My decent(ish) finds in Feb 2012: 1 Yellow-browed Warbler Carnon Downs 04/02, 1 Water Pipit Carnon Downs 04/02, 1 Smew Loe Pool 01/02

All recent sightings

Click here or here for recent sightings in Cornwall

Monday, 8 January 2018

The diary of a Lizard patchworker

The Patch
Lizard Point is the most southerly part of the UK mainland. It's a great patch. Aside from being exceptionally scenic, it gets some good species. Spring overshoots such as Subalpine Warbler and Woodchat are almost annual on the patch and in autumn birds come from all directions. Brown Shrike, Bufflehead, and Great Spotted Cuckoo have turned up on the patch in the last few years, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and Red-billed Tropicbird missed the patch by a whisker, and Roller, Little Bustard and Black-and-white Warbler have turned up in years gone by. Nonetheless, like any patch, it can be a slog. Natural diversity is low making for hard birding when conditions are wrong, and there are no open water bodies and little tree cover. As such, common species can be exceptionally rare. The only Coal Tit I've seen on the patch was a hibernicus in 2015, and ducks and waders are almost exclusively seen from sea-watches.  Ortolans are considerably more common than Yellowhammers and Wrynecks more common than Green Woodpeckers. It can be surprisingly difficult to see some of the commoner species, but with concerted effort, scarcities, and even rarities, are fairly easy to come by.

Good seawatching is also one of the benefits of the patch. While not as well known as Porthgwarra and Pendeen, on its day, usually when southerly winds prevail, it can fair almost as well. Anybody interested in sea-watching could do worse than checking out the excellent Lizard Point Wildlife Watchpoint.

Relative to other migration hotspots, it is surprisingly under-watched. Only half a dozen birders cover the patch with any regularity, and even fewer put in serious hours. Nonetheless, I owe a debt of gratitude to my fellow patch-birders as without them I would have missed many good species. Particular thanks go to Tony for opening my eyes to how to bird the patch properly, and for the use of some of his photos.




 Lizard Point. The birding is pretty good, but the scenery isn't half bad either.

The big year
For those of you who don't know, this is all about patchwork challenge. I've been birdwatching on Lizard Point regularly since I moved to Cornwall in 2012 and "patchworked" it in 2016 alongside another patch, eventually seeing 140 species. However, at times, my endeavours were a bit half-hearted, and I felt that with a bit of concerted effort I would have a reasonable chance of seeing a dozen more species. I hadn’t, at the start of the year, envisaged spending quite as much time on the patch as I did. Nor, in my wildest dreams, did I expect to get to within 100 points of the top east coast and Island patches. However, I did feel I had a chance at winning the south coast league and finding the odd scarcity or rarity in the process. What follows, is a blow-by-blow account of what turned out to be an all-consuming effort that nearly resulting in my belongings being thrown out on the doorstep, but in birding terms far exceeded expectations.

Official patch boundaries. The thin lip that extends north takes in a flooding area of grassland, and was the subject of much banter with fellow patcher Tony who prefers a more puritan and circular approach. It's there mostly to wind him up, but did get me a couple of extra species.

January
Winter birdwatching on the Lizard is characterised by the 1000s of auks that fly past en route to breeding locations elsewhere, but sea-watching at this time of year can also produce more exciting species. My efforts began on the 2nd, and resulted in a cracking male Goldeneye: a patch tick for me, and the only one I was to see all year. Other notable species included Great Skua, Red-throated and Great Northern Divers and a Mediterranean Gull. My first day of patching also got me Chough, Black Redstart and a flyover Shoveler - one of only two I was to see on the patch all year. A quartering Short-eared Owl and Marsh Harrier over Lizard downs were also nice to see. 

Winter birding for scarcities is always a bit slow, but plenty of hours spent down on the patch got me a steady trickle of notable species.  A Hen Harrier on the 3rd, Firecrest on the 5th, an early Manx Shearwater on the 6th, Water Rail and Jack Snipe on the 18th, an early Puffin and Dartford Warbler on the 19th and Woodcock on the 20th. Tony's efforts to see the same Woodcock resulted in him sinking chest deep into a muddy pool, so I was pleased to see mine more easily.

Highlights, however, were Siberian Chiffchaff on the 8th. This bird is fairly hard to see on the patch after December but was one of six I was eventually to see. On the 13th,  I got Water Pipit (my first patch record of this species) and Yellow-legged Gull. The Yellow-legged Gull was particularly interesting, as to all intent and purposes it looked like an Atlantic Yellow-legged Gull, though perhaps more like the birds that frequent the Canaries rather than a true Azorean bird. Best of all, in the the absence of being able to conclusively identify the gull, was Cirl Bunting on the 21st– though these have been reintroduced into parts of Cornwall, and used to breed on the Lizard in the 1980s, they are now rare on the patch and this was the first I'd seen. I ended the month on a relatively modest 88 species and 120 points.

Cirl Bunting - one of two to grace the patch in 2017.

Quite a beast of a head pattern on this putative Atlantic Yellow-legged Gull.


February
February is probably the dreariest month in birding terms, but started with a bit of comedy in the shape of an Iceland Gull on the 1st.  This can be a tricky bird to get on the patch every year, but I found one in a flock of Herring Gulls from the van along the Kynance Road. I phoned Tony, who promptly raced up to see it. I reversed from the gateway so that he could get a view. However, just as he was fiddling his camera, and before he'd clapped eyes on it, a Peregrine flew over flushing everything. It flew away never to be seen again. It wasn't until November that I was able to find him another. Other good February birds included my first Sooty Shearwater of the year on the 3rd, my first Blackcap and Siskin of the year on the 18th and Glaucous Gull on the 23rd. The highlight of the month was undoubtedly a flyby Red-necked Grebe on the 4th. Large grebes of any sort are exceptionally rare on the patch. As expected, relatively few were added this month, and I ended the month with 97 species and 133 points.

Fly-by Red-necked Grebe. Photo Terence Thirlaway.


One of the great things about sea-watching from Lizard Point, is that even when good birds are thin on the ground, there is usually the odd mammal or two to keep things interesting.

March
Spring was uncharacteristically late to Cornwall, and March started off pretty quietly. A sea-watched Canada Goose on the 9th heralded a bit of movement, and a Vagrant Emperor Dragonfly on the 11th was, I think, the first 2017 UK record of an exceptional influx, that included at least eight on the Lizard. A duo of Risso's Dolphin and another Red-necked Grebe on the 17th were also nice. March is Puffin month on the Lizard. Dozens fly-by en route to breeding grounds on nearby Islands and this year was no exception. Visitors to the wildlife watchpoint, which displays a sightings board, are often somewhat disappointed to discover that most are about 2 miles out to sea. Nonetheless, a few closer birds were obliging enough to provide views of their bills.

By late March the usual suspects had arrived. Starting with a Wheatear on the 15th, followed by Sandwich Tern on the 21st, Willow Warbler on the 23rd, Sand Martin on the 24th and Swallow on the 28th. A few waders also started passing Lizard Point: a Dunlin on the 24th and a Ruff on the 28th, the latter a pretty good bird from Lizard Point. The only other addition of note was a Little Gull on the 21st, the only one I was to see all year. I surpassed the 100 species mark in March, finishing on 106 species and 144 points.

Most of the Puffins pass fairly far out, but the odd one comes in a bit closer.

Wheatear - always a sign that spring is on the way.

April
A feature of spring on the Lizard, in addition to passerine migrants, is the number of waders that migrate past the point, often immediately after dawn. I spent many mornings sea-watching before work, often surrounded by dolphins. It was roughly at this point that I got the real bug for patch birding and started putting in more hours. Early morning sea-watches were often followed by a few hours looking for migrants on land, and it is at this time of year, as the weather warms up, that the Lizard becomes one of the most enjoyable places to spend one's time birding. Notable birds included a Redstart on the 5th, Stock Dove on the 7th, Ring Ouzel, Hooded Crow and an early Hobby on the 17th, Pomarine Skua on the 18th, Red Kite on the 21st, Arctic Skua on the 28th and Tree Pipit on the 29th.  Early-morning wader passage was also good and included the first Whimbrel on the 18th, Bar-tailed Godwit on the 20th and Little Stint on the 23rd. One of the highlights of the year, however, was a fly-by Avocet on the 23rd. Other highlights included Wryneck, also on the 23rd and Woodchat Shrike on the 3rd – one of five to eventually grace the patch and perhaps an all-time record, though sadly none of which I found. The Woodchat Shrike was a bit of a frustrating one for me, as I'd decided to slack off early as the weather conditions didn't seem that promising. I had originally intended to check the place where it was found. The lesson learned, I guess, is to always keep going. Not finding birds was a bit of a feature of my spring. While I spent more time on the patch than at any other time of year and saw some great species, I didn't really find much myself. The Wryneck, for example, was pulled out from under my nose. Nonetheless, things did start to hot-up in April and I finished on 129 with 179 points.

 A pre-cursor to Cornwall's annual festival of Kites, when hundreds of roving young birds turn up.


My first ever Spring Wryneck on the patch.


One of up to five Woodchat Shrike to grace the Lizard in 2017, this one singing. An all-time record?


May
Spring can be a bit all or nothing on the Lizard, and despite a steady trickle of good birds in April, it was on the 2nd and 3rd of May that things really took off. Unfortunately I'd opted to spend the morning of the 2nd sea-watching and was at work on the morning of the 3rd, and I left it to others to find most of the good birds. I spent most of the 3rd chasing some of the good birds that Mark Pass at found, including Serin, Hoopoe and Nightingale. Unusually, for spring, a Richard's Pipit also put in an appearance.  It wasn't until a few days later I was able to find a "three-pointer" myself, in the form of a cracking brace of Blue-headed Wagtails at Old Lizard Head. This aren't all that rare on the Lizard, indeed they'vebred in the past, but are always nice to see.

The Serin sort of characterises Lizard Point birding for me. It stayed until July and during this entire time was only reported a handful of times by the Lizard regulars, but often showed extremely well. It may, in fact, have attempted to breed: I bumped into what was quite possibly another right at the other end of the patch, and it seems unlikely that it would have stayed for so long without doing so. While not a rare bird, had it occurred at one of the more regularly watched coastal sites in Norfolk, for example, it would have been viewed by hundreds and put out to the news services almost daily. While not suppressed in any way, it was left to its own devices purely because few could be bothered to make the journey.


Late migrants continued to arrive in May, including my first Reed Warbler and Spotted Flycatcher on the 11th and Pied Flycatcher on the 12th. Later in May I faired rather better at finding a few birds, including three Cattle Egret on the 14th and a cracking Long-tailed Skua on the 15th. This is usually a pretty difficult bird to find on the patch, but hours of sea-watching paid dividends, and I was eventually lucky enough to see four.  Bird of the month was entirely unexpected. I was out at dusk listening for Nightjar and Quail, when a Red-footed Falcon flew over my head. It had been found a day earlier by Nick Crouch, some distance away from the patch, and certainly made up for dipping this species in late April and for the lack of Nightjar and Quail. I think I moved up into first place in the south coast league in May, finishing on 148 species and 228 points.


Nightingale singing in Caerthillean Valley.

Hoopoe Caerthillean. 

Cattle Egret. One of several that turned up in the patch after the exceptional influx during the winter of 2016/17, when ~100 turned up in Cornwall


Red-footed Falcon hunting over Hayle Kimbro a few days after I saw it over Kynance Road.


June
June was predictably fairly quiet, and lots of hours thrashing the bushes in the hope of finding later migrants such as Common Rosefinch and Red-backed Shrike to no avail was compensated for by pleasant weather and the distraction of other taxa. It was the early onset of the sea-watching season that got me extra birds in June, with a lovely Roseate Tern on the 8th, and Great and Cory's Shearwaters on the 23rd and 24th respectively. The former doesn't usually turn-up in Cornwall until late July and was the harbinger of an exceptional sea-watching season.  I finished the month with 151 species and 243 points, amazingly surpassing my points total of the previous year.







In the beginning of June, my attention often turns to other species, including the specialist Lizard flora, all of which can be seen on the patch. Top to bottom: Dwarf Rush, Knotted Clover, Pygmy Rush, Fringed Rupturewort and Twin-headed Clover.


July
The sea-watching season kicked-off in earnest in July, and I was down at Lizard Point many mornings before work. On one occasion I managed to see 140 "3-pointers" in just a couple of hours. Despite 100s of hours of sea-watching earlier in the year, I was eventually able to catch up with the first of many Balearic Shearwaters. Normally, this bird is easy enough to see in January and is often the first shearwater seen in the year. This year I was to get four shearwater species before this one. Sabine's Gull on the 20th and Wilson's Petrel on the 28th were also great to see. 2017 was an exceptional year for Wilson's Petrels. Never previously seen on the Lizard with certainty, despite regular sea-watching since the 1970s, at least 7 were recorded this year. I finished the month on 155 species but bagged quite a few extra points, and by the end of of July was up to 255.

A classic pre-work sea-watch.

Others faired equally well. This on the same day that I saw my Wilson's Petrel.

It was an exceptional year for Wilson's Petrels in the southwest.

August
I was on holiday in Portugal in early August, but the autumn land-bird season kicked-off in earnest in late August, starting with an Ortolan Bunting I found on the 23rd. This pre-cursed a bit of a purple patch of finding scarcities, which lasted right through to November. I was slightly miffed not to find the Melodious Warbler that turned up on the same day, particularly as I've never managed to find one before and had checked the bush that Tony found it in only 20 mins before he did. However, three eventually turned-up on the patch, the third of which I found. Honey Buzzard on the 26th was also great and part of a fairly large influx of migrant Common Buzzards. Most notable in patch terms was a small influx of Green Woodpeckers on the 28th, two of which I saw, resulting in a patch lifer. The bird that got away though, was a slim looking Harrier on Old Lizard Head on the 27th. I never quite managed to get good enough views to clinch this. I finished the month with 163 species and 275 points.

Ortolan Bunting. This is a fairly regular migrant on the Lizard in late Aug/early Sep, and several have been recorded flying over at night.

Melodious Warbler - one of three that turned up on the Lizard in Autumn.



September
September started off with a bang. I found a Wryneck on the morning of the 2nd, and then decided to spend a couple of hours sea-watching ahead of an incoming storm. This is something I don't do often, but I'm glad I did.  About 30 minutes in, my attention was drawn to a close-range bird with a large shearwater type flight action, but with very dark underwings.  It took me a few seconds to realise I was enjoying point blank range views of Fea's-type Petrel as it cruised by with a few Manx Shearwaters. I was too busy enjoing the views to worry much about whether or not it was  feae or desertae (and frankly who cares), but I'm pretty confident it wasn't Zino's. Since moving to Cornwall in 2009, this is the bird I have most wanted to see, and it was an added bonus to bag the mythical beast on the patch. I rushed up the hill to find phone reception to put the news out, and was delighted to hear it was seen flying past Porthgwarra just over an hour later. This was the first record for Lizard Point, though characteristic of the  2017 season, another was also seen and three other distant 'probables' got away.

There were a few other species that got away over the rest of the month. I dipped Tony's Bonelli's Warbler and Garganey, Kingfisher, Green Sandpiper and Osprey and the good as they get Yelkouan Shearwater I saw passing Lizard Point, on the 21st was never going to get accepted, so I don't intend to submit it or count it. These get reported fairly regularly in Cornwall, and it seems likely that some of them are genuine, but they are virtually never seen outside the Mediterranean elsewhere in Europe, and those that do get seen here are probably the confusing integrades from Menorca. That said, the genetics suggests that those are pretty much Yelkouan with a few Balearic genes rather than the other way around, so if one is to separate them as species at all, it seems surprising that these are dismissed.  

However, I did get some good birds. I found my first Sabine's Gull of the year on the 11th (Tony found the previous one), Grey Phalaropes on the 17th, Leach's Petrel on the 23rd and Melodious Warbler on the 24th. A patch-lifer in the form of a singing Corn Bunting on the 24th was also unexpected. I finished the month on 168 species, and 307 points, and it was really at this point that my score started to look very respectable in a national context.


John Gale's excellent field sketch of Fea's-type Petrel, almost certainly the same bird that I saw, does the bird far more justice than I could ever hope to. 


Grey Phalaropes. Two of perhaps two-dozen that turned up on the patch in 2017. 



October
October, normally the best month of the year, was surprisingly hard work – the weather was sub-optimal at times, and it felt like a bit of a slog after the excellent early autumn. I was also pretty busy at work, and it was quite difficult to get out. Perhaps I'd just peaked early and had false expectations of bagging a few genuine rarities and as a result, was feeling a bit jaded. Reflecting now on what I saw I have nothing to complain about. It was probably just the start-of-term pressures at work that made it feel like a bit of a slog at times. Nonetheless, the hours I could spend in the field did pay-off and it started with a moment of comedy on the 8th. I was strolling through Lizard Village chatting to Tony and asking him whether he'd bothered checking through the starlings much this year. He said he hadn't, at which point I glanced up at a small flock on the wires and promptly found a Rose-coloured Starling. A self-found Richard's Pipit and another Vagrant Emperor Dragonfly on the same day were also nice.

The best bit of October, however, was probably the vis-mig, which included flocks of Brambling and Redpoll on the 9th, Lapland Bunting and one of several Hawfinch on 14th, Woodlark on the 20th and several Mistle Thrush on the 27th (these are fairly rare on the patch). 1000s of Woodpigeons and Chaffinches also flew over when conditions were right. Other notable birds included a huge influx of Bullfinches and Firecrests (I saw close to 60 Firecrests over this period), a smaller influx of Long-tailed Tits, a few Yellow-browed Warblers and Turtle Doves, and, after a tip-off from Mark Pass, a Barn Owl. This bird breeds just off the patch, and can occasionally be seen from the patch, but can be quite tricky. I was lucky to see it as a few days later it got clobbered a Peregrine! Bird of the month was probably Tony's Little Bunting on the 29th, which I was slightly miffed not to find, having thrashed the same stubble field earlier in the day. I caught up with it the next day. A self-found Serin, which had given me the run-around for a few days made up for it and put my doubts about the authenticity of the previous self-found one to rest. Final new bird of the month was a Greenland White-fronted Goose on the 30th.

I also dipped a few good species: American Golden Plover, Purple Heron and Olive-backed Pipit the most painful. However, I finished the month with 179 species and 336 points, up to 2nd place in the national league.


Juvenile Rose-coloured Starling. One of three new "self-finds" this year.

One of several Turtle Doves that turned up in October after a small influx in spring.

 Yellow-browed Warbler. Now a common bird, but not many turned up this autumn.

 Tony's Little Bunting

November
Early November was the classic Cornwall mix of late summer and winter. A small flock of Swallows were still hawking insects around the village on the first, and a Willow Warbler from late October stayed in Church Cove until at least the 2nd. More Vagrant Emperor Dragonflies put in an appearance along the Kynance Road on the 8th and 10th, though I didn't see those. Two Lesser Redpolls in the Little Bunting stubble field were the first I've seen on the ground on the Lizard, and therefore the first I can truly be confident weren't Common Redpoll. A Siberian Chiffchaff on Lizard Downs on the same day and an Iceland Gull past the point on the 19th were more typical of a Cornish winter.


Birds of the month were undoubtedly a cracking male Cirl Bunting and another Little Bunting found in the same field within two minutes of one another on the 18th.  The former notable for being the second on the Lizard in 2017, and an indication of possible range expansion away from the classic sites on the Roseland. The latter noteworthy as it bagged me an extra three self-found points. Luckily John Foster was watching the other Little Bunting at the time, confirming there were two.  However, the only new species of the month were sea-watched Wigeon on the 3rd and Little Auk on the 24th. 181 species, 339 points and still in second place.




A second patch Little Bunting - this time my find. 




December
December involved quite a lot of effort in a bid to knock Richard Doan off top-spot, but for little reward.  Tony's Little Bunting was joined by a Brambling on the 2nd, and the same field held a Woodlark on the 22nd. Another Siberian Chiffchaff put in an appearance in Church Cove on the 15th.  However, a fly-by Brent Goose on the 11th, a fly-over Snow Bunting on the 15th and my first patch Caspian Gull on the 27th were the only new species. A latter is a rare bird in Cornwall, but not the bird I would have chosen to finish my patchwork challenge on.


All in all, while I didn't quite win it, it was a great year. I finished in second place overall and was comfortably in first place in the south coast leagues both in terms of overall score and comparative score. That said, my overall rankings probably reflect the fairly low top scores on other patches relative to previous years. The most notable achievement, I guess, was obtaining the highest mean score per species, perhaps indicative of the lack of common birds on the Lizard. For me, however, the highlights were just being out and about, learning more about the patch and finding a few good ones. I had at least 20 patch ticks, and three self-found ticks. All in all, it was quite an effort, but ultimately very rewarding.

 I finished the year comfortably in first place in the south coast overall points and comparative leagues. Somewhat more to my surprise I finished second overall in the national league!

The final verdict
Trying to have a serious stab at patchwork challenge while holding down a demanding job and devoting time to family isn't easy. However, it's probably the time I spent birding on the patch that helped me to stay relatively sane amid the stresses of academic life under an austerity driven Tory Government and Brexit. The hardest part is remembering you're doing it for fun, and every bird seen is a bonus. I had to constantly remind myself of this as the margin at the top narrowed, but didn't vanish, and good birds passed me by. Almost inevitably, I dipped the odd species or fail to see things that should have been straightforward. In previous years Lesser Whitethroat and Greenshank have been easy, yet I simply failed to find them. I'm sure that, had I clinched that Ring-billed Gull in late December, the flyover AGP in October, or the uniform-backed Whimbrel that flew past the point in April I could have won it, but the same could be said of virtually any patch in the country. There is no point dwelling on the "what ifs" and "could have beens".

Reading through the account above I realise I focus on the rarities and scarcities. I've tried to give a bit of a flavour of everyday species and everyday birding, but a write-up can never quite capture that. The 10,000s of Auks that fly past each winter, the fall of several 100 wheatears in late March, the days in early Autumn when Tree Pipits and Yellow Wagtails zip over, the hours spent looking for common species such Tawny Owl, Mistle Thrush and Wigeon, the complete lack of Coal Tits on the patch, the excitement of south-easterly winds in autumn, the excitement of strong south-westerlies in summer,  the frustration of north-westerlies at any time of year and the hours and days spent in both frustration and wonder are really what captures birding on the Lizard.

For me the true learning curve of patchwork challenge was the sea-watching. I've always done a bit in the right conditions in late summer, but beyond that had never really put the effort in. This year I spent 100s of hours at all times of year in a bid to get a few extra fly-bys and was struck by just how unpredictable it can be. In classic conditions, I often saw next to nothing, but in fair weather often saw some really good ones. The spectacle and diversity of birds that can fly by is simply astounding. Never in a 100 years did I expect to see Avocet.  The other wildlife was also spectacular. 100s of Common Dolphins, dozens of Bottle-nosed Dolphins and Porpoises, as well as Basking Sharks, Ocean Sunfish, Blue-finned Tunas, Minke Whales and Risso's Dolphins pass through or feed offshore from Lizard Point, often at unpredictable times of year, making a visit in any month well-worthwhile. 


I plan to take a break from patching fanatically for a year or two and spend a bit more time birdwatching elsewhere. Nonetheless, the Lizard Point is a spectacular birdwatching location and well worth a visit! Any of you who wish to find out more about it could do worse than buying Brian's Cave excellent book covering 40 years of birding spent there. It's a wonderful place. Just don't make it too popular!



2 comments:

  1. Well, big congrats on becoming number 2 at least! This must have taken you hours to write up. Glad to hear you did not quite land up on the doorstep with all your belongings :o)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks. It took even longer to do:-)

      Delete

Lizard weather forecast

BBC weather forecast