Saturday, 1 November 2008

Autumn Family Holiday to Cornwall

This week saw the family off down to the furthest reaches of Cornwall for a half-term holiday. We've been going to the end of Cornwall (i.e. around the Penzance area) for family holidays for several years now but it's only towards the end of last year when I took up birding again that I realised what a hot spot it is from the birding point of view. It was therefore with great keenest that I headed down there once more to take in the fantastic coastal scenery and hopefully some good birds too. As it was the last week in October it was getting rather late for some of the passing birds and a lot of the good stuff had already been and gone. The start of the month had seen several wrynecks, a buff-breasted sandpiper and several rose-coloured starling in the area as well as an American Wigeon and a red-eyed vireo. In fact the latter had even been discovered in the garden of the cottage that we were to stay in, in Trevilley, just a couple of minutes from Land's End and the famous Alder Flycatcher had also been discovered a few minutes walk from the cottage. Unfortunately all these birds had departed by the time that we were due to get down there but there were still some sightings of yellow-browed warblers and firecrests around in the valleys around there and these two birds, together with some brent geese and a couple of pink-footed geese which were in the area were my target birds for the trip. In addition, the area is well know for attracting rare passage birds and vagrants so anything could turn up. In particular there are a few key sights right near where we were staying which were know hot spots for rarities: Penberth, Porthcurno, Porthgwarra, Trevilley Farm & Nanjizal Valley, Land's End, Nanquidno Valley and Cot Valley were all within a few minutes drive. To make sure that I was going to know what was going on without the benefit of the internet I signed up for the Bird Guides text alert service, customised it to Cornwall only and headed off on Friday afternoon for the south-west.

The journey started off ok but we hit traffic as we joined the M5 southwards and so crawled along for an hour. We had just started moving again and entered Somerset which reminded my of my recent trip to Brownsea Island. There, on the ferry over, I'd met with a Somerset birder who was consulting for the BBC Autumn Watch program. He'd said that cattle egrets, having bred there, were very much still around. As I was just mulling this over I saw a couple of birds flying over the motorway in front of me. The time was 18:05 (I looked afterwards) and whilst it was getting dark the sun was clear of the clouds and shining quite brightly. These two birds were clearly egrets but were rather small and what's more both had yellow beaks and pale legs! There was no doubting them as cattle egrets and even though I only saw them for a few seconds before I had driven past it was a fantastic way to start the holiday. In particular I was most pleased to have connected with this species as I'd dipped out a couple of times earlier in the year in Sussex and with the large number of sightings in various parts of the country I was left feeling that I must be about the only birder left not to have seen one this year.

The next day was, from a birding point of view, one of misses and dips. Once we'd arrived at the cottage I'd received a Bird Guides text that a Richard's pipit had been seen in Sennen, not five minutes from where we were. I went out to look, meeting up with a local birder there, but the bird was no where to be seen. There was also a report of a blue throat at Land's End so on the way to Penzance to do some shopping we stopped off there briefly but the weather was atrocious and all I could find was a bunch of other birders all looking cold and not having seen anything. With a car full of children with a low boredom threshold, I didn't hang about long. Whilst in Penzance, we nipped over to Mount Bay to see if we could see the geese but again no luck. In the afternoon we went to the Cot valley to shelter from the wind. There I saw some goldcrests and a chiffchaff but no yellow-browed warblers nor any firecrests. Not a very good start to the week but I was expecting that it wouldn't be easy, especially for the yellow-browed and the firecrests which can be hard to pick out.

The following day we were lounging around in the cottage and I was wondering where to go out for a morning trip with L, my two-year old son, when a text came in saying that the blue throat was still at Land's End and was showing well! That decided it and within literally 5 minutes of having received the text I was pulling up in the car park. I decided to leave L in the car whilst I did a quick reccy and as I was getting ready I met a birder coming back who said that the bird was only about 40m away and was showing well out in the open. He directed me to a group of four other birds who were standing around and I hurried over. On arrival, a quick enquiry revealed that it was in a clump of scrub about 20m in front of us but had just nipped round the back so that we couldn't at present see it. A minute or so later it hopped back round the front in clear view. It showed well for several minutes before going off into a larger clump of scrub. I went back to the car to find that L had fallen asleep so I figured that I had a bit more time to see if I could take a photo and I went back to where the bird currently was. Unfortunately it was deep within the scrub again and it was starting to rain. I waited a short while to see if it would re-emerge but the weather was going to be difficult for digiscoping anyway and I didn't want to leave L too long so I made my way back to the car and the cottage. Below is a photo taken by Steve Rogers who has a great blog of Cornish birding at
SW Optics Photos

The Land's End blue throat. Photo © Steve Rogers

When I got back to the cottage, L was still asleep so I decided to leave him there. I was just getting out of the car when I heard a crest calling. What's more the glimpse that I got of the bird seemed to show an eye stripe so frantically tried to follow it as it moved around the small trees and shrubs of the cottage garden. After a minute or so I got a clear view and it was definitely a firecrest! I watched it for several minutes during which at one point it came so close that it was literally less than 2m from me, giving a crippling view of the wonderful firey crest and the elaborate markings around it's eyes and heads. What a fantastic view and in the cottage back garden too!.

Later that afternoon, after a walk down Nanjizal valley to the cove and back (no interesting sightings apart from a feeding gannet in the cove), a glance out of the kitchen window reveal to my delight a wonderful pair of black redstarts on the roof of the out building behind the house. Last year I'd seen quite a few black redstarts in the area so I was expecting them but it was great to see them so close to the cottage. I did look out for a suitable opportunity to take a photo but unfortunately one never arose. To round off the day we went back to Penzance for a wander along the beach. To my delight the pale-bellied brent geese were back in the bay and were feeding about 100m from the shore line so I managed some digiscoped shots of them. There were also a flock of 15 turnstones along the shore with 2 juvenile sanderling in amongst them.

Some of the pale-bellied brent geese at Mount Bay, Marazion.

All in all an excellent Sunday with two of my target birds (firecrest and brent goose) and a wonderful bonus in the shape of the bluethroat as well as the black redstarts which, although not year ticks, are always nice to see.

The next day, before the first outing and whilst staring out the door at the garden to see if there were any rarities present, I had a flyover which I am pretty sure was a lapland bunting. I only saw and heard it for a split second and I only know the call from a recording but it seemed to tick all the boxes. It's only that fact that my view was so brief and I'm not that familiar with them which leads me to leave it as a probable rather than a definite tick. In the morning I took L to Penberth to see if I could connect with any more firecrests or any yellow-browed warblers. Penberth is a lovely sheltered valley with a stream running down it and lots of trees and scrub leading down to a sheltered cove. There were quite a few birds around calling and I saw a female black cap, lots of tits, goldcrests and a flock of siskins. Towards the end, as L was getting restless I saw in the distance amongst the tits, a greenish bird with a long eye stripe. It took a while for my brain to engage, and I was thinking firecrest for a while until I remember the elaborate layers of black, white and gold/orange that go to make up a firecrests head colourings and this was a simple long eye stripe and therefore more than likely a yellow-browed warbler. It wasn't an altogether satisfactory ID so I decided to come back that afternoon with the rest of the family for another look. That afternoon, when we returned, having eaten our picnic lunch in the car as the weather was a bit dodgy, we set off for the cove once more. I'd only gone a few steps when I heard a very distinctive call which I immediately knew from my pre-holiday homework to be a yellow-browed. A minute or so of scanning in the canopy revealed the bird, which moved clearly into view, showing off it's two wing bars and elongated supercilium. I watched it for a few minutes before it moved away. A great view of a fantastic bird.

After that, the holiday started to go rather pear-shaped. First L, then my eldest daughter and then myself all came down with a bug that left us vomiting for a day or so. As bugs go it was rather mild but it rather put the dampers on the holiday. We did manage a couple of trips to stare at the sea from a car park - the it was too windy to get out for long though I did manage about 15 minutes of see watching: loads of auks, kittiwakes, gannets, fulmars and a manx shearwater. We also saw a pod of dolphins at Cape Cornwall which was great.

From a birding perspective there was little else to report on the holiday apart from on the day we were going home when I persuaded the family that it would be a good idea to stop off at Leylant Saltings Station for a few minutes whilst I scanned the Hayle estuary. This is a well known birding location and often home to vagrant green-winged teal and american wigeon. None of these were currently known to be around but there were supposed to be two pick-footed geese around which I was keen to see. I set up my scope and started a quick scan so not really checking the gulls for Meds. for example. There were loads of wigeon, some shelduck, a few ringed plover, a single bar-tailed godwit and plenty of redshank and oystercatchers, herring and black-headed gulls with a few lesser and greated black-backed thrown in. On the goose front there were a couple of dozen grey lags, a single dark-bellied brent, a few canada and also the two pink footed though they were half hidden in the channel and only showed relatively briefly. The estuary looked great and I would really have wanted to have spent much longer there but the family would no doubt be getting restless so reluctantly I headed back. Still I'd seen my target geese which was a great way to end the holiday.