It was a few weeks ago while driving home from an excellent day's birding in Hampshire and Wiltshire that Ed Stubbs and I hatched a plan for an extended day trip to Cornwall in August, primarily to take in some of the great seawatching on offer at Porthgwarra at this time of year. As weeks went by Ed put together a mouthwatering itinerary which saw us, along with friend and Surrey birding legend Robin Stride, aiming to catch up with a very tasty and more than a little ambitious selection of target species.
So it was that we set off from Surrey at around 3pm on Friday 5th, with a view to reaching the far end of the Cornish peninsula before sunset, ready to start bright and early at Porthgwarra the following morning. En route we discussed potentially getting in a bit of seawatching that evening or perhaps stopping at Black Hole Marsh to twitch the Least Sandpiper. Sadly the latter bird wasn't reported throughout the day but our spirits weren't dampened, even when we ran in to the inevitable holiday/Friday evening traffic around Stonehenge. Unfortunately my car had other ideas and started to splutter and lose power a few miles later, and after a few phonecalls we were being chaffeur-driven back to Surrey by recovery man Fred, my poor old Focus strapped on the back of the lorry. We weren't about to let that stop us though.
I asked Robin what the plan was now, as the sun began to go down and we got further and further away from Cornwall. He replied "we're going to Cornwall." Legend. Back in Godalming we quickly loaded in to Robin's car and set off, by now in darkness, but at least the roads were far quieter. We made good time and were approaching Porthgwarra a little after 2.30am, almost twelve hours after we originally set off. Certainly not the quickest journey to Cornwall but at least we got there - thanks to Robin! We pulled up by the roadside to catch a couple of hours sleep (well some of us - sorry Ed!) and then it was on with the adventure.
Despite my dressing up for Arctic conditions - I've done more than enough seawatching to know it can be a hypothermia-inducing pastime even in summer - we parked up by the cafe in Porthgwarra to find it remarkably calm and warm. Visibility was good from the seawatching point and there were already half a dozen or so birders present when we arrived at around 6am. We'd barely sat down before the first shout went up: 'Balearic Shearwater, close in!'. One of at least seven we had during our three hour stint here, and the best views I've had to date of this species. Manxies were streaming past almost constantly, interspersed with four Sooty Shearwaters, also giving better views in the calm conditions than I'd had in Britain before. The relatively flat sea and good light also afforded us lovely views of at least twenty Storm Petrels which passed by during our visit, many powering on west but some lingering and feeding near the Runnel Stone and gathered fishing boats. Other highlights from what ended up being one of my most enjoyable seawatches included a summer plumage Great Northern Diver which flew overland behind us, a single Whimbrel, and two Chough - a UK lifer for Ed.
By 9am things had gone a bit quiet so, after a quick coffee and a pasty (when in Rome), we hit the road again, heading to Perranuthnoe hoping to catch up with the long-staying Hudsonian Whimbrel. On arrival we met a birder who said he'd just had it in the next cove then watched it fly off west into the next cove along. It was getting a bit wet and windy at this point and we had a few frustrating minutes scouring the rocky coastline with just a single Eurasian Whimbrel and twenty or so roosting Curlew to show for it. A slight change in position though revealed more Whimbrel hidden amongst the Curlew - one with strikingly bold headstripes... We deliberated for a short while and then the bird took flight revealing a complete absence of white on its back - bingo!
No pictures of the Whimbrel unfortunately, but it was nice to see Rock Samphire and Restharrow along the coastal path.
Our next target bird was the Dalmatian Pelican. If accepted as a wild bird this would be Robin's 500th UK bird so the pressure was on! Ed fed us reports from BirdGuides as we drove. Apparently it had flown west from Restronguet a short while ago so we had an idea to pre-empt it and went to check out Hayle Estuary, another of the bird's favourite haunts. There was no sign of it when we got there but it was nice to be back at a place I've enjoyed birding several times in the past and to add a few common species to the day list. Just as we were about to walk up the road from the Old Quay House pub to get a better view of the estuary another report came in - the Pelican was back at Restronguet! Restronguet Creek is a beautiful part of the country, and reminded me a lot of South Africa.
We had no idea exactly where we were looking though, aside from an island somewhere in the creek south-east of Devoran. After an extended session on foot without reward a local pointed us in the right direction and we drove a little way east along the creek where we found the Pelican sitting on an island, as promised. I've seen Great White Pelican in Africa but this bird really looked huge. Something like a giant swan with the head of a Spoonbill, and then that ludicrous yellow bill. It hardly moved for the whole hour or so we watched it, aside from the odd stretch, scratch and look around.
After a well-deserved celebratory pint in the local pub we bid Cornwall farewell and continued on our way with around six hours of daylight remaining and three target birds left to see. Robin knew a few spots along the River Dart which he said were good for Dipper and, sure enough, at the second attempt we enjoyed close views of one. Only a year tick for us all but always a lovely bird to see.
Next on the agenda was Labrador Bay for Cirl Bunting - a long-overdue lifer for me. I was blown away by the beauty of the place, the golden fields bathed in the late afternoon August sun against a backdrop of azure sky and sea.
We didn't have to venture far from the car park before a male Cirl Bunting flew over our heads and very obligingly perched in the hedge in front of us for a few seconds before flying deeper into the vegetation. Soon it flew back out, joined by a female, and both birds gave close views before disappearing into the sacrificial crop field. Before long they were back out again, both carrying food - clearly they have a second brood of hungry young to feed.
On the road again and just a couple of hours left to find our final target bird of the trip - the summer plumage Spotted Sandpiper that turned up at Sutton Bingham Reservoir near Yeovil during the week. After some very welcome directions from Sean Foote and Tim Farr via Twitter we found ourselves looking across at the fishing lodge area of the reservoir from the road that cuts through the northern section. The light was really fading now but by chance a small dark wader flew across my scope view and disappeared round the corner. We realised we had to get over by the fishing lodge, and after a few frantic minutes in the car we were there, now with just minutes of usable daylight left. A quick scan of all visible areas of sandy shoreline ensued before I spotted it (no pun intended) in the far corner. A stonking bird to end a stonking trip. As a Kingfisher piped its way across the reservoir and the last of the daylight waned away we climbed back into the car, exhausted but happy, and headed home for some very welcome sleep. Thanks to Ed and Robin for the company, the birds and the banter. Roll on the next trip!