Sunday, 13 August 2017

Seabird pelagic magic continues

Unsettled and changeable weather has again been the feature of the last two weeks, no doubt caused by the jet stream lying to south of the UK.  For the holiday maker hordes visiting the west country, the position of the jet stream will be a consternation.  But for the keen birder, this will mean Utopia as unusual seabirds push further north than normal.

The highlight of the past fortnight must surely be the most incredible gathering of seabirds seen from the Sapphire pelagic trip off Scilly on the 3rd August.  A huge raft of some 4500 shearwaters including 750 Great Shearwaters, 250 Cory's Shearwaters and a respectable 15 Wilson's Petrels put on a feeding frenzy display, fuelled by Bluefin Tuna creating a vast bait ball of food.  Bob Flood from Scilly, an experienced seabirder with over 700 pelagic trips under his belt had "never seen anything like this before".

Back on the Cornwall mainland, I was fortunate to be beside the visiting Yorkshire birder who found Cornwall's 11th Fea's Petrel off Porthgwarra on the 2nd August. Some 50 or so birders had also read the weather reports correctly and made the long trip to Cornwall.  This extreme south westerly point of the county has an unusual history of turning out rarities. Indeed the Fea's Petrel was the tenth record for Porthgwarra.  And just for the cetaceanistas, a Minke Whale and 30 Common Dolphins were seen off Tater Du on a peleagic trip out of Penzance on the 10th August.

Devon has also shared in the spoils with a Barolo Shearwater seen off Prawle Point on the 3rd August.  This species is a real rarity with just 81 UK records but in the last ten years, sightings have dropped away making this species a top prize.

Away from seabirds, the Cornwall Birdwatching Society has just released news that Cattle Egret has bred for the first time in Cornwall. Four adults and a newly fledged juvenile were seen at Walmsley Sanctuary, Wadebridge this week.  This heron has been expanding its range from the Mediterranean and it was only time before it bred here.  Also at Walmsley, 14 Glossy Ibis put in an appearance last week, joined by three more this week.  One was a young ringed bird and traced back to a ringing program in Donana, south Spain.  The extreme heatwave in that area is  no doubt pushing birds north to the UK.

Looking forward, the next two or three weeks, seabirds will still feature high on the agenda.  Early September will see the wader migration move in to top gear.  Bring it on!
Great Shearwater off Tater Du, Cornwall

Minke Whale, off Tater Du, Cornwall, August 2017.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Seabird bonanza in the west country

The weather over the last two weeks has been very favourable.  That is to birders.  Seabird enthusiasts to be exact.  July is fast becoming a very important month in the birding calendar for finding rare seabirds in the south west.  Cornwall, Devon and even Dorset have been rewarded with some exceptional sightings.   I say "even Dorset" as this county is not renowned for rare seabird sightings, but a Great Shearwater normally seen off Cornwall and Devon coasts, gave stunningly close views off Portland on the 26th.  Many experienced Dorset birders had not previously seen this bird in their county.

The highlight for Devon was the county's 5th Fea's Petrel, video'd off Berry Head, South Devon on the 11th July.  This species breeds in the eastern Atlantic islands and just a handful of birds are seen annually, usually off Cornwall, Scilly or south west Ireland.

Off Scilly, the famous summer pelagic boat trips on the Sapphire boat have logged several rare Wilson's Petrels, most offering close views.  On 27th an incredible 20  were logged.  Cornwall has had its fair share of rarities though with six sightings of Wilson's Petrel (three from pelagics out of Penzance), the others from the Lizard and Porthgwarra.  The Lizard scored well on the 21st July with 296 Cory’s Shearwater, 66 Great Shearwater, 9 Sooty Shearwater, 1 Balearic Shearwater, 1 Long-tailed Skua, 1 Pomarine Skua, 6 Great Skua, 2 Arctic Skua, 109 Storm Petrel, 1 Wilson’s Petrel and 1 Sabine’s Gull.

Arguably, the best day was Saturday 22nd July when a strong candidate for Scopoli's Shearwater was seen off Porthgwarra.  If accepted, this would be the first record for Cornwall.  Depending on who you talk to, Scopoli's has not been granted its own status, rather a sub species of Cory's Shearwater.  The small size, different underwing plumage and geographically distant breeding populations will surely see a status change soon.  A large all dark petrel was seen by one lucky observer later in the day from the same site. 

Looking forward, August is equally a great month for seabirds and all eyes will be on weather forecasts for those big Atlantic low pressures.  We will also start to see the southerly movement of waders as they move out of their Arctic breeding grounds.  All in all, a busy time ahead.
Record shot of Wilson's Petrel, one of two seen off Penzance on a pelagic

Great Shearwater off Penzance, July 2017

Storm Petrel off Penzance, July 2017

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Amur Falcon - first record for Cornwall

On Thursday evening on the 6th July, west Cornwall birder Mark Wallace found the rarest bird of his career so far.  A regular walk after tea down Bosisto Lane chanced upon the county's first ever Amur Falcon, a small falcon displaced thousands of miles from where it should be.  After some discussion and checking of photos, the bird was identified as a first summer female (i.e. a young bird no more than a year old, aged by the heavy wear to the flight feathers and scapulars). The news was duly relayed and a few locals connected that evening.  At first light on Friday (05.38) some 200 of the UK's keenest assembled for a sighting.  They were not disappointed as it was found roosting in a bush by the side of the road near the disused quarry.  It remained at the roost site until 09.20 when it flew off towards Nanjizal.  It was briefly seen in flight at 11.03 and that was the last sighting.

The key question is how did it find its way to west Cornwall? One will never know for sure. One theory is that it could have hooked up with migrating Red-footed Falcons coming out of Africa and wandered with them in to western Europe.  Given the high number of vagrant Red-foots in the UK alone, its a plausible theory.

The record is the first for Cornwall and only the second for Britain, following a male in Yorkshire at Tophill Low from 14th Sept to 15th Oct 2008.  This bird was misidentified as a Red-footed Falcon throughout its stay and was only identified retrospectively in photos.

The species breeds in south-eastern Siberia and Northern China before migrating in large flocks across India and over the Arabian Sea to winter in Southern Africa.  The route that they take from Africa back to their breeding grounds is as yet unclear.  It was earlier treated as a subspecies of the red-footed falcon (Falco vespertinus) and was known as Eastern Red-footed Falcon.

Addendum:

Completely unexpectedly, the bird was re found on Monday morning (17th July, ten days after it was last seen), by Jean Lawman in the St Buryan area.  She was reasonably sure this was the same bird that she had seen many photos of. A phone call to John Swann led to Royston and John Ryan checking it out.  After some searching it was refound and confirmed at 12.35, again at Crean with two Hobby's at 13.05, then back at the Crows-an-Wra substation at 17.15 til dusk.  In the intervening period, there were also two unconfirmed reports at St Levan and St Gennys.

First summer female Amur Falcon, Steve Rogers.

Image by Lee Evans.

Amur Falcon by John Chapple




One good tern deserves another (article prepared for Sunday Independent column)

The last couple weeks of June has seen some variable and extreme weather.  High temperatures reached that of the famous '76 summer peak of 35 degrees.  The latter part of the month saw heavy rain.  A change of weather usually means a change of birds.  And June didn't disappoint.

The highlight of the month goes to the Elegant Tern, first appearing in a tern colony in Hampshire at Hayling Island on the 7th June.  The bird was wearing colour rings which proved it to be the same bird as seen on the French Atlantic coast since 2002.  It was trapped and ringed in Gironde in July 2003.  The first British record was at Dawlish Warren in May 2002.  The records quite likely to refer to the same bird, which has also been seen in southern Spain and twice in South Africa!  To the delight of Dorset birders, it was relocated at Brownsea Island on the 21st June. (There are three other yet to be accepted records in the UK).

Remaining with the seabird theme, Cornish sea watchers have been rewarded with early sightings of some of the rarer shearwaters including Cory's Shearwater (breeds in the Mediterranean and Canary Islands), Sooty Shearwater and Great Shearwater  (both breed in the South Atlantic).  Several Wilson's Petrels have been seen from specialist pelagic trips from Scilly and SW Ireland.  The latter three species have already bred during the south Atlantic summer and are now migrating north on circum-polar route covering eastern North America and then south via the Western Approaches.  Cornwall and Scilly are thus perfectly geographically positioned to see these birds.  Depending on wind direction and strength, Porthgwarra, Cape Cornwall, Pendeen and St Ives are ideal sites to see them.

Disappointing news has been announced by the RSPB this week. The rare and protected Hen Harrier has declined considerably and is on the brink of extinction in England.  Just four pairs bred in 2016. The reasons are habitat destruction and persecution by game keepers on grouse moors.  Hen Harrier retains a foothold in Scotland Ireland but even here, numbers are in decline.  The last pair to breed in Cornwall was way back in 2002 when three young fledged.  How things can turn.


Thursday, 15 June 2017

Common Whitethroat feeding young

I had a chance to photo a family of six Whitethroats last week, with both parents feeding four young. It was great to see them out in the open.  In West Penwith, the Whitethroat is the most common breeding warbler.  The species breeds throughout Europe and across much of temperate western Asia. This small passerine is strongly migratory and winters in tropical Africa and Pakistan.



Monday, 12 June 2017

Second calendar year Turnstones in June in Cornwall

There was a maximum count of 18 Turnstones in Mounts Bay on Sunday.  Given the date and the condition of the plumage, these birds are not quite full adult birds, ie second calendar year birds which have not migrated north to the Arctic to breed.  Presumably they will stay in the area until next Spring.  Of interest I also saw two Sanderlings in similar plumage but all the Purple Sandpipers have now moved on.





Birder's Diary - early June 2017

June is traditionally a quieter time for birding.  Spring migration is a distant memory and the breeding season is well under way. The month can be very good for rarities and non breeding sub-adult birds can often be found.  One such spectacle in west Cornwall is the now annual Red Kite movement. This year followed the trend of the last ten years. During a ten day period from 25th May, reports came in thick and fast with high counts at Polgigga (57), Sancreed (50), Connor Downs (42), Camborne (25) and Hayle (23). Over 363 birds were reported from 47 locations. There were of course duplicate observations of the same birds, but still high numbers and of course,  always a pleasure to see. The following day sightings were received from 57 locations and appeared to be more evenly spread across the county with over 375 individuals reported. (per Cornwall-Birding). The general consensus is that these birds are 2nd and 3rd year birds not mature enough to breed, thus wandering from their natal breeding areas. Eventually funnelling down to west Cornwall, they congregate and feed in the ploughed fields of the far west.  The vast majority are thought to be UK based birds. A colour wing tagged bird was identified last year and was raised in Gosforth.  To date, no Red Kites (yet) breed in Cornwall.

Staying with the raptor theme, Red-footed Falcons have been noted more-or-less daily from Nanjizal, The Lizard and the Hayle Kymbro area.  Great White Egrets have been seen at Loe Pool and Stithians.  This once rare species seems to be following its smaller relation and increasingly frequent. The species barely raises an eye brow compared to just five years ago.

Looking forward, the sea watching season is fast approaching.  Keen birders will be watching the weather closely and anticipating strong south westerly or westerly gales.  Porthgwarra, Pendeen and St Ives will be the hotspots.  The first Wilson's Petrel of the year has already been sighted off Scilly. Download your wind apps such as Magic Seaweed for more weather details.

Red Kite, Raftra Farm, St Leven
(note: this article has been prepared for inclusion in the Sunday Independent.)

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Diary - end of May 2017

The last ten days has been a bit busy. I took a week off work and did a UK road trip, seeing some relations in Dorset, friends in Yorkshire, fell walking in the Lake District and finally watching my daughter complete the Edinburgh Marathon on Sunday.  Needless to say, I managed to get some decent birding in on the way.

The highlight for me was my second visit this Spring to Ham Wall in Somerset.  Anyone who hasn't been is really missing something special.  Its basically a heron-fest with some decent raptors thrown in for good measure.  The undoubted highlight is the territorial male Little Bittern. I heard it "singing", or rather barking its single note pretty much continuously.  I got two flight views, long enough to get a few record shots.   In addition, there are several Cattle Egret, Great White Egret, Bittern, Marsh Harrier, Hobby, Garganey, Gadwall, Pochard and Tufted Duck.  There is also a Red-footed Falcon at the time of writing!

We also visited Slimbridge and Upton Warren in the Midlands.  I was surprised to see so many Avocet now breeding here.  They also breed in the Cardiff area I'm told, so perhaps its no surprise that we are seeing more in Cornwall recently.  The Black-tailed Godwits were in full breeding plumage and looked really impressive.  Next stop for them is Iceland.


I managed to see the stunning adult Temminck's Stint at Ryan's Field on Tuesday after work.  Whilst this is a regular passage migrant on  the English east coast, it is decidedly rarer in the West Country.  I have only seen two prior to this bird. The previous bird was also an adult at Ryan's Field.




Adult Temminck's Stint, Ryan's Field, Hayle, May 30th 2017.


Monday, 22 May 2017

Birder's Diary prepared for the Sunday Independent

The weather has again been unsettled and changeable with heavy rain over the weekend (19th/20th)followed by soaring temperatures. A change of weather brings a change of birds and on Sunday a stunning Bee-eater was found at Connor Downs.  It stayed long enough for several local birders to see it. New discoveries included an Iberian Chiffchaff at Prussia Cove.  This once rare warbler is now annual in Cornwall and can be found with experience by listening for its distinctive song. A stunning Bee-eater pleased many local birders on Sunday evening at Connor Downs.  The adult Purple Heron remained faithful to its favourite ponds on the Tresillian River at Probus.

Away from Cornwall, I paid a visit to the famous RSPB Ham Wall in Somerset on Sunday.  This stunning site never fails to impress and each visit seems to improve on the last.  Great views were had of Marsh Harriers passing food kills, 20+ Hobby's hawking dragonflies, Great Crested Grebes feeding young, Cattle Egrets and Great White Egrets feeding in the ponds, pairs of Gadwalls and Pochards chasing each other around the marshes, Bitterns flying around and booming and Cetti's Warblers feeding young.  It's all very reminiscent of a marsh in the Mediterranean.

Looking forward, the end of May and June can always bring the unexpected.  Whilst the local birds are settled in to their nesting and raising young, non breeding wanderers and extreme rarities can turn up.  Another recent phenomenon is the annual Red Kite movement in west Cornwall and the Lizard area.  All eyes will be in the sky looking out for this impressive raptor in the next couple weeks.

Male Marsh Harrier at Ham Wall Somerset

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Birder's Update early May

The last two weeks has seen unsettled weather with temperatures ranging from 17 degrees to as low as 7 degrees.  Wind direction has varied from south easterly to north westerly and has been gale force at times.  Birders always keep a close eye on the weather as it influences what can potentially be found. 

Spring migration peaks in mid May and thereafter falls away quickly. The period has produced  a good number of rarities though many have been seen by single observers only. New discoveries all have a distinct Mediterranean flavour and have included an adult Purple Heron near Probus, White Stork at Tregoss, Kentish Plover at Sennen Beach, flyover Bee Eaters at St Levan, Red-rumped Swallow at Marazion Marsh,  Alpine Swift and Red-throated Pipit at Pendeen, several Serins, five Woodchat Shrikes and perhaps up to ten Hoopoes this Spring.  In terms of national status, Montagu's Harrier, the rarest of all UK breeding raptors, a juvenile (ringtail) was seen at Coombe on 14th May.

Wader passage has been light compared to past years but fair numbers of Sanderlings, Dunlins, Ringed Plovers and Turnstones have been seen at typical coastal sites. Purple Sandpipers have peaked at 42 birds at Battery Rocks, Penzance. Most of them are now in full summer breeding plumage. By June they will all be on territory in the high Arctic.

Away from Cornwall, an Eastern Subalpine Warbler and potential first record for Devon was found on Sunday at Dawlish Warren.  


Adult Purple Sandpiper, Penzance.
note: This is an article specially prepared for the Sunday Independent newspaper.