Back With a Bang

After a two week hiatus from blogging due to an increasing PhD workload I thought I’d write a quick post to catch up with myself and discuss a fantastic day’s birding in Cornwall. During the week of February 5th, I made a visit to Thetford to visit my PhD supervisor Niall Burton at the BTO. As well as making a good deal of progress with my project, I managed a quick wander around the BTO’s Nunnery Lakes reserve one lunchtime, which provided three year ticks in the form of Brambling, Egyptian Goose and (rather embarrassingly) Greylag Goose. On Wednesday the 8th I headed up to Cumbria to visit my field sites with Gary Clewey, scoring the wintering juvenile Glaucous Gull in Thetford, a couple of Red Kite from the car in Northants and a female Long-tailed Duck at Astbury Mere in Cheshire on route. On Thursday I made my first visit to my field site of South Walney NR where I’ll be living for 3 months from April – July this year. The reserve held good numbers of wintering wildfowl with 3 Scaup and c400 Eider the highlights. Exploring the site raised my excitement for the field season and hopefully with a little effort I’ll be able to dig out some good birds here in the spring.

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Juvenile Glaucous Gull at Burrell Way industrial estate in Thetford.

Last week I did some birding around Cornwall with a visit to Swanpool on Tuesday evening where the wintering Siberian Chiffchaff showed well in its favoured spot along the stream and a Yellow-browed Warbler also gave good views. We then headed over to Devoran where a group of 5 Cattle Egret came in to roost with Little Egrets at 17.42. This winter has been incredible for the species in the south west with at least 40 birds currently present in the county, surely there’s a good chance of some remaining to breed in the southwest this spring given the scale of the influx! On Wednesday, Toby and I made an evening visit to College Reservoir, my first patch visit in a couple of weeks, and scored two PWC2017 ticks in the form of c15 Starling and a pair of Shoveler. We decided to stay late to listen for Tawny Owls however we were again unsuccessful, possibly due to the volume of noise produced by the huge corvid roost in the woods here. Our efforts were not entirely in vain however with 3 flyover Woodcock after dusk providing a fitting consolation prize.

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Sunset at Devoran.

On Saturday 18th, after a relative lie-in, Toby, Calum and I headed westwards with the wintering Little Bunting at Nanjizal squarely in our sites. As it was high tide we decided to have a quick check of the sea off Jubilee Pool, Penzance on our way past, in retrospect perhaps the best decision of the day! Whilst Calum and Toby scanned the sea I decided to have a quick check of the rocks for roosting waders and Black Redstart. As soon as I popped my head over my wall I was stunned by the number of Purple Sandpipers that were immediately obvious roosting on the rocks. I quickly called Toby and Calum over and after a thorough check we managed a massive count of 37 birds, by far my largest ever count of this species. Eventually we returned to checking the sea and picked up several Great Northern Divers and a male Eider which was a year tick for the others. Whilst Calum went off to attempt to photograph the Eider, Toby and I continued to scan the sea until suddenly Toby shouted “I’ve got the Pacific!” I quickly looked down his scope and confirmed that he had indeed picked up the wintering adult Pacific Diver whilst he ran to get Calum. The bird was much closer than it was when we had it off Marazion in January and we had truly satisfying views of for over 20 minutes at relatively close range as it swam slowly west in close association with a couple of GNDs. The bird was well within phonescoping range and allowed me to capture some decent comparison shots of it looking diminutive alongside a GND. The bird was so close that the chinstrap was even visible on some pictures. This is by far the best sighting of the bird and though the views are nothing like people are getting of the Northumberland bird we all left the site buzzing with excitement.

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Record shots of the adult Pacific Diver off Jubilee Pool with a convenient GND for comparison. Check out that chinstrap!

After the elation of the Pacific Diver the day quickly took a deflating turn when we spent an hour failing to find the Little Bunting or anything else of note at Nanjizal. This was my first visit to the site though and I was amazed by the truly scary potential of the site for producing good birds – some visits this autumn are definitely on the cards! Following reports of several Iceland Gulls feeding in the fields we headed over to Ardenswah Farm on the Porthgwarra roads where farming activity had attracted good numbers of gulls which were following the tractors working the fields. We quickly picked up several Med Gulls and when all the birds flushed from the nearest field we followed an incredibly pale large gull which eventually landed distantly in another field in poor light. At this distance the incredibly pale, bleached plumage contrasting with a solid dark bill and relatively large size led me to dismiss the bird as an odd leucistic Herring Gull. I fired off a couple of record shots and later, following a discussion with Martin Elliot at Hayle and comparing these to Mark Pearson’s DSLR shots of the same bird from Twitter we concluded that it was indeed an incredibly pale Iceland Gull, possibly a 3CY bird with a muddy bill or a very bleached 2CY bird. Gulls are never as straightforward as they seem!

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Bleached immature Iceland Gull at Ardenswah Farm, Polgigga.

Next it was on to Hayle where the causeway was packed with local birders. There were good numbers of large gulls on the estuary, mostly adult LBBGs which are now moving through in good numbers. On arrival Martin Elliot put me on to a sleeping 2CY Iceland Gull which promptly woke up and flew off southeast giving good views. The long-staying Avocet was showing very well from the causeway, allowing me to get some decent phonescoped shots of this most welcome Cornwall tick. The Green-winged Teal was also fairly close to the causeway and the immature Spoonbill was still happily feeding away on Carnsew Pool.

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Showy Avocet at Hayle.

We then decided to check the gull roost on St Clement’s Isle at Mousehole however we were flagging by this point and a frustrating 2CY Herring-type left me with gull fatigue and ready to pack it in for the day. What was likely the male Eider from Penzance provided some comedic relief as it sat happily on the island, taking its life into its own hands as it nonchalantly dodged the attentions of the roosting Great Black-backed Gulls.  On the way to Mousehole Toby suggested finishing the day at the Men-an-Tol and so with the sun sloping towards the horizon we headed across the moors of West Penwith in the stunning evening light. A brisk walk up the track got us to the abandoned farm buildings with a decent amount of light left and our effort was immediately rewarded with a hunting Barn Owl, a Cornwall tick for all of us. As the light faded further I picked up a Buzzard heading to roost before, at 18.02, Toby picked a ringtail Hen Harrier which gave great views as it powered over our heads and away south over the moor. This was my third county tick of the day and this truly charismatic bird in such a spectacular setting provided a fitting end to one of my best ever day’s birding in Cornwall.

Sunday saw, Calum, Toby and I once again in the trusty Toyota Yaris, this time heading east towards Trevose Head where a flock of up to 84 Lapland Buntings has been wintering in the coastal stubble fields. Upon arrival the weather was absolutely dismal with the sea barely visible from the car park. Undeterred we set about stomping through the fields but after half an hour or so we were wet and cold and had only managed a brief view of a possible Lapland Bunting which flushed silently in front of us with Skylarks before heading for the horizon. Dejected we decided to head back towards Penryn calling in at Gwennap Sewage works where we failed to find the Green Sandpipers seen the previous day. We then decided to try Kennall Vale for Dipper which I needed as a county tick. This site was almost entirely devoid of birds and the ignominy of actually dipping Dipper led us to call it quits for the day and head for home. This was by far our worst day’s birding in the county and the contrast with yesterday perfectly illustrates the fickle nature of the hobby. Hopefully our next trip is more successful!

Author: liamsbirding

I'm a 23 year old PhD candidate at the University of Exeter Penryn Campus and a keen birder. Originally from Stockport. All views my own.

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