Monday 27 August 2012

Gone West 25 August 2012

'Large Shear!'

Well where did all the time go? Another August Bank Holiday already. No surprises that the traditional horrendous forecast of gales and rain had everyone moaning apart from manic or is that maniac seawatchers, who commenced planning the long trip west to Pendeen in anticipation of seabirds and a good soaking. To increase the excitement and ratchet up the tension, a Fea's Petrel had been seen the previous afternoon off Porthgwarra the other side of the peninsula. I tried to persuade Badger to come but Friday night was apparently Stella night. We will say no more! So it was that I found myself with the Black Audi going solo and westbound on the M5 at 1am on Saturday morning, aiming to make a rendezvous with a long missed birding pal, Hugh Wright who was staying with his parents and girlfriend Emma at a holiday cottage in Penzance. Hugh is doing a Doctorate on the critically endangered White-shouldered Ibis in Cambodia and has finally finished so had recently bought himself a top range Swarovski scope and was raring to put it through its paces at Pendeen.

Collecting Hugh at the cottage at 5am as arranged we made it in a few minutes to Pendeen Lighthouse, to be greeted with an almost full car park and dark figures resolutely donning anything waterproof, gathering up food supplies, chairs and optical equipment in preparation for the anticipated marathon seawatch. It was not even light yet. 

We stumbled down the cliff steps and found an elevated position below the lighthouse wall and settled ourselves in amongst our fellow watchers. A dawning wild sky presaged turbulent weather but where were the forecast high winds? Not here at any rate and an increasing realisation sank in that maybe the long journey had been in vain as the forecast was plainly well out. But stoicism is a prized asset possessed by any hardened seawatcher. We were here, there was nowhere else to go and we may as well stick it out.

For quite a time there was nothing, not even a Manx Shearwater but then some good birds began to trickle through although it was slow going in the light wind. A few Arctic Skuas, a Sooty Shearwater, Manx Shearwaters, a Pomarine Skua and small groups of waders. I would like to go through a chronological list of birds seen but just looking through the scope after my marathon drive and no sleep the night before was hard enough work and thankfully, Hugh being conscientious, kept a record of all we saw or should I say all he saw while I saw some of them!

The morning dragged on and we got our first soaking from a short shower followed by a little break of calmer weather and then just as we were drying out another soaking to make our lives miserable again. Thankfully the showers were only short lived. Finally the showers ceased and a break in the sky had everyone's spirits rising but later, glancing northwest to my left I noted the sky had become ominously grey again and I could see the rain literally racing towards us across the sea and on arrival came down with a vengeance. This time it looked like it was here to stay. I glanced over the wall more in desperation than hope to see if it was going to clear as before but there was  no chance. It was grey to the horizon. Not that you could really see the horizon. To compound the misery the lighthouse foghorn commenced booming, as it had become that gloomy. I became more and more wet. I was dripping. The rain was relentless and crept into every unguarded and non waterproof spot of my clothing. In the end the waterproofing on my jacket gave up the ghost. It may be alright for a rainforest Paramo but it ain't Pendeen proof! 

It was now about lunchtime and finally the predicted rise in wind speed had come about along with the un-predicted steady rain. In the end I just stood up to allow the rain to run off me rather than settle in my lap. The rain instantly formed a puddle in my chair instead. I battened down the scope to keep the rain off the lenses and just as I got everything shipshape a hardy soul to my left still looking out to sea shouts, 'Large Shear!' Oh Gawd! Scramble. Fumble. Rain on my glasses, in the scope, tripod leg sticking, focus scope and find the bird in the vast trackless sea in front of me. By the time I got everything set it had passed me by and was gone forever. Desolation. Apparently it was a Great Shearwater. Well that was nice to know and certainly taught me a lesson.

I decided to remain standing as I felt distinctly less soggy that way and more in charge of my increasingly frayed faculties and with scope at the ready I was now in position to take full advantage when the shout went up again. 'Large Shear! Over the middle rock. There's two of them. Cory's'. I got onto these double quick and there much to my relief were a couple of Cory's doing their languid thing over the waves in the mid distance. And so it went on for the rest of the day with regular shouts of 'Large Shear!' modified a few moments later by 'It's a Great or it's a Cory's' and scrambles to find the darn things in the rain and murk. People were shouting for directions but the problem with Pendeen is that once the birds have passed the three rocks that constitute 'The Wra' there is nothing to act as a marker - just miles of featureless sea. Shouts of 'It's just below a Gannet' are meant to be helpful but rarely are as there are always numerous Gannets milling about. So it goes on and you just have to do your best and either find your own bird or hope you get lucky and find the bird with or without the shouted instructions.

Eventually the weather cleared and with the wind constantly strengthening, we all dried out and birds were now coming apace. Manx Shearwaters increased markedly and with them every so often was a chunky Balearic Shearwater. Sooty Shearwaters, possibly my favourite, were regular, some coming so close that you could even discern the silver centres to their underwings and of course every so often a Great or Cory's Shearwater would arrive to keep everyone on their toes.

In between or sometimes coinciding with the birds there was a steady parade of Basking Sharks. They look so menacing in the scope with that huge paddle shape dorsal fin and sickle shape tail fin. Black and sinister - like a submarine but in reality gentle giants consuming nothing more substantial than plankton on an heroic scale. There were also sightings of the crazy looking Ocean Sunfish. Lying on their side like a dustbin lid with a pointed fin flapping feebly in the air like the arm of a drowning man they look as if they cannot possibly traverse the world's oceans. But they do. A first for me was to see four together. I always assumed they preferred their own company but here they were flapping around together like synchronised swimmers, near to The Wra, an apparently favoured location for them. 

It was now approaching 4pm and frankly my reserves of mental and physical energy were just about bankrupt. Hugh's girlfriend Emma arrived and we left soon after and went back to the cottage for reviving cups of tea, scones and for me a change of clothes. I dallied for an  hour or so but I knew if I did not leave soon for the long drive home I was never going to make it. So I set off in glorious sunshine and was home by 9.30 that evening. Looking at the totals below it was a really good day but it will take a couple of days to recover before I can really appreciate all that we saw.

The Wra
Totals @ Pendeen 0550-1600
Wind NW 4 increasing 7 @ 1200
Heavy rain showers then sun mid afternoon

Great Shearwater 4
Cory's Shearwater 6
Large shearwater sp 2 - too distant to ID
Sooty Shearwater 9
Balearic Shearwater 9
Manx Shearwater 800+
Great Skua 9
Pomarine Skua 1
Arctic Skua 14
Northern Gannet 1000+
Sandwich Tern 6
Commic Tern 26
Arctic Tern 3
Storm Petrel 4
Fulmar Petrel n/c
Kittiwake 5
Dunlin 10
Ringed Plover 6
Turnstone 23
Whimbrel 50
Grey Plover 50
Oystercatcher 6
Common Scoter 34
Northern Shoveler 2
Peregrine 1
Rock Pipit 1


Ocean Sunfish 7
Basking Shark 15
Common Dolphin 8


  1. Good stuff, Ewan. Wish I could have been there, the photos made me rather "homesick".

  2. I'm thinking a straight jacket would be more appropriate than waterproofs and petrol at £1.3609 is your wife incredibly understanding or do you beat her Ewan? - Yeah Badge the stella was a good decision although I bet it was a close run thing.
    I know many people find Cornwall spiritually fulfilling personally it appears to me that as you drive further down it becomes treeless bleak boring and the closer to the tip the more it becomes a great big car park of course the saving grace are the super birds it turns up and I must admit to a sneaking admiration for the dedication exhibited by the Ewan's of this world although there are other places in the UK that offer similar without the awful south west country traffic problems.

    1. There are no traffic problems anywhere between 1-5am in the morning!Thats why I travel then.My wife is very understanding and supportive and has even been twitching with me to Lundy Island many years ago to see an Ancient Murrelet. She is equally adventurous and was for a time before we got married a bush cook for a leopard hunter in Zimbabwe so I think it more likely she would beat me.