This blog post is part of an ongoing series on Cornwall's Seawatching hotspots. Scroll down for Pendeen, Porthgwarra, St Ives Island and The Lizard:
This is my favourite seawatching site. Its not necessarily the best site in Cornwall but it has certain positives unmatched elsewhere. The main advantage at Pendeen is continual dawn to dusk viewing. The position of the sun is always favourable. The lack of glare makes Pendeen the perfect site for a full day's seawatch.
|A typical August seawatch from the lighthouse wall (Aug 2009)|
Other positives include ease of vehicle access, free parking and short walk to the viewing area. The latter is open to some debate though. There are four viewing areas, each having at least one positive attribute.
The least popular is the lower car park. Its exposed and essentially needs a vehicle to block the side wind. In the summer you are continually interrupted by visitors enquiring what the attraction is. The view is good and favours birding from your vehicle. Ideal if you're doing a quick visit or can't walk far. Mobile reception is poor. Otherwise, you're better off on the slope or by the lighthouse wall.
The two lower slope positions are the subject of much discussion. Some swear by the lower slope. Its main advantage is slightly closer views and a greater (longer) field of view. The negatives are the reduced time on a passing seabird, losing a small seabird in deep troughs and connecting with long distance seabirds, especially when well left of the left rock. In strong westerly's, you are more exposed to the elements. Mobile reception is non-existent. All of the above though will be argued all day long. It basically comes down to preference.
My favourite position and one that 75% of watchers prefer is below the lighthouse wall, as shown in the image below. The main benefit is protection from the westerly wind and a solid tripod platform. The view is more distant but the field of view is very wide, at least 180°. There is plenty of time to connect and ample time to study passing seabirds. There is space for 25+ birders and communication is easy. Mobile reception is reasonable here (3G and three bars) but impossible to connect to birders on the lower slope or the lower car park.
|Seawatch enthusiasts, Aug 2008, incl B Richards, J Foster, R Archer, S Rogers, R Wilkins, L Proctor, B Mellow.|
Pendeen is positioned on the "corner" of the north west coast of Cornwall. It is the final exit point for migrating seabirds as they head west in to the Atlantic. There's good reason why Pendeen Lighthouse was built here in 1900. More info on the lighthouse history HERE Pendeen Lighthouse and the viewing areas sit approximately 59m above sea level.
The wind direction is critical and just as important, is the preceding wind direction. Pendeen requires anything with West in it. There's nothing scientific in the following statement, but from experience, WSW to W in my opinion is the best direction yielding the best sessions. If the wind direction on the previous day or night is strong SW, then expect some fireworks!
NW is always worth a look. S through to E is unproductive.
Pendeen is excellent for variety of seabirds, terns, skuas, phalaropes, large shearwaters, petrels, waders, auks and gulls. A good seawatch can produce all of the above in a single session. I try to keep an open mind on everything passing. Always expect the unexpected is a good mind-set.
Pendeen is best known for certain species in different months, though anything can occur at any time.
August is traditionally better for Storm Petrel, Wilson's Petrel, Balearic Shearwater, thousands of Manx, Cory's Shearwater, all terns, Sabine's Gull, non breeding or failed breeding skuas and waders, especially Whimbrel.
September always feels like it should be brilliant. Recent years have failed to deliver a really good, memorable September, mainly because Atlantic weather systems seem to be tracking further north. As the season progresses, the following can be expected: Sabine's Gull, terns, Grey Phalarope, Storm Petrel, Leach's Petrel, Manx, Balearic, Sooty, Great Shearwaters, skuas, scoter and waders.
October and November favour Leach's Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, Great Shearwater, divers, skuas, especially Pomarine and Long-tailed, Kittiwake and auks often in their thousands. This is a spectacle in its own right.
Pendeen has had its share of mega rarities, though not guaranteed annually. There are just two records of Fea's Petrel, three Band-rumped Petrel (2007, 2009 and 2020), Red-billed Tropicbird (2015), Black-browed Albatross (2019), Barolo Shearwater (2019), Bridled Tern (2014) and Brown Booby (2019).
PORTHGWARRA (Gwennap Head)
This is my second favourite seawatch site. Despite some incredible rarities regularly seen from this famous site, it has one glaring problem - the position of the sun. Early morning starts are essential here, at least allowing a few hours good birding. By mid-morning the intense glare makes viewing difficult. As the season progresses, the sun rises further south adding to the problem. A dull grey, overcast day is a blessing here. The views can be distant but also with luck, fairly close. A decent 'scope is essential.
|Porthgwarra viewing area, looking SW towards the Runnelstone.|
The location has its drawbacks. Its not the easiest road to access, the walk up the coast path with all the gear requires fitness and the privately owned car park charges at least £8 for a full day session.
Seawatching at Porthgwarra starts properly in July and continues well into September. August is the optimum month. Indeed, many visiting birders combine a family holiday with a seawatch or two.
|Viewing SE is the Pinnacle, an important marker point.|
The viewing area is a few hundred meters east of Gwennap Head. Geographically, Gwennap is the final land mass that seabirds will see when departing South West England. Given its closeness to the Approaches, Porthgwarra scores highly against other sites further east. The viewing area is c200ft above sea level and is fairly exposed. There's not a lot of protection from the wind.
Given that the preferred wind direction here is S to SW, it stands to reason that you're facing the wind. In July and August, a strong southerly gale is always associated with rain. Waterproofs and warm kit are essential, even in August. WSW wind will most likely offer reasonable seawatching, but Pendeen would be better. Thus S to SW is really the only reliable direction.
July and August are the best months. Porthgwarra as a premier seawatching site came to prominence in the late1970's. A birder called Harry Robinson (HPKR) started finding Cory's Shearwaters summering off the Runnelstone Buoy area. Others took notice and soon the first Fea's Petrel was found in 1989. The rest is history.
Porthgwarra is the best site in the UK for seeing Fea's Petrel. Around 20 have been recorded here and August is the optimum month. Recent sea temperature increases seem to be holding birds in the area and point to multiple sightings of the same (?) bird.
Large shearwaters also feature in July and August. Both Cory's and Great are pretty much guaranteed in the correct conditions. 2022 was a record year for Great with around 14,000 counted in one day between Porthgwarra and Lizard in October. Balearic Shearwater is also guaranteed in numbers.
Storm Petrel can reach three figure counts and recently, Wilson's Petrel has been seen well. No fewer than six were counted in one day in August 2022 (on the same day as a Fea's). Leach's is rare on the South coast and normally appear later in the season. Madeiran Petrel (or Band-rumped Petrel as its now known) is also on the radar. One was seen well here in October 2022. At least another six were claimed in Cornwall in 2022. This species is clearly on the radar and if sea temperatures continue to rise, coupled with strong Southerly gales, we should see more of this species.
All four skuas pass Porthgwarra. Passage starts in May with adult Pomarine Skua. I have seen double figures here in years gone by. Sadly this spectacle seems consigned to memory. In the right conditions, which seems to be S or SE wind, small parties can still be seen here.
Early returning non breeder skuas start moving from July and continue through to September. Skua numbers are always greater though on the north coast. Terns and Kittiwake also pass by but in far lower numbers compared to Pendeen.
There is a little known Puffin movement in mid March here. Increased observation is required but essentially a SW (?) wind can push large numbers of Puffin towards the headland. 16th March 2019 recorded 717 here (and a further 2175 at nearby Mousehole). A high count of 1072 was made on 17th March 2020. Clearly more observation is required in the right conditions.
Extreme rarities here include an immature Black-browed Albatross (July 2001), ad White-billed Diver (May), Barolo Shearwater, Red-billed Tropicbird, Trindade Petrel (July 2018), Band-rumped Petrel (Oct 2022) and of course the Fea's Petrels.
ST. IVES ISLAND
St. Ives Island was once the premier UK seawatching site but its star has since fallen. St. Ives specifically requires a strong NW wind, preferably following an overnight strong SW gale. St. Ives' fame is based on a near mythical event on 3rd Sept 1983. The perfect storm of a SW gale followed by a NW howling storm did occur. I was lucky enough to be there. It was indeed incredible. Several stand-out species made their mark including 10,000+ Storm Petrel, 15 Leach's, 450 Bonxies, 100 plus Sabine's Gulls (all but three were adults), 4 Long-tailed Skua, 245 Arctic Skua, 20 Pomarine, 3 Roseate Terns, 2 Wilson's Petrel, 65 Great Shearwater and 250+ Sooty Shearwater plus well above average numbers of other seabirds. This has never been repeated.
There hasn't been another event like this since 1983 though the site still has two key positive benefits. The first positive is the incomparable closeness of passing seabirds as they battle against the wind while exiting the Bay. The second is potential for close photography. It has to be stressed though that the sea spray is substantial here and you have to be super careful with your expensive kit.
The negatives here are actually getting to St Ives Island and then parking your car. St Ives' upsurge in popularity means visitors pre book the car park solidly through to October. In the past, there was a sewage outlet below the island. For obvious reasons, this held significant feeding seabirds. "Sadly" the outlets have now been abandoned. Finally, a NW gale is quite rare in itself, perhaps just a couple events a season. The majority of birders now visit Pendeen, even in a North Westerly.
|View of St Ives Island, showing the NCI Watchpoint (courtesy St Ives Boat Trips).|
Several stand-out rarities have occurred here including Wilson's Petrel, Barolo Shearwater, Brown Booby, Bridled Tern (1982), Black-browed Albatross, White-billed Diver (wintered), Laughing Gull (wintered), Forster's Tern (1987). The site is best known for close views of Leach's Petrels, Sabines Gulls, skuas, terns, petrels, vast numbers of auks and Kittiwake in October and November.
Update: A 4th year Black-browed Albatross was seen from the island on 5th Jan 2023. Pete Nason saw the bird just 100m away. It was later seen from Clodgy Point and then from Gwithian. Photo's show this to be the same individual as seen from Quiberron, France on the 28th Dec 2022. The wind direction at St. Ives was SW...It pays to visit in any weather!
The site is not favoured for Cory's and Great Shearwater though. Pendeen always steals the limelight in this respect. Its now thought that large shears "straight line" from Southern Ireland to Land's End and in stronger westerly wind, "arc" in towards the Channel. Hence most (though not all) large shears are seen further out. Cory's and Great Shearwater are occasionally seen further east in the Bristol Channel, eg off Hartland Point, Devon and Trevose, Cornwall but numbers are far lower than from far west Cornish sites.
Specifically NW and preferably following a SW overnight gale. No other wind direction favours a St Ives seawatch.
The Lizard Point
The Lizard as a seawatching hotspot has only recently caught the eye. The last ten years has seen a solid crop of experienced, newly arrived resident birders, willing to put the hours in. Additionally, University graduates from Penryn need little encouragement to get involved and certainly bring value to the party.
|Lizard Point, with the reef exposed at low tide.|
|Viewed from the west side at high tide.|
A steady flow of quality seabirds have been recorded including Band-rumped Petrel and Caspian Tern in 2022. These two species alone confirm the massive potential here. Only time and analysis of the conditions will reveal more, but for now, the Lizard clearly makes the grade for a Cornish seawatching hotspot.
The positives are:
The geographical position, being the most southerly point in the UK.
The geography of the area, especially its proximity to Falmouth Bay as birds funnel past.
Anything "trapped" in Falmouth Bay and exiting the bay has to pass the point.
Viewing distances are similar to Porthgwarra and Pendeen, ie. not especially close but close enough for identifiable views (with a decent spotting scope).
A short walk from the car park to the Point itself.
The negatives are:
Position of the sun mid morning creates glare.
Little protection from the elements, especially in a direct southerly gale.
In the tourist season, the many visitors during the peak of the day can be distracting. Morning and evening are fine but its easy to head east of the lighthouse to Bass Point or west towards Old Lizard Head.
Extreme rarities include a Band-rumped Petrel in September 2022, double figure counts of Wilson's Petrel in August 2022, Caspian Tern in July 2022, Ross's Gull in 2016, Black-browed Albatross in 2019, well over 12,000 Great Shearwaters around the peninsular in October 2022 and Barolo Shearwater. Other past rarities include White-billed Diver, Pacific Diver, Fea's Petrel and Barolo Shearwater. The point also has a good track record for Long-tailed Skua and Balearic Shearwater. Euro Storm Petrel is regular in numbers in the summer.
Quite often, similar count numbers and same species are mirrored at Porthgwarra. When news reaches seawatchers at Porthgwarra, an excited anticipation adds to a great day.
Seawatching as ever is very weather dependent, with the most productive winds in peak season occurring when blowing south round to south-west. Wind directions away from south-west to west in effect push birds out to sea and are harder to observe. But with so many other key factors involved, perhaps more important are migration patterns, food availability and where the winds have come from, not just direction. Essentially, its always worth a look at any time, in any weather.
The best conditions are often not always associated with windy conditions. Multiple, fast moving rain fronts also produce seabirds. At the Lizard, enjoy what you see from the comfort of the Café at the point with some shelter and tea / coffee cake and pasties. The National Trust Wildlife watch point is sighted at Britain’s most southerly point, against a stunning backdrop. The Wildlife Watch point is open April-Oct and is a fantastic place to get closer to nature and see Choughs, thousands of passing seabirds, Atlantic grey seals and other marine species including porpoise, dolphins and basking sharks.
The reef offshore at the Point can be a slight deterrent to true pelagic species. They do pass by, but a bit further offshore, not that dissimilar to Porthgwarra. Unlike many other main sea watching spots, the Reef is a focal point for gulls, resting terns and waders. The bay either side of the Reef hosts feeding divers in calm periods.
The Lizard is also good for cetaceans and mega marine fauna including Humpback Whale, Fin Whale, dolphins, Barrel Jellyfish, Bluefin Tuna, Basking Sharks and Leatherback Turtle.
The optimum wind direction differs little from Porthgwarra. Essentially, any direction between S and SW will produce results at the correct time of year. Of interest, immediately after a gale, seabirds can occur in any wind direction, particularly from the SE.
Regarding the optimum time of the year, clearly July to October are the best months. But, Ross's Gull was found in January 2016 and Black-browed Albatross in February 2019. With the increase in sea temperatures, any month has potential.
|Birders assembled in Feb 2019 for the Black-browed Albatross (pic courtesy T. Blunden).|
From limited counts, peak numbers during a narrow window of a few days can be 125+ per hour with counts of 600+ recorded per hour passing the Lizard. Other southern headlands such as Mousehole and Porthgwarra have also recorded high numbers. I am sure with more sea-watching at this time of year more detail could be added to their occurrence. This presumably co-insides with peak northbound migration to breeding sites locally and north Atlantic colonies. If suitable westerly wind doesn’t occur in this period, numbers are much reduced as presumably lacking the deflection of the migration by the wind as they head north out in the Atlantic.
There is little to inform you when Puffin are about to arrive in numbers to coastal Cornish waters either. With counts just before and just after peaks often not much more than 10-20ish / hr. Essentially it comes down to luck and perseverance. Don’t expect them to be that close! Many of the passing Puffin are a mile or so out!
Note: The Lizard article and Puffin article has had input from my friend and resident Lizard birder, Tony Blunden.
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