Friday 11 November 2022

Ichos in Cornwall - 23rd-27th August 2021

     15 months later...

    At the end of 2020, myself, Joe Parham, Isaac West and Luke Marriner made a new twitter account called 'Ichos,' meaning sound in Greek. Our aim was to create a fairly easy way for people to learn more about birdsound identification and, hopefully, appreciate sound more. Long story short, it started really successfully, we ought to tweet more again, but by late winter 2021, we'd booked a holiday away to Cornwall for the summer. So a day after Luke's 17th, I found myself travelling across London and then Wiltshire to be picked up by the other 3. After ring-reading gulls in the Chippenham station car park, scopes and all, we began the first leg of our journey, using Ham Wall RSPB as a pit stop. The highlights of the hour and half we gave ourselves there were a few Great White Egret, Bearded Tit and Marsh Harrier, as well as decent numbers of warblers including Garden, Willow and Sedge. Luke (dead seriously) assuming Joe was stringing Snipe, an hour after meeting him for the first time, also aptly previewed what to expect for the rest of the week. 

GWE Ham Wall

    As luck would have it, the day before a Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin had been found on the Lizard, being a short detour in the grand scheme of things. Not only is it the 10th British record and second in 3 years in the UK, but it's also ended up being somewhat of an 'unknown specimen,' with DNA showing it to be 2% different to any other scrub robin documented so far. This was good incentive for all of us, especially for Isaac given he was driving us and was getting twitchy enough to be as impatient as necessary. Fortunately for us, there was much less by way of traffic than we expected, and so we reached Coverack, on the east of the lizard, at around 5pm. It took us a little while to actually leave town - first Isaac's car nearly went for a a little swim much to the amusement of the locals, then we got distracted by gulls and turnstones on the seafront (Med Gulls are always worth it.) We then began the 2.5 mile trudge to where the scrub robin was, a walk producing few migrant birds otherwise, though Joe did have a slightly questionable Great Skua offshore, which the rest of us failed to connect with. 


Isaac helpfully pointing out the Scrub Robin

    Now don't get me wrong - the Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin is by no means the best looking rarity we'll ever see. What I've really learnt about twitching rare birds though is that some of the best rarities can be seen in pretty grim places/terrible views etc, whereas some less good ones can have quality associating memories with them. Fair to say that the scrub robin was perhaps more in the latter category, even if I personally found it to be quite a cool-looking bird. As we approached the area it had been in - a scenic area in itself - we were directed by birders to walk slowly and so we did. What none of us were expecting nor will forget any time soon was having this small bird zip past and around us, only to land on the ground and then a post about 2 metres from where we were stood. 'Showing well' was an understatement when Luke at one point could touch it if he wanted to - we gradually backed off and the bird continued to stare at us, refusing to budge at all. It was a special twitch, shared in the company of Ichos and a crowd which included Beddington birder Duncan. We watched the bird for as long as possible, before it disappeared down a track not to be seen again, forcing us to walk back, ending in the dark (it was still productive - we had our first Choughs, Manx Shearwaters, Sandwich Terns and Kittiwakes of the trip.) We safely got to Penzance Youth Hostel at around 10. 

Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin - the Lizard











 The last anyone saw of it - hopefully departed overnight, rather than run over...


The next morning saw us up at about 6am, and after a brief necessary stop at a drive-through Costa, we arrived at Pendeen lighthouse armed with coffees and brioches (Isaac consumed more of these than I've ever consumed before) to join the legend that is Charlie Muprhy for our first full day of birding. The first what, 10 minutes of seawatching? set us up with plenty of false optimism for the week, with literally the first bird in Isaac's scope being a Sooty Shearwater. I hadn't even set my own scope up by this point, and was in no rush to, thinking there'd be plenty more Sooty Shears over the course of the week. I only got on one of the 3, for about 3 seconds, that we did get that day, and funnily enough the entire week. Classic...

Otherwise, the seawatch was 'quiet' yet still relaxed and enjoyable, just how I like it. Balearic Shearwaters were the highlight, a lifer too, with 26 noted over the course of the morning, mixed in with the 000s of Manx Shearwaters. Other seabirds included 2 Arctic Skua, 35 Fulmar, 40 Kittiwake and 2 Common Scoter, which was by no means terrible. In addition to more Choughs - which we continued to see at about 80% of locations - other highlights included a light bit of vismig, with a few dozen hirundines + 4 Wheatear arriving in on the rocks.

male Wheatear

Mid-morning saw us preparing for our first day of bush-bashing. Our grand plan was however quickly thwarted by a Melodious Warbler being found as we were driving past Land's End - a convenient twitch, which involved a bit of patience, stringing farmyard ducks into a singing Melod (does not get better than that) and Luke shouting 'big yellow bird' when he located the bird. It was a successful little twitch in the end, enjoyed in the company of Choughs, Green Sandpiper, Tree Pipits and more. Not too shabby a start...

Melodious Warbler, Land's End







The next stop was Porthgwarra. After lunch and realising the light was terrible for looking at the sea, we moved straight on to scrub a few hundred metres from the sea and situated in a valley. It was tough going at first apart from good numbers of warbers and Wheatears nearby, but eventually things started to pop up. Our first Pied Flycatchers of the trip were found, flitting about low in vegetation, only showing occasionally. We were pretty satisfied with these - while it felt perfect for a Wryneck or Melodious etc, we reminded ourselves patience was key and we'd started well. A thought to remember that one. Following a few hours here, we returned to a very quiet yet stunningly serene Pendeen for the evening, where a Great Skua was seen. 

Pied Flycatcher, Porthwarra


Golden-ringed Dragonfly - beauts


We were treated to some serious sunsets...


    The second morning saw us arrive at Pendeen at a little after 6am. I reckon this was my favourite morning of seawatching, though we had nothing especially 'rare.' The highlight was probably a Marsh Harrier, which appeared from the South and headed straight out off to sea - given they're not the easiest to see in Cornwall, where the bird came from and where it was headed was for us all to imagine. Not something we expected on a seawatch, yet one that got us all a bit excited. Wader passage was also pleasing to see - just under 10 each of Sanderling, Golden Plover, Turnstone and Redshank were observed. Whilst seabirds were again decent, with 3 Bonxies, 10 Med Gulls, dozens of Kittiwakes and 8000+ Manxies joined by 47 Balearics, this being an improvement on the day before. Another highlight was having 2 Willow Warbler come in off the sea and briefly perch under another birder's chair, before heading inland. So special is migration sometimes...

Marsh Harrier

Turnstones and Golden Plover

Once again, the agenda was bush bashing for migrants in as many valleys as we could muster in the time we had. The first valley we opted to visit was Kenidjack Valley, a place which had a good reputation for pulling in decent birds. We had several hours there in lovely late summer sunshine. Birds seen on the track down to the sea included 2 more Pied Flycatcher at least, 6 Tree Pipit, Spotted Flycatchers, various phyllosc warblers and yet more Chough. A butterfly lifer was a nice little self-find, as at least a dozen Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries were sunning themselves alongside the river there. The next valley we checked was Nanquidno, where apart from more Pied Flycatcher (in the trees next to the car conveniently) and fritillaries, all was quite quiet. Unsurprising given the time of day.

Tree Pipits

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries





Pied Flycatcher

Wall Brown, Nanquidno - always smart

Looking back, Wednesday was actually our most productive and adventurous day. Our evening task was Nightjars, as Joe - in all his laziness - not actually seen them before. On route to the location given to us, we stopped at Stithians Reservoir, which had been pulling in some decent birds at the time. It was a very worthwhile stop, as an hour in the hide rewarded us with Little Stint (lifer for Isaac,) Wood Sandpiper and Garganey. The juvenile Little Stint was particularly dapper, even if distant. We then ended the evening very well. After meeting with Calum Mckellar, who'd been chased by cows and all in his efforts to see us (strange amount of dedication to see us really,) we had yet another Pied Flycatcher which Luke nearly took a leak on, post-breeding families of Spotted Flycatchers, more Chough, Tawny Owl and as hoped for, several Nightjar. I'll never tire of seeing and hearing them - churring is awesome, flight calls are underrated, just all round quality birds. 

Wood Sandpiper, Stithians

Cormorants (+ juv Little Stint)


Little Stint



Our last full day in Cornwall was spent doing much the same as the other days. Lack of sleep was starting to catch up with us as well, so I think we were in need of a bit more time taking it chilled. Upon arrival at Pendeen, we realised it was freezing, far colder than the summer weather we'd brought gear for. For the second morning in a room, Charlie saved me and Joe, delivering us coffee to warm and cheer us up. What a man!

In terms of birds, we reached a high count of 56 Balearic Shearwaters, which was definitely a highlight again. Sometimes people say things are 'educational' as a substitute for having a rubbish birding session - I find this quite funny most of the time. In this case however, it was genuinely educational, as we did learn a lot about Balearic behaviour and vibes as much as distinct ID features. Some moderate (10 Whimbrel, 18 Turnstone and Sanderling apiece etc) wader passage kept it lively, as did a fly-through juvenile Yellow-legged Gull. In-off birds always give me a thrill - a juvenile Wheatear which bounded in over the sea and up the rocks beside us was just another reminder that migration is awesome...

Manx Shearwaters and a Balearic


Spot the Bal

Migrants were thin on the ground for the most part - ie, still no Wryneck etc. A mystery strange wader kept us interested at Levant Mines, a site that we bet was also underwatched with good potential. At least 7 Whinchat, 21 Wheatear and 4 Tree Pipit were noteworthy, accompanied by small numbers of moving hirundines and warblers. [We saw 0 Redstart on the entire trip, worth mentioning that.] The lads also kept themselves amused by togging Linnets (have got video evidence.) The rest of the day, until the evening, was once again highlighted by Pied Flycatchers, a bird I personally love. This was one bird we had no problem finding (even Joe) - I went from having seen one in the UK, to about 15 over the course of the week. It was a personal trip highlight having to convince ourselves that there were even 3 in our youth hostel car park, and that the calls were not in fact coming from a Blackbird. 


Pied Flycatcher, Kenidjack



Rock Pipit

Joe wanted to share his linnet photo

By the evening, we were unsurprisingly shattered, and opted for some down time at Pendeen - downtime, apart from when Luke and Isaac ambitiously attempted a grand Firecrest twitch, for a bird Charlie had had nearby 12 hours earlier. The highlight was otherwise a Purple Sandpiper on the rocks offshore - an impressive spot by Luke, and one that got Charlie running (honestly not a clue if he saw it, he got there basically in the dark.) Though there were some other decent birds around too, like Arctic Skua and seabirds, what made the evening was being able to chill somewhere like there. Words not needed, just look at this picture perfect sunset. Man I love the coast...

First light...

... vs last light

So good


The end was near...

Our final morning followed the routine set by more or less every day prior. A very quiet Pendeen saw us leave here earlier than usual, with too few birds moving on the sea for us to feel our last hours in Cornwall would be worthwhile if spent there. We decided that, instead, we'd finally get Charlie his Pied Flycatcher, as he'd not managed any while on his family holiday. Kenidjack provided Pied Fly , as expected, as well as an unexpected and somewhat amusing encounter with a juvenile Green Woodpecker. After being taken by a Sparrowhawk, it's shrieking was audible at some distance, until it eventually, somehow, managed to escape into some long grass by the road. Within about 10 minutes of encouragement, it was happy to overcome the shock of the sprawk situation and get going again. Respect to the bird to be fair, we thought it had no chance!

juvenile Wheatear


Shocked Green Wood

Our Cornwall adventures finished at Levant Mines, in a last ditch effort to find something scarce. Bar showy Chough and a Willow Warbler searching for an uber, little was seen here, bar the usual small numbers of migrants. Admittedly, by this point, we were shattered and hoping that traffic back wouldn't be horrific. We were wrong, traffic was a nightmare. It did give me and Joe a good chance to have a nap, and stop me feeling too miserable about leaving. 

So, trip summary. We'd failed to find any sort of sought for rare or scarce bird, leaving us a tinyyyy bit disappointed (easterlies meant everything was on the east coast, bad luck...) However, the trip was absolutely quality, for non-bird related reasons as much as the birding (3 lifers.) Mentally, it did unimaginable good for me personally. Spending time with a cracking group of people somewhere like Cornwall was exactly what I needed - it's gotta be one of my favourite UK coastlines. The sea, weather and scenery we had was the most perfect way for my summer trips to come to a close. A summer return to Cornwall is a must in the future. A final thanks to the guys for the company and entertainment, especially Isaac for driving us down so well!