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!

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Cornwall; The preamble October 13th & 14th.

Friday the 13th October

Traditionally Mrs Caley and I take a couple of days, stopping over on the Friday night, to journey down to Cornwall and our October "twitching" week. In the past we've favoured places like the New Forest and Arne but last year we made our first visit to Ham Wall in Somerset and enjoyed the place so much that we returned there this year. We had both been blown away by the variety of waterbirds on offer last October but this year, in what would prove to be a precursor for the following week, we were simply blown away. Yes it was windy! Which made seeing any birds much more difficult with most species choosing to stay well out of sight. But we attempted to make the most of it.

Our main target species for this visit were bearded tits, a bird that we hadn't seen well for a while now except for juveniles at Lakenheath Fen. I much yearn for an opportunity to grab a decent photo of a striking male beardie, moustache and all. Sadly we would fail again!

With the bearded tits in mind we ventured out into the reserve and towards the Avalon Hide, which we had somehow managed to miss the year before. On our way we logged a couple of great egrets fishing the shallows and a flypast bittern, endorsing the notion that these marshes are the Camargue of Britain! We followed the path out into the reed beds watching the swaying of the stems ever moved by the strong breeze. The track enters a small copse and we heard the shrill blast of a cetti's warbler's song from deep inside a shrub. A few yards on and it blasted out again, this time much closer. We peered into the undergrowth and saw the small chestnut coloured warbler spring from one branch to another and then fly straight across the path just ahead of us. This cetti's was reasonably easy to see and follow owing to it's constant movement and noisy song but it never settled for anything like a decent photo although record shots were obtained nonetheless. As much as the windy conditions were making viewing and photography difficult, even worse was the awful overcast and dull lighting conditions meaning that very high ISO settings were required for getting even slow shutter speeds!

cetti's warbler

We arrived at the hide which rises out of the reeds and affords an elevated viewing position of the surrounding area. As we walked in another birder left and replied to our question of "what's about?" with "nothing!". Great encouragement there then! We took our seats and looked around. There were a multitude of ducks, mainly mallards but also some wigeon, gadwall, shoveler and teal, so hardly nothing. I'd be delighted to see so many on Otmoor at home. We also noted cormorants, little grebe and a kingfisher sped past too. A female marsh harrier quartered over the reeds, admittedly at some distance away, and was joined by a male. Water rails squealed excitedly from deep within the reeds and many cetti's called too. Then we heard a tawny owl hoot from the direction of the copse that we'd walked through. I looked that way and noticed a triangular shaped owl box attached to a tree on the edge of the wood and guessed that the owl would be inside snoozing away. Another bittern was seen flying away into the distant section of reeds and a heron settled in for a spot of fishing close by. We could hear the "pinging" of bearded tits but none showed despite my constant surveillance of the reed bed.
grey heron
marsh harrier (female)

gadwall (male)
A cacophony of sound erupted from somewhere near the owl box. It appeared as if several water rails were alarmed all at once and were shrieking away incessantly. I glanced over that way and was amazed to a tawny owl poking her head out of the box! The owl remained there for a good ten minutes or so whilst the water rails continued their protestations before heading back to it's cozy slumber. The water rails had different ideas though and kept up their racket giving the idea that there must have been a predator such as a fox or maybe otter over in that area. After another short while the tawny owl's curiosity got the better of it again and once again appeared at the entrance of the box, this time leaning out further to survey the source of the commotion. We, of course, couldn't see what the fuss was all about but were absolutely delighted to add tawny owl onto the year list (except I don't keep lists, right?!). Even though the box was quite far away, scope views were good even if the photos were not.

tawny owl 

After the tawny owl had gone back to bed and the kingfisher had zipped past going the other way we decided to head out and look around the rest of the reserve. It was still quite windy so we knew that even if we heard the bearded tits there would be little chance of getting good views. We encountered the cetti's again rattling away in the same bushes as before but no easier to see. Then as we approached the small river that feeds the marshes several bearded tits called out their little cash register song, "pching, pching...". This time I was able to locate them flitting amongst the reed stems but they were restless and didn't pause or pose long enough for any photos. After a minute or two of searching for them, seven beardies erupted from the reeds and flew back over our heads and away into another stand of reeds. I managed to fire off a few quick shots of their backsides! Blurry and completely not what I was hoping to get but, hey, something!
bearded tit

A large mixed flock of small birds were flying between the trees either side of the river and we noted a couple of lesser redpoll and reed buntings amongst the various tits and more common finches. The imaginatively named viewpoint 2 was supposedly the best place from which to see the resident glossy ibis, a bird we'd seen well here last year, but it was absent for us today (despite being seen later). We did manage a little egret and a couple more great egrets as well as another flypast bittern. We retraced our steps and had a look from the Tor View Screen and sure enough there, in the distance, was Glastonbury Tor! Pretty easy that one. Last year this place was alive with birds but this time all we saw was a kingfisher and a cormorant, testament to a higher water level and the windy weather.

great egret
The best views we had of any birds came on the walk back to the carpark and they were birds that are easy to see owing to both mute swans and grey herons being pretty much unmissable! A young mute swan was none too pleased when we had the audacity to cross the bridge it was feeding beneath and a juvenile grey heron eyed us very suspiciously when we joined it next to a small stream. At least it was a chance to get a clear image for a change!
mute swan (juvenile)

grey heron (juvenile)

We had a quick look at the scrapes on Shapwick Heath which is the adjacent reserve to Ham Wall and managed by the Somerset Wildlife Trust. Again there were less birds than on our previous visit but we added a single ruff to the days proceedings and a large flock of lapwings. Feeling the strain of a frustrating day, although not without its rewards, we headed off to our overnight digs in Newton Abbot to prepare for the remainder of the journey down to Cornwall's far west.

Saturday 14th October

Saturday dawned much the way Friday had ended with heavy skies and drizzle but at least the wind had dropped. The news was all about ex-hurricane Ophelia that would hit us on Monday so we were a bit anxious as to whether we'd even be able to see any birds at the start of the week! A tradition for us now is a visit to a small RSPB reserve near Shaldon called Labrador Bay and to see cirl buntings, that highly localised and beautiful songbird. Cirl buntings are largely confined to the South West of England and the South Devon coast is a stronghold for them. Labrador Bay is a very easy place to see them and you can get them almost as soon as you get out of the car. Make sure you pay the 50p to park though since the council officials are very keen to issue penalty tickets! We were the only people on site and because it was still before 09:00 wandered away from our car looking and listening for the buntings. Luckily I did glance back at the car at 08:55 and realised that the parking vulture was poised next to the car ready to pounce. My 50p was deposited, along with some of my very best scowls, not a moment too soon! The vulture went off looking for another victim and left us to it. In five years of visiting this site I had always seen cirl buntings but had never heard them singing so it was a surprise this time to hear them trilling away at the tops of trees and bushes. We saw at least 4 different splendid males singing and even a juvenile male joined in too. A couple of female type birds were seen too. The song reminded me a little of the wood warblers trill but deeper and more rattly. The buntings were joined at various times by a male bullfinch, chaffinches, goldfinches and some linnets. A lone swallow drifted past which may prove to be our last of this year. The only downside to the fabulous views of the buntings and the beautiful scenery on offer was yet again the awful light which continued to make obtaining decent images very difficult. But I tried!

juvenile male

With the onset of persistent rain we jumped back in the car and headed west. At this time last year, in similar weather, we had been treated to the Dalmatian pelican and a very confiding short-toed lark on our way down through Cornwall, and then a fantastic red-eyed vireo at Porthgwarra on our arrival. The year before it had been an isabelline shrike in the South Devon Hams. This year there was nothing unusual on offer so I took us to a place near Bodmin to look for dippers on a small river there. Needless to say, with the heavy rain dampening any enthusiasm we may have had, we didn't find any but neither did we look that hard!

A message that came through while we were buying our provisions for the week raised our spirits though. There was a red-breasted flycatcher in Porthgwarra! We've seen a few before but another one would make a nice start to our week in Cornwall!

Tuesday 10 October 2017

7th October; Whoop, whoop, whooper!

whooper swan
With just a week to go before our annual pilgrimage to Cornwall and despite quite a few decent birds knocking around Mrs Caley and I decided that a local walk was in order. We chose Otmoor because it had been, unbelievably, 5 weeks since our last visit. On arriving at the car park we were astonished to see just one other car there, usually lots of other birders are out before us. A sign of the autumn doldrums perhaps, that time between the summer birds heading off south and the return of the winter migrants from the north when nothing much happens. It was a grey and overcast start to the morning but undeterred we strolled off down the path and onto the reserve.
red kite

I was keen to (hopefully) add a couple of Otmoor regulars to my list (but I don't keep lists really), namely the male hen harrier and the kingfisher that has taken to posing on the new perches by the first screen. We were soon on to a harrier but this was a marsh harrier which quartered Greenaways slowly in pursuit of prey. The congregation of greylag geese were none too impressed by the harrier gliding closely above them and muttered their displeasure continually. I spotted a pair of stonechats perched on reeds out by the scrapes but apart from them nothing much moved. There was a flock of long-tailed tits working their way through the adjacent hedgerow but I couldn't find anything else in with them. I'll get my chance in Cornwall. We continued on to the first screen encountering very few birds on the way. Autumn doldrums indeed!
male stonechat

At the screen the occupant of the other car was sat ready with camera trained on the kingfisher perches but there was no sign of the bird itself, and nor had there been. We settled in and surveyed the  familiar scene in front of us. Ducks of various species milled around in the shallows or stood preening at the waters edge. There were mallards, shovelers, teal and tufted ducks. They were joined by a couple of great crested grebes, some coots and a few moorhens. I decided to look at the cormorants, now that I'm familiar with separating shags from them after the recent birds at Farmoor, but these were as expected just cormorants. A small wading bird emerged on the bund and fed nervously around the bigger birds, a green sandpiper. Within seconds however it flew off and disappeared. This was hard work! I then spotted a snipe asleep on the muddy bank in front of the screen and soon found another, just its head showing above a small inlet. No sign though of the dunlin that had been seen here over the preceding few days. The (or another) marsh harrier sortied over the reeds but as per usual stayed well out of reach of my camera lens.
drake shoveler

green sandpiper (pic from BWR)

The teal and mallards suddenly all raced towards the open water and showed much anxiety, usually a good indicator for a raptor on the prowl, so I looked up expecting to see a peregrine or kite sail past. Instead the source of their collective concern appeared to be a swan! Now the regular wildfowl would be well used to seeing mute swans flying around but they were definitely bothered by this particular swan. It was by now flying northwards away from us but I realised that it was a whooper swan. Obviously an unusual shaped swan for the ducks! The whooper kept flying towards Charlton-on Otmoor church and then appeared to float down and land on the northern lagoon. I sent a text to Badger informing him of the swans presence and eager to get a decent shot of it, I dragged Mrs Caley off of her comfy seat and walked quickly to the second screen where I was sure the whooper would be waiting. Except it wasn't! In fact there wasn't a bird to be seen anywhere. Not even a coot. After a quick scan of the reeds see if any bitterns were around, they weren't either, we returned to the first screen again with me thanking my lucky stars that I had got the record shots of the whooper swan.

Initial record shot of the whooper swan

The other birder had been joined by another and they quickly informed me that "it's here now". I looked at the kingfisher perches and could see nothing and only then noticed the whooper swan standing in the water just in front of the nearest mudbank! The looks I got from Mrs Caley were enough to freeze the lagoon over! If we had just stayed put, as she pointed out, then the swan would have come back to us. Instead I'd taken us on a route march between the two viewing screens and back again for nothing! Still at least now I was able to reel off some pleasing images. 

The snipe numbers had now grown to over 30 and more were flying in. A small flock of about 40 lapwing passed over the second screen in the distance and descended into the field beyond, a portent of the winter birding to come. Finally the kingfisher put in an appearance but instead of using one of the oak boughs it just careered straight past whistling as it went. A few minutes later it came back and once again didn't stop. The whooper swan had now loosely attached itself to the company of a couple of mute swans and they now as group swam out towards the furthest bund. Then at roughly an hour after the whooper swan had arrived it took off and flew hard and high northwards, this time not appearing to land anywhere and was soon lost to sight. It had been seen by just four admirers.

"wisp" of snipe

grey heron
Half an hour later and with no further action we headed back again hoping to see the hen harrier. Needless to say that we didn't. We did mange to find a few chiffchaffs and goldcrests in amongst the long-tailed tits and saw another pair of stonechats but that was about it.
great tit
great spotted woodpecker