Friday, 17 November 2017

Ophelia! In Cornwall 16th October 2017

Much of the night was spent listening to the ever strengthening winds. Ex-hurricane Ophelia had arrived in West Cornwall. It sounded pretty bad from inside the cottage and I dreaded to think what it must have been like in West Ireland which was taking the brunt of the storm! The predicted 60-70 mile an hour winds turned out to be true and I wondered just how much birding would be possible in such gales. Many a comment had been made by other birders yesterday that it would be "unbirdable" in such conditions. Still the only way to find out would be to get out in it, suck it and see!

So after a longer than usual breakfast we put our heads to the wind and braved it outside. A reasonably sized twig breezed across horizontally in front of me and I considered myself lucky that we weren't going for a walk in a wood! We were however venturing down the Kenidjack and there are some large trees along the road by the engine shed. They were becoming smaller though by the minute as Ophelia lopped branch after branch off. Now I've been in Cornwall during gale force winds before but they usually hit from the west and the valley offers some protection. Ophelia though was raging from the south and blowing straight down Kenidjack (it runs north-west to the sea) so there was no respite at all. We met another chap who was also birding here for the week and he was one of those who didn't think it would be a goer today. He had been out earlier and basically suggested that anybody staying out and trying to bird in such weather was an idiot and wasting their time. He was no mug either! But, like the mug that I am, I thought that Mrs Caley and I may as well have a bracing walk if nothing else. Blow those cobwebs away as they say. Blow the bloody spiders away more like!

Anyway we did give it a go and saw very little indeed as expected. Even the choughs didn't like these conditions and 12 of them were hunkered down in a grassy field pecking away at the ground and the cow pats in search of their own breakfasts.

one half of the chough flock
and the other half (minus 1)
ah there he goes!
carrion crow 

All small birds were keeping their heads down and there was no sign of the hawfinches that had been present the evening before much to Mrs Caley's chagrin. They could have been there but were probably being sensible and doing the bird equivalent of staying indoors. We did see a small group of siskin fly over but not much else. After an hour of being buffered around by the wind we gave up and decided to change tack for the rest of the day,

I drove to Pendeen and had a quick look off the lighthouse there. The sea was rough but because the wind was from the south there were no birds passing bar a couple of gannets. Nothing in the lighthouse gardens either (a couple of yellow-browed warblers had been there at first light). So the only thing to do was to drive to Hayle and have a look at the estuary there or rather sit in the relative shelter of the hide at Ryan's field and see what birds were sheltering there. We arrived shortly after midday and a couple of hours before high tide. But there were already a few wading birds on the scrapes. This is a good place to compare bar and black-tailed godwits and both were present. Considerably more barwits (around 50) than blackwits (only 1) and they kept well apart but the differences could be noted. 
bar-tailed godwit
black-tailed godwit
black-headed gull

One of the birds we were hoping to see was a spoonbill which had given us the slip the year before. Our friend Badger had seen one here yesterday but typically there was no sign today. We needn't have worried though since the spoonbill flew in with a flock of Canada geese within 10 minutes of us arriving. Always nice birds to see with that big spatula bill. 


The Canada geese flock also contained a "Canalag" goose, a hybrid between a Canada goose and a greylag goose which had very interesting head markings but you could see how it got them.

"Canalag" goose

A fine little egret fished much closer to the hide than the spoonbill, affording excellent views and a couple of black-headed gulls joined it.

little egret

An email alert informed me that an American golden plover had been seen at Copperhouse Creek in the centre of town and where we saw our second lesser yellowlegs two years previously, so we jumped in the car and sped the short distance. We pulled up alongside the creek next to the only other car there, the purpose of the occupants belied by a scope just nudging out of the window. I tried to open my door. I say "tried" because it was almost impossible owing to the strength of the wind. If it was strong in the Kenidjack then it was doubly strong here. Using all my might I managed to get the door open and then almost had to crawl to the other car. I inquired as to the whereabouts of the plover and the chap (who had called it incidentally) pointed it out. It was extremely difficult to hold the binoculars steady on the bird but I already had doubts about the bird so I struggled around to the back of my car and grabbed the scope. Using the car as a (pretty useless) windbreak I managed a better view of the plover which as I suspected was in fact a grey plover! Nice bird but nothing rare. I had seen an AGP at Davidstow two years ago so I was confident that I was right. The bill was much too robust and there was a dark smudge around the eye. I returned to the other car and informed the occupant of my opinion and he agreed and had in fact reached the same decision after getting better views. The ID was clinched beyond all doubt when the plover flew a few feet and exhibited the diagnostic black "armpits". There were other waders too, all battling to stay put in the wind, we noted redshank, curlew and ringed plover. 

grey plover

black-tailed godwit, redshank & grey plover

After the excitement of the "almost" plover we returned to Ryan's field. During our absence the tide had come in and the local birders had arrived to enjoy the bounty of birds that had abandoned the main estuary which was now flooded. The number of bar-tailed godwits had increased to nearly a 100 and there were around 50 curlew too. A few lapwing had settled in along with some redshanks and a grey plover! I wondered if it was the same one? The best bird on offer though and instantly noticeable owing to it being much smaller than all other birds present was a curlew sandpiper. Interestingly (for us anyway) the first we'd seen this year having missed them all summer! Curlew sandpipers are reasonably rare in the south west so it was creating a lot of interest amongst the local birders. Imagine my surprise then when a call goes up "there's a buff-breasted sand out there"! Now, buff-breasted sandpiper is my bogey bird. I've yet to see one despite them being pretty common migrants to the UK. I have dipped out on them more than once when trying to twitch one and have always mistimed my visits to likely spots in order to find one. I frantically searched through the waders and there was nothing like a buff-breasted out there, not even a ruff which looks a bit similar. I was about to ask "where is it?" when a birder leant into the chap who called it and, on showing him an image on the back of his camera, exclaimed "surely a curlew sandpiper, isn't it?!" Of course it was, panic over. I felt a bit sorry for the guy who mis-ID'd the bird but then thought just how many of the birds we see reported each and every day that are not what they are called. I mean that was two such mis-ID's in just half an hour!
curlew sandpiper (right) with bar-tailed godwits & black-headed gulls

curlew sandpiper & redshank
bar-tailed godwit

Another emailed pinged informing of a purple heron that was (had been) stood in a field close to St Leven church! This was plausible since a purple heron had been present in Cornwall until just a few days before we arrived (naturally!) so it could have relocated. Apparently this bird had been flushed from a small stream and had flopped down rather confusedly into an adjacent weedy field. So, what's to lose?, we headed back down there. Our first challenge was to locate the field which took a while. Then after getting there and with no other birders around, it didn't look promising at all. The weedy field ran alongside a very overgrown stream where viewing would be extremely difficult. A footpath ran through the field but wasn't close to the stream. We gave it a go but it was impossible and the only bird we saw was a pheasant which flew up and out of the tangle of grasses. We had heard of a short- toed lark that was present close to Sennen so decided to head there instead. The lark was favouring a recently tilled field which until last week had housed (yep, just our luck) a buff-breasted sandpiper, a dotterel and an American golden plover! I think we need to move our week in Cornwall forward by a week or so! One other birder stood (just) at the edge of the field and I joined him, Mrs Caley preferring to (sensibly) stay in the car. On the higher ground and totally exposed it was blowing a proper hoolie and getting any sort of views of anything was extremely difficult. The other birder informed me that he'd seen the lark just 10 minutes ago (that old chestnut!) but that it had flown a short distance and he hadn't managed to relocate it. I couldn't either. I did find a ringed plover and a couple of white wagtails in amongst lots of pied wagtails but there was no sign of the short-toed lark. Never mind since we had had crippling views of one at St Agnes last year so I wasn't too bothered despite it being a "nearly" day what with the false alarms and failed twitches.

short-toed lark (St Agnes Oct 2016)

In fact it was definitely time to go in and relax before the anticipated extravaganza tomorrow. Ophelia must bring some presents surely?

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