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.