Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Cornwall in October

Once again an amalgamation of my Pendeen Birding Posts from a recent trip down to Cornwall.

Sunday 12th October: Porthgwarra

So it's that time of year again and I'm back down in Cornwall for my now-traditional October visit. I've been watching events from afar and it seems like Cornwall (and indeed The Scilly Isles) are having a very poor autumn so far with all the action on the east coast or on Shetland. In fact things were so poor that I even had a certain amount of trepidation about coming down - after all I know how bleak it can be when the winds are strong and there are no birds about. Fortunately in the last few days things started to pick up with an Eastern Subalpine Warbler and a Barred Warbler at Porthgwarra, a Little Bunting on the Lizard and a couple of Rose-coloured Startlings, one at St Ives and one at Penzance. I'd suggested to my brother-in-law that he might like to come down again (as he did a couple of years ago) and he was keen. He suggested that he'd come down on Sunday and for want of any other factor I decided to come down the same day. Thus it was that around 8am on Sunday morning I set off from a foggy Oxford back towards my beloved Cornwall.

Regular readers will know that I like to stop off en route should there be something of interest to temp me. However there was nothing of particular note and with the Eastern Subalpine Warbler still being reported that morning I decided to head straight on down and so that's what I did. In fact I had a really good run and so it was in a little under four hours that I arrived in Penzance. I was keen to see the Subalp and so after a quick stop to fill up with petrol I headed straight onwards on the A30 all the way down to Porthgwarra with just a couple of Ravens on the wires near the St Buryan turn-off worthy of note. Thus it was that I turned up at the PG car park a little after 1 p.m.. After working out what had happened to the Pay & Display machine (you now have to pay at the café instead) I paid for two hours and then hurried up the lane past the Doctor's House to the small band of twitchers who were all staking out the scrub and sallows just to the west (not "North" as the pagers have been saying) of the Doctor's House. Apparently it had been seen about an hour ago where it had showed really well beyond the sallows in a clump of dead scrub though it had also previously shown on the far hedge that lined the north west border of the triangular field. Whilst I waited I listened to the quiet chatter amongst the locals: apparently it had been quite difficult to see and some locals had put in a good many hours before they got their sighting. While we waited a Greater-spotted Woodpecker flew over, as did a few Swallows and Skylarks and a Kestrel and a Clouded Yellow flitted about in front of us. After a short while someone called that they'd had a brief glimpse close in just in front of us and Brian Mellow picked it up as well though I, nor anyone else could see it. A little while later a bird flicked up and back down in the same spot and it had the right sort of colour. Another local picked it up again and confirmed that it was the bird but it was hardly a tickable view for me.

At that moment the weather conditions must have aligned in just the right way for a text signal to get through to my phone (not an easy thing at PG for Vodafone at least) and word came through on RBA of a possible Radde's Warbler up by the dried up pond on the moor. As I pondered this a birder came hurrying up to us who turned out to be the finder of this bird. Though he admitted he wasn't sure he seemed quite convinced himself so a few of us decided to go and take a look. A brisk 5 minute walk took us to the pond where there was no initial sign of the bird. We spread out and a short while later a pale green/grey and silver warbler flew back to the original bush. Clearly no Radde's it looked interesting though. I hurried back to the closest viewing point where we scrutinised it carefully. It had no wing bars, pale legs and was rather long winged. It looked like a pale Willow Warbler so there was some speculation that it might be a "northern" race. Anyway, it clearly wasn't a Radde's Warbler or anything similarly good and the finder was suitably apologetic. We all made appropriate "better to mention it than not etc." noises to console him.

Having cleared that up I hurried back to the Subalp twitch only to discover that (of course) the bird had been showing really well whilst we'd been away. Inwardly cursing I resumed my vigil and fortunately was rewarded about twenty minutes later when it appeared once again the far boundary hedge. It performed very well, sitting up and in fact staying pretty motionless for some time so I was even able to take some record shots with my superzoom bridge camera.

Various other locals kept turning up including Brian Field & John Chapple (who'd been there this morning and had come back for the "Raddes") and we all admired this distinctive warbler.After the bird finished showing I decided that it was time to move on.especially since my parking ticket had run out and I hurried back to the car park John teased me that I was bound to have been clamped though fortunately this turned out not to be the case.

Some of John Chapple's video of the Subalp

Time was marching on and I wanted to get in some shopping before the supermarkets closed so it was time to move on. Fortunately the new Sainsburys didn't shut till 5pm so I had a bit of time to work my way back. First stop was up the road at Roskestal Farm to look for the Hooded Crow though in the fifteen minutes I gave it I couldn't turn it up. Next stop was the Polgigga cricket pitch though there were only a couple of Pied Wagtail on show. So it was back to PZ for a spot of shopping. I did a lighting turn around the Morrison's car park for the Rose-coloured Starling though it was getting late now and there were no Starlings at all. With my brother-in-law and a friend due to turn up fairly soon I headed back to the cottage to get settled in and to get the kettle on.

That evening Martin Garner posted an interesting article on his Birding Frontiers web-site about the Porthgwarra Subalp identity, speculating that it was rather strange looking for an Eastern Subalp and was more likely actually a Moltoni's. That evening as I was looking through my photos I found that I'd happened to have taken a perfect flight shot showing the tail which apparently was a key part of the ID. Eastern I think I'm right in saying has a deeper white wedge up the T5 tail feathers.

It had been a good start to my stay though I was under no illusions about the prospects for my time down here. Given how quiet it had been I was mentally prepared for seeing relatively little this trip so to have the warbler under my belt did mean that I at least had something good should nothing else turn up. What's more, word on the street was that all three sub-species (Western, Eastern & Moltoni's) were likely to be split so I probably had an arm chair tick in the bag. Let's see what the rest of the week brings.

Monday 13th October: Pendeen, Penzance & Drift

I woke this morning to drizzle and greyness. In fact I actually woke up in the middle of the night: (my internal alarm clock had clearly gone awry) and struggled to get back to sleep again. At 7 a.m. I got up to find that it was actually still dark outside, so I had a cup of tea and read a bit. Finally at 8 a.m. I got tooled up and ventured outside to do the morning Pendeen rounds. In the breeze and wind it was clearly going to be hard work but I resolved to do my best. Down at the lighthouse I met Paul Bright-Thomas (who found the Daurian Shrike last year) watching the sea though he'd had nothing but a single Balearic Shearwater for his troubles. Whilst I stood there a flock of six Common Scoter went by though that was about it. Back at the lighthouse car park I met up with fellow Pendeen regular Ian Kendall and we worked our way back up the road together though with little to show for it apart from the usual stuff - a Grey Wagtail was the most interesting sighting. At the coastal path we parted company, Ian chose to check up the road whilst I opted for the small valley and headland along the coastal path. Neither of us had much luck and I soon headed home to see if my guests were up yet. They were indeed up and after a good cooked breakfast courtesy of my brother-in-law (who is an excellent cook) I was feeling much better. What's more the sun was now coming out and the weather forecast looked much better for the rest of the day. 

A tray full of moths
After emptying the moth trap (which just contained the usual suspects - Rusty Dot Pearl was the pick of the bunch) my two guests and I pootled around the cottage for a while and then hatched a plan. They wanted to do some shopping in Penzance whereas I had a meeting with a holiday letting agency inspector early afternoon (we're in the process of changing our letting agency). Accordingly they headed off and I decided to do some more local birding so I headed up towards Pendeen village centre. I stopped of at the Calartha Farm copse with just one Robin for my efforts before parking up in Pendeen village centre. There were a remarkable numbers of birds here with the Pendeen stores copse full of common birds all chattering away. The path up to the churchyard too was alive with Goldfinches and Sparrows and there were at least two dozen Pied Wagtails on the green field next to the church. Sadly the churchyard itself was empty except for the usual Rooks. Then it was back to the stores to buy some lunch before heading back to the cottage to eat it and await the inspector.

The inspection was over quickly (fortunately she seemed impressed with the cottage) and I was soon free to head out for some afternoon birding. I'd made an arrangement to meet up with my guests mid afternoon in Marazion so I decided to head towards Penzance first to see if I could catch up with the long-staying Rose-coloured Starling that was hanging out either at Morrison's car park or on the telephone wires behind B&Q. I soon managed to find the bird on the B&Q wires and I passed an hour or so trying to get some digiscoped photos whilst it flew about in a field before it finally settled on the wires long enough for a successful outcome.

The Rose-coloured Starling
Next was a quick stop-off at Longrock Pool to look for the long-staying Garganey though I couldn't see it in the five minutes I gave it. After that it was onwards to Marazion where I rendez-vous'd with my guests and we walked out over the causeway to St Michael's Mount for a cream tea in the restaurant. Whilst enjoying our food I got a text from David Parker saying that there was a female-type Ring-necked Duck at Drift reservoir. With nothing else on offer I thought that I'd pop in for it on the way back and to my surprise my guests seemed interested in tagging along too. However, when we arrived at the reservoir car park the rain and the prospect of a ten minute walk to the hide was enough to change their minds and they headed for home whilst I got my waterproofs on and headed on down to the hide.

In the hide Martin Elliot and "Mush" were just finishing up and Martin kindly put me on to the bird immediately. It was asleep with its back to us but fortunately it raised its head on occasion so that I could get a glimpse of its diagnostic head pattern. I busied myself with taking some digiscoped record shots in the gloomy conditions. Apart from the duck there were a few Teal, quite a few Swallows, the usual gulls in the middle of the reservoir and a couple of calling Curlew flying about.

The sleeping Ring-necked Duck
After a while I wandered back to the car and headed for home where my brother-in-law and his friend rustled up a great evening meal of organic vegetable soup and home made apple and pear crumble. It had been a good day in the end with a couple of nice birds and a pleasant afternoon tea with my companions. Soon it was time for bed to catch up on my sleep.

Tuesday 14th October: Pendeen & Kenidjack

The weather forecast for today looked really good with virtually no wind and full-on sunshine for a good part of the day. What's more I'd slept really well and was keen to get out there to do the morning Pendeen rounds. Just as I left the house I saw Ian Kendall's car pull up down by the lighthouse so I wandered over to meet up with him. Of course the great thing about there being no wind is that you can actually hear the birds and see the smallest hint of movement so I was optimistic about our chances that morning.

It was soon clear that there was some bird movement going on with a steady passage of Chaffinches flying north, calling as they went. What was also apparent was sadly how my hearing has deteriorated. Ian is not only a far more experienced birder than me and shit-hot on his calls but also it turned out has far better hearing than I do. He'd say "another flock of Chaffinches coming " and then perhaps thirty seconds later I'd pick them up. This came in good stead when he called out that a Snow or Lap Bunting was heading our way. I'd not heard it call at all but we picked up two birds in flight with the front one definitely being a Lap Bunt and the second not identified. I'd never have got that on my own sadly as I didn't manage to hear it. As we worked our way up the road as well as the Chaffinches were several dozen Skylarks, a single wheezing Brambling that Ian heard and I didn't and plenty of the usual Mipits, There were four Reed Buntings by the coastguard cottages as well as the Grey Wagtail again. Up towards White Gate Cottage Ian heard a soft "tack" type call though regrettably I couldn't hear it. We staked out the scrub for some time and Ian even played a few candidate bird calls on his phone including Raddes, Booted and Sykes, saying that the latter was the closest match though whatever it was, it didn't respond or call again.

Along the road to Manor Farm a Snipe went up near the track, I think the first one I've had at Pendeen. The Farm itself held quite a few birds though nothing of note. As we worked our way down the fields behind the farm we found a good number of Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits, a Kestrel and best of all a Merlin which landed on a post at the far end of the field, beautifully lit in the morning sunshine.

The Merlin
Back near the lighthouse we parted company and I went back home for breakfast and to empty the moth trap. Once again it was the usual suspects with a Rusty-dot Pearl migrant and an as yet unidentified Agonopterix micro the pick of the bunch. As I pottered about in the garden of the cottage I heard the distinctive call of a Chough flying around by the lighthouse cliffs, always a pleasure to see. There were quite a few Clouded Yellow butterflies about and a nice flock of 30+ Linnets as well as the resident Goldfinches, the three Pendeen Ravens, two Buzzards and several Stonechats. All in all it was very nice to enjoy the warm sunshine and calmness of a still day.

Pendeen Meadow Pipit

Pendeen Clouded Yellow
My two guests decided that they wanted to do some walking today so I suggested that they did the coastal walk north to St Just and that I would rendez-vous with them there for lunch. Whilst they set off on their walk I got ready to head off for some birding. Just as I was loading up the car I got distracted by a small browny orange Moth fluttering about by some old sheds. From its flight it was clearly a moth rather than a butterfly but it just wouldn't settle at all despite my watching it for a good ten minutes. Giving up in the end I drove up the Pendeen road, wanting to take advantage of the still conditions to check the local copses though Calartha Farm and the Pendeen stores were both empty. 

I thought that I'd do one of the valleys near St Just so texted John Swann to ask whether the Vapourer moths were still about on his Kenidjack patch and he offered to come with me to help me find one. So I picked him up and we drove the short distance to the lovely valley that is Kenidjack. Given the limited time that I had if I wanted to make my rendez-vous we parked half way down and walked on towards the lower half of the valley. There we met up with Ian Kendall again, this time with his partner Jackie. They'd not seen anything on the bird front though they'd seen plenty of Vapourer Moths and it wasn't too long before I'd seen one too. Having now seen one for my self I realised that my moth by the car back at Pendeen had definitely been one as well, another nice patch tick! We wandered about together, chatting away in the warm sunshine, watching the Clouded Yellows flying about and picking out the occasional Vapourer. Whilst Ian and Jackie decided to stay in the valley John and I did a circuit up over the top of the headland, an area I'd not explored before though we only had a couple of Stonechats and a Chough for our troubles. Then it was back to the car where we parted company and I headed into the town to meet up with my companions. They'd found a lovely spot outside the pub and had ordered themselves too much food so there was plenty left over for me to have.

Kenidjack Chough
After chilling for a while we drove back to Pendeen where I wanted to get a couple of outdoors DIY tasks done whilst the weather was good. Specifically there was an exterior light to sort out which my brother-in-law and I worked on for a while. Then he and his companion decided to head down to Portheras beach whilst I opted to nip over to Penzance to buy some more lightbulbs and a couple of plugs. There I did a quick tour of the Rosy Starling spots though by now it was getting rather late in the day and half the Starlings, including the colourful vagrant, were missing. Nor was there any sign of the Longrock Pool Garganey though it had been reported on RBA that morning. With it starting to get dark I hurried home in order to fit the lightbulb on the outside light and to bring in the garden furniture for the winter before the rainy weather of tomorrow reached us. After another excellent meal from my chef-in-residence brother-in-law it was a chilled evening chatting before heading off to bed.

Wednesday 15th October: Pendeen & Porthgwarra

In stark contrast to yesterday, the weather forecast was for strong winds and heavy rain and this was indeed what I woke up to. I was therefore in no hurry to get out there and with the forecast suggesting that this would continue for much of the day I gloomily wondered what I was going to do today. After breakfast I busied myself with writing up yesterday's birding on this blog and this kept me occupied for some time. When I finished I looked outside to find that it had started to clear up: the wind was dropping and it was much brighter outside. I therefore donned my gear and headed out to see what was about at Pendeen. It was still windy out and with the direction being a strong south-easterly I headed down past the lighthouse and along the coastal path a short way where it was sheltered. It seemed that the birds had had the same idea for there were surprisingly good numbers along what is normally a fairly barren stretch. The pick of the bunch was a Wheatear, the first I'd seen on this trip.There were also several Stonechats, a phyllosc that eventually turned out to be a Willow Warbler and a skulking bird that momentarily had me thinking Radde's before it showed itself to be a Wren, Back on the windy side there were the usual Mipits flying about in the fields and down the western coastal path were several Chiffies and Stonechats and a skulking Blackbird who's call had me thinking Ouzel for a while until it showed itself. So all in all pretty much the usual suspects.

Back at the cottage I caught up with my guests who were going to head out to St Ives for the day. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do and the pager and a few exploratory texts that I'd sent back were doing little to inspire me. In the end the report of a Ring Ouzel at Porthgwarra decided it for me as this was my Cornish bogey bird so I headed south, stopping at St Just to pick up some lunch. I stopped off at Roskestal Farm once more and this time I found the elusive Hooded Crow almost immediately, sitting on the roof of one of the farm buildings. I took a few snaps before it took exception to my presence and flapped off out of sight.

The Roskestal Hoodie

I arrived at PG and parked up at the top of the hill, walked down to 60 Foot Cover to eat my sandwich though the only thing I saw was the resident Greater-spotted Woodpecker fly over. Next it was on to the Subalp "twitch" which consisted of a single hopeful birder. I told him where it usual showed and then I wandered off over the moor towards the dried up pond where the Ring Ouzel had been reported. By now the wind had dropped to a whisper and it was amazingly sunny and warm. In fact it was altogether very pleasant to be out in the fresh air in such wonderful scenery and the almost total lack of birds didn't seem to matter. I wandered about looking to see what I could find but apart from a couple of Stonechats there was remarkably little. Over by the Half Way Wall I found first a helice form of Clouded Yellow (my first sighting of this sub-species) and then I spotted a fluttery white moth. My first thought was the rare Crimson Speckled Footman though it turned out to be a rather delicate looking translucent white micro with an orange-brown costal border. Given the location and a half-remembered photo from somewhere I was thinking that this was a rarer immigrant moth so I texted John Swann a description and he came back with Palpita vitrealis, which was indeed a rare immigrant micro and a moth tick for myself. 

Palpita vitrealis

Back near the pond I spotted a couple of birders in the distance and a quick view through my bins ID'd them as my good friends "Philary" so I hurried to intercept them. We then had a lovely long natter together where we discovered that we'd all been to the same University (though different colleges) together at the same time and in fact we had several friends in common. What a small world! Eventually we parted company and I wandered back towards the Coastguards and the subalp twitch where there were now four people. As it was still sunny I decided to put in a bit of time for a second viewing but shortly afterwards the sun went it and it suddenly started to look rather late in the day so I headed back to the car and set off for home.

Helice form of Clouded Yellow

Back at base I met up with my happy guests who'd had a lovely day at St Ives and then at Cape Cornwall. In fact they were going  to head back to St Ives for dinner and asked if I wanted to come along. However I was feeling rather tired by now and had a number of chores to do at the cottage. In truth I was actually thinking of heading back home again tomorrow and wanted to get ready to depart. The lack of good birdage and the fact that I was coming back again en famille in a little over a week for the half term holiday meant that there seemed little point in hanging around when the birding was so slow. Anyway, that was my current intention but let's see what tomorrow brings.

Thursday 16th Rame Head

As I mentioned yesterday, I'd been thinking about leaving today and I went to bed having resolved so to do. However the night didn't go very well: I was woken up by my drunken house guests in the middle of the night who were talking in that loud way that drunk people do when they think they're being quiet. Rather than getting up and trudging upstairs to ask them to keep the noise down I tried to ring the mobile phone of my brother-in-law's, who is called David. However, in my sleep-befuddled state I inadvertently rang the wrong David and ended up waking up poor old Dave Parker instead - I was mortified to have done such a thing! Anyway, I didn't get much more sleep that night and in the end got up at 7 am and started to pack. I did do a lighting round of Pendeen but came up with little more than a few Meadow Pipits, a couple of Pied Wagtails and a Chiffchaff. My rather contrite and hung-over brother-in-law was there to see me off though there was no sign of his friend as I hit the highway at around 10am leaving them to lock up.

I didn't run the trap last night but I found this moth lurking by the
front door. From it's obscure markings and pale underwing
I think it's a Pearly Underwing

As usual on my return journey I decided to stop off en route so resolved first to try Buttermilk Hill for my arch nemesis the Ring Ouzel seeing as there had been a smattering of birds in Cornwall yesterday. I had just arrived at the car park when I got a text from Philary saying that they'd found a couple of them at Land's End by the cycle track. Doh! Once again I had managed to be a in the wrong place at the wrong time for this species. Never mind, at least there might be some on the hill. However, I'd just got tooled up and was starting to walk up the slope when I met Buttermilk stalwart Viv Stratton and a fellow birder coming down having seen no Ouzels at all. Drat! Well at least they'd saved me a fruitless search. Time to resume my journey.

For my next stop I had a choice of two birds which had been freshly discovered up-county yesterday. One was a very approachable American Golden Plover at Davidstow and the other was a Red-breasted Flycatcher at the coastguard cottages at Rame Head. Having already come on the pager the Plover was pretty much a sure thing whereas the Flycatcher was going to be much more uncertain. However, unlike the Plover I still needed the Flycatcher for Cornwall so in the end that decided it for me. I knew from past experience when I successfully twitched an Iberian Chiffchaff at Rame Head, that it was a long slog to get there and so it proved but I eventually arrived at the rather windswept and grey location and parked up near the cottages. I had a wander around and met one of the residents who kindly gave me permission to go down the side area to the garden at the back to have a look around. I even met up with a local birder who had a look with me but despite this back-garden access and our combined searching skills there was no sign of the bird. The local told me of a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers back in the Sycamore copse by the church so I wandered over to have a look but I couldn't find them in the half an hour I gave myself. Then it was back to the car and a chance to have my packed lunch.

I had been vaguely thinking of trying for the Davidstow Plover afterwards but it was about 2pm already and I was feeling shattered from my lack of sleep so in the end common sense prevailed and I headed for home. It was a bit of a struggle staying alert for the journey but with the radio for company I managed to arrive home safely in one piece for a most welcome cup of tea and a chance to chat with my VLW. Sadly, it had been a rather frustrating and fruitless return journey and the whole lack of sleep incident had rather soured the day for me.

Mopping Up

I wasn't sure whether to write a "mopping up" section now or to leave it until after my second visit as I'm due back down at the end of the week, this time en famille for the half term break. In the event I decided to wrap up the first visit which is my official Cornwall October birding one. Sadly, as predicted it was a rather quiet affair and whilst it looked like it was all kicking off just as I was due to arrive, it just fizzled out again just as quickly. Have Cornwall and the Scillies had their hay day now and should one now be going to Shetland as a matter of course? Who knows, but I do love it down here and have every intention of carrying on with my visits.

Pendeen Stonechat

There was just enough on the bird front to keep me occupied whilst I was here but I'm glad that I left when I did as there were no new birds in and I freely admit that I really don't like slogging around in strong winds when there's nothing around. The most interesting bird was of course the now-departed Porthgwarra Subalp. Sadly it was never heard to call so the rarities committee might well not accept it as a Moltoni's though apparently the tail pattern certainly rules out Eastern and I don't think that anyone has mooted Western as a possible ID.

I was pleased to catch up with the supporting cast of the Rose-coloured Starling, the Ring-necked Duck and the Roskestal Hooded Crow. At Pendeen a fly-over Lap Bunt and a Brambling were both nice birds as well as good views of a Merlin. Once again I never managed to see a Yellow-browed Warbler (not that I tried particularly hard) nor even a Firecrest and my Cornish bogey bird, the Ring Ouzel, once again managed to elude me.  I didn't get a chance to go sea-watching in the end either which was a shame.

Marsh Pennywort at Porthgwarra
On the moth front I had a couple of ticks in the form of a Vapourer Moth and the much rarer Palpita vitrealis. I've not really done my "moth du jour" posting this time so here's a selection from the moth trap all in one go.

Angled Shades
Black Rustic
Feathered Brindle
Feathered Rustic
Lunar Underwing
Parsnip Moth
Rusty Dot Pearl

So all in all a rather low key affair though still enjoyable. I leave you with another photo of the bird of the trip: the putative Moltoni's Subalpine Warbler.

Bird of the trip

I've just been told that actually the Subalp was heard to call, making a weak "chekk" call and that the general opinion now is that it was a washed out Western Subalpine Warbler, which is of course most disappointing.

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