Thursday, 16 August 2012

Lots of sharks, a few birds

Having still never seen a Wilson's Storm Petrel or a Cory's Shearwater, a further trip seabirding trip to the south west was in order and so it was arranged with Liam that we'd spend a week down that end of the country. We had high hopes to say the least, expecting an exciting bird-filled trip. I arrived at St Ives on Sunday 5th and got comfortable in Liam's very handy and very comfortable flat there which overlooks the beach/sea (providing comfortable viewing for people with different interests).

Sunday evening we seawatched off St Ives, which was quiet but it was great to see lots of Manx Shearwaters and a Sunfish. The winds were looking to be north westerly for Monday and following the recommendations of countless birders I've encountered, we tried Pendeen. The road there almost seemed to be a popular furry suicide venue, with several rabbits dashing right in front of the car and the remains of a menagerie of critters littered along a particular stretch. Anyway, we got there and saw a couple of Sooty Shearwaters and Balearic Shearwaters and a Basking Shark. Nice but not particularly eventful.

Tuesday the winds had switched south westerly. Porthgwarra then. The road there was mildly daunting for me the first time but I soon got used to it. We put in a good ten hours and scraped two Great Shearwaters, a couple of Pomarine Skuas, a Balearic Shearwater, an Arctic Skua, a Puffin, a Razorbill, six Bonxies, and four Sooty Shearwaters at sea plus at least three Basking Sharks and a Sunfish. On land two Choughs were a rare treat and a study into the diet of a tame and hungry Herring Gull revealed that they far prefer Quavers to Jaffa Cakes, although they will attack the latter if presented belly-up.


The winds had become less favourable by the following day but we still gave it a (slightly briefer) shot at Porthgwarra. Three Balearics, three Sooties, three Puffins, four Storm Petrels, an Arctic Skua etc etc was the best of the sea. A few Wall butterflies grabbed my attention (being a new species for me) and I managed to get befriend a Banded Demoiselle which really liked my hand. There were a couple of Basking Sharks offshore. News of a Pectoral Sandpiper at Hayle Estuary had us heading there earlier than already planned, it showed pretty well with Dunlins and Ringed Plovers and a Med Gull a couple of Bar-tailed Godwits (including one in summer plumage) and several Whimbrels provided extra interest.

Pectoral Sandpiper

Thursday looked really naff for seabirds so we sat spent the morning on a bench before summoning up the energy to check out the valleys. From the bench we managed to spot a couple of Balearics and a Basking Shark. A Willow Warbler was the climax in terms of passerine migrants but we did stumble upon something very odd that we still can't figure. At one point we came across a pool surrounded at the back by a rather common and standard short green reed-like plant which right now I can't name. We kept hearing rather subdued clucking/mumbling call/noise thing coming from this vegetation so we walked around the edge to where it was coming from, in the process getting soaked almost to the knees in stinky stagnant water. We never saw what was making the noise but in the end there were two whatever-they-weres. The closest we got to a view was seeing a slow, steady and calm movement through the vegeation as something small moved through it. A bird? An amphibian? Something else? A quick look at the Hayle Estuary revealed a Med Gull and a couple of Whimbrels.

Friday: packed bags and got on the Scillonian from which we saw nothing but we teamed up with Jake and Cristian from Sussex, both top guys. We had a quick walk around once we'd landed but this didn't yield much at all. At 5.00pm we emarked on our first pelagic expedition from the quay at Hugh Town, apart from my first good views of Storm Petrels of the year and a small Blue Shark being landed (these were tagged then released as part of a conservation programme), this was a flop.

Saturday. This was when we went on the first of the birder special pelagics. The wind was blowing from the north west so expectations were relatively low but we still thought we'd see more than a Bonxie, a Common Scoter, a few Stormies, an Eider, a Med Gull and a Peregrine. A small pod of Risso's Dolphins were notable but ironically some of the greatest excitement was generated by two creatures more commonly associated with dry land than miles out into the Atlantic Ocean: a Reed Warbler and a Red-veined Darter. Both were tired migrants and landed on the boat for respite. The former ended up getting put in a plastic box and the latter flushed back across the sea. A Blue Shark or two caught.

Storm Petrel
Risso's Dolphin
Sunday was the best day, but only because two semi-scarce birds happened to perform particularly well. The first was a first-summer Pomarine Skua with gave the best views a healthy one could possibly give, flying feet above and around the boat amongst the gulls. Amazing stuff! The other was perhaps more impressive, being a Great Shearwater which spent a considerable amount of time circling the boat and dropping a few jaws. Also Storm Petrels, Bonxie, Blue Sharks, Sunfish etc (novelty wearing off on the fish...).

Great Shearwater

Uncropped - it was too close to fit the whole bird in at times!
Pomarine Skua
Blue Shark just before release, after being tagged; held by Joe Pender

Bob Flood mentioned another pelagic running on Monday at 5.00pm, half an hour after the boat I was booked on was due to depart. Having already invested an awful lot of time and money in getting Wilson's and/or Cory's, and envisaging the pager bleeping with Wilson's that evening in accordance with sod's law I decided to wrangle another day on the islands. As did Cristian, who paid a £10.00 amendment fee for the Scillonian; I called the same people in order to re-arrange and was asked to basically buy a new ticket for £43 or something (taking the piss!) so I pointed out that someone I was with 'only' paid £10.00 to change [still a rip-off]. I was charged £15.00 in the end.

So on Monday Jake, Liam, Cristian and I had a walk on St Mary's before J and L sailed away. The highlight of this walk was a pair of Pied Flycatchers at Porth Hellick. As I watched the Scillonian chug safely away to the mainland from the quay, and felt only a light south westerly breeze on my face, I began wondering whether I'd be happier on the ferry. Too late anyway and soon it was off on the extra pelagic. A couple of Sooty Shearwaters provided light initial excitement but soon it was down to small numbers of Storm Petrels, none sporting a toe-projection, and a couple of Manx Shears. It was pretty fun to watch a twelve year old kid get dragged around the boat about three times after getting a bite from a seven-and-a-half foot Blue Shark before finally getting it on the deck the best part of an hour later. We actually caught half a dozen or so sharks that evening. Almost worth the money.

Pied Flycatcher
 This Blue Shark was 7.5ft and dragged the 12-year-old that caught it around the boat about three times before finally being landed the best part of an hour later!

I looked forward to and enjoyed a casual walk around The Garrison and Penninis Head on Tuesday before heading at last to the mainland. I was so engrossed around the Pine Trail that I forgot to check the RBA app just in case anything had turned up (in classic Campbell style I stepped on my pager earlier in the week and burst the screen); when I did check I saw a message had been sitting about a Melodious Warbler at Penninis for some time so I headed over there, but didn't allow it to interrupt my Garrison walk. I got up there to see no bird and no birders, checked the app again and saw it had flown off. Bah! I was going to walk around Penninis anyway so that's what I did and I dug out a Pied Flycatcher and a Whinchat which was enough to keep me happy. Eventually, time for the boat arrived and Cristian, most of the other birders and myself were sailing away back to Penzance. A Balearic and a Sooty Shearwater were the highlights, plus small numbers of Manx Shearwaters and Storm Petrels.

A night in St Ives then back home. All in all a bit of a damp squib and I'm not sure I wanted almost all my savings going on the slim pickings we scraped out from the bottom of the barrel, guess I'll subject myself to it all again next year. I never don't enjoy myself when I'm birding and it could have been a lot quieter, plus Liam, Jake and Cristian were brilliant company and provided many laughs. If you are into sharks, you'd have had an amazing time with lots of Blue Sharks caught on the pelagics and Basking Sharks all the time off the Cornish coast. I was sick of Sunfish by the end of the holiday.