Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Birding around a family Christmas

Christmas 2007 was planned as a short break with family, staying at the Aviary Court Hotel (, which we'd recommend as warm, comfortable and excellent value, and we were very keen to try and fit some birding in.

Having driven down on the Friday evening, we met up on Saturday and decided to take a short walk to Portreath. We were following a fresh water stream down to Portreath when we disturbed a pair of Kingfishers, one took off and headed upstream passing us at about a metre distance, the flash of blue was unmistakable and seen by all, which led to much time spent looking up and down river to catch sight of them again.

This picture is of 'Gull Rock' out in Portreath bay:

It was quite a windy day with a large number of gulls out to sea and flying over the waves but very few birds along or close to shore. On the way back we did spot a male Blackcap over-wintering, but it's not so surprising, Cornwall to this point has yet to have a frost and it's the end of December...

The next day, Sunday, we'd set aside the whole morning to get out and about. We started at Hayle Estuary and the RSPB reserve there. Unfortunately the reserve has a lot of human litter on it, plastics, etc. which somewhat spoils the view and there were few birds around. We did see a flock of Golden Plover wheeling in the distance together with a flock of Lapwing. Also a Kingfisher appears to have made it his home as he was perched on an electricity cable making occasional darts and dives. From here it's a very short walk to the estuary and a gathering point for a lot of the wildfowl. Hayle has had a resident Green-winged Teal (from the USA) for some time now, it's possibly the same bird we saw a couple of years ago when we were last here? It was showing very well in the nearest group of Teal to our viewing point:

You can tell it's him as the other Teal have white 'bars' going across their sides whereas the American bird has a vertical white bar.

Sat on the side of the bridge, so that you had to lean right out to see it, was this juvenile Shag:

It later took to the water briefly:

Also close to us was this Redshank, wading in the shallows:

and this Curlew:

In fact there are a number of Curlew's around on the Estuary, we snapped this one a little later at the top end of the Estuary:

Click on the picture to see the plumage details better. One of the other less common birds visible directly from the viewing point was this 1st Winter Mediterranean Gull:

All of the birds in the vicinity were awake and it soon became apparent why. There's a tree to the left and sat atop it was a Peregrine Falcon, snapped here on a flypast trying to flush up one of the birds (you'll see it better if you click on the pic):

and here landing again in said tree:

It was making these flypasts regularly but we didn't see it catch anything. A bird that is very uncommon on our home patch in Northamptonshire but is abundant on the Cornwall coastline is the Greater Black-backed Gull, shown here with some Teal and Wigeon in the foreground for comparison:

They truly are huge gulls, the biggest in fact. While we were taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the viewing point, a local birder told us of a field about 4miles away with a reported 10 Cattle Egrets in it. I wanted to find the flock of Golden Plover we'd see earlier but we decided to go see the Cattle Egrets while we had a chance. The directions he'd given us were spot on and we arrived 15 minutes later. In the small lay-by was a parked police car. We assumed he'd been moving birders along to keep the road safe, so we parked up a little further down the road. We only saw his bins and camera when we approached the field itself :)

Sure enough there were indeed Cattle Egrets, in a field of Fresian Cows. We could see four of them including these two:

They have short yellow bills and are a rounder bird than the Little Egret (a few of which we'd seen in the morning at Hayle). This our first sighting of Cattle Egrets in the UK, though we did see some in the Camargue in March (see France Holiday - Day 4, in April 2007, below):

You'd imagine with 9 or 10 individuals it won't be long before they're breeding in the UK.

Next we headed to Carbis Bay, again following the advice of the local birder we'd met at Hayle Estuary.

We did indeed spot Red- and Black-necked Divers in the bay but at quite a distance and only with the telescope at near maximum magnification. Much closer in was a Guillemot, unfortunately quite distressed as you'll see:

The bird has oil on it's belly and was furiously trying to clean itself, getting oil around its face in the process. I don't know if it will have survived.

We saw other evidence of the impact of man on the marine environment, encountering the carcass of a seal with a propeller sized hole on one flank.

With the sun behind us, the light at Carbis Bay, very close to St Ives, was dramatic, I tried to capture a sense of it here:

You can see the sun picking out part of the wave and a 'stairway to heaven' in the distance, with another perspective here:

From Carbis Bay we decided to head back to Hayle again before getting back into the family Christmas proceedings. We spotted one more wader, this Knot:

On Christmas Eve, we drove to Gwithian for a walk along the dunes and the beach there. The only 'new' bird to the holiday was this Rock Pipit, which we watched fly up the cliff-face, grab a snail of some sort then fly down to the beach to eat it:

On our last morning in Cornwall, before our drive back home we decided to nip back to Hayle again. We met another couple of birders who pointed out a Greenshank to us, but I'm pretty sure it's a Golden Plover, in winter plumage, as the bill is distinctively short:

The behaviour of the Plover was amusing as once it had picked out a worm (it grabbed five in as many minutes) it would then wash it in the water before eating it, unlike the Curlew which just wolfs them down.

In addition to this bird we spotted some Dunlin in the distance but it was much quieter although there were now two shags by the viewing point! Next time we're in Cornwall for winter we're going to try the (river) Camel Trail as I gather there are thousands of Golden Plover there every year...

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