Scops Owl and Western Black-eared Wheatear – Porthgwarra & Nanquidno, Cornwall

A Scops Owl had been found in the West Cornish valley in the early hours of Monday morning. Two birders had driven down the valley at around 2:30am and had intended to get some sleep. As they turned into the car park their headlights picked out some movement along the fence posts which bordered the dense clump of trees, they also picked out 2 red eyes. Fairly quickly they realised that they had found a Scops Owl. News was released early on Monday morning.

The find coincided with a high pressure system over France & Spain and several excellent spring overshoots from south western Europe, all in Cornwall. A Black-eared Wheatear, several Alpine Swifts, a Pallid Swift on Bryher, a Night Heron, a Little Bittern, a Woodchat Shrike, several Hoopoes and now a Scops Owl.

There were no further sightings during Monday and so when I went to play snooker with Mike Bilson on Monday night I had forgotten all about the owl. Half way during frame three a Mega Alert reported that the owl had been relocated, feeding at dusk. It was too short notice to take the next day off and in any case I had a meeting to arrange and a large Credit Proposal to finish off. For a short while I lost concentration and the third frame went with it. I regained my composure won the next two frames to win 3v2 overall, dropped Mike home and rang Peter to suggest we went down the following evening, Tuesday. He agreed. I tossed and turned throughout the night and slept very little.

The next morning I texted Dad to see if he could make it. At first he said yes but then texted back to say that he had visitors at midday on Wednesday morning, there was no way we could get back in time. He would go on his own on Friday morning. By now the Owl had been relocated and the doubts I had about taking time off disappeared. At work I got on with my Credit Proposal, arranged the meeting and booked the next day off.

Peter had talked to Paul Marshall about going and it seemed likely that they would go straight away so that they might get there for 6pm and hopefully see it at its roost site. I said I couldn’t leave until after work because I still had things to finish and because I had three other people to drop off home. Soon afterwards Peter texted back to say that Paul had a meeting that evening and they wouldn’t be going until 8pm after all. He was slightly surprised that I was still intending to go on my own. As a team of three we agreed to meet at Exeter service station at 9pm.

I was already feeling fairly tired when I left home at around 7:20pm. I packed my sleeping bag and pillows and headed off. We met up at shortly after 9pm and then headed off to Cornwall in my Focus. We made the journey in good time, the owl had been reported throughout the day but there had been no further sign since 6pm. We arrived at Porthgwarra at around 11:30pm. There were 15 other cars in the car park and about 10 birders milling around, many people were in their cars getting some sleep.

Peter, Paul and I decided to wander up and down the foot-path which ran up the valley alongside the clump of trees. The moonlight was very strong and if the owl decided to feed it would surely be obvious. Peter had done all of the driving from Exeter and so he was first to head back to the car for some sleep, it was about 1am. At about 2am I headed back to the car and at 3:30am Paul gave up. As Paul returned to the car I decided to get back up and have another go. No luck.

As 5am came more and more cars began to arrive and with daylight beginning to grow we all got out and readied ourselves. Some one reported that there had been a single call at around 2am from the end of the trees and so we concentrated our attention on this area. The morning drifted away and with no sign. A Hoopoe at the top of the valley provide some light relief. Birders now began to drift away to go and see the Black-eared Wheatear at Nanquidno and so we decided to join them.

On Saturday 23rd March a Black-eared Wheatear had been found by Martin Elliott at the top of Nanquidno Valley. His initial identification was a black-throated morph of the Eastern race and this was how the pagers reported it. Late the next morning the bird was re-identified as a Western Black-eared Wheatear, a race I hadn’t seen before, I contacted Peter.

I find twitching during the day a lot more stressful then driving through the night to get there for dawn, particularly when it’s a four hour journey. I managed to convince myself that the western race birds were common enough and that it wasn’t likely to be split immediately and so with the prospect of a four hour drive through afternoon traffic I decided not to go. I thought I’d also convinced Peter and I was therefore surprised to receive a text message at about 2pm saying that he and Richard Baatsen had set off!

Sunset would be around 7:30pm and it would take them close to 4 hours, they should be OK providing the bird didn’t move. At just after 6pm I received another text from Peter confirming that he’d seen it, feeling suitably gripped I went through the usual well they’ll be others and it’s not even a tick yet. Secretly I wished I’d gone.

It wasn’t until the Scops Owl turned up the next day and when we had decided to go that it occurred to me that I may well see the wheatear anyway. The wheatear was still present as we travelled down on Tuesday night for the Scops Owl. Spring wheatear’s are notoriously quick to move on and so it was already surprising that it had stayed from Saturday until at least Tuesday evening. Would it stay another night?

As the number of cars in the Porthgwarra car park dwindled to 2 or 3 and with there having been no sighting of the owl for 16 hours we decided to follow the others to Nanquidno for the wheatear. We were about the last to leave but before we did so we entered the trees and made a very careful pass right the way down the copse. Again no luck.

Nanquidno Valley was packed with birders cars and the wheatear showed very well. Despite some opinions that the bird might well be an intermediate and that Black-eared Wheatear may even be a cline right across Europe the current view is that this was indeed a western race bird, albeit very pale. An eastern bird would probably show more black across the forehead, a longer black bib, more black on the scapulars and even paler underparts.

The Alpine Swift was reported again but by the time we got there it had gone. The Night Heron had also gone missing. While attempting to see the Woodchat Shrike at St Leven a birder pulled over next to us and said that back at Porthgwarra he was sure he had seen the Scops Owl. He gave us precise directions and said that he had left another birder trying to relocate it. We jumped back in the car while the other birder headed off back to work.

Fairly quickly we arrived back at Porthgwarra. There was a renewed air of excitement with 10 or so birders staring into the trees where the birder had reported the owl.

Half an hour later another birder reported that a local had seen a small grey owl fly across in front of her car 2 hours ago and that the bird had flown back in to the trees. We felt reasonably confident that we would see the bird but how long would we have to wait? It was now about 1pm, I didn’t want to be home too late. I had work the next day and three consecutive nights without sleep would be unpleasant. We decided that we would leave at 7:30pm by then it would be dark. As the afternoon began to drift away our hopes were pinned more and more on the last hour of daylight. The bird had not been seen for certain for 24 hours, would it show at dusk?

The answer was no. We had stood, we had sat on the bank, peered in, circled the clump, clockwise, and anticlockwise, even walked through the clump, watched it from low down and from on high, from near and afar and after 20 hours, at 7:30pm and in the dark we gave up and joined the convoy of cars leaving the Cornish Valley. Peter drove back to Exeter and I managed to get into bed at 11pm, Porthgwarra to Poole in less than 3.5 hours! A 416 mile round trip but with no Scops Owl.

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