Wow, what a weekend! Tony and I had long planned to do a bit of birding this weekend, perhaps staying over somewhere Saturday night depending on where the birds were likely to turn up. Then I noticed the forecast for the southwest on Friday - a belting southwesterly, strengthening and turning northwest - ideal conditions for a seawatch from Pendeen. Could I persuade him to take Friday off and bear the expense and discomfort of a long weekend in Cornwall. Well he didn't take much convincing and after trying unsuccessfully to find anyone else who could join us at such notice we arranged to set off early on Friday morning, hoping to be seawatching by early afternoon.
We hadn't even left before the first spanner was thrown into the works. Steve Dudley called me after dark on Thursday evening to say he'd just located a juvenile American Golden Plover on Farcet Fen. I'd never seen AGP and Tony hadn't seen one in the Peterborough area. Would it hang on overnight? Could we relocate it? Should we delay our departure?
We decided to try for the plover at dawn but after a few of us had searched for about an hour since dawn along the main area without success Tony and I bade our farewells and pointed ourselves southwest to begin the long journey to Pendeen. Driving conditions were appalling, with heavy rain practically stopping traffic on the motorway near Bristol, but as we pressed on the rain cleared and the winds became wilder. Six hours later we were enjoying a couple of excellent pasties overlooking Copperhouse Creek but itching to get to the seabirds.
We arrived at The 'Deen well before 3pm to the gratifying sight of a huge sea and flurries of showers scudding past. Perfect conditions. Then we got the second bombshell: the American Goldie had been relocated at Deeping High Bank. Well, there wasn't much we could do about that now so we settled down to enjoy the spectacle we had come so far for. AGPs were soon forgotten as the Gannets, Kittiwakes, auks, shearwaters and skuas came streaming past. The crowd around us were very friendly and we learned that a little while earlier a Sabine's Gull had passed the headland. Would we have made it if we had got away earlier? Who knows, but half an hour later we really didn't care. The chap next to Tony called the GREAT SHEARWATER, only just beyond The Wra rocks. I was quickly on it. It was close in and in superb light, just how you want a lifer to be. Tony took an agonising few seconds (seemed like hours) to get onto it then, after giving all time to enjoy it, all too soon it was away out of sight and we could take a few moments to celebrate.
I had one other large shearwater very distantly that I couldn't pin down but otherwise the finally tally for our three and half our stint was 1 Great, 71 Manx, 34 Balearic, 20 Sooty Shearwaters, 20 Great, 13 Arctic (5 pale, 8 dark), 2 Pomarine Skuas, 6 Fulmar, 1 Common Tern plus uncounted Gannets, Kittiwakes, Shags, Guillemots and Razorbills. Easily one of the best seawatches I've ever experienced and worth the long drive on its own.
By 6:30 we were starting to lose the light and it was beginning to get a bit chilly so we headed off to find the holiday bungalow I'd booked near Marazion. Now a small warning if you are thinking of eating out in Marazion. We arrived at 8:30pm to a cracking pint of HSD in the King's Arms. They had stopped serving food there but said we should try the Cutty Sark next door. We were presented with a menu there but when we ordered they said they had stopped too! We managed to persuade them to serve us in the end but don't leave it too late if you want any grub in Marazion.
The forecast was for the northwesterly to continue overnight. That often packs seabirds into St Ives bay, which then pass close by the southern point as they leave. So soon after dawn we were back in seawatching mode, this time at St Ives Island with another friendly bunch of birders. The wind had clearly eased more than predicted and there was to be no spectacular movement from the bay but there were still some good birds on the move. Two hours produced 2 Great Northern and 1 Red-throated Diver, 10 Manx, 5 Balearic and 1 Sooty Shearwater, a dark-phase Arctic Skua, 2 Great Skuas, a Common Scoter, a few Sandwich Terns and the inevitable Kittiwakes, Gannet and auks, most of which were Razorbills. A few Meadow Pipits moved over and a couple of Ravens passed close by calling. I associate St Ives Island in October with either Black Redstart or Snow Bunting and sure enough there was a delightful Snow Bunting present today.
With the weather improving it was time to check out the sheltered valleys for any transatlantics that might have arrived. The Cot Valley only yeilded a few Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests and they had to be dragged out kicking and screaming. A Clouded Yellow here was a taste of more to come as we decided to shift a bit further southwest to Nanquidno. This valley has been kind to me in the past, I found Ortolan Bunting and Barred Warbler here in the past and seen other goodies. Unfortunately the recent Red-eyed Vireo had departed a couple of days earlier and there were no new birds arriving to replace it but this was still more productive than Cot. Two Choughs, resplendent in their leg jewelry, were feeding faithfully in one spot and there were at least eight Stonechats gathered. Both species were ripe for digiscoping. Turtle Dove, Grey Wagtail, Chiffchaff, Goldcrest and loads of Clouded Yellows completed the picture.
A high tide was forecast for the late afternoon so we decided to spend the rest of the day at the Hayle Estuary. A quick stop at Drift Reservoir produced a Grey Wagtail, a Little Egret and a Black Swan plus another Clouded Yellow nearby. Then it was back to the pastie shop and a leisurely scan of Copperhouse Creek (2 Little Egrets and a flyby Little Stint, which may have been the Least Sandpiper that turned up there two days later, plus other common waders) before settling down at the Hayle Estuary.
From 4pm until the tide peaked at about 6pm it was great to watch all the birds moving up the basin as it rapidly filled eventually pushing most of the waders off onto Ryans Field which already held one of the Whimbrel. In the meantime we had picked out Pectoral Sandpiper, Little Stint, Spotted Redshank and Greenshank among the Black and Bar-tailed Godwits, Redshank and Curlew moving up the creeks. By the time these were on Ryan's Field they had been joined by a couple of Dunlin and a Curlew Sandpiper to make an impressive variety of waders. Little Egrets kept arriving too until there were 15 of them on the field.
Just before high tide two Common Sandpiper types flew in to land not far from us at the Old Quay Inn. Now a Spotted Sandpiper had been reported but not yet confirmed so these were definitely were checking out but as I shifted for a better look they were off again. This was the start of a merry dance that had us back a forth along the back of the estuary trying to get a decent view of them. After half an hour of managing to be in the wrong place every time one of them eventually dropped into a patch of sunlight close to us. The water was so high by now that there was hardly anywhere for it to land but we had a few minutes to notice the fairly bright yellow legs, very short tail and plain tertials before it was off again. Now confirmed as a Spotted Sandpiper this was only the second either of us had seen. It was good to see the other one, a Common Sandpiper, on Ryan's Field as we made our way back, which enabled us to compare the differences.
We also picked out a Pintail among the Wigeon and Teal, then a couple of Mediterranean Gulls among the gathering gulls. A party of 28 Sandwich Terns also gathered over the almost overflowing estuary as the evening drew on.
We scanned the edge of Marazion Marsh on the way back without revealing any more than a Little Egret and a load of Moorhens, then it was back to the hostelries of Marazion for some more good food and beer at the King's Arms. In the clear night the cause of the high tide made a striking sight and we had a moonlit stagger back to the bungalow.
As Sunday dawned it was clear the weather had changed again. Cloud had come in and the wind had picked up from the southeast. Was it worth giving the sea at Porthgwarra a go? We hurriedly packed and headed out dropping the key through the letter box of the still slumbering reception. Then I noticed I'd left my binoculars on the table in the house, with no way of getting the key back until staff arrived later. Fortunately I'd left a couple of windows open so a bit of breaking in later and the bins had been liberated through the window and we were on our way.
Perched precariously on the high cliffs at Gwennap Head a short while later we managed just a couple of Balearic Shearwaters and two Arctic Skuas (one dark, one light) in an hour's seawtching. A Merlin was bombing about over the head, no doubt after the good numbers of Meadow Pipits, many of which were heading out to sea. The valley revealed no more than the now familiar few Goldcrests and Chiffchaffs so feeling pretty satisfied we settled ourselves in for the long journey home.
I like to count raptors and some other birds on long journeys like this and the weather was excellent so we managed an impressive total of 42 Buzzards, 10 Kestrels, 5 Sparrowhawks, 4 Ravens, 3 Red Kites and a Kingfisher, which dashed across the road near Stanwick. A Swallow south of Brackley was the only other bird of note.
Six hours later we were in the Peterborough area again and with a couple of hours of daylight left I phoned to get the full story on the American Golden Plover. The messages we had been getting while away were very confused and there had been no news on the AGP at all that day. But it turned out that not only was it a moulting adult, and so not the juvenile we were looking for on Friday morning, but it had been seen that morning. Clearly we would have to come home via Crowland!
A Barn Owl wafting out next to us was a small compensation for not being able to find the AGP that evening. We reckoned that Great Shearwater and the rest we had seen in Cornwall were a pretty good exchange for an American Golden Plover so we went home tired and happy. But the story had an even happier ending for me as I relocated the AGP north of Crowland Water Tower on Monday lunchtime (pics here). My second lifer of the extended weekend and an incredible end to what could be the best four days birding I've had in the UK.
Most of the pictures below can be clicked for bigger versions. Enjoy.
Rusty Dot Pearl Udea ferrugalis, landed in front of us at St Ives Island
Some pictures taken at Nanquidno
Stonechat Saxicola torquata, adult male
Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis
Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
Sloe Shieldbug Dolycoris baccarum
A selection from Hayle Estuary
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica
Waders (at least six species in this picture: Greenshank, Spotted Redshank, Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin)
Egrets - 15 along with Curlews
Pectoral Sandpiper Calidris melanotos
Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularia
Mediterranean Gull Larus melanocephalus
The cause of the high tide
All photos taken using Nikon Coolpix P4, most through Leica APO77 scope and 20x eyepiece.
I think there are 99 species on this list but we weren't after a huge total. Quality over quantity every time!
Great Northern Diver
American Golden Plover
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Great Spotted Woodpecker