Saturday 26 August 2017

Yellow fever on Portland

The weather has again been changeable, unpredictable and anything like Summer. And just for good measure, the first Atlantic depression named Hurrican Gert hit Cornwall last weekend bringing with it a raft of unusual seabirds.  The highlights were two Fea's Petrels, one seen from a special pelagic boat trip out of Falmouth (Sunday 20th) and another on the same day from Chynhalls Point, Coverack.  A Wilson's Petrel was also seen from Coverack on the same day and another Wilson's was retrospectively identified from photo's.  On the Scilly Isles, the Wilson's Petrel, which breeds in the South Atlantic, has been recorded from special seabird pelagic trips a record 25 times on the bounce.  Thousands of Manx Shearwaters can be seen from most headlands as the numbers build up before finally migrating en masse south to Argentina.

The major attraction this week though has been England's first Amercan Yellow Warbler, found by Portland birder Duncan Walbidge at Culverwell, Portland Bill.  This bird hit the headlines and even featured in the local BBC news.  Not without good reason though.  Not only is this the first record for England, its also the first record on the British mainland and also the earliest ever North American passerine to find its way to these shores.  As expected, interest was naturally high and some 100 birders connected with it on the day it arrived (Mon 21st).  Sadly it departed overnight, much to the disappointment of the assembled 250 or so birders desperate for the tick next day.

Yellow Warbler is a common and widespread songbird in North America and Canada.  The species winters in northern South America and the southern states of North America.  The Portland bird no doubt was migrating south towards its wintering quarters and blown off course by hurricane Gert.  How it found its way to Portland will be open to discussion.  Of interest, a second Yellow Warbler was found on the same day in Ireland.

(article prepared for the Sunday Independent column).

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.