Black Guillemot – Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall

In year listing terms one of the key species on a trip to Cornwall is Chough. Cape Cornwall and Botallack are both good locations although you either need to be a bit lucky or work hard to find them. In the days before our week away I noticed that a 1st winter Black Guillemot and a 1st winter Iceland Gull were being reported regularly from Newlyn Harbour which is only 20 minutes or so from the best sites for Chough. I decided that I would combine the Chough, Black Guillemot and Iceland Gull in one trip and as leaving Sarah without a car would make dog walking difficult for her we all travelled down together.

We left the cottage at 8:50am and walked the dogs along the river at Wadebridge before heading off to Newlyn. The weather forecast for most of the week was strong winds and light rain and we were likely to get some of that today. From my research it appeared that the Black Guillemot was being reported from within Newlyn Harbour although there were usually no specific instructions and I knew that the harbour wasn’t particularly small. The few occasions when the RBA information was more specific it was when it mentioned that the guillemot was viewable from the RNLI building. Directions for the Iceland Gull were similarly vague with ‘still in Newlyn Harbour’ being the only instructions ever given.

At 9:45am we were approaching Penzance and RBA reported that the Iceland Gull was on rocks in Penzance at Wherrytown. The gull had obviously moved which was frustrating and I wasn’t sure how far Wherrytown was from Newlyn Harbour. I pulled over and checking Google Maps I was pleased to see that Wherrytown was on the Newlyn side of Penzance in fact right next to Newlyn. I noticed a small car park just up ahead and so I pulled over, jumped out of the car and began to scan the gulls.

There were probably 200 or more large gulls, some on various rock stacks almost in front of me but there were lots of others much further away on other rock stacks and with lots also bathing in the distant surf. I couldn’t pick out the much paler Iceland Gull and my scope lens was quickly coated with rain. On the map Wherrytown looked like it referred to the furthest most distant rocks adjacent to Newlyn Harbour. They were too far away in these difficult conditions to be sure that the Iceland Gull wasn’t on show and so I decided to head to Newlyn Harbour and walk back from there.

I parked near the RNLI building in Newlyn Harbour and decided to see if I could see the Black Guillemot first. I was slightly surprised to see the bird almost immediately, it was close to the boats which were moored along pontoons which ran directly away from the RNLI building. I set my scope up but then couldn’t re-find the Black Guillemot in a ten minute search. It appeared to have moved in between two boats and perhaps then through under the pontoon to the other side. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to walk down the bridge to the pontoons and so for the moment decided that I would try for the Iceland Gull again but hopefully this time I would be much closer to the main flock of bathing gulls as so be better able to pick it out.

I walked back out of Newlyn and climbed up on to the sea wall so that I could see the beach and rocks at Wherrytown and also the roof of the Newlyn Harbour Fish Market. I’d only scanned the rocks once and my scope needed a full wipe down from the rain. Another birder approached and said that he had seen the Iceland Gull on the fish market roof only five minutes before. I would certainly be able to see it from here, and I couldn’t, and so it seemed that it had already moved off from the roof.

I scanned the beach and the roof for another few minutes and decided that the Iceland Gull had probably continued its movement west and was probably now inside Newlyn Harbour. I walked back to the Newlyn Harbour Fish Market and scanned the gulls in the wide channel opposite the market. Fairly soon I picked out the lovely pale coloured Iceland Gull swimming alongside a Herring Gull which it was obviously smaller than and it’s rounded head gave a more gentle appearance. Quickly it flew but thankfully came even closer. The primaries were pure white and they extended well beyond the tail given it an attenuated rear. Iceland Gulls breed in Greenland (but not Iceland!) and are rare visitors to north western Europe.

With my fill of Iceland Gull I headed back to the pontoon part of the harbour to try and get better views of the Black Guillemot. I noticed another birder walking along the pontoon and having read the signage decided that we were allowed to descend down the walkway to the pontoons. We agreed to walk up parallel pontoons and wave if either of us found the Black Guillemot. Five minutes later and he was waving at me and pointing towards to the start of my pontoon. I walked back and quickly found the Black Guillemot feeding no more than 10 yards away. Although it dived regularly and was then tricky to re-find it showed brilliantly giving us both excellent views.

The distribution of Black Guillemot is similar in winter and summer confirming their sedentary life style. They are distributed around the rocky northern and western coasts of Scotland and Ireland and they only stray south in small numbers to the North Sea and southwest and southern England. Unlike other auks, in recent years there appears to have been little change in breeding productivity.

Chough – Cape Cornwall, Cornwall – 23rd February 2020

With the hour almost up on my parking in Newlyn Harbour my mind turned towards Chough. Given my difficulties in seeing Chough in November I decided to head back to the car so that we could give it an hour at Cape Cornwall before having some lunch in St Just. The skies were brightening and the drizzle stopped. I was hoping that Chough may be calling in this better weather especially as we were approaching breeding season.

I paid for an hour and stood at the top of the car park at Cape Cornwall so that I could see lots of suitable habitat without having to move too far. There were plenty of Jackdaws and Crows around and a couple of Ravens and I’d almost used my hour when I saw three distant corvids flying along the edge of the golf course. They were on the ridge of the hill and the rakish wings and deeply fingered primaries looked great for Chough. Against the sky it was difficult to see any colour and when they dropped below the horizon with the fields behind them I expected to catch a sight of their red bills. Unfortunately I didn’t, I think probably because they were too far away but I also had the nagging doubt that they might be distant Crows looking Chough-like in the strong winds.

Chough – Botallack, Cornwall – 23rd February 2020

We headed up to St Just for a pasty lunch and I then decided to try Botallack for an hour. We pulled into the National Trust Car Park and just after I’d put the car parking ticket inside the window I heard a pair of Chough calling close by. I dashed after them and after a few partial glimpses they finally dropped down to the ground to feed around the main chimney below the National Trust building.

I’d spent four and a half hours at Botallack in bad weather in November and hadn’t seen Chough at all and today I’d seen and heard a pair within 2 minutes. They were calling constantly and stayed close together throughout and they were both ringed. One bird wore lime green over black on the right leg and a striped ring on the left leg. The second bird wore red over black on the left leg and a striped ring on the right leg. 

Hilary at the Cornish Chough Group subsequently confirmed that this was interesting information. She confirmed that the lime over black ring is the resident male in the Botallack area (fledged in 2014) but the reason that my sighting was so interesting is that red over black is not the female he has been paired with for the last 5 years.

The new female (fledged in 2017) was paired with another bird last year. Chough usually pair for life, although pairs can and do split up if they are not successful in breeding and they readily find a new mate if one of the pair dies. This appears to have happened here and there is a new pair in the Botallack area. The striped rings mean that they are Cornish birds with both fledging in the West Penwith area.

Hilary further commented that “it’s good news in one way as lime/black never raised chicks with his previous mate. Back in 2014 we didn’t have that many birds and they were a sibling pair. Whether this was the reason they weren’t successful we don’t know (sibling pairs can and do breed OK), but we can hope he and red/black will be successful. Bad news in that we may have lost the original female of course”.

Whooper Swan – Camel Estuary, Cornwall – 24th February 2020

A Whooper Swan was wintering on the Camel Estuary near Wadebridge only 15 minutes from where we stay in our cottage at St Tudy. I didn’t realise it was there until I carefully checked all the Cornwall sightings of any rarity level on my RBA service. After walking the dogs we headed to Edmonton and then drove north along the very narrow lanes to the edge of the river estuary. It was then a 10 minute walk east along the camel trail to, hopefully, view fields at Dinham Point.

As I left the car I noticed that the camel trail followed an abandoned railway line just like it does on the eastern side of Wadebridge. This meant, however, that the footpath was in a dip in the ground and so was lower than the adjacent fields meaning I couldn’t see anything either side. After 100 yards, however, I got to a bird hide which overlooked the river estuary, there were ten or so swans in fields on the other side but they were all mutes. There were also three swans much further east well beyond Dinham Point. Two were Mute Swans and the third was impossible to identify as it was mostly hidden.

I carried on walking past Dinham Point and by then the swan that was hidden had woken up and was walking around on the salt marsh on the northern side of the river, I was delighted to see a bright yellow bill! 

Lapland Bunting – Trevose Head, Cornwall – 25th February 2020

On the Sunday of our week in Cornwall three Lapland Buntings were reported in the stubble field below the car park at Trevose Head. Looking back through the previous weeks I could see that they had been reported at Trevose Head with 100 or more Skylarks on four separate dates in the second half of January but not again until Sunday.

On the Monday just as we were putting the dogs back in the car after running them on the beach at Harlyn I heard what was probably a Lapland Bunting calling but I didn’t see it. Later that evening I noticed that at least four more Lapland Buntings had been reported at Crugmeer less than a mile up the coast. In fact Harlyn is equidistant between Trevose and Crugmeer and birds would fly over Harlyn if they moved from Trevose to Crugmeer or vice versa. There appeared to be a good wintering population in the local area.

I decided to try for the Trevose Head buntings the next morning although the weather forecast was for very strong winds and wintery showers including sleet and hail. After a 7:30am alarm we walked the dogs at Wadebridge and then headed to Trevose Head. Sarah waited in the car with her book and the dogs.

The stubble field was fairly large and so I scanned with binoculars initially and saw plenty of Skylarks and there was lots of Skylark singing overhead. Lapland Buntings, where present, are often in the company of Skylarks. I then switched to my telescope and started scanning a bit more carefully. It was pretty windy and keeping the view steady was difficult. Soon I picked up three birds that were hunkered down and creeping low to the ground, quite different to the bold confident Skylarks. One of the birds raised his head and I noticed reddish-brown ear coverts, a pale central crown stripe, a beady eye and plain lores. The surround to the ear coverts was blackish and the nape was a bright red-brown. The chestnut coloured greater coverts were bordered by white edges to the greater coverts and median covert. The other two birds also proved to be Lapland Buntings but less well marked, perhaps females.

I walked around to the bottom of the field to try and get closer views but I couldn’t relocate them. The Skylarks were pretty mobile in the windy weather and perhaps the Lapland Buntings had moved as well. Soon, however, I relocated a single Lapland Bunting and then another a little distance away. Overall, I couldn’t be sure if I had seen three, four or five Lapland Buntings.

I then heard the unmistakable calls of Chough and a pair of them came into land in the stubble. I only managed to get one of them in the scope and he didn’t appear to be colour-ringed. Soon they were off again tumbling in the wind as they were blown down towards Boobys Bay. Hilary at the Chough Group later said that they’ve had up to seven along the coast from Trevose and were hoping that at some point soon they would pair off and start to settle and she pleased to see that my sighting appeared to show this happening.

I walked back around to the top of the field and within a minute or so a flock of six birds came into land really close by and I was amazed to see that they were all Lapland Buntings! I had great views before an unpleasant sleet shower had me jogging back to the car. There were anywhere between 6 and 10 Lapland Buntings in the stubble, the biggest group I’ve ever seen.

The Lapland Bunting is a relatively scarce but regular autumn passage migrant and winter visitor mainly from Scandinavia but a variable number may originate from Greenland. The winter distribution was previously confined almost entirely to the east coast from Kent to Northumberland but in recent years a good wintering population in the south west primarily Cornwall has also developed.

Dipper – Harrowbridge, River Fowey, Cornwall – 25th February 2020

After the Lapland Buntings we headed to Trago Mills for some retail therapy for Sarah and on the way we detoured slightly to visit a Dipper site on the Upper Fowey. Dave Parker the Cornwall Country Recorder had recommended this stretch and he gave me the co-ordinates of a handy layby next to a bridge over the Fowey.

I had also asked Dave about Willow Tit sites in Cornwall and he said that the easiest place for them were the seed feeders at Lower Tamar Lakes near Bude just across the border into Devon. My plan was to try for the Dipper today and then maybe Willow Tit when the winds were lighter perhaps on Thursday.

I left Sarah in the car and walked up and down the stretch of the Fowey which is near Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor. The river was very narrow no more than 10 feet wide in places and rarely wider than 10 yards. It also ran fairly close to the road so I could see most of it as I walked north. With all the recent rain the river was very full and just like when I tried for Dipper up north in August there were no exposed rocks for the Dipper to use. As a result my strategy was to walk up and down as much of the river as I could manage in 45 minutes listening for calls and hoping to catch a flight view.

After around 20 minutes I heard the call and a brown flash zipped past me. There was a pedestrian bridge over the river here with good visibility and so I waited for a while looking downstream hoping for the Dipper to fly back towards me. It started to snow. I then decided to head back downstream towards the car in the direction of the Dipper. I got all the way back to the lay-by and the bridge without any further views.    

I decided to give it another ten minutes at this bridge. Soon afterwards I noticed a small passerine land in a gorse bush on the river bank. I got it in the bins and could see it was a brown tit with a black cap, you’d assume a Marsh Tit (especially as I live in Hampshire) although there was a striking pale panel across the secondaries and tertials. This was clearly a Willow Tit! It flew across the river to my side and into the trees along the roadside. I got another view before it slipped further into the trees and I couldn’t relocate it.

I got back into the car and checked through Dave Parker’s e-mails and realised that this exact stretch of the Fowey is the last stronghold of Willow Tit in Cornwall. I hadn’t made the connection that the Dipper site was good for Willow Tit which hadn’t been on my radar for today and so this was a nice surprise.

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