Adventures in an empty corner

Birding musings and ramblings around South-east Cornwall - the empty corner of the county.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Life in the fast lane

Back to Hannafore today, as I will be most weekends until late March to see what the tide brought in. As it happened the tide was firmly out exposing the rocks, pools and weed which in turn hid most of the birds.
Out at sea three Slavonian Grebe patrolled the channel between the point and the island. They were firmly in the sun making photography impossible, but I assume they were the same three present last weekend when I managed to take a record shot of them as they battled in the teeth of a gale.

Very heavy crop of two of the three Slavonian Grebes

The Med gull group seems to be growing. There were at least eleven birds present today. There have always been Med gulls at Hannafore, but in the past these have been restricted to one or two individuals. Over the last couple of years the numbers have risen - first five, then seven, eleven and now up to eighteen birds. It was John Nicholls who told me the last number - the highest count I've heard of at this site. It was good to see John, even better was the fact that he was birding! moths have been his passion for the last couple of years but he seems to have become interested in gull movements at Hannafore, particularly the Great Black-backs ringed(rung?) by Bruce over the last two summers. He has recorded 36 different birds from this year as well as 18 from last year and has also recorded birds ringed elsewhere in Britain and from as far away as Norway.

John - (just finished having a pee!!)

I was particularly pleased, nay ecstatic to find that the Pipits have returned in force. Winter numbers have been fairly low for the last five or so winters with around 20 Rock Pipits and no more than three or four Meadow Pipits. At the moment there at at least 50 Rock and 20 Meadow - more than enough to keep me happy until they disappear in March. Those of you who know me will know that I love Pipits - particularly Rock Pipits. I find them endlessly fascinating and I think we still have a lot to learn about them. I tell anyone who will listen that I believe the vast majority of birds in Cornwall in winter are Scandinavian littoralis rather than the nominate petrosus even though officially the county has fewer records of the former than proper rarities such as Richard's Pipit. One day I will prove it!!

One bird has a ring. This is great news because I can spend the winter trying to read it.
Hopefully this ring will have a Stockholm address

Unfortunately there were quite a few dog walkers out on the beach today so the birds were pretty flighty and getting any kind of decent photo was all but impossible. There was however one Meadow Pipit which hung on just long enough for a couple of passable photos.

There was also just time to grab a couple of photos of some of the other common stuff we tend to forget about.

Hopefully the promised bad weather over the next few days will stir things up a little. In the past I've seen Little Auk, Leach's Petrel and even Desert Wheatear here in December but I know that working this patch is hard and the rewards are lean so I'll be happy with just the Pipits for now.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

You're Irresistable

A day off! and the choice of ironing or birding is no choice at all so I headed off the see the Bufflehead with the lovely Jane.

On the way down I glimpsed some gulls taking flight over a field at Shortlanesend and a bird which was faintly gull-like or possibly harrier-like in the middle of the melee. It suddenly banked and the crescent markings and black wing tips gave it away as a Short-eared Owl. This was very nice but I couldn't stop and Jane hadn't seen it - Oh dear!!

Jane and I go back many years but we haven't been out birding together since I took her to see the Snowy Owl so it was great to get out again for the day. It was a bright and sunny day with just a slight wind, but once we walked down the hill and into the wood that overlooks Loe Pool everything was really rather pleasant


Gulls were the most conspicuous birds with Black-headed and Herring dominating. I picked up a first winter Med loafing about in the middle of the group - which was nice!

A female Goldeneye vied for attention as she flew about over the gulls, and a wigeon also put in a brief appearance, but none of these were really what we had come to look at. I had been told that the Bufflehead could be elusive so I was prepared for a long search, however after only about five minutes I picked her/him up diving about in the bay near Penrose. It was distant but I suppose that couldn't be helped. We got decent scope views in between the diving forays and I was surprised just how obvious the white ear coverts were even at distance. Bufflehead is a species I haven't seen in the States and my only experience in Britain is the Roadford male back in 1998 which may/may not have been ringed - depending on who you talk to. I'm sure the credentials on this are as good as we're ever likely to get when you take into account the age/sex, where and when it turned up and its behaviour. It exorcises the spectre of escapee for me of the Roadford bird, and the fact that this is a Cornish tick means that seeing it was a no-brainer!

There's a Bufflehead across the bay - but it's probably underwater!

The trip back to the car was pleasant with the chance to scan a large roving party of Long-tailed Tits which had acquired a few hangers-on such as Goldcrest, Bullfinch and the arse end of a Firecrest which disappeared quickly.

A trip to the Sewage works was surprisingly unproductive - probably because there was a lot of activity, a delivery or something. The boating lake is always good though the status of many of the birds is a little suspect. Gadwall, Shoveler and Pochard were nice and I did get the chance to photograph some of the commoner birds that we usually tend to forget about. It also gave us a chance to have some lunch, which is always welcome.

The flick of a coin decided our next move. Heads won and it was off to Lizard on another twitch, this time the six Common Crane wandering around a stubble field just outside the village. It has been a few years since I have seen Crane in Cornwall (Oct 1999 to be precise) so I was keen to catch up with these, even though I knew viewing would  be difficult from the main road.We decided to take a footpath from the village to see if we could skirt the farm where the birds were, but it soon became obvious that this was a waste of time because the footpath took us away from where we wanted to be. We met a birder on the way back who had the same idea as us. She said that it should be easy to see six four-foot high birds wandering around a field. I thought then that it was clear she'd never gone looking for Crane before! Back at the car I decided to scope the likeliest looking field and soon enough found what appeared to be a grey sack - only it was moving! A little patience and more and more birds appeared until all six could be seen. I was hoping for a slightly better view so walked up to the recycling centre where more satisfactory views were had. I settled on that as I didn't want to go upsetting the farmer by attempting to get closer - it's never a good idea. 

The day ended with a quick visit to Marazion, but it was getting late and the wind had got up so I wimped out  and we headed back to the empty corner. A great day with quality over quantity and not a scrap of ironing.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Stumbling in the dark... (with apologies to The Jayhawks)

It's been a while since I've been able to get out - work and all that, so it was a joy to set off yesterday to see if I could track down the Glossy Ibis that has been wandering about the estuary for the past week. I could always take the easy option and wait at Devil's Point in Plymouth for the bird to fly past on it's way to roost on Drake's Island but that would mean watching the bird from Devon, and the primary point of seeing this bird was to see it in Cornwall, or more specifically in Caradon to get that all important local tick.

I wasn't the first to get to St John's Ford - Tony had beaten me to it  and he was busy scanning every inch of the salt marsh and exposed mud looking for the bird. Those who know Tony will know I'm talking rubbish - he was doing what he normally does, sat in his car doing the Telegraph crossword and hoping a casual glance now and again would pay dividend.

Tony in full-on birding mode

There were actually quite a few birds there - Canada Geese mainly but also good numbers of Wigeon, Teal, Redshank and Curlew. There were a few Dunlin, Med gull and Little Egret, and singles of Green Sandpipier, Bar-tailed Godwit and Lapwing, but the Ibis was conspicuous by its absence.

Leon and Dave Allen turned up but the Ibis stayed away. I went for a walk along the foreshore whilst everyone else stayed at the ford. I think this was because I was the only one who had wellies and could negotiate the horrendous mud. When I got back everyone else had gone - perhaps they all had the right idea!!

Ray and Vic soon arrived. Both had seen the bird in Plymouth, and as Plymouth birders were able to gloat over their local tick !!

Still the bird stayed away and we were able to enjoy a bit of banter as birders do, casting aspersions on the sightings of others and discussing the endless lack of decent birds in the area, not realising the irony of such conversations with a Glossy Ibis in the area!

Ray - handsome devil

Vic- a legend

By 12.30 the tide was out and birds had dispersed along the mud so we all decided to check other sites in the area in the hope that the Ibis was feeding elsewhere. We had no luck and actually saw very little of note. There were only a couple of Med Gulls and small numbers of Black-tailed Godwit at Millbrook and no sign of any Greenshank or Whimbrel there. Similarly there were no Avocets or Spoonbill at Wacker though 300+ Wigeon there was rather nice.

Although I hadn't seen the Ibis I had enjoyed the day and arrived home mid afternoon satisfied that I'd done my best to find it- it was just one of those things.

I turned on the computer and checked Birdguides just to see what else was around:

Cornwall - Glossy Ibis - St John's Lake: 12:59. Still near the ford on the north-west side......bugger!!

Monday, 24 October 2011

Of Mice and Men

Best laid plans and all that... Yesterday was fairly warm and bright, with a lovely force 6 SE wind - and what better way to spend a Sunday than to go seawatching at Looe. What I forgot was that this week is half-term and half the population of the midlands had descended on the place to enjoy the break. Dogs and kids were everywhere on the beach and seeing anything at all was a struggle. To make matters worse, even though the wind was blowing there was clearly no passage. Never mind, it was midday so I shouldn't expect much and I had three hours to go until high tide.

The View

Down at more established Cornish seawatching sites such as Pendeen during a decent NW wind you can expect to see a bird every few seconds, but here, I was treated to just 5 Kittiwakes, 12 Gannets and a few Razorbills. Finding your own birds in the empty corner is sometimes very trying!

I had a nice surprise in the form of a smart drake Eider which was patrolling just off the beach. I suspect that this is the bird which turned up as a juvenile three years ago so it's really just re-finding a returning bird, but he was much appreciated all the same.


Wherever he's come from we can safely say he's not one of the birds present earlier in the month.

Great Black Backed Gulls were present in some numbers, with around 200 sitting out the storm over on Looe Island. The lee of the island, usually a great place to find sheltering Duck, Grebes and Divers was disappointingly empty.

High tide arrived and an amazing thing happened. The cloud came over, the crowds disappeared and the crashing waves churned up the accumulated weed and attracted hundreds of gulls. OK so they were just the local gulls but the sight of them feeding was fascinating. They were almost exclusively Black-headed and Herring gulls, but that didn't really matter as I was kept busy just trying to photograph them. The poor light and the speed of the birds necessitated upping the ISO to 800 which introduced an element of grain but that couldn't be helped.

A couple of Mediterranean Gulls added a little spice to the group, even though they are now regular at this site.

Even Turnstone numbers had increased, from a paltry seven on the beach earlier to an impressive 42 at the high tide roost.

Having gone through the group numerous times and satisfying myself that I hadn't overlooked that elusive Sabine's Gull I decided to check just down the coast at Seaton where I knew there was a regular high tide roost. Here I found more of the same - Black-headed and Herring Gulls with a single Med amongst them, but this time there was also a splendid Little Gull dipping in and out amongst the waves, and far too far out to get anykind of photo. C'est la vie!!

Monday, 17 October 2011

A truth universally acknowleged...(with apologies to Jane Austen)

There seems to be a generally held belief that I always find a good bird on or around my birthday. Over the years I've managed to find the odd Yellow-browed, Pallas' and the like. I turned up a Penduline tit once - and a Monarch, but of course the Rame Bluetail in 1999 was the real biggy, not least because back then Bluetails still had a certain cache and this was a county first! I must admit that I've spent quite a few hours up at Rame over the past couple of days in an attempt to replicate that day, and whilst the results were not as exciting as in 1999, they weren't disappointing.

I started off at St John's Ford to see if I could see the Sabine's Gull reported there yesterday afternoon. I didn't - but the place looked great in the early morning light.

Skylarks are plentiful and the Linnets are still around, but the majority of the hirundines have moved on. One or two Siskins and small groups of Redwing have been giving their presence away as they call overhead. The highlight yesterday was undoubtedly the Short-eared Owl which came over the Military Road and was immediately set upon by the local gulls and corvids. There was a second bird apparently but unfortunately I missed it. I did however manage to get a distant record shot:

Up at the Head the Yellowhammers and House Sparrows were in their usual place around the coastguard cottages. It seems incredible that I have to mention this as both species used to be numerous but have declined dramatically over the last few years. Sparrows seem to be making a comeback and numbers are building nicely, but Yellowhammers are a serious cause for concern, not least because East Cornwall is really the centre of the Cornish population.

Cirls were in evidence today with at least two males and two females in amongst the Yellowhammers

These are natural colonisers from the Devon population rather than part of the reintroduction scheme which has been going on further down in mid Cornwall.

The first Black Redstart of the year - a drab female was found around Rame Barton briefly before it was chased off by a Pied Wagtail. Hopefully now that the first bird has turned up a few more should follow.

Bird of the day was undoubtedly the Yellow-browed Warbler I found around Penmillard Farm. I say I found it but unfortunately I didn't actually see it - it just called three times from one of the gardens before presumably moving on with the Long-tailed and Blue Tits. My birthday luck continues!!

Tip of the day - literally! Don't go for a pee in a nettle patch...

Saturday, 15 October 2011

And as if by magic....(with apologies to Mr Ben)

The birds appeared!

That easterly wind completely transformed the peninsula with wave upon wave of pipits, hirundines, larks and finches moving through all morning. Expectation was high for a fly-over goodie but despite searching the fields for a couple of hours nothing out of the ordinary could be found.
This wagtail with white coverts had me going for a while, but I think any hope of lucopsis is just clutching at (very short) straws

It's a heavy crop in a strong wind so please excuse the quality!!

Coming up with any numbers is always difficult with birds moving constantly. I'm pretty sure that around 300 linnets is about right because they were pretty settled in a couple of newly ploughed fields. As for the rest - well 100+ Goldfinch;200+ Meadow Pipit;  400-500 Skylarks and about the same number of Swallows, with a few House Martins for added interest. I missed the 100+ Redwing that Bruce found earlier in the morning but managed to catch up with a couple gorging on berries around the church.

I tried to take a few photos of the movement but with a 120-400mm lens the field of view was very narrow and my futile attempts don't convey just how many birds were moving through:

 Part of a group of Skylarks moving east over the Military Road Penlee looking over Towards Maker.
 More Skylarks moving east.
Linnets taking advantage of a newly ploughed field.

Most of the movement was over by midday though a few hirundines continued to move through until mid afternoon. It certainly kept the local raptors busy and two Kestrels and at least three Sparrowhawks were in view almost constantly. A Merlin was also buzzing the area though sadly it wasn't the kind I was hoping to see!

Surprisingly, given the numbers of birds moving through, there were considerably fewer around the church and down at Forder. The Firecrest from yesterday had disappeared and most of the Goldcrest and Chiffchaff had gone too. It only takes one bird though and with continuing easterlies I hope it won't be long until something rather special turns up!

Friday, 14 October 2011

A Game of Two Halves

In essence - lovely in Saltash, foggy at Rame, sunny at Forder, still foggy at Rame.
 The wind has moved around to the east- only slightly but it's amazing how it gives you that extra 'pep' with the expectation of finding good things. There were  certainly more birds around the church today than I've seen all week, including a fine mixed group of Goldfinch, Chaffinch and, thankfully, Greenfinch - a species we've seen all too little of this year. The star bird however had to be the Firecrest flitting around the holly and sycamores

I didn't get a photo but it does give me the opportunity to show this from earlier in the year.

Down at Forder the sun was out bird activity was high with good numbers of Goldcrest and Tits, including some new Coal Tits. Three male Blackcap were also new so I have high hopes for this site over the next few days.
I've been looking for opportunities to photograph common birds as I think we tend to neglect them at the expense of more glamorous rarities, so it was nice to have the opportunity, albeit brief to grab a couple of shots of this:

Back up at Rame Head and the fog was persisting making finding anything very difficult. The Yellowhammer group was in its usual place but sadly today without any accompanying Cirl Buntings. The Meadow Pipit group has built up to around 50 birds so I'll be keeping a close eye on those over the next few days. The resident Kestrel was also loafing around the Coastguard station, occasionally dropping to the ground for worms. She is getting remarkably used to humans and allowed me to get nice and close for this shot:

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Bio Blitz

Just got back from a two-day marathon recording session at Mt Edgcumbe. The event was organized by the Marine Laboratory in Plymouth and aimed to record as many species as possible between 11:00am on 30th September and 1:00pm on 1st October. The place was crawling with recorders and volunteers documenting everything from plants to fishes, moths to mammals - and of course birds.

Bruce and I did the Friday stint - and it was a bit of a slog. The empty corner lived up to its name and birds were hard to come by, we spent hours looking for a Great Tit - and we didn't find Dunnock or Pied Wagtail all day. Even the resident Gadwall, present for 10 years eluded us!! Other creatures were also thin on the ground but a nice Male Emperor came to check us out.

Saturday was much better, and substituting Bruce for Derek we decided to try our luck in the Deerpark. Vis mig was pretty good and fly-over Siskins reached about 100. We had a Lesser Redpoll, which was nice, but bird of the day came in the form of a fantastic adult male Cirl Bunting which passed over our heads. This was at least 3km from the nearest breeding site so I'm not convinced it was a wanderer from there.

We arrived back at the pool to watch Mark giving a ringing demonstration. We had missed a fly-over Crossbill but it was fantastic to watch him showing Blue Tits, Great Tits and Goldcrests to a captivated audience. One of theGoldcrests sat for a while after release and allowed me to get a nice picture.

During the ringing session I had a phone call from Ray to say that Mike had just seen an Ortolan Bunting at Penlee so after finishing at Mt Edgcumbe I headed up onto the Military road to see what I could find. I met Mike and Tony who hadn't had any luck since the first sighting at 09:15. This didn't bode well but I decided that the only thing to do was to go looking for it so a little field walking was needed. A few Wheatears were welcome and I managed to get off one shot of a bird before it disappeared.

I put up a couple of Yellowhammers and a bunting with a seemingly concolorous brown back and rump which scarpered into the next field before I could get a decent look at it but it seemed a good candidate for the Ortolan. I went to have a look but if you knew the size of the field you'd realise how fruitless the task was. All wasn't in vain however because I disturbed a Short-eared Owl which glided low across the field before ditching in the dump- not the most salubrious place to spend the rest of the day.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Exception that proves the rule...

Up to Davidstow this morning to have a look for the Buff-breasted Sandpiper as well as a White-rumped Sand and a Temminck's Stint which have been present on the airfield.
 Davidstow is not part of the empty corner so what better way to start this blog than by proving the point and travelling elsewhere to see some birds?

Unfortunately the rain decided to play its part and hamper viewing and photography conditions making it almost impossible to wind the car window down to view the birds. Having said that, the Buff-breast was fairly easy to find wandering about on the short grass and puddles along with a few Ringed Plover and Dunlin. The other two didn't want to play, and who could blame them?