1980 Part 7 - Cornwall and back

A mid-September Saturday saw me embark on the whistle-stop tour of Kent, starting at Shellness, on the Isle of Sheppey, where a marked passage of hirundines and pipits was most obvious, along with 100 grounded Meadow Pipits, eight Wheatears and eight Yellow Wagtails. Nearby Capel Fleet was playing host to an immature Marsh Harrier. We then dropped down and drove slowly across the flat greenlands of Walland Marsh, where 25 Yellow Wagtails, four Whinchats and a Common Redstart were seen from the car. Arriving at Dungeness it was all too apparent that little was happening, although the following morning was kind enough to bestow upon us an adult female Red-backed Shrike, along with a Turtle Dove and Whinchat. All were keeping low in the bushes thanks to a strengthening south-westerly wind.

Along with Dave E, we were whisked down to Cornwall in the early hours of September 21st courtesy of Mike Mc’s Toyota Celica – speed trumped comfort as we lowered ourselves into the cramped interior. First stop was Stithian’s Reservoir, where a Semipalmated Sandpiper was entertaining the crowds. I took copious notes, as many other birders were also doing. This aspect of field ornithology was still a common practice back then. A few birders were starting to get into photography, with a handful starting to make a name for themselves as ‘rare bird paparazzi’. They could be seen at most twitches, straining to get as close as possible to their quarry without upsetting the rest of those gathered. This was largely tolerated as there was quite a demand for the resultant photographs – and at most twitches the photographer’s car boot bonnets would be raised, with a veritable gallery of the latest rarity images on show inside, all for purchase. We went back for second helpings of this American peep in the afternoon, which shared the reservoir mud with two Pectoral Sandpipers and a Curlew Sandpiper. Quick visits were also made to Lizard Airport (a treble dip on Baird’s Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper and Woodchat Shrike) and Marazion Marsh, where a Pectoral Sandpiper was much kinder, allowing views down to 10 feet, until something spooked it – but rather then flying away it crouched low and scuttled off in the manner of a Water Rail. We returned home via Chew Valley Lake (six Spotted Redshanks and single Green Sandpiper and Ruff) and Cheddar Reservoir, where a Wilson’s Phalarope haunted the foreshore, with a Little Stint, a Spotted Redshank, a Greenshank and a Ruff in accompaniment.

A week later, and we were back again. The Semi-palmated Sandpiper was still at Stithians (along with one of the Pectoral Sandpipers), but we hurried on to the disused Davidstow Airport, the water-flashed open high ground proving irresistible to more American vagrant waders, with both Baird’s Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper performing admirably. We retraced our previous week’s homebound route and enjoyed seconds of the Cheddar Reservoir Wilson’s Phalarope, along with 1,000 Teal and a drake Red-crested Pochard. It was on this trip that I started to weigh up the pros and cons of ‘long-distance’ day birding. We had spent far more time sat in a car than in the field. The journeys were largely made along characterless motorways or tedious A-roads. My arrival at the site of a rarity was one of trepidation as to whether our quarry was still present, not one of anticipation. And any subsequent successful observation of the said rarity was highlighted by relief and not joy. I had already concluded that I was not made of the stuff of a twitcher – not driven enough, not bothered enough if the truth were told. It would still be a few years before I completed cast off the allure of rarity and it became a bit-part player in my birding time.

As we entered October I found myself standing along the unfamiliar banks of Claremont Park, a National Trust property in leafy Surrey suburbia. An Osprey had taken a break from its southbound passage and was finding the site to its liking. We were able to watch it make several circuits of the ornamental lake, although no attempt was made to fish. My first two Redwings of the autumn were also recorded. There were more Redwings to be seen at Beddington SF on 12th, 42 being recorded moving south-west, these being overshadowed by a male Ring Ouzel, that fed in the hawthorns along Cuckoo Lane.

Mid-October. Arriving at work with an enormous rucksack did draw attention to myself, but I was oblivious to such things, as I had a fortnight at Dungeness to look forward to, my first ‘holiday’ since becoming a working man. I could have chosen anywhere to go, but, as usual, the Kent shingle had won out. Working up until lunchtime, I walked to Morden Underground station from the office, and after just four hours of travelling set foot on the DBO recording area, being welcomed by my first Fieldfares of the autumn. The following morning a steady passage of finches moved into a decreasing north-westerly wind, with 380 Goldfinches, 250 Linnets, 225 Redpolls and 60 Tree Sparrows. At least 150 Goldcrests were scattered across the area, along with some tardy summer migrants – three Ring Ouzels, two Common Redstarts, and singles Garden and Reed Warbler. An evening walk up to the Long Pits, in a pale lemon-yellow light, was blessed with at least seven Bearded Tits in the reed bed and a hunting Long-eared Owl. I went back to the Long Pits at dawn, where I was able to trap four of the Bearded Tits, in a strategically placed mist net, and again at dusk, when 900 House Sparrows came into roost in the sallow bushes, with 1,000 Starlings, 150 Redpolls and two Ring Ouzels completing the evening counts.

I walked into Lydd to buy food on October 20th, with benign weather for company. At least 18 Corn Buntings were seen on my journey, but the best was saved until the return leg, with a Hooded Crow associating with the Rooks, the latter giving it quite a hard time. Both Slavonian Grebe and two Bewick’s Swans were new in on the pits, and another Long-eared Owl treated me to an evening hunting session, this time at the back of the ARC sand bowl. There followed a few days of strong south-westerly winds and heavy rain. This stifled land bird movement, and the sea was not much better. Our visits to the various pits, finding any shelter from the weather that we could, revealed two Red-necked Grebes and little else. Calm conditions arrived by dawn on 24th, which encouraged a minimum of 900 Redpolls to arrive, with 75 being trapped in the first net round. There was little back-up, with just a handful of Bramblings and Siskins, plus a late Common Redstart and Willow Warbler of note. The wind held off again the following day, but the area was quiet, highlight being the five species of grebe that were present on ARC.

With another wet and windy south-westerly front arriving on 26th, we had little choice but to barricade ourselves into the sea watching hide, but apart from 850 Brent Geese and 300 Kittiwakes there was not much moving, with even less on the following day, although a late Whinchat popped up on the station gorse. I needed something different to do as the birding was not cutting it at the point, so I got a lift to the northern extremity of Lade Sands and walked back, counting the waders on the way. 855 Oystercatchers, 255 Dunlins, 95 Sanderlings, 45 Redshanks, 24 Turnstones, 23 Curlews, 10 Grey Plovers and seven Bar-tailed Godwits were my reward. It was a wonderfully peaceful way to spend a few hours. The wind had dropped by 30th, a day when a Snow Bunting flew north-west, the Greenfinch flock had grown to 800 strong, and a late Willow Warbler was in the moat. The 31st was a glorious day – sunny and warm with a gentle south-easterly. Our hopes were high. It was surprising that, despite much effort, the recording area was desperately quiet. That evening we found out that, just further up the coast at Sandwich Bay, no fewer than three Pallas’s Warblers had been present. Seldom had I felt so deserted by the birding Gods. November 1st dawned with the Dungeness faithful ready to get out into the field and find our own Pallas’s. It was another bright and warm day, the south-easterly now a strong force 5-7. How hard we tried! There had been an unforgettable arrival, that of 100 Firecrests. The moat, at first light, was crawling with these tiny gems, and, when checking the lighthouse garden, three were feeding out in the open, on the grass, in the manner of Dunnocks. 220 Goldcrests were ample back up, with 50 each of Robin and Song Thrush. It had been a memorable day, but there was no getting away from the fact that we felt as if we had missed out – failed even – to find that one rare bird.

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