Dawn Marsh Harrier

Dawn Marsh Harrier

Monday, 29 August 2016

Playing Scilly Buggers. 19th - 21st August

An overnight drive down to Penzance with Ephraim, destination Isles of Scilly for a spot of pelagic birding. First stop in the sat-nav was Perranthnoe for a crack at the long lingering Hudsonian Whimbrel in Boat Cove. A short wait for dawn to break and we made our way down the track towards the beach. The ghostly figure of a Barn Owl spiriting it's way through the half light was a perfect start but alas the 3 whimbrel in the cove all proved to be white rumpers. We had a ferry to catch so had to admit defeat on that one.

A word of advice for anyone planning to do this trip - book your long stay car parking in Penzance in advance. I left it until I arrived and not to put too fine a point on it, it was a right bloody palava. Anyway, we just about boarded the Scillonian in time where we met up with Rob Stonehouse who was sharing accommodation with us on St Marys. Singles of Corys, Great and Sooty Shearwater plus a Storm Petrel on the crossing got us off to a flying start, excuse the pun. There were also good numbers of Manx Shearwaters and a leaping Ocean Sunfish to enjoy.

Friday morning dawned bright and breezy and a stroll up to Porth Hellick provided nice views of a selection of waders on the Higher Moors. The pick of the bunch were 2 stunning Wood Sandpipers.

Wood Sandpiper
Green Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
Water Rail

A trek up to the Garrison in the afternoon was made worthwhile by a fairly obliging Icterine Warbler.

So far so good then and the main objective still to come. We were off out to sea aboard the 'Sapphire' for the evening, hoping for good views of the large Shearwaters. By this time the stiff breeze of the day had developed into gales, just as the forecast had predicted and the sea it was a- raging. But this was no tourist's cruise. This was a hardcore birding trip and for anyone prepared to brave the 6m swell it was game on. And it was quite some experience out there. A white knuckle ride the likes of which you'd queue for hours for at Alton Towers. But thanks to the skills and know-how of Joe at the helm, we all survived to tell the tale. A tale that included stonking views of Great and Corys Shearwaters, showing off their skills to the max as they sheared their way through waves as high as a house. These birds were literally in their element out there and it was a real privilege to be amongst them, like guests in their world. We returned to terra firma saturated to the bone but beaming.

Corys Shearwater

Great Shearwater

Great Skua
Manx Shearwater

Saturday morning and it was back out for more of the same. We set sail at 08.00am and the wind was still howling and the sea was still growling. The Shearwaters were still performing and this time they were joined by their diminutive cousins. Storm Petrels. Lots of Storm Petrels, demonstrating how they got their name. As they hurtled, turbo charged around the bouncing boat it was like trying to photograph swifts from the back of a bucking bronco, but it was fun and I only had to delete about 99.9% of my efforts.

Storm Petrels

Like many people on the trip, the bird I realistically hoped to see most was Wilsons Petrel. A couple of guys were telling us at breakfast that this was their 7th year of trying to get a glimpse of this rare gem, without success so far, so probably best not to get my hopes up too much. So cue adrenaline rush when the call of "Wilsons!!! Starboard!!!" went up. I frantically scoured with my bins as people gave a commentary of the bird flying directly away from us and getting increasingly hard to pick out in the waves. Alas it was gone and I missed it. I'd had my chance and blown it. As I sat bemoaning my luck and seeking consolation with others who'd failed to connect, another shout of "Wilsons in the wake!!!" had me running and clambering like a man on a mission to the back of the boat. "Behind the Gannet" someone helpfully shouted, and oh joy of joys, there it was. The holy grail. Wilsons Petrel.

Wilsons Petrel

I was now a happy man indeed, and as Joe cranked up the motor to move off we were joined by not one but two Wilsons that flew alongside the boat for a brief finale. What a great day in the very wild Atlantic.

Eager for more, we were back on board the Sapphire at 08.00am the next morning. The stormy winds had finally blown themselves out overnight and the sea had calmed to a bit choppy rather than ferocious. This meant we were able to go further out and drift around 7 miles south of the islands. Buckets of chum went in off the side of the boat, which soon attracted the attention of a Blue Shark. I'd been really hoping to see one of these sleek and magnificent fish on this trip, and there was one swimming right below me and showing well.

In fact 3 of these beautiful predators were caught tagged and released as part of an important conservation research project, so I was able to get up very close and personal with them.

Storm Petrels soon joined us in good numbers to mop up our free offerings.

More big Shearwaters....

Corys Shearwater

and small shearwaters....

Manx Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

Great and Long Tailed Skuas....


Long Tailed Skua

....and of course Fulmar and Gannets aplenty



....and for good measure, as we headed back to St Marys we were joined by a Yellow Legged Gull

Yellow Legged Gull

A celebratory steak and a couple of beers in the Scillonian club rounded off an absolutely brilliant few days. Big thanks to Bob, Ashley and Joe for getting us out there and amongst the birds in such adverse conditions. There was a great atmosphere on the boat each day with a bunch of friendly birders all enjoying a fantastic experience. What a great trip.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Beauty and the Beast

I got a phone call from Brendan last Friday morning. He'd got the madcap notion of driving through the night to the far flung tip of Cornwall to see a Pelican. For a moment I didn't believe he was serious but he was. Like most people I've seen Pelicans before at the zoo. Like most people I've walked past them with little more than a cursory glance as they're just brutishly ugly monstrosities that engulf bucket loads of fish. There was little evidence to suggest that this Cornish individual was any more a genuine vagrant than the ones I've largely ignored at the zoo and yet Brendan seemed to think it was a good idea to to get up in the middle of the night and drive the best part of 300 miles in the hope of getting distant views of one on a reservoir. A truly absurd idea!!!

So needless to say, I met up with Brendan, Chris and Dave a little before 02.30am and we embarked on the long journey South-West. By 07.15 we were parked in a layby looking down over Drift Reservoir just outside Penzance. No sign of any abominable beast bird from here so we drove a little further up the lane to the next pull in where we could see further up the arms of the reservoir. Immediately we could see a large pale shape on the far bank. A large pale shape which became a huge ugly Dalmation Pelican when viewed through the bins.

Note the diminutive looking Grey Heron to the right for size comparison.

After a good preen to make sure it was looking it's best, our lumbering leviathan took to the water.

A clearly freaked out swan launched an attack on it, causing it to flap across the water with all the grace of a stricken airliner.

It was amazing to watch it fishing in as much as it was amazing it managed to catch any fish. Stealth and speed of strike were clearly not the technique as it clumsily flapped and lunged, but catch fish it did.

It eventually drifted into a bay closer to us offering slightly better views before disappearing behind a reed bed.

So the beast was in the bag and some beauty was called for. On the way home was Devon and in Devon there are Cirl Buntings. I recon Mother Nature had a hangover from hell the day she created the poor old Pelican but her inspirational juices were certainly flowing when she produced the Cirl Bunting. A pit stop in Penzance to refuel the car and a nice healthy birders breakfast at McDonalds and we were back on the road. A small detour off the A30 took us to Labrador Bay and just yards from the car park we were soon drooling over crippling views of these little stunners.

Gloriously coloured, testosterone pumped males sang for the females and didn't seem to object to us admiring the performance at all. All this plus an ice cream van in the car park. What more could you want.

So thanks to Brendan and his mad ideas, a great day out was had by all. And whilst I'm on the subject of thanking Brendan, what a sterling bit of driving to Cornwall and back in a day. That job lot of Monster certainly came in handy.