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Sunday, 30 August 2009

A classic seawatch of Bridges proportions - but off West Cornwall !!


On Thursday evening, I was in a dilemma. I had driven from my home in Buckinghamshire to see a WRYNECK at Witley Reservoir (Gloucs) and a near-adult SABINE'S GULL at Upton Warren Flashes Pool (Worcs) and knew full well that a good seawatch was on the cards should the wind go roiund.

After observing the Sab's as it went to roost, I contacted an array of Cornish birders to solicit opinion on what to do. After all, being on the M5, it made far more sense to drive straight down. The weather forecast was for strong winds and a deep depression moving in overnight and Cornwall was going to take the brunt. Frustratingly, the latest shipping forecast was stating WSW 7, occasionally gusting 9 - a wind direction not necessarily that good for Pendeen Watchpoint. I discussed the conditions at great length with both Chris Batty and John Swann, the two of them going to great lengths to trawl the internet for further updates. By 2100 hours, I had almost made my mind up but one last call to Falmouth Coastguards swayed my decision - their latest forecast was suggesting a WNW wind overnight veering NW by day and strengthening to force 7-9 by early afternoon - a classic forecast. The swell was also estimated to be in the region of 16-22 feet.

So that was it. I continued down the M5, on to the A30 and into Cornwall. By the time I reached Marazion it was 1am and walking around the Penzance Tesco car park in the early hours, I was worried I had made the wrong decision (it was relatively calm and incredibly starlit). However, sleeping at Pendeen soon made me realise that the forecasters had got it right - by 0300 hours, the wind was gusting gale force and WAS WNW in direction.

Daybreak Friday dawned shortly after 0615 hours and within 15 minutes, 11 of us were in position on the 'concrete pad' including Cornish seawatching stalwarts and good friends Brian Mellow, Pete Maker, Steve Rogers and Royston Wilkins. I had only set my 'scope up on the rocks for a few seconds before I noticed 'good' birds - two 'flocks' of SOOTY SHEARWATERS totalling 9 birds and a very close GREAT SHEARWATER. It sure was going to be a good day !!

Within the next half hour I was joined by 40 or so birders, predominantly of local origin, including John Swann, Linton Proctor, Steve Votier, Mike Langman, Mark Darlaston, Brian Field, Martin Elliott and Geoff Wyatt.

(Seawatching from 0620 through 1820 hours; WNW 7-8 veered NW 8 moderating to NW 6 by evening with excellent visibility and occasional showers) (all passage to the west)

The following species were recorded -:

Northern Fulmar (243, many in heavy wing moult)
CORY'S SHEARWATER (2 west, with singles at 0806 and midday)
GREAT SHEARWATER (7 west - following the first very close in at 0625, further singles followed at 0930,1139, 1154, 1211, 1237 - another very close in, and 1707 - the closest yet, in the surf in front of the rocks).
**NORTH ATLANTIC LITTLE SHEARWATER (0947-0953 - initially picked up by Linton Proctor as it was overtaken by other seabirds in the close 'Manx line' of movement. I got on to it almost straight away followed by Royston Wilkins and others as it negotiated the huge swell. A very striking bird with a 'Common Sandpiper-like' flight action, gleaming white underparts and very black on the upperparts. Its predominantly white head was held straight or peculiarly upwards with the white on the underwing extending far out on to the under-primaries, almost restricting the black to the tips. I concentrated on the upper wing in the 'scope and could make out a silvery-grey panel on the inner section of the wing and as a single Manx joined it, the shorter tail, blacker plumage and underwing contrast was noticeable. It was a much smaller bird, more compact in structure and had very oddly-shaped wings - in fact it reminded me of Common Sandpiper. It was repeatedly fluttering its tail feathers and trawling the surface and eventually landed on the sea. On the water, I targeted the head pattern - the face was strikingly white and contrasting heavily with an isolated dark, beady eye. It kept holding its head up in a very odd fashion and at times was quite auk-like. I lost it in the huge swell on the sea but shortly later it took flight again and Linton and others followed it as it flew further west and eventually disappeared around the wall for us. Sadly, despite the fact that I shouted a loud running commentary on what exactly the bird was doing and where, surprisingly few others were able to get on to it in the seven minutes it was on view).
Manx Shearwater (9,040 including some in heavy moult and others with white on the upperwing)
BALEARIC SHEARWATER (93 west including many pale variants)
**YELKOUAN SHEARWATER (an apparent Yelkouan flew west at 1058 hours. I initially thought Herald Petrel when I picked it up as it was surprisingly small but it had typical Balearic-like brownish upperparts but incredible gleaming white underparts all the way down to the undertail-coverts. There was a thin dark line on the underwing contrasting with the white underwing and some brown staining on the rear flanks. Although we saw much variation in the large number of Balearic Shearwaters that were passing including a rather high percentage of pale birds, none had the appearance of this startlingly obvious individual. I have never seen a Balearic with such white underparts like Manx)
SOOTY SHEARWATER** (a record Cornwall movement with outstanding passage, including regular flocks. I click-counted an exceptional 394 birds)
EUROPEAN STORM PETREL (just 9 flew west; two were seen feeding on a dead Harbour Porpoise)
**WILSON'S STORM PETRELS (2 flew west and I managed to miss both of them, despite one being tracked for the best part of 10 minutes - Pendeen is one frustrating seawatching locality - the first at 0930 (Steve Votier, Mike Langman, Mark Darlaston) and another at 1640 (Steve Rogers, Royston Wilkins, Brian Mellow, et al).
Northern Gannet (10,300+ west, with very few juveniles)
European Shag (15)
Common Scoter (3 west; 2 drakes)
Turnstone (1)
Whimbrel (3)
GREY PHALAROPES (following the first at 1335, a further 7 was seen by 1820, including some showing well in the surf)
RED-NECKED PHALAROPE (a typically dark and very small juvenile sat on the sea just beyond the rocks and flew along relatively close inshore at 1626 hours. In flight, it had a very thin white wing-bar, a small head with a black crown and very dark mantle and back)
GREAT SKUA (38 west including an equal proportion of adults and juveniles; no 'collared' birds were seen)
POMARINE SKUA (1 superb pale morph adult still with 'spoons' flew west at 1241)
Kittiwake (just 3 - 2 adults and a juvenile)
**SABINE'S GULLS (summer-plumaged adults still retaining black hoods west at 0915, 1035, 1130 and 1759, with two together at 1145 - 6 in total)
Sandwich Tern (1)
ARCTIC TERN (58 west)
BLACK TERN (1 west, in with 4 Arctic Terns)
Auk spp (2)

COMMON RAVEN (pair flew west)
Northern Wheatear (1 on cliff edge)

Ocean Sunfish (1+)
Basking Shark (1)