Glaucous Gull – Trevemper, Newquay, Cornwall

Glaucous Gull near Newquay in Cornwall

Although I didn’t notice it reported on Rare Bird Alert I later saw on the Cornwall bird news website that an adult Glaucous Gull had been reported in a field near Newquay on Sunday 23rd February. It was also  reported on the Monday and both reports mentioned that the bird had an injury to the breast although it was feeding well. It wasn’t reported on the Tuesday.

We travelled up to see the Willow Tits on the Wednesday and later that evening I saw that the Glaucous Gull had been seen again during Wednesday. As it was only around 15 miles away we planned to head to Newquay the next day and Sarah could also visit the Original Factory Shop in Newquay.

I checked the various reports on Rare Bird Alert and the Cornwall Birds Webpage and I tried to work out where the bird was. RBA reported the bird as being in Crantock and the Cornwall Birds Website said that it was near the Trevemper Roundabout in a field with a pink elephant (!) On google maps I could see two roundabouts in Trevemper on the south eastern outskirts of Newquay. I couldn’t see any fields which might contain a pink elephant and when I virtually ‘drove down’ the road on google maps the hedges were too high each side to see into the adjoining fields. I googled pink elephant in Newquay expecting it to be a well-known curiosity locally but I couldn’t find anything relevant.

The pin on RBA was near Crantock but I felt that the local website was more likely to be accurate. They mentioned the Trevemper roundabout each time and also that the field was near the Crantock turn. I then noticed that the road south west from the roundabout out of Trevemper had a right hand turn towards Crantock and I then noticed a field with something pink in it. I dragged the yellow man onto the road to virtually drive the road and I could then see that the pink object was indeed a pink elephant, this felt as satisfying as I hoped seeing the Glaucous Gull would be. I right clicked the field and copied down the co-ordinates.

Next day we arrived at the field at 11:15am and I was pleased to see the pink elephant as we turned off but I was disappointed to see that the field was empty of birds of any type. I waited for 45 minutes in case the Glaucous Gull returned and also scanned all the fields I could see from my viewpoint. We left at 12pm and Sarah suggested that we might pop by again later after we’d been for some lunch and after we’d visited the Original Factory Store in Newquay.

We arrived back at 1:30pm with little optimism but as we turned onto the Crantock Road I was delighted to see a large gull in the field! With my heart racing we pulled over into the side road again and I jumped out and confirmed that the Glaucous Gull had returned. I walked up and down the edge of the field to get some nice angles for some sketches.

Iceland Gull and Glaucous are both arctic gulls with almost pure white primaries. They are very similar in plumage and are separated by structural features most of which I was able to see clearly. This bird was clearly large, approaching Great Black-backed Gull in size and obviously powerful and heavy-bodied. This bird showed a rather sloping forehead and a flat crown with a distinct angle at the juncture of the crown and nape. Iceland has a much more rounded head. There was a pronounced tertial step and relatively short, blunt primaries whereas Iceland Gull has long, tapered primaries that project well beyond the tail, producing an attenuated look to the rear end. The bill was long, broad and parallel-sided with a shallow gonydeal angle. Iceland’s bill is distinctly shorter, slimmer and stubbier-looking.

The injury to the breast was pretty obvious, it appeared that a large chuck of feathers and flesh had been lost. I tried not to think about what the prognosis would be for a bird with such an injury.

An imposing pale gull of the arctic, Glaucous Gulls are the second biggest gull in the world and probably the heaviest. They nests on cliffs, coastlines, and islands in the arctic and while many adults remain in the arctic year-round lots of others move south including to the British Isles where perhaps 200 are present around the coast in a typical winter.

Cirl Bunting – Labrador Bay RSPB, Devon – 28th February 2020

We headed back from Cornwall a day early as the weather forecast for Friday was poor and it would be good to have Saturday free to get ready for Aly who was coming over for a couple of days and also to be ready for when Sarah’s Mum came back from Coventry on Sunday.

My plan for the journey home was to pop in to Labrador Bay RSPB to see Cirl Bunting for the year. As we got closer to the end of the week I could see that Friday was going to be wet and windy. I debated about not trying for the Cirl Buntings at all but having been successful with every bird I’d tried for while in Cornwall I thought it would be a shame not to try for the Cirl Buntings and success would mean an amazing 10 year ticks for the week!

We left the Wadebridge area at 1pm following brunch at ‘Nice Baps’. The weather was as per forecast, wet and windy. We arrived in the car park at Labrador Bay and I walked to the pay machine, the rain was light but the strong wind swept it across the car park in waves. It felt cold, bleak and desolate and I suddenly felt very pessimistic about my chances of seeing any Cirl Buntings.

I thought I would head to the place where I saw them well last June which was south beyond the large arable field in a secluded hedgerow where the warden had scattered seed on the ground. I arrived to find that the field was empty of seed or birds of any type and every hedgerow on the walk over there looked windswept and baron. I walked down the hill along a hedgerow to where it looked more sheltered from the gusty wind but no luck. I then walked back up the hill to the feeding station field and met the warden again who had just arrived and was about to scatter some seed. He’d been away for a week and so there was no seed at any of the normal places around the reserve. We chatted for a while, there were clearly no Cirl Buntings here at the moment but he did mention two other places on the reserve that he suggested I try although he did say that Cirl Buntings dislike windy conditions.

I walked to the places that he had recommended carefully checking the hedgerows as I went and the rain got heavier. The second possibility was back on the other side of the car park in another, hopefully secluded field. Once I’d drawn a blank here I walked back south towards the car, the wind began to pick up driving the rain horizontally into my eyes. It suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a single passerine during the whole time I’d been on the reserve. I don’t like to give up but I felt the conditions had beaten me.

As I got back to the car to head off home I suddenly had the thought that the fresh seed in the first field had been down for 30 minutes or more and perhaps the Cirl Buntings had found it and perhaps it was worth a quick look. Another 10 minute walk in the wind and rain through the mud and I got back to the seed field only to find a pair of pheasants and significantly less seed than 30 minutes before!

A passerine, my first of the day, flew down from the hedge but it was a Chaffinch. I then scanned the seed again and was delighted and surprised to see a pair of Cirl Buntings feeding happily, what a relief! My scope was quickly unusable as I was looking straight into the wind and rain. I gave it one last careful wipe down and watched the vibrantly coloured male Cirl Bunting for another minute before heading back to the car dripping wet but happy.

Our trip to Cornwall had brought me 10 new year ticks and I ended February with a year list of 158, my best ever start to a year, higher than my previous record of 150 in 2019.

Goshawk – Acres Down, New Forest – 2nd March 2020

Aly was down for a long weekend and as Mum and Dad already had guests (Dave and Ella) Aly stayed with us for two nights and on the Monday morning we went out birding. We set the alarm early (5.45am) so that we could be at Acres Down for sunrise. Our primary targets were Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Goshawk at Acres Down and Dartford Warbler at Holm Hill. We also hoped to see Crossbill, Woodlark, Hawfinch and Brambling. The forecast was for light winds and sunny intervals and so things looked hopeful.

This is was my fourth trip for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker at Acres Down this year and my fifth attempt overall for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. March is a good month to look for them as they are getting more active including drumming and calling and there are no leaves on the trees. Goshawk is also good in March and April as they often display over the woods to the west especially if the weather is good. For the remainder of the year Goshawk can become quite elusive.

Dartford Warblers can vacate their breeding territories to winter near the coast but I had seen them in the winter at Holm Hill on several occasions and so I planned to head there after Acres Down, this might also give us the chance of bumping into the Great Grey Shrike although we had both seen one this year already.

We were the first car into the Acres Down Car Park. We walked my normal route pausing regularly to listen for finches, crests and signs of woodpeckers. We saw several pairs of Hawfinch including brief telescope views in the tree tops. Several Brambling were in the normal Chaffinch flock towards Wick Wood and we enjoyed several fly over Crossbills. Woodpeckers were drumming regularly but it was always the confident loud short drum of the Great Spotted Woodpecker. Lots of Treecreeper showed well although there was no sign of Firecrest or Redpoll.

We then headed up the slope out of the car park and on to the heath to scan for Goshawk. One was on show immediately, drifting over the distant trees in the direction of Bolderwood to the west. It looked powerful and deep chested with a longish head and a tail that was shorter than Sparrowhawk but longer than Buzzard. There was a bulge to the secondaries and the tail base looked thick and the area around the legs gleamed white or as Keith Betton calls it ‘tissue paper caught in the knickers’.

Just a little further along the path we saw the pair of Woodlark which seem to have set up territory near the copse of trees. They fed carefully and slowly in the short heather but we didn’t hear them sing or call even in flight.  

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker – Clumber Inclosure, New Forest – 2nd March 2020

The plan next was to look for Dartford Warbler on Holm Hill and the shortest walk would involve parking on the road-side south of the Rhinefield Hotel and then walk through Clumber Inclosure and out onto the heath to the west.

I’ve walked this route a few times and have always felt that it looked good for Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. Half way through the inclosure we heard a woodpecker drumming and amazingly we both knew immediately it was a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. The drumming seemed weaker but most noticeably it was very long, clearly longer than a second. Having listened to Great Spotted Woodpeckers drumming all morning it was fantastic to hear the very different Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

With hearts racing we tried to locate the bird, the drumming continued as we walked closer to the group of trees where it seemed to be coming from. The temptation is to start scanning with binoculars but I find that your best chance is to keep a wide angle by scanning with your eyes only, wait for some movement and back yourself to find it quickly in your binoculars. Agonisingly the drumming stopped and everything fell silent.

We stood and waited for another five minutes before we heard the kestrel like ‘kee kee kee’ call and then a movement and I watched the woodpecker fly into the next tree. I found it in the binoculars but struggled to give good enough directions to get Aly onto it through the mass of overlapping branches. Aly hadn’t seen it at all and it was another agonising few minutes before we relocated it and we both enjoyed another minute or so of excellent views.

There was no red in the head indicating that she was a female and also confirming that both males and females drum. She was feeding actively, wing stretching and calling regularly, a real treat and one of the highlights of any year list.

Great Grey Shrike – Holm Hill, New Forest – 2nd March 2020

We then headed out onto Holm Hill and met someone who had been looking for the Great Grey Shrike all morning. We weren’t particularly looking for the shrike as we’d both seen one last month and Aly was keener to catch up with Dartford Warbler. It’s strange how much it easier it subsequently seemed to find the shrike when you’re not actually looking for it. 

We walked a little further south west along the track which runs below Holm Hill and I noticed a bird perched on gorse fairly close by, it was silhouetted and so I couldn’t make out any detail but as it flew the long tail and overall size and shape was unmistakeably that of a Great Grey Shrike. It landed in a nearby oak tree and I jogged back to the other birder while Aly kept an eye on it and eventually the other birder had good views. Over the next 30 minutes we managed to relocate the shrike on three further occasions, it’s never that easy when it’s your main target!

A bit further along the track we arrived at the location where I had seen and heard Dartford Warbler last month. It wasn’t long before we heard a male singing and then had good views as he perched on the top of the gorse. An excellent morning with two year ticks for me and seven for Aly.

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