Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Trip Retrospective

I like to have a retrospective at the end of my trips down to Cornwall, a chance for me to reflect on the visit and its highs and lows. From the Cornish birding point of view this has been rather a quiet one with not much around, in fact only a bufflehead and a ring-necked duck. The RN duck was very photogenic but wasn't even a year tick for me (not that I actively year list) as I'd seen the St. Stithian's bird earlier in the year. Nevertheless it was a very handsome bird and it gave nice close views.

Another photo of the ring-necked duck

The main disappointment for me was that I missed the fall in dusky warblers. As I had suspected, the clear cold night the day I came down cleared them all off and I spent a couple of fruitless days slogging around the Lizard after birds which had actually gone. Still I learnt about some new birding sites on the Lizard and got to know a few of the Lizard local birders. As far as getting to grips with the dusky warbler calls, I have since come across this video on the fabulous ScillySpider blog which helped me with exactly what sort of "tick" noise it makes.

Two Dusky Warblers Calling on Lower Moors (c) Kris Webb

The other main local birding highlight was the sea-watching session at Pendeen where the poor grey phalarope was plucked from the sea by a peregrine. The close views of the skuas were also very enjoyable.

Of course as well as the local birding there was the small matter of the en route twitching. Now, I'm not a great twitcher as a rule but I'm finding that breaking up the long journey to and from Cornwall is a great way of seeing some nice birds and this trip excelled on this front with the sharp-tailed sandpiper, the desert wheatear and the Hume's leaf warbler all being most enjoyable interludes which I probably wouldn't have otherwise got to see. As far as the bird of the trip award is concerned I think that it will have to go to the fabulously confiding desert wheatear as much for the picturesque setting as for the gorgeous bird itself.

The Bird of the Trip: the cold weather cleared it out as
well so I was lucky to see it on it's last day there

I'll have to come down again in December to finish things off for the cottage which "goes live" for holiday lets in January. As always I can't wait to be back.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Sunday 27th Coming Home

I was due to come home today so had been thinking about what I might stop off at en route. Anything in the south-west region was fair game as far as I was concerned but the only thing that caught my eye was the Hume's warbler ("leaf" or "yellow-browed") at Wyke Regis. Warblers are hard to twitch at the best of times and involve a lot of standing around staring at sallows and the like, which I'd already done plenty of this week thank you very much. Still it seemed to be showing fairly regularly and as long as I didn't have too high expectation of actually seeing it I thought that I would take a crack at it. Several times I've gone to Cornwall via Weymouth so the route was fairly familiar to me. It's actually only about 15 miles further than going directly on the motorway though the roads are of course a lot slower. I packed the car, shut down the cottage and set off (via the St. Erth recycling centre) just before 10 a.m. and with the roads nice and empty on a Sunday morning I arrived at Wyke Regis at around 1:30. I wasn't exactly sure where to park but there were half a dozen cars down near the military camp which I assumed were all twitchers so I parked there. I soon met some birders coming back who all reported that in the windy conditions it wasn't really showing at all and they'd had achieved no more than hearing it call a few times in three hours of getting very cold in the wind. Not looking very promising then! I thought that I would go and put in a stint of starting at sallows for a while and hurried on in the breeze towards the slopes by the Littlesea Holiday Village. Just as I arrived at a small clearing I saw the twitching group coming towards me, obviously following something that was moving in the bushes. This looked more promising and I hurried over towards them where apparently the bird was somewhere in the scrub on the slope. Five minutes of scrub watching ensued and it was clear from listening to those around me that they'd spent a long time not seeing very much and so were rather disconsolate. Suddenly up flies the bird and sits in clear view in a tree not twenty yards from where we were, offering absolutely stunning views with the slope behind it as a backdrop showing off it's wonderfully muted colours. It was a beautiful looking bird with it's grey green tones, strong super and double wing-bar looking very exotic in this setting. It was tagging along with a feeding tit flock and so for the next few minutes we followed it as it worked its way through a comparatively clear area, getting brief glimpses before the flock hit an area of thick sallows once more. I knew that I wasn't going to get any better views than that, jobs a good'un!

I turned around to survey the Fleet behind me with it's vast hoards of brent geese. Someone next to me managed to pick out one of the black brants and managed to get me on it - most excellent, especially as I hadn't bothered to bring my scope (not normally required for warbler watching) and hadn't really felt like checking through the hundreds of birds myself. Having cleaned up so quickly I decided to head back home early - I'd been extremely lucky to get away with such excellent views after so short a wait - if only all twitching could be like that. The rest of the journey was uneventful and I arrived home tired but pleased to be back with the family and most satisfied with my Blitzkrieg twitch.

Just some of the brent geese on the Fleet. There
is a black brant in the picture somewhere!
Chesil Beach is very striking

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Saturday 26th November: Drift & Sennen Cove

I had a lot to do today as I was intending to return home tomorrow. Therefore birding opportunities would be rather limited. However, a long-tailed duck (a Cornish tick for me still) reported at Drift reservoir the previous evening seemed to offer a nice prelude to a hard day's work so I went to take a quick look. There I met up with Tony Mills (see his web-site Not Just Birds), who for a long time has been a "part-timer" such as myself, though recently he finally made the move down. There was no sign of the long-tailed duck though there was a female goldeneye in amongst the tufties by the dam. Down by the hide there was no sign of the recent water pipit and I managed to scare all the bird by letting one of the hide shutters come crashing back down but there hadn't been much to see anyway. Part way round to the hide in some thick cover I heard a "tick" which made me think of dusky warbler (I told you that it had done strange things to my mind!) but it didn't call again and I didn't have the time to stake it out properly. It was probably just a robin anyway.

A hard morning's work ensued and then after lunch I had some errands to run in Penzance itself and thought that I would go via Sennen Cove for a quick look around. I checked out the golden plover flock by Whitesands Lodge though there were no vagrants in amongst them before heading on to the cove itself. I quite like Sennen Cove: back home in Oxford I'm know for my gull obesssion and it's nice to have some of them to look through in quite picturesque surroundings. Accordingly I grilled the black-headed gulls for Meds and Bony's, the common gulls for ring-billed and the herrings for yellow-legged and Caspians though all to no avail. I did spot a purple sandpiper on the harbour wall and I was rewarded with my long-tailed duck tick after all as there was one diving actively out in the bay. I couldn't hang around as I had to get on but it had been a nice birding interval.

The bird life of Sennen Cove - I didn't bother trying to
digiscope the long-tailed duck as it was only spending
a few seconds above water before diving again.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Friday 25th November: Pendeen, St. Gothian Sands & Hayle

As I mentioned yesterday, I was resolved not to visit the Lizard peninsula today if I could help it. Apart from anything else the long trips over there were detracting from my decorating work which I need to press on with. I spent the first half of the morning on cottage work, making some good progress. When it came time to think about heading off somewhere I noticed that there was a reasonable westerly wind and also some bright sunshine. A glance out of my window revealed that there were plenty of birds passing by on the sea so I decided to have a Pendeen session. Despite it being November there were plenty of birds to look at: there was a constant stream of auks and gannets and frequent flocks of kittiwakes going by. I also had a few juvenile skuas: 4 arctics and a pom, all passing by at close range and well lit in the bright light. A great northern diver sped by and an unidentified wader species flew past, struggling against the wind whilst on the shearwater front there were two nice balearics and a single manxie. However the highlight of the morning was when I picked up a grey phalarope just beyond the reef. Shortly after I spotted it, it landed on the sea and I could even see it swimming along before it took off again, only to land again a few moments later. It repeated this pattern quite a number of times and I was just wondering why on earth it was doing this when suddenly a peregrine swooped down and snatched the bird just as it was taking off again. As the falcon flew off a second peregrine flew after it and seemed to be pestering the first one for its prize. I felt sorry for such a sad end to the phalarope but it was amazing to witness such drama.

The Wra in sunny conditions this morning

I had to go to St. Erth to the recycling centre after lunch so I thought that for my afternoon birding sesion I would do something over there. The St. Gothian Sand drake ring-necked duck seemed like an obvious choice and I thought that I would finish off with the high tide at Hayle.

At St. Gothian, all the ducks were in one corner and I soon picked out the drake ring-neck. Unfortunately he seemed to be trying to take a nap and would float around with his head tucked in, occasionally lifting it up whilst he re-adjusted his position before putting it back down again. To try and get a photo I had to keep tracking him in the superzoom lens and wait for the brief head-up moments. After a while he woke up and started feeding so I was able to get off a few easier shots of this very handsome bird.

The very handsome St. Gothian Sands ring-necked duck

I nipped into Carnsew Basin where there was a flock of eight bar-tailed godwits and five grey plover and two knot in amongst the dunlin. I was looking out for mergansers which had been reported there a while ago but there were only three little grebes on the water itself. At the Hayle bridge I scanned through all the wigeon and teal carefully, looking for American infiltrators but to no avail though I did find a pair of pintail. There were only modest numbers of gulls to grill and nothing of note. Ryans Field held the usual curlews, godwits, redshank, oystercatchers and four knot. It was getting dark by this point and I had some errands to run so it was time to leave. It had been nice to see so many birds today - such a contrast compared to the previous two days! I noticed that there had been no reported dusky warblers yesterday and I'm thinking that perhaps the colder weather that started the day I arrived down here cleared them all out- at least that explains my complete lack of success over the previous two days.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Wednesday 23rd & Thursday 24th November: The Lizard Peninsula

My usual approach is to work on the cottage first thing in the morning then go out birding for a while and to repeat this pattern after lunch. However, given how early it's getting dark now I've changed this somewhat so the afternoon session is now bird first and then work which effectively means that I have two back to back birding sessions. With very little being reported on the Penwith peninsula I've used this double birding session to head over to the Lizard where there have been at least three dusky warblers which I was interested in seeking out: one near the Housel Bay "bufflehead" pond, one near Cadgwith and one at Kennack Sands.

I started off yesterday at the pond where I met up with local birder Tim Pinfield who was also searching for duskies and John Foster also turned up for a while also looking for them. Tim and I decided to team up and spent several hours in fruitless search of the hedge north of the pond before moving on to the sallows and woods surrounding the stream that flowed into Kennack Sands beach. The habitat here looked great and there were roving tit and crest flocks as well as good numbers of redwing but try as we might we couldn't turn up the target bird. We also tried the stubble field near Trethvas farm where the six cranes were reportedly periodically hanging out though we failed in this endeavour as well.

The Kennack Sands valley: great habitat but hard work locating stuff

Today, with no news of anything else of interest about I decided to have another try. I'd got some local information from Tony Blunden (who co-authors the fabulous Lizard Naturally blog) including the location of the Cadgwith bird. Tony also said that he reckoned the Housel Bay bird had moved on as he'd not seen it yesterday (which at least explained our lack of success there). I spent a couple of hours staking out the relatively narrow but heavily vegetated ditch at Cadgwith but still no luck despite the help of Tim and a friend who turned up there as well. I then moved on to Kennack Sands again (via the crane field - still no luck) where I passed another couple of fruitless hours before giving up. One of the issues that I was having with trying to find these elusive skulkers was that they are usually located by their call. However there are a number of other birds that can make similar "tick" calls and even trees creaking in the wind can catch you out if you're not careful. I'm also starting to find that my hearing is no longer as sharp as it once was which didn't help matters. After a couple of days of trying to pick out the right sort of tick from impenetrable vegetation I found that it was starting to do strange things to my mind and I was becoming hyper-sensitive to ticking noises! As a result I've vowed that I'm not going to go hunting for duskies again tomorrow unless someone reports one that's actually nailed down to a tree.

Kennack Sands late afternoon

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Tuesday 22nd November: Coming Back Down

I'd been champing at the bit to come back down to Cornwall for a few weeks now but unfortunately a pressing work project had prevented me from taking time off. Finally yesterday it was all finished so I hastily arranged a trip down to finish off some of the bits and bobs with the cottage decorating and of course once more to sample the delights of Cornish birding. As always I'd been keeping an eye out for what was about both in the county and en route. The sharp-tailed sandpiper at Chew Valley Lake certainly looked like it needed dropping in on and there was a smart male desert wheatear in deepest darkest Devon all the way down in Brixham. On the Cornish front there was at least one, or possibly two dusky warblers kicking around on the Lizard peninsula and yesterday there was an intriguing report of a possible female/hybrid canvasback on the Loe Pool as well as a female desert wheatear at Porthgwarra. Decisions, decisions... in the end I decided to take a crack at the two off-county birds, partly because I'd have plenty of time to try for the Cornish stuff once I was down there and partly as the Cornish birds seemed more tenuous compared to the off-county birds which were well established and had been reported every day for several days now.

I set off from Oxford at around 8:30 a.m. to find quite thick fog on the Oxfordshire roads. The lack of any immediate news on the Chew sandpiper lead me to wonder whether perhaps the lake was all fog bound though fortunately "still showing" came through about an hour into the journey. I had wondered about getting there by going through Bristol (as the AA web-site route finder had suggested) but the prospect of navigating through there without any Sat Nav proved too much in the end and I opted instead for the easier if slightly longer rounte down the M5 and off at the Weston Super Mare junction. The last bit of the journey too longer than I expect but at around eleven I suddenly found myself at Herriott's Bridge. I knew that I was at the right place because of the hoards of birders amassed at the sides peering into the distance. I joined the throng where everyone was trying to peer through a comparatively narrow viewing gap so it was rather crowded. It turned out that the bird was currently out of sight but shortly afterwards all the birds went up and when they re-settled the sandpiper was in view. It had a little preen and a wander about before taking a short flight a few minutes later to a spot where once more it was obscured. Whilst the others waited for it to re-appear I nipped over the road where the spotted sandpiper was supposed to be. It turned out that it was working its way along the dam wall on the other side of a thick hedge and you could only see it by leaning over the fence and peering at a very acute angle along the length of the wall. There was a certain amount of complaining going on when people in front would block the view of those behind and a photographer got too close at one point so the bird moved off again much to everyone's annoyance. I had brief views of the bird on a couple of occasions between checking out the sharp-tailed situation. After a while with no further sign of the sharp-tailed sandpiper I decided that as I was on a tight schedule I couldn't hang about and headed off. Not the best views that I've ever had and numbers of twitchers and the restricted viewing conditions meant that it hadn't been the most enjoyable of birding experiences but at least I'd seen the bird.

A digiscoped videograb of the sandpiper

Record shot snippet of digiscoped video of the bird -
at least you can see the salient features

Next on to Man Sands beach near Brixham in Devon. Once off the A38 I remembered how tortuous the roads around here were from my previous visit several years ago for a penduline tit and the local cirl buntings and it was a depressingly long time before I found myself at my destination. Actually at the end I got lost and ended up in the wrong NT car park. Fortunately I whipped out my iPhone, used my OS app to download the relevant map (fortunately there was a good 3G signal there) and thanks to the real-time "You Are Here" marker I was able to navigate my way to the correct car park where there were a reassuring half a dozen or so cars in the car park. A nice fifteen minute walk down the undulating Devonshire hills later I found myself on the footpath just above the coast guard cottages where the delightful male desert wheatear showed down to 10 yards on the roof top almost constantly, disappearing from view for no more than a few minutes at most. There were no crowds this time, just a couple of other birders who departed after a while to leave me with the bird all to myself in the later afternoon sunshine. It was a gorgeous little thing - standard wheatears are always lovely anyway and this one had an extra exotic frissance to it which made it all the more enjoyable. As I watched it I wondered whether it was the same Cornwall bird, slowly working its way eastwards along the coast.

The bird was by far the closest when perched on this
chimney pot, only about 10 yards away

...and here's a more distant shot when the sun actually came
out briefly. I just love the late afternoon light in this one.

As I still had quite a long journey to get to Pendeen I didn't stay too long but headed back to the car and onwards towards Cornwall. I stopped off briefly near Truro to pick up a pair of bedside tables that I'd bought yesterday on eBay for the bargain price of £36 - they turned out to look much better in the flesh than on the photos. Very pleased with this outcome I headed for the cottage, tired but very content with my journey down and looking forward to some more Cornish birding.