Monday, 18 July 2011

Thray Emmets goe Seawaaatchin'

On the strength of a good-looking forecast, three intrepid birders from the south-east made their way south-west. Destination Porthgwarra and Pendeen for what would hopefully turn out to be some stonkingly amazing seawatching. A big low in the mid-Atlantic was heading with some speed towards the Cornish Coast, and I hoped that it might be pushing some displaced Cory's Shearwaters in front of it. Or Albatrosses, I'm not fussy. Nick C, Mark R, and yours truly decided to take the gamble. And a gamble it truly is, for forecasts can be wrong, and seawatches can be crap.

A floating vomit-bucket sails past the Runnelstone.

Saturday 3:30am, Porthgwarra Carpark. Rather than the carpark being full of excited birders that had travelled the length and breadth of the land to be at this once-in-a-generation pelagic spectacle, there was just us. Two hours of non-sleep later there was still only us. Hmmm. On the clifftop, a similar story. Us. Had we got it wrong? The winds seemed lighter than predicted but we set up nonetheless, scopes pointed at the Runnelstone buoy. It certainly seemed pretty rough out there, and a few birds were passing.  Not a lot happened for an hour or so, and then finally we were joined by a local birder, who had decided that the two minute journey was worth his while, and that he would have a quick look. It had taken us six hours, a serious committment.

At around this point things became mildly exciting. I picked up a large bird some way behind the Runnelstone. It seemed to be a Shearwater, but I hadn't really ruled out Gannet. It had long bowed wings though, and wasn't flying like a Gannet, so I was mildly hopeful. Not having seen Cory's before, anywhere, reading about flight jizz isn't really the same as experiencing flight jizz, so I gave directions, hoping that the local guy, Linton I think his name was, would deliver the verdict I was hoping for.

He did! One Cory's Shearwater, albeit disappointingly distantly. Not that I cared of course, as you know, I'll tick anything. We carried on scanning, but despite our best intentions, we never got another one. A single Sooty Shearwater was the next best thing, and a handful of Balearic Shearwater with a few hundred Manxies were the only other tubenoses seen. Four Chough - a family group with two youngsters - livened the spirits, but by about lunchtime we were beginning to realise that it wasn't going to pick up. By this point I was asleep in the long grass, and soaked. Exhausted I had picked a cosy spot out the wind and stretched out, and some heavy rain had utterly failed to wake me up. The boys woke me up with the news that the winds were shifting and that we were going to try Pendeen, just the other side of the Lands End peninsula. The theory is that if the winds are from the South-west, you watch from Porthgwarra, which is on the south of the pensinsula, and that if they're from the West, you watch from Pendeen. North-west and you go to St Ives's Island a bit further round.

Although the winds were more north-westerly, we chose Pendeen, as you can park for free whereas in St Ives you need to remortage your house to park the car. We wondered whether being miserly might have been a mistake, as Pendeen, wasn't much livelier, though I did manage to add Storm Petrel to the day list. By early evening, having been on the go for approximately forty hours without any significant sleep, we packed it in, sourced a fish supper from St Just, and headed for the B&B in Penzance. Too tired to even drink much beer, we hit the sack hoping for better fortunes in the morning. Would we justify our trip, or would we have made the long journey for nothing? I know we had seen a Cory's, my target bird, but 700 miles for a single, distant Cory's and not a lot else is not the stuff legends are made of. Pendeen needed to be good.

Very sadly, I was unable to drink much of this

We arrived more or less at dawn, having slept for what seemed like only five minutes. We were again surprised to see just one guy there. He was called Royston, and seemed to know what he was doing, moreso than us at any rate. I suspect his total hours spent at either Pendeen or Porthgwarra adds up a wife-pleasingly high amount. Anyway, the action was non-stop. At Pendeen you face north towards a group of rocks, and typically the birds fly east to west in distinct lines that take them inside or outside of these rocks. The close Manx line today was split into two, one taking the inside line, the other passing just outside, and it was sensational. Between about 9am and 1:30pm, the Manx line never stopped. Birds passed at between 50 and 120 a minute for over four hours. Outside of this period the passage was slower, an average of perhaps 25 birds a minute, but this is just the close line, there were several others further out. Being completely scientific about it, I reckon I saw somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 Manx Shearwaters, and thousands more would have gone uncounted. This doesn't happen on Wanstead Flats, and was completely captivating. We stayed for about twelve hours before reluctantly pointing the car east.

I don't generally like posting lists of birds on this blog, as it may excite my readers too much. If you are of a fragile disposition, or have a heart condition, look away now!

25,000-50,000 Manx Shearwater
2 Balearic Shearwater
Cory's Shearwater
40+ Sooty Shearwater
60+ Storm Petrel
5 Bonxie
1 Common Tern
3 Sandwich Tern
6+ Puffin

Wowzers! Note the number seven next to Cory's Shearwater. I found one of those, and saw six. One, the last I think, was rather special, for rather than hugging the Cork coastline like all the others, it was in the close Manx line. One of the experienced Cornish sea-watchers called it, and bar one very unfortunate guy in a green Tilley hat who managed to see nothing all day, we all got on it. Glorious, you could actually percieve plumage detail and see the bill colour. It motored along with the Manxies giving stunning views before disappearing around the corner. Mission well and truly accomplished.

As I type this from home on Monday, it appears that over forty Cory's have gone past Porthgwarra this morning. Perhaps they come in behind weather fronts, perhaps they were futher out in the open ocean that I had imagined they could get in the week after the large movement from the South, who knows? I could feel short-changed, but that last bird made the trip worthwhile. I don't really get on with boats, so I'm unlikely to ever see one better than that, and I am extremely pleased. An excellent weekend, totally knackering, but some proper birding. And the lack of Albatross means I need to go back.


  1. Well done on your Cory's! Cornwall is my favourite part of the country.

  2. It is not acceptable to mimic ethnic minorities Jonathan, ie; The Cornish. Dave Mc.