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And the CBWPS 1st Bird of Christmas is …
3. Black Redstart, with 33% of the vote. This was an excruciatingly close run thing, with 3 of the contenders swapping places and all being in the running almost up until the last moment. Any of the 3 could have won, perhaps the engaging pose or pin-sharp feather detailing of this familiar Cornwall visitor pulling the winner through in the end. Black Redstarts are an uncommon but regular winter visitor to the Cornish coastline; rocky beaches, cliffs and coastal town rooftops, with favoured locations holding multiple individuals of this enigmatic little bird. It’s continuously pumped rusty tail and regular sallies out for flying or stationary insects make it instantly recognisable, and a cracking male such as the one here could well be the visual highlight of any winter’s days birding.
The CBWPS 2nd Bird of Christmas
Day 2 sees No 7. Merlin taking the top spot. This was a bit of a non-contest from the start, this cracking little portrait of a female Merlin on the ground taking a whopping 72% of the vote. On the deck, close, and nicely framed, this is perhaps an atypical view of this regular but uncommon winter visitor and passage migrant, typically to be found on passage at coastal sites, and hunting passerines on moorland, coastal heath and occasionally the wilder agricultural stretches of the county. It is the smallest European bird of prey, with the UK population of c1100 pairs being boosted in the winter by birds from the Icelandic population.
The CBWPS 3rd Bird of Christmas is …
No.9, the Bullfinch, Pyrrhula pyrrhula takes the top spot in Day 3 of the voting, with 36% of the vote (10% more than the next most popular, the Reed Bunting) in what was a somewhat more even contest than the last. A common enough bird in Cornwall, although unobtrusive and easily overlooked in the summer, tending not to visit gardens and feeders as much as some other finch species. It can however be seen, or picked up on its subtle yet distinctive fluty whistle ‘peeww’, more often than Greenfinch these days, borne out by BTO data showing that it is on an upward trend. Pretty sure that if we didn’t have the Eurasian Robin to fill the spot, this would be the bird to adorn our Christmas cards!
The CBWPS 4th Bird of Christmas …
There was a clear favourite for day 4, with the Alpine Swift taking 48% of the vote, almost double that of the next placed contender. This great flight shot is also the first Cornwall Rarity to feature as a winner in our line-up. With 2 and then 3 confirmed together on the Lizard, and staying in the area for well over a week from the 5th April (although wide-ranging at times), these birds certainly proved popular earlier this spring. Prior to 2018 there were just 42 County records of this Southern Europe overshoot, being generally less than annual in recent years. Multiple birds together also being an atypical sighting in the UK. Weighing in at over 100 grams, the average Alpine is up to 2 and a half times heavier than the Common Swift, with up to a 50% greater wingspan.
And to the CBWPS 5th Bird of Christmas …
Day 5 saw a spirited competition for the lead between the two action photos in the set. The front runner, pipping the Red Kite/Crow combo in the end by a single vote, was however the action shot of 3 male and a female Shelduck, part of a flock of 42 which turned up in freshly tilled fields and subsequently at Chapel Amble near the Society Reserve of Walmsley Sanctuary on the 2nd of May this year. This unusual capture at an interesting angle shows another side to the species (the underside?); not the usual placid scene as normally encountered with distantly floating or waddling birds serenely crossing tidal mudflats in a Cornwall creek or tidal estuary.
Known for their interesting summer moult strategy, when the species congregates at a small number of key sites in Europe, including Bridgwater Bay in Somerset for a large percentage of the UK population, the species has shown a notable decline in recent years in Cornwall, down by over 20% between 2005 and 2014, with even sharper declines since, most notably with a dramatic drop in numbers on the Tamar Estuary in the far east of the County.
The CBWPS 6th Bird of Christmas …
sees this family group of Pied Wagtails (Motacilla alba) comfortably taking the lead, with 41% of the overall vote, 20% more than the following pack. A familiar bird in the UK throughout the year, it is notable as one of a small number of UK passerines to form communal roosts at night during the winter months, often in built up areas with extra lighting such as city centres and supermarket car parks. Most sizeable towns will have a roost site somewhere; large roosts in certain locations can be into four figures. The essentially local race Motacilla alba yarelli of Britain and Ireland (as distinct from the ‘White Wagtail’ (M.a.alba), found on the near-continent) numbers over 300,000 breeding pairs in the UK, with the Cornwall population thought to be stable at an estimated 1000 – 2500 pairs.
And into the second half of the year, the CBWPS 7th Bird of Christmas …
After an initial even spread of voting between all four contenders, the first of the Pacific Golden Plover photos pulled away in the end with 36% of the vote, perhaps the more classic (rather than action) pose helping it along, (although the latter providing a useful diagnostic view of the grey armpits to distinguish it from the black or white of the common UK Grey and Golden Plovers.)
Formerly known as ‘Lesser Golden Plover’ along with American Golden Plover, this is much the rarer bird of the two in the UK and County as a whole – surprisingly there were no records of the American (or AGP) this year in Cornwall.
Note the slimmer build and more extensive black on the breast sides in Pacific compared to Golden Plover (but less than in AGP), and the long notched tertials reaching almost to the tip of the tail, unlike in AGP or Golden, similar to the much more bulky Grey Plover.
This will be the 6th for Cornwall if accepted, with the last in July 2011 at Hayle, with 3 in the ‘90s (Oct – Nov 1999 at Culdrose Airfield, May 1998 at Sennen and August 1994, also at Hayle), with the first County Record being at Stithians Reservoir in November 1978.
This bird was first seen at St Gothian Sands on the morning of 30th June, before relocating to the Hayle Estuary later that day and still there the following day. A video of the bird can be seen on the website here: Pacific Golden Plover
The CBWPS 8th Bird of Christmas …
This compelling image of 2 Green Sandpipers on a private pond took the prize in the August slot with 56% of the vote – another clear favourite. Passage birds can turn up on almost any small piece of water such as village pond or sewage farm settling pool, small streams and waterways. They can also be seen annually in small numbers on reservoir margins and flooded fields such as at the Society’s Reserves of Walmsley, Drift and Stithians. As often picked up by its distinctive fluty alarm call as to be seen, its distinctive white rump is a good field mark in the field, distinguishing it from the Common Sandpiper, along with its very dark wings (considerably darker than the rarer Wood Sandpiper) – somewhat reminiscent of a large House Martin (but cleary not!). A small number overwinter in the UK, commonly at sewage farms or similar in Cornwall. A rare breeder in Scotland, first proven to breed in 1917, and with generally only a handful in any year since. It passes through Cornwall in greater numbers in the Autumn than Spring, with August being the peak month.
Moving on to the CBWPS 9th Bird of Christmas …
Day 9’s image of a Common Crane certainly captured the attention with a significant 69% of the vote. Its dancing courtship display is an iconic wildlife sight in the wilder reaches of North and Western Europe were it breeds, although in this case being mobbed by a Carrion Crow gives us this cracking action shot (or at least we assume that’s what is happening – it looks rather as if the Crow is the innocent party in all this) .
A classic sight in parts of Europe when the skeins move between their breeding grounds in the north and wintering sites in Spain and South West France giving their distinctive bugling call in huge overhead flocks, Common Cranes are becoming an increasingly common sight in the UK in recent years, although still something of a special experience. From three birds hidden away in Norfolk in the 1970’s, numbers have increased of late, with pairs having successfully bred as far away as Scotland and South Wales, with 3 pairs having successfully fledged young from the re-introduction scheme on the Somerset Levels this summer.
Still a rare bird in Cornwall, another was seen early in 2019 at Walmsley Sanctuary. Likely to become an increasingly familiar sight in the coming years? Don’t think anyone will complain.
The CBWPS 10th Bird of Christmas …
is the Red-throated Diver –this relatively close up shot is unusual in several respects – firstly Summer-plumaged Red-throated Divers are on the unusual side in Cornwall, although there does seem to be an increase in numbers generally in the east of the county and on passage in the last year or two. And this one was photographed from a kayak. Which perhaps explains why it is a nice close-up rather than of a distant bird half hidden behind rolling grey waves under storm laden-grey skies (think – typical seawatching conditions), or more likely perhaps, not even photographable at all.
The Red-throated Diver, Gavia stellata is the least numerous of the three commoner UK species in Cornish waters; with a UK wintering population estimated at 17,000 only a couple hundred at the most are generally seen off Cornwall annually. A distinctive distinguishing feature of birds on the sea is that the neck tends to rise straight out of the water, as opposed to having a prominent round bulge on the water line as in the Black-throated and Great Northern Diver (akin perhaps to the bulbous bow seen at the prow of some ships); the thinnner ‘tip-tilted’ bill is another good feature to look out for.
It is also the smallest of the 5 species found worldwide (all of which have been seen in Cornwall on the same day on a very few rare occasions).
This pic took the lead with 42% of the vote, interestingly beating the Grey Catbird, with 29%, into second place by a comfortable margin.
The CBWPS 11th Bird of Christmas …
This Firecrest was a clear winner on Day 11, taking a disproportionate 47% of the vote from its fellow much larger competitors. This feisty little bird takes its name from the central crown stripe which both sexes share; the male however has the more fiery red, with the female having a more subdued yellow. Both sexes can raise their crest when alarmed, in courtship or in aggressive encounters, and when glimpsed on an otherwise half-hidden bird in heavy foliage can be really something to behold!
Aside the crown stripe and distinct ‘Mascara and white supercilium’ facial pattern, the Firecrest is quite a beautiful little winter gem of a bird, with dark green mantle, bronze shoulder patches and bright yellow feet. Along with the Goldcrest this bird holds the distinction of being the UK’s smallest bird, at around half the weight of the much stockier Wren.
And so to the Final CBWPS 12th Bird of Christmas …
And the final days bird. This was a rather close run thing with the Temminck’s Stint just taking it in the end from the maybe just-not-quite-as-cute Red-rumped Swallow. A rare bird in Cornwall, with 38 records prior to this one, and less than annual in recent years, this bird at Stithians Reservoir proved pretty popular with birders at the tail end of the Autumn this year. Breeding on the tundra, the majority of the European breeders occur in European Russia, with the majority of UK records occurring in late spring as opposed to the autumn, and showing a distinct east coast bias.
Superficially resembling a miniature Common Sandpiper with its white ‘shoulders’ and mousey grey colouration, this is one of the smallest waders occurring in the British Isles, barely the size of a Pied Wagtail, and told from the more frequent Little Stint by its shorter yellowish legs and longer wings amongst other features. Its methodical crouching feeding method, on bent legs, and slowly creeping along the shoreline or in muddy wet fields where it picks at small invertebrates on the surface is also quite distinctive. This bird perhaps surprised everyone by continuing to stay on into the winter, and then relocating to Chapel Amble, some 30 miles to the North East at the turn of the year.
So that is the 12 Birds of Christmas finally completed! There were a number of very closely fought contests, and also a number of clear outright winners. It is highly unlikely that anyone could have chosen them all as they turned out here, but certainly we have a great representative selection of the birds seen in Cornwall in 2018. It is perhaps a testament to the quality and variety of the images that every single one of the 48 received at least one or more votes! Keep sending in your records and photos of birds in 2019, and perhaps we will repeat a similar competeition in a years time or so. And now, nearly time to sort out an overall winner for the year …
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