Saturday 3 April 2021

AHG at Newlyn 1st April 2021

With the easing of lockdown restrictions from Thursday 1st April, I called Les on Wednesday and asked him if he wished to accompany me on a trip to see a first winter American Herring Gull (AHG) that has been at Newlyn in Cornwall since 17th March 2021. There are only 33 records of this gull for Britain so it was well worth a look despite being a long way off in West Cornwall.

A visit would serve two functions, in that Les lives near Epping Forest and has been suffering badly from living alone in his house and not being able to get out to see his birding friends while from my point of view it would be a pleasant change to be able to extend my birding beyond my local area in Oxfordshire.

In addition it would also give me the opportunity to study this particular  AHG at very close quarters as, according to reports, it was ridiculously confiding and allowed point blank views. Both Les and myself have seen AHG's before but not as close as this one was currently showing, so it was game on.

In my case I have seen three AHG's prior to this bird. The first two I ever saw were not in this country but on a weekend trip in February 2008 to Galway's famous Nimmo's Pier in the Republic of Ireland. There we encountered a confiding first winter bird on our first day and I can recall how impressed I was by its size and general appearance. The next day we saw an adult perched on a warehouse roof at the harbour and looking decidedly mean.

The American Herring Gulls I saw in Galway

The third individual involved an epic of endurance and determination as it was at Campbeltown in Scotland which requires driving to Glasgow and then driving many miles south again, down the Mull of Kintyre to reach Campbeltown which lies at the very tip.The first attempt ended in abject failure and arriving back home I found out the gull had been seen soon after I left. I promptly turned about and drove back to Campbeltown and spent two more fruitless days looking for it. Finally, standing on a rain lashed pier at Campbeltown as the light faded, with minutes before I had to depart south, by a miracle of chance I found it, standing distantly on some rocks, out in the harbour I had come to know so well. 

I arranged to meet Les in a car park near my home at 4am on Thursday morning and we would drive down to Cornwall, which takes around four and a half hours, in order try to see the AHG early in the morning, which would then allow us time to bird around West Cornwall before heading home.

The drive, as always, was tedious and attritional as middle of the night drives to twitches tend to be.The motorway was mercifully devoid of cars but was instead populated by many heavy lorries lumbering along in the inside lane.The dawn rose somewhere around the Devon/Cornwall border and as the night receded so my spirits, up to now noticeably dulled, began to rally.

It was going to be a good day weatherwise, not overly warm but rain free and with lots of promised sunshine although at the dawning, the landscape was subject to a faint blurring of its contours with a hint of mist materialising as the land warmed We bowled along a deserted A30 that runs like a spine down the middle of Cornwall, stopping for a coffee at a services and taking the opportunity  to stretch our cramped limbs.

Revived, the next short stretch of road was now much busier as we drove into the rush hour but it passed quickly and soon we were through Penzance and entering Newlyn, the two conjoined but the latter primarily a fishing port, the harbour refreshingly free of pleasure craft and expensive yachts but filled with commercial working boats of all shapes and sizes. Ensuring the main livelihood of Newlyn did not go un-noticed, an all pervading odour of fish hung in the air around the harbour and fish processing warehouse. We had not realised just how busy yet cramped Newlyn was, the town rising up a hillside from the harbour in a series of terraced rows of houses and the beach the gull was supposedly frequenting, far from obvious. In fact there was no sign of any beach at all. The narrow roads were liberally decorated with double yellow lines so stopping was nigh on impossible and any parking was difficult to find, to say the least.We followed the tortuous through road from one end of Newlyn to the other but still could not find an obvious beach. 

Tired from the long drive we turned back on the road at one end of Newlyn and retreating, eventually found a large car park where we could come to rest by the impressive lifeboat station and fish processing warehouse.Still clueless as to where to look for the gull, in the end we asked a man who looked distinctly local 'think fishing overalls and woolly hat'. He knew what we were about and pointed to an area that lay below the road some few hundred metres distant and said that was where he had seen birders go in the past few days. Even more commendably he knew where the nearest public toilets were and pointed those out as well. A true hero!

We made our way to the gull's favoured location, being joined on the way by two other birders who were on the same quest as us. A short walk down a concrete ramp brought us to sea level and 'the beach' which was no more than a short stretch of uninviting rocks and stones and only now being exposed by the falling tide. A group of large gulls were bickering amongst themselves further along on the sea but where was the AHG?

The Beach

I looked at the gulls and there in the front of the squabbling gulls and closest to us was the AHG. Utterly distinctive with its pale pink, black tipped bill and milky coffee coloured underparts.

'Is it there?' enquired Les

'Yes Les. It's right in front of those gulls, the nearest bird to us.' I replied

And that was that. So easy and just as well, for now not used to such long drives due to  the covid pandemic restrictions, I was feeling distinctly frazzled but the sight of our quarry so soon and without requiring any huge effort put a definite spring in my step. We sat on a rock and the gulls slowly swam towards us, led by the AHG. 

We had been told that the gulls had become used to being fed by visiting birders and the AHG was particularly partial to tinned tuna. We had neglected to purchase any but the gulls approached us anyway in the hope one of us would lob some bread or tuna in their direction. The AHG was in the vanguard and soon was living up to its reputation for tameness, cruising about on the still waters not many feet from us. 

After the obligatory brief fly around to check out other parts of the harbour the gulls settled once more in front of us.

Eventually as more of the beach was exposed by the falling tide the gulls left the sea and walked onto the beach, mewling and chuntering to themselves and looking at us as if to say - 'Well come on then where's the tuna?'

A fellow birder duly obliged by chucking morsels of bread and finally someone produced a small tin of tuna and forked out the fish onto the stones which the AHG was first to grab and chuck down its throat.

My overall impression of the bird was that it was big and, when relaxed looked large headed, the off white feathers on its head almost fluffy and not sleek like the Herring Gulls around it, possibly due to wear, as its upper body plumage also showed distinct signs of age, especially the frayed wing coverts, scapulars and mantle. I checked the salient points which distinguish it from 'our' Herring Gull, such as the nearly all black tail which was now faded to brown, the rump, upper and under tail coverts all closely barred brown, wing coverts imparting a distinct chequered look, underparts not streaked but a uniform greyish brown and a bill that was two toned, being pale pink with a prominent black tip.

It remained close to us on the beach for all the time we watched it and there came a time when it was futile to take any more images as every angle and position the gull adopted had been recorded at least once, often more!

We sat back, relaxing in our moment of triumph and enjoyed the situation, the sun shining, gentle and warm on our position on the rocky beach below a high wall that secluded us from all the bustle of the busy fishing port that is Newlyn. I wonder what they think of Brexit, many having voted for it but now finding the truth is far from what they were told or promised. Maybe best to leave that one!

So ended the first part of our odyssey to West Cornwall and returning to the car park we ate  some home made refreshment by the sea wall, watching the life of the cramped port going on around us.

Our next destination was not far, in fact only a couple of miles away, back at Penzance seafront and the rocks that lie around the open air Jubilee Swimming Pool, currently closed for obvious reasons. Some ladies were however, braving the waves and going swimming in the sea itself. Good luck on that one but you had to admire their spirit and they seemed to be enjoying it.

Jubilee Swimming Pool rocks are well known to birders as a regular haunt of Purple Sandpipers and many a birder returning from the Isles of Scilly checks them out, as the venerable ship The Scillonian, on its daily return from Scilly docks close by.

Looking over the seawall we were  not disappointed as on the rocks below, smoothed by the constant attention of the waves, was a roosting flock of at least forty Purple Sandpipers, the most I have ever seen together. They were in the company of around thirty Turnstones and a couple of Sanderling.The latter's pale plumage a shock of white in the sun, mirroring their preferred  habitat of sandy strands and surf and making them stand out amongst the browner plumage of the other two rock favouring species. 

A Mediterranean Gull in partial summer plumage also stood on some rocks nearby.

Sanderling and Turnstone

The roosting birds showed no sign of alarm at our peering over to look down on them. No doubt they are well used to such an occurrence and for the most part they remained fast asleep. Purple Sandpipers are sociable birds and rarely enjoy their own company, always seeking others of their kind to join and search wave splashed rocks for the weed and invertebrates on which they live.

Roosting Purple Sandpipers

As we watched, individual Purple Sandpipers, as is their way, would occasionally stir and with conversational twittering, shuffle about on bent, short, yellow legs or wander over the rocks to find a more acceptable position to while away the high tide. One even took the opportunity to bathe in a seawater pool. They have a pleasant demeanour and their plump bodies appear to be neckless, creating an impression of a head that seems just that bit too small for their body.The purple is not obvious but in winter the feathers have a plumbeous sheen which gives rise to their name. At this time of year they are changing to a browner more patterned summer plumage and in a week or two will be departing for their breeding areas in Scandinavia.

We left Penzance and heading north tried the nearby Hayle Estuary but there was little to see on the wide expanse of sand apart from gulls and, well, gulls.Someone had told us there might be a Ring billed Gull amongst them but the wind had become very strong and in our exposed position it was impossible to hold the scopes steady, so if there was a Ring billed Gull present it escaped our notice as we were too busy trying to keep our scopes upright. A local birder chatted to us and I asked him if there was anywhere else nearby he could recommend for birds. He suggested Godrevy which was just a few miles beyond Hayle on the coast, as there had been an adult Glaucous Gull present there for a few days.

We decided to give it a go and fifteen minutes later we found ourselves at Godrevy and looking at a  couple of pools lying just inside the dunes. The wind was very strong here as well but we could see a number of gulls sheltering on the grass by the largest pool and got our scopes and headed towards the pool. The wind was a real problem but we managed to find somewhere more sheltered away from the road and scoped the flock of gulls resting on an island of grass. There was little to see at first except Greater Black backed Gulls but then at the back of the gulls and on its own I found the Glaucous Gull. A magnificent beast, fully adult with pure white wing tips and a huge bright yellow bill. It too was finding the wind troublesome and sought a depression where it was more sheltered but frustratingly put it out of sight.

We moved position and the Glaucous was visible once more. Sand Martins were swooping around the pool and probably had their nesting burrows nearby in the dunes. As we looked at them and then returned our gaze to look at the Glaucous once more, we found it had slipped away, doubtless to the nearby sea or beach. Frankly it was a mercy as the wind was now very strong and despite being sunny it was getting cold and unpleasant.

We had one more destination in mind before making the long drive home.This would take two hours to get to but thankfully was on our way home and would only require a short detour before we hit the motorway. Neither of us had seen Cirl Buntings for a number of years so it seemed remiss not to try for them as we would be close to one of their strongholds, the RSPB's reserve at Labrador Bay  near Teignmouth in Devon.

I would like to say we found the reserve with little problem but after leaving the main road the Satnav sent us on a bewildering and un-necessary cross country route down alarmingly narrow lanes and through equally  constricted roads through housing. Having been up since 3am it was singularly unpleasant steering a constantly erratic course to try to find the reserve. Finally we hit a main road and shortly afterwards there was the car park and a welcome brown sign telling us we had found the RSPB's cliffside reserve of fields especially maintained for Cirl Buntings.

Thankfully leaving the car, we took a narrow path through high hedges to stand in a large rough grassed field and scope the bordering hedges. Les found a male Cirl Bunting in about the most distant hedge possible but nonetheless it was a Cirl Bunting. Rejuvenated by our success we naturally wanted better views and our luck changed as half a dozen buntings landed high in a bare tree in the hedge beside which we were standing.These gave excellent views of both male and female and one male in particular seemed very reluctant to quit the tree which was fine by us.

Female Cirl Bunting

Male Cirl Bunting

Finally it too departed and, recognising we were both very tired and with a long drive in front of us, it was back to the car, pack everything away and set a course for home.

A great day out and such a joy to be able to indulge freely in birding once more. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent Ewan. It is great to be out and about again!