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!


  1. Brilliant account of a classic sea watch! I can totally sympathise with the roller coaster of emotions and feel the rain running down my back!

    1. Hi Andy
      You bet.I sometimes wonder if it is worth it at the time but once home and dried out it somehow becomes enjoyable!
      All the best