The start of a new year. For many birders it is time to start a new list..
Keeping records of sightings is central to my birding. I have been keeping a natural history diary for about 20 years, and this generates my annual list of species. During the pandemic the numbers have diminished, as I have travelled much less. In the last ‘normal’ year, 2019, I ‘ticked’ 143 species, but in 2020 and 2021, because of lockdowns and the need to restrict travel, the numbers reached only a modest 116 and 117. In 2021 I did not pass 100 until 25th July.
Of course, these numbers are puny compared to those achieved by the nation’s top birders. Listing is a competitive sport for those seeking a ‘British Big Year’. For example, the top score reported in the UK in 2014 was 342 species, a number achieved by relentlessly criss-crossing the country (the ‘tick-and-run’ syndrome). This is birdwatching as a form of collecting, and ‘listing’ has passed from being a habit to an obsession.
So listing needs to be handled with caution! Its positive effect is to encourage us to spend more time carefully observing what we have around us, thereby building our knowledge of our environment. It also leads us to expand our range of experience, encouraging us to discover new habitats. I decided that in 2022 I would try to see 100 species in Cornwall by the end of February. This is a challenge simply to myself. Of course, this will entail listing not just marine or estuarial birds (normally the focus of these blogs) but any bird species.
What will be the first species of the New Year? In Looe one might expect it to be a Herring Gull, but when I pull back the curtains on New Year’s Day, there on a tree in the garden is the familiar black shape of a Carrion Crow. This is not really a surprise; this is a ubiquitous, highly successful, species, often ignored or overlooked. The bird I see may be one of the pair that nested in a tall tree in a neighbouring garden last year. Corvids nest early.
The next few days are spent adding to the list in the garden and while dog-walking. By January 4th I have clocked up 25 species, and it is time for some visits to Hannafore and its rocky shore. At high tide birds are easier to find and I make a good start with a solitary Ringed Plover on the rocks almost opposite the Hannafore Point hotel. This attractive small winter visitor is quite inconspicuous when roosting. A few days later a second bird appears.
Oystercatchers are always abundant here and at this time of year Great Northern Divers and Slavonian Grebes are found offshore. There is sometimes a stray Guillemot. I soon add all these to the list. But the birds that catch my attention are a beautiful group of Eiders.
There are four drakes in their spectacular pied livery, and a single duck. The drakes clearly have amorous intent and are puffing their chests out and emitting the gorgeous ‘ah oooh’ sound reminiscent of Frankie Howerd.
Hannafore is a good place to find small passerines, and I find wintering Chiffchaff and Blackcap, and plenty of pipits and wagtails. Stonechats are usually present in winter, and I find one feeding in the scrubby vegetation along the sea wall.
The most exciting find comes on 9th January, when I am watching a flock of Turnstones. Among them is a single Purple Sandpiper.
Sadly, this species has become a scarce visitor to Looe in recent years. Easily distinguished by its longer bill and leg colour, it poses nicely with a Turnstone, and reveals the purple sheen that is not always apparent.
A walk in the fields west from Hannafore brings welcome glimpses of two birds of prey, a Peregrine and a Sparrowhawk, both being harassed by corvids.
On 13th January I walk westward along the shore from Seaton searching for the Red-throated Divers that appear on the sea every winter off Keveral beach. I find only three, and they are disturbed by a fishing boat and disappear in the direction of Looe Island. A few weeks later I return and find a bigger flock of 12 – perhaps the biggest concentration of this species in Cornwall. These are graceful slender divers with up-tilted bills, and without the red throats of summer.
On 17th January comes a short trip to Looe Island to see how the seabird colonies are shaping, and I return on the 20th as part of a team carrying out the first seal survey of 2022. These surveys have been taking place monthly (weather permitting) since 2009 and have built up a large data base of the Grey Seals visiting Looe Island. Individual seals can be identified (with patience and skill) from their fur patterns. During the survey we find at least five different seals.
There are plenty of gulls on the island, but the main breeding progress is among the Cormorants and Shags. Cormorants, in striking breeding plumage, have returned to the cliff on the south side of the island favoured in 2021. At least eight nests are complete with birds sitting, but the throng suggests that the total number of nests will be much higher.
In High Cove on the west side of the island I am surprised to find Shags sitting on nests already – exceptionally early for this species.
Fulmars have also returned to the island and are sociably chattering at the entrance to an old nest site.
My species list is further boosted by wintering waders – two Bar-tailed Godwits and several Curlew and Whimbrel. There appear to be two Whimbrel over-wintering. In January a Whimbrel should be in West Africa!
In late afternoon there are distant Gannets offshore. In winter these magnificent birds range widely in search of food. The nearest gannetries to Looe are in France and Pembrokeshire.
A few days later, on 23rd January, I carry out the monthly Wetland Birds Survey (WeBS) on the Looe Rivers and pick up some more species. The small flock of wintering Redshank is in the usual place. Above Terras Bridge I find that Shelduck have returned to the river, one in curious juxtaposition at high tide with a solitary Greenshank. The mystery about this bird continues. Why is there always just one Greenshank in this location? Is it the same bird every year?
As the tide drops there are large flocks of gulls on the mud, including a Black-headed Gull already in summer plumage and some Common Gulls, which in southern England are far from common.
I have now reached 72 species, but I may need to go further afield to reach my target. I decide to make a trip to the Walmsley Bird Sanctuary near Wadebridge, in the bird-rich wetlands of the Amble valley close to the Camel estuary. Walmsley is managed by the Cornwall Bird Watching and Preservation Society (CBWPS), and you need to be a member to access the excellent tower hide which gives great views over the watery landscape.
In the hide I find the warden, Adrian, and he draws my attention to a Water Rail which is paddling in the ditch below the hide. Water Rails are not uncommon, but I have rarely seen one. They are classic skulkers. The bird has a harsh and distinctive call; most winters its strangled scream is heard on Looe Island, but the bird remains hidden. The bird in the ditch is busy but quiet, but my attempt at a photograph is dismal because of screening branches. It is, however, a record of the encounter.
In front of the hide there are plenty of ducks to add to my list. Conspicuous are handsome Shoveler drakes, with dark green heads and chestnut flanks. Their large shovel-shaped bills, wider at the end than at the base, give them a top-heavy appearance. Shovelers were confusingly called Spoonbills until the great naturalist John Ray separated them from the tall wading bird in the seventeenth century.
There are elegant grey Gadwall, the males with distinctive black sterns. Teal, Wigeon and Mallard are abundant. These are all ‘dabbling ducks’ – surface feeders.
But also in view are a handsome group of Tufted Ducks which dive to feed, and among them is a single interloper, a Ring-necked Duck. I have never seen one before. It is an American species, either a vagrant, or an escapee from a waterfowl collection. This one is a male, superficially like the ‘Tufties’, but with mainly grey rather than white flanks, no tuft, and a different bill pattern.
My leisurely enjoyment of this ornithological spectacle is suddenly interrupted by a whispered cry of ‘Otter’ from Adrian. I look to my right and there in the reeds is indeed an Otter, appearing and disappearing. As the poet Ted Hughes so aptly wrote, it ‘re-enters the water by melting’.
Birds are forgotten! I hold my breath and it swims into more open water in front of the hide, dives, emerges…… I am reminded of more lines from Hughes:
‘Four-legged yet water-gifted, to outfish fish;
With webbed feet and long ruddering tail
And a round head like an old tom-cat’.
It is feeding but it is not evident what it is eating. Perhaps amphibians? For half an hour I am treated to a close-up view of this beautiful animal, which has clearly not been advised that Otters are normally nocturnal. It is 11 o’clock in the morning! Adrian tells me that these appearances have been frequent for several days.
My attention returns to the birds. The most numerous are certainly Lapwings. There are several hundred and they are nervous, periodically sweeping up into the sky. This behaviour is sometimes referred to as a ‘dread’.
With them is a smaller flock of Black-tailed Godwits. A flock of Glossy Ibises has also been reported frequently on and around the reserve, but I fail to find them. However, my visit to Walmsley has added 11 species to the list, and a few days later I add a Tawny Owl, which one evening I hear calling. By the end of January, I have reached 86.
February is plagued by poor weather. A suggestion from my friend John that we take a trip to Colliford Lake on Bodmin Moor to see the visiting White-tailed Eagle seems a good one. Especially as I have never seen a White-tailed Eagle! The bird in question has been identified as a youngster released on the Isle of Wight as part of an ambitious re-introduction programme. As a result of habitat change and persecution these eagles became extinct in the UK more than 100 years ago, and the last known breeding place in England was Culver Cliffs on the Isle of Wight in 1780. Following successful re-introductions in Scotland which began in the 1970s, 13 young Scottish birds were released on the Isle of Wight in 2019-20. They are sea eagles but wander widely. The bird (or birds?) on Bodmin Moor have been seen since before Christmas.
White-tailed Eagles are the largest UK bird of prey and have a massive wingspan of up to 2.5 metres. However, finding one on Bodmin Moor is not guaranteed! Colliford Lake is a big reservoir with a surface area of 366 hectares. It was completed in 1983 and has an irregular shape with long fingers. It is the largest lake in Cornwall, and it is impossible to see the whole lake at once. There are big patches of conifers not far away. A large bird choosing not to fly can easily be overlooked. On February 8th John and I arrive at the lake at 8.40 am to be told by friends that the eagle flew off ten minutes ago! We wait and watch but it does not re-appear. There are compensations. There are other birds on Colliford Lake. Among a large flock of Canada Geese, I spot two Barnacle Geese and a Bar-headed Goose. There are several Goosanders, large ‘sawbill’ ducks. A flock of wintering Fieldfares flies over.
We move on beyond the moor to Wadebridge and Walmsley, and I find two more species. On a hillside, I pick out some Red-legged Partridges. In the fields inside the sanctuary there are geese grazing. With the familiar Canadas are five smaller birds, with the white facial blazes that make identification easy. They are White-fronted Geese, winter visitors from northern Russia. These are perhaps the birds addressed by poet Kathleen Jamie: ‘you Arctic-hatched, comfy-looking geese occupying our fields’.
‘White-fronts’ were once plentiful here but now are rare visitors. Lt-Col Ryves, the founder of the CBWPS in 1931, tells us that in 1945 there were about 200 at Walmsley. The species is now Red-listed due to rapid wintering population decline.
Three days later, John and I again search for an eagle. This time we arrive at Colliford at 7.45 am. On the lake there are Great Crested Grebes (my 94th species). Flocks of Golden Plover (95) and Lapwing are on the wing (another dread?), raising our hopes that an eagle has spooked them. But they circle and settle on the bank at the eastern end of the lake. The Golden Plover are in their winter plumage, without the black bellies of summer.
We make a detour to Dozmary Pool. Still no eagle. We drive home through Bolventor, past Jamaica Inn, and along the bank of the youthful River Fowey. I glance across and spot a Dipper (96), bobbing in typical posture on a rock in mid-river.
Stormy weather restricts birding for a few days, but on February 21st I manage to complete the monthly WeBS count on the Looe rivers. At Watergate there is a flash of brilliant blue, as my first Kingfisher of the year skims past. That’s 97!
There is still a week left in February, but more bad weather is forecast, so on February 22nd John and I again head for Walmsley. En route we stop in the village of Chapel Amble. Opposite the village car park are flooded fields alongside the river Amble. Shoveler and Teal are feeding. My attention is drawn by a cluster of dark birds feeding in the long grass at a field edge, close to village gardens. We have found the Glossy Ibises! There are eight. When they raise their heads from probing deep in the ground their long, curved, bills are apparent.
It is easy to see why they have sometimes been called the ‘black curlew’, though on closer inspection their plumage shows a variety of shades.
I have never seen a Glossy Ibis in the UK before, though I have seen them in Spain and Florida. Ibises are usually classified in a broad group with herons and storks – large or medium-sized wading birds with long legs, necks, and bills. Glossy Ibises appear to be expanding their range north from the Mediterranean and in a warming world may be starting to colonise the UK. In 2014 a pair attempted to breed in Lincolnshire.
They remain fixated on their feeding. We watch them for a while and then move on to the nearby Walmsley sanctuary. More excitement awaits! As we walk towards the bird hide, we become aware of a flurry of white wings. There is an invasion of Cattle Egrets!
There are more than 40, and they are feeding in swarms, frequently moving to new patches of terrain.
Frogs and toads are taking a hammering. This is the mating season for these creatures, increasing their vulnerability.
Cattle Egrets are smaller than Little Egrets and easily distinguished by their yellow bills. They have started appearing in the UK in greater numbers during the last decade. I first saw them in Cornwall in 2008 in a field near Widegates, and then again in 2017 at Freathy on Whitsand Bay, where they demonstrated the aptness of their name by appearing in a field with cattle.
Cattle Egrets have successfully spread around the world in recent decades – I have seen them in East Africa and Puerto Rico – and are now breeding in several English counties, including probably Cornwall.
But another member of the Heron family soon attracts our attention. In the vegetation skirting the pools to our left a tawny brown, almost orange, shape repeatedly appears and fades from view. At times it is not clear whether it is a creature or part of the flora.
But then it emerges into the open, stalking through the shallow water. It is a Bittern! A study in camouflage.
It may also be feeding on frogs, but this is less apparent, though it is a considerably bigger bird than the Cattle Egrets and may despatch its victims with less fuss. I have never previously seen one in Cornwall, where it is a rare winter visitor. It may be a continental bird. Nationally, Bittern breeding numbers have recovered in recent years after a long decline.
In the hide attention is riveted on this extraordinary streaked and striped vision in multiple shades of brown.
Telescopes and cameras are wielded with gasps and grins of pleasure. I realise that it is my hundredth species of the year, and the third new one of a remarkable day. Another birder points out a female Pintail, which takes me to 101. A few days before the end of February, I have reached my target.
Strong southerly winds bring reports of migrating Wheatears on the coast. I hear the White-tailed Eagle has left Bodmin Moor. Winter is almost over, and spring is on the way!
Here is my full list of 101. But how did I manage not to see a Dunlin, or a Skylark?!
Red-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver, Little Grebe, Slavonian Grebe, Great Crested Grebe.
Fulmar, Gannet, Cormorant, Shag.
Bittern, Cattle Egret, Little Egret, Grey Heron, Glossy Ibis.
Canada Goose, Barnacle Goose, Bar-headed Goose, White-fronted Goose, Mute Swan, Shelduck, Mallard, Teal, Gadwall, Wigeon, Pintail, Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Ring-necked Duck, Eider, Goosander.
Sparrowhawk, Buzzard, Peregrine, Kestrel.
Red-legged Partridge, Pheasant, Water Rail, Moorhen, Coot.
Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Turnstone, Purple Sandpiper, Redshank, Greenshank, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Whimbrel, Snipe.
Mediterranean Gull, Black-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Common Gull, Guillemot.
Woodpigeon, Feral Pigeon, Collared Dove, Tawny Owl, Kingfisher, Great Spotted Woodpecker.
Meadow Pipit, Rock Pipit, Grey Wagtail, Pied Wagtail, Dipper, Wren, Dunnock.
Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Goldcrest, Stonechat, Black Redstart, Robin, Fieldfare, Blackbird, Redwing, Song Thrush, Long-tailed Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Nuthatch.
Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Siskin, Goldfinch, Linnet, Bullfinch, House Sparrow, Starling.
Jay, Magpie, Jackdaw, Rook, Carrion Crow, Raven.
This is the 12th ‘Bird Blog’ that I have written for the Looe Marine Conservation Group since February 2020, and all are available on this website. The blogs focus on my experiences watching birds on the coast and estuaries of East Cornwall, with occasional forays elsewhere.