Monday 19 January 2009

A weekend in Cornwall

4am pick-up. With Paul, Shaun and myself in the back, it is somewhat snug. Bradders is driving, Bradders sr. to his left, pointing out speed cameras. Once light, somewhere in Devon I think, it is immediately apparent that Hawky is on fire. Carrots perhaps? No Buzzard goes unnoticed, and a 1 second glimpse of a dark shape over the A303 is all that is needed to nail Raven. Even though some members of the party find the Goosander a bit stringy, he is clearly seeing things very well. We continue our cuddle in the back until we finally arrive at Zennor. Upon getting out of the car and being blown over by a 60mph gust, I remark to the boys that it is perhaps a tad windy. The Snowy Owl thinks so too, and has flown off out of view to seek shelter about a mile south from the summit of Trendrine hill. As always on tough twitches it pays to scan for birders. Are they standing about not viewing a major rarity (just like us), or are they in fact “on it”? In this instance, we decide that a handful of birders a few miles away have the owl in view, so there is nothing for it but to trudge over there. The pager message did not indicate that pot-holing gear would be needed to traverse the moor, and we were fairly fortunate not to lose any party-members in the tough conditions. A helpful chap we met about halfway said that there was a 10ft stretch of path/stream where one could occasionally see the top of the owl’s head. After about another two days slogging over the terrain, we finally arrived at the said stretch, and sure enough, there it was about half a mile away. Not quite the crippling views we were all hoping for, but the risk of confusion is low, so it gets ticked. If you want to recreate the approximate experience at home, add a bucket of soil to a cold bath, stand in it for a couple of hours, and then squint at the below photo whilst constantly shaking your head from side to side to mimic the wind.

Crippling views

At one point a large cow, absent-mindedly grazing along the wall-line where the owl was sheltering, got to within about 4 feet. Cue an ears-up, “what the f*ck” bovine-moment. Despite the small line of birders intensely willing this cow onwards (and of course fully intending to flame it on bird-forum the next day) the owl won the stare-down contest and the cow(ard) retreated.


Three hours in the freezing cold has done nothing to diminish Paul’s razor-sharp eye; at Sennen he has been out of the car for roughly 0.5 seconds before he has called a GND in the bay; a speck on the horizon is a Purple Sand which duly lands on the harbour wall; a Med Gull is found bobbing with a group of BH Gulls, and barely have I got onto this when an Iceland Gull flies across his scope. Whatever he has been eating (or more likely drinking) we need to find more of it to sustain this performance. I contribute a Rock Pipit.

"Got any carrots?"

It is clear that the weather is deteriorating, so after a male Hen Harrier courtesy of Bradders jr. (Paul must have been poking Shaun or something), and a pastie stop, we head to Marazion for a spot of sand-blasting. Retreating to Penzance harbour, we meet the same birder we had met on the moor, and learn he has twitched the Owl from Luton ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT. Train to Penzance, and then a local bus to the foot of Trendrine Hill. Amazing. There are another 2 GNDs here, not remotely bothered by the vile conditions, supremely adapted to shit weather. Unlike us - we are more adapted to the pub, which is where we were now headed.

Paul: “Should I put on waterproofs?”
David: “No, its hardly raining at all”

Three inches of rain then fell in about ten minutes. Roads became rivers, drainpipes became waterfalls, steps became rapids. Unbelievable. Members of the team who had not bothered to put on waterproofs, or who had been badly advised re the need for waterproofs, got completely soaked. You could only laugh really, especially if like me you were wearing waterproofs. Luckily, the Turk’s Head has good beer, good food, and a FIRE for drying out wet people. A short but lively evening then ensued, but the general consensus was that we were all tired, and indeed despite my usual impervion to disease, I was feeling slightly under the weather, so it was not the raucous night that it might have been. Back at the B&B Shaun and I were unsure whether our room had windows or not. There appeared to be some sort of glass structure where you would expect windows to be, but the curtains flapping about horizontally raised serious doubts as to their physical reality.

The following day is breezy, but nothing like the previous night. We are drooling in anticipation of the rafts of Grey Phals we will see littering the Cornish beaches. In the event there is only one thing littering Cornwall, more on that later.

We spend the morning gently birding the sea between Newlyn and Marazion, and find stacks of GNDs, a BT Diver, a BN Grebe, and another Iceland Gull. 2 seconds out of the car at Long Rock, Paul calls a Black Redstart; none of us believe him. The Sanderlings keep me occupied for a bit, and another Med Gull flies past. A juv Cornish bird gets out of a neighbouring car with seemingly the sole intention of showing these rugged binocular-toting lads her very short skirt-cum-belt, but we give her short thrift so she gets back in and drives off; had she been able to point out a Phal we would have been all ears. Apparently only a couple of us actually noticed her at all, and are accused of blatant suppression by the others. On next to Helston for the long-staying Ring-billed Gull. As we leave, a Black Redstart pops up onto the sea wall….

The Ringer is not at Helston, but Shaun sniffs out a small sewage farm, and we are soon delighted by approximately 4000 wintering Chiffchaffs, a couple of which are outrageously pale. Discussions involving complicated and unknown words like “tristis” and “abietinus” then follow. I am just impressed that there should be this many Chiffies here in mid-Jan at all. My role is limited to the taking of photographs, some good, some bad (very bad). A Raven goes over with a BH Gull, allowing an excellent size comparison.

Candidate Sibe #1

Candidate Sibe #2

Home via Dawlish Warren, and potential Surf Scoter. Paul has been sharing his secret supply of carrots with David, who finds it in about 5 seconds. I need to go birding with these guys more often, it is sensational! Honestly there are 3 birds in 10 square miles of sea, and we’re straight on them. It could be something exclusive to Surfies though, a magnetic scope-attraction feature. When Surf Scoter was a lifer for me (I spit at them now), I went to find one off Ruddon’s Point in Fife, set up my scope, looked through it, focused, and almost fell over – drake Surf Scoter bang in the middle of the circle. This bird is a female, and is with a female Velvet Scoter, with a male Common Scoter not far away, affording good comparison. Discounting the yellow bill on the CS, we concentrate on the other two. The SS & VS are about the same size, but it is actually quite difficult to see the white flank stripe on the VS. However the bill structure is a dead giveaway, the VS has more distinct white on the head, and the SS has a habit of the raising its tail, like a Ruddy Duck. After that excellent and succinct comparative analysis, you would expect a photo. Bad luck.

A couple of common-as-muck Cattle Egrets are about 5 minutes down the road, in the company of 3 Little Egrets and a flock of fancy sheep. Again, for comparative purposes - and believe it or not they do get confused, in fact a pager message this very weekend read “Reported Cattle Egret at blah blah blah is a Little Egret” - Cattle Egret has a shortish yellow bill and pale legs, Little Egret has long black bill and dark legs. There are things that Little Egret can be confused with, but Cattle Egret is not one of them. This time there is a photo for your elucidation.

So, a top weekend in the South-west, and some brilliant birds, including a Snowy Owl’s head. I never thought I would ever see any part of a Snowy Owl, and that it was one of these mythical birds that appeared on Benbecula every now and again, and that took 2 days and several ferries and light aircraft to get to, so I am very pleased. I am genuinely ill now, so took the day off and wrote this.

A footnote: A plea to the dog-owners of Cornwall.

Fucking well clean up after your dogs. It is disgusting.

In English, this says "You may be fined if you don't clean up after your dog"

You are privileged to live in an amazingly beautiful part of the world, why spoil it? 60% of our party stepped in something, and we think less of Cornwall for it.

"Welcome to Turd County"

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