Monday, 12 September 2011

The Big Birdy Weekend!

Hayle Estuary (Copperhouse Pool)

I know, I know, it’s been a long time coming but finally the long, long wait is over! OK, so procrastination is the principal spur behind today’s blogging activities, nevertheless, I’m going to enjoy the moment whilst kidding myself that if I put off doing what has to be done for a sufficient length of time that somehow it will eventually do itself.

Right then, as it’s probably somewhat foolish to attempt to catch-up with six months’ worth of life in the oft-La La Land of the Narcoleptic Naturalist, I’ll see if I can come up with some selected highlights.

Nothing particularly new or interesting to write about on the Narcolepsy front – life has been ticking along pretty much as usual, with the customary good, not-so-good, bad and downright horrible days. Through the delights of social networking and casual remarks, more sleepy people continue to come into my life, which, give or take a few exceptions, is always good. And, significantly, given that this will be a first for me, I am hoping that it won’t be long before I finally get to meet some ‘in the flesh’!

So, six months in a single paragraph – could be interesting. Deep breath, here goes. In addition to my Cornish explorations, I’ve been to Shropshire, Sussex and um, seemingly nowhere else. Well, that’s a good start! I’ve visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan, WWT Arundel and RSPB Pulborough Brooks, been a pirate for the day, taken part in a 24-hour BioBlitz, discovered an aphid new to Cornwall (get me, I made the BBC website, no less!), been in the sea twice in one week, attempted body-boarding (once was enough), eaten far too much chocolate and ice cream (oops!), been to a performance at the Minack Theatre, seen some good birdies, pootered lots of psyllids, attended an Invasive Species conference, embraced my inner anorak, had a snooze on the Lizard, survived Wryneck country, discovered the delights of gluten-free pies, got up-close and personal with some highland cattle, been stuck in mud, organised and participated in a speed-birding event, been on a pig walk, become a Cornwall Wildlife Trust volunteer and subsequently surveyed lots of hedges, been to two lovely wedding celebrations, grown some courgettes and enjoyed the company of good friends.

Common Wasp Vespa vulgaris enjoying some Toasted Coconut icecream at Roskilly's Farm

And, just over a week ago, I experienced the delights of the inaugural Big Birdy Weekend.

‘The Big Birdy Weekend – what’s that?’ I hear you cry. What indeed! I might have mentioned previously my lovely little online Nerdy Birdy group (as it’s fondly become known), created as a safe place for the exchange of bird sightings, pictures and videos, ornithological chit chat, a little bit of friendly competitiveness and general birdy-nerdiness. Members currently only number sixteen, and with the exception of one or two outliers, reside mostly in the West Country or the Home Counties. At some point, the idea of a post-thesis, early September birding trip for the MSc-ers amongst the group began to be bounded about, whereupon I casually remarked that Cornwall was pretty good at that time of the year, with the early onset of autumn/winter migrants adding some excitement to the mix. So, Cornwall it turned out to be.

I’ll avoid the ins and outs of the to-ing and fro-ing of ideas, the logistics of how, when, where and who, and will move swiftly to the dawning of Day One of the Big Birdy Weekend (henceforth to be referred to as BBW). Imagine if you will, blue skies and blazing sunshine, not a cloud in sight, all made pleasant by a soft, cooling breeze… Well, that’s what it had been like for the two days previous, when Cornwall was doing us proud, and all was well in the world. Come the dawning of the BBW, the sky had morphed into a monotonous blanket of greyness, the temperature had dropped several degrees, the cooling breeze was by now threatening to blow a severe hoolie, and it was obvious that rain of the torrential variety was imminent. Still, undeterred by meteorological spanners being thrown into the works, collective excitement was still paramount.

First task of the day for my Lovely Other Half, the Small Person and yours truly was a quick dash to Land’s End to wave off a friend as he embarked on a Land’s End to John O’Groats cycle ride for charity. Not at all envious but very much in awe, we took the opportunity to peer into the gloom in the hope of seeing some interesting birds and/or cetaceans, before dutifully taking photos and huddling together against the wind as we proudly waved off our friend and his two companions on their long journey.

Meanwhile, due to a c***-up on the car-hire front, our well-laid BBW plans were already afoot, and the designated Cornwall-gang’s chauffeur was now making her way to Penzance by train, where, after some rather heated discussion with the car-hire company in question, she had managed to eventually secure a car for the weekend. On our arrival at the train station to meet the Chauffeur, it was all systems go. The Arrivals monitor showed the train as being on time and due to arrive at its designated platform any time now. Five minutes later and all mention of the train had vanished from the Arrivals monitor but there was no sign of the train, only a station full of confused people, waiting either for the missing arrival or the train that was due to depart in only a few minutes. With my Lovely Other Half now circling Penzance to avoid paying an extortionate amount of parking money, I awaited news from the Chauffeur as to the train’s whereabouts. ‘Stuck in Camborne with no [phone] signal’, at last beeped a text message. Half an hour overdue, it was with some relief when said train finally pulled into Penzance. And then it was onto our next mission – taking temporary possession of our weekend transport.

Car sorted and it was on to Carbis Bay to collect another party member. Meanwhile, the Home Counties lot had had a smooth and straightforward journey, and had long-arrived at Hayle, where they were already ogling birdies on the estuary from the RSPB hide and getting to see all manner of goodies. Texts were being exchanged all over the place but it really did seem as though we were soon going to be in the same place at the same time. And where better to mark such an occasion? At a pasty bakery, of course! In the rain though…

With greetings and hugs exchanged and tummies soon filled, the dilemma of where to go to find birdies was at the forefront of people’s minds. I should say at this point, that the aim of this weekend was not to hang out the beach, soaking up the sun or catching a wave or two but to see as many species as we could in the time available; i.e. we were being ‘proper’ twitchers, albeit with geographical restraints in place. At the forefront of the forefront of people’s minds were the first of this season’s Wrynecks to arrive in the county, one known to be hanging out somewhere in Nanquidno valley, and the other reported to be favouring the delights of Porthgwarra. We weren’t going to let a spot of rain stop us from finding our birdies, and with a mental map of how to get there by car engrained in my mind, Nanquidno it was (via a diversion to Penzance library in order to purchase a ‘Choughed about books’ bag, no less, though).

Despite a worried text along the lines of ‘we seem to be driving down to a dead end, are you sure this is the right place?’, the two carloads made it to Nanquidno, and Wryneck hunting commenced. Unfortunately, due to a prior engagement on the part of the Chauffeur, the Cornwall party were forced to abandon the mission soon after arrival, and it was left to the Home Counties team to carry the torch for the party, whilst agreeing to regroup in the evening for pub-based socialising.

Several hours and a vegetable curry (with popadams) later, the Chauffeur having returned from her prior engagement involving horses and a big beach, and despite extreme tiredness (thankfully mostly on my part), we headed into the foggy darkness of the West Penwith moors to honour our pub-going commitment. Being later than anticipated, a text was sent to the Home Counties party advising of our revised ETA, and we continued on our way. Upon our arrival, there was no sign of our comrades, and also, rather tellingly, no sign of a mobile phone signal. Feeling rather guilty at being slightly relieved at not having to attempt coherent conversation (all manner of gibberish had been emanating from my mouth for quite some time as it was, especially as rather ironically, my desperate attempt at getting some sleep before dinner had failed big time!). Showing willing, we staggered through the darkness to the village hostel (the visitors’ resting place for the night), only to find the door locked. So, a note through the hostel door and the same through the car door it was, and to bed we went. Not being able to see much further than a few metres ahead, coupled with intense darkness, made the drive to and from Zennor interesting, to say the least; however, our adventure was rewarded with all manner of exciting wildlife encounters: a fox, two frogs, a Barn Owl, a bat and a hedgehog, all put on a fine display.

Hopes were high for Day Two of the BBW, not only on the birdy front but on the organisational front! Things began well - the sun was shining, notes had been found, and off we were to Porthgwarra, in the hope of seeing lots of new (at least to to us) pelagic species and choughs for the visitors (the latter simply had to be done!). It turned out that whilst the Wryneck at Nanquidno was eventually deemed to be invisible, a very productive bush had been happened upon, from which burst all manner of delights, including a Garden Warbler and Spotted Flycatchers. So, all was not lost and spirits were still high.

Arriving at Porthgwarra to find once again that a mobile signal appeared only sporadically, there was no sign of our twitchy friends. So, after spending some time enjoying the spectacle of Shearwaters galore zooming along the coast, the wilds of Gwennap Head and the hope of bumping into some intrepid Wryneck-cum-Chough hunters soon beckoned. Ascending Gwennap Head was a feat in itself, given that one of the birding party was only five years old, one was carrying a heavy (and non-contained) telescope with a mind of its own, one was using a pair of crutches, and all four of us were fighting a continual battle against a very determined wind.

Having reached the National Coastwatch Institution Lookout station:, there was still no sign of our co-birders; however, there was the briefest of mobile signals, and a customary ‘Where are you?’ text was duly sent. ‘We’re back at the car park’ was the reply, followed by a message that they would come back up to meet us with news of their birding achievements – including yet another invisible Wryneck, lots of Meadow Pipits, a Wheatear, and yes, a pair of choughs. Unfortunately, the latter was seemingly not a ‘satisfactory’ twitch, and the craving for a better sighting had taken hold. But first, there was a small matter of a certain hitherto very elusive piciform.

So, back to Nanquidno it was. Having first deduced which of two ‘No Parking’ signs was the one described in the recent bird reports, we set about in visual pursuit of our birding quarry. One ‘scope and several pairs of binoculars later and sadly, we were still without our Wryneck twitch. For some of us, Wryneck ennui was rapidly setting in, even more so because the lovely sunshine of the morning had rudely been replaced by greyness, and it was with some relief that we decided to make a move.

First stop Marazion Marsh for lunch and a reported Wood Sandpiper. No luck on the latter but the former was most successful! Next stop, Lizard Point for a ‘better’ chough sighting and whatever else might happen to be there. In fact, it turned out that what did happen to be there was rain coming down in proverbial stair rods, wind that was howling like the proverbial banshee, and perhaps more significantly but not unsurprising given our run of luck thus far, a distinct lack of choughs. We did see some Grey Seals though!

As the Home Counties party had a long journey back Up Country ahead of them, the weather was showing no real sign of improvement, and spirits were by now showing distinct signs of deflation, it was decided that we would call it a day collectively. So we said our ‘goodbyes’ and agreed that despite a lack of new birds and appalling weather, a good time was had by all and there the event should definitely be repeated – we’re thinking the Arne Peninsula, or Norfolk, or the Scottish Highlands, or Rutland Water…

So, despite more time spent hurtling around the Cornish countryside than out and about looking at birdies, coupled with numerous hiccups along the way, between us, we managed to see an admirable ninety species of bird, including a couple of rarities – a fine effort, methinks!

Right, that’s enough procrastination for now. I’m off to dig out some pretty pics with which to furnish my ramblings.

Hayle Estuary

No comments:

Post a Comment