26 August, 2011

Shear Joy

Back to my more regular delayed posting, all that reporting on the day [or even within minutes] was just getting silly.

Also, 'twas a bit late when I got back and I needed sleep. Yes, 'got back', for yesterday I picked my moment and made the trip I've been planning since I found out about the August shutdown... That's right, folks, I was at 'Gwarra.

[[You can just see the grin, can't you?]]

Its something of a pilgrimage for seawatchers - not that I haven't been there before, but its always been after going for something else [usually as consolation and an effort to cheer myself up after horribly dipping something else, Citrine Wagtails and Savi's Warblers spring to mind...], I've never made The Trip, so to speak. This has been rectified, and The Goddess of Birding rewarded my devotion and She did rain down big shears upon Her worshippers and It Was Good.

But I'll get to that.

I dragged up at an obscene hour and decided that, while it is quicker to go via Plymouth when there's no traffic, as there were very heavy thundery showers forecast, it'd only take one of them plus one idiot to block the Bodmin road and I'd be screwed. A30 it was and a good choice that was as between Okie and Sourton a Woodcock flew across in front of me :D Crossing the Tamar into Cornwall, a couple of Goosanders did the same thing :D Good omens, I thought. The drive was enlivened by valley fog, hill fog, and apocalyptically heavy rain. I mean, ye gods and little fishes it threw it down - I was wishing for an 'Even faster' setting on my wipers and even the white vans and audi drivers were slowing down for it! [Yeah, that serious...] The sun came up between squalls, showing off the size of the clouds that were marching around - but also how spread out they were. Oh well, alea jacta est and all that...

Despite catching lorries, two buses and a tractor I made average time and found only 7 cars there before me, with one chap set up on the mound overlooking Porthgwarra cove. The sun was shining as I took the coast path to Hella [thinking to see what it was like there before deciding whether to stay put or go on to Gwennap] but the wind was keen [[That'll be 'Unsecured hats go bye-byes!', then]] and the sea looked frisky so I thought, 'Hmm, maybe...'. Watchers were spread out around the area - for those of you who've not been, the two heads are both big sites with a lot of places to sit at different heights and aspects - I picked a couple of chaps close by and wandered over, found a spot that seemed sheltered and had literally just sat down and was pulling my tripod out of my bag when [Cornish Birder] called "Large Shear!" followed a couple of seconds later by "It's Great". Cue the Benny Hill music as I raced the speeding shear while trying to suppress the flashbacks to my first one at Berry Head [[Really not my finest hour, that....]]. As at Berry, I just got on it in time. If I'd known... Nah, I'd still have wanted it!

Settling down to watch, I realised my spot was not ideal - the wind was coming around the corner and if it did what was forecast and got more southerly it would only get worse [[In a blatant Sign Of The Apocalypse, this indeed happened...!]]. I bit the bullet and moved, expecting "Big shear!" or worse at any second... I got to my new site [well down slope and right next to a nice chunk of granite] and set up ok. Phew. Then... "Big shear!" Then again, and again and again... Looking at the times, I can see that after three well-spaced singles, they came in little groups over 6 periods of 10-20 minutes and though I didn't record it, I'd bet money they were associated with those tight tall squalls that were prowling past. To my surprise, none of the squalls hit us, though we got 3 sideswipes that gave enough rain and wind gusts to make us glad of that. You see what that means? We were getting large shearwaters in sunshine. The odd one was distant, but most were on the Runnelstone line and some were closer - one so close I couldn't even get the Runnelstone buoy in view at minimum zoom... :D

Nobody got on everything; the sun and the swell, plus the wind carrying shouts away, saw to that. I saw 23 large shearwaters, of which 7 were Great, 14 Cory's and 2 unidentified, with the last [a Cory's] at 1431. * The Greats all looked pretty clean, but several of the Cory's [I'm kicking myself for not noting which] were moulting inner primaries.

Oh but it was glorious! Big shears coming through in bright sunshine, only one or two at a time with the chance to really follow them - see them in sunlight and shade, coming, passing and going, at different ranges, with other birds for comparison [one time a Great and a Cory's came through together and both were in one view... Wow.]. It is a truism of birding that there's no substitute for experience, that only by seeing a bird in the feather can you really know it. This is unfortunately used to justify a Catch-22 when it comes to IDs; 'If you haven't seen it, you can't ID it'. That is of course bullshit, but like the most effective lies there is a grain of truth within. I firmly believe that you can ID anything if you see [and if necessary hear] it well enough, no matter your experience - the difficult bit lies when you don't. So, I had 'Large Shear spp.' for what I was pretty sure was Great at Hope's Nose in 2008, because despite it coming in after trawlers twice, it was distant and hazy and I'd never seen a Cory's use that flight action and didn't know how they looked in those circumstances. Do now. Retrospective Patch Tick.

It really was a huge learning experience in big shear identification and unlike on say, the Day of the Sooties, I didn't have to get soaked [Bonus!]. Of course, it wasn't all Greats and Cory's going by, there were other birds. Again, I missed a few [or a lot - such as all the Stormies] but 2 each of Sooty and Balearic [plus a mid-sized shear that could have been either - it was just taking off and shaking, then I lost it..], 3 Bonxies, including a very dark one, more than 400 Manx [mostly going east] a single Kittiwake and 2 Razorbill, 4 LBBs, 2+ Common Terns [there were more in a flock but I got on them late] and two single Arctic Terns - a juvenile and an adult - which were a snap to ID on wing translucency; bless the sunshine! 32 Fulmars passed, with most being light phase [as opposed to the usual double lights you get off Devon] but one being.. not what I would call properly Blue, but all grey. There was a constant passage of Gannets west at ranges right down to cliff base, so I didn't even try to count them... Overhead 2 Whimbrel flew out to sea with much calling. I didn't see the Osprey. :(

In the sea, the big swell made things tricky. A Sunfish was briefly visible near the buoy, and to the east a Common Dolphin porpoised, followed later by a porpoising chorus line [very impressive synchronised swimming] of at least 3 robust dolphins that I'm hoping the Seawatch team got an ID on** - they were head on and too quick for me! Likewise what looked like a small whale went through my field of view as I followed a Cory's - I didn't stop for it and it wasn't there when I went back. Oh well... Late on a Basker was spotted right below us, but in a truly pathetic display of incompetence I was utterly unable to get on it before it sank out of sight. Drat.

I called it a day after 8 hours - no incoming squalls in sight and passage had really died - and went my way homewards. Despite the best efforts of assorted emmets to give me an aneurism, I got home in one piece and promptly crashed out. It had been a good day.

Oh, who am I kidding? It ROCKED!!!!!

[[[*There was originally a fairly long bit here about why the various published totals are different from mine, but it really doesn't matter; we saw what we saw and everyone had a good time.]]]

**EDIT: So, it seems the Seawatch team spent the day asleep really suffered from being round the corner at Gwennap, as they saw no cetaceans or big shears at all! Oh well, I'll put 'em down as 'Dolphin sp., probably Bottlenose' and 'Whale sp., possibly Minke'.

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