First Winter Period
As in most years, 2019 started with some great birds leftover from previous years. In a national context, the rarest of the lot were the two Pacific Divers; both still in situ in Gerrans Bay and Mount’s Bay, where the latter bird is well into its 13th winter. The Lesser Yellowlegs at Devoran and Temminck’s Stint at Chapel Amble also proved popular as they lingered into the New Year. A Ring-necked Duck at Lower Tamar Lake, a Richard’s Pipit at Tehidy and a Garganey at Hayle provided early overwintering bonus to yearlisters who also enjoyed a range of more expected overwinterers, including: Whooper Swan, Scaup, Velvet Scoter, Avocet, Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull, Woodlark and Lapland Buntings. Good winter counts were recorded for Caspian Gull, Water Pipit, Yellow-browed Warbler and Cattle Egrets, with a very high single count of 83 made for the latter at Walmsley.
2019 didn’t take very long to produce some new birds, with a Waxwing found on 5th at Truro thankfully lingering overnight for locals to enjoy the next day. A Black Guillemot was another nice find on 1st at Portscatho with it or another bird slightly more reliable from Swanpool (Falmouth), although it was never easy to catch up with. A couple of female Serins that pitched up on the 8th at Gulval, lingering to 23rd were often elusive, but popular when on show. A Common Crane was found at Walmsley on 3rd, and although this sighting was only brief, subsequent sightings from Gluvian (16th Feb) and Wadebridge (28th Mar) may suggest it lingered nearby and out of sight. The last, but perhaps brightest, arrival in January was a Pallas’s Warbler at Coverack, which lingered way into the spring when a few lucky observers were able to hear this normally scarce autumn migrant singing!
As January turned to February, the first MEGA of the year was delivered. Toby Phelps and Matt Doyle had found a stunning adult Black-browed Albatross flying West past the Lizard late afternoon on 8th. Unlike most adrenaline-infusing seabirds, this bird had the decency to do a repeat performance on the 9th, flying West in the morning then back East in the afternoon, allowing a few more birders to connect, although the masses that arrived on 10th missed out. Aside from the Albatross, February progressed along rather slowly, as it normally does, with other highlights coming from good numbers of Glossy Ibis (up to 4 at one time) and at least 2 Ring-billed Gulls with a showy 1w at Helston from 14th. Another interesting spell in February was a patch in the middle when a hot spell of weather brought a few exceptionally early migrants including 4 Swallow, several House Martin and a Willow Warbler between 14th and 16th.
March brought more routine arrival times for summer migrants such as Wheatear on 7th, Garganey on 21st, Ring Ouzel on 24th, Osprey on 27th and Sand Martin a day before the month started, on 28th Feb. Other March highlights consisted of an early Wryneck at Caerthillian 23rd-24th, an adult Kumlien’s Gull infrequently throughout the month at Drift and an exceptional count of 2175 Puffin past Mousehole on 16th. A frustratingly brief Stone-curlew at Porthgwarra on 30th was nonetheless a great find, and at least 3 Red-rumped Swallows (Tresillian on 21st, Marazion 24th and Porthgwarra/Polgigga 21st and 24th-25th) provided a suggestion as to the colourful European migrants that would arrive in the Duchy within the next couple of months.
April continued to deliver newly arriving summer migrants with selected first dates including: 7th for Swift, 16th for Grasshopper Warbler, Yellow Wagtail and Whinchat, 17th for Cuckoo, 23rd for Quail and Turtle Dove and 25th for Hobby. A major highlight in April was the discovery of a Rough-legged Buzzard, a true Cornish rarity, at Porthtowan on 6th before being seen again briefly at East Pentire. A similarly rare bird for Cornwall, indeed a potential Cornish tick for a few who had been birding the county for more than 30 years, was found on 23rd in the form of a Stone-curlew at Polgigga. This bird was very elusive, often requiring a prolonged waiting period of several hours, but did allow a few to connect. A Green-winged Teal on a nearby pool was also popular in its stay 17th-24th. The main talking point in April was the occurrence of a Pied Crow, first seen at Cot Valley on 10th, it was seen regularly at Land’s End and Polgigga in the subsequent days before heading back to the St Just area and departing on 19th. While its identification was never in doubt, its origin was more up for debate, with ship-assist, escape and even truly wild vagrant all being suggested. A less contentious corvid were the Hooded Crows that were present at Kynance and Porthgwarra throughout the period as well as a long-stayer in the Padstow/Trevose, which could be the same bird still being reported into December.
May continued to deliver more colourful arrivals with a Purple Heron pitching up on 3rd at Marazion, up to 3 Honey Buzzards throughout the period as well as 2 Black Kites. There were many examples of such species that turned up too briefly for more than a couple observers to connect, but would’ve been great highlights for the lucky few to see them. Such species included: 4+ Hoopoe, 4+ Golden Oriole, 2+ Serin, 4 Wryneck and a couple of Bee-eaters. Slightly more twitchable (although by no means easy) was a Dusky Warbler at Bass Point on 19th and another great record of Stone-curlew at Kynance on 20th. Easier again were a couple of longer-staying Woodchat Shrikes, at Polgigga and Carn Gloose, a Red-rumped Swallow at Marazion on 13th-14th May as well as a Pink-footed Goose from 13th-20th at Drift. While only a subspecies, a major highlight of May for many would’ve been the appearance of a male Black-headed Wagtail (form feldegg) at Housel Bay on 19th, which fed at reasonably close range in gorgeous light. The ringing site of Nanjizal also had a good period with 3 Tree Sparrow and one each of Melodious Warbler and Wood Warbler noted. 3 Curlew Sandpipers and at least 4 Little Ringed Plovers pleased wader fans, as the Devoran Lesser Yellowlegs departed on 25th April and Chapel Amble/Walsmley Temminck’s Stint on 17th May.
Despite the great variety of colourful migrants appearing the clear highlight for the spring didn’t turn up until June, in the form of a true MEGA and indeed a first-for-Cornwall. On the morning of the 4th, Mark Halliday had found an exquisite 3s American Royal Tern, on his local patch of the Hayle Estuary. However, it didn’t linger too long here as it soon headed out with the tide into Carbis Bay, before briefly coming back to Carnsew Pool and then heading out for good, only allowing a few dozen birders to connect. This individual was indentified from its ring to be an individual that makes infrequent trips to the British coast from its adopted home in the Channel Islands. This was its first known visit to Cornwall despite being seen in late 2018 on the Scilly Isles.
Away from the Tern, June produced a nice selection of other migrants, including an Alpine Swift at Lizard Village on 29th, 5+ Bee-eaters over Porthgwarra then Penzance on 30th, a Tawny Pipit at Porthgwarra briefly on 25th and 2+ Rosy Starlings (including a long-stayer at Hayle Towans). On top of this, there were a couple more excellent finds in the month. Firstly, a Greenish Warbler was found singing on 9th June at Porth Joke, allowing nice views of a typically skulky autumn migrant. Secondly, a Marsh Warbler was located singing along Lloyd’s Lane. While Greenish occurs most years, Marsh Warblers, and especially twitchable Marsh Warblers are much harder to see in the county, so this bird proved very popular with those able to connect on a glorious mid-summer day.
There was one final bit of belated news before the spring finished, and it was important news at that. A Greenish-type Warbler trapped and ringed in a private garden on the Lizard had its DNA analysed and confirmed to be a Green Warbler! This extremely rare passerine represents a new bird for Cornwall, although a more widely available bird in the future will still prove very popular.
As June heads into July, many birders’ attention tends to head towards the sea and seawatching. 2017 and 2018 had provided incredible seawatching years, but unfortunately 2019 didn’t live up to expectation. Whereas previous years had delivered 4 figure totals (sometimes even day tallies) of Great and Cory’s Shearwater, 2019 only held around 20 and 30 respectively, with Wilson’s Petrel also putting in a comparatively poor showing of 3. A Caspian Tern was a great record from Pendeen 19th July but sadly only available to those on site at that moment in time. A Red-necked Grebe on 1st August was another very good record for Cornwall in summer. Balearic Shearwater seemed to be the only seabird regularly putting in good performances, with an excellent count of 391 made on 4th October at Pendeen. The lack of seabirds (and lack of the odd bizarre rarity July could produce) meant that autumn migration was even more keenly awaited, and the last week of August didn’t just fill the appetites, it quite probably delivered the best week’s birding of the whole year.
The week began with a surprising flock of up to 24 White Storks that arrived on 25th, first turning up over the Lizard, before being seen down West and then settling up at Drift for a couple of evenings. While this was a massive surprise at the time, it soon became clear that this was a reintroduced flock from the Knepp Estate, West Sussex. Even though these birds were ‘untickable’, the flock still proved very popular throughout their stay, with one remaining around the Nanjizal area into late autumn, and others ending up as far away as Morocco. Another highlight of the week was a cracking Western Bonelli’s Warbler at Trevescan which showed well for 6 days from 26th. Another Warbler, this time a Blyth’s Reed Warbler also turned up during the week, with one trapped and ringed down at Nanjizal, then released at Polgigga duckpond, in time for a few birders in the immediate area to connect with it. Other highlights from the end of August included a Honey Buzzard at Drift on 24th, an American Golden Plover in the Porthwgarra/Nanjizal area, a Spotted Crake 26th-27th and Tawny Pipit 21st-24th, both at Nanjizal.
The main reason the week will be remembered was for the occurrence a species almost unimaginable turning up in British waters just a few years ago. It was a second for Britain following a photographed one in Kent just a few days prior, and it turns out Cornwall got the third as well. On the 26th August, Kester Wilson was on Porthmeor Beach without optics and noted a shallow diving Gannet-type bird that seemed a bit odd, and thus put the news out as such. The following morning Keith Jennings was at St Ives Island and managed to photograph the bird in question. Jaws dropped throughout the county (and country) when the photos were seen – a definite Brown Booby!! A mass twitch then ensued for this truly MEGA rarity with a few distant sightings over the next few days before the bird finally gave itself up on 31st, fishing across all of St Ives Bay and the performance culminated in an hour-long show, sitting on a rock off Porthgwidden Beach before heading round past Pendeen, never to be seen again.
That was assumed to be the end of Brown Booby in Britain for at least a good number of years. Yet David Collins had other ideas on 2nd September, when quite incredibly he managed to find a second, younger bird sitting on rocks just off Kynance!! This bird remained much more reliable, delighting those who hadn’t connected with the first bird and finally departing on 7th. A truly incredible duo of sightings, a second and third for Britain within the space of a couple of weeks.
While September couldn’t match the scenes described above, a number of very nice birds did turn up including: a brief Tawny Pipit on 14th at Nanquidno, a Hoopoe at Millbrook 2nd-5th, a Barred Warbler at Trevilley 16th-17th, a Rosy Starling on Lizard from 19th, a brief Nightingale at Nanquidno on 10th, 3 Red-backed Shrikes (including a well-watched one just a mile or two from the second Brown Booby) and 3 Melodious Warblers. The month was a good one for both Brent Goose, with a great count of 53 pale-bellied from Marazion, and Osprey, with one lingering around Hayle for more than 1 and a half months. Nanjizal enjoyed another good period with a Corncrake on 18th, an Aquatic Warbler on 7th and another Blyth’s Reed Warbler on 30th.
Davidstow airfield also had a good period, with an American Golden Plover being found on 10th, a maximum of 3 Buff-breasted Sandpiper throughout the period and a White-rumped Sandpiper from 22nd. Waders in general had a much better year than 2018 (when many species had very difficult breeding season due to late snow). 3 Little Ringed Plovers, around 20 Little Stints and more than 30 of both Curlew Sandpipers and Wood Sandpipers were all distributed around the county as they returned to wintering grounds. The late seawatching season also picked up slightly, much better than in the summer, but still no remarkable events. Throughout September and into October totals of 16 Long-tailed Skuas, around 45 Sabine’s Gulls, and at least 7 Leach’s Petrels were seen at the regular seawatching sites. Grey Phalaropes faired a bit better than most, and their season culminated with an excellent flock of 40 on 6th Oct. 3 Little Auks were also noted later in the year.
Moving into October, probably the most eagerly awaited month on the birding calendar, rare birds began turning up all over the county. A selection excellent rarities that were found but were too brief to ‘twitch’ included: Greenish Warbler at Cot on 2nd, Hudsonian Whimbrel (currently subspecies hudsonicus of Whimbrel but that is set to change to full species in 2020) at Mousehole on 11th, Booted Warbler at Caerthillian on 14th, Rustic Bunting at Nanjizal then later over Porthgwarra on 28th, Olive-backed Pipit at Nanjizal on 16th, another 2 Blyth’s Reed Warblers at Nanjizal on 2nd and 20th (easily making it the best ever year for this species), Spotted Crake at Porthgwarra on 31st and Quail in the same place on 19th. Slightly more numerous in numbers, but nonetheless great finds came from: 5 Ring-necked Ducks, 4 Dusky Warblers, 3 Pallas’s Warblers, 4 Little Buntings, 2 Wryneck, 3+ ‘Eastern’ Lesser Whitethroat, 7+ Richard’s Pipits and a remarkable 8 Red-breasted Flycatchers, which included a rarely seen, and stunning looking, male on 1st November at Treeve Moor.
Slightly more twitchable records of rare birds came from a Subalpine Warbler at Cot on 17th-18th Oct, a Dotterel on Lizard 30th Oct – 1st Nov (remarkably the only individual in Cornwall this year), a juv. Rosy Starling at Penzance on 27th Oct and a Red-throated Pipit in the Nanjizal/Porthgwarra area 2nd-6th Oct. October is also famed for producing massive rarities, which it did but only one bird (mentioned later) was easily available, the other three to sound the MEGA alarm were sadly brief. Firstly, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo was found in an exhausted condition at Crackington Haven on 13th. Secondly, a Black-faced Bunting was unearthed on the Lizard on 31st but flew away shortly after initial find. And there was also an Upland Sandpiper accidentally flushed from Windmill Farm on 24th, but not relocated.
In amongst all these brief birds, there were some longer-staying birds that proved very popular. It was a good year for Snow Buntings with many singles/duos dotted around the coast, but a flock of up to 5 at Gwennap Head, Porthgwarra were very popular and showed extremely well in the last week of October. A long-staying Long-tailed Duck on Drift and Slavonian Grebe on Hayle were also popular. A Barred Warbler from 12th-14th at Caerthillian attracted several admirers, as did a cracking 1w White-rumped Sandpiper that was found at Marazion Beach on 16th (there was also the same or another seen briefly on Lizard on 15th and 20th). A Red-eyed Vireo, an American passerine that incredibly manages to cross the Atlantic, was very much enjoyed at Church Cove from 2nd to 4th, as was another at Porthgwarra from 6th to 13th. A Nightingale (or potentially Thrush Nightingale) provided a few observers with brief views during its stay from 9th to 13th but couldn’t be confirmed to species level.
While all these birds above were enjoyed by many, the standout highlight from October fell to a selection of fields at Sennen, and a duo of very rare Pipits. The story began on 23rd October when local birdwatcher Paul St Pierre had a large Pipit with an interesting call fly over him, and when other birders Pete and Dawn Balmer arrived to help with the search, they remarkably found an American Buff-bellied Pipit, the first ‘twitchable’ occurrence since 2007. Ideal, it seemed, all sorted out and a great second-for-Cornwall to boot, that went onto linger into the New Year.
But the next day, a group of birders looking for the Buff-bellied stumbled across a tatty looking large Pipit, presumably the same bird that Paul had seen the previous day. This bird was scrutinised for the rest of the day with plumage features not sitting too badly with Richard’s Pipit, yet the call was still not fitting as it should. However, as the bird it turned out to be was so outlandish, so off the radar, it was assumed to be a Richard’s. Almost a week later, sonogram analysis by Magnus Robb and the Sound Approach Team revealed the unthinkable; this bird was a Paddyfield Pipit!! Thankfully (and likely due to its poor state of moult) the bird was still around, and attracted hundreds of twitchers from across Britain, to this not only first-for-Cornwall, but also first-for-Western-Palearctic. It is important to note that not everyone was convinced that it was a genuine vagrant, and it is up to national rarities committees to decide whether or not to accept this onto the British List. It remained up to the 14th Nov, and later had DNA analysis done to confirm it was indeed a Paddyfield Pipit.
As usual, once October had finished, the birding gradually slowed down through November. Nonetheless, a drake Lesser Scaup (and a hybrid Lesser Scaup x Tufted Duck) from 4th-12th at Helston Boating Lake was a great find, and one that showed exceptionally well. A second was found on 10th at Stithians, this time a female and that lingered into 2020. 8 Scaup from Longrock on 15th were very notable, and a Bittern at nearby Marazion put in a couple of brief performances but sadly does not look to have wintered, again. A drake Green-winged Teal showed up at Wacker Quay from 11th. The return of a/the Pacific Diver is always eagerly anticipated and this year it showed up on 23rd, often showing at close range between Newlyn and Jubilee Pool before going missing again from 29th.
December was as usual pretty quiet for birds with a few of the expected white-winged Gulls and Grebes/Divers returning, it was highlighted by up to 3 Black Guillemot (including a very popular bird in Newlyn Harbour) and a Surf Scoter past Lizard on New Year’s Eve.
That’s it for 2019, and indeed the whole decade of 2010s; a set of ten years that has produced several ridiculous MEGAs in the county including: Grey Catbird, Sykes’s Warbler, Trindade Petrel, Amur Falcon, Lammergeier, Dalmatian Pelican, Red-billed Tropicbird, Hermit Thrush, Scarlet Tanager, American Bittern and Green Heron. 2019 will be remembered as another great year with at least 4, if not 5 (depending on rarity committee decisions) new birds for Cornwall. The American Royal Tern was exquisite, the Paddyfield Pipit was unthinkably rare, but combining the two (and a massive adrenaline rush) together, the pair of Brown Boobies would probably take bird(s) of the year for the majority. Roll on 2020!
Reuben Veal, January 2020