Autumn for John Keats was the season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ but for the birders of Cornwall it is more likely to be cherished as the most exciting time of year for finding unusual birds; each day news comes via the internet of sightings of rare visitors dropping in during their migrations south. This return migration for some birds may begin as early as July but reaches a crescendo in September and October. West Cornwall is a particular hotspot, and in September 2020 the announcements came thick and fast – a Bee-Eater here, a White Stork there, Ospreys and Great White Egrets appearing all over the place. Vagrant small waders from North America – Baird’s Sandpiper, Semi-palmated Sandpiper –turn up on the north coast, plus a flock of Ruddy Shelduck and several Curlew Sandpipers. In the far West there are plenty of rare warblers, and several reports of Wryneck. I have never seen a Wryneck, that strange snake-necked woodpecker that sadly no longer breeds in the UK. (The last breeding record in England was in Buckinghamshire in 1985). Northerly winds bring a glut of exciting seabirds in the far west – skuas, shearwaters, terns. The temptation to jump into the car and head for the Land’s End peninsula is considerable, but we are still mired in the dark days of the pandemic, and I have more or less given up travelling outside my local patch. I do take a short trip to the Rame Peninsula in Cornwall’s often forgotten south-eastern corner, and enjoy seeing some Wheatears resting on the headland on their long journey south, plus one of the resident Peregrines, but reports online later tell me that I missed a Hobby, Pied Flycatchers, Whinchats……oh dear!
Here in Looe a friend tells me that she thinks she saw an Osprey flying west over her house, and she may well be right. Another day the phone rings with a message from a friend that there are some small dark-headed geese on the rocks at Looe’s Second Beach, almost certainly Brents – and I grab my binoculars and camera and hurry down to see them. By the time I arrive they have gone! A few hours later a picture of a Brent Goose on nearby Hannafore appears on Facebook, confirming my expectations. I have occasionally seen Brents there in the past. This is not a rare bird, but an uncommon autumn and winter visitor this far west.
I visit Hannafore in the hope that it may reveal some rarities (though it is still swarming with visitors). Wallace Quay at the western end is often a hot spot for small visiting passerines like Firecrests and Black Redstarts, which appear in the patch of trees overlooking the beach. This corner is sheltered and often thick with seaweed, and provides a plentiful supply of invertebrates. Small waders sometimes turn up here, and at one time Purple Sandpipers were regular autumn/winter visitors. These are beautiful and relatively tame small waders. But I have not seen one since a memorable day in September 2015, when one was accompanied by a Knot, another unusual visitor.
To see Purple Sandpipers in Cornwall these days generally requires a trip to Penzance. Why their appearances in the Looe area have become scarcer may be linked to climate change which may enable them to winter further north. The Purple Sandpipers that winter in western Britain mainly come from a declining breeding population in north-eastern Canada.
I content myself with nice views of a Common Sandpiper, bobbing across the seaweed, among the wagtails and pipits. Common Sandpipers breed in upland Britain and this bird will probably be on migration to Africa, though a few do over-winter here.
The calendar reminds me that it is time for the monthly water bird count on the estuary for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). September 20th. Perhaps this part of my local patch may yield some surprises. The weather is warm and the tide very high as I set out along the East Looe river. It is recommended that the count is carried out at high tide because waders are concentrated at the tide line and easier to count, but at Terras Bridge the water is still across the road so I carry on up river, park in a lay-by, and study the adjacent stretch of river and marsh across the railway line. A white Pheasant is carefully picking its way between the rails, clearly confident that there are no expresses on this branch line. It sees me and takes to the air in explosive Pheasant style.
There is not a wader to be seen. However there is consolation in the form of the family of Mute Swans that I have been following since May. With the adult pair there are still three ‘ugly ducklings’ – beautiful cygnets, and as I watch they indulge in a frenzy of wing-flapping, with one of the adults orchestrating the exercise.
These youngsters, now 19 weeks old, should have fledged, and can hopefully fly. I had thought that this was the only case of successful breeding on these rivers, but later find another single cygnet with an adult pair at Watergate. Where has this cygnet come from? Perhaps it can already fly and the trio have flown in from elsewhere?
September on the estuary is not only a potentially good time for migrating waders, it is also ‘Kingfisher time’. The breeding season is over and the birds are becoming solitary and territorial, spreading out down the rivers, even on to the foreshore. Rock pools provide good alternative feeding grounds. I once had an enchanting encounter with a juvenile bird fishing from the rocks on Looe Island.
I soon see my first Kingfisher. The battered wreck of an old boat provides a suitable fishing perch. The orange underside to its beak tells me that it is a female, and the white tip to the bill suggests a youngster. At high tide though the water is deep, and she soon moves to try her luck from a tree stump.
As I move down river a second bird betrays its presence on the far bank, plopping into the war repeatedly from overhanging branches. I note a couple of Redshanks have arrived and are feeding along the edge of the water in the same place that I see them every winter.
Close to Steppes Pond, as I dodge the speeding traffic on the Sandplace Road, my eye is caught by an item of roadkill. This is all too common on this stretch – last winter an Otter met its demise while trying to cross the road from pond to river, and ducklings and Pheasants are frequent casualties. The speed limit is a ridiculous 50 mph, and there are no signs warning drivers that wildlife is at risk. The latest casualty is a small mustelid – body length at least a foot, plus tail – and relatively intact. It appears to be a Polecat-ferret hybrid, and probably a young animal. These are not uncommon in the Looe area. Many hybrids are very hard to distinguish from true Polecats (which are expanding in numbers).
As I approach the town the number of pedestrians (and cars) increases, and I walk nervously across the bridge to West Looe dodging the carefree holidaymakers trudging unmasked towards the shops and the beach. Along the river bank a procession is making its way from the huge car park into the town. I pause briefly at the confluence of the two rivers and spot a third Kingfisher fishing from the jetty on the Trenant side. The pedestrians that pass do not see it; in fact most of them appear not to see me either, staring at something with my binoculars.
I trudge on through Kilminorth Woods alongside the West Looe river, with just the occasional warbling Robin for company. I am reminded of lines from a poem by Edward Thomas; ‘the robin sings over again/Sad songs of autumn mirth’.
I soon locate Kingfisher number four on the far side of a bend in the river. It is perched immediately above a Grey Heron, which stands motionless at the edge of the water.
It is a reminder of how small Kingfishers are, not much larger than a House Sparrow. This one is not fishing, but biding its time. A fifth Kingfisher appears briefly just below Watergate, but evades my camera. Truly a halcyon day. It appears to have been a successful breeding season for Kingfishers on the two rivers.
Local people sometimes tell me that they have never seen a Kingfisher. This perhaps is because they are expecting a bigger bird, and are not looking low enough over the water where they fly straight and fast. When perched they can be surprisingly hard to spot, but the splash as they dive into the water is often the give-away. Binoculars help! Listen too for their brisk whistle as they skim past and round the river bend.
As October follows September, so the excitement continues for the migration-watchers. Cornwall is visited by a White-tailed Eagle – one of the young birds released this year on the Isle of Wight. Sadly there are no sightings of it in South-east Cornwall. Easterly winds also bring tiny Yellow-browed Warblers, all the way from their breeding grounds in the Siberian forests, and there are numerous sightings. I make another pilgrimage to Rame Head (along with many other birders), and after a patient wait see three flitting through the trees below Rame Church. They are in the company of Goldcrests, our smallest breeding bird, and are only marginally bigger. My attempts at photography fail. I am luckier with a Spotted Flycatcher in the same copse – this bird is late to leave for its migration south. The ‘Spotted Fly’ is truly the silent assassin, perched quietly in the upper branches of a tree and darting out to snatch its insect prey. I hardly ever hear a Spotted Flycatcher.
A few pairs of Spotted Flycatchers do still breed in South-east Cornwall, but their numbers are declining fast and they are increasingly elusive. Several places where they nested ten years ago are now devoid of them. In the UK their numbers declined by a shocking 87% between 1967 and 2016 and the species is Red-listed as of Conservation Concern. Any sighting of this bird is to be cherished.
Back on the Looe rivers autumn is well advanced, and it is soon time for another monthly count. October 18th. As winter approaches the Redshank flock has grown, there are now 16, in the same place I see them every year. These birds will stay all winter. Sometimes they appear on the foreshore at Hannafore.
There are still at least five Kingfishers, spread out along the estuary. Little Egrets are numerous, and I have a close view of one roosting on some mooring posts in the harbour as I cross the bridge.
The approach of winter is also signalled by the appearance of a Wigeon, a single female. Large numbers of this duck visit Cornwall in winter, but are found mainly on the large estuaries.
This count is notable for huge numbers of gulls gathering on the mud flats at low tide. This will continue through the winter months. Much of the time the birds are resting, punctuated by vigorous bouts of preening, a vital process to remove parasites and to keep their feathers properly aligned and in prime condition.
There are hundreds of Herring and Black-headed Gulls, but my attention is drawn especially to the scores of Great Black-backed Gulls. These are huge birds – the largest species of gull on the planet. These are not just scavengers of carrion, but formidable predators, capable of killing and eating other seabirds. Looe Island is home in summer to the largest colony in Cornwall with nearly 90 pairs. Since 2010 Bruce Taggart and his team have each year colour-ringed Great Blackback chicks at the nests in June and July, with a total of over 600 chicks ringed.
As an assistant at many of these sessions I have become hooked on the quest for sightings of ringed birds. These carry a metal BTO ring on one leg and a colour ring on the other. The colour rings are crucial to tracking their travels. They are white with red lettering and can be read with the aid of binoculars or telescope. Taking photos using powerful zoom lenses also helps the recording process.
At the end of my survey I find five ringed birds hanging out on the mud, and busily preening, and I decipher their ring numbers from my photographs. Later in the day I send the records to Bruce and he soon provides me with the history of sightings for these individuals, assembled by him from sightings by birders both in the UK and abroad. Some young Great Blackbacks travel considerable distances and have been recorded in France and northern Spain, but others appear to stay mainly in Cornwall, and many appear to remain in the vicinity of Looe. Colour-ringing provides fascinating insights into the life histories of these birds.
Thus L:BS3 (something of a contortionist!), a bird ringed on Looe Island in June 2013, turned up at Lizard Point in 2014 and on the Camel estuary in 2017 but has also been sighted most years in Looe. In the summer of 2019 when carrying out a census of roof-top nests in Looe I encountered this bird with another, L:BB6, on a Hannafore roof, making me wonder if they were a pair, though (fortunately for local residents) there was no sign of a nest. Unlike Herring Gulls, Great Blackbacks are rarely roof nesters.
Great Blackbacks take several years to attain full breeding plumage. It is no surprise therefore to learn that L:DV1 was ringed as a chick in June 2019. My sighting on October 18th is the first subsequent record, and I wonder if he/she has simply loitered on the island and in the estuary, or has done some travelling already. We will never know… .
I am curious too that there are also many adult Great Blackbacks on the mud which are not sporting rings. Are they Looe Island chicks which escaped the clutches of the ringers? Or are they old birds that pre-date the advent of the ringing programme? Or are they immigrants from breeding colonies in other regions/countries? As I make my way home after a few absorbing autumn hours on the estuary, I reflect that there are always unanswered questions….
Some of you who have been following my blogs since February may have noticed that they have become less frequent. The reason for this should be clear from the final photograph.
By Derek Spooner.