Monday, 24 February 2014

Brief Cornwall Visit

Once again here's a composite post made up from my Pendeen Birding updates from a recent trip down to Cornwall.

Tuesday 18th February

I'm back again in my favourite part of the country. It's been far too long since the last visit which was in fact my October excursion. We were supposed to come down to see the New Year in but the weather forecast was so appalling that we wimped out in the end. Anyway, it's half term so I've come down with my VLW and our youngest child, that being our seven year old son L. We're not going to stay too long but just wanted to see how the cottage had survived the extreme weather. We're located in a very exposed spot that bears the full brunt of any south-westerly winds so it would have taken a real hammering. Our fingers were firmly crossed that every thing was still OK as we made our way down on Monday, stopping off en route to visit my VLW's sister and her husband who have recently moved down to North Devon. Thus it wasn't until after dark on Monday that we finally arrived in Penzance where we got in some shopping and then booted up the cottage which was at least still standing.

The next day I decided to have a lie-in rather than get up early to chase after stuff. It wasn't that there wasn't anything to see it's just that I didn't feel particularly like getting up. There were a few interesting birds that I was keen to catch up with whilst I was down her. All the action seemed to be down Penzance and Marazion with a 1st winter Surf Scoter, an adult Kumlien's and several Glaucous Gull all hanging out in Mounts Bay. The icing on this avian cake though was a 1st winter Laughing Gull that Dave Parker found on Monday morning. He'd discovered it first thing in the morning though despite what I presume was extensive searching it wasn't seen again until late afternoon when one person saw it briefly.

We started the day with an inspection of the cottage - no major problems though the damp patches in the usual places were far more severe than usual. We made up a shopping list for both food and DIY materials and after a leisurely breakfast we headed over to Penzance. After visiting B&Q we decided to try out the new Sainsbury's which unlike Tescos at least had a nice cafĂ©. As we were sitting there enjoying our coffee an RBA text came through reporting the Laughing Gull which had apparently been seen again  briefly at Marazion  before flying off. We therefore hatched a plan: after our shopping we'd go and hang out at the beach for a while, L could make sand castles, my VLW could listen to her iPod and gaze at the sea and I could scan the loafing gulls for American vagrants. Thus it was that we installed ourselve at Marazion by the Red River estuary where there was a good selection of loafing gulls for me to grill.

Loafing Marazion Gulls

Needless to say there was no sign of the Laughing Gull which as far as I can tell has only been seen on three occasions, in each case briefly, by three observers. By way of compensation there were a couple of Great Northern Divers feeding close in by the rocks, lots of Herring Gulls, 6 Common Gulls and a smattering of Black-headed Gulls. An adult Kittiwake turned up and had a vigorous preen and in the wonderful sunshine with hardly any wind it was all very pleasant. Just as I was starting to pack up who should turn up but Phil and Hiliary, out looking for the Laughing Gull as well. We caught up on news and then went our separate ways.

By now we were feeling rather hungry after all our fresh beach air so we headed over to PZ where we managed to get some lunch. My VLW wanted to check out some of the local shops for some accessories for the cottage so I took L down to the bus station where one could get a nice vantage point overlooking the sea. There we passed a very pleasant oour and a half, me scanning the sea whilst L watched some of the local lads practising jumps and flips around and off the sea wall. On the bird front the Surf Scoter was about and floating about happily nice and close in. This was in very pleasant contrast to last time I tried to see this species down here in Cornwall when I put in many hours before getting a very brief and distant view. In the bright sunshine I managed the best views I'd ever had of this normally rather distant species. There was also a lovely confiding Black-throated Diver which sailed past at close quarters, giving me a chance to grab some digiscoped photos. A birder from Falmouth managed to turn up the female Eider which was having a nap over towards Long Rock. Someone else spotted a Peregrine overhead as well as picking out the two Black Redstarts further along on the coastal path near the railway signal box. There was also a Guillemot fishing away very close in and two rather distant Great Northern Divers (perhaps the Marazion ones again). All in all a very pleasant bit of birding.

 The Black-throated Diver and the Guillemot...

...and the Surf Scoter

After that it was time to make our way back to the cottage. Though it was by now rather late we busied ourselves applying a coat of paint to our rather weathered garden furniture. We were going to bring it indoors to dry over night but we found that because of the weather the second half of the double doors were so swollen that we couldn't open them. In the end we had to leave it outside overnight but we may well end up having to re-do it all tomorrow. After that it was time for food and to relax after what had been a very enjoyable day with wonderful weather and some nice birds to boot.

Wednesday 19th February

From my experience yesterday I decided that checking out Marazion first thing would be best for the elusive Laughing Gull so I was up before dawn and down by the Station House car park as it got light. In stark contrast to yesterday, it was grey, gloomy, breezy and cold though at least it wasn't raining. I wasn't alone in having this idea as Brian Mellow was also there as well as a visiting Devon birder called Dave. As it was around high tide there were plenty of gulls about to look through and between us we soon managed to conjure up the adult Glaucous Gull, the adult Kumlien's Gull and a couple of Mediterranean Gulls. There was also the odd Kittiwake, a Guillemot and a pair of Long-tailed Ducks feeding very close in to the shore. Needless to say there was no sign of the Laughing Gull.

Dave Parker turned up briefly and we had a chat. before he had to head off for work. Periodically the Glaucous Gull and the Kumlien's would take turns to fly along the beach in front of us and it was interesting to note the subtle differences. Even from a distance the Glaucous Gull's wing tips were a brilliant shining white which really stood out whereas the Kumlien's had a more muted paleness to its tips. At close quarters of course one could distinguish the dark grey streaks along the primaries of the Kumlien's. Apart from that there were a few Sanderling, a small flock of Oystercathers and various bits and bobs. I stuck it out, getting increasingly cold, until just before 9am when I returned to the cottage to warm up. I was pleased to have caught up with the rest of the local gull interest though this Laughing Gull was starting to annoy me. It's interesting how, after the initial finding, all the views are very brief and are often only "reported" or at least not from named locals, so one wonders how accurate some of these later sightings actually are.

A fairly rubbish bit of digiscoped video of the adult Glaucous Gull...

...and a grab from the same video

The rest of the day was spent doing various DIY tasks around the cottage. We're having a real problem with damp coming in which we can't seem to stop - it's a real pain. Needless to say, later on the Laughing Gull came up on RBA as having been "reported" again with a brief sighting that morning in Marazion. It's remarkable how elusive it is compared to the other gulls there which you can catch up with fairly easily with a bit of searching. I remain somewhat sceptical though perhaps it's just sour grapes on my part.

Late afternoon we nipped back into town for some shopping and stopped briefly by the Station House car park again though it was so dark and gloomy by then that there was nothing to be seen. Then we headed north up to Porthtowan to have dinner with my VLW's niece and her partner in their new house. We arrived back home to a real Pendeen fog, thick and impenetrable and hurried to our warm beds.

Thursday 20th February

With a forecast of stronger winds and more inclement weather and also a late night from yesterday, I elected to have a lie-in this morning. In the event the weather was better than originally forecast with some nice sunshine in the morning though it was rather windy and every now and then a passing squall would dump a load of rain on the cottage. We busied ourselves with various DIY tasks: I was weather-proofing the garden furniture which had taken a real battering over the winter. The previous set had lasted less than a year so I wanted to try and get a bit more life out of this one. In between painting I would occasionally cast the bins in the direction of the sea where in the bright light I could see plenty of Kittiwakes, Gannets and Auks flying past. I also spotted some Fulmars flying close in near the cliffs.

After lunch L and I went for a walk down to the local cove. En route I watched the birds passing on the sea but it was all the usual stuff. On the way back I bumped into a lady birder whom I'd met a couple of times previously. She'd been doing a sea-watch from her car but didn't have anything of particular note to report apart from a Black-throated Diver on the sea. 

Late afternoon my VLW decided that she wanted a nap so L and I decided to head over towards Mounts Bay. We started at the bus station where I found a nice big raft of small gulls quite close in. I went through it several times, hoping to turn up the Laughing Gull but the best that I could find was an adult Mediterranean Gull and a Kittiwake. Out in the bay I managed to count a total of at least five Great Northern Divers. I didn't spot the Surf Scoter but to be honest I wasn't really looking for it.

Some of the bird out in the bay this evening

We next nipped round to the Station House car park but there was no sign of any gulls so with the light fast fading we moved on to the Red River estuary which again was birdless. After that we nipped into the supermarket to pick up some shopping and then it was back home for dinner and to get ready for our departure tomorrow.

Friday 20th February

We decided to head off home today so at a reasonable (but not too early) hour we got up and busied ourselves with packing the car and putting the cottage to rights. It was a windy but sunny morning and periodically I would scan the sea to watch the Auks, Kittiwakes, Gannets & Fulmars hurrying by. Finally by late morning we were ready to depart and headed north along the A30. Our journey home was a bit tiresome, beset as it was by various traffic incidents - it even took a good half an hour just to get into Oxford for some reason. Nevertheless we arrived back safely mid-afternoon to catch up with our two daughters who'd been guarding the fort back home.

Looking back, it had been a fairly low key few days down in Cornwall though at this time of year of course that is to be expected. I'd managed to catch up with the main birds of note whilst down there: the Surf Scoter had been nice to see at such close quarters and I'd enjoyed the Glaucous Gull and particularly the adult Kumlien's Gull. There had also been the supporting cast of the usual sea birds, Divers and Auks etc  and it was nice to get some year ticks with those. The only sore point had been the Laughing Gull though to all intents and purposes it had not been twitchable so I'd not really missed anything.

Because of the on-going damp problems I'll certainly need to be back fairly soon to sort things out - I can't wait to return.

I leave you with a great photo taken by Tony Mills (c) of what was the bird of the trip for me, namely the adult Kumlien's Gull. You can see more of Tony's great photos at: and

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Beating the Winter Blues Tale

When news broke on Monday afternoon about a Red-flanked Bluetail in Gloucestershire it certainly piqued my interest. For starters it was a winter record, quite possibly the first one for the country - certainly the only one in January since 2001 that I could find on past RBA records. What's more it was an inland record - whilst this bird is becoming increasingly common (now basically annual) in the country, they are almost always on coastal locations and therefore usually too far for me to consider twitching them. This bird on the other hand had been discovered in a secluded valley on the border between South Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. Given the remoteness of the spot one can't help but wonder just how long it had been there - it was quite likely to be an autumn vagrant which had somehow managed to survive all this time. Anyway, it had been first reported late afternoon on Monday and the chances were probably good that it was going to be there the next day. What's more it was only just over an hour away so I planned to head off for it on Tuesday morning on confirmation of it's continued presence.

Tuesday morning my phone duly made the encouraging beep of RBA news - still present! I'd done my research the night before and so knew exactly where to go, where to park and where to walk to. A quick grab of some breakfast and I got together my gear and off I set. Of course getting out of Oxford before 9 am was as troublesome as always but eventually I was on the familiar A420 heading west. The journey was uneventful and motorway traffic on the M4 was light and so it was that a little after 10am I arrived on one of the single track roads that populate this quiet backwater. The pager had suggested parking on a nearby minor road with some parkable verges but I could see up ahead a fuel tanker had got stuck trying to get past the plethora of parked cars there so that way was was clearly going to be blocked for a while. Instead I ducked off the road into a clear area by the entrance to a field where I saw another car parked. Just as I turned off the engine a chap came riding over on his horse. He turned out to own all the land around here and was curious to know what was going on. I filled him in on the details and asked if it would be OK for me to park there which he was happy for me to do. He duly rode off and I got my gear together and yomped down the road to the start of the footpath that follows the Broadmead Brook through a valley past Lower Shirehill Farm. En route I met up with Liam Langley and a chum, returning from paying homage to the bird - apparently it was showing well. A gentle walk of less than 10 minutes got me to the line of birders, standing by the gently meandering stream next to a picturesque farmhouse and looking up at the gently sloping and sun-bathed side of the valley. It was altogether a very pleasant spot. There were about 50 birders in total there, all watching the bird and I soon got my first sighting of it myself. 

It was smaller than I'd been expecting, being basically of similar size and build to a Black Redstart. It was a first-winter type (probably a male due to the hint of blue on the shoulder) with fairly uniform grey/brown upper parts, paler underparts, a strikingly blue tail which it flicked downwards at regular intervals and of course the orangey flanks. On its head it had a striking white eye ring, a uniform dark bill and quite a pale throat area.

It was basically staying faithful to a relatively small area which included a brambled covered wall and a large single hawthorn. It would work its way around this area, hopping onto the ground to pick up insects and then back up onto a perch, constantly on the move. Whilst some people would try to follow it around, many were content to stake out one spot and wait for it to come to them. I took a few snaps with the Superzoom but it was basically a bit too far away for good shots so I resorted to trying to digiscope it. Because of its constant movement in the end I decided to stake out one of its favourite perches: a fallen tree on the grass by a bramble patch and wait for it to appear. Time passed and I got tempted to move to the other side of the wall to watch it, leaving my scope and digiscoping gear focused on the branch. Suddenly I realised that it had come back to the perch and I rushed back to where I should have stayed. Had I missed it? Fortunately, it chose to have a brief rest for a minute and I was able to rattle off some shots before it resumed its merry-go-round in its search for food.

My digiscoped efforts

I managed a snippet of video though its constant movement made it difficult to get much footage

More and more people were arriving including Lee Evans and James Lees (from Slimbridge WWT) and after a while it moved further up the hill where it had not been before during my time there. I went up to take a look and then realised that it was working its way back down again and headed back to my original spot. Yet more people arrived including one of the Big Lens Brigade who plonked himself down really close to the favoured dead tree, far closer than anyone else was standing. What a tosser! At this point, given the increasing crowds, I decided that it was going to get difficult to improve on my views and decided to settle for what I'd had. I strolled back to the car and had an uneventful drive back home, where I arrived just in time for lunch with my VLW.

Whilst it wouldn't have scored highly on the Wickster Element of Difficulty Twitch Scale (see here for an explanation), it had been a nice straight-forward first out-of-county outing for 2014 for a lovely little bird in a beautiful location.