Adventures in an empty corner

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

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Petrel Station

Mid June in England and it seems that all we have to look forward to is rain and strong winds. Of course if you live near the coast and have an interest in birds this is not a hardship, so today with a gale force SW wind and periods of heavy rain I headed out to Hannafore with fairly high hopes.
I've blogged a few times about Hannafore but I don't think I've ever described the place or explained why it is one of my favourite places. Hannafore is actually Hannafore Point, a 400m rocky beach at West Looe. It has a promenade at sea level and a parallel road which is raised atop a grassy bank/sea wall. The river Looe provides the eastern boundary and there is a vegetated area to the west which holds a decent variety of birds, especially in winter as it very rarely freezes. So far so ordinary. Although it is called Hannafore Point please don't get the idea that the place is on a headland or juts out into the sea - quite the opposite. Hannafore is actually in Whitsand Bay and is ostensibly as far from a decent seawatching spot as it is possible to get.

 What I've so far neglected to mention is that just 1km offshore is Looe Island, also known as St.George's Island. The lee of the island provides shelter from the prevailing SW winds, and over the 20 odd years I've been coming here I've become convinced that birds getting blown into the bay use the island as a navigation aid to help them reorientate back out to sea. This brings them within 1km or so of anyone watching. The traditional seawatching spot is from the ladies toilets! There's a lovely big awning where three people at a pinch (and there's never more than three people at Hannafore) can stand completely sheltered from the wind and rain. The coastguard lookout is also a good place to try, and recently I've been seawatching from my car, thanks to the recent purchase of a camera beanbag which steadies a scope beautifully.

Looe Island from Hannafore.

Looking east from nearby Portnadler with Rame Head in the distance.

Don't get me wrong, it's no Porthgwarra, St.Ives or Pendeen. Good seabirds here are counted in singles, and the thought of a Fea's or even a Great Shearwater is just the stuff of dreams. Nevertheless, given the right conditions birds do pass by.

Today was just one of those days, and this being mid-summer the target birds were Storm Petrel and Balearic Shearwater. Stormie was pretty easy to find- I wound my car window down and one was already dancing over the waves some 300m offshore. The local birds were out in force with Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls passing constantly, Shags and Cormorants fishing in the channel and Fulmars cresting the white horses. Out beyond the island was a regular stream of Manx Shearwaters and Gannets. Unfortunately they were all at a distance where it was impossible to tell whether any Balearic were present.

A late Whimbrel on the beach was a nice surprise, and the appearance of a few more Stormies was particularly pleasing. Three or four seemed to be hanging around a group of yellow flags so I suspect there was some sort of food source there. A pale phase Arctic Skua dodged a nasty squall and headed west, and a group of Oystercatchers, presumably breeding birds from the island called loudly as they were disturbed by the incoming tide and tried to land on the few remaing rocks on the beach.

A second Arctic Skua, this one a dark phase passed by to the south of the island amongst the Manxies, and this was followed minutes later by another skua which decided to have a go at a hapless Herring Gull. The agility of the bird, combined with its size had me thinking it must be a Pom as both birds disappeared in the murk. It was actually a Bonxie which reappeared, powering past a couple of Petrels and off into the distance.

The rain had set in by now and visibility was pretty poor. It had been an engrossing two hours, with 14 Storm Petrels a match for anywhere else in Cornwall today. As I said before, Hannafore isn't a seawatching mecca, but I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Long time no see

I hadn't realised that it has been so long since I updated this blog, but truth be told I haven't really done that much to warrant committing it to cyberspace. Of course I've been out birding but the quality has been pretty poor and the spring migration has sort of passed me by.

Recently I've been spending my free time writing species accounts for the Cornwall Bird Report - I've now only got hirundines and Rock Pipit to do, which I hope to finish this weekend. Dave and Mark will be pleased!!! Writing about all these fabulous birds is no substitute for actually going out and seeing them, so as today was rather sunny I decided to spend a day in the field.

 I chose to forgo the delights of coastal birding at Rame for the chance of actually seeing something in the Fowey Valley - the very northern tip of the empty corner. On a good day this is birding at its best - and easiest! A good spread of species in a very small area, and all within yards of where you are standing. Locally the area is known as Ninestones, and on a warm sunny day there really is nowhere nicer.

As soon as I stepped out of the car I could hear at least two Cuckoos, and after a quick scan I could see one of them on a distant fence post with the characteristic drooping wings. The other dominant sound was Willow Warbler, they were everywhere. I really don't know of another site, at least not locally, where this species is so abundant. Of course this doesn't make them any easier to photograph!

Thinking about it, most of the birding here is done by ear, at least initially. Birds are calling everywhere and from every bush so it is as well that you know your bird calls before venturing too far - more of which later. A flyover Tree Pipit was nice, and a distant Grasshopper Warbler reeled briefly, but my attention was drawn to the unmistakable wheezing call of a Willow Tit. This is the real prize species here, and you are not guaranteed to find them on every visit. Willow Tit is a very rare bird in Cornwall with only around 15 pairs, mostly in this valley. The birds at Lower Tamar Lake don't count - they're in Devon! I was lucky today with at least three birds calling and feeding along the track.

Blackcaps were singing, and I could just make out the song of a Garden Warbler amongst them. I felt very pleased with myself when he popped out of the bush for a look around, confirming my identification.

In the distance was the one bird I really wanted to see - Redstart. He was singing in a far off group of trees - if you  can really call it a song. I always think that the male sounds like he starts off meaning well but then loses interest and forgets about a proper ending. I may have really wanted to see him but I'm afraid I had no luck tracking him down - most frustrating.

One bird which should have been present is Sedge Warbler. It struck me at the time how odd it was that I didn't hear one. I hope nothing has happened to this species this year. I was  up at Walmsley a few days ago and was surprised to only see two. Of course they are probably doing just fine, and it is my bird finding skills which are at fault.

Thinking back to that Tree Pipit got me wondering about a breeding site I found a few years ago when surveying for the Cornish Atlas so I decided to go and check it out. This involved a short drive to the very western tip of the empty corner - talk about birding the extremities! Again there were plenty of Willow Warblers and Blackcap singing, along with Robin and Chiffchaff. And then the strangest thing happened. I heard a Lesser Whitethroat. That buzzing Cirl Bunting like call is one I haven't heard for a couple of years in Cornwall, so it really made my day. Of course I didn't see it - it was in the middle of a thick expanse of scrub  but it didn't really matter. I waited a while and was just about to move off when a Yellowhammer flew out of the scrub and began to sing - minus the cheeeese!! Had I got it wrong? Had I mistaken Yellowhammer for Lesser Whitethroat? Surely I couldn't be that naive? Well we'll never know for sure. The Lesser Whitethroat didn't sing again after the Yellowhammer flew off, but then he hadn't sung for at least five minutes before the Yellowhammer showed up. I'm confident there were two birds - but then I would say that, wouldn't I?

Oh - and as for the Tree Pipits, like me, they'd moved on too.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Ruffing it!

Looking out of my back bedroom window I can see the Tamar estuary up as far as Skinham Point. This means that I can see the entrance to Kingsmill Lake, and I have often put the 'scope up to have a look at the Avocets and Black-tailed Godwit as they congregate at the mouth of the lake on a rising or falling tide. Over the years I have seen some decent birds from home, including Cattle Egret, Osprey and oddities such as Velvet Scoter. What I seldom do however is actually take the trouble to walk out to the lake to see what is in  there. This is unforgivable given that it is so close and in the past I have found Least Sandpiper, Bonaparte's Gull, Pec Sand and numerous Ospreys in there.

The report of a Ruff there at the begining of December was interesting but hardly earth shattering news so I didn't bother to go and have a look at a bird which had already been found by someone else. Last night however I had an email from Mike, who originally found the bird, enclosing a photo which clearly showed a Lesser Yellowlegs. Mike said that he had only seen the bird on four occasions since the first sighting and each time it had been at a great distance. He had always suspected that it wasn't a Ruff but because of the viewing distance and his unfamiliarity with American tringa species he preferred to exercise caution. Yesterday however it came close enough to get a digiscoped photo which allowed me confirm his ID.

This morning I was down there to catch the falling tide to try and relocate the bird. I always have a great time when I get to the site so it is even more perverse that I go so seldom. Today was no different with decent numbers of Dunlin, Curlew, Redshank and Black-tailed Godwit. Searching around turned up a couple of Knot and a Spotted Redshank. A nice male Shoveler was a surprise here and a dozen or so Greenshank completed the wader line-up. After an hour or so I was joined by Mike who had brought Ray along with him. Ray saw the last Yellowlegs on the Tamar in 1958 which was on the Devon side. I've never been convinced by the record from Millbrook -to me it was a Juv Redshank, but it was accepted by BBRC so technically this bird would be the second for Caradon.

After a further twenty minutes or so I suddenly saw the bird feeding on the edge of the saltmarsh. It was at least 250m away but was identifiable all the same. Mike got on to it and Ray got it just before it disappeared up a channel. This was to be the pattern of the morning - a couple of minutes on view followed by fifteen minutes of waiting for it to reappear. We used the time when it was out of view to phone around a few locals and put the news out to Birdline SW. Keith arrived in the hide, followed soon after by a reappearance from the Yellowlegs,and this time it flew a short way allowing us to see the white rump. It was still a long way off but at least we were getting views of it in the open

It had been a good morning, and it was particularly nice that before I left Steve arrived and was able to get to see the bird - even if it had only been there for 90 days!

Sunday, 26 February 2012

A Change is Gonna Come (with apologies to Sam Cooke)

First day out today for quite a while. Work commitments have curtailed my birding since the New Year so the fact that today dawned bright and sunny added to the desire to get down to Hannafore to see what was about.

Spring is most definitely in the air, and the short drive down to Looe was very pleasant with the hedges full of daffodils and primroses. I was out and about before the Sunday drivers too so the journey was nicely uneventful and stress free. Unfortunately the same couldn't be said for Hannafore - the dog walkers were already on the beach and the usual wader roost site had become a spaniel playground. This is a frequent occurance and there's nothing we can do about it. It seems to have been going on for ever but it doesn't seem to discourage the birds, they just move out to the rocks to roost.

Dog walkers were not the only distraction. I hadn't been there long when I heard the distinctive "Oop-oop-oop"of a Hoopoe. I was naturally delighted and looked around to try and find it. This would be my second Hoopoe in Looe, the first was about six years ago when myself and Steve went to check out the Heronry which is opposite the municipal car-park. As it was early morning the car-park was empty and I took my time trying to find the best parking spot. I located my chosen space and was just about to drive into it when I had to brake suddenly because a Hoopoe was nonchalantly walking up the white line. That bird was in May, but with the weather we've had over the last few days a February bird was surely not out of the question. I followed the sound of the bird and came upon this:

Some bloke practicing his flute - pity the only noise he could make was a Hoopoe imitation!

With hopes of a goody dashed it was time to check what else was around. The weather notwithstanding it is obvious that the change to Spring is just around the corner.The Meadow Pipits have already departed and the Rock Pipits, which reached up  to 50 in December, are now down to around 15. None of them are yet showing any signs of being definite littoralis but I suspect that will change over the next couple of weeks. Turnstone numbers are also down to about half their winter peak. A new arrival was a Common Sandpiper which dashed along the bay, first one way, and then the other. This is the first one I've seen there this winter and I suspect is a bird on the move rather than an overlooked wintering bird.

At first sight the bushes were surprisingly empty, though the local Dunnocks and Blackbirds must be the most photogenic in Cornwall:

As if not to be outdone by all this showing off for the camera, a Common Chiffchaff put in an appearance and performed beautifully

At times this bird came so close it was almost possible to touch it, and this brought back memories of the tristis type which was present last year which behaved in exactly the same way - I wonder if there is a reason for it?

tristis type from Jan 11

The Black Redstart, present since January put in an appearance but was surprisingly distant and elusive. Other birders here keep telling me of the amazing photo opportunities they have had with this bird but I just can't get the shot I want. Yes it comes close at times but as Hannafore faces south there is always a problem with the light, and if the bird is on the beach you are looking down on it, which does nothing for the composition - still if you're happy with photos like this!

I was soon joined by Gary and we spent an enjoyable hour or so watching the Chiffchaff and Black Redstart, but always keeping an eye out for something else. A Peacock butterfly was a first of the year for both of us, and the Mediterranean Gull group on the rocks reached an impressive 13 birds, but that hoped for Firecrest or Iceland Gull never materialised.

Not content with a Hoopoe imitating flautist, the appearance of the sun also brought out a group of ...well, I don't quite know what they were. I think they were Spanish, but I don't think that Spaniards as a nation routinely walk onto beaches, dance around in a circle, shake their hands about a bit and then go they?

Going home after a bit of a dance!

There was no bird at Hannafore that could possibly top that performance and with a lunchtime bacon butty and an afternoon painting windows beckoning I reckoned it was time to head home. It may still be an empty corner, but it's certainly not dull!

Monday, 2 January 2012

Forgive me for I have sinned!

I went and twitched a bird today.

I'm not adverse to a bit of twitching but I tend to be very selective about what I go to see. There is no real rhyme or reason about what I twitch, and it doesn't have to be a particularly rare bird. I'm not keen on crowds, though I do enjoy the banter with a few mates when I get there.

Today was just right, a nice Ring-necked Duck at Par. It's outside the empty corner- but only just, and with a Little Gull present as well it would make a nice excursion.

There's not really a lot more to say. I went to the pool, both birds were there, I took some photos and then came home. There was no stakeout, no fieldcraft was involved. There were no crowds, though there were quite a few birders coming and going (most of whom I didn't know)

The bird spent most of its time in the middle of the pool with a small group of Tufted Duck. It was way out of range of most lenses so I busied myself trying to take pleasing photos of the usual assortment of birds waiting for goodies at the feeding area.

I noticed that once the feeding area was clear of people the Tutfed/Ring-necked group would swim closer to shore so by waiting and waiting I managed to get a couple of passable record shots.

The Little Gull was a bugger though and constantly stayed just out of range. Ah well, there's always the chance of one at Millbrook I suppose.

What we did on our holidays

Once upon a time New Years Day would involve a bunch of us scurrying all over the empty corner trying to see as many species as possible in the eight hours or so of daylight available to us. It was great fun, but we did try to get in a full days birding in all sorts of inclement weather and I think these days I prefer to just head out to Hannafore to see what's about.
 This year I arrived just as the tide was peaking and found Gary already there, in the usual place looking out for passerines in the sheltered corner. From the car I could see that the three Slavonian grebes were still present and had been joined by a Great Crested Grebe. A juvenile male Kestrel was hunting the steep bank between the road and the promenade, and I made sure I got a good look at him given the luck that non-birding walkers from Knutsford had had at Zennor recently!!

Pipits were still there in good numbers and the ringed bird was particularly easy to pick out as it now has a dirty black mark on the right flank - I still couldn't read the ring though!

The only other passerines on the beach seemed to be Dunnock - which were everywhere. Conspicuous by their absence were the local Chaffinches and House Sparrows, hopefully they were feeding in the local gardens. I know that the Stonechats were wiped out here by the cold weather last winter but I hope it won't be long before they recolonise. Speaking of recolonisers, I had reports of Dartford Warbler in the field behind the beach last year so I hope to go and check them out soon - probably early April when the males start to sing. Diverting for a moment I always find Dartfords easiest to see before the Whitethroats get here - they seem to go quiet once their more numerous cousins arrive.

All of a sudden, and as if from nowhere, this little beauty arrived

She spent the next hour or so hopping between the wall, the beach, and surprisingly the nearby trees. We couldn't decide if two birds were involved or not - it seemed to move from one place to another amazingly quickly for a single bird, but we never actually saw two birds at once.

Out at sea a couple of Kittiwakes meandered across the bay and Gannets were fishing in the lee of the island, which is unusual here. A small flock of Wigeon passed through, but otherwise movement was non existent. Even the Med gulls had wandered off somewhere else with only one adult offshore.

The New Years Day Weather finally closed in and it started to rain - that cold uncomfortable rain which does nothing but make you miserable. I made my excuses and left. Not the most hardcore or the most exciting birding I'll do this year but it's a start, and as it's a leap year there are still 365 days to go.