Thursday, 26 October 2017

Cornwall: 15th October, Kenidjack Valley

Saturday 14th October

This post actually starts on the Saturday evening and continues on from the previous post. After we'd unloaded the car and put all the provisions and our stuff into the holiday cottage, we made our way down to Porthgwarra and made an attempt at seeing the red-breasted flycatcher that had been seen there earlier in the day. PG, as birders affectionately call the steep wooded valley that ends in a beautiful cove, affords many excellent memories for us. We stayed a couple of times in the romantically (!) named Faraway Cottage up on the cliffs at the top of the moor and saw our first ever red-breasted flycatcher at Trevean pool close by the cottage in 2009. When we stayed at Faraway it was a little ramshackle and power cuts were common! Since then it has been done up with all mod cons and is now far too expensive for us. So we now choose a holiday rental close to the Kenidjack Valley instead. Anyway Porthgwarra and particularly the trees close to the car park have also yielded us our only ever views of yellow-billed cuckoo and red-eyed vireo while on the moors we saw our second brown shrike. So, considering we only ever spend a week in Cornwall each year, it is a very good site and has rewarded us well!

And we were blessed with solid late afternoon sunshine! After the wind and rain that was a delight in itself. We walked up to the fabled Doctor's garden where the flycatcher had been reported and set about trying to find it. There were no other birders around so we had to go it alone. The bird was supposed to be frequenting a willow tree so first we had to find that. The only willows in the garden are low down in the valley and the views from the Coastguard road are limited so we moved down into the field where you could see the trees more clearly. The only problem with viewing from the field was that the sun was now firmly in our faces. You just can't win in this game! Another birder joined us and we combined our efforts in searching through the trees and trying to "tune in" to any movement within them. A couple of goldcrests moved through and a chiffchaff had us going as it hovered to catch a fly from the outer branches. A pair of chough's flew high over to the south "cheowing" as they went but in almost an hour there was no sign of the flycatcher. It was nearing 6pm and the light would only last another hour or so. Maybe we'd have to come back again tomorrow. Then the fellow birder piped up "there it is"! Mrs Caley replied "oh yes, I see it" but I couldn't. Damn. It had been on view for about 3 seconds and had disappeared again. Another fifteen minutes passed and then my chance came as the flycatcher perched on a bare branch just a few feet away from where Mrs Caley had seen it. This time it posed for about 5 seconds before dropping out of view! Neither Mrs Caley or the other birder had seen it that time and there was no chance of getting a photo. It didn't show again. I've seen 5 red-breasted flycatchers now, all juveniles as this one was, so none of them have actually had a red-breast! But at least we'd both seen it and had a decent bird to start the Cornwall week. The photos below are of the juvenile red-breasted flycatcher that gave much better views in the Kenidjack Valley in October 2011.

red-breasted flycatcher (juvenile)

Sunday 15th October

Now for what we came to Cornwall for, the chance to bird (amongst others but primarily) the Kenidjack Valley! One of my most favourite places to be and usually quite exciting at this time of year. Kenidjack rose to fame when it hosted Britain's first and only yellow-throated vireo in 1990 and has housed many rarities since. Funny then that in several years of visiting that I've never found anything except the more regular warblers and migrants. Still I love the place and would quite happily walk into the valley every day for the rest of my life if I could. 

Kenidjack looking towards Cape Cornwall

The wind had picked up again as ex-hurricane Ophelia approached but at least it periodically blew the clouds away to give some sunny intervals. Initially the valley seemed alive with birds and we were very hopeful of finding something good. The trees and bushes surrounding the water treatment works were holding chiffchaffs, goldcrests, finches and thrushes. A pair of chough passed overhead on their way up the valley. I listened intently hoping to hear the thin "sweeeeet" call of a yellow-browed warbler but to no avail. I expected to see some further down the valley as usual, in fact I declared to Mrs Caley that I wouldn't get twitchy until at least Wednesday if I hadn't found one by then. How true that prophecy would become! The more common migrants kept coming, blackcaps, stonechats, blackbirds, song thrushes and chaffinches but nothing scarcer than those.

blackbird (male)

stonechat (1st winter male)
Blackcap (female)

We walked along the coast path towards Botallack, the scene of my "major" find last autumn, the tailless wryneck. On the clifftops visible migration ("vismig") was in full swing with flocks of chaffinches, linnets and meadow pipits passing by and all heading south. A fall of stonechats must have happened recently as we counted at least 20 of them scattered along the gorse. Gannets were passing the coast out to sea and a peregrine swept past us and headed out to sea, no doubt on the hunt for a tired migrating bird. Another couple of chough appeared and called noisily. No scarce or rare birds up here either though and we passed some time watching a female kestrel and a trio of buzzards taking the air.

kestrel (female)
buzzard (darker morph)

Back down into the Kenidjack and to my favourite little group of trees in Cornwall, those by the donkey paddocks. This is normally a great place for finding yellow-browed warblers and firecrests and hosted the aforementioned red-breasted flycatcher on a previous holiday. We re-made our acquaintance with Daisy and Tara the two donkeys and settled in to study the sallows, willows and ornamental trees that grow in the paddocks and in the garden of the house next to it. What I'd do to own that house! An hour later though we left a tad disappointed since the only birds that we'd found were goldcrests and blackcaps! Oh well there's always tomorrow. That's if we don't get blown away by Ophelia.
goldcrest; "what"?
wren; about to burst into alarm call

After a less than satisfactory Sunday lunch at the First and Last pub, surprising after last years excellent fare, we toiled for a couple of hours in the Nanquidno valley. Again we only found the more common migrants in increasingly difficult and windy conditions.

grey wagtail (juvenile)

Mrs Caley retired and I went out again alone in the late afternoon. Just before the sewage works I met a birder who told me he had just seen a hawfinch dive into a bush. Quite a few hawfinches had been spotted over the weekend at migration watch points so this wasn't entirely unexpected but was very exciting nonetheless. Hawfinches are difficult birds to see and we normally have to travel to the Forest of Dean or the New Forest in order to get them. There were some in Blenheim Park until recently but they seem to have gone now. I joined the chap in his vigil and was semi-stunned when a hawfinch flew out from the tree we were watching and settled low down in a hawthorn bush. There we had the briefest of views until the bird once again flew, this time accompanied by a second previously unseen bird, towards the sewage works. The other birder, somewhat sharper than myself I might add, picked a hawfinch up again in a hawthorn right on the skyline about 60 metres away. As well as the distance we were now dealing with some Cornish mizzle, that mixture of mist and drizzle that you only seem to get near the coast. Still I managed some record shots for posterity and had some decent scope views as the hawfinch fed on the berries. It appeared a bit more settled now and indeed the same hawthorn bush would host up to 3 hawfinches for most of the coming week and would attract many admirers amongst the Cornish birding fraternity since they are very unusual migrants in these parts. There is a path that runs up through the works and I walked up that to see if a better view was available. Halfway up the path the hawthorn bush came into view but only the top could be seen and the birds were feeding lower down. Then by some luck, I spotted a hawfinch in a smaller bush about half of the distance away and then another just a few feet away. Again they were feasting away on the berries and, probably because of the mizzle, didn't seem bothered by our presence. Although we were now getting great views photography was tricky owing to the very poor light and conditions (familiar tale of woe!). By now I'd texted Mrs Caley the news and she was understandably a bit miffed! But I considered that owing to the conditions and the hoolie that was blowing in overnight, the birds would probably stay a few days yet.

The hawthorn bush; hawfinch is in the centre, low down
hawfinch (juvenile)

On my return to the cottage the resident tawny owl was hooting away unseen and I added a firecrest to the list, so things were warming up. Now to see what Ophelia brings in tomorrow!

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