Monday, 25 October 2010

Cornwall Once More

As regular readers will know, we're doing up a cottage down in Pendeen and having not been down for a few weeks, it was time to return there to check up on what the builders had been doing to the exterior and to do a bit of work on the interior ourselves. The plan was that I would go down on Thursday and then the rest of the family would come down on the train on Friday night for the weekend.

Thursday 21st
I myself set off from Oxford shortly after 9am on Thursday morning as I wanted to drop in on some birds en route. Specifically there was the small matter of the first winter green heron at the Lost Gardens of Heligan that it would be rude of me not to visit and with the roads nice and clear I arrived there at around lunch time to find the weather down in Cornwall gloriously sunny and warm. I'd been prepared for cold conditions and found myself rather hot with all my layers on. At the entrance gate I enquired about the heron and was told that it was at the top pond today. This was how twitching should be: definite news of the exact location and even a map to show you exactly how to get there, well worth the £10 entrance fee! Some ten minutes later after a nice walk through some woodland and then down a little hill I arrived at what was a remarkably small pond. At the bottom end on a footbridge were a few photographers who told me that the bird was working its way around the pond and was just behind some reeds at present. After that it was just a matter of matter of waiting a few minutes while it worked its way out of the reeds and then trying to find the best angle to view from. The bird was regularly catching small fish so was obviously being well fed and I wondered whether it might actually try to over-winter there, only time will tell. This must be one of the most photographed herons in the country but here are my digiscoped efforts.

The Heligan green heron

I also took some video footage of the bird

After that it was on to the Penwith peninsula. I briefly dropped in at the Leylant Saltings platform for a scan across the Hayle estuary where there were supposed to be a spoonbill and some whooper swans hanging around. There was no sign of either though I did meet a local birder and I took the opportunity to ask him about the buff-breasted sandpiper that was at Sennen. He told me that it was hanging out with a flock of golden plover but that you can't see all the field from the official viewing point. Armed with this information I went off to Sennen and a short while later pulled up at the Trevedra farm entrance and walked down the farm track to the second field. Apart from a few loafing gulls there was nothing to be seen. What was apparent was that the field had quite a slope on it and one could only see part of it from this vantage point at the bottom end. Whilst I was there another party of people came, enquired about the bird and on hearing that it was nowhere in sight, went off again. Shortly after that a large flock of several hundred golden plover flew in, circled for a while and then landed on the hidden part of the field. Whilst they were flying I scanned the flock carefully but there was no sign of any smaller hangers-on. Having done my research (i.e. looking at Google Earth before I set off) I knew there was another farm track on the other side of the field so I duly set off there and from this vantage point I found that I could see the plover flock perfectly. There was no sign of the sandpiper initially but after a while it flew in calling loudly, landing quite close to me some thirty yards away. Although I was facing directly into the sun I adopted my usual "if I can see it I'll try to photograph it" approach and rattled off some digiscoped shots before it moved further away.

The Sennen buff-breasted sandpiper, all digiscoped into the sun so the bird is very back-lit

After having failed to connect with the Davidstow bird on a couple of occasions it was nice to see this bird comparatively easily. As I was returning to the car I met a fellow birder who said that the third winter Azorean yellow-legged gull, which had been hanging around the area for a while was also in the same field best viewed from the other track so I went back for a look. There was one gull which could have been it but before I could give it a good grilling a helicopter flew over and put up all the gulls. At this point I decided to call it a day so I drove off to Pendeen, unpacked the car and headed over to Tesco's to get some provisions for the duration of my stay. It had been a great start to my Cornwall visit.

Friday 22nd
On Friday morning and with little wind forecast, rather than doing some sea watching first thing I decided to get over to Nanquidno and Cot valleys to see whether I could connect with any yellow-browed warblers. At Nanquidno a bird had been reported for several days in the copse by the ford so that's where I started. I met with a female photographer who was staying at the house right next to the ford. She'd seen the bird several times on previous days but not that day so far. I wandered around a bit and crossed over the stream to check out the other side. The habitat all looked great but the best I was able to come up with was a single firecrest.

Next on the Cot valley where I soon found another firecrest in the company of a goldcrest but once again no warblers. I met a fellow birder who'd found a couple more firecrests lower down the valley but he too had not had any warblers so I decided that I'd better get back to the cottage and start my DIY work. I did manage a photo of the Cot firecrest on my point & shoot camera which came out quite well.

The Cot valley firecrest

I spent the morning painting a grotty wall where a bookcase had been, the idea being to make the interior less revolting for when we come down to visit. There was also lots of black mould which was going to have to be removed later on. After lunch I had an appointment with the builder to discuss progress and after that I felt that another brief birding break was called for and duly set off for Sandy Cove in Newlyn where there was supposed to be a snow bunting hanging out. I soon found the bird which was as approachable as they usually are. Most of the area was in deep shade but there were a couple of sunlit areas and I was fortunate enough to get some photos off in this area so the bird was well lit and nice and close.

The Sandy Cove snow bunting

Whilst I was in the area I nipped down to Point Spaniard just past Mousehole where there was supposed to be a yellow-browed warbler. The copse habitat looked great though viewing was somewhat restricted. I met a fellow birder who'd been there for about an hour and a half without luck so it wasn't looking promising. We staked out the area for a while to no avail before I realised that I would have to get back for some mould scraping and departed. Back at the cottage I spent a couple of hours taking off the damp mouldy paint from the walls and after these efforts the wall looked a lot better. There's something really off-putting about seeing mould on your walls and bare plaster is infinitely preferable.

Saturday 23rd
Having picked up the family on Friday night it was now a case of doing DIY and family-based activites so birding would be somewhat curtailed. On Saturday, since the rest of them like to lie in whereas I like to get up early I took the opportunity to nip down to Pendeen lighthouse for a spot of sea watching. There was a good strong north-westerly wind so ideal conditions for Pendeen. There I met half a dozen or so birders already present and busy doing a one-hour count. They were all calling out the birds as they passed and each person had a click-counter for a different species. I sat down with them and duly started calling out the birds that I spotted. It was all rather quiet with nothing but auks, gannets and kittiwakes. Indeed the highlight during the short time I was there was a fulmar that I spotted (apparently the first one of the day) though there had been a sooty shearwater that went through before I arrived.

I thought that I'd take a photo of the lighthouse from a different angle for a change.

I soon had to leave to get on with more mould removal whilst the rest of the family went for a walk down to the fishing cove just to the north of the lighthouse. I would periodically peer out the window and I could see that things had definitely picked up on the seawith huge numbers of gannets streaming past and in the bright sunshine I could even make out small white dots which could only be auks with their low direct flight. It later turned out that a little shearwater went past mid morning as well as a Leach's petrel, good numbers of skuas and a few shearwaters so I missed a really good session!

There were lots of "stormlets" passing through over the weekend: very small concentrated rain showers which pass through quickly. This one had a rainbow at one end

That afternoon the girls wanted to go shopping in Penzance so I took L (our four year old boy) for a walk down to Treen cliffs where a barred warbler was supposed to be hanging out. Being on the south cost of the peninsula it was nicely sheltered from the northerly wind and L and I passed a pleasant hour or so sitting around watching the sea and failing to see any warblers. I did spot a stonechat, a kestrel and a rather late house martin. Then it was back to rendezvous with the girls for a spot of tea in Penzance and then back home for dinner.

Sunday 24th
Sunday morning I went down to the lighthouse again though the wind was much more moderate and there was just one other birder there. There were loads of kittiwakes but not much else until I spotted a distant skua which we both agreed looked like a pomarine. A couple of balearic shearwaters also went through and my companion had seen a few distant auks which might have been littles. I soon had to get back for a final bout of mould scraping. Whilst I was doing this B (our younger daughter) and L went out to look for slow worms and they managed to find one as well as a tiny newt.

Slow worm: the children enjoy finding them under stones

After packing up it was time to set off for home via the scenic route along the west coast, stopping at Zennor for lunch at the hostel and Leylant Saltings where the girls visited the sweet shop and I had a brief scan of the estuary. I found the whooper swans but not the spoonbill though as we set off on the A30 I glanced down into Ryan's field (Hayle RSPB) where there was a large white sleeping bird which could well have been the spoonbill. Our journey home was uneventful and we arrived back at Oxford mid evening. It had been another enjoyable visit to this wonderful part of the country with some more great birds to see.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Lesser Yellowlegs

Whilst I normally work from home occasionally I do actually venture forth into the wider world for work-related reasons. Thursday was such an occasion when I had to be in Epsom, North Surrey, in order to install some software at a client's office. I decided to get there nice and early and if the installation was fairly quick this would leave me some time to go birding nearby. There wasn't actually anything particularly interesting that close but at a stretch I reckoned that Essex (for the Baird's sandpiper) or Kent (Pallas's warbler) might count as nearby. I was rather looking forward to getting in some birding in a different location but in the event the installation took far longer than I'd hoped (through no fault of mine I hasten to add) so I decided the best course of action was simply to return home and have a brief yomp across my local patch on Port Meadow in order to clear my head.

As well as scanning the floods I always enjoy grilling the pipits, wagtails and linnets on the surrounding grassland for something interesting so there's always something to do at this time of year and I always have a sense of optimism as I arrive at the Meadow. I was just scanning across the floods when I noticed the ruff (which had been there for about a week now) and a companion wader. Has a second ruff arrived I pondered as I took a closer look at the second bird? What immediately struck me about this bird is that I didn't immediately recognise it. Since Port Meadow is mainly about waders I like to think that I know these types of birds reasonably well (with the exception of sub-dunlin sized ones where I haven't got my head around the American peeps yet) but this bird I knew wasn't one I was familiar with. It looked a bit like a wood sandpiper but I know that species quite well and the proportions were all wrong. I gave it a good grilling and took some video record footage. Could I see yellow on the legs there? I gave "Badger" (Jason Coppock) a quick call: he's always my first port of call when I think I've got something as I feel I can make a fool of myself in front of him. He wasn't going to be able to make it down and suggested taking more video for later consideration. I went back to grilling the bird and by this time was sure the legs were a bright yellow-orange which could only mean one thing! Time to get serious: in the absence of Ian Lewington the county recorder who was on Scilly, I called Nic Hallam, of Farmoor Birding blog fame and a committee member of the BBRC, explaining what I thought I had and he said that he'd come down to take a look. While I was waiting I called Badger again saying that the bird definitely had yellow legs so he decided to take a look despite the traffic and the fact that darkness was fast approaching. Whilst I was talking to him the bird took off and I spent an agonising five minutes fearing that it had gone and trying to re-find it before spotting it right on the north end of the floods. I kept it in my sights until both Nic and Badger arrived, Jason even breaking into a run across the Meadow to get there. Nic spent a little while and I realised that he was checking that it wasn't a actually a greater yellowlegs, something which I'd not actually considered, before agreeing that it was indeed a lesser yellowlegs as I'd thought. We spent the rest of the time until dark watching and videoing this American rarity whilst Jason put the word out to the county community though unfortunately it was so late that no one else was able to make it down there. The word soon got out and I even had a call from the legendary LGRE asking for details about it. Apparently he still needed it for his year list so he would be there at first light tomorrow.

A selection of videograbs taken in increasing darkness

Some video footage taken as the light was fading

There followed what must have been an agonising wait for some county birders to see if it would still be there the next day which I was thankful I didn't have to be part of . I don't know how many were there at first light but quite a few I'm sure. Fortunately the bird was still there and apart from a brief false alarm just before 8am when it was reported as "no further sign" before being re-found on the floods, it has stayed put so far today and looks quite settled. I went out again mid morning and took some digiscoped still photos though extremely long range and still with no light. There was a steady stream of admirers coming and going whilst I was there. Let's hope that it stays for more to enjoy it.

Some digiscoped still photos taken at long range and still rather poor light. At least with stills there are plenty of pixels to play with and there is more scope for cleaning up the image.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Dipper dipping & more local stuff

Three county birds to record in this quick update. Those of you who follow the Port Meadow Birding blog will already know about two of them so sorry for the repetition.

First I had a bar-tailed godwit which spent a couple of days on the Meadow at the start of the week. Regular county birders will know that barwit is actually a comparative rarity compared to blackwit and there are usually only one or two usually brief sightings in the year within the county so to have one stay a couple of days on my patch was nice. The weather was atrocious whilst it was there so the photographs were pretty abysmal though I did end up with one acceptable videograb.

The second local bird of note was a rock pipit on my local patch. Now rock pipit is seen annually in small numbers usually just at Farmoor reservoir so I was over the moon to find one on the patch as it's not really suitable habitat. The last one that I know of was in the autumn of 2007 (when I took up birding again) and I didn't see that one so this was a patch lifer for me. It coincided with a couple of birds at Farmoor and there have been a few more in the subsequent days so there's clearly a passage occurring just now.

The third bird is the Witney dipper. This was discovered about a month ago on the river Windrush by a dog walker and gradually the news filtered out to the birding community. It initially proved very hard to see but the last week most of the county's hardcore birders have managed to connect as it started to appear more regularly at its favoured weir. I made a brief attempt at the start of the week but spent no more than an hour and a half on site. This was seriously light-weight compared to the keenest county listers who were putting in 19 hours or more before they managed to see it. Whilst they had huge county list totals to defend my paltry total is so small that I wasn't sure whether I was keen enough to be willing to put in those sort of hours. However, during the week more and more birders were managing to connect and it seemed to be getting easier. There were a couple of blank days when no one saw it all day but on other days it was around all day so I theorised that the best tactic was to wait until it was seen in the morning and then try for it that same day. Come Sunday and I was able to put this theory into practice when it had been seen all morning by a couple of county birders. My VLW wanted a rest in the afternoon so I had L to entertain and I decided that he would be keen to go for a little walk along the Windrush and that's indeed what we did. Fortunately the bird was there by the weir as soon as we arrived so I took a couple of distant shots with my point & shoot camera and then took L off for a walk. We ended up spending most of the time playing in the side stream near the stepping stones which L thoroughly enjoyed so we both returned home very pleased with our afternoon's outing.

These are pretty lousy shots even by my standards but I didn't want to get too close and risk flushing the bird and with L in tow I didn't really want to hang around waiting for a decent photo opportunity. The only thing that I'd say in its favour is that its simple black and white colouring responds quite well to sharpening which means that these shots looked even worse before I started working on them! Anyway, it was great to catch up with such a delightful bird.and I really hope that it sticks around for a while. For some much better shots I recommend having a look at the new Oxon Bird Log.