Cornwall Birds: Review of 2018

First Winter Period

The New Year got off to a relatively quiet start, with a number of lingering birds still remaining in the county from 2017. Among the most popular were the 3 Surf Scoter at Porthpean, two immature males and a female providing nice views in the sheltered bay throughout the winter, until 19th April. They were joined by a couple of smart Long-tailed Ducks and a single Velvet Scoter, with decent numbers of Black-necked Grebes, Black-throated Diver, Slavonian & Red-necked Grebes and Red-breasted Mergansers also loitering along the South coast bays.

Pacific Diver, Mashuq Ahmad

The much rarer Pacific Divers both returned to Gerrans Bay and Mount’s Bay and were popular with yearlisters across the nation, but were much harder to see and often very distant. The latter Pacific Diver is now at least 12 years old, and has been delighting birders almost every winter since its arrival in 2007. Another returning bird, the drake Lesser Scaup also lingered, around Dozmary Pool and nearby lakes with a handful of its commoner relative, the Greater Scaup, dotted around familiar sites. Green-winged Teals, another American vagrant, were also present with a bird at Wilcove and presumably a different bird briefly at Walmsley Sanctuary. A couple of Whooper Swans and White-fronted Geese, as well as other commoner wildfowl, had also lingered from 2017, and continued to please birders around their wetland locations.

Cattle Egrets continued their invasion of Cornwall, with high counts of 42 on the Gannel, with their larger relative, the Great White Egret putting in a prolonged appearance at Stithians Reservoir. A Glossy Ibis spent the early winter on the Tamar, with a single Bittern seen intermittently at Marazion Marsh. White-winged Gulls put in a good performance, with double figures of both Iceland and Glaucous Gulls easily reached.

Great White Egret, John St Ledger

A couple of Caspian Gulls were seen at classic gull watching sites and there was a popular Ring-billed Gull at Newquay boating lake, along with a couple others dotted around the county. Aside from the brief excitement of a possible Audouin’s Gull around Newquay (which could well have been an aberrant red-billed Herring Gull, with one of these seen in the county around the same time), it fell to American Herring Gull to be the rarest gull on offer – a first winter briefly on Hayle 18th  February. Little Auk, Pomarine Skua and Great Skua were also seen off seawatches around the county.

Moving onto passerines and it was Hawfinch that stole the show. After an unprecedented influx in 2017, a few flocks remained into 2018, with sites like Egloshayle and Feock proving very popular. At least 5 Richard’s Pipits also remained into 2018, with a good showing of Water Pipit too – at least 15 together at Chapel Amble. Bunting-wise, it was good news for Cirl Bunting with a continued increase, but less good news for Corn Bunting. With the removal of the favoured hedgerows, numbers of this declining passerine continued to slump at the main site of Trevose, but birds reported further along the coast do provide some hope for their future in Cornwall. Four Lapland Buntings were seen (Lizard and 3 at Trevose) with a Little Bunting present at Nanjizal on 9th March, though it may have wintered on-site. A Rose-coloured Starling was recorded once, on the 2nd January from Mullion, with a similarly brief Ring Ouzel at Restronguet being a surprise and a very rare wintering record. Small numbers of Black Redstart, Yellow-browed Warbler and Lesser Redpoll could also be found around the county.

16th February provided the date of the first clearly new rarity of 2018, a popular White-billed Diver found originally off Mousehole, later floated slightly further into the bay during it’s 5 day stay. On the day of the find, it was possible to see all 5 species of Divers in the world within the space of one bay, with Pacific and Great Northern in the same place and both Red-throated and Black-throated seen at nearby Marazion. Aside from the aforementioned AHG and GWT, it was slow going for new birds until early trickles of spring came along, but even that would have to wait for a rather extreme weather event…. Down came the so-called ‘beast from the east’, the most significant snow in Cornwall for well over 10 years. It pushed vast numbers of winter birds back down into the county, with many hundreds/thousands of Lapwing, Golden Plover, Redwing and Fieldfare being forced back west as well as a few Snipe, Jack Snipe and Woodcock – many turning up in unusual locations. Once this cleared it was roll on spring. 12th March produced the first Sand Martin, with Ring Ouzel 4 days later and Swallow on the 17th. Wheatears appeared first on 13th, with Willow Warbler on 27th and even an early Common Tern making it on the 17th. Hoopoe was the only county rarity in amongst the bunch of migrants, with a fairly popular bird seen in a garden nearby St Buryan on 18th and 19th. But before winter finished, we had to endure ‘beast from the east 2’, a smaller version of the former but nonetheless another ground covering snow flurry. This was bad timing for all the early returning migrants, with many unfortunately suspected have starved in the storm. This was especially bad for Dartford Warbler, with numbers significantly down on previous years. It did, however, make for some very rare photos of Cornish Hoopoe in the snow!

Hoopoe with snow - Tony Mills

Spring

With the snow now gone, it was time for some warmer weather, and a nice selection of new birds to arrive…Ospreys arrived on 3rd April, with Garden Warbler on 25th and Pied Flycatcher on 11th. The first Hobby and Tree Pipits came in on the 19th, followed by Garganey on 21st, Whinchat on 29thand Turtle Doves on the 8th May. Amongst the arriving regular migrants, there is more often than not something slightly rarer. Another possible Audouin’s Gull in Mount’s Bay on 8th May would have been very popular but sadly a boat-only sighting left the bird untwitchable. First up, 5th April was the arrival date of 3 Alpine Swift on the Lizard peninsula, which showed very well, often just metres above the heads of admirers and they stayed for an abnormally long time for this species (until 21st).

Alpine SwiftA bit more elusive but still long-staying was a Purple Heron found at Marazion Marsh RPSB on 14th April, staying until 3rd May. Subalpine Warblers also arrived in April, one found in the Kynance area on 16th with one at Porthgwarra on 18th (as well as another Eastern bird later – 2nd June at Nanjizal). A brief Ring-necked Duck, not too common in spring, stayed a day at Par Beach Pool on 17th, possibly a bird migrating north from further south.

Bonaparte's Gull, Alex Meckechnie

Another popular April bird arrived soon after, freshly in from America, was a cracking summer plumaged adult Bonaparte’s Gull on the Hayle Estuary from 19th to 23rd April. A Curlew Sandpiper was new in on 24th, lingering for a day on the Tamar Complex, and a Black Kite arrived soon after (26th) with numerous reports until 12th June, however none were pinned down for the masses. 2018 was a good year for Iberian Chiffchaff; with four found from April onwards – Gorran Haven, Chapel Porth, Hayle and Polgigga – many singing for long periods. As many as 12 Hoopoes also pleased observers throughout April, as well as about 8 Little Terns, and a surprise Green-winged Teal turned up on 25th April at Land’s End

Moving on into May, more and more birds continued to arrive, with increasing amount of quality over quantity. First to arrive was a brief Ring-necked Parakeet on the 1st at Par (a should be increasing species, now that they have started colonising Plymouth) and a two day Tree Sparrow (a sadly declining species) at Gorran Haven from the 1st, with one in the Falmouth area eight days later.

Tree Sparrow, a major Cornwall rarity - Bev Teague

The first of three Serins turned up on 6th, on the Lizard with one at Land’s End on 12th and Nanjizal on 21st. Ortolan Bunting was just a day behind Serin – one over Nanjizal on 7th. Golden Orioles were sporadically reported from Nanjizal throughout May with one at Nancledra on the 3rd June and Crackington haven on the 27th. Roseate Terns, a thankfully increasing sight along the coast, flew past Porthgwarra (3 on 11th and 2 on 13th). The stunning Bee-eaters also turned up, numbering at least 5 but none were found to hang around. More colourful birds alighted at Davidstow on 9th May, where 4 Dotterel were seen briefly before continuing North. 3 Long-tailed Skuas were also seen between 27th May and 2nd June. The now annual Red Kite event was much more prolonged in 2018 but numbers never really stacked up – a high count of 60 at Nanjizal was nevertheless a great sight for the observer. The month of May undoubtedly delivered some stunning birds to look at, but unfortunately very few were twitchable and there were no days of large ‘falls’ of migrants.

Thankfully, the rarity value kicked up a gear when a Baird’s Sandpiper, an American vagrant, pitched up along Marazion Beach on 28th May, remaining until the 7th June with some other summer plumaged small waders. This represented the first spring of this species in Cornwall. Another rare spring visitor from across the pond turned up on 11th June, a Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Davidstow. Incredibly, this was the only accessible individual in 2018, with no twitchable autumn records, where normally there would be a handful at least. An influx of Rose-coloured Starlings, all cracking, pink and black adults were a welcome sight in June – birds turning up at Rame, Saltash, Rescorla, Phillack, Ashton, Pendeen, Porthgwarra, Tregony and Porthtowan but as was typical of spring 2018, none hung around very long.

Rose-coloured Starling, Pete Clement

A Laughing Gull past Lizard point on 14th June was rare, but inaccessible. A Ferruginous Duck also turned up in June, fairly quickly it looked as if a wild origin was rather in doubt – suffice to say that for a normally wild and wary species this one was remarkably tame and reports to the national rarity services include reports such as ‘wing-clipped released adult drake still on Helston Boating Lake this afternoon’.  By the end of the month it was already time for the return of some birds – the first Green Sandpipers on 12th June and Wood Sandpiper arrived back from breeding on 25th June. Seabirds were also starting to pick up with the first (very early) Cory’s Shearwater on 3rd June at Porthgwarra and another from the Lizard on 17th. Sooty Shearwaters also returned with at least 5 before the end of June. Crossbills were also returning from their early breeding season, with up to 10 at Croft Pascoe. So overall, a very pleasant spring with plenty of smart birds to look at but ultimately, not quite a vintage year that will be talked about for decades to come. But just perhaps that might change soon…

Crossbill - Alex McKechnie

Summer and early Autumn

The early summer months are predominantly taken up by seawatching but this year there was a star bird just before that. A cracking summer plumage Pacific Golden Plover arrived on 29th June, at St Gothian Sands before heading down to Hayle Estuary where it ended its popular stay on the 1st July. Back to seabirds, and there was one mega bird that sent shockwaves across the UK birding scene.

Pacific Golden Plover, Mashuq Ahmad

On 29th July, a Trindade Petrel cruised past the assembled 24 birders at Gwennap head, Porthgwarra. While 13 or so have occurred from islands in the Western Palearctic, this record is a first for mainland Europe and subject to acceptance would become an obvious first for Cornwall. This was spark to kickstart a very good summer’s seawatching. As many as five different Fea’s Petrels were seen on various seawatches from Porthgwarra (including a photographed individual on 12th August). Great Shearwaters too had a bonanza year with an incredible 2506 being seen in just a single day from Porthgwarra on 20th September. Balearics peaked at 400 in a day, Cory’s at 90 and Sootys at 200 – but all were regular throughout the period. Storm Petrels also had a good year with a very high count of 524 made on 9th September at Porthgwarra. Wilson’s Petrels were seen a couple of times, most often from Porthgwarra, but never reached the numbers of last year. In addition to these rather more expected species, a number of true megas were reported; Bulwer’s Petrel (Porthgwarra on 13th September), Madeiran Petrel (Porthgwarra on 20th September) and Yelkouan Shearwater (Porthgwarra on 28th August) . Unlike the Trindade Petrel, these were either seen by small groups or individuals, and whilst undoubtably a highlight and amazing experience for the observers concerned, views and/or descriptions will probably leave these languishing as ‘probables’ and unlikey to make the national/county record. That’s in the nature of seawatching; it takes exceptional circumstances and views for ‘the big ones’ to make it unequivocally through the acceptance procedure.

Seawatching along the north coast never really got close to that mentioned above but maxima counts of 5 Sabine’s Gulls, 11 Leach’s Petrels, 3 Pomarine Skuas, 110 Arctic Skuas and 27 Grey Phalarope were still good totals – albeit restricted to very few days of high quality seawatching.

Up to 7 Long-tailed Skuas, a few Little Gulls as well as the commoner Puffins and Manx Shearwaters provided more entertainment to the hardy few that braved the weather. Terns also put in a very good show on seawatches but possibly a better show while resting at Porthkidney. A county record total of 10 Roseate Terns was made at the aforementioned site on 22nd September with good counts of 60 Arctic Terns, 160 Common Terns, 5 Black Terns and 5 Little Terns in the same area around the same time.

Rare wildfowl are less expected in summer but a smart eclipse drake Lesser Scaup at Drift Reservoir 6th-9th August was a nice surprise, as was a brief male Ring-necked Duck at Devoran on 30th, and at Stithians two days later.

Lesser Scaup, Phil Taylor

A few Scaup, Garganey and Goldeneye, as well as other ducks started returning in September. More expected in autumn is the return wader passage. As hinted above, it became clear that many species of wader had suffered a terrible breeding year, with snow covering much of the wanted breeding territory. This was a very likely cause for the fact that just 3 Little Stints and around 5 Curlew Sandpipers were seen in the county, where normally double figures of both is easily achieved. Dotterel, Ruff and other commoner waders also appeared to be down in number, although not as much as the former species. Thankfully, a couple of rare waders made up for a poor showing otherwise. As many as 8 Pectoral Sandpipers had arrived from North America (remarkably beating the Curlew Sand total), as well as the same figure of Little Ringed Plovers, even though they had arrived from the opposite direction. A popular Lesser Yellowlegs arrived on 18th September at Devoran and stayed for some time afterwards. And with the mention of Devoran, roll up the second of this year’s ‘big four’. A lovely Marsh Sandpiper was found on the 26th July at Tallack’s Creek, Devoran and was enjoyed by many that evening. An arguably overdue new bird for the county, was met with delight from county listers, but sadly disappeared overnight and was gone by the next morning. A Common Crane which started off at Drift in mid-September, before touring west Cornwall and a Spotted Crake at Nanjizal also deserve a mention.

Passerine wise, early autumn 2018 was a very good period with some great days birding as a couple ‘falls’ were witnessed in August. On top of that, there were some top drawer rarities in amongst them. The rarest of the lot turned up at Porthgwarra on 30th August, a very smart Sykes’s Warbler graced the sallows around the stonewall for most of the day, but unfortunately disappeared overnight.

Syke's Warbler

Despite an individual widely believed to be this species, rather than Booted, at Land’s End, it was never formally accepted so if this bird is accepted, it would be the 3rd first for Cornwall this year (all within a month and 5 days!).

A possible Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was nearly a fourth first but sadly could not be relocated – it fell to Aquatic Warbler at Nanjizal, 29th August, to claim a close second place. 5 Melodious Warblers, around 12 Lesser Whitethroats and an early Yellow-browed Warbler on 30th September rounded up warbler world.

Another popular bird was a Brown Shrike at Soapy Cove, elusive at first before giving itself up at the end of its 6 day long stay, which commenced on 29th September. At the same site on the 7th-15th September was a smart Red-backed Shrike – popular for all those prepared to undertake the long walk. Remarkably, these were the only two confirmed Shrikes this year, with Woodchats blanking. A Red-eyed Vireo at Nanjizal on 20th September would’ve been popular but the land was unfortunately private. Other passerines included: a brief Red-breasted Flycatcher on 4th September, 1 Golden Oriole, 2 Hoopoe, good numbers of Wryneck as well as Whinchat, Pied and Spotted Flycatcher, Yellow Wagtail and Tree Pipits (which included a great tally of c120 – over the Lizard on 30th August). 2 Common Rosefinch and a Tawny Pipit in the Polgigga/Porthgwarra area around 24th September were too brief for the majority but a nice surprise for the finder. A few Ortolan, a single Hawfinch, two Bee-eaters (Polgigga and Downderry in July), around 4 Rose-coloured Starlings and a few Crossbill rounded up September, but for one other species. A remarkable count of 6 different Nightingales were trapped and ringed at Nanjizal in the period, with another at Caerthillian in early September. This was one of the best autumns for a good few years for this sadly declining songster in Cornwall.

Finally, to wrap up a good September, was the acceptance of the 2017 Cornwall Dalmatian Pelican by the BOU, making it the 599th species on the British list. With no evidence of captive origin, and free-flying birds in North-Western Europe having been thought to have genuinely travelled on inland river systems from the east, this was perhaps the right decision, certainly so for anyone who saw it!

Red-backed Shrike Brown Shrike, Steve Rowe

Red-backed (left) and Brown Shrike.

Late autumn and Second Winter Period

Grey Catbird. Two words, and a perfect example of a true MEGA American vagrant. This was the obvious highlight of October and the clear bird of the year for both Cornwall and Britain (where it was recently voted so on the RBA Twitter account by the nation’s birders). This individual, a 2nd for Britain, was found on 15th October at Land’s End, Treeve Moor and was a new bird for the vast majority of national twitchers (after the first accepted bird on Anglesey, N Wales, was so elusive that most never saw it, despite it reportedly having a multi-day stay).

Grey Catbird - Peter TongueIt’s estimated that over 1,000 birdwatchers from as far as the Azores came to view this bird which stayed for two weeks, often showing very well and even ‘miaowing’ occasionally too. Hurricane Michael (the likely reason for its appearance) also deposited a smart White-rumped Sandpiper on the Hayle Estuary the day before, unfortunately being taken by a Sparrowhawk just hours after arrival – dramatic scenes for those who had made the trip to see it! Another Baird’s Sandpiper, again an American vagrant, turned up on the 5th at Kingsmill Lake but was sadly not seen again.

As always, October produced a plethora of top drawer rarities, including: Buff-bellied Pipit at Nanjizal 28th-31st; Penduline Tit and Serin in the same place on 15th and 23rd; Barred Warbler on 29th at Kynance; Dusky Warbler at Porthgwarra on 23rd and a Cornish mega of a Little Owl at Nanjizal on 23rd. There were also a number of scarcities including: 3+ Ring-necked Ducks, 1 Common Rosefinch, 1 Red-breasted Flycatcher, 3+ Rose-coloured Starlings, 2+ Richard’s Pipits, many Cattle Egrets (47 peak count), 2 Little Buntings and numerous Great White Egrets. Corncrakes flushed at Nanquidno and near Falmouth were also good rarities encountered. The last good rarity of October was a Temminck’s Stint discovered at Stithians on 28th – a rather late bird that initially got hearts racing with the thought a ‘yank’ stint. While the first half of October was considerably under-par, the monster that was the Catbird as well as the other rarities meant that it was an October to remember.

November started off where October finished with more rare birds arriving – Pallas’s Warbler at Porthgwarra from 12th, 2 Dusky Warblers at Kenidjack and Nanjizal (13th and 21st respectively), 2 Caspian Gulls (Hayle and Marazion) as well as new Siberian Chiffchaffs, Little Buntings, Cattle Egrets and a single Pink-footed Goose at Trevone. A mini-influx of at least 4 late Hoopoes at the end of the month was a bit of a surprise. Returning birds also featured, highlighted by the Pacific Diver returning to Mount’s Bay but so far no sign of the Lesser Scaup at Bodmin. Away from returners, there were two main highlights in November. Firstly a smart Pied Wheatear (the first since 1991 in Cornwall) which performed well at Trevose head from 14th (although seen earlier, it was unfortunately initially suppressed).This bird performed to the crowds for three days once some good fieldwork had managed to relocate the bird and make it available.

Pied Wheatear, Phil Taylor

The other highlight was a Pallid Swift at Land’s End on 18th which flew around just metres above the heads of the locals who had made the trip to see it. It’s likely that this bird was part of the influx that invaded Britain just days before, with double figures of Pallid Swifts seen nationwide. With the 2016 bird at Kenidjack being ‘not proven’ by BBRC,  this bird, which apparently seemed to show more classic features of Pallid Swift, was a tick for the vast majority of Cornish listers – despite it being the fourth for Cornwall.

Pallid Swift, Mike McKee Pallid Swift, Mike McKee

December ebbed away without too many birds being reported. It was back to gulls, with a couple of first winter American Herring Gull reports (Sennen and Cape Cornwall) but they were not seen again. Two smart adult gulls, a ringed Caspian and a Ring-billed, were more easily available on the Hayle Estuary. A Richard’s Pipit was a good find at Tehidy, and 4+ Lapland Buntings could be found nearby. The highlight of December belongs to the showy (and surprising) Red-rumped Swallow at Torpoint for five days from the 9th.

Red-rumped Swallow, Barry Rankine

Finally, it looks like the Temminck’s Stint from Stithians relocated to Chapel Amble on the final day of the year, with, perhaps unsurprisingly,Cattle Egrets seen again at various locations, and a possible Nordic Jackdaw at Newlyn.

So there we have it, 2018 in a rather long nutshell. It will be remembered fondly by the majority with stunning birds turning up left, right and centre. The pager’s MEGA alert triggered 6 times. Everyone will have their individual highlight but for Cornwall as a whole it comes from the big four; Marsh Sandpiper, Sykes’s Warbler, Trindade Petrel and what for most will probably be the bird of the year… Grey Catbird.

Reuben Veal, Dec 2018

Trindade Petrel, John Gale

Grey Catbird, Paul Ash

 

Additional photo credits (all birds of 2018): Pacific Diver – Mushaq Ahmed; Great White Egret – John St Ledger; Hoopoe – Tony Mills; Bonaparte’s Gull – Alex Meckechnie; Tree Sparrow – Bev Teague; Rose-coloured Starling – Pete Clement; Crossbill – Alex McKechnie; Pacific Golden Plover – Mushaq Ahmad; Lesser Scaup – Phil Taylor; Sykes’s Warbler tbc; Red-backed Shrike tbc; Brown Shrike – Steve Rowe; Grey Catbird – Peter Tongue; Pied Wheatear – Phil Taylor; Pallid Swift – Mike McKee x2; Red-rumped Swallow – Barry Rankine.