Pallas’s Warbler – Cot Valley, Cornwall

We regularly stay at a cottage near Wadebridge in Cornwall as the garden is perfect for the dogs and we can run them off lead on some of the beaches in the Padstow area. This year we booked the week from Saturday 16th November.

A possible Paddyfield Pipit had been reported at Sennen on Thursday 31st October. It had actually been found a week before, on the 24th October, but had been originally identified as a Richard’s Pipit although subsequent sound recordings of the strange call pointed straight towards Paddyfield Pipit.

There was some disbelief over whether it could actually be a Paddyfield Pipit given how short range a migrant they are, rarely venturing far from their home in India. The pipit also looked pretty untidy and scruffy including what looked like snapped off or cut off primaries which led some people to suggest that this indicated it may have been an escaped cage bird. Others suggested that pipits go through this kind of moult naturally and suggestions that the pipit had been ship assisted were also raised.

Given all of this uncertainty, instead of heading down straight away (as it may well become a first for the Western Palearctic) I decided that as we were going down to Cornwall on the 16th I would wait and hope that it stuck around which seemed likely given its poor state of moult. As the days ticked down to our trip the pipit remained and the excitement grew.

On the afternoon of Thursday 14th it was seen to fly from the maize field into the adjacent B&B garden quickly followed by a cat. The observer described it as a narrow escape for the pipit. I was therefore very relieved that the pipit was still present the next morning. Unfortunately, however, during the early afternoon of Friday 15th Bird Guides reported that the earlier report was erroneous and that the pipit hadn’t been seen at all on Friday. I was gutted! It seems that it was either taken by the cat or was spooked enough to leave permanently. The pipit had been present for 21 days and left the day before we travelled down.

We left on the Saturday morning later than I had originally planned but earlier than we needed to just in case the pipit was found again. Unfortunately it wasn’t! To make matters worse, within an hour of leaving, a possible Western Sandpiper was found only 30 minutes from home in Lymington. It was later ‘downgraded’ to Semipalmated Sandpiper and Dad managed to catch up with it that afternoon.

Returning my attention to our trip to Cornwall – my year list target was Chough and I was confident that I would see one at either Cape Cornwall or Botallack as I had regularly seen them when leading photography workshops to these locations. As a bonus a Pallas’s Warbler had been found on Wednesday 13th November in Cot Valley and so I decided to combine a trip to Cot Valley for the warbler and Cape Cornwall for the Chough.

The Pallas’s Warbler was seen again on the Saturday afternoon and so I set the alarm for 5:30am and was on the road by 6am. I pulled over into a layby in Cot Valley at 7:15am well before sunrise. I then spent the next 25 minutes trying to work out where Daisy Cottage was as the Pallas’s Warbler had been favouring the trees adjacent to the cottage and the cottage wasn’t where I thought it was based on my brief Google maps research the night before. I managed to find a website for the cottage as it was a holiday let and noticed a Google map extract on this website. I then walked towards where I thought the cottage was and watched my blue dot position close in on the correct location. I was pleased to see Daisy Cottage written on the gate.

The sun rose and light filled the garden, first excitement came from a Chiffchaff hawking for insects and then a Goldcrest flicking through the lower branches. I walked around the front of the cottage on the other side of the stream and watched for 15 minutes and I then spent another 10 minutes in another raised viewpoint overlooking the slightly sunken garden. Again no luck.

I needed to be back at our holiday cottage by 1pm and it could be a 1.5 hour drive and so I needed to think about how long I would give the Pallas’s Warbler before heading off for the Chough.

Cot Valley is probably one of the warmest places in the UK and the cottages all had lovely sheltered gardens. It certainly looked like a great place for a Pallas’s Warbler. I’d been looking for an hour but still felt that the bird could easily be present as the garden was fairly large. Unlike Yellow-browed Warblers which are often fairly vocal this bird wasn’t calling which would make it trickier to locate. I was still confident, however, despite being the only person looking.

I decided to walk around the back of the cottage along the track and back down the other side. At around 8:30am I came across a group of calling Goldcrests and then watched as another ‘crest’ dropped down onto a lower branch. This was the Pallas’s Warbler!

Immediately obvious were the clean white underparts, bright green upperparts, double wing bars and a broad yellow supercilium. When it angled its head a central crown stripe was evident and as it flew it revealed a small square yellow rump. Soon afterwards a pair of Firecrests appeared and the Pallas’s Warbler seemed to dissolve away as for the next 45 minutes virtually every possible Pallas’s Warbler turned out to be one of these two Firecrests. I didn’t see the Pallas’s Warbler again but was relieved that I’d had such good views.

It’s amazing to think that something weighing around 5g could be around 6,500 miles from its usual wintering location. It is believed that migrants like this are 1st winter birds who have the polarity of the magnetite in their brains reversed so that they fly the right distance but in the wrong direction, this is known as reverse migration. If you draw a line from their nearest breeding grounds in western Siberia down to China (the route it should be taking) and then you reverse this line 180 degrees this would have the bird arriving in north western Europe. They are often a very late autumn vagrant (usually November) as they have so far to fly.

What an amazing little gem! This is only my fourth Pallas’s Warbler in the UK and all have been in November. The previous individuals include two Portland birds (1996 and 1998) and my first was at Filey in 1987.

Chough – Cape Cornwall, Cornwall – 17th November 2019

Having regularly led 3-day Landscape Photography workshops to places like Land’s End, Porth Nanven, Cape Cornwall and Botallack I had encountered Chough on many occasions and although wildlife photography wasn’t part of the workshop many of my participants were pretty interested to see them. Having run these workshops for three years I felt fairly confident that during our week long holiday in Cornwall it would be straightforward to see Chough for my year list and that Cape Cornwall and Botallack probably offered the best chances.

Having seen the Pallas’s Warbler at Cot Valley earlier on the Sunday morning I drove the 1.1 miles to Cape Cornwall, parked the car and walked down towards Priest’s Cove. I expected to hear Chough fairly quickly but over the next 20 minutes I began to think that maybe my impression of how easy Chough would be was skewed by the fact that I was never looking for them on my workshops. There were probably quite a few trips to these coastal photography hotspots when I hadn’t seen Chough and I hadn’t really noticed as I was concentrating on my participants and wasn’t particularly looking for Chough.

Chough – Botallack, Cornwall – 17th November 2019

After 30 minutes at Cape Cornwall and with only a Peregrine to show for my efforts I drove another mile over to Botallack and spent the rest of the 1.5 hours I had left there. There were 25 or so Jackdaws flying around the cliffs and I flushed a Woodcock from the coastal path above the mines but there was no sign of any Chough. I was surprised and really disappointed and the rain started to fall heavily as I headed back to our holiday cottage.

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