Monday, 22 March 2021

An Introduction to Vis-Mig Part One - Equipment

So 'Vis-Migging' what is it? The art of watching migration as it happens , counting and identifying birds as they fly overhead on their migration. It is the most enjoyable type of birding I do and if you live on the coast it gives you a great chance of finding the unexpected whilst enjoying migration. 

Vis-Migging has always been a big part of my birding life and it seems to be gaining in popularity as it loses it's status as one of the 'dark arts of birding', often seen as an impossible skill to master, people are realising it isn't! In the first part of a series on Vis-Migging coming to the Blog in 2021 we will look at how to get started and what equipment you will need. Although concise I hope it inspires people to get out and give it a go for themselves and enjoy the rewards that are out there for everybody with this style of birding. 

Happily Vis-Migging on the Cornish coast doesn't get much better for me in birding, even if I have work later it sets me off in a good mood for the rest of the day and in the course of a year produces great results. 

Learning the skills of identifying birds in flight or by sound can seem daunting at first but having the right mindset is key to enjoying this type of birding. Remember that most 'difficult' birds are far easier to identify by sound than any visual subtle field character. Just think of Meadow Pipit and Tree Pipit, two species remarkably similar in a casual view on the ground but they sound strikingly different as soon as they take flight.Some larger birds are often much easier to identify in flight once we learn their distinctive flight style or jizz (such as raptors) or need the specific wing pattern detail of a large gull, the possible Caspian Gull picture posted online as it roosts on a large lake will often get the response ' do you have a flight shot', 'We would need a photo of the bird in flight to be certain' by the experts. Finally in Vis-Mig birds come to you and a patient birder with an hour to spare may be better off standing still and waiting than rushing around their local patch when they know deep down they aren't doing it justice.  

So lets look at the equipment we need to get started with Vis-migging and also a brief look at some items that will enhance your Vis-Migging. So what do we need to Vis Mig? The honest answer here is nothing special, nearly everybody will already have the tools for productive Vis-Migging and if you own a pair of binoculars and a pencil and paper you are off to a flying start. There are several other pieces of equipment you can use to enhance the experience or improve your results but none are essiential to begin with. 

Below in rough order of importance is a list of the items you may choose to use, without going into too much detail and assuming you own a pair of binoculars already. 

Pencil and Notepad: This may appear to be a little old school but having the ability to record and remember what you are seeing and hearing as it happens is so important to Vis Mig. I find counting the birds as they move overhead keeps my concentration levels up and these records will also be welcomed by local bird clubs or perhaps the BTO through their Bird Track App ( More Info on BTO Bird Track Click Here).  Any mystery birds you see or hear can be described in real time with flight styles, plumage details or even sounds onomatopeiacally written for further research later. Important features of any scarce or rare birds can be jotted down at the time before they are quickly forgetten (often sooner than you think!). Keeping these notebooks will form a valuable reference to look back on if you add dates, times and weather conditions to your records. 

Sound recording Equipment: Although it is not necessary to own sound recording equipment there are now recorders available for all budgets that will produce good results should you want to invest in one. The obvious bonus to recording what you are hearing means that mystery calls may get identified at a later date and several rarer species may need a sound recording to be identified with certainty ( such as Eastern Yellow Wagtail or famously the Paddyfield Pipit at Sennen). However it is worth remembering that there will still always be birds that are  too far away to record just like there are sometimes birds that are too distant in a telescope. Whilst I embrace the technology and possibilities that sound recording open up in the world of birding I hope that 'evidence' isn't always needed for Vis-Mig records. For birders finding their hearing isn't what it used to be, a sound recording set up with a set of headphones will reopen a world of bird sound that may once have been lost to ageing ears.Read more on recording bird sound during the day here

A sound recorder with a Shotgun Mic can be attached to your backpack and it will pick up calls overhead very well. Alternatively you can place the microphone a few paces in front of you to cut out background noise that you or fellow birders create.

 Camera: Capturing Vis-Mig through photography is a rewarding thing to do and having a decent camera to document that hoped for rarity may help the record get accepted.Like sound recording equipment it will no doubt enhance your experience but it isn't really an essential piece of equipment. A camera with a fast shutter speed such as an SLR is the best type to use if you are hoping to photograph passerines or want detailed images of raptors or gulls. Large lenses aren't always needed and a 300mm lens with extra light gathering and often faster focusing speed can be preferable. Also it's worth bearing in mind the weight around your neck if you are stood still for an hour or two when choosing your set up. For up to date Camera info & reviews Click Here

Telescope: A spotting scope set up in readiness can be handy for birds passing at greater distances or if you need to scrutinize a larger bird , I have mine set up when I Vis-Mig at certain places that have a sea view for instance as during quieter moments I can scan for seabirds or larger birds coming 'in off' the sea. Click here for South West Optics. You will get excellent service and advice from Steve Rogers

Having a scope set up certainly doesn't hurt and it will pay off with a distant raptor ID or if you have a sea view to scan in quieter times. 

Bird Sound App: Having an app on your phone with bird sounds on can be really helpful when you've just heard a call that you can't quite put a name to. It may sound similar to a normal call of a species you are used to and often listening to different recordings will unveil the mystery call. I use the Sunbird Bird Songs of Europe app which is very good and also a free app called Bird Call Xeno is very good but it does need an internet connection to work. If you are searching or learning new calls at home then Xeno Canto (Click here for Xeno Canto) has an amazing database of bird calls to search through and the Sound Approach Team do excellent articles & podcasts on the topic of bird sound.(Click here for Sound Approach official website)

 Fieldguide: A good field guide will describe the flight style and flight calls of a particular species and is an essiential part of the learning process. I would recommend the Colins Bird Guide to get started with (For a review from Birdguides Website click here). Recently a new Wildguide has been published on flight identification ' Flight Identification of European Passerines and select landbirds'  and it is thoroughly recommended by myself. In fact it is pretty groundbreaking work and has helped me sharpen up my own skills on how to describe and judge the flight styles of certain species. It also comes with an app enabling you to listen to the flight calls of all species in the book. (Click here for More info on Flight Identification of European Passerines)

Other Birders: I can hardly describe a fellow birder as a piece of equipment(!) but having extra pairs of eyes and ears scanning different parts of the sky will produce more birds for you all. Remember to keep quiet and chat in whispers as you'd be amazed at what you miss if you are too loud and not concentrating. Calling out the birds you all see and enjoying the spectacle make it a great group exercise. Finally if  you are new to Vis-migging and eager to learn calls try and get out with someone experienced, I wouldn't be anywhere near as competent with bird sounds and the ID of birds overhead had it not been spending years on end with birders more experienced than me who were happy to teach me at the time. If you live in Cornwall feel free to send us a message and we are always happy for people to join us if you are keen to give Vis- Migging a try.

In part two we will look at where and how to choose your Vis-Mig spots , weather conditions and target species for spring. 

Monday, 28 December 2020

Top 10 Finds of 2020

Buff-breasted Sandpiper - Park Head

Perhaps 2020 has been a year to forget, but birding always throws up surprises (that's why I love it so much!) and this year was no exception. I didn't strike it big with any find in particular but my local area produced the goods for me, the north coast of Cornwall remains under watched but with a budding group of birders in the area I'm sure there is so much more to discover in this rugged part of Cornwall. 

So in no particular order here are my ten most memorable finds:

1) Buff-breasted Sandpiper; Park Head. I had got into a routine of walking the coastal fields with Libbie in the afternoons in the hope of finding a Dotterel but I couldn't believe my eyes when my favourite wader strolled across the footpath in front of us, With an iconic setting you could sense this fab wader had just arrived 'in off' the Atlantic. Thankfully it stayed for a few days for others to enjoy too.

Yellow legs, long primaries projecting beyond the tertials (typical of an American wader) a beautiful buff wash to the body and scalloped upperparts point towards this special wader. Can be confused with Ruff but Buff-breast is typically much smaller & has a very active jizz like a clockwork toy. The tertials of a Ruff are much longer and often cloak the remiges. Whilst in flight Ruff shows distinct white ovals on the side of the rump which Buff-breasted Sandpiper lacks.

2) Wilson's Petrel x2; Trevose Head. The Cornish sea watching season was much better than 2019, with several reports of Pterodromas, Medeiran Petrel, Brown Booby and much better numbers of large Shearwaters, Despite work I managed some decent seawatches away from the crowds yet Fea's Petrel still eludes me! Highlight for me was finding two Wilson's Storm Petrel with Pete from my favorite spot at Trevose Head. We also had Long-tailed Skua, Pomarine Skua, Cory's and Great Shearwaters in a busy few hours. 

3) Bonapartes Gull (1st winter) Padstow: The remnants of a hurricane (storm Dennis) - had just hit Cornwall, surely a Yankee Gull came in with it? That was what most birders were thinking in the South West and in challenging conditions in 60mph winds Pete and myself chanced our hand on the gull roost at Padstow. I've found most small gull species here down the years and yet again it came up trumps! A stunning 1st winter Bonapartes Gull that lingered a few days for the locals to enjoy. 

In fading light, challenging conditions and amongst thousands of other gulls it was a real treat to pick out this Bonapartes Gull. Slightly smaller than BHG with a grey nape, darker & neater bill, pink legs and a distinctive wing pattern ( to my eye Bonapartes shows a neater black trailing edge to the wing which contrasts more with the grey inner wing. Photographs would show dark markings to outer primary coverts which 1st winter BHG lacks, though this is tough to see through the scope) .

4) Dusky Warbler; Porth Mear; Park Head: I got into a routine of checking Park Head early each morning throughout November. With fantastic habitat and being close to home it was great to re-learn a site that has so much potential. A showy and vocal Dusky Warbler was the first of a nice run of Eastern Passerines for me at the site and also a long awaited self found tick. 

I first heard this bird calling and it took a while to pin it down for a photo. Short primary projection,thick set legs, a striking face pattern and an overall buff wash to the upperparts and dirty wash to the flanks and underparts create a distinctive warbler. It was very active and would pump it's tail vigorously. 

5) Dombrowski Yellow Wagtail: Davidstow didn't hit the heights for me personally this year and it was the first blank yank wader year for myself at least in a long time. However this fascinating bird which showed characteristics of this sub-species helped me sharpen up on Wagtail ID and I feel prepared for an Eastern Yellow Wagtail in Cornwall more than ever should I get lucky enough to have the chance of finding one.

The thin yellow supercilium, dark headed appearance with even darker ear coverts and yellow wash to the white throat patch didn't point firmly to any sub-species I was familiar with. 

6) American Wigeon; Walmlsey Sanctuary: It was a tough spring for Cornish birders. The conditions we dream for with settled weather and warm south easterly winds yet we couldn't get to the coast for obvious reasons until the end of the season. Still it is always nice to find an American Wigeon and a female is always a good bird to 'sort out' ID wise. After several gimpses over the previous week Peter and myself finally got the views of the underwing needed to confirm the ID. 

This image (courtesy of Google) shows several key features of female American Wigeon and critically the wing pattern. In neutral light a grey headed female Wigeon (often with a conspicuous dark mark around the eye) that contrasts with a warmer brown body with salmon colored flanks will be worth investigating. Patience and concentration is key now as now you must wait to view the wing pattern (both upperwing and underwing) either when it flies or when it starts to bathe and preen as it will flap it's wings eventually. On the under-wing a genuine American Wigeon will show a striking white bar across the underwing (formed by the white median coverts) which lead down to pure white axillaries or armpits (these are grey in Eurasian Wigeon). On the upperwing a female American Wigeon will normally show a much more striking white wing bar (along the greater coverts) than Eurasian. We prepared to capture these details by phonescoping the bird and videoing the exact moment it lifted it's wings in nice overcast conditions which worked a treat. On a bright sunny day against a blue sky the wing patterns of Wigeon are harder to discern and caution must be taken. 

7) Richards Pipit; Park Head: I do love vis-migging, migration in action at it's finest and my hearing has always been more acute than my eyesight so it is a facet of birding that I both enjoy and spend a large amount of time doing. We also found a Richard's at Porthgwarra in October but a bird on the North Coast and close to home gave me the biggest buzz.

8) Little Bunting; Park Head: The other star bird of Vis Migging this time shared with Pete on an early morning vigil. Little Bunting may not be the rarity it once was, but I bet everyone gets a big buzz from finding one like we did! 

The spectacle of seeing & hearing birds on migration is probably my favorite type of birding. In Cornwall the 'Vis Mig' season is best in Autumn and starts in August and can go on into November, you don't need to be on right on the coast either, Any vantage point or even your garden will produce a passage of some sorts. It's all about putting the time in and getting up early! But you will get rewards if you do.

9) Common Nightingale; Nanjizal: The highlight of the ringing season for me was extracting and ringing a stunning fresh juvenile Nightingale at Nanjizal. Perhaps it wasn't the vintage year we hoped for at this mecca migration station but when you look back at the season and the birds we processed  (8501 birds) it is a pretty mouth watering list including Scops Owl, Icterine Warbler and Golden Oriole . As ever I feel very previliged to be a part of this long term project which proves that West Cornwall is an important area for migrant passerines and gives us a glimpse of the volume of birds which pass through our county. 

   As a birder I thought I could identify Nightingale species by checking the color of the upperparts, brightness of mantle and tail and patterning of undertail-coverts & breast. However as a ringer I made a rookie mistake in not checking the wing formula (Common Nightingale shows a long P1 , short P2 and long P4. Thrush Nightingale has a short P1, long P2 and short P4). This would've been so easy to check and conclusive to the ID of any Nightingale in the hand. A lesson well learnt in my junior ringing career that if you process something different take the care as a ringer to do the proper biometrics and read Svenson.

10) Rose Colored Starling; Nanjizal: It was good to get in on the record breaking influx of Rosy Starlings in late spring 2020 and even better to find my first adult! I think because we spend so much time in the valley it really is amazing what flies overhead or is found by the Nanjizal Sunday Club during the year with Stone Curlew, Black Kite, Pallid Harrier, Citrine Wagtail, Short-toed Lark, Dotterel, Serin and American Golden Plover all recorded by the group on the Sunday's I was down there.

An adult Rose-coloured Starling (courtesy of Michael Mckee) really is an outrageous looking bird! An influx into Western Europe reached record proportions with birds breeding as far north as France and many individuals reaching Britain. Cornwall also fared well during the influx and many birders chanced their luck by searching the resident Starling flocks in local tows and villages,

Saturday, 28 November 2020

1st winter Brown Shrike at St Agnes October 2020

 The 1st winter Brown Shrike was a super find by Graham Lawlor at Chapel Porth, St Agnes on our week off birding, if he keeps on birding the area I'm sure it'll be the first of many great finds in this under watched part of Cornwall. 

When the news broke of an interesting and elusive Shrike which was on the way home from our day's birding in West Cornwall it was always going to be worth a check. Some back of camera photo's posted also showed an interesting bird which surely wasn't 'just' a Red-backed so we hurried to Chapel Porth in the hope of sorting the bird out either way. There is something about a mystery bird twitch I really enjoy and the whole experience with the Brown Shrike was such a great learning oppurtunity as we all had to work on the bird to secure the ID. Hopefully I will be lucky enough to find a rare Shrike one day and this experience has made me that little bit more prepared for that moment.

As we arrived local birder John Chapple was the only person on site (we later learnt Graham was still in the area searching). Thankfully John had seen it well some ten minutes before our arrival and hadn't seen it fly off. Soon more local birders arrived and I was pleased to see amongst others Steve Rowe , Mike Spicer & Brian Mellow who were also armed with decent cameras. The search was broadened for the bird but I had a sneeky suspicion it was probably just sat skulking in the same hedge and the sharp eyed John Chapple spotted it again. Phone calls were made and we all got brief views of this very interesting looking bird. It was still there, we had time on our side and a good group of birders. With a team effort we could nail the identity once and for all!

Typical of the species it was a real skulker to begin with, most often sat within the hedge rather than atop like you would expect a Shrike to do. I'm sure there are exceptions but this seems to be how Brown Shrike behaves and is a very good pointer to begin with that you could be onto something good!

Aged as a juvenile (note vermiculations on the flanks). The relatively smooth brown coloration to the upperparts and striking head pattern showed well even at range as did the short winged, long tailed structure of the bird.

Closer views showed off the birds head pattern in more detail with the eye stripe being broad and black behind the eye, yet faded in front of the eye. 

The subdued color to the tail which matched the mantle yet contrasted with the brighter colored rump are good features of Asian Brown Shrike. An Isabelline type would tyically show a rufous brown colored rump , upper-tail coverts & tail contrasting well with the grey/brown mantle.  A Red-backed would show the opposite affect as they have warmer brown upperparts that contrast with a subdued colored tail.

At this angle you can see that five primary tips project past the longest tertial. In Red-backed Shrike 6-7 primary tips project past the tertials and in Turkestan/Daurian Shrike 7-8  tips project past the longest tertial giving all three species a longer winged / shorter tailed appearance.


As the bird flies away it shows the typically narrow graduated tail pattern of Asian Brown Shrike. In scope views you could see that the outer tail feather (T6) was very short and created a 'step like' pattern to the tail. 

As you can see there are an important set of ID features to secure the ID of a juvenile Shrike so build a picture up of the bird and concentrate on :

Shape and structure of head and body
Head Pattern
Upperparts tone and coloration of mantle, rump and tail at different angles in neutral light
Color tones and pattern of flanks and underparts
Tail pattern
Primary Projection beyond the longest tertial

It may not be an easy task to get all of these features but my advice would be to take a deep breath and remember that it's a Shrike so it's probably going to hang about for a few hours at least. It will most likely be skulky so prepare yourself for a patient bit of birding (Graham watched the bird for over 5 hours until he got the views he needed) and perhaps most importantly put the news out quickly as a group of birders at different angles will help pin the bird down and a team effort with plenty of eyes on the bird and good photographs really does help!

Many thanks to Steve Rowe, Pete Roseveare and Mike Spicer for the use of their photographs.

Monday, 16 November 2020

Chough Junior Week 2020


If there is one event of the year that I look forward to the most I would have to choose my October weeks birding and ringing with Bob that we have lovingly dubbed as Chough Junior week! We have taken the same 2nd week off in October since 2013 to birdwatch and ring in our home county of Cornwall and it has produced some truly outstanding birds such as Grey Catbird, Blyth’s Pipit, Penduline Tit and Moltoni’s Warbler to name just a few. In true birder style we have also kept a list of all the species that we have seen during this period and as of 2019 that list was on an impressive 214! Not a bad effort for 6 weeks work. So, like a child on Christmas Eve my anticipation and excitement steadily grew as the holiday neared and I wondered what delights would the 2020 week produce?  

Saturday 10th October

Sadly, Bob had to work on the first morning, so I opted to play to my strengths and head to Nanjizal for a mornings ringing. The weather was settled and with the local knowledge that this could change any day I thought it prudent to make the most of it. 

I was pleased with my choice as it was my first real taste of some decent autumn visible migration in action and by the end of the morning I had totted up a nice bit of variety overhead including 1 Crossbill, 13 Siskin, c.50 Meadow Pipit, Ringed Plover, 1 Merlin and a Peregrine. I was also pleased with the 48 new birds ringed. I had some great variety in the form of 2 Yellow-browed Warbler, 1 Firecrest, 5 Chiffchaff, 14 Blackcap, 1 Garden Warbler and 12 Meadow Pipit. A really enjoyable morning and a most pleasing start to the week. By lunchtime the valley had gone quiet and the birds overhead had also dried up, so it was on to my next mission. 

There was one very rare bird that had turned up during Chough Junior week a number of times before that we had just always struggled to connect with and always ended up dipping. A bird of this species had been reported in Kenidjack Valley and appeared to be quite settled so as news broke that it was still behaving as I was departing Nanjizal I knew where I had to head. As I parked up and started making my way down to the spot where it was frequenting a small group of khaki clad individuals could be seen. As I approached it was refreshing to see most seemed to be adhering to strict social distancing and were also wearing masks. I settled near the crowd and bumped into some locals including John Chapple, Steve Rowe and Peter Clements. The latter had the bird  pinned down in some deep cover and a few moments later the bird shifted from the spot and flew into some isolated willows lower in the valley. I soon had glimpses of the bird and was delighted to finally add Red-eyed Vireo to our Chough Junior list!  

My first glimpse of the Vireo was somewhat fleeting but exciting nonetheless!

This species tick so many desirable boxes in my mind, they are stunning to look at, are a long distant vagrant, coming all the way from America and have real rarity factor! I decided to stay with the bird and just enjoy it in all its glory. This move paid off and a little while later I got some terrific views that really made my day and made for some fantastic memories of this yankee visitor! 

After spending some time with the bird it eventually gave itself up and offered much better views!

Sunday 11th October

After the previous days results and with little change in the weather conditions we opted to head back to Nanjizal Valley for some more ringing and to see what else might occur overhead. 

The morning started well as it was obvious that some thrushes were on the move and we had our first Redwings of the week shortly followed by a mobile Ring Ouzel! These highlights were soon eclipsed by a bird tacking hard on one of the ponds near the ringing hut. Obviously, all present were soon binocular clad and scanning the area in hopes it was going to transpire into something notable. However, after a brief wait a Sedge Warbler came into view leaving the majority a little disappointed. Secretly though Bob and I were delighted as it was another new species for our list and the first we had caught up with during this period. As the morning progressed we had some nice birds overhead and in the general area including, Lesser Whitethroat, 1 Golden Plover, 2 Snipe, 1 Green Sandpiper, 1 Water Rail, 1 Merlin, 80 Skylark, 24 Siskin, 7 Common Crossbill, 2 Grey Wagtail, 150 Woodpigeon. However, the highlight of the morning came at around 11am as Bob and I were watching the birds flying through the valley I picked up on a large finch bounding across in front of us and that was reminiscent of a woodpecker in flight and it didn’t take me long to realise that it was a Hawfinch and I soon made Bob aware of it by bellowing its identity in his ear despite him being stood right next to me! We finished the morning with 43 new birds ringed. Including an incredible 5 Yellow-browed Warbler, 1 Firecrest, 5 Goldcrest, 12 Blackcap and 4 Chiffchaff. 

Yellow-browed Warblers were abundant in the area and it seems set to be another great season for the species in Cornwall.

The day had run away with us and it was now mid-afternoon, so we opted for a leisurely look at Hayle Estuary. We had some lovely birds including 7 Pink-footed Geese which is still a notable sighting in the county. We were also pleased to see 2 Pintail that seemed to be new arrivals and the Spotted Redshank that had been frequenting the area for a few weeks. An enjoyable end to another fantastic days birding and ringing. 

Monday 12th October

The forecasted weather for the day was pretty dire and was due to rain quite heavily throughout! We decided to stick to our local area in North Cornwall and utilise time in the car and see what we could turn up. But there was a short window of drizzle forecast from dawn, so we decided to start near home at Park Head and see if some birds were on the move overhead. 

I have to confess I wasn’t expecting much as we made it to our usual standing spot with brollies to the ready. However, the distinctive raspy rattle of a Fieldfare and seeping calls of Redwing in the early morning light, soon had my attention pricked and I started to realise that we might just do alright! It wasn’t long before small pockets of Meadow Pipits and Chaffinches passed overhead in dribs and drabs and then a familiar rather full and dry rattle call of a Lapland Bunting was omitted as two sailed passed, things were looking good!

A short while later a bird passed over that had me a little perplexed. It was accompanied by a couple of Meadow Pipit and didn’t appear much bigger than these; it was dumpy and showed broad wings and short tail and was undulating as it flew towards us. It then omitted an almost bunting like call reminiscent of an Ortolan and I did not know where to start with it! Luckily, I had Bob’s years of experience to draw on and he whipped out his phone and played me a call which was spot on and concluded that it was a Woodlark! I have never heard the species call like this before, but it seems it is quite common for birds on the move to do so. Here's hoping that I have successfully logged it into my memory bank and that I get to recall on this knowledge again in the near future! By 9am the weather had worsened but we had a great list given the conditions that consisted of 5 Lapland Bunting, 1 Woodlark, Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting, 113 Meadow Pipit, 21 Skylark, 6 Fieldfare, 8 Redwing, 21 Chaffinch, 23 Goldfinch, 1 Siskin, 2 Grey Wagtail, 8 Pied Wagtail, 9 Starling, 1 Stock Dove, 1 Goldcrest, Great Spotted Woodpecker over. I was pretty upbeat and the start of our day was much more productive and enjoyable than I ever imagined it would be but now we were relegated to the car for a few hours so decided to take a look at some other interesting spots nearby that we could check from the vehicle. Firstly, we headed to St Eval Airfield and were pleased to see 142 Golden Plover, 14 Snipe, 1 Lapwing and c. 50 Skylark and then on to a little wetland area in Mawgan Porth that can be a superb spot for wildfowl but today it sported just 1 Mediterranean Gull, 90 Black-headed Gull and 4 Teal. Not a bad little tally when you are just 10 minutes away from your own front door!

We then took a drive to our furthest point with the plan of checking a couple of places on the way back once the rain had eased a little. We arrived at the infamous Davidstow Airfield but our expectations were low given the conditions. We managed a list far better than I was expecting in all honesty with 15 Lapwing, 40 Golden Plover, 1 Snipe, 110 Lesser-black Backed Gull, 10 Fieldfare, 1 Redwing, 1 Swallow, 2 Wheatear. The beauty of this little expedition was that we also stayed nice and dry. Oh how I love a bit of car birding on a grey gloomy day! 

On our way back home the rain had started to ease so we opted to check Walmsley Sanctuary where we observed 8 Shoveler, 40 Curlew, 6 Black-tailed Godwit, 1 Ruff, 1 Lapwing, 8 Shoveler, 3 Swallow, 2 Redwing. It is such a shame the tower hide has to remain closed at this reserve due to Covid-19 restrictions and makes you realise that sometimes you take a facility for granted only realising its true value to you once it has gone! Our final stop of the day was the Camel Estuary, and it was pretty evident that a fair few waders were present. We had around 200 Dunlin and 30 Ringed Plover to trawl through but sadly couldn’t find anything rarer but we also logged 24 Grey Plover, 6 Knot, 2 Ruff, 1 Spotted Redshank, 1 Whimbrel, 2 Snipe, 1 Bar-tailed Godwit and 47 Wigeon. Not a bad list of birds considering the conditions we were presented with and another great day under our belt!

Tuesday 13th October

We had made some plans to seawatch today as there was a strong wind and once again, we were due to be hit with rain all day. However, that plan went awry as I had woken up late and was in a foul mood! The past few months of hard professional work combined with the getting up early every morning to go ringing and birding had finally caught up with me and the thought of getting pi**ed wet through and cold did not appeal to me one bit! Bob cottoned on to my thought process quite quickly and as he was driving opted to change our plans and venture near the county border which was less taxing on my morale and would allow me to relax a little before the interesting weather pattern hit us in the coming days and we would need to be much more astute in our ventures and effort to optimise on it. However, today we did have a target in mind that we had been unable to catch up with on a previous Chough Junior week as the species normally arrive in the county much later in the year. Would we finally catch up with our target today?

We started on the River Lhyner which we checked thoroughly but had little to show for the effort with the exception of a Barnacle Goose! We did however tally 10 Great Crested Grebe, 51 Shelduck, 45 Wigeon, 125 Teal, 3 Swallow, 1 Mistle Thrush and there are much worse place to spend your mornings when weather conditions are not in your favour! Content with our efforts we then headed to St Johns Lake, Torpoint where we had an incredibly early season count of 642 Wigeon. There was also a good scattering of waders that included 1 Whimbrel, 4 Grey Plover, 56 Dunlin, 79 Turnstone. But our intended target had still not been found! It was time to up the game and head to the real hotspot.

It had been some time since I had ventured to the China Fleet Club at Saltash but always think of it fondly as it has been kind to me in the past and I had often come away from the location with something noteworthy for my efforts. We ambled to our intended location where we would have a good vantage point to overlook the hightide roost and were greeted by a smattering of loafing Curlews and Little Egrets. Our attention was soon pulled from the river and drawn into the sky as Bob clocked a large flock of Hirundines feeding over a distant woodland. A few minutes later they had neared and consisted of no less than 60 Swallow clearly making the most of the food supply before continuing on their journey south! I started scanning the shoreline again and although a little distant and obscured by other waders I clocked our intended target! 2 Avocet were asleep on the far bank and now firmly on our Chough Junior list. We stayed and watched the roost grow as the tide came in and ended with a nice tally consisting of 1 Bar-tailed Godwit, 48 Black-tailed Godwit, 84 Curlew, 2 Avocet, 6 Dunlin, 1 Greenshank, 1 Grey Plover, 1 Snipe, 1 Spotted Redshank, 10 Little Egret and c. 60 Swallow. We were pleased with the day and I was in much better spirits which I hoped would bode well for the rest of our week! 

Wednesday 14th October

Finally, the wind was swinging and coming from the east and we had a much more interesting weather pattern to contend with! Viz Migging had been kind to us and conditions looked good for some more action so today we opted to visit Porthgwarra. 

We arrived just after dawn and stayed at the top of the valley to ensure we could connect with birds moving overhead. It didn’t take long for birds to stir and the first thrushes and pipits started to move. At 8.15am we had the first bird in some time that we had to let get away. A Bunting estimated to be roughly the size of a Reed Bunting passed behind us quite quickly and omitting a distinctive “zit zit zit”. Bob and I had recently brushed up on our Bunting calls mainly due to the incredible fall of birds on the East coast and us strongly suspecting that something unusual from this taxon may well turn up! With the views that we had and the recognition of the call we strongly suspected that this was a potential Rustic Bunting candidate but alas we were far from getting any required detail on the bird and logged it into the “might have been” folder. As if by coincidence a Rustic showed up once again in West Cornwall around Nanjizal less than a week later! Hopefully, the next time it happens we get some more prolonged views and a sound recording. 

We settled ourselves back down and continued to concentrate and it didn’t take long for a decent bird that we knew somewhat better to materialise. At 8.50 am we heard the distinctive and characteristic explosive "shreep" call of a Richard’s Pipit and managed to get brief but pleasing views of it as it strongly undulated past accompanied by some Meadow Pipits. By 10 am the passage overhead was starting to dwindle so we dropped into the bottom carpark and started to flog the bushes and fields to see what else may be lurking. Our final tally for the morning was pretty impressive and included 40 Golden Plover, 3 Snipe, 23 Pied Wagtail, 153 Meadow Pipit,  1 Richards Pipit, 1 Swallow,  4 Yellow-browed Warbler, 4 Firecrest,  31 Skylark, 6 Fieldfare, 24 Redwing, 3 Song Thrush, 5 Chough, 1 Jay , 1 Goldfinch, 11 Linnet, 9 Greenfinch, 19 Siskin, 3 Redpoll, 259 Chaffinch, 4 Brambling, 1 Lapland Bunting, 5 Reed Bunting. It was a very autumnal morning full of the signs of migration all around us. Exactly the reason we like to have this particular week off!

It wasn't only exceptional Viz Migging, the view was pretty special too!

Before heading to our next port of call, we popped into Nanjizal for an hour as conditions looked good over the coming days to mist net some Meadow Pipits so we erected a triangle in anticipation! After the eventful morning at Porthgwarra and then struggling to get nets set up in the fierce wind I was pretty beat. Bob still had a bit of fuel in the tank and suggested that we stop at Drift Reservoir where he could take a walk and check it out properly and I could continue to scan what was heading over above us. It sounded good to me and I certainly felt like I had the better end of the deal. Fast forward 20 minutes and I was merrily scanning away when Bob called to say that there were 2 adult Whopper Swan in the Northern Arm and would be shortly showing well as they were heading out of the channel and towards the main lake. It was a delight watching them through the scope and was pleased that Bob had a decent reward for his efforts. It felt like the perfect conclusion to another brilliant day in the field.

These Whopper Swan's were a fitting end to a truly enjoyable day and a nice reward for Bob's efforts.

Thursday 15th October

A decent easterly breeze and dry conditions overnight would surely see some new birds arriving in at Nanjizal Valley and there was no place we would have rather been! We were not alone in thinking that it might be productive and were joined by the legendary Dr John Ryan or as a few of his dearest companions like to call him "Tom Thumb", due to his recent near miss with a chain saw! Also in attendance was the ever more notorious Reuben Veal whom I still like to refer to as “the Boy”. This is partly because when he started birding he was a mere young whipper snapper but more recently I like the name as I often get a sigh of irritation from him when I use it and it really doesn’t justify his skill level anymore! Local stalwart Royston Wilks was also due to pop down and say hello which I was particularly pleased about as he had been unwell in recent weeks and I was pleased he was making a quick recovery and felt well enough to get out. Lastly, Kester had courteously popped down to open the nets ready for our arrival and the first net round. He decided that as there were so many competent ringers about that he would take a walk in the local area and see what birds he might kick up. 

Mid way through a net round I got a call from Bob that Kester’s efforts had paid off and he had found quite a showy Stone Curlew in a nearby field and he had also flushed a couple of Short-toed Larks. This was great news as they are a very rare species in the county and one we may never get again during our annual week off! Obviously, we couldn’t drop what we were doing and all head off at once so decided to take it in turns. Firstly, John and Bob headed off whilst Reuben and I continued with the ringing activities and Kester came back to give us a hand. Thankfully, they had soon connected and were on their way back so that myself, Reuben and Royston could take a look. Worryingly when we arrived at the location there was no sign and the general consensus was that it had squat down in a furrow and out of view. Reuben started to walk the perimeter of the field to see if he could see where it had settled but after a good scan it became apparent that it had done a bunk! Thankfully visiting birder Lewis Thomson noticed us gazing in the field and asked if we were looking for the Stone Curlew as he had relocated it a few fields further down a little closer to Porthgwarra. We were all delighted to get great views of the bird a short time later and it was by far the best views any of us had of this interesting and elusive species in the county.

We were all really pleased to get such fabulous views of Stone Curlew in Cornwall!

As we were admiring the Stone Curlew and yapping to some passing dog walkers my attention was drawn to a number of larks and pipits moving overhead, seemingly moving off the fields behind us. With half an ear kept open I was soon greeted by a “trilp-trilp-trilp” call reminiscent of a House Martin and looked up to glimpse one of the Short-toed Larks moving through with the flock! We headed back to the ringing site to carry on with our morning, but the good birds continued to come. Mid-morning whilst grabbing a quick cup of tea and generally enjoying the break 3 Lapland Bunting made their way over the valley and a short while later Reuben got a heads up that 3 Great White Egrets had been spotted near Land’s End heading towards us. Just a few moments later they sailed into view and were a fantastic addition to an already great day! I was pretty pleased with our day list which consisted of 1 Stone Curlew, 2 Short-toed Lark, 1 Snipe, 2 Green Sandpiper, 1 Wigeon,  3 Great White Egret, 1 Woodlark, Skylark,  1 Fieldfare, 25 Siskin, 6 Crossbill, 1 Redpoll , 3 Lapland Bunting, 1 Chough, 1 Merlin, 1 Peregrine, 1 Swallow. The ringing had also been productive and a total of 108 migrants were ringed. Birds of note included 1 Yellow-browed Warbler, 4 Firecrest, 18 Chiffchaff, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 15 Blackcap, 11 Blackbird, 1 Redwing, 13 Meadow Pipit. 

Two of the three Great White Egrets that added some exciting variety to our morning!

During the morning news had broken of a White-tailed Eagle that had been photographed passing by a North Cornwall headland and heading west! Once we had packed up we hatched a plan to drive to the coast and try and intersect the bird by visiting a couple of spots at prominent locations in the area. Sadly, after a couple of hours hunting, we drew a blank. Our last-ditch effort was to head back to Drift Reservoir in the hope that it may well choose the location as a roosting spot. Although the Eagle never materialised, we were still pleased to encounter a couple of Cattle Egret flying off some nearby fields and offering some pleasant views and a nice ending to our day!    

The two Cattle Egrets at Drift Reservoir were a pleasing find to end our day 

Friday 16th of October  

After yesterday’s exciting happenings and similar weather conditions forecast for the day, we opted to head to Nanjizal once again to see what had dropped in! Bob, John and I were onsite ready to go and Reuben planned to carry out some Viz Migging above the valley but was ready to help ring if we were busy and needed him.

It was apparent that more Thrushes were about as calls of Redwing and Fieldfare echoed over the valley in the early morning gloom. There were also a good number of finches on the move; predominantly Chaffinch but the occasional Brambling omitted a piercing “yeck” call from within the flocks. Perhaps the most exciting movement was that of Crossbill and they appeared to be much more abundant compared with yesterdays tally. The nets also produced some interesting birds early on that included a good Siberian Chiffchaff candidate, a Yellow-browed Warbler and a Fieldfare in the first net round.

The first Siberian Chiffchaff of the autumn was a welcome surprise.

The morning ticked away nicely and whilst nothing majorly rare made an appearance there was some great variety once again. A combined log for the morning included 2 Great White Egret, 3 Lapland Bunting, 5 Brambling, 34 Crossbill, 560 Chaffinch, 12 Bullfinch, 40 Siskin, 40 Linnet, 1 Redpoll, 4 Reed Bunting, 9 Mistle Thrush, 7 Redwing, 15 Fieldfare, 70 Starling, 1 Great Spotted Woodpecker, c.30 Pied Wagtail, 2 Grey Wagtail, c.45 Skylark, c.65 Meadow Pipit, 1 Snipe, 3 Golden Plover, 1 Green Sandpiper, 3 Grey Heron, 5 Chough, 1 Merlin, 1 Peregrine Falcon, 6 Stock Dove, 12 Woodpigeon, 1 Wigeon. A pretty desirable viz mig list by anyone’s standards! We also finished on 98 new birds ringed. Migrants of note included, 1 Fieldfare, 3 Redwing, 24 Blackcap, 2 Cetti’s Warbler, 14 Chiffchaff, 1 Siberian Chiffchaff, 4 Yellow-browed Warbler, 1 Firecrest, 14 Meadow Pipit. A great effort and another thoroughly enjoyable morning was had by all!

After we had finished at Nanjizal Royston called us as he had just had a Bearded Tit in the Reed Bed at Ryans Field, Hayle. This was another rare bird that turns up very infrequently in the county so we headed over to see if we could catch up with it. Sadly, after giving it an hour we drew a blank but had a pleasant conversation with renowned local photographer Tony Mills. As we started to get restless Tony’s phone beeped and he proceeded to show us some photos of a Shrike that had some interesting characteristics and was currently being seen very sporadically at Chapel Porth, St Agnes. Bob and I looked at each other and knew that we needed to see this bird properly and help try and ascertain its true identity!  We were about 10 miles away from the elusive Shrike and it was no easy task getting there in any respectable time as we were travelling during Cornwall’s rush hour! We may not have the volume of traffic down here, but we don’t have many multi lane roads either.

After many choice words and hand gestures we finally made it to the location where it had last been seen. John Chapple was on site and had seen the bird briefly in a blackthorn hedge in the adjacent field, but not for quite a while. When questioned about its identity he hadn’t yet clinched it but knew it was something really interesting! I decided to leave Bob and John to it and went for a mooch to see if I could relocate it further up the moor where there was some more suitable habitat. After 30 minutes I had not had any luck and decided to see if Bob and John were fairing any better. On arrival back at the original spot there had still been no luck but several more locals were present including Brian Mellow, Mike Spicer and the original finder Graham Lawlor.  We were all scanning around hoping to glimpse our longed-for prize as well as partaking in the general chitchat that goes hand in hand with such gatherings. 

As attention spans were waning and conversations concluding, things were not looking hopeful! I started to get that “oh well” feeling and started thinking about other areas I might try in a bid to relocate the bird in the vicinity. Thankfully, John caught a fleeting movement and locked on to the Shrike perched on top of a bare tree at the bottom of the field hedge we were stood next too. Most of us caught a glance of the bird before it flew into thick cover once more, and oh boy did it look interesting! Some made a dash closer to the birds location but I decided to hang back as I wanted to get an overall perspective of the bird and check out some key features and felt I could do that better from slightly further away with prolonged views. It wasn’t long before it started showing again and I had the ability to check out the finer details I was hoping for. All the features that I had hoped to see became apparent and I knew that we were looking at a juvenile Brown Shrike, (I wont go into any finer detail as Bob is planning an article on this particular bird in the very near future)! I was absolutely ecstatic to finally set eyes on this long distant vagrant and there is nothing better than seeing a lifer in your home county as well. I headed down towards Bob and the rest of the group to discuss the identification features and see if I couldn’t get some better record shots of this beautiful individual. After a short time it was once again spotted and now seemed quite settled which allowed for the desired photographs and some more refined study of the species detail. What a way to end our day and what a great bird for me and our Chough Junior Species list! The pleasant memories will last with me for a life time. 

The Juvenile Brown Shrike was a long awaited lifer and a superb bird for our list!

Saturday 17th of October 

The wind was still coming from the east but was stronger than the previous days and was being accompanied by drizzly rain and heavier showers throughout the morning. Bob and I had had some luck in the past around the Lizard in similar conditions so decided today would be a good day to give it a go and see what we might kick up.

We arrived on site just after dawn and proceeded to our normal spot near the main National Trust car park which was a location that had been generous in the past and we had some previous success whilst vis migging here. Conditions started pretty dire and the drizzle turned into prolonged periods of heavy rain! Not what we were after, however the updated forecast was suggesting that it would eventually clear so was worth sticking it out. Time soon ticked by and was aided by overdue catch ups with two top notch local birders. Firstly, legendary big year lister Mark Pass who was on his daily rounds and then top county ecologist and superb birder Tony Blunden. It was great seeing them both after Covid-19 restrictions earlier in the year meant that visits to the Lizard were sadly off the cards! After a good natter and the world put to rights it appeared that conditions were improving somewhat and finally bits and pieces started to move overhead. However, our attention soon got drawn to the nearby bushes though as several Crests started to grab our attention. We decided to flog the area and see what we could turn up and were delighted to witness a real fall of Goldcrest accompanied by the odd Firecrest and Chiffchaff. It is a real pleasure witnessing such movements of migrants and whilst it would have been nice to find something rarer in the roving flocks we were content with our start and had a great count consisting of: Black Redstart, 2 Chough, 4 Firecrest, c.50 Goldcrest, 5 Chiffchaff, Fieldfare, Woodlark, 7 Skylark, 4 Blackbird, 4 Song Thrush, 1 Redwing, 49 Chaffinch, 17 Goldfinch, 7 Greenfinch, 2 Siskin, 8 Collard Dove, 27 Wood Pigeon, 2 Grey Wagtail, 25 Pied Wagtail, 99 Meadow Pipit, 42 Swallow.

After our pleasant morning around southerly point we opted to cover some more ground that was a little more sheltered so headed for Church Cove. This historical and quaint little valley is surely one of the most picturesque locations in this part of the world and it has a fantastic track record for turning up several rarities over the years. We spent a lot of time around the church yard and it was awash with Goldcrests and several tit flocks making their way around the mature trees and hedges. Another local resident and top birder David Collins had already given the area a good scouring and soon got us on to a lovely Yellow-browed residing in the area. We leisurely made our way down the valley and checked several likely looking spots along the way gently adding to our count as we went. Again nothing that unusual became apparent but we still had a wonderful time and after a tot up recorded 1 Yellow-browed Warbler, 1 Firecrest, c. 30 Goldcrest and 1 Grey Wagtail.

Church Cove is always worth a check and is never a chore 

Once again the day had run away with us but we couldn't resist grabbing a bite to eat from the infamous Anne's Pasties to fulfil our late lunch requirements. As always they were incredibly good and definitely in my top 3 favourite pasty makers. Not a list I take lightly or for granted! 

After our hefty lunchtime meal and our efforts during the day we were pretty beat so decided to start making our way home. As we were so close and practically passing we knew we should pop into Helston Boating Lake and check there were no unusual ducks settled and awaiting discovery! Sadly after a thorough scan, a count of 28 Tufted Duck was all we had to show for our effort. We did bump into Mark Grantham though and it was nice to catch up once again in the flesh and not via a zoom meeting! I pointed out a colour ringed Herring Gull that I was pretty sure was part of a scheme that Mark had some involvement in. Before I could finish my sentence Mark had reeled off the code combination and it transpired the bird was pretty much resident at the site. The individual was ringed as part of a local rehabilitation project to study how well these individuals fair once released and to see if their behavioural traits differ from birds that haven't received any human intervention at an early age. I am sure that an update or two will be published by the group once data has been analysed in the future. You can keep an eye on the progress of these gulls here: West Cornwall Ringing Group

If you are visiting the Boating Lake keep your eyes open for local resident Blue W:546

We had enjoyed our day and the birds that we had encountered. However we were starting to realise that our week was nearly over. Could the finale tomorrow be a fitting tribute to our week?  

Sunday 18th of October 

As it was normally our day to cover Nanjizal, the weather still reasonably settled and the wind still from the east, we felt it would be worth one more ringing session to see out the week. 

A nice little team was on site ready for the morning ahead that consisted of Myself, Bob, Dr John, Reuben and Devonshire based ringer Nik Ward. Sadly Nik had sustained a foot injury in recent days (gout, probably from too much wine!) and wasn’t very mobile but non the less it was great to have his experience and witty banter to hand to keep us all in check! Before dawn had approached, we each had the sincere pleasure of congratulating him on his recent lucky ringing expedition on Lundy Island where he had ringed a Whites Thrush (more info on this incredible record can be found here:! “You jammy b*****d” and “you lucky git” were some of the more pleasurable terminologies used. With the nets open and dawn fast approaching we parked the welcoming taunts and concentrated on the first net round. We split into pairs so that we could complete the rounds as quickly as possible and headed on our merry way. It seemed like there were a few birds in and Ruben was quite excited about a Lesser Whitethroat that he had extracted and thought it was almost certainly a Siberian type! Once back at the ringing table we proceeded to process the bird and it certainly looked good with plenty of features that fitted the race “blythi”. A dropped feather sample was also taken for DNA analysis so hopefully we will get some confirmation soon. 

We all had a pleasant morning as a gentle passage of birds trickled through over head and our viz mig list consisted of 2 Redpoll, 20 Siskin, 4 Crossbill, 2 Lapland Bunting, 1 Brambling, 5 Fieldfare, 1 Yellow-browed Warbler, 6 Swallow and 4 White Wagtail. We also ended the morning with 71 new birds ringed that included a “blythi” Lesser Whitethroat, Reed Warbler, 12 Blackcap, 25 Chiffchaff, 1 Firecrest, 5 Meadow Pipit  and 1 Kingfisher. Another noteworthy encounter was the recapture and control of a Meadow Pipit in the triangle! The birds unique code was checked online and as it transpired was from one of my old stomping grounds on Dartmoor which I was most pleased about!

"blythi" Lesser Whitethroat showing characteristic plumage traits.

We were all delighted to get a Meadow Pipit control which is a rarity in itself!

Once packed up at Nanjizal we heard through the grapevine that a Cuckoo that had been showing intermittently at Lands End over the past few days and was now putting on quite the display and it sounded like it was well worth having a bash for the bird as it would be a great for the Chough Junior list. I mean how often do you see a Cuckoo in October and more importantly was it a Common Cuckoo or something with an Asian persuasion? 

When we arrived on site we noticed that a few locals were already in situ and were scanning an area where the Cuckoo had presumably last been seen. Before we had even finished setting ourselves up a distraction came in the form of a Short-eared Owl quartering the heather. It was incredible to watch it fly so low just over peoples heads on the nearby footpath in the middle of the day and I am always pleased to get such great views of these dynamic roamers. 

This Short-eared Owl put on a truly incredible display for all present

After our superb views of the Owl our attention was drawn back to the Cuckoo and it had finally started stirring from its favoured Willow clump. Once out of its slumber it started to dart around the moorland, bounding from perch to perch with intermittent drops to the ground where it would gorge on large hairy caterpillars of which there seemed to be a good supply in the locality! It was a very pristine looking 1st calendar year bird and seemed very bright eyed and healthy. Questions around the origins of this bird started to get raised? Why was there a Common Cuckoo hanging around at such a late date in October? How do you identify 1st year Oriental Cuckoo's? Unfortunately, we couldn't answer these questions and as it transpires the later question is a pretty difficult task in itself. However we did hear through the grapevine that a faeces sample had been collected the day after so we are hopeful that a DNA sample can be taken and assessed which will put the matter to bed once and for all! Watching a Cuckoo go about its business is a pleasure at anytime of the year but to observe this individual so late in the season was a real delight and seemed like a very fitting end to our week. 

The Cuckoo at Lands End was a fitting end to our week and it was real bonus finishing on another Chough Junior tick! 


After every week we have had off I always think to myself “well we will never top that” and yet here I am once again reminiscing about a near perfect October week in Cornwall! We had some incredible birds on both a national level, but perhaps even more so on a County level! Undoubtedly Red-eyed Vireo and Brown Shrike were the star birds of the week, the later even more so for me as it was a lifer that I can gratefully add to my dearest Western Palearctic and County lists. However, birds that I never thought we would get during this week made it all just ever so special for me. Stone Curlew, Short-toed Lark, Common Cuckoo (if that is what it was), Avocet and even Sedge Warbler were all out of the blue and added to the wonderment of Cornwall birding in October! Our Chough Junior list has grown to an incredible 221 species with seven new species this year. One thing is for sure I won’t be missing it next year and have already allocated the time off work. Happy birding!  

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Davidstow and the Dombrowskii

When I think of September birding in Cornwall there is one area that always excites me in it's birding potential; the classic site of Davidstow Airfield. This amazing abandoned airfield has a phenomenal track record for American waders and seems to produce rarities like clockwork each autumn, despite it being well watched I'm usually lucky enough to find at least one of these every year with 2019's adult American Golden Plover being my last decent find there. Sadly 2020 hasn't been easy for me to check this area as I have been working in other parts of the county and also continuing to push for my ringing permit but out of just four visits me and Libbie did pretty well in what seems like a poor year for Davidstow.
Our first visit on 10th August produced a lifer for Libbie and a new wader for the site for me in the shape of two immaculate juvenile Wood Sandpipers which dropped in to the pools by the control tower all too briefly before presumably flying off to Crowdy.

A write off trip before work in the fog when I had a day's work in Wadebridge left me ruing my choice of getting out of bed at 6am (!) and then I almost had to forget about the place for the time being. Fast forward to 22nd September and with rain all day and work sending me close by I decided on a quick trip to Davidstow in the evening with Lib. As I hunted for waders Libbie found  a funny Yellow Wagtail within a group of Pied and White Wagtails and asked me what it was? Now I usually can sort out Yellow Wagtail to sub-species or at least make an educated guess by noting several features and building an identification by a process of elimination but this bird had me stumped.

The dark looking head, even darker ear coverts & 'cold' green mantle made me think of Thunbergi but it had a thin supercilium which was yellow in color,  The bird then flew across the road calling as it went (much more raspy than standard UK  *Flavissima call). From then on I decided to write some field notes and take plenty of pictures in the hope of sorting it out after the event. Photographs below are unedited.

The thin yellow supercilium, dark headed appearance with even darker ear coverts and yellow wash to the white throat patch didn't point firmly to any sub-species I was familiar with. 

Note the contrast to the greater coverts with the juvenile retained outer feathers looking faded and white in comparison to the fresh buff tinged (adult type) inner greater coverts. Ageing this as a 1st winter. Body moult has already progressed more than would be expected of an Eastern Yellow Wagtail which would be typically grey and white and in more juvenile plumage. The brightness of the overall plumage and amount of yellow already moulted through would suggest it is a male.

The greenish upperparts had a distinctly cold grey tinge especially on the mantle. Differing somewhat to the brighter green tones of Flavissima or Flava. Pointing perhaps to an eastern origin.

This head on shot shows the  striking head pattern well with dark grey head, broad well defined ear coverts which were even darker than the rest of the head plus white throat with yellow suffusion. Note the thin yellow supercilium.

This image shows the very subtle 'necklace' on the bird's breast.

So it would appear that the Davidstow Wagtail is an intergrade between two more well recognized sub-species. In my opinion it surely has some * Feldegg genes owing to the dark headed appearance and what sounded to my ear a raspier flight call than typical Yellow Wagtail. However the darker ear coverts, prominent supercilium and obvious lower eye-ring point towards some * Flava influence or perhaps more likely in my opinion * Thunbergi as the subtle necklace on the upper breast is an often quoted feature of this subspecies. These intergrade Wagtails are often named as 'Dombrowskii' or 'Superciliaris' are commonly found migrating in the eastern Mediterranean in Greece and Cyprus during the spring and autumn migration and occur in Romania during the breeding season. My bird would appear to fit Dombrowski better. 

Whilst it would be pushing the boat out a bit to be 100% sure on a 1st winter bird in the autumn I feel that it would be too easy to not at least try and work out any interesting Yellow Wagtail's we see during Autumn in the UK. This is a constantly evolving species group and I am sure that birders and ornithologists alike still have much to learn about their plumage's and identification. It will get you ready for nailing the ID of future birds and also help you identify Citrine Wagtail or perhaps Eastern Yellow Wagtail by looking that little bit more thoroughly.

* Flava - also known as Blue-headed Wagtail, the nominate race in mainland western Europe. A scarce but annual passage migrant in Cornwall which has bred on the Lizard Peninsular.
* Thunbergi - also known as Grey-headed Wagtail, the Scandinavian subspecies of Yellow Wagtail. A rare passage migrant in Cornwall.
*Feldegg - also known as Black-headed Wagtail, a distinctive subspecies of Yellow Wagtail breeding in the Balkans east to the Caspian Sea, south to Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.

Further Reading: Pipits and Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America by Per Alstrom and Krister Mild. 

Thank you to Kester Wilson for originally suggesting the ID of Dombrowskii whilst I was still fairly clueless and to Peter Roseveare for his research into the matter.