Sunday, 27 October 2019

Chough Junior 2019 ! Myself and Pete's week off birding

October is a special month in birding and each year myself and Pete take a week off for our annual Chough Junior Birding holiday. I'm not sure where the time goes but 2019 marked our 7th year and we always get excited about what we might see especially after last years Grey Catbird and Penduline Tit!We also enjoy counting and documenting the migrant birds we see in the County during the week as we notice changes in populations and weather related influxes of birds as we keep the dates the same each year. Our list of species prior to this year was 202 (all in Cornwall) since 2012 and adding to this list is also a big target for the week.

Saturday our first day of birding started with a Chough Junior first , an out of county twitch! All week we had been hoping that the American Black Tern that had recently turned up at Longham Lakes; Dorset would remain into the weekend and on Friday night we planned our journey after the bird had been seen at dusk. Despite the horrid weather it was an easy 3 hour journey to Dorset and after a bit of a panic as we searched the lakes I picked the bird up distantly flying close to the far shoreline! Boom a great result and a fabulous bird to see and photograph at such close range. Certainly a very good learning exercise and I feel well armed if I should ever stumble across one in Cornwall to sort out the I.D. On our way home we stopped off at Maer Lake (finally back home in Cornwall!) and could begin our list for the week seeing a nice Spoonbill and 2 Pink-footed Geese amongst a nice selection of wildfowl and waders.

Juvenile American Black Tern

Every Sunday on Chough Junior we head to Porthgwarra in the far west of Cornwall in the hope of finding mouth watering rarities. This iconic valley has certainly been very kind to us in past Chough Junior visits with Moltonis Warbler, Alpine Swift and a self found Blyth's Pipit to name just a few. This year however our targets were set eagerly from the west as a series of weather fronts emanating from America had dumped an array of neartic passerines into Western Europe. With a Yellow-billed Cuckoo on Scilly and a Common Nighthawk in Northern Ireland our sights were set big but alas after yomping through Hidden Valley and 60ft Cover we failed to find the yank. Even the Red-eyed Vireo that had graced the valley during the week failed to show for us but Pete found a nice juvenile Turtle Dove (new for Chough Junior !) and I saw a few common migrants including Lesser Whitethroat and 2 Firecrest, all good birds for the week. For the rest of the day we searched St Levan , Porthcurno and Trevascan hoping to find an American Warbler but we did see the White Stork which had been roaming around the St Levan area during the last few weeks. We finished our day at Nanquidno and were treated to great views of a Red-breasted Flycatcher which had been found earlier in the week. 


Monday 14th saw us up and travelling in the darkness to the Lizard, yet another fantastic birding location in Cornwall where just about anything can turn up. Birds were moving overhead in big numbers early in the morning and our busy vis mig amassed 1448 Meadow Pipits! Scarcer birds included 3 late Swallows, an out of season Hobby and a nice year tick in the shape of a Woodlark. At 9am news broke that the Barred Warbler had been seen in Caerthillian Cove again and we wasted no time in getting there seeing that it was a county tick for us both. After a quick search we were treated to great views and photographs of this large charismatic Sylvia Warbler as it crashed about in the brambles and blackthorn, We then walked to Housel Bay were there had been a very skulky Nightingale species that I was keen to help positively identify. Sadly despite being very patient and setting up a Bluetooth speaker in the hope of attracting the bird we failed to see it and the Nightingale wasn't seen again. Heavy rain had set in by now and we made the call to check Stithians and Devoran on the way home. This was a bad call in some ways as when the rain stopped local birder Mark Pass found two Red-breasted Flyctacher's and a Booted Warbler! Still a lifer for Pete and a county tick for myself meant the day had been a great success. 

Barred Warbler

Chough Junior is usually about finding birds for ourselves and checking less well watched coastal sites but with new birds turning up we had found it hard to resist planning our first few days around them. So on Tuesday we headed to St Agnes in the hope of finding something for ourselves at a new location for Chough Junior. What a great day it was with Long-tailed Skua and Sabines Gull over the sea and a good selection of Common Migrants (considering the unfavourable westerly wind) including Ring Ouzel, Merlin and Firecrests. There is so much potential in this area (which is hardly watched at all) and it has inspired Pete especially to come here more often.

1st Winter White Rumped Sandpiper by Mike Spicer

Wednesday 16th saw us heading west again to help cover the ringing at Nanjizal Valley. As a trainee ringer I always feel so lucky to train at Nanjizal under Kester Wilson's expertise and we both are always very previliged to help out there. Today we joined Nik Ward (on holiday himself in West Cornwall ) and it was great for me to learn lots of tips in extraction from him during the morning. When at Nanjizal you need to sometimes think outside the box when ringing and Pete has the talent to try different things which has resulted in some great rarity records for himself over the last few years. Today he concentrated on targeting the large numbers of Pipits that were in the area. As we were walking across to check a net Pete was distracted by a buzzy Pipit call down-slurring at the end. He then picked up a bird looking a tad larger than the Meadow Pipits it was with as it flew more confidently and purposefully towards him to the field he shouted over to me. I recognised the call as Olive-backed Pipit but I was worried about not getting a view, thankfully the bird came back across in my direction and alighted into a Willow back on to me. I could see the green tinged unstreaked back as it seemed to melt into the foliage and dissapear without a trace. Sadly it didn't end up in a net but we did ring a nice selection of migrants including a very late Common Whitethroat. Other notable sightings included a Ring Ouzel that was so showy I took a picture of it with my phone! And close views of a Woodlark flying through the valley. What a great morning we had as Pete found himself a lifer and a rare bird in the county! After we had packed up we went over to Marazion Marsh and spent an hour searching the bay with Reuben in the hope of connecting with a juvenile White-Rumped Sandpiper found earlier in the day by local birder Mashuq Ahmed. We had wonderful views of this fresh in yankee wader on Marazion Beach but I felt that some of the photographers were getting too close to it if I'm honest. I understand the urge that some birders get for the perfect photo but me ,Peter Reuben were happy to look through the scope and not get involved in it. Last but not least that day we headed back to a wildlife hospital in North Cornwall to study a Rough-legged Buzzard taken into care that had sadly passed on through starvation. Biometrics and feather samples for DNA analysis were taken and I'll await the news on what could be a first Rough-legged Hawk for mainland Britain (after all these storms why couldn't it be one? Certainly some plumage features were pro Rough-legged Hawk, time will tell and a full account will be given in time ). 

Hooded Crow

Thursday was a full on day indeed and both of us were feeling it today, but on Chough Junior there is no rest! So again a bright and early start albeit to a more local sight of Trevose Head. Conditions weren't ideal as the heavens opened every ten minutes or so (Met Office back to their best with a forecast of 5% chance of rain! I'd love a job there it must be a party!). Still we had birds trickling along the coast and we were delighted to see the long staying Hooded Crow, yet another new bird for our Chough Junior List! Pete called it a day at lunchtime to catch up on some chores and have a well earned rest but I carried on to the Camel Estuary. It was nice to add a few Waders to our week list including Common Sandpiper but I was most looking forward to going to Walmsley Sanctuary (this CBWPS owned reserve is a fantastic location for birding and is one of my favourite local sites). As I got to the hide the well known suppressor and co was present along with a very nice novice birder. I sat next to this lady and took great satisfaction from the enjoyment she got from me showing her a fine drake Mandarin Duck and a Pink Footed Goose. Not rare birds but new to her and it was worth the whispering and backchat aimed at me in the process. I feel saddened that people withhold sightings in this way especially to new birders with an interest in the nature that we all want to enjoy , observe and protect. I'm happy not to know what's in the area it creates a sense of excitement as to what I might find but for novice birders it is pretty harsh. Especially when in a CBWPS hide , I will probably get an ear bashing as usual when the person we all know hears of this but I feel like I should make it known what goes on in North Cornwall and the pressure some people must feel in the area from intimidating bully type people, I won't be shying away from the Camel Estuary and the Trevose area any time soon  as life is too short and they don't have any more previliges to be at these sites than any other birder, in fact in my opinion less so at Walmsley as I'm not even sure they are paying members. I felt I had the last laugh that day as when I had the place to myself I found a drake Green Winged Teal! One of the highlights of the week on a personal level. 

Green-winged Teal

With us both feeling re-energised for Friday we had decided to head to Pendeen Watch for a seawatch that had the added bonus of being near to Cot Valley and Sennen should any news come out of two potential new birds in the county for us (a Subalpine Warbler, which would be new for me if Eastern and new for Pete if Western! Plus an Icterine Warbler). The seawatch itself was mediocre at best with some Grey Phalaropes, a Sooty Shearwater , Bonxies and a couple of Arctic Terns. My personal highlight was watching Pete battle the storm with his high tech umbrella designed to not fold inside out in any conditions, now Pete was quite fond of this brolly until he realised the design meant that there was a massive sunroof of a hole in the top getting him soaking wet! I've never seen a man punch an umbrella and tell it to ' F#ck off!' before! News soon came out that the Subalpine was showing so we made a retreat to Cot Valley. The Subalpine was the king of skulkers and I had one good view of it perched for two seconds, a few obscured views and several brief flight views. It was certainly a handsome bird and the plumage tones suggested to me that it is probably an Eastern Subalpine but after doing a fair bit of research there is no way I can be sure. A pasty for lunch and a quick look at Mounts Bay and Hayle rounded off the day nicely.

Subalpine Warbler species by Marek Walford

We both had commitments on Saturday with family but we still got out separately and found good birds. Pete seawatched at St Agnes again and saw Sabines Gull, Pomarine Skua and a couple of Arctic Skuas. Whilst I saw a Snow Bunting at Gwithian and a smart 1st winter Little Gull at Hayle Estuary. We knew we were off to Nanjizal in the morning for our last day of birding so it was good to spend some time with my very patient and understanding girlfriend for the afternoon! 

Sunday was a very memorable day for Chough Junior. With rain overnight and promising winds from the North East we were hopeful of some good birds at Nanjizal and perhaps a bit of a fall. What we were treated to will be fondly remembered for a long time. We walked out for the first net round and it felt 'birdy' in the valley. Little flocks of passerines flitting across the net rides and birds were going in already. Pete went on ahead as I extracted a couple of Robin's and as I caught up he excitedly told me that he had extracted a Barred Warbler! Wow what a start to the morning and the bird we had wanted all week. I then got to the next net and saw an interesting warbler above my head. Any Acro (or Reed type Warbler) in October is worth scrutinising anyway but as soon as I saw this bird with it's olive tones to the upperparts and very white underparts my gut feeling was that it was a Blyth's Reed. I soon had it out of the net and a quick check of the wing formula confirmed in my mind that it was! Boom what a moment! It was a pleasure to hand the bird to Pete to ring and study a lifer for him, Back at the ringing hut we took full biometrics before letting it go in a timely manner. I find it amazing that Nanjizal has produced 4 Blyth's Reed Warblers this year and 8 in total, all of the Cornish Blyth's Reed's have been found here! So surely they are occurring at other locations in West Cornwall as this expanding species from Eastern Europe reverse migrates south west instead of north east. The rest if the morning was rich with birds both in the valley and overhead with 59 Blackcap, 3 Yellow-browed Warblers, 7 Firecrest, 17 Chiffchaff and 1 Cettis Warbler ringed. Plus a Richard's Pipit overhead , 176 Redwing, 2 Fieldfare and a White Stork

Barred Warbler

Blyth's Reed Warbler

After Nanjizal we went home to spend time with our families and reflect on what had been a very successful week. We saw 150 species of bird in Cornwall , twelve of which were new for Chough Junior. Pete had three lifers in the shape of Olive-backed Pipit, Blyth's Reed and Barred Warbler. My own highlights included the Blyth's Reed Warbler, finding the Green-winged Teal, exploring St Agnes and getting such close views of the White-rumped Sandpiper and (albeit briefly) Subalpine Warbler. We have already booked next year off of work and I can't wait already!