Sunday 29 January 2023

Isabelline Wheatear at Kelsey Head, Holywell, Cornwall January 2023

 Graham May was walking the coast path on the Kelseys on Sunday 22nd January when he found a wheatear species. In poor weather, a few record shots were taken and then posted to the Society. To be fair, the dull and damp weather played its part and typically rendered the images very dark.  This affect made the bird look very much like a Northern. Two days later, national bird information services were posting Isabelline Wheatear, presumably using artificial ID techniques. Graham Lawlor visited the area on Tuesday 24th and managed to confirm the identity. It was still present on 11th March.

This is Cornwall's third record. The previous two occurrences were one-day sightings.

The first record was on the 29th October 1996 at Church Cove, Lizard (at the same time as the Little Bustard) and found by John Martin. Despite searching, it could not be refound.

The second record was found by Paul Freestone on Godrevy Head. Many locals connected in the early evening sunshine but it moved on overnight.

Nationally there are 52 records but Autumn 2022 saw several Isabelline Wheatears appear including the second for Ireland. Another was found in Wales.  Another Isabelline Wheatear appeared in East Devon (2nd Devon record) in December and remained until 8th January. It looked weak during its last days and most likely succumbed. Photo analysis shows the Devon and Cornwall birds are different. The Cornwall bird shows one retained juvenile tertial feather, enough evidence to differentiate the two. (See image below).  These two January records are the first for Europe (eBird analysis mentioned on Birdforum). The Cornish bird remained on site until at least 21st March.

The species breeds in the Eastern Mediterranean, eastwards towards southern Russia and Asia and Northern Pakistan.  The species winters in East Africa  and North West India. (see the eBird distribution map below).

Isabelline Wheatear, Kelsey Head, Cornwall, Jan 2023, picture courtesy M J McKee.

Photo analysis of the Cornwall and Devon birds, by Mashuq Ahmad.

Isabelline Wheatear range map, pic courtesy eBird.

Birding highlights in West Cornwall January 2023

 New Year's Day weather was dull and grey with heavy rain by mid afternoon. Mid month was stormy with heavy rain and localised flooding. Month end continued overcast with a light north easterly airflow.

Seawatching started well with three Sooty Shearwater and 28 Manx past Porthgwarra. An unseasonal Euro Storm Petrel was also seen. Not to be outdone, a Great Shearwater was seen from Pendeen. This bird presumably being the single seen in St Ives Bay just before Christmas.  The normal scarce gulls were recorded including the adult Ring-billed, three Caspians and Yellow-legged Gulls at Hayle plus Iceland and Glaucous at Newlyn. A juv American Herring Gull was found at Drift and later relocated at Tolcarne on the 5th and 6th.  A third year Azorean Gull was found by Richard Augarde and Brian Mellow in Newlyn Harbour on 15th Jan. Whilst "only" a subspecies of Yellow-legged Gull, Azorean is a great rarity and created quite a bit of interest.

A significant number of divers were off Wherrytown on the 1st including 16 Great Northern and single Red-throated and black-throated Divers. The month end saw a high count of 62 Great Northern Diver, nine Red-throated and five Black-throated Diver in the Perranuthnoe area.

The wintering Little Bunting near Cot Valley was also recorded on the 1st. And just for company, it was joined by a second bird on the 6th and both remained together with 15 Reed Buntings until the month end.  As mentioned in previous posts, West Penwith is clearly a regular wintering area for this species. Two together have been recorded previously in Cornwall, but a third would be unprecedented.

Slightly outside of the West Penwith area, a female Ring-necked Duck was found at Helston boating lake on the 3rd Jan.  It went missing mid month but returned on the 18th.  This unassuming municipal site has an uncanny knack of producing quality rarities. Nearby at Stithians Res., a drake Green-winged Teal was found on the 5th.  Perhaps both arrived from the States together?

Fem Ring-necked Duck, Helston, courtesy Alex McKechnie.

The first major rarity of the year appeared in St Ives Bay on the 5th. An immature Black-browed Albatross was seen close in from the island (100m) but it headed NW, only to be spotted later from Clodgy Point. What a find.  The species clearly enjoys Cornish waters in winter. The last was seen on 8th Feb 2019 from the Lizard.  The St. Ives bird was also seen a week previously at Quiberon, France. With an adult seen regularly at Bempton and another adult in the Northern Isles last year, this sub adult bird effectively means there's at least three Black-browed Albatross' roaming the NE Atlantic.

Same 4th Yr  Black-browed Albatross, left Quiberron, France, and right, St Ives. Images from Twitter and Dave Oats.
Sooty Shearwater, west past Pendeen Jan 13th, S Rogers.

A mini arrival of Grey Phalaropes occurred in the second week of January.  A single was seen off Pendeen followed by two together at St. Gothians and another single at Stithians. I can't recall one ever being recorded at this inland site.

A strong westerly wind on the 13th produced a Black Guillemot and Sooty Shearwater off Pendeen. The Grey Phalarope continued to entertain birders at St Gothians.  The continuing strong westerly on the 15th pushed a single Leach's Petrel in to St Ives Bay. A Little Auk and a Puffin passed Pendeen.

An Azorean Yellow-legged Gull was found in Newlyn Harbour on the 15th. News of a juv Sabine's Gull at Carnsew Pool was received a day late on the 18th. Apparently there was confusion on the id, despite a good photo being taken. True winter records of this species in Cornwall are exceptional.

A mini pelagic trip around Mousehole on the 22nd produced a very close Little Auk and great views of Glaucous Gull.  An adult Kumlien's Gull was found on St Clements Isle on the 24th and again on the 29th at Drift.

Little Auk, Roskilly, Jan 2023, pic courtesy M Spicer.

An Isabelline Wheatear was found at Holywell on the 21st though not identified until 23rd.  This is the third record of Isabelline Wheatear in Cornwall.  The last record was in Oct 2016 when one was present for one day on Godrevy Head.  The first record was another one day appearance at Church Cove on 29th October 1996.

Isabelline Wheatear, Kelsey Head, pic by Mike McKee.

Bird of the month: Isabelline Wheatear at Kelsey

Runner up: Black-browed Albatross at St Ives.