about an hour and a half where he quickly spotted that the problem was a loose wire on the telegraph pole. However he couldn't deal with it himself and would have to call the "overhead team" who themselves would come some time in the next four hours apparently. I passed the time reading by torchlight and at around 11pm the overhead team turned up and fortunately were able to sort things out within about 20 minutes. After that I was finally able to cook a hot meal and relax a bit before going to bed. All in all it had been a rather frustrating and unsuccessful day. The only positive that I could take from it all was to be thankful that it had been me that had discovered the power outage rather than our first guests on Saturday.

Wednesday 28th March
Today I had a number of tasks to do including cutting the grass in the garden and also interviewing a few gardeners so that someone else could tend to the grass going forward. With the gardeners due to arrive at around midday I decided that I would nip out first thing and then get on with my various chores on my return. There had been nothing of particular note reported yesterday to tempt me elsewhere so, despite my lack of success previously, I decided to have another go at Kenidjack for the Night Heron.

This morning the wind had dropped away and it was an absolutely gorgeous spring day as I made my way down the valley. There was plenty of bird activity and chiffchaffs were singing everywhere. From my visit yesterday I knew where to look and methodically started to work my way down the valley. About half way down I got an RBA text reporting the Night Heron between the chimney ruin and the donkey paddock. I immediately made my way there and worked my way along this rather small stretch. Needless to say there was no sign of the bird but as the path was rather close to the stream I assumed that the reporter must have flushed the bird in the process of finding it. All this meant that I was none the wiser and would still have to re-find it for myself. I was just working my way down the South side of the valley just below the Mill Pond when I flushed something from the small clump of trees in the stream just below the Pond. It flew a short distance into the trees directly underneath the Pond and during this flight I was able to get a good view of it. It was a small heron but rather than being the smart plumage of an adult Night Heron instead it was a rather grubby and streaky brown all over (without any wing patches) - a first summer Night Heron which had therefore to be a different bird from the adult! I tried to re-find it in the clump of trees into which I'd seen it fly but despite viewing from all angles on both sides of the stream I couldn't get a sight of it. As I made my way back to the car I bumped into Hiliary and Phil, fellow regular visitors to Cornwall whom I'd met previously. They were looking for the Night Heron and apparently had tried without success several times previously. I told them of my find and made my way back to the car. After that I had to nip into Penzance for some minor shopping and then get back to the cottage before the first gardener arrived.

Singing dunnock

The next few hours were spent chatting to gardeners, strimming the small patch of grass outside the house and doing various minor chores. Periodically I would spot a warbler flitting about in the tamerisk in the garden. Usually they were chiffies but on one occasion a singing willow warbler nearby prompted me to go and find it - my first of the year. The second gardener never even bothered to turn up so in the end I gave up and decided to head out for an afternoon birding session. The first item on the list was the small matter of a little ringed plover which had been reported at Marazion Marsh late morning. Now back in Oxon, LRP's are pretty common but down in Cornwall they're mainly only seen on return passage and then only in small numbers so this was a bird that I still needed for my fledgling Cornish list. I arrived at about the same time as Richard Menari who soon picked the bird out right in front of the viewing area by the main road. We both took a few distant photos and whilst chatting Richard informed me of a couple of hoopoes at the Brew Pool which had not been reported on RBA. I'd been thinking of heading over to the Lizard to try and catch up with this species but these were much closer and there were two of them so I decided to try for them instead.

Little Ringed Plover - not so common in Cornwall

I'd only been to the Brew Pool once before when Luke, my five year old, had been a baby when I'd pushed him down the track in his all terrain buggy so it was a nice chance to get to know the area a bit better. I parked near the First and Last Inn and took the path towards the Pool, stopping to check all the likely fields on the way. At the Pool I bumped into Brian Field who'd been watching one of the birds just a few minutes before I arrived but had just lost track of it. After a while we managed to refind it inside the sewerage works, working it's way along the short grass along the fence. I took a few record shots though they were largely into the sun and also partially through the fence. Whilst watching the bird we got chatting and it turned out that both of our wives were artists. He was telling me about the gallery in St. Ives that his wife was working at and also how much they enjoyed living in Cornwall, having moved down about four and a half years ago. As this is a topic that my VLW and I discuss from time to time I was keen to hear how he'd found it: they both had no regrets on this front. After chatting about the Cornish birding scene for a while we parted company. I made my way contentedly back to the cottage in order to get on with my remaining chores. After the disappointment of yesterday it had been a highly successful day with what was technically a self-found Night Heron topping the bill.

Brew Pool Hoopoe

Thursday 29th March
This morning I was due to head back home but naturally I thought that I would stop off en route for some birding in various places. After packing everything away and making sure that the cottage was spick and span I headed off at around 9 a.m. The plan was to see if I could add a few more ticks to my Cornish list and I had three species in three different locations in mind for this.

My first port of call was a location that I'm not going to name looking for Dartford Warblers. I'd been told by John Swann that early spring before the Whitethroats have arrived is the best time to find them to avoid confusion over the song. It was an absolutely perfect spring morning with hardly a breath of wind as I parked up and within about five minutes of walking I could clearly hear a couple of males singing away at each other. I soon spotted one of them singing its heart out on top of a gorse bush, looking resplendent in the spring sunshine. As sightings of this species are often rather fleeting I enjoyed getting such good long views.

As I had a busy schedule and had achieved my target I didn't hang around but instead went on to Rosewall Hill (or Buttermilk Hill as it is often know locally) to look for my second target species, namely Ring Ouzel. The hill is a know hot spot for them on migration but I know from experience that they can be quite skulky little so and so's. It only took a few minutes to get to the summit and from there I carefully scanned in all directions but the only bird that I could come up with was a single Wheatear working its way along the East slope. As I was coming back down again I met up with Viv Stratton, who works the hills as his patch, visiting twice a day to walk his energetic dog. He gave me some tips on where to see Ring Ouzels for next time and told me a bit about the birds that he typically gets there which was most informative.

My final destination was Walmsley Sanctuary near Wadebridge for the long-staying female Blue-winged Teal. I'd heard that it was a rather elusive bird and could remain hidden for long periods of time but I wasn't going to be able to hang around for too long as I had a long drive back to Oxford ahead of me. I arrived there at around midday and mentally gave myself my usual two hour time limit as I walked towards the Tower Hide. Fortunately I entered the hide to find that the bird was actually on show making a dash across the channel to the shelter of the reeds on the other side. Having achieved my target so quickly I decided that I would only wait a relatively short period to see if it would show again for me to take some photos. In the mean time there were half a dozen black-tailed godwits, three ruff and the usual assortment of ducks, geese and gulls to look through. I mentally gave the teal until 1pm and sure enough at exactly this time it broke cover again, working its way partially hidden along the reeds before making another dash across the channel for the safety of the other side. I managed some rather shoddy video footage of it as it skulked but managed to miss it completely when it broke cover. Pleased with having seen it a couple of times relatively easily (one chap there had waited over two and a half hours to get a glimpse of it that morning) I went back to the car and headed for home, arriving back late afternoon, tired but very pleased with having obtained another couple of Cornish ticks today.

One of the three ruff on the side scrape

A rather poor videograb of the bird but at least you can
see the pale patch at the base of the bill

...and the dodgy video in full

So I'm back home already after what was a very brief visit to my favourite part of the country. The weather back here in Oxford has finally broken and it's now cloudy and distinctly chilly and it seems a world away from the wonderful sunshine of far west Cornwall. Before I'd set off I'd not exactly been looking forward to the trip: doing it all in three days makes for a lot of tiring driving and I was worried that if the birding wasn't that good then I would feel distinctly disappointed with having made all that effort for no reward. The lack of success on the first day only seemed to confirm these fears but fortunately from then on it all turned around and I managed to add five species to my Cornish list: a self-found new Night Heron at Kenidjack started it all off, then a Little Ringed Plover at Marazion and a wonderful Hoopoe at the Brew Pool. The next day's Cornish ticks were Dartford Warbler and the Walmsley Blue-winged Teal. I'm pleased to announce that with these fives ticks I have now managed to overtake my Oxon county list total with my Cornish one. Those of you who know my paltry Oxon total won't be overly impressed with this but I'm pleased to have racked up a modest Cornish total relatively quickly. Considering the slow rate at which my Oxon total is added to I don't imagine that it will ever catch up with the Cornish total again

I leave you with a moth du jour photo. With there being hardly any wind I did leave the "moth light" on outside one evening and quickly attracted a couple of these chaps. My method of mothing is rather primitive: I leave the outside light on and then catch any that I find in a wine glass before taking them inside for photographing. I've finally got around to getting a moth ID book of my own: "Concise Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland" by Townsend & Waring, illustrated by Richard Lewington. Therefore instead of simply sending my moth photos to John Swann for identification I thought that I'd have a go myself. This moth was very striking in that it held its wings closed like a butterfly so I'm pretty confident in identifying it as an Early Thorn though if anyone knows any better then please do write a comment below.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Cormorants, Jizz & a Shag

My apologies to people who have stumbled on this article having Googled some of the words in the title if this is not quite the racy stuff they were looking for. For the rest of you, rather than being a trip report, this article is an amalgamation of various snippets and thoughts about my birding.

Firstly, I thought that I would just follow up on my previous entry about cormorant sub-species in the county. After I'd posted the blog I spoke with Ian Lewington, our much-esteemed county recorder, about cormorants and he explained that actually sinensis are the commoner sub-species in the county now. Carbo is often found in the county, especially at winter on places such as Farmoor. However carbo is a cliff nesting sub-species and so isn't generally to be found in spring and summer. On the other hand the continental sinensis are tree nesting birds and our resident population of cormorants at Dix pit for example are all sinensis. He also explained that when using the gular pouch identification method one has to be careful as the perceived angle that it makes (see previous posting) depends on how its head is positioned and really to get an accurate measure one should observe the bird for a while, almost taking the average angle if you will. All interesting stuff.

Now, I still very much consider myself a learner when it comes to birding. I've been at it for four and a half years now and whilst I feel that I've grasped the basics I know that I still have a lot to learn. I also appreciate how there's no substitute for experience when it comes to birding and actually seeing birds and observing them careful gives you more more of an edge in identification than merely looking things up in a text book. Indeed one of the most satisfying aspects of birding for me is learning and improving my identification skills. I've gone on about gulls in the past a why I enjoy them so much because they're such a challenge and I feel that I've really made some good progress there despite a couple of howlers this gulling season regarding my mis-identification of Caspian gulls. I've always felt very strongly that it's through making errors that I am forced to look more closely at where I've gone wrong and thus my errors are usually the greatest spur to further learning and improvement. There are times however when I am pleasantly reminded at just how far I've come in my birding so far, in particular with regards to the nebulous things that is jizz. I managed to find a nice red-head red-breasted merganser on my local patch of Port Meadow a while ago. Now these are nice birds but only subtly different from red-head goosander but I was pleased to say that as soon as I saw it, it rang alarm bells as it just didn't look like a goosander: it looked skinny and the bill was much more slender and has a feeling of upcurve to it rather than the more solid down-hooked beak of a goosander. I was able to point out the bird to a relative newcomer to county birding who needed it for his county list and it was interesting to see just how hard he found it to pick the bird out. It just shows how far I've come already.

The Port Meadow red-breasted merganser

Jizz and a Shag
Now this inner feeling for jizz showed itself again the other day whilst I was again on the Meadow. I spotted a low flying bird heading rapidly southwards over the floods. It was low and quite close so I got a good view of it as it sped past. Whilst it was clearly an all-black cormorant-type of bird, my inner alarm bells immediately went off because it just wasn't the right shape or proportions at all for a cormorant which I've often seen flying over the Meadow. Instead it was small with a really strikingly skinny neck (not the thick chunky thing of a cormorant) and the wings were shorter. I watched it for several minutes until it became a speck in the distance but for those first few seconds it had just felt completely wrong for a cormorant so despite the fact that it was a flyover that I only really saw well for a few seconds I knew that it had to have been a shag that I'd seen. Not a great rarity of course but a nice bird for the county which is more or less annual but as far as I knew it was a first for the Meadow. Now whether anyone else believes me is another matter - I've made some dodgy ID claims in the past (e.g. honey buzzard over my house which I later retracted) as well as plenty of gull ID errors and I know that if some other birder reported a single-observer fly-over shag on the Meadow then (depending on who it was) I could be more than a tad sceptical. However I strongly believe that at the end of the day birding is a very personal journey of improvement and enjoyment and ultimately that's what matters so it's down on my Patch List and I'm pleased that my inner jizz radar is able to flag things up like that.


As the gull season is about over now I have been thinking of writing up the fruits of my learning from this one, especially with regards to the identification of the larger gulls. Gavin Haig at Not Quite Scilly is doing an excellent series on Caspian gull identification, starting with first winters so I was thinking of starting at the other end with adults. Partly I want to do this so that at the start of the next season this autumn, I'm able to get up to speed more quickly but also I know that even some very experience local birders find gulls tricky so it may be of use to others as well. Anyway, you've been warned that another gull post is coming though I'll spare you the excitement just yet.

I'll whet your appetite with this bird for you to ponder over.
You can read daily patch updates including
gull reports at Port Meadow Birding

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Sub-species Interest

When there's not a lot going on locally on the birding front one naturally tries to find interest where one can and this is where sub-species can come in. In fact I think that there is a strong case for counting sub-species on one's various lists. After all, since listing is ultimately completely pointless and a totally personal thing then why not county everything that you can identify? Of course if you are going to want to compare lists with others then you need a set of rules but since I have no interest in that at all I'm considering converting to a "all sub-species" list. Think about it: American black tern, Azorean yellow-legged gull, blue-headed wagtail, channel wagtail, Taiga & Tundra bean geese, pale and dark-bellied brent, black brant, suddenly there's a whole lot more stuff to go for. Gradually many of these birds are being granted full species status anyway but if you're just listing for yourself then there's nothing to stop you taking the plunge early and converting to the "anything goes" listing approach! At the very least I keep note of the various sub-species that I've seen though they're not (yet) on my headline life list tally.

Anyway, I was reading Gavin Haig's excellent blog "Not Quite Scilly" and he was going on about how to identify sinensis (Continental) cormorants. Whilst I have periodically read about people picking out these birds I had only the vaguest of ideas what the diagnostic criteria were so it was most useful to have it explained. For those who don't know it's to do with the angle that is made by the gular pouch, the (often yellowish) area at the base of the bill.

A helpful diagram copied second-hand from Newson et al.
"Subspecific differentiation and distribution of
Great Cormorants Phalacrocorax carbo
in Europe". Ardea 92(1): 3-10.

Now cormorant is not a bird that I photograph very often - let's face it they're just not that attractive but having learnt a new bit of bird ID I searched around for something to try it on and remembered a photo that I'd taken and blogged a few weeks ago of a cormorant in a side stream on my local patch at Port Meadow. Here it is again for those who missed it.

The Port Meadow bird (click to enlarge).
There's no arguing about the gular
patch angle here, clearly a sinensis

Here's a photo that I borrowed from Gavin's blog (c) Gavin Haig.
Note the much more acute angle of the gular pouch
so it's a home-grown carbo.

Result! Clearly a sinensis cormorant on the local patch. Now, I don't think that they're that rare in Oxon but I wondering whether anyone has bothered to take a look through county cormorants to see how many of them there are. Perhaps no one actually cares but it gives one something to check on even the commonest and arguably one of the least attractive of birds. Whilst waiting for the next good bird, having something to check on common species is not something to turn one's nose up at.

Talking of sub-species I'd just like to slip a cheeky gull into this post. I spotted it at the weekend whilst on a brief walk with my five year old son in tow so it was bins only and I'd get grief from Luke if I stopped for too long. I managed to snatch a photo of this fine intermedius lesser black-backed gull, which is basically the Scandinavian equivalent of our home-grown graellsii. Of course the much more sought after LBbG sub-species is the fuscus or Baltic gull which lives further east and is almost black with a ridiculously long primary projection.

Nice intermedius. Note the much darker colour mantle colour.

...and here's a reminder of the Appleford fuscus Baltic gull
(Ian Lewington certified) from October 2009 that I
was lucky enough to jam in on whilst not seeing the
Azorean gull. Note the unfeasibly long primary
projection and the almost black mantle colour.

So there you have it, sub-species offer you something of interest to do whilst waiting for the next good bird. Clearly my nerdiness knows no limits and I think that I can hear my VLW weeping quietly into her tea in the kitchen.

It turns out (thanks to Ian Lewington) than in Oxon sinensis is now the common cormorant, having mostly replaced the carbo's. That's fired me up to go and try to find a local carbo for myself. See how interesting sub-species can be!