Settling in at South Walney

After weeks of anticipation, an arduous journey involving a sleeper train and a welcome couple of nights at home in Manchester, I finally arrived at my field site, South Walney NR where I’ll spend the next three months researching the breeding Lesser Black-backed Gulls both on the reserve and in urban Barrow-in-Furness. South Walney NR, despite being on the “wrong” coast for rare birds, has an active bird observatory (which I can see from my bedroom window) and has produced some decent birds in recent years including Red-eyed Vireo and Isabelline Shrike. After bidding farewell to my parents and setting up my room, I decided to explore the reserve and search for any new migrants. I decided to visit the central marsh hide where a flock of 39 Black-tailed Godwit and a Greenshank demonstrated the potential of the central pools to produce a decent wader whilst my first Sedge Warbler of the year chuntered away intermittently from the reed bed. I then had a brief look at the sea from the sea hide where the awful heat shimmer ruled out the possibility of an evening seawatch. I think completed a quick circuit of the pools to the west of the cottages where another, showier Sedge Warbler, a Gadwall and three pairs of Shoveler provided some intrigue. Whilst walking back to the cottage for the evening a Whimbrel powering north overhead into the wind was yet another reminder that after a long winter, spring migration is now finally in full force.

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A showy Sedge Warbler.

With strong northwesterly winds forecast the next morning, I set an early alarm and was in the sea hide where I spent a productive hour seawatching. Of particular note was a northward passage of 25 Red-throated Divers whilst my first Little Tern of the year and 2 Manx Shearwaters also heading north into the wind added some quality. No seawatch is complete without an ID conundrum and the requisite frustration was provided by a distant pale phase small skua sp. which I picked up a couple of times as it battled north. The bird looked relatively bulky with relatively deep, powerful wingbeats but unfortunately it kept low to the sea and was mostly heading away from me, preventing me from nailing it. After this we headed out in the truck to check the moth trap which we’d left out overnight below central marsh hide. Unfortunately cold weather overnight meant that there was only one moth in the trap, a Common Wave, which was actually a new species for me! The rest of the day mostly involved working at my desk on various things with a trip to the National Trust reserve at Sandscale Haws NNR with a couple of members of Cumbria Wildlife Trust staff providing some variety to the day.

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Common Wave – the only moth in the trap.
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Blustery but beautiful – Sandscale Haws NNR.

This morning, I had a quick wander round the ponds, getting Little Grebe and Wren for my reserve list before beginning the daunting seven mile cycle up to Barrow to hand in some security forms at my urban study site. The bike kindly lent to me by the warden Sarah Dalrymple was unfortunately too small for my slightly oversized frame and this, combined with the bitter northerly wind in my face, made the journey a traumatic ordeal. Thankfully, the pain was lightened somewhat by a singing Whitethroat at Snab Point and a singing Lesser Whitethroat north of Biggar village, both of which were new for the year. The cycle back was slightly easier with the wind behind me and I was treated to distant views of the wintering Brent Goose flock and good numbers of waders being moved around by the tide. Late afternoon I made my first attempt to relocate colour-ringed LBBGs on gull meadow but there were relatively few birds loafing about on this much-diminished colony. I did manage to pick up a couple of colour-ringed birds but sadly they were too distant to get the combinations. Any further efforts were stymied by a hail shower followed by a massive rain/sleet squall which saw me sprinting to the central marsh hide to take shelter! I’m planning to spend the next few days looking for colour-rings at both gull meadow and on the spit so hopefully the notoriously fickle April weather has something more pleasant in store.

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The vagaries of spring weather.
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Morning in Manchester

On route from Cornwall to my field site in Cumbria I decided to take a break for a couple of days at home in Manchester to see family and friends before spending three months in relative isolation. This gave me the opportunity to catch up with Scott Reid and spend the morning birding Audenshaw Reservoirs, the main section his PWC2017 patch. Despite being less than five miles from my home in Stockport, Audenshaw is difficult to access by public transport and this, combined with the occasional presence of some less than salubrious characters, has meant that I’ve only birded the site on one previous occasion. Despite the site’s somewhat dystopian aura, the fact that it consists of three large, raised water bodies situated next to an obvious migration flyway makes Audenshaw excellent for passage and the site has produced a number of notable rarities over the years.

After enjoying a Guinness or three on Friday evening in my favourite Irish bar, the shrill ringing of the 5.00am alarm made me once again question my sanity as I stumbled, foggy headed, into Scott’s car. Upon arrival at Audenshaw, any lingering hangover was quickly dispelled as a calling Whimbrel, my first of the year and a Greater Manchester tick, circled the north-eastern basin. This was quickly followed by another year tick in the form of a Common Sandpiper picking its way along the edge of the northwest basin. With the sun coming up over the Pennines, we headed to the centre of the causeway picking up the wintering pair of Long-tailed Ducks on the far side of the northwest basin on route. Once we reached the centre of the causeway, we set up for some vis-migging and were gradually joined by a number of Audenshaw regulars. Unfortunately the clear conditions hampered our chances of decent passage however another calling Whimbrel heading moving north at 07.05 and a heard only Yellow Wagtail, which I picked up on call as it seemed to head south provided some interest. Despite the relative lack of birds, it was nice to catch up with Scott and pick up some notable migrants so close to central Manchester, an urban area noted for its complete lack of birds. Moreover, spending time out in the field on such a stunning spring morning raised my excitement levels for the field season ahead and the wealth of birding to come!

Scilly Success

This spring, my British birding has largely been curtailed by fieldwork planning for my first PhD field season and a ten day trip to California in mid-March (not that I’m complaining). As Easter was our last weekend before we both left Cornwall for our respective field seasons, Kali and I decided to daytrip Scilly on the Saturday as she’d been wanting to visit the magic islands since arriving last autumn and the prospect of some spring overshoots meant that the potential for good birding was high. When a spanking adult male Rock Thrush, a real gap in my list since missing the Spurn bird in 2013, turned up early last week on St Martin’s the deal was further sweetened and each day confirmation of its continuing presence ramped up my excitement levels by another increment. Saturday morning saw us making a sluggish start, sleepily boarding the 06.46 train to Truro in order to make it to Penzance in time to board the Scillonian. Having done some research on day boats to St Martin’s the night before, I wasn’t feeling particularly confident about making it to the bird and back to the Scillonian on time, and when the no sign message came through on Birdguides as we steamed towards Scilly, the twinge of disappointment I felt was softened by a flood of relief. I quickly settled into a relaxed crossing, enjoying my first Manx Shearwaters of the year and a pod of 3+ Common Dolphin which briefly interacted with the boat as we approached the islands.

As we pulled into St Mary’s harbour, anticipating a relaxed wander around the island followed by a pint or two at the mermaid, the inevitable happened when a phone call from Sam Viles confirmed the bird’s continuing presence. Waves of panic washed over me, however after a brief discussion with the ever tolerant Kali it was decided that we had to give the bird a go. I spoke to a couple of birders on the quay, made a quick call to Tresco Boats (01720 423373) and had soon arranged a jet boat to pick us up from Lower Town quay on St Martin’s at 15.30 for the very reasonable price of £7.50 a head. Factoring in the c40 minute walk to the opposite end of the island, this gave us over an hour at Bread and Cheese Cove and our best chance of connecting with the bird. After a brief wait, we soon boarded the Meridian and chugged across to St Martin’s, getting some nice views of fishing Sandwich Terns as we worked out the fastest route from the quay to the bird.

After what felt like an eternity, the boat docked at Lower Town and we were off, powering across the island in a display of athleticism never previously witnessed by Kali. After a half hour slog we arrived at Bread and Cheese Cove where Higgo and Dave Viles provided the classic twitching greeting, informing us that the bird had disappeared five minutes prior to our arrival. Stomach sinking deflation set in and I sat down to catch my breath, settling in for a long and nervous wait. My fears were short-lived however as after less than five minutes Higgo picked up the bird on the rocks below us and I was treated to scope views of this absolutely stunning bird. The deep blue head and wings contrasted with the dazzling orange underparts making this far and away one of the most beautiful birds I’ve ever seen. The bird spent the next hour and a half constantly on show as it fed on caterpillars around the rocks on the northeast side of Bread and Cheese Cove, frequently perching up to give stunning scope views. The bird was particularly smart in flight, showing the rufous tail for which it was named as well as a large white t-shaped patch across the back which I’d never noticed in field guide illustrations.

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The stunning adult male Rock Thrush at Bread and Cheese Cove.
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Kali enjoying her first twitch.
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Twitching in style.

Sitting amongst some off the most beautiful scenery in Britain whilst watching such a magnificent bird was pure magic and further reinforced for me the unique birding experiences that Scilly can still produce. Following the Great Blue Heron in 2015 and the Sora last year, this was my third successful day-twitch to the islands, each of which has produced incredible memories that have further connected me to this truly magnificent place. Kali was also incredibly taken with the beauty of the islands and thoroughly enjoyed watching the Rock Thrush in what was perhaps the perfect introduction to twitching for her. I still haven’t managed to break it to her that they aren’t all quite as enjoyable. As the afternoon drew on, we were forced to drag ourselves away from the Rock Thrush and begin our slow walk back to Lower Town, picking up two smart female Ring Ouzel and several Wheatear on route. The jet boat pulled up to the quay as we arrived back in Lower Town and with the sun shining down on us we raced back to St Mary’s to meet the Scillonian where we enjoyed a celebratory Tribute in the afternoon sun. The crossing back was quiet birdwise but it was good to catch up with Sam and David Viles, without whose help I wouldn’t have connected with such a cracking bird. Another fantastic day with Scilly producing the goods and providing a fitting last hurrah birding in Cornwall before heading north for the field season. Hopefully, the isolation on Walney Island will give me more time to get things done and I’ll finally get a write up of my California trip done whilst the memories are still fresh!

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!

Dipping in Devon

After one failed attempt at twitching the host of wintering rarities in Devon that saw us fail to even make it out of Cornwall, Saturday morning saw Calum, Toby and I once again heading east along the A30, drawn by the promise of some solid year ticks. We started the day on the Exe Estuary where checks of both Cockwood and Dawlish Warren failed to yield the wintering adult Bonaparte’s Gull which i saw here in February 2015. According to some local birders, the bird has become more elusive in recent winters and has used the entire estuary more extensively rather than hanging about in one place. Toby and Calum could attest to the bird’s elusiveness, this being their third dip this winter! The visit was not entirely wasted however as two Slavonian Grebes and good numbers of Dark-bellied Brent Geese were year ticks for me.

Not wishing to let one bird spoil our day, we headed south towards Broadsands where the local Cirl Buntings showed well feeding on seed put out for them in the usual corner of the car park. Always lovely to see, the group contained at least four stunning males and with some patience I managed some decent shots with Kali’s Nikon D3400, the best of which is below. A brief look at the sea revealed a flock of five Velvet Scoter but our efforts were interrupted by a violent downpour before we could turn up anything else.

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Male Cirl Buntings – Broadsands must be the best place to see this species in Britain. 

After this enjoyable stop it was on to Sharkham Point near Brixham to look for the first-winter drake Surf Scoter which has been hanging around with the Common Scoter flock here. After some initial frustration we managed to locate the Common Scoter spread out in three flocks across the bay to the south. The bird wasn’t in the closest group and the distance and awful light conditions meant that although it was almost certainly present, the Surf Scoter was impossible to pick out. Our misery was further compounded by a Birdguides report confirming that the Bonaparte’s Gull was showing well on the Exe Estuary at Cockwood.

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Rain shower over the sea off Sharkham Point with a burnt out car further adding to the aesthetic. 

So far the trip was shaping up to be a complete disaster so after a much needed McDonald’s in Paignton to refresh our spirits we headed towards the tiny coastal village of Thurlestone for a date with a Desert Wheatear. Having been present for several months on one tiny beach, the bird was almost guaranteed, however this fact did nothing to assuage our fears as we approached the beach and saw the number of people in the area. Fortunately we had no reason for concern as Calum quickly picked up the bird feeding along the tide line. This little desert sprite was surprisingly mobile compared to more moribund individuals I’ve seen in autumn in East Anglia and gave us the run around for half an hour. Eventually the fates aligned and the bird perched up in front of me, the stunning peachy tones of its plumage lit up by the evening sun, and I snapped away with Kali’s DSLR, somehow managing to capture some half decent images in the process. The bird was an absolute joy to watch and seeing this rare and charismatic species in such a picturesque location single-handedly salvaged the day and to me epitomises what twitching is all about. I wonder what experiences the next twitch will hold?

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First-winter male Desert Wheater

Weekend Away

This weekend, after an impromptu visit to hospital to deal with a nasty bug picked up in Kenya (or Bristol Services), Kali and I spent an amazing weekend at the flat in St Ives. I didn’t do any proper birding over the weekend but we did have a wander around the island on both afternoons picking up the expected Kittiwakes and Gannets and a smart adult Med Gull on Sunday. A group of three Harbour Porpoise moving west close inshore in brilliant conditions that afternoon was another unexpected treat. The stunning light on Sunday afternoon also gave Kali a chance to try some bird photography with her new Nikon DSLR and the resultant shots below are the main reason for this post.

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A confiding Starling. 
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These fearless Turnstones feed obliviously around the harbour allowing very close approach.
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This adult Herring Gull posed nicely on a railing.
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This Black-headed Gull allowed Kali to approach closely and get some stunning results in brilliant light. 

I also had a play around with the camera and was really impressed with its ability to capture record shots of distant birds with the help of a little cropping. For example this Common Gull was roosting around 50m away when the shot below was taken. With Kali’s permission I’ll hopefully be taking the camera with me on some twitches in the near future and I’m very excited to see the what results I can get!

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Cropped record shot of a distant 2nd-winter Common Gull.

On Monday evening Calum, Toby, Jalal, James and myself headed to College Reservoir with the aim of getting Woodcock and Tawny Owl for PWC2017. A quick check of the reservoir in the fading light produced the wintering Scaup and a Firecrest showed well in the woods. As darkness fell we waited with anticipation by the boggy fields along the path to Argal Reservoir and almost immediately were treated to two Water Rail calling close by. After another five minutes my prediction rang true when the first of an impressive four Woodcocks flew past, its rotund structure silhouetted perfectly against the clear evening sky. Despite its ubiquity, Woodcock is not a bird I see very often and this magical encounter was my patch highlight of the year so far. Who knows what other exhilarating experiences the following 11 months will bring?

Swanpool Sibe Chiff

As expected my resolve to dial back the birding this week quickly failed and the last two days I’ve done a bit of local birding before heading into the office. On Monday morning, Toby and I made a quick visit to College Reservoir and I was rewarded with three PWC2017 ticks in the form of Grey Heron, Meadow Pipit and a kronking flyover Raven. The wintering Scaup was still doing its thing but our failure to locate a Med Gull was made all the more galling by the fact that Ben had one there on his journey into campus a few hours later! I’m not particularly worried about getting this species for PWC2017 but it would be nice to pick one up soon!

This morning’s birding was even more productive as Calum, Toby, Jalal and myself decided to start the day at Swanpool NR to look for the over-wintering Siberian Chiffchaff and Yellow-browed Warbler that Toby had picked up here recently. This quickly proved to be a good decision as mere metres along the path to Swanvale a striking grey and white Chiffchaff flicked up in to a low bush along the stream. Over the next 20 minutes or so my initial gut reaction was confirmed as the bird fed alongside a colybita Common Chiffchaff showing the pale grey/brown mantle, faint pale greater covert bar, clean pale grey/white underside, black legs and complete lack of warm green/yellow tones characteristic of Siberian Chiffchaff. Incredibly, I’ve never managed to catch up with this relatively common winter vagrant before but the bird fit my search image for tristis perfectly. Sadly the bird wasn’t heard to call but on plumage characteristics alone I’m more than happy with this as my first ever Siberian Chiffchaff!

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Prime warbler habitat at Swanpool – check back in October for the Waterthrush.

We then spent some time exploring the mouth-watering habitat illustrated in the picture above and were rewarded with good views of one of the over-wintering Yellow-browed Warblers. After enjoying the warbler we made our way back to the car, picking up 4 adult Med Gulls in the car park, before heading over to College. Sadly our visit to the reservoir in miserable conditions was largely unproductive and constituted the first time I’ve failed to add a bird to my PWC2017 list. This evening, after a meeting in Falmouth, Toby and I popped back to Swanpool in an attempt to get some photographs of the Sibe Chiff. Sadly we couldn’t relocate the bird but we did hear a YBW and my first Swanpool Water Rail so the trip wasn’t a complete waste. The potential for this site to produce decent birds is not something to ignore and I’ll definitely be back soon for more wintering warblers!