I went once again to Cornwall this autumn, choosing the weekend that straddled the end of September and the start of October. Although it was wet when I went down on Friday morning, and there were showers and a light blow on Sunday/Monday, the rest of the weekend was blistering sunshine, with no passage whatsoever.
My first stop was Davidstowe in pouring rain, where a Buff-breasted Sandpiper had been showing at point-blank range for four or five days. Something had disturbed it from its usual beat on the turf close to the control tower, and it was nowhere to be found. In fact, it was probably hanging out at the west end not far from where I watched four Ringed Plovers, but I didn’t find it. Someone also later reported a Red-throated Pipit on the runway, and there were certainly plenty of pipits and wagtails around in the drizzle, including an adult male Pied that kept giving snatches of song. The curse of Davidstowe strikes again …
There was also a wave of Yellow-browed Warbler sightings on that Friday, but I didn’t go out of my way to connect with any of them, on the basis that I may well run into one over the weekend. I didn’t. And my stint at Marazion also didn’t produce either of the Spotted Crakes that had been present for several days, neither of them was reported subsequently.
Heading to Portgwarra, I cut across the Sixty Foot cover and came out on the cliffs by the coastguards, where I was pleasantly surprised to run into Russel Wynn and a student doing some follow-up on Seawatch South-West; although we were counting a reasonable run of BALEARIC SHEARWATERS, and at least four SOOTY SHEARWATERS were welcome accompaniments, their real interest was in Gannet feeding events, which they were locating with a theodolite to correlate their position with the marine topology. We saw a couple of flocks of 100+ Gannets while I was there, although no associated Cetaceans. In good light, I had a go at seawatch photography … unsurprisingly, it was very difficult, especially from elevation, and anyone who gets a record shot to support a seabird sighting has done very, very well.
Little else to report, and no YBW with the tit flock on a watch over sixty foot again.
Up early the next morning, I went to the sea at the nearest point to where I was staying, which was Gurnard’s Head. A tramp across the fields didn’t produce anything much, so I was out on the Head by just after 8am. After only ten minutes, a group of three Kittiwakes only about 500m out was accompanied by a juvenile SABINE’S GULL, smaller and daintier, and showing solid grey back and inner wing, with clear-cut white and black triangles making up the rest of the wing. My first self-found from a sea-watch, only trumped by the cracking adult I found at Portland in August! A distant diver may have been a Red-throated – amazing that I have seen very few on previous autumn sea-watches in Cornwall.
After that, I scoured a few likely-looking valleys along the coast between Pendeen and St Ives without finding much in the way of birds, the odd Wheatear, a few Chiffchaffs and Goldcrests and a flushed Snipe were about the best I could do.
Dropping into the Cot valley, I was a bit bemused by a confused and jumbly song, high-pitched but lacking rhythmn. Turned out to be a male Goldcrest, presumably giving a sub-song that lacked the normal building rhythmn of a Goldie.
I dropped in at Kenidjack, which was peaceful and largely without birds. The only notable sighting was a family that appeared to have lost their dog on the path over to Cape Cornwall; the hillside here is dotted with mineshafts and it didn’t look good. I nearly came a cropper on the same path several years ago when retrieving a favourite hat that had blown off and into the bracken. Best stick to the paths …
Sunday, I was up and over to Pendeen first thing, but there were only a few shearwaters to be seen. More scouring of valleys delivered little, and my midday I was up at Portgwarra again, in anticipation of a front coming in at the end of the afternoon. We did ok for Balearics and Sooties, with a Puffin to add variety, but the highlight of the afternoon was when Dave Flumm found a distant CORY’S SHEARWATER, coming in from the east. It took an age to reach us and I struggled desperately to locate it, despite having been watching at that distance all afternoon, but eventually got reasonable views just before it reached the Runnel Stone buoy, passing behind it. First Cornish big shear, yeay! A second big shear even more distant was probably a GREAT SHEARWATER, and would have been a British lifer for me, but was even harder to locate, and the views I had as it powered off into the distance were unusable. Shortly after that, the rain arrived and we called it off, not displeased at all.
So then there was just Monday, find or fail. The weather was doing its best, with a moderate westerly and sheets of drizzle. I was down at Porthgwarra early, and worked my way up and over to St Levan, without seeing much. Coming up from St Levan to Porthcurno, a dog-walker passed me as I stopped to check on a piping call that reminded me of Bullfinch, but was clearly moving. As I moved on, something moved up from the field just ahead of me, a plover-like wader towering up and circling before heading off to the north. It seemed like a smallish Goldie, but with a dull dark underwing. I latched onto this, and fooled by the piping call, believed that I had just salvaged the weekend by finding my first American Golden Plover – the commonest wader species that I have not yet encountered in Britain. However, as it had headed off, the call was different, being more of a rolling “djirrrr“, and as I plodded on I had second thoughts, with Dotterel seeming far more likely. By the time I reached the radio dead-spot of Porthcurno – ironic, as there is a museum dedicated to telecommunications there – I realised that I had made a mistake. This was surely my first self-found DOTTEREL, the slightness, call, no glimpse of a wing-stripe – all seemed to make sense when I had that possibility in minf. Fortunately, that afternoon I caught up with what was probably the same bird, a couple of miles ago above Nanjizal (where one had been reported over the weekend) and further flight views resolved the issue for me. Live and learn.
The rest of the day passed on a very suny stroll over Portgwarra moors, delivering not much more than some Ravens and a couple of CHOUGHS, welcome nonetheless. Just as I was leaving, I ran into Jon Swann, who often passes on useful bits of information when I’m down there. This time, he had information of weekend-salvaging significance, since a BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER had recently been found in the fields above Nanjizal. We trecked on over there in blistering sunshine, picking up another birder on the way, and when we reached the field that I had watched being ploughed on Saturday, we soon located the sandy little transatlantic waif, alternately dashing and freezing mongst the ridged soil. My second BUFF-BREASTED SANDPIPER and the first in Cornwall, hurrah! A parent and small child were on their way towards us but the bird wasn’t disturbed, and just moved slightly further into the field. It retreated a bit across the field, and moving to the next field we soon had the Dotterel (see above) towering away from us, refreshing my memory as to the “djirrr” call that I first heard above the same fields five or six years ago. I parted company with Jon, thanking him for the help, and wandered back down Lower Bosistow Lane, relaxed and happy.