Friday, 26 February 2016

Hoody Insurance

Hooded Merganser has a rather uncertain status in UK listing. It is of course the age old problem with water fowl of determining their provenance - so many collections have them that there are the inevitable escapes and just how do you tell the genuine vagrant from the escapee? It is now generally considered that the following points need to be looked for

1. It appears at the right time of year when wild birds might well be on the move, perhaps in the company of other wild duck that have moved in
2. It is unringed and the feathers aren't clipped or damaged
3. It is wild and wary of people
4. It departs in good time to continue it's migration

As far as Hooded Merganser is concerned, I saw the then first winter drake at Radipole which has decided to take up residence there and has subsequently been declared an escapee by a committee of wise birders. Now I think that this decision may be a little harsh. After all it was first seen to fly in off the sea and collapse exhausted in a storm drain before relocating to Radipole. There it soon learnt to copy the behaviour of all the Tufted Duck there and ignore the many passers by and even take a bit of bread now and then. I must admit that I've always thought that the so-called bread test was a bit of a joke. Does this mean that all the Mallards on my local canal are all escapees because they come to bread. Of course not! Birds, tend to take their cues from others around them and it's quite understandable that a completely lost young bird who's navigation system is clearly up the spout (since it got lost in the first place) might decide to stay and enjoy what's clearly a rather easy life for a duck there. So, as far as I was concerned, Hooded Merganser was on my list. Now, I understand that if you want to start comparing lists with other people then you need some kind of committee to decide what's countable but as I list purely for my own pleasure I'm free to make up my own mind and I was happy enough with it. Or was I?

The acid test is of course if another bird turns up nearby and is easily twitchable - if I were completely at ease with my tick then I wouldn't feel the need to go and see any other birds of this species. Yet when a female Hooded Merganser turned up not a million miles away in Wiltshire I was indeed tempted. It seemed to pass the first three points on the list above and as it was a quiet time of year with not much to see I hadn't been on a Gnome outing for some time now. Why not pay it a visit as a bit of an insurance tick? I decided to give it a go.

I was working on Thursday morning but would be free of commitments by around 2 p.m. and as the bird was just over an hour away I should be able to get there in good time to see it. Reports on RBA were remarkably thin on the ground and with only one "still there" first thing that morning I put out an RFI and was soon rewarded with good news. So at 2 p.m. I set off in the Gnome mobile along the familiar A420 that I usually use when heading to the South West. The traffic rather ground to crawl towards the end and it turned out to be a minor prang which took time to get past and rather added to my journey time so it wasn't until around 3:30 p.m. that I arrived at the car park opposite the park entrance and tooled up. The car park was remarkably empty and there was just one returning birder as I got ready who reported that the bird was showing well albeit rather distantly. I yomped off into the park where I could see the lake ahead of me and just two people standing on the bank with a scope.

The lake - apparently the park was designed by Capability Brown, hence it's rather boring
vast areas of grass and lack of good natural habitat for wildlife

I headed over to these two and enquired about the bird as it was not obviously in sight. They informed me that it had climbed out onto the bank "by the green plastic bag" and had just a minute ago ducked out of sight. Of course all twitchers know all to well the old "just gone out of sight" syndrome where it never appears again so I started to feel a bit worried about the whole situation - I'd assumed that this was going to be "a walk up to the lake and tick it" situation. Whilst I set up my scope to take a look the other two decided to leave and I could hear them muttering something about "going to roost now" as they departed. Whilst it seemed rather early for roosting the fact was it was rather grey and cloudy, in fact distinctly gloomy and if the bird had enjoyed a full day's feeding it might well be starting to considered settling down for the night. Mentally I was kicking myself for having decided to visit so late.

I got out my scope and tried to scope the "green bag" area on the far bank. There was a clear area by the bag under some trees but no obvious sign of the bird at all. I looked all around the lake, there were a few Goosander dotted about the place, the odd Mallard and Moorhen and a modest roost of Black-headed Gulls out in the centre but that was about it. The trouble was that the area on the far bank was at a bit of an angle so I walked along the bank looking for a break in the trees and reeds where I could get a better view. I found a spot and set the scope zoom to the maximum. "Was that the bird tucked up on the ground there with its head under its wing?". I couldn't really make it out - I thought that I saw it move for a moment but in the poor light I wasn't sure.  It was all very frustrating. What to do? There was no one else here apart from a few dog walkers and a heavy despondency started to settle over me.

A dog walker came by and asked if there was anything interesting about so I explained about the bird. As she seemed to be local I then asked whether it was possible to get around the other side of the lake. She explained that there was a gate there and a footpath which headed off into the woods but one wasn't really supposed to head over to the lake. She then said that she sometimes walks that area and as there were no sheep in the field at present it would probably be OK. Hmm, I decided to risk it. I walked as best I could over the rather muddy and slippery grass, through the gate and along the north side of the lake. However, despite having a good look around in the general area for quite some time I couldn't see any sign of the bird. Dejected at having dipped by all of one minute I once again berated myself for having been so stupid in visiting so late in the day and started to trudge with a heavy heart back the way I came. As I was walking back I cast an idle eye over the birds still on the water. "What was that unfamiliar shape and colour next to that Mallard there?" I raised my bins and Bingo there it was! I couldn't quite believe it but it was swimming around some thirty yards away. Relieved I started taking photos with my new super zoom though the light was terrible and the bird clearly had roosting on its mind as it kept tucking its head up. It was quite a striking thing though with it's large hood and bright red eye giving it a somewhat alien reptilian appearance.

As I'd spent so long not seeing the bird I didn't have a great deal of time so once it tucked its head down again I decided that I needed to head back. After all I'd promised my VLW that I'd be back for dinner and there'd be rush hour traffic to contend with. I therefore yomped back to the car and fired up the Gnome mobile. There was indeed a fair amount of traffic but fortunately it seemed mostly to be going the other way and it didn't take any longer that usual for the return journey. Not that I minded as I had somehow snatched success from the jaws of horrendous dippage. With an insurance tick under my belt I could now hold my head high and claim to have Hooded Merganser on my list without suffering the scorn that the Radipole bird tends to attract from some birders.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Cornwall February 2016

Yet another amalgamation from my Pendeen Birding blog of my recent trip to Cornwall. Be warned it's mostly DIY and not seeing much!

Saturday 13th February - Back Down
Astute readers will have noticed that despite my last post saying that I was coming back a week later at the end of October there has been a suspicious lack of any posts here. The reason was that I had back problems and also my VLW wasn't well so we decided to forego our traditional October half term trip down here. We were also thinking about coming down to see the New Year in but once again illness thwarted our plans so it's not until now during the February half term that finally I am back in my beloved Cornwall. Traditionally we come down at this time to see how well the cottage is coping with the winter storms so far and to start to put things right in preparation for the coming letting season and this was out plan this time as well. As well as myself and my VLW, our nine year old son L was to accompany us on this trip down though our two grown-up daughters had other plans.

We set off at the reasonably leisurely time of 11:30 a.m and stopped en route just for fuel and sandwiches and in the end the journey was uneventful and the traffic wasn't too bad. When we arrived at Hayle we stopped off at M&S so that I could make yet another attempt at finding a hat in which I didn't look quite so ridiculous. I'm the first to admit that I'm really not a hat person. I tend to look terrible in all hats that I wear but I do find them useful in that they keep my head warm and dry so I soldier on regardless and just have to accept looking like an idiot. A few years ago I found a nice winter hat with ear flaps (see my profile photo) which I was told I didn't look too bad in and which was nice and warm though sadly I lost this when I twitched the Greater Yellowlegs at Titchfield Haven last year so I wanted to find a replacement. It turned out that they no longer made this model and their new ear flap hat looked depressingly terrible on me so in the end I opted for a sort of waterproof flat cap type of thing which my VLW tells me makes me look like a farmer. For me, that's actually quite a compliment as far as hat wearing goes!

Anyway, we arrived at Penzance at around 4 p.m. and headed to Sainsbury's café for some tea. As I stared out over Mounts Bay I reflected that somewhere out there were at least three Glaucous Gulls, a Ring-billed Gull (which seems to spend the day near Trennack Farm near Sancreed), the usual over-wintering Pacific Diver, and best of all, a juvenile American Herring Gull, the latter being the bird that I'd most like to see whilst I'm down here. Realistically though, it's probably the one I'm least likely to catch up with as it had only been seen three times to my knowledge (twice at roost) and had no pattern to it at all. Still the other birds would be nice to see. Also on my target list was the over-wintering Hudsonian Whimbrel over on the other side of the Bay. Indeed up until last year this would have been a lifer about which I would be salivating profously though the Pagham bird last year had relegated this now to just a prospective Cornish tick. Still all these birds at least gave me something to work on whilst I was down here. In fact the list was none too shabby at all, given that it was February.

After our tea, we did a shop and then headed over to the cottage to boot things up. We spent some time surveying the damp patches and deciding what needed painting before having something to eat and then settling down to watch an episode of Poldark on DVD (playing "name that location" at each new scene). At just after 10 p.m. we all decided to crash out and hit out beds for an early night.

Don't expect too many Moth du Jour posts on this trip. However I found this Agonopterix heracliana over-wintering in the cottage.

Sunday 14th February - Pendeen
Today was a very quiet and low key day. After exchanging Valentine's Cards this morning whilst having our morning cups of tea in bed, my VLW and I were in full DIY mode for almost all the day. First off was an inventory of all that needed doing to the cottage both inside and out. There was nothing too terrible though the plumber had been over-zealous when he installed the new pressure reduction valves and we couldn't coax out much more than a trickle, far too little to have a proper shower. Our usual two inexplicable damp patches were their usual damp selves and the plaster needed hacking off so that it could all dry out. There was some mould in the bathroom that needed sorting out and lots of touching up of the paintwork inside and out.

Mid morning I did take a fifteen minute break to have a stroll down to the lighthouse and this did coincide with a nice patch of sunshine to brighten up what was otherwise a rather dull and chilly day. A pair of Raven were hanging about on the wall of one of the neighbouring fields and seemed to enjoy this vantage point, returning to it several times during the day. A Kestrel was hunting over the same fields and a few Herring Gulls were loafing around in the distance. As I headed back towards the cottage I heard the familiar call of a Chough and looked up to see a lovely flock of fourteen of them all circling around over the cottage itself before heading off along the coast.

The two Ravens

Whilst I worked I would periodically stop to stare out at the sea with my bins. There seemed to be a fair bit of movement today with a steady stream of Auks all heading west and lots of Kittiwakes and Gannets all feeding away just offshore. At just after midday I happened to look out and spotted a Bonxie really close in near the cliffs just to the west of the lighthouse - that was nice to see. On another occasion I spotted a Diver heading west (probably a Red-throated though it was too far to be sure). I made a mental note to try and fit in a sea watch or two if I have a moment later in the week.

Late afternoon we went for a quick yomp back down to the lighthouse to clear out heads though by now it was getting rather chilly. After a bit more DIY we decided to head up to Pendeen for a pub meal and this time tried the North Inn as a change from the Radjel. Here I had a really good Monkfish curry which I can thoroughly recommend. Then it was back to the cottage to veg out for the evening before hitting our beds at an early hour again. Tomorrow, I'm hoping that I'll actually find some time to head out for a bit of proper birding.

Monday 15th February: Pendeen & Newlyn Harbour
After a good night's sleep and our traditional cup of tea in bed, it was time to get things started. As the weather forecast wasn't too bad, our plan for today was to crack on with some DIY to start with and then to go out for a bit at around lunch time. Part of the reason for this plan is because very often we work away all day and then don't get out until it's too late in the day to do much. I'd suggested a walk along the coast at Perranuthnoe in order to look for the Hudsonian Whimbrel and the others were happy enough with this idea so we set about our various DIY tasks intending to head out at around midday. Like yesterday, I snatched chances to look out of the window whilst I worked: the two Raven were still about and today I saw a flock of just six Chough. The Kestrel was also around, hunting for worms in the horse paddock next to our cottage. On the sea there were still plenty of Gannets and Kittiwakes feeding off shore and a steady passage of Auks heading past. No Bonxie today though.

Local birds
Mid morning an RBA text came through saying that there was no sign of the Whimbrel by Perran Sands. Whilst there were plenty of other place it could be it did cause me to question our plan so that when the time came to head outI suggested an alternate plan of heading over to Newlyn harbour instead to look for the Glaucous Gull there. The other two said that they would prefer to wander around Penzance instead so I dropped them off and then headed over to the harbour for a spot of gullage. I parked up at the Tolcarne Inn and had a quick check of the rocks there. Not only was the splendid male Black Redstart still there but there was also a female type present as well. Also about were at least half a dozen Rock Pipits and a couple of Grey Wagtails. I checked through the gulls that were loafing on the rocks by the mouth of the river mouth but there was nothing out of the ordinary there at all.

The female-type BlackRedstart
Next I headed over to the harbour to look for the Glauc. There I met a lady photographer who was also looking for it but who hadn't as yet seen it. I had a good scour around through all the gulls but there was no sign of it. A local birder from Truro turned up who said that it usually hung out by the first pontoon next to the central quay. I'd already looked there but we all had another good scour around to no avail. The Truro birder did spot the Great Northern Diver in the harbour and I waited patiently to try and grab a photo though it did that vanishing act that divers are so good at and I never saw it again. Eventually we all got bored and I wandered back to the car to see if I could take any more phtos of the Black Redstart though one was shooting into the light and I soon gave up. I got my packed lunch out of the car and decided to eat it back at the quay in case the Glauc should decide to turn up. I had just got to the central quay when I spotted the bird flying away from me along the quay. It headed off to the far side of the harbour where it settled on the pebble beach there, about as far away as it could possibly be! Still, with my new Canon SX60 bridge camera with me (a present from Santa last Christmas) I was able to take a passable record shot of it despite the distance.

Distant Glaucous Gull
Having at least seen my gull I checked in with the others to see how they were getting on. It turned out that they were more or less finished so I headed off the pick them up. Then it was off to the supermarket for a quick shop and back to the cottage to crack on with some more chores. We worked until dark and then settled down for a quiet night in. The Hudbrel later came on the pager (and the Truro birder had told me that he's seen it anyway) so I'll probably have a crack at that tomorrow.

Tuesday 16th February: Perranuthnoe & Marazion
Today was a mixed day which started well but ended up being somewhat frustrating. We awoke at around 8 a.m. today to nice calm conditions though it was rather overcast. As before we planned to crack on with some DIY first thing before heading out later morning for our main outing of the day. We made excellent progress as far as the DIY was concerned and so it was in a buoyant mood that we finished off at around 11:30 a.m. and got ready to head out. The plan today was to head over to Perranuthnoe to walk the coastal path a bit and with any luck catch up with the over-wintering Hudsonian Whimbrel at last. We'd got as far as Penzance when I realised that I'd forgotten to put in the car our rucksack that had our packed lunches. Doh! Rather than go all the way back we decided to do the walk first and then nip back to Marazion to pick up some lunch. So this is what we did.

I'd never actually been to Perranuthnoe before and it was a pretty enough place as well as seeming to be very popular with walkers, judging by the number of cars in the car park. As we were getting ready I spotted some returning birders and hurried over to quiz them. It turned out that they'd not seen the Whimbrel in several hours though they'd met some birders who had seen it that morning. That wasn't very encouraging! Nevertheless we were there now so at the least this would be a reconnaisance of the area for a return visit. We headed off along the path enjoying the views of Mounts Bay from this different perspective though the stiff south westerly rather spoilt things. The cliffs were rather low and crumbly here and one could peer down onto the rocks where the Whimbrel was supposed to hang out though as we walked along there were actually no birds to be seen at all. After a while we got around as far as Trenow Cove where we met another birder who'd not seen the Whimbrel either. At this point my VLW and our son decided that they were getting hungry and with no sign nor news of the bird at all we turned around and headed back to the car. On the way back I finally spotted some waders. There were a total of four Curlew, about 10 or more Turnstones, a couple of Oystercatchers and a single Redshank. Sadly though, there were no Whimbrel of any description to be seen.

Boat Cove at Perranuthnoe
We headed back to the car and back towards Penzance. There we nipped into Sainsburys to pick up some lunch and drove to Marazion to eat it in the car whilst staring at the sea. En route I got a text from Dave Parker saying that the Marsh Harrier that had been seen at Marazion yesterday had been reported again. So whilst the other two munched on their lunch, I took mine with me and wandered over to the railway line which offered a good vantage point over the whole of the marsh. I stood there braving the cold for about half an hour in total though there was no sign of the bird and I met a local who had been parked up there for the last half hour without seeing it either.

After that it was time to head back to the cottage to crack on with the DIY. This turned out not to be as fruitful as the morning's session as it emerged that we'd run out of Stain Stop (a staple requirement given our exposed location!). What's more we'd discovered earlier in the week that our trusty B&Q at Eastern Green had closed and the nearest store was now in Cambourne. I spent some time trawling the internet trying to source some. Tesco's Direct would deliver some the next day for me at a good price but by the time I came to place the order it was after 5 p.m. and suddenly the earliest delivery date was a day later. Grrrr! In the end I gave up and did some other tasks, resigned to a trip further afield tomorrow to pick up our DIY essentials.

I was just starting to wind down my DIY tasks when I got a text from Dave Parker saying that the juvenile American Herring Gull had come into roost on St. Clements Island at Mousehole again. To the incredulity of my VLW, I scrambled the Gnome Mobile in a wild panic and sped off down the road though by the time I got to Newbridge, I realised that it was already far too dark and I was never going to make it so I turned around and returned to base with my tail between my legs. So all in all a rather frustrating day without really seeing any of my target birds. One of these years I'll finally connect with a Cornish smithsonianus!

Perranuthnoe flowering Winter Heliotrope

Wednesday 17th February: Marazion & Mousehole
It was another day of rather slim picking on the birding front sadly.The day dawned to torrential rain and strong winds as forecast and with a BT engineer due to come some time between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. to try and fix our internet and phone services we had to stay at the cottage anyway. Accordingly we decided to crack on with our DIY all morning and then to spend the afternoon out and about. We made good progress on the DIY front and the engineer came and fixed a few things that were rather old and worn in our set-up though he did say that given how far we were from the exchange we were never going to get a good internet service where we were but at least the phone was working again now. In the dismal weather I saw precious little on the bird front while working with just the Kestrel and a large flock of Jackdaws being noteworthy.

In the afternoon we first headed out to Marazion where I blagged a brief stop off at the flooded field behind Longrock pool. The reason for this was that the Glossy Ibis had been reported again there this morning but there was no sign of it when I looked. I did see a Red-legged Partridge, a couple of dozen Curlew and 6 Canada Geese but that was about it. We headed on and parked up by the Jordans car park and had a little wander along the beach towards the Red River mouth and back again. Apart from a few Rock Pipits and the usual commoner gull species there was little of note.

Marazion Rok Pipit

Gulls loafing at the Red River mouth

To round off our outing we next headed over to Mousehole as, fired up by the re-appearance of the Yank Herring Gull yesterday,  I wanted to have a crack at the evening gull roost on St. Clements Island. We first had a bit of a wander around the village and then I left the rest of the family to it whilst I headed back up the hill to the Rock Pool Café which was the traditional viewing point. There I met up with a few of the locals and we all grilled the rock together. I picked out a much darker looking 1st winter Herring Gull though Mush (the resident gull guru) didn't rate it. Between us we found a few more darker birds though nothing good enough to pass muster. The highlight of the watch was a pod of Common Dolphins which passed by behind the rock. After that it was back home, via our daily stop-off at Sainsburys of course, to pick up a bit of shopping. 

St. Clements

Thursday 18th February: Perranuthnoe
Today we were due to have a new sofa delivered. We've had an on-going struggle to find a sofa that's small enough to fit into the upstairs "tower room" and this was the latest in a long line of attempts to find something that worked and we were very much hoping finally to have a working solution. With this due to be delivered early afternoon we decided in the end to work all morning on our chores and then once we'd got the sofa installed, to take the rest of the day off and do something nice. We duly worked away at our painting and touching up and between tasks I managed to spot the usual two Ravens and the Kestrel as well as two Chough which flew past the cliffs. In due course the sofa delivery came though we hit a snag when it was too large to fit up the staircase. Eventually we managed to un-stick the upstairs window (which we'd not been able to open for a couple of years)  and were able to get it in through this way - hurrah! Relieved at having avoided the ignominy of having to send the sofa back, we then contemplated the rest of afternoon. I was keen on a return visit to Perranuthnoe to have another crack at the Hudsonian Whimbrel but the other two weren't that interested so they decided to stay local and to go for a walk down to Portheras Beach. So this is what we did.

I arrived at Perranuthnoe to find the car park heaving with visitors. Eventually I managed to park up and set of along the now-familiar path to where the bird was supposed to hang out. There I met up with M.E. who was there with his parents looking for the Whimbrel. Whilst he worked his way slowly along the cliffs checking every nook and cranny I searched a little faster though we soon caught up with each other at the start of Trenow Cove. There were a few divers on the sea with one Great Northern, 1 Red-throated and a couple of Black-throated to be seen as well as a few Oystercatchers, Redshank and a distant flock of Sanderling but no sign of the Whimbrel or any of the Curlew that it was supposed to be hanging out with. Eventually I spotted a flock of Curlew right on the far side of Trenow Cove as they flew into land on the rocks there. I told the other party and we all decided to head over there to take a look, a walk of a good ten minutes though we took longer as we kept stopping to have a scan of the birds to see if we could spot anything yet. 

It was nice to see the Mount from the other side of the bay for a change
Eventually we'd got as close as possible and then M's father spotted a Whimbrel in amongst the 12 Curlew and the two accompanying Grey Plover that we could see. In contrast to photos that I'd seen of the target bird, this one had rather muted head markings and both M and I were not overly excited, with our caution being found to be justified when it had a preen, revealing it's white rump. Defeated and by now somewhat deflated we were contemplating what to do when the whole flock took off. All the birds went south except for one Whimbrel-type bird which flew off to the north towards Marazion. I called it out and tried to get on it. M found it eventually and said that it didn't look like it had a white rump but it was by now too far to be sure. To add to this, M's father swore that he'd seen all 14 other birds head off south so it looked like there'd been a hidden 15th bird, probably without a white rump and therefore probably (but not certainly) out bird. Gah! Close but no cigar! 

One of the two Grey Plover with a roosting Curlew on the rocks
By now it was getting late so we headed back to the car park, stopping to enjoy a Chiffchaff that was flycatching down on the beach. I was running behind schedule so had to hurry off, stopping off at Tescos to pick up some more Stain Stop (which we'd ordered from Tescos Direct in the end) as well as a few other birds and pieces. Then it was back to the cottage to catch up with the others who'd had a lovely time watching the giant waves down on the beach. We had a nice meal and settled in for another quiet evening.

The Alexanders is now coming into flower all along the path at Perranuthnoe

Friday 19th February - Back Home
We'd decided that we'd all had enough intensive DIY for a while and that today we would head back home. So we were up early and rushing around doing a few final chores before packing up ready to depart. It always takes a remarkably long time to get everything packed up in the car but eventually by late morning we were all set and heading off. The only birds that I'd seen during this process had been the usual two Ravens. We stopped off to pick up some sandwiches and then it was off on the familiar route home. Our journey was uneventful and we arrived back home late afternoon for a most welcome cup of tea and a chance to relax.

Reflecting on my time down here, in February one is never going to get very much bird action but I had at least hoped to see the Hudsonian Whimbrel so I was disappointed to have failed on that front. I did manage to see the Newlyn Glaucous Gull, a couple of Black Redstarts and the usual divers and coastal birds but I'd also not seen the (highly elusive) American Herring Gull nor the Glossy Ibis nor the Marsh Harrier. By way of some compensation however, I got an e-mail from the chaps who run the excellent CBWPS web-site saying that my sighting of the Red-legged Partridge at Marazion was actually something of a rarity down in West Penwith and was the first one for two years. This certainly made it rarer that the Glossy Ibis that I'd been trying for and at least partially made up for what otherwise was a somewhat disappointing birding visit. Still, one can't be too upset - it's always so great to visit this part of the country. We're due back down in a few weeks time to get on with the exterior work should the weather permit. Personally, I can't wait!