Thursday, 28 February 2013

Monday 25th February: Hayle, Stithians & Marazion

As I was intending only to have one full day down in Cornwall before heading back home I knew that today was going to be a busy one! I had to do all my chores for the cottage, meet up with the builder to discuss some work and also try to cram in as much birding as possible into the one day. Accordingly, before it was light I was heading out the door and over towards Hayle where my first birds of the day were to be looked for. Just as I was leaving Pendeen heading for Penzance I spotted a lovely Barn Owl hunting by the chimney ruins - a very nice start to the day. The reason for my early start was that I wanted to look for Jack Snipe over at Copperhouse Creek and had been told that I had to get there before the dog walkers arrived. Fortunately the tide was in my favour and it was just about still covering the reedy east corner when I pulled up so there was no possibilty of any prior doggy intervention. I realised that I probably should have brought wellies rather than just my walking boots but it turned out that the mud was only an inch or two deep before one hit gravel so I was going to be all right, albeit rather muddy. I spent the next hour or so tramping around looking for that tell-tale underfoot flush but all the birds were Common Snipe that sped off before I got anywhere near them. Oh well, another time. The weather was actually really nice first thing with some sunshine and none of that biting north easterly wind that was so chilling. The estuary was full of the usual birds but a Greenshank caught my eye as being more noteworthy for this time of year. I had a quick look for the Water Pipit on the salt marsh on the other side of the road but couldn't see any sign of it. A calling Blackbird in Phillack was giving a reasonable impersonation of a Rosefinch which had me going enough to go and check just to be on the safe side. One's got to check these things out even if they usually end up being nothing. Oh well, on to the next location.

A Little Egret in the morning sunlight

Next stop was just around the corner at the Hayle estuary to look for some Yellow-legged Gulls. Now Cornish readers may not really be aware of this but back home in Oxford I'm known for being a bit of a gull addict and regularly spent my evenings checking out the gull roost on my local patch of Port Meadow, and delighting in picking out Caspian Gulls and Yellow-legged Gulls from the throng. In fact we had a real purple patch on the Meadow at the start of the month with two Glaucous Gulls, an Iceland Gull, countless Yellow-legged Gulls and four different Caspian Gulls all in the space of two weeks. Back in Cornwall there are not usually the same gulling opportunities. Sure there were Med Gulls to pick out from the Black-headed's but one was not faced with a flock of thousands to sift through like back home. Even here on the Hayle estuary there were probably only a couple of hundred gulls or so to look through. Yellow-legged Gull is much rarer down here than in Oxon where I can reasonably expect at least one in most evenings - in fact here it would be a Cornish tick for me. There were supposed to be two or three of them about at present: an adult, a third winter and a first winter. I parked up at the Jet Wash and set about scanning through the birds. By this time it was still sunny (a bad thing for gulls as it's hard to judge the mantle colours) and to make matters worse the tripod-shaking bitter wind was back. However with only relatively few birds about to search through it didn't take me too long to find at least the adult and the third winter. One fact which makes gulling easier down here in Cornwall is the absence of argentatus Herring Gulls. Back in Oxon we get a mix of both types and everything in between but here they are all pure "British" Herring Gulls and consequently much more uniform in appearance which makes something different much easier to pick out. The third winter was rather advanced with hardly any brown streaks left in it though the absence of almost any white apical marks in its long dark primaries was rather a give-away. The adult bird really stood out from the argenteus Herring Gulls as well with it's strikingly dark mantle and very long primaries though its legs only had a pale yellow hint to them at this time of year.

The adult bird

I next moved on to the river bridge to see what was about with four Grey Plover and a few Bar-tailed Godwits being the only waders of note. I could only spot three Mediterranean Gulls in amongst the smaller gulls (two adults and a first winter). As the light was still very good I spent a little time taking a few snaps with the Super-zoom camera. After that it was time to head back to the cottage to get on with my chores for the morning and to meet up with the builder.

Hayle Oystercatcher

I managed to get all my work at the cottage done fairly quickly and the meeting with the builder was surprisingly brief so I soon found myself with some free time on my hands. I therefore decided to head east to Stithians Reservoir to see if I could catch up with the Brambling that had been regularly visiting the feeders there for some time now. I arrived to find John St Ledger in the hide watching the feeders and I soon managed to add Brambling to my Cornish list. There were at least two birds coming regularly to the feeders or feeding on the ground below along with at least 30 Chaffinch, some House Sparrows, a few Reed Buntings and a very secretive Water Rail skulking around under the feeders that would scurry off at the slightest noise, so I wasn't able to get a photo of it at all. I munched on my packed lunch and enjoyed the coming and goings of all the birds for about an hour.

 Brambling is one of my favourite finches

After that I nipped over the road to check out the main reservoir where there was supposed to be a juvenile Long-tailed Duck about. In the hide I met Alex Mckechnie though he'd not see any sign of it. Back on the causeway road I found a couple of other birders who apparently had seen it briefly about twenty minutes ago with some Tufted Ducks though I couldn't find it at all. The biting wind was still making things difficult so I didn't stay too long before heading off for somewhere more sheltered.

Whilst I was in the neighbourhood I thought that I would drop in on the juvenile Whooper Swan which had been spending some time on Croft Pascoe after having originally been found on the Helston boating lake. Clearly lost it had decided to stick around at Croft Pascoe for a while where at least there was plenty for it to eat. It looked rather forlorn on its own - let's hope that it manages to find its way north to meet up with others of its own kind in the spring.

The lonely juvenile Whooper Swan

After that I wondered what to do next. I contemplated looking for the mixed Bunting flock (Lapland and Snow) on Treen Common but the prospect of spending more time out in the wind wasn't that appealing. Instead I opted for the shelter of Marazion where the sea was relatively and calm and I would be out of the wind. A scan of the bay to the west of the Mount found only a couple of Great Northern Divers so I moved to Marazion itself and found a nice little viewing spot in the form of a tiny public garden right next to the Godolphin Hotel that allowed me to view the bay to the east of the Mount. To start with there was a large flock of waders directly below me all seeking shelter from the high tide and gorging themselves on the invertebrates in the exposed sea weed that had been washed up against the wall. There must have been at least 50 Sanderling, 30 Turnstone and about 20 Dunlin as well as a Rock Pipit and a single Knot. It was a delight to watch the birds scampering about at such close quarters. Out in the bay a couple of huge rafts of roosting gulls were assembling: the big gulls were way over in the distance but close by was the small gull roost and in amongst the hoard of at least a thousand Black-headed Gulls I found twelve Med. Gulls (ten adults, a second winter and a first winter). I had been hoping for some Black or Red-throated Divers but there were none to be seen. 

After a while it started to get dark so I headed back to the cottage for something to eat and to get on with my evening chores. It had been an enjoyable if rather low-key day's birding.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Sunday 24th February: Ham Wall RSPB, St John's Ford & Rosenannon Downs

It seems like far too long since I was last down in Cornwall. Even though from a distance things seem rather quiet down here I still miss the great birding and anyway it can't be any quieter than it is back in Oxon of late.With a few bookings coming up in the cottage in March I needed to come back down to meet up with the builder to discuss a couple of small projects, basically some minor weatherproofing jobs that needed to be done. It would also be an opportunity for me to do some cosmetic work on some of the damp patches that we still have at present. In the days leading up to my arrival I'd been keeping a weather eye on what birds were down in Cornwall as well as looking out for anything good that I might like to drop in on en route (which is a very flexible concept in my book). The Pied-billed Grebe at Ham Wall RSPB in Somerset had conveniently stayed around for a while now and was only a short detour from the motorway so I marked that down for starters. In addition there were quite a few birds around that I still needed for my fledgling Cornish list which I was keen to try for. To start with there was a drake Green-winged Teal at St John's ford near Torpoint which looked tempting and I thought that I'd stop off at Wacker Quay to look for Avocets whilst I was going that way. If I had time I was wondering about seeking out some Cirl Buntings and there was also the possibility of Short-eared Owls at Rosenannon Downs over towards St Columb Major. So plenty to play for just in getting down to Pendeen.

I set off at around 8:15 on Sunday morning and with the roads nice and clear I arrived at Ham Wall at around 10:45 a.m. I was just getting tooled up when I met a posse of Oxford birders just returning from paying homage to the Grebe themselves. We chatted for a while and then they headed off to Exeter to look for Cirl Buntings whilst I set off to find the Grebe. Ham Wall is basically a large bank of reed beds and pools on either side of a central path with viewing platforms and hides placed along the route.  It was still very chilly with a really biting cold wind so I was wrapped up really warm. I walked as briskly as I could towards the second viewing platform with Glastonbuy Tor in the distance watching over proceedings. As I hurried along I heard my first Cetti's Warbler of the year calling from within the reeds, sadly it's become a rather rare sound in Oxfordshire after the recent harsh winters. There were only half a dozen or so birders at the second screen but the Grebe was on show when I arrived and someone soon got me onto it. Unfortunately it was rather distant and it insisted on loitering right at the back of the open water but despite the near-continual tripod-shakingily bitter wind I was able to make out all the salient features. A Marsh Harrier floated by in the distance and there was the usual mix of Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler and Little Grebes dotted around the place. Presently the Pied-billed Grebe disappeared from view for about ten minutes before it turned up again and I watched it until I started feeling too cold. After that it was a brisk yomp back to the car and back on to the motorway towards Cornwall.

Given how far away the bird was and how much the tripod was shaking
 this rubbish record shot is actually a pretty good achievement!

I took the A38 rather than the A30 at the fork after Exeter and headed towards the Plymouth area where a lot of my target birds were located. I had been wondering about nipping in for the Lesser Yellowlegs at Ernesettle (on the Devon side of the Tamar) but in the end decided that I didn't really have time if I wanted to see some of my Cornish targets so I chose to give it a miss. Instead I headed towards Torpoint and St John's ford with the Green-winged Teal in mind. I did stop off for a few minutes at Wacker Quay where I found some birders already set up by the "viewing gap" - they kindly let me take a look at the Spoonbill they were watching so I didn't even need to get my scope out. Unfortunately there were no Avocet there today (still a Cornish tick for me) which I'd been hoping for, though of course a Spoonbill is always nice to see. I soon arrived at St John's ford which is an interesting little spot. The single-track road passes through a narrow ford at the west end of St John's Lake (it's interesting how the tidal creeks and side channels of the Tamar are called "Lakes"). Either side of the narrow road was very soft and deep mud so one had to be careful where one trod. The tide was rather low when I arrived though it had turned and was on the way in again. Some of the birds could be viewed by the parking area but the Green-winged Teal had usually been reported over towards the sewage outlet further around. To view this area one had to walk along the bottom of a field and peer awkwardly through a thin strip of trees. As I started along this path I met up with a couple of lady birders. It turned out that this was their third attempt at the Teal so they were keen to find it. Another birder also arrived but between the four of us we couldn't see it anywhere. There were plenty of Teal, Wigeon, Redshank, Shelduck, Little Egrets and Curlew all enjoying the mud and right over in the distance towards Torpoint there was a flock of several hundred small waders that I presumed were Dunlin. There's always something very atmospheric about such places and the haunting calls of the Curlew only added to the charm of the location: in nice warm weather I could happily spend hours birding here. After a while we started to head back towards the ford to take another look down at that end. I set up my scope to view down the Lake where the incoming water was smoothing out the nooks, crannies and hiding places for a Teal so surely the bird would have to be seen at some point. A Grey Wagtail flew by, calling to announce its presence. I kept on scanning and sure enough I soon spotted the Green-winged Teal in the distance near the Sewage outlet dabbling away quite happily. I called over the others and we all enjoyed our rather distant views for a while before he swam out of sight behind the sewage outlet wall. Whilst we could probably seen him again if we walked back along the field I felt that I'd seen enough and time was marching on. As I made my way back to the car a Nuthatch called loudly from in the wooded hillside on the opposite side of the river. Time to head off for my next target.

Another very distant record shot

It was now well after 3pm and I was running out of daylight. I had thought about nipping down to Rame Head for a look round but in the end decided to give that a miss and instead to press on towards the Penwith peninsula and instead to stop off at Rosenannon Downs, located between Wadebridge and St Columb Major. There had been reports of large Lapland Bunting flocks, Harriers and Short-eared Owls there in recent weeks and I was particularly keen to see if I could catch up with the Owls which would be Cornish ticks for me. I'd already coded the location up in my trusty Sat. Nav app and it took me safely there where I arrived in good time at around 4:30pm. 

 Rosenannon Downs

There were several birders already installed there so I went over to join them. They'd seen a Merlin so far but little else of note. Downland habitats are another area with a wonderfully atmospheric feel to them, it's the silence that is most striking to me. However, although the wind seemed to have died down it was very cold and standing around until dark was going to be a bit of an ordeal. There didn't seem to be much to look at either though a couple of the others thought that they saw a Harrier in the distance just above the skyline briefly though I couldn't get on it.  A few large flocks of Starlings went over, their wing beats making an eerie sound in the quiet. A couple of Reed Buntings were calling in the trees behind us and a Yellowhammer turned up and gave us a few renditions of its song. We watched and waited. A Buzzard flew over us. More watching in the cold silence. A lady birder turned up who was a regular for the area. She told us that the top left-hand corner was often where the owls were seen so thereafter I concentrated on this spot. Sure enough just as it was getting dark I spotted a Short-eared Owl sitting on top of a small Hawthorn bush. As we watched a Fox trotted up behind it, presumably stalking it though the Owl spotted it and flapped silently off. As it got darker a Tawny Owl started to call distantly. Finally just at last light a Woodcock flapped over, a nice end to a quiet session. Nevertheless, I'd managed to see my target Short-eared Owl so it had been a successful trip.

By now it was after 6pm and I still had a way to go to get to the cottage. I gave my VLW a quick call so that she wouldn't be wondering where I was and then headed back towards the A30 and on towards Pendeen. It had been a long day, but a successful one with some nice birds seen en route. I arrived at a little after 8pm, booted up the Cottage and had something to eat and a celebratory beer - it had been an enjoyable start to my visit to Cornwall.