Tuesday 27 August 2013

Norfolk Marathon 26th August 2013

Another Bank Holiday weekend and the predictable windy, grey and rainy conditions duly arrived as if by rite. A two edged sword as the majority of us hope for sun and warmth but as a birder the northeast wind with rain and mist brought ideal conditions for drifting migrants over the North Sea, with the east coast their first possible landfall and comparative sanctuary. 

I was eager with anticipation but dallied and dithered about making the decision whether to head for Norfolk on a Bank Holiday Monday. If I did it would have to be a 4am start and the way I was feeling a morning lie in was beyond tempting. I had a couple of glasses of the red infuriator in the evening and felt good. I went to bed and promptly woke at four. I do not need an alarm clock these days. My body seems to automatically programme itself to whatever time I conjure up in the memory bank and I just wake up at the required time. A bit scary but somewhat convenient. I lay awake for a few minutes in the dark. It was truly in the balance. I got up and now there was no going back and before I realised what was going on I was well east of Banbury and heading for the birder's mecca that is Norfolk. 

The roads were enveloped in the night and virtually free of traffic at this pre-dawn time in the morning and I made good time, arriving in Norfolk as the mist cleared and the sun rose low in the east, burning red and orange.  I came to rest in a breezy and sunny Cley at just after 7am. Even at this early juncture I could feel the day was going to be warm but hopefully there would still be migrants around although the sun was now fully out and the classic 'fall' conditions were gone. My first stop was at Dauke's Hide or to be precise the boardwalk just outside it. An Icterine Warbler had been reported from the small area of willows here for the last two days and it was a species I had never seen in Britain and therefore was naturally keen to see. I stood surveying the willows around the hide's entrance but there was no sign of the warbler. There were instead many Reed, Sedge and Willow Warblers flickering through the branches and leaves. A Sedge Warbler even approached me with obvious curiosity, dropping from willow twig to willow twig, nearer and nearer, lower and lower until it was literally only a metre away from me. We regarded each other with mutual curiosity. 

I learnt later in the day that the supposed Icterine Warbler I was hoping for had in fact been a mis-identified Reed Warbler so it was no surprise although a little disappointing to realise that my time and expectation had been wasted. I spent around an hour at Dauke's Hide (how appropriate a name considering the circumstances) but decided there were better things to do after a fruitless wait and made my way to the nearby Cley Coastguards Car Park. Fearless or just plain reckless I was going to embark on the epic marathon walk out to Blakeney Point and back. Four miles out and four miles back. This is comparatively manageable on paths or smooth going. Blakeney, however, requires a trudge through ever moving shingle that slides away under one's feet, so tiring and wearisome that the walk to Blakeney has become legendary, nay, notorious amongst birders far and wide. Do not misunderstand me every birder should make the walk at least once as a rite of passage but it is not for the faint hearted or unfit and there is always the nightmare of arriving exhausted at the very point only to find there are no birds there. Hopefully this would not be the case today. 

I set off with a blue sea to my right and white rollers crashing on the shingle beach. The sun shone in an azure sky and Sandwich Terns, silvery white in the shining, sea reflected sun, flew along the beach. Miles of shingle stretched before me with not another soul to be seen. A lone Dunlin, tiny, flew out to sea from the vastness of the shingle shore.  I recalled the famous John Masefield lines 'I must go down to the sea again. The lonely sea and the sky'. Onwards I went, feet sinking and slipping in the wave wet shingle. I walked up onto the flatter area above the steeply sloping shore but the shingle there, despite some green vegetative patches, was no firmer underfoot. I saw another birder a mile or so ahead of me standing near to the Halfway House which is two miles out from the car park. He slowly walked on. I was now wondering if I had done the right thing. My legs ached and my feet hurt. Wearily but utterly determined I forged onwards. 

The low growing vegetation where the shingle bank joined the marsh seemed devoid of birds until without any warning a grey bird with an orange rear flew at speed out of the low vegetation, away from me and along the bank. A Common Redstart. Then another followed it. A paler bird shot away from me to perch on a dead sprig of sorrel. A Whinchat, looking almost cream in the strong sealight. I looked and found another three, ranged in a sentry line on their chosen, rust red sorrel spikes. A flash of black and white caught my eye as Northern Wheatears put in their first appearance, bouncing in their inimitable way along the shingle, and so it went on with migrant birds constantly flying ahead of me. Smaller Willow Warblers also rose from the vegetation only to disappear just as quickly back into the marsh vegetation. This was obviously a good day for migrants and my worries about 'drawing a blank' were consigned to oblivion

The birder ahead of me had stopped and was scoping some brambles growing in a small and sheltered area of sandy dunes. He waved to me. Beckoning me to hurry. I acknowledged his wave and tried to speed up but the shingle was relentlessly unstable and unforgiving. Any attempt at acceleration was defied. I eventually got to the birder. 

'Wryneck - top left of the bramble patch'. 

'Oh yes! Thanks! What a beauty.

We watched the Wryneck, immobile as it sat on top of the bramble, until it flew into cover. My new found accomplice and I teamed up and walked the next two weary miles together mutually finding and identifying birds. A further half a mile after the Wryneck encounter and we reached another area of dune. A smallish brown bird invisible until it rose from a grassy track through the dunes flew a short distance and just as quickly as it had manifested it's presence disappeared deep into the marram grass. I noted where it went down. We walked up to it. Nothing. 

'It was just here. I am positive'. 

The words had barely been uttered when six Grey Partridges with chortling calls of alarm hurtled out of the grass on short whirring wings and disappeared at speed. A few feet further and the riddle of the mystery bird was solved when another Wryneck shot up from the grass and flew away round the curve of the dunes. Out of sight. Gone in a flash. We did not pursue it. Nice all the same. 

Our ultimate destination was a red roofed building virtually at the end of the shingle point and we duly arrived to survey the tamarisks around the building and what is euphemistically called 'The Plantation' just beyond. The tamarisks, dense and feathery green on their sandy bank harboured a few Common Redstarts, orange tails aquiver with nervous energy  and some Willow Warblers, bright yellow and olive-green amongst the darker green tamarisk. We walked the few metres to 'The Plantation', in reality a tiny area of stunted trees and bushes enclosed by a single strand of wire and which you can easily walk around in five minutes. This famed location has harboured, over the years, some outstanding rarities as well as other desirable species that are more frequently seen. A tiny, fawn brown and white flycatcher, perched untroubled on the low strand of wire surrounding The Plantation. A Pied Flycatcher, with another flitting around in a Sycamore and then yet another zipped along into another bush. Like little wood sprites they flicked to and fro amongst the foliage and branches, constantly active, calling and cocking their tails.

Pied Flycatcher courtesy Matt Eade
Ever wary and elusive Common Redstarts flew out from the bushes and grabbing an unfortunate invertebrate from the turf hurriedly retreated back into the sanctuary of the bushes.We sat quietly on the short turf resting our weary limbs and surveying the bushes and stunted trees waiting to see what else may be secreted in there. A few Willow Warblers appeared, then a Garden Warbler without a tail followed by one with a tail and finally a Lesser Whitethroat. The latter so dapper and svelte in it's pleasing combination of smooth grey-brown upperparts, dove grey head and silky white underparts. There was however nothing else to excite us. A party of White Wagtails with one Yellow Wagtail amongst them flew in from the sea and after perching briefly they moved on calling loudly. A distant Whinchat and Common Redstart disputed a lone bush at the very extremity of the point. 

Reluctantly we faced up to the inevitable. There was no escaping the fact that we now had to make the four mile walk back on the unrelenting shingle. We headed back, more slowly now and looked again at all the migrant Whinchats, Northern Wheatears, Common Redstarts and Willow Warblers and an extra bonus, a Spotted Flycatcher, perching almost at ground level on the low vegetation. It was now warm but with a stiff northeast breeze to keep the temperature in check. We arrived back at the first Wryneck location and presumably the same bird again flew from some brambles but only did a circuit of the dunes before perching in the top of the same bramble patch we had flushed it from. I edged cautiously closer and closer to it. Fifteen metres, ten metres. It's marvellous plumage, a combination of cryptic brown, buff, grey and black mesmerisingly camouflaging it in the dappled shade of the bramble sprays. I noted it's long grey tail. I had never noticed this before. For twenty minutes it sat there, only slowly moving its head and then silently it dropped back to the ground. We left it and inwardly groaning I slowly gave the gravel a pounding, step after tortured step, back to the car park. A juvenile Sparrowhawk flew low ahead of us, perching every twenty metres or so on the shingle. We surmised it had adapted it's hunting technique to pounce on unwary migrant birds hiding in the stunted vegetation. I was never so glad to make terra firma and feel solid earth once again underneath my feet. I collapsed in the car, relieved that it was all over but with a feeling of fulfillment after what I had seen and done.

I estimated we had seen the following migrant birds on our 8 mile marathon to Blakeney Point and back:

Wryneck 2 poss 3; Northern Wheatear 20+; Whinchat 10+; Common Redstart 10+; Pied Flycatcher 5 poss 6; Spotted Flycatcher 1; Garden Warbler 2; Lesser Whitethroat 1;Willow Warbler 20+; White Wagtail 6; Yellow Wagtail 1;

Now where? A juvenile Red backed Shrike at Glandford appealed. It was in a hedgerow by a scrubby, weedy field at the back of Cley Spy the telescope and binocular retailer, not very far along the coast road and just inland. Fifteen minutes driving through the tiny narrow lanes and I parked in Cley Spy's car park and peered over a flint wall into the large weedy field surrounded by an untidy hawthorn hedge festooned with sparrows and finches. The shrike was sitting alone in a hawthorn, surveying the field for prey whilst the sparrows and finches kept their distance. I watched it for half an hour and then decided to try and see the elusive Booted Warbler that had been frequenting Burnham Overy Dunes. 

You will understand my reluctance, when stating that Burnham Overy Dunes requires yet another fair walk of say around one and a half to two miles just to get there from the road. After my marathon this morning this required no little resolve on my part. Would my body stand up to it? At least there was no shingle involved. Just as I got to where the path started I received a call from two Sussex birding friends, Chris and Matt. 

'Hi Ewan, Chris here. Is your daughter still doing taxidermy?'  

'Er yes' I replied wondering where this was going 

'Well I have a dead Pied Flycatcher in perfect condition. It flew into a window and broke its neck. Would you like it?'  

'You bet. Where are you?' 

'We are in Norfolk'. 

'Huh!  So am I! 'Where are you exactly?'  I asked. 

'Titchwell' came the reply

I told Chris that I planned to try and see the Booted Warbler. 

'It's a waste of time, we waited four hours this morning and saw it for ten seconds and still cannot be sure it was the Booted Warbler it was so far away.' advised Chris. 

'We are going to look for the shrike at Glandford'. 

'I have just been there. It's easy to see. I will go back and meet up with you there', I replied. 

I got back first and scoped the shrike for a second time. A Sparrowhawk flashed along the hedge line. Everything fled. Previously unseen and unknown flocks of finches arose in a frenzied cloud from the weedy field and the hedgerow voided itself of birds as every one of the birds fled the scene. Chris and Matt arrived just after the Sparrowhawk. Chris handed over the dead Pied Flycatcher. I gave them the bad news. 

'I regret the shrike has disappeared. A Sparrowhawk flushed it'.  We waited thirty minutes. A Whinchat perched on some thistles and an interesting small warbler was gone before I could get a good look at it. Still no sign of the shrike. Chris, tired of waiting wanted to go on to Cromer to see another Red backed Shrike there. Matt wanted to go back to Burnham Overy to try yet again to see the Booted Warbler. Impasse. 

Then came a pager alert. Icterine Warbler showing well at Burnham Overy Dunes. Impasse resolved. Chris was now enthusiastic but we still had not seen the shrike. I scoped the hedgeline one last time and there just showing a head and shoulder in the leaves was the shrike. So, although hardly satisfactory, Chris and Matt saw the shrike or at least parts of it. We were clear to go to Burnham. Time was passing and it was now 5pm with only, realistically, another two hours of good light.We needed to get a move on.

This sign took my fancy on one of the myriad tiny unclassified lanes in Norfolk
We parked at Burnham and commenced the long walk out to the dunes. Penny Clarke, a really nice lady who has a blog intriguingly and entertainingly called Penny's Hot Birding and Life was ahead of us.We caught up with her and chatted. She told us that the Icterine Warbler was still in the bushes that were an unreasonably long way off from us. We increased our pace and ungallantly left Penny behind. 

Onwards ever onwards

A Pied Flycatcher hopped along the fence line by the dunes as we arrived at the designated spot. A lone birder looking at the small clump of bushes that harboured our target beckoned us. It was my new found colleague from Blakeney.

 'That's two you owe me now'. He joked. 

'No problem. Where is it?' I replied.  

'It's in that exotic bush down there in the dip. The big bush at the back.'  

We surveyed the bush. Nothing. A bird dropped down into some willow-herb. 

Was that it? 

'Don't think so'  

False alarm. 

Then shortly afterwards a vision of loveliness appeared in the top of the exotic bush. With a lemon yellow face, open gentle expression, pale lemon to white underparts and grey legs it was, unmistakeably, an Icterine Warbler. 

Icterine Warbler courtesy Matt Eade
Yes finally, after many years, an Icterine Warbler. My first for Britain. All the more satisfactory after my abortive attempts to see one first thing this morning.  It was in no hurry and unlike it's phylloscopine cousins the Willow Warblers and ChiffChaffs was almost sluggish in it's deliberate movements. It disappeared into the dark foliage only to re-appear giving even better views  We watched until it again sunk into the depths of the foliage. 

'Come on we can still do the Booted if we are quick!' said Matt. 

It took twenty minutes to get to where the Booted Warbler had last been seen. Nothing. It had not been seen for hours according to a bored fellow birder fiddling with his phone. We debated what to do. 

Chris spoke. 'Let's go over the fence and  look at the other side of the bushes'. 

There were warblers there alright but they were very elusive and hard to identify. Chris and I wandered off. A little later Matt called us. We rushed back to his side. 

'I think I have got it in that hawthorn right in front of us'. 

We looked and a warbler, very pale brown popped out of the leaves for a few brief moments. I have never seen a Booted Warbler so did not know what to really look for. Matt took some pictures of it. My new found colleague from Blakeney arrived. He had seen Booted Warblers before and informed us that he thought we were looking at a Reed Warbler albeit an unusually pale one. Matt looked at his pictures on the camera and close scrutiny confirmed it was an aberrant Reed Warbler. We could hardly believe it. So close but thankfully we had not publicised our erroneous identification. We watched on and as the light slowly faded the bushes seemed to hold more and more warblers of many kinds. Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Common Whitethroat and Willow Warbler all came and went but there was no sign of a Booted Warbler or even the strange pale Reed Warbler. 

It was time to go. We set off on the long walk back, Common Redstarts and Northern Wheatears were all around us with the sun gloriously low and setting in the west, bathing the vast area of marshes and dunes in a golden light. I was happy, tired, very tired but content. 

Birding has it's ups and downs as does everything else. We had just experienced both.

I've got no signal!!!

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Brown Hairstreak Central 21st August 2013

Elated by my unprecedented success at seeing so many Brown Hairstreaks last Sunday I returned today to Otmoor to try and repeat the experience. Heaven knows when such an opportunity will present itself again so it seemed wise to make the most of it. Let's face it the last few years have been pretty dire as far as butterflies are concerned and this year is surely exceptional.

I arrived in the mid morning with a gentle wind swaying the umbellifers, the grass was still damp underfoot from either dew or overnight rain but the sun was rapidly climbing into a blue sky and drying off the moisture. There were lots of cars in the reserve car park but no-one came down the Roman Road as presumably everyone headed for the main part of the reserve. I wandered back and fore along the track in my silent and solitary quest and initially there was no sign of any Brown Hairstreaks although there were plenty of other butterflies. I stood by my favourite spot, the cul-de-sac of brambles, willowherb and angelica, half way down the track and just waited which really was no hardship in the gentle breeze, warming sun and soothing quiet of the Roman Road. 

The Roman Road

Cul-de-sac of brambles and angelica a favoured spot of Brown Hairstreaks
Two Commas were feeding on the bramble flowers as were a few Meadow Browns and Large Whites and a dissolute Large Skipper was sunning itself on a purple Great Willowherb flower but there was no sign of any Brown Hairstreak and the Wild Angelica flower heads, unlike on Sunday, were devoid of the tiny dark triangle perched on the froth of white flowers which signified the presence of a hairstreak. 

A wandering party of tits and warblers, the latter mainly ChiffChaffs and Willow Warblers moved through the hedgerow, excited and calling, the warblers zipping in and around the angelica stalks catching insects. A larger bird hung upside down from one of the angelica stalks. It was a Nuthatch and acrobatically it snatched insects from the stalks. I have never seen this behaviour before but that is the charm of relaxed observation, there is always something to see and learn. The party moved on, now invisible in the hedgerow but still audible with an errant Common Whitethroat the last to leave.

A Southern Hawker dragonfly patrolled the upper air space then came to rest on a willow, hanging in sinister beauty from the shaded trunk to which it clung. It moved it's eyes like some mechanical toy and cleaned them jerkily with one of it's black legs. 

I strolled back along the track and on some brambles straggling through the sheltering hawthorns a small brown butterfly fluttered hesitantly over the blackberry flowers, about to settle then not, constantly dithering. Finally it settled and there was a somewhat frayed and ragged specimen of a male Brown Hairstreak. I watched as it flew from flower to flower. I found another male, nearby on the other side of the track, this one less worn but still looking somewhat faded and with chunks out of the lower wings

Male Brown Hairstreak.
Compare the colour of its underwings to those of the female pictured below
Enthused by this initial success I went in quest of more. My search centred on my favourite blackberry cul-de-sac and sure enough as I stood there I noticed a tiny orange triangle on a delicate white blackberry flower amongst the green foliage. It could have been dismissed as just a small dead leaf but a look through the binoculars confirmed it was a pristine Brown Hairstreak feeding on the delicate pink blushed blackberry flowers. I watched it diligently feeding, moving with almost mincing steps as it worked it's way around the flower and then I tickled it's body with a grass stem to make it open it's wings and sure enough it did exactly as desired and flashing two large orange patches on it's forewings confirmed it was a female. 

Female Brown Hairstreak
I fell to contemplating this experience and that of the previous Sunday. All the females I have seen on both days have been a really bright orange brown on their undersides.They really do stand out. All the males I have observed have been much darker on the undersides of their wings. Almost drab compared to the female. Is this a diagnostic way of telling male from female without waiting  for them to open their wings, which can take an awfully long time if indeed it does occur at all whilst watching them? The Brown Hairstreak unconcerned with my deliberations flew down to my feet and then perched on some nettles right by the track. I took it's picture with the camera and then with my I-phone, holding it literally millimetres from it's delicate wings and body. Untroubled it carried on it's own private existence. It transferred it's attentions to a thistle head and after some time flew up onto some Greater Bindweed leaves and opened it's wings to the sun. Unsettled it soon rose and ascended into the tops of the blackthorn bushes standing sentinel along the track. 

The sun was now high in the sky and the increasing warmth resulted in squadrons of Common and Ruddy Darters, previously invisible, appearing and accompanying me like planes in formation, flying low before me along the track. Without exaggeration there were hundreds. I stopped to look at another Comma flashing marmalade orange wings on the blackberry leaves and as I watched a Hornet tried to mug it but the Comma was too quick and with a flick of it's wings evaded the lumbering Hornet. Thwarted the Hornet careered around the blackberry flowers attempting to capture any insect that was not on full alert to it's presence. The attacks were not subtle and the last I saw it had, unsurprisingly, not been successful. Two hours had passed and my wanderings up and down the track produced no less than nine Brown Hairstreaks, four females, three males and two which had to be left as just a sighting. The gentle wind sighed as did I. Autumn is on the way. These last days of warm breezes and summer sun will soon be gone as will the hairstreaks

Tuesday 20 August 2013

The last of the Hairstreaks 20th August 2013

Brown Hairstreaks are the last of the hairstreak family to appear, usually not being seen on the wing until August. Like most of the hairstreaks they are generally elusive and hard to find. Up to this year I had only ever seen one on a flower head, low down and allowing close views, all the others have been high in trees either sunning themselves on a leaf or fluttering around the tree tops. 

The rather grandly named Roman Road at Otmoor RSPB Reserve which is in reality no more than a narrow short track running between two overgrown densely vegetated hedgerows is a favoured place for them, complete with a master Ash and plenty of Blackthorn bushes. After my long distance excursion to Cornwall and back yesterday I needed something less frenetic and more calming, so today I headed for Otmoor to wander down the green, lushly vegetated track that constitutes the Roman Road. 

I love meandering down here, with the track at this time of year almost invisible, being overwhelmed by the profuse summer vegetation and one feels lost to the world. Being so sheltered it is a paradise for insects. They are everywhere on the flowerheads of various plants. Insects of all kinds; butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, hoverflies and insects that are so weird and wonderful to look at but have to remain anonymous due to my lack of knowledge about them. My main aim today apart from relaxation and tranquillity was to just wander, hopefully in seclusion, away from the main part of the reserve and to find a Brown Hairstreak. I meandered through the grasses and between the bramble and blackthorn hedgerows until I came to my favourite spot. It is a recess of brambles, Wild Angelica and grasses with the brambles growing well above head height. Because it is recessed, it is sheltered from all sides and is virtually untroubled by the wind from whatever direction it comes. Consequently there is always a profusion of butterflies and other insects in this natural cul de sac, sunning and feeding on the bramble flowers in quiet seclusion. 

Today was no exception with a myriad of insects coming and going, busy feeding on the frothy flowerheads of pink stemmed Wild Angelica, revelling and sinking in the white flowerheads like children playing in deep snow. A Small Copper, tiny and pugnacious, gave me a thrill of expectation of a hairstreak but no, it's orange, black spotted forewings although beautiful in their own right were not quite what I was anticipating. A Comma footled about on the bramble leaves, reluctant to leave the sun patches whilst larger Meadow Browns, Gatekeepers and Brimstones came and went. A Speckled Wood flew fast and low and settled, wings wide to the sun, on a hawthorn above the brambles whilst Brown and Southern Hawker dragonflies patrolled around the bushes and along the track.The sun was shy mid morning but eventually the cloud moved and the track and vegetation were bathed in full sunlight. I stood quietly, feeling the effects of the long journey of yesterday but unwilling to acknowledge how tired I was. A small movement from the corner of my eye told me a small butterfly had landed on an angelica head close to where I was standing. A few steps to my right and I peered at the white mass of angelica flowers. A Brown Hairstreak was settled on the flower head nectaring for all it's worth, creeping over each tiny flower, probing diligently with it's proboscis as it went. 

Upside, downside and even underneath the flower heads it went heedless of my close proximity. It fluttered to another umbel of flowers. I tickled it's body with a blade of grass and it opened it's wings in mute protest but remained stoically feeding on the flowerhead. Slightly tatty and worn but the all brown upperwings revealed it was a male. 

I watched it for an hour or so before it flew down and savoured the grass at my feet.Then it flew up onto some nettles and then away into the hawthorn trees above the blackthorn bushes, adopting a position at the end of the leaf where it could scan the ride.

I wandered further along the track and found other Brown Hairstreaks also ensconced on Wild Angelica flowerheads  and feeding. As I went back and fore along the track it became apparent that there were a number of this enigmatic and usually elusive butterfly feeding exclusively on the heads of Wild Angelica. I counted a maximum of eight which is surely unprecedented.  I came across yet another, after some time, that was obviously newly hatched, pristine and orange of under-wing, with an indescribable inner delicate beauty. 

A vision of fragile loveliness, so elegantly perched atop the angelica head, it's white furry legs and underbody contrasting with the orange under-wings crossed with the delicate white lines from whence the name hairstreak originates. I repeated the tickling process with another blade of grass and it opened it's wings to reveal two bright orange spots on the upper-wings. It was a female. I again wandered the track which was little more than a few hundred metres in length and marvelled at this opportunity to view this confiding, beautiful butterfly at length and so very close. They were absolutely heedless of my presence. I touched them with the tip of my finger and they refused to move so intent were they on feeding. For a couple of hours I entered their world in the quiet and peace of the Oxfordshire countryside. Such a contrast to yesterday's frenetic and wearisome exploits in Cornwall. 

Monday 19 August 2013

Getting wet in Cornwall 17th August 2013

Porthgwarra - before the rain arrived!
We left West Sussex at just after midnight on Saturday, four of us in a small car and the novelty for me of not driving. I could rest, secure and snug in the darkness of the back seat of the car as we sped west, luxuriating in not having the responsibilities of keeping us on the road. Matt who was driving, Adam, Paul and myself were going to spend the day at Porthgwarra, seawatching in the far southwest of Cornwall.

This was no random jaunt but carefully planned to coincide with the forecast strong southwesterly winds that would hit the coast of Cornwall today. Porthgwarra is a well known seawatching point and strong winds in August are propitious for bringing in the much desired, Cory's and Great Shearwaters as they visit these waters from their far distant breeding places half a world away on the other side of the ocean.

In the darkness at 2am I received a text from my daughter advising her flight had landed in the USA and she was safe and well. No little anxiety and tension eased from my body. We hurtled down the A30 in the dark with every layby packed with caravans presumably on their way to holiday in Cornwall, arrived in Penzance at 5.30am, collected Hugh just outside Penzance and soon completed the drive down the narrow lane to the beach car park at Porthgwarra. It was now 6am, dawn was breaking and the car park was full of cars with others arriving. It was obvious that it was going to be crowded up on the cliff top watchpoint and when we arrived after the short but steep climb it was to be greeted by massed ranks of camouflaged birders, already hunkered down in the rocks like an army preparing to repel a seaborne invasion. However the only invasion predicted today was one of large shearwaters and that was to be welcomed if it happened. We sorted ourselves out and set to watching, frankly, not very much.


No matter it would surely get better and slowly it did as the first Manx Shearwaters passed in the dull morning light and then a Storm Petrel or two were picked out. The latter, tiny scraps of feathers, impossibly small amongst the waves as they flittered fussily over the heaving depths, inexorably progressing west. The birder next to me drank a whole can of Red Bull. An hour slowly passed, maybe quicker for my neighbour awash with Red Bull and then Matt, he of the laser eyes, exclaimed 'Large Shear!'.

Semi comatose birders visibly jerked upright in their chairs, heads bent to lenses, all attention now and everyone was asking for directions or relaying to others further away what had been seen. If you have not found the bird yourself then it is up to you and you alone to find, in a huge area of sea, a living scrap of feathers amongst the grey, heaving watery wastes confronting you. Surprisingly most people do manage it, by luck, persistence, experience or often a combination of all three. Fortunately this time there was a distant yacht on the horizon which could be used as a reference point and by dint of saying where the Great Shearwater was in relation to it and when it passed directly under the yacht, everyone could locate it relatively easily. It was a long way out. No more than an elongated pair of dull, palish brown wings and a white underbody as it sheared over the waves alternately showing it's dark upper and then white underparts. I followed it's progress past the Runnelstone and it was gone all too soon. Then nothing more apart from another distant Great Shearwater, unseen by yours truly and an intermittent stream of Manx Shearwaters and Gannets.

Then the first Balearic Shearwater came through, close to the cliffs. They always seem to come closer than most other shearwaters and though they are often the rarest shearwater to be seen here, with the entire world population not exceeding 2000 pairs, they always seem slightly disappointing with their drab, brown plumage and slightly portly bodies, lacking the glamour of their larger cousins, but it makes for good fun picking them out from the Manx Shearwaters with which they are inevitably flying. A few more Storm Petrels winged their way west but it was slow going. My neighbour sank another Red Bull.

Gradually the sky began to darken and become gun metal grey from the west. Rain had been predicted and the first drops began to fall  around 9am. Rapidly it became a steady deluge accentuated by the continually strengthening wind. There is no place to shelter or hide on the Porthgwarra cliffs. You just have to do the best you can. Everyone for themselves. Every birder hunkered down into their waterproofs, some brought out umbrellas, scopes were abandoned and left at 45 degrees to lessen the impact of the rain on the lenses. I just shrunk into my clothes, closed my eyes and wished for the rain to cease. It didn't. It just went remorselessly on and on. The rain found every slight gap in my waterproof defences and slowly, inexorably I could feel the rain getting into my inner clothing. Eventually the waterproofing on my outer coat failed, overwhelmed by the insidious rain. The seat of my canvas chair accumulated water. I realised I was sitting in a puddle.The wind turned Matt's umbrella inside out and we enjoyed a Mr Bean moment watching his struggles to rectify it. He gave up and the umbrella was abandoned. Something had to be done. I had to move or I would be terminally wet and cold and could not continue birding. I stood up, at least the rain now ran down me rather than collected in my lap, turned my chair upside down and walked to the lee of some rocks which would shelter me from the worst of the wind blown rain. Others had similar thoughts. Telescopes stood temporarily abandoned as their owners sought  partial sanctuary by the rocks. We stood around, like those penguins you see on nature programmes, huddled and hunched over against the worst of the Antarctic winter storms, sodden and dejected. Not sure what to do now. Every so often the rain abated slightly and with that optimism only known to birders we would try a bit more seawatching but the rain would inevitably return and the whole experience was both uncomfortable and unsatisfactory. During one of these temporary lulls a Cory's Shearwater came out of the gloom and, almost invisible, passed west, with many of us only managing to locate it as it passed the Runnelstone, one mile out to sea.

The rain continued. Deceivingly soft and warm, but wind blown and persistent. It was misery. We discussed what to do. 'Let's go to the beach cafe until it passes'. The rain was not predicted to pass for another two hours. The beach cafe was closed. We stood in the nearby public toilets and dried some clothing under the hand drier. In protest at the continued requirement for blasts of hot air it fused. We went back to the car. Tired, depressed and very very wet we took off our wet weather gear and sat in the car. No one could make a decision about what to do. No one wanted to confront the obvious, that it was sensible to head for home.We had come all this way. We wanted to go birding. If we were sensible we would not be here in the first place. The rain continued. We drove up the narrow road to another little cafe I knew of, a well kept secret but one I had frequented in a similar situation once before. It was warm and dry inside. We also became warm and dry, life seemed a little better and we had some food and hot drinks to revive our rock bottom morale. Adam tried unsuccessfully to persuade Matt to drive to Pendeen in search of Choughs. Decision time again. Porthgwarra cliffs or home? It could not be avoided. We left the cafe.  Got in the car. Still raining. Turn right for home or turn left for Porthgwarra and more misery. We turned left out of the tiny cafe car park and drove back down the lane to the beach car park. Out of the car. Oh the joy of donning already wet clothing! We met other birders in the car park who had given up. We enquired whether we had missed much in our absence and the answer was no.

Adam and Paul walked off towards the footpath up to the cliffs whilst Matt and I took our time getting ready. The two of us then squelched our way back up to the exposed cliff top and took up a standing position by the rocks rather than sitting as before. No sign of Paul and Adam. Oh well they will turn up sooner or later. We got on with it. The rain had by now all but stopped but the wind had increased markedly and the visibility had worsened but there was definite hope in the air. Contradicting what we had been told in the beach car park we were informed that several large shearwaters had been seen in our absence so probably there were more to come. The majority of birders had hung on despite the weather although some were looking decidedly discomfited.

Only a little time had passed after our return before a shout went up. 'Great Shearwater, Great Shearwater - close in, very close in!'  A Great Shearwater glided by on stiff slightly bent wings, just off the cliffs, low over the sea and showing all it's features to good effect and so, at regular intervals afterwards, others appeared. Some I saw, some I did not. Buffeted by the wind and rain, hanging onto the scope I think I saw eleven in all, including two together. I also managed to locate two separate Cory's Shearwaters, with their longer wings and more languid flight action and missed two others.  I also saw another large shearwater that others appeared to have missed but I could not be certain whether it was a Cory's or Great and two Sooty Shearwaters dodged the waves, heading westwards in between the Great Shearwater sightings. Three Basking Sharks, impervious to the bad weather, thrashed around below us before heading east. Adam and Paul joined us on the clifftop. They had been watching from the sheltered cove by the  beach car park and had similar success to us. I watched an immature Herring Gull pecking at what appeared to be a large plastic bag.The bag suddenly produced a fin which flapped wildly and the bag morphed into an Ocean Sunfish and a big one at that. Then another appeared and another, each with an attendant gull. A frisson of excitement ran through us as news of a Fea's Petrel passing Berry Head in Devon suggested it might pass us also but in the end it transpired the Fea's Petrel was going the wrong way.

The regular run of large shearwaters was now over and even the Manx Shearwaters had ceased moving. A Mediterranean Gull flew purposefully along the waveline at the bottom of the cliffs and a pair of Choughs strutting around near to us on the cliff top made Adam's day complete.

Hardly anyone was looking out to sea now. Many birders, exhausted, had slumped into sleep or were staring vacantly out at the sea. Others were chatting in small groups. It was to all extents over. We left the cliffs at six after twelve hours of seawatching with a two hour break due to the rain and started the long journey home. It was still raining as we left. The night slowly enveloped us as we headed east. I finally got back to my house at 2 am on Sunday morning. It was raining. I had been up for 41 hours without sleep.Was it worth it? Yes. But let's not do it again too soon. Please!

Sunday 18 August 2013

Let there be light 16 August 2013

Friday morning dawned dull and grey, grabbed my soul and dragged me into a contemplative gloom. In times such as these it is wise to try and occupy one's mind with some sort of activity cerebral or otherwise. I could not do it. Perhaps my daughter's imminent departure today for a year's absence studying at Boston University brought me low. I will miss her but circumstance meant I was the person that would deliver her to the airport which I duly did below the persisting grey and rainy skies. Tearful farewells and then I turned the faithfull Audi for home and as I headed for Oxfordshire the skies began to lighten but not my heart. Arriving in Kingham the sun shone and it was impossible to be downhearted anymore. I sat in the sunlight on a chair in the garden and tried to rationalise my emotional turmoil. As I did, almost subliminally I  became aware of movements around me and looking up to the heavy purple spikes of buddleia flowers was greeted with the animated comings and goings of many butterflies feeding on the flowers and then warming themselves on the adjacent golden cotswold stone walls of our house. This morning the buddleias had been deserted but with the sun came these halcyon harbingers of hope and lightness from their various dark hiding places. Light always comes from darkness in this world and optimism will always prevail. The butterflies innocent presence in my garden was the light that illuminated my soul's temporary darkness

Painted Lady

Red Admiral

Small Tortoiseshell
surely one of our most beautiful and under appreciated native butterflies


Tuesday 13 August 2013

Going West 13th August 2013

Badger, Andy and myself had planned a four day seawatching extravaganza on the Cornish coast. August is the prime time for seeing large shearwaters and if you are extremely fortunate maybe even the hallowed Fea's Petrel, although it is always a lottery as the wind has to be strong and either southwest or northwest. If southwest it is Porthgwarra on the southern coast,  northwest you go to Pendeen on the northern coast, although I am sure other headlands in the far west of Cornwall would be just as good. From the outset our trip seemed ill fated. I was at the theatre in London on Wednesday night when I received a text from Badger advising that he could no longer drive us down there as he had gout. We could go in Andy's car which is microscopic and five hours crammed in the back of that was a definite no go so the only alternative was for me to drive the Audi. I got back from the theatre at 1am in the morning courtesy of First Great Western, so bleary and weary it came to pass that we duly left Oxfordshire mid morning and drove west on a sunny Thursday arriving in the wild west mid afternoon. Badger had arranged cheap accommodation in a Youth Hostel near Redruth. On being shown our very small room which was just about big enough for two, but a third could cram in by sleeping on the floor on an  inflatable mattress thoughtfully provided by Badger, my heart sank. No guesses who got the short straw. We made ourselves relatively comfortable and then headed for the Lizard for some birding and to try and see the Red billed Choughs that had bred there earlier in the year. The Lizard is very beautiful with a micro climate all of it's own and some very exotic looking plant life that in quieter times would be worth a look but we were visiting in the height of the tourist season and the school holidays so peaceful it most certainly was not and our prime interest was seabirds. We drove down an impossibly narrow lane towards the point, thankfully not meeting any vehicle coming the other way and found a small car park with a very pricey parking tariff for basically leaving your car on a piece of waste ground. This was our first experience with the predilection of the residents of Cornwall to relieve visitors of as much money as possible whilst providing as minimal value as possible. However being from Oxford we were used to exorbitant parking charges so we paid up for an hour's parking. We then walked a short way down the lane to the coast only to find that another small car park owned by the National Trust and almost on the cliff edge was free although you were asked to make a small donation. Undaunted we set about some seawatching and soon the long drive was forgotten and the sussurus of the sea and wild beauty of this bit of coastline soothed the nerves. Manx Shearwaters and Gannets were passing in good numbers, a couple of Mediterranean Gulls headed west and eventually two real goodies turned up in the shape of a Sooty Shearwater and a Balearic Shearwater. Both new UK birds for Andy. He got a third with a very distant Great Skua. Two hours seawatching quickly passed and we went in search of something to eat before planning a restful night in anticipation of an early start to seawatching the next morning. We estimated the wind was westerly at The Lizard and as there seemed to be many seabirds passing The Lizard we opted to go to Porthgwarra also on the southern Cornwall coast. A big mistake.

The nearest pub to where we were staying was The Bridge - a place newly taken over by a friendly couple from Birmingham. We enquired about food only to be told apologetically that they had not started to do food as they were just settling in. The landlady however kindly made us a small bowl of chips for free. We resigned ourselves to just having a drink and the chips then moving on. The Bridge suggested a pub called The Robartes Arms at a place called Illogan a few miles away. The first pint of Rattler cider in The Bridge went down very well and we then went in search of food. At 8.30 in the evening we entered The Robartes Arms only to be told they stopped serving food at 8.30. This at the height of the tourist season but more of The Robartes Arms later. We had another drink there and went back to The Bridge. Another round of Rattler cider and a cheese roll each sufficed for our evening meal. The landlord obviously liked our company so gave us a gratis alcopop each. I was feeling good. So were the others.

Andy and myself. Three pints of Rattler to the good in The Bridge
The next morning I was not feeling good. None of us were. We staggered around in the mini space of our room trying to clear our heads and get everything together, and eventually drove to Porthgwarra. It was dead with just a few Manx Shearwaters and the odd Balearic Shearwater passing. The pager later advised us that at Pendeen they had two Great Shearwaters, eighteen Sooty Shearwaters and heaven knows how many Balearic Shearwaters passing before 9am! Already hungover we now plumbed new depths of despair. We had really messed this one up. We went to Pendeen but it was far too late.The wind had dropped, the birds had stopped passing and I closed my eyes and wished I could be anywhere but here. Jaded, fed up and dispirited I contemplated the horror of another two days in this benighted corner of little England. The scenery may be stunning as can be the birding but everything else so far was a paeon to mediocrity and awfulness.

We decided to go back to Porthgwarra to look for Choughs. There was also the tiny Beach Cafe at Pothgwarra advertising all sorts of goodies including Cornish Cream Teas, with the added attraction of a garden in stunning scenery.We arrived at Porthgwarra. 'What about a cream tea, that will cheer us up'.  I ventured. 'Three Cream Teas please'. 'We have no scones so they are off'. This delivered in a take it or leave it tone. 'Well why are you advertising them?  I just turned and walked out. Dazed and with that listless uncertainty that comes with extreme tiredness we walked up to Gwennap Head in search of the Choughs. Andy had never seen these in the UK. Needless to say we never saw them but an enjoyable amble up to the Coastguard station, through a sun drenched carpet of purple heather and wind stunted yellow gorse produced a solitary Clouded Yellow and some Grayling butterflies which are always nice to see. 

Porthgwarra - looking west

Porthgwarra-looking east

Porthgwarra watchpoint with Badger and Andy just looking
The contrast between the natural beauty all around us and it's consequent spiritual enhancement and the dire experiences with Cornish hospitality was not lost on any of us. What is it about this land that everyone thinks it is beneath them to serve, be nice and friendly? In other European countries being a waiter or working in the service industry is a valued occupation, here we just sneer and think it is beneath us or if we do it we are often surly, unfriendly and unhelpful. 

We drove further back inland to St Buryan. A large board outside a hotel and restaurant advertised Cream Teas and Food. We walked in and sat down. 'Three Cream Teas please'. 'Sorry we have no scones or cream'. 'You are joking? 'No'. This with a face that seemed to indicate I was being difficult. We gave up and ordered a round of drinks and some food. Badger and Andy ordered a big breakfast each. 'I do not know if the chef will do a breakfast now as it is lunchtime' intoned the girl attending to us. She went off to ask. The chef decided he could manage this. Next. 'I am afraid we do not have enough forks'. 'What!'  We eventually got another fork. The waitress returned yet again. 'We have run out of vegetarian sausages.'  Badger had a vegetarian burger instead. We ate the meal which thankfully was very acceptable, paid up and were promptly overcharged for the drinks.We were so tired we only realised this after we had left and that Andy had been charged £4.70 for a coke.We could not be bothered to go back and argue. Thankfully we did not leave a tip. 

We drove back to Pendeen to look for the Choughs along the coastline between Pendeen and Lands End. There was nothing else to do. Badger could take no more and remained in the car to sleep whilst Andy and myself heroically took the coastal path through the atmospheric older part of Geevor Tin Mine and onwards to Levant. 

Old tin mine shafts and chimneys at Pendeen
You will not be surprised to learn we did not locate the Choughs. They were achieving mythical status by now. Our walk was however enlivened and brightened by some Northern Wheatears, European Stonechats and Clouded Yellow, Grayling and Wall Brown butterflies

In the evening Badger decided to be sensible and just stay in the room and try and relax and get some sleep. Andy and myself went in search of food. We toured Camborne, a ghastly place with no charm whatsoever and frankly nearby Redruth looked even less appealing. Eventually we found a place called the New Inn somewhere between Redruth and Camborne which looked promising but it was Friday night and it was bingo night.The place was packed. Not one table was left with every local for miles around scoring off legs eleven and two fat ladies. We had decided when we set off looking for a hostelry that The Robartes Arms was beyond the pale after last night's experience but now with little choice left we went back there and ordered some food. I was advised there would be a slight delay as they were very busy. No matter. An hour later we were still waiting. They served everyone else, including their friends who came in and ordered after us and eventually after an hour with the pub virtually empty, apart from some chavs playing pool in the next room, a set of knives and forks were plonked down on our unwiped table with not a word of apology or explanation. Another half an hour passed as we stared at the cutlery. Already tired I was about ready to let rip but in the end we just walked out. Thankfully we had not paid in advance for our meals. I bought a sandwich at the Co-op next door.  Looking on the internet and reading a review from some other unfortunate misguided visitor to this miserable example of all that is wrong with the English attitude to courtesy and civility it seemed we were not the only ones to be treated so appallingly. So f**k you Robartes Arms and your miserable parochial attitude. I have been all over the world and in Third World countries such as Cambodia, The Robartes Arms with it's contemptible attitude could learn much from such places about how to treat people properly and with civility.

Do not under any circumstances visit this place unless you are a local
We rose the next day full of optimism and headed for Pendeen. Unfortunately the wind had died down and there was a consequent lack of birds apart from the ever present Manx Shearwaters and Gannets passing in their hundreds. We amused ourselves by picking out the occasional Balearic Shearwater amongst the Manx Shearwaters but there was little else to keep us awake. I dozed off in my chair, so did Badger and finally Andy. It was not unpleasant in the sun, perched beneath the lighthouse and with a wonderful view out to sea. Giving up the fruitless seawatch we finally managed to find somewhere that was prepared to serve us a Cream Tea. Yes, congratulations goes to Heathers in Pendeen, which was not only welcoming but tastefully decorated and with a very nice ambience. Needless to say the owners were not locals. The Cream Tea was pretty good as well with a bright yellow saffron bun as well as the home made scone to tempt our palates. Revived we went in search of the Choughs again. No success again. Oh well at least we are consistent in our failure

We tried a seawatch at Porthgwarra in the afternoon and had some small success with some Balearic and a couple of Sooty Shearwaters. The latter like miniscule albatrosses, their long black wings with silver linings so different to the shorter winged Manx Shearwaters. The highlight for me were the four Basking Sharks that cruised past. One was absolutely huge judging by the distance from it's huge paddle shaped dorsal fin to the sickle tip of it's tail. Black and sinister looking they are anything but, being the most gentle of creatures consuming only plankton, with only their fearsome size sending a frisson of primal fear through one as they slowly pass on their endless oceanic odyssey.This evening we ate early and well and were in bed by nine.

Tomorrow the winds augured well, forecast to be coming from the northwest and in sufficient strength to hopefully bring something interesting. So we planned our final birding session to be at Pendeen. Although it remained unsaid the trip so far had not been a success from any point of view.The birding had not been good for which we had no one to blame but ourselves but the attitude of most places and the local people we encountered in the west of Cornwall was also hugely disappointing and cast a long shadow of despond. We arrived early at Pendeen, at dawn and in fact we were first. 

Pendeen Lighthouse
Pendeen Cliffs
We took our place underneath the lighthouse and scanned the sea. Nothing, absolutely nothing. The predicted wind was absent. I fell asleep again, planning to revive when the wind materialised which it duly did. We were joined by three locals but no one else came. Slowly the birds started coming but it was hardly a classic seawatch. A couple of Arctic Skua's passed as did a Pomarine Skua. Gannets, Manx Shearwaters, Balearic Shearwaters and a few Sooty Shearwaters passed by. Slowly the Manx Shearwaters built up to impressive numbers and we indulged ourselves again in picking out the odd Balearic Shearwater amongst them. A Great Skua came by very close, mottled brown in the sunlight with huge white wing flashes. Andy was so tired he missed it. Badger was out for the count. Time wore on and we alternately dozed or watched. Then came the call from one of the locals that made the long four days worth it. 'Great Shearwater, two thirds out moving west'. Panic.The seascape is a huge area to cover. 'It's passing over a Gannet on the water, now over two Fulmars. It's circling and going right. Now going left again'. The instructions came steadily but at first I could not find it. Then a final comment  'It's following a Manxie' and I got it. Huge compared to the Manx. It settled briefly on the sea. 'Blimey it is a long way out. How on earth did he pick this one out?' Nonetheless we were all grateful and Andy had not only a new bird for the UK but a lifer. We watched it slowly wend it's way out to the west and the trackless Atlantic Ocean. At last we had something to be pleased about and to make the trip worthwhile. After this excitement it died a death with only a really good and prolonged view of an Ocean Sunfish, flopping its extraordinary fin above the water as it made its laborious progress out to sea. Huge, square and tailess I saw it framed in a green rising wave before it was lost in the surf off the Wra rocks. Lunchtime was our deadline for setting off for home. We returned to the car and seven corvids flew over us calling. Keeyah, keeyah, jackdaw like but not quite. After our fruitless searches over the last three days the seven Red billed Choughs from The Lizard came to us and flew happily around the cliffs by the lighthouse.You could not make it up. Let's go. I was never so glad to leave Cornwall