A couple of winter birding trips

Black redstart (female) at Brean Down cove

A few days ago, I took a quick trip to Brean Down cove, to look for a female black redstart that is wintering there. For a while I thought that I was going to miss out, but then she suddenly appeared, very close by. In the normal course I’d have been very satisfied with the photos I took at that point.

I decided to explore some of the rest of the cove and happened to notice a grey heron looking alert on a rock islet on the edge of the shore, so I spent a few minutes trying to capture the scene.

Heron at Brean Down Cove

On my way back I looked for the redstart again in a rather vague and half-hearted way – but then she suddenly appeared, on the end of a nearby branch that had been washed up, even closer than before. I’ve ended up concluding that she was checking me out! I was particularly delighted because this is definitely one of the best photos I’ve taken of a small bird.

Female black redstart at Brean Down cove

On my day off, Jen and I went up to Slimbridge. We knew it would be cold, but I’d forgotten what it was like to have an icy blast blowing in off the Severn estuary!

Many of the Bewick’s swans have arrived for the winter: they are much smaller than our native mute swans, with yellow-and-black bills rather than orange-and-black. They’ve had an astonishing journey to get here, as they breed on the arctic tundra of northern Siberia. Sadly they are declining in numbers all across Europe: 29,000 in 1995, dropping to 18,000 in 2010; there are far fewer at Slimbridge now than there were ten years ago. It’s not hard to work out one of the biggest causes of the decline: of those that are in the UK, 40% carry gunshot. (Their story on the WWT site here.)

Bewicks swans at Slimbridge

We saw several Bewick’s swans on the Rushy pen, where there was also a scarce wader – a Little Stint, which is indeed very diminutive.

Little stint at Slimbridge

A red start to a few days around Mousehole

Andrew – Jen’s bro – booked us all in for a few days in Mousehole over the New Year weekend. I was much looking forward to this anyway – but when an Eastern Black Redstart turned up there about ten days’ previously, I started to get a little twitchy…

I don’t normally take that much interest in sub-species but this one is a bit different… it’s much prettier (and redder) than the normal European black redstart, which is present in small numbers in the UK throughout the year; but, more notably, as it breeds in central Asia and winters in the Middle East, it shouldn’t normally be here – so why a small handful have turned up in the UK this winter is anyone’s guess. [A good guide to the black redstart subspecies is here: ref.]

Thus the first morning we were in Mousehole I headed down to the beach where it was residing (having briefly seen it the previous night), and spent a couple of hours trying to get some good photos.

Eastern black redstart, on the rocks at Mousehole.

Eastern black redstart, on the rocks at Mousehole.

Eastern black redstart in Mousehole, peering up to the top of the wall of the garden it also frequented.

Eastern black redstart in Mousehole, peering up to the top of the wall of the garden it also frequented.

As we did during the summer, Jen and I also went in search of some of the ancient archaeoloigcal remains in the area. One of these is the Tregiffian Burial chamber from around the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age. This type is unique to the area, with around a hundred on the Scilly Isles (eg here) and only about a dozen in west Cornwall. It’s bizarrely close to the B3315!

Tregiffian Entrance Grave - similar to ones found in the Scillies

Tregiffian Entrance Grave – similar to ones found in the Scillies

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Rachel’s amazing Thomas the Tank Engine cake for George. Photo by Andrew.

Jen and I had a windswept coastal walk near Porthgwarra on the Saturday morning. We started near the Minack open air theatre, and passed St Levan’s holy well: this is one of the more impressively natural of the wells that I’ve seen, and lies close to the ruined foundations of an early Comish church. Later that day, we had another windy trip to Land’s End with Andrew & Rachel, Sophie & George in the afternoon. Not exactly photogenic weather conditions – but an attack of the flu later on put paid to other chances!

Despite this, it was great to be able to spend a few days with Jen’s family. We celebrated George’s second birthday on the Saturday, so Rachel cooked an amazing Thomas the Tank Engine cake for him!

Jen near Porthgwarra

Jen near Porthgwarra

Jen with Rachel, Sophie, Andrew and George, blown around by the wind at Land's End

Jen with Rachel, Sophie, Andrew and George, blown around by the wind at Land’s End

We did however manage a little bird-watching on the morning of our return…. I’d like to say that the photo of this whimbrel took lots of careful thought with the lighting, shadows and reflections on the beach – but it was just luck…

Whimbrel on the beach at Penzance

Whimbrel on the beach at Penzance

Birding in the Scillies

Black redstart on St Mary's at Borough Farm

Black redstart on St Mary’s at Borough Farm

I’ve just come back from an enjoyable week in the Scillies. Birding is a highly social activity – especially where you have a high concentration of birdwatchers, as happens during the autumn migration in the Scillies. Here’s how it works…

It starts on the ferry from Penzance. Birdwatchers tend to congregate on the upper deck, because there are often interesting species to be seen that are rarely if ever seen inland (like shearwaters and skuas), and a good chance of seeing dolphins. There was a relaxed and buoyant mood, as people chatted about what they were seeing, and hoping to see once they arrived.

I booked into the Bylet, a guesthouse about five minutes from the centre of Hugh Town, generously managed by Lisa. At breakfast (which became the main meal of the day) I discovered that all five others who were there were also birders – so it wasn’t hard to guess the topic of conversation!

Whimbrel at Old Town bay

Whimbrel at Old Town bay

Compared to many of the other birders on the island, though, I am almost a novice. This becomes very apparent when the conversation turns to life lists – the number of species one has seen in the UK, or wherever. Take for example a conversation with Len, an ex bank manager staying at the Bylet.

Snow bunting on the way to the lighthouse at Peninis Head on St Mary's.

Snow bunting on the way to the lighthouse at Peninis Head on St Mary’s.

Len: “I’ve got a life list of about 480, but I don’t chase after birds much these days, not like I used to.”

Me: “My life list is about 230 or so.”

Len: “Excuse me?”

Me: “My life list is about 230 or so.”

Len: “Goodness me! I’ve seen 268 already this year – and I’m down on previous years!”

Me: “How do you manage that living in Devon?”

Len: “Well in January I spend a week on the Hayle Estuary, then in February I have a few days in the Forest of Dean. In March…”

Hmm, and you don’t chase birds these days?!

The main social event for birders on St Mary’s happens around the ‘log’, which takes place daily in the bar of the Scillonian Club at 9pm. It’s a regular ritual, and anyone looking for liturgy outside a church would be amply rewarded here! The guy co-ordinating it goes through the systematic list of British birds, to log all those seen during the day. For example: “Anyone seen any common redstarts today?” No response. “No. Black redstarts – one still at Town beach – any others?”

“One still by the Old Town Cafe.” “One still at Borough Farm.” “There was one on St Agnes today.”

“Stonechats – lots of them today as usual. Whinchats: anyone seen any of them?” And so on.

Lapland bunting on St Mary's at Peninis Head

Lapland bunting on St Mary’s at Peninis Head

I was delighted to see a couple of Lapland Buntings. Three years ago I had gone to see a small flock reported in east Yorkshire; in my impatience all I managed to do was to spook the entire flock so they flew off, before I was able to positively identify them; they didn’t return for some hours, long after I’d departed. I was therefore abnormally relieved and delighted to see the two on St. Mary’s! There was also a very obliging snow bunting, which foraged along the footpath leading to the lighthouse on Peninis Head. It was completely unworried by how close people got to it.

The song thrush outside the Old Town churchyard, overlooking the bay.

The song thrush outside the Old Town churchyard, overlooking the bay.

However, despite all my efforts, my best photographs were of a common bird, and happened quite by chance. I was sat on a bench outside the Old Town churchyard, overlooking the bay, and chatting with a couple of other birders, when I noticed a song thrush, perched only inches away on the arm rest of the next bench. So – while trying to maintain the conversation! – I manoeuvred the camera forward and started snapping.

It happened that this week was unusually poor for a migration season. Although chance conversations tended to be optimistic at the start of the week, there was a feeling of despondency among many birders by the end. The main problem was that the prevailing winds were unsuitable for anything particularly interesting to be blown in. Nevertheless, for me it was a delight just being on the Scillies and to be able to wander around these beautiful and wild islands.

The song thrush outside the Old Town churchyard, overlooking the bay.

The song thrush outside the Old Town churchyard, overlooking the bay.

Enjoying the Scilly season

I’ve just come back from a wonderful few days around Land’s End and on the Scillies. As it’s the autumn migration, the area is a hotspot for birds on passage, and thus for – ahemtwitchers birdwatchers as well.

The greatest wildlife spectacle of the week took place on the passage over to St. Mary’s. I was surveying the ocean for interesting seabirds when I noticed a patch of water looking strange – and a dolphin emerged! It was the first of several dozen that appeared over the next hour: some of them jumped clear of the water before diving back, coming close to the boat, diving under and then re-appearing and jumping in the wake. Others could be seen more distantly towards the horizon. It was an unexpected and spectacular show.

It takes only moments on the islands to realise that they have a climate that’s much more tropical even than the tip of Cornwall, with normal gardens having agaves and other succulents that wouldn’t survive on the main land.

Agave in a harbourside garden – with the Scillonian ferry reflected.

I took a couple of day trips to St. Agnes,  an island with a much wilder and more remote air. On Wingletang Down, to the south, there are some wind-blasted rocks that have taken on weird shapes – none more so than the inevitably-named Nag’s Head.

The Nag’s Head on St Agnes

It’s a great place to birdwatch, though. There were some notable rarities – such as a Richard’s pipit which, for some reason, I had to see – and several yellow-browed warblers. It also happened to be the right time for seeing black redstarts: although they breed on the mainland, they do so only in small numbers and thus are quite hard to track down. Just a couple of days previously they had started to pass through, and I saw several while I was there.

One of the delights of birdwatching on the Scillies is that it’s also a very social time – a meeting ground for like-minded people who also think that feathered migrants are worth getting excited about. Arriving at the campsite, the conversation was clearly going to be about the barred warbler (which eluded my attempts to spot it), while at the coastguard cottages it was obviously the rose-coloured starling (which, being the juvenile was very, very brown). On the Tuesday I hung out with Alfie Brown (a Trinity person also on the islands) and James Garside, whose sharp eyesight meant Alfie and I saw birds we might otherwise have missed.

One of the showiest birds was a spotted crake on St Mary’s, which was almost oblivious to the birdwatchers gazing in rapt attention as it negotiated the boggy terrain at the Lower Moors. Attempts to photograph it were thwarted by the darkness of the area, resulting in perfect images of motion blur, so my better shots were of comparatively common birds viewed from a hide at another nearby pool.

Purposeful: heron on the prowl at the Lower Moors, St. Mary’s

Snipe squelching through the mud

On the final afternoon in the Scillies I had to take the early boat back to St Mary’s to catch the Penzance ferry. As we arrived at the harbour, one rather taciturn gentleman suddenly broke into a wry smile and cried out “I don’t want to go!”.