Sunday, 4 August 2013

MEGA ALERT: A FEA'S PETREL in Cornwall

The catalyst for my latest quest came last Wednesday when the odd Great Shearwater started to trickle past coastal headlands in my beloved south-west Cornwall. This is a species that has eluded my British list in over thirty years of birding and I was determined to address the glaring omission this year. Should I do my credit card some damage and head to the Isles of Scilly for an expensive weekend of short range pelagic trips or should I try the cheaper option and gamble on a trip out of Penzance? On Thursday a quick browse of the weather charts looked promising for more seabird action over the weekend and by Friday it looked even better for a Sunday sea-watch.

Later that day, 'Britain's fastest moving twitcher' Dan Pointon got in touch to say he was considering a weekend raid on Porthgwarra too and suggested teaming up. Having recently acquired a painful hernia and not being able to drive too far, this was an offer I could not refuse. Invitations were then handed out for others to join the party with East Midlanders Mike Feely, Stevie Dunn and Sam Viles all expressing a slight interest. All being well we were set to make a move on Saturday evening.

I did warn Sam on Friday night.... look!

On Saturday morning I messaged Cornwall based copper Paul Freestone for his expert opinion on what the following day would bring. I actually said to him that I had a 'Fea's feeling in my bones'. He soon confirmed it was ideal conditions for Porthgwarra and I relayed this onto the lads in order to get them to confirm their attendance. The dependable Mike Feely was a definite, computer keyboard birder Stevie Dunn said he had not got the enthusiasm and the Justin Bieber of contemporary birding Sam Viles was still sitting on the fence. At the very last minute Sam cancelled as his loving parents were concerned about him sleeping in a car. How things have changed. In my day kipping in bus shelters, in public toilets, on beaches, on car park floors and in bird hides was all part of the fun. Peh, kids today hey?

By 8.30pm Mike and I had reached Bristol for the onward journey with Dan as our chauffeur. The three hour drive from Bristol to Penzance whizzed by as we nattered away and sang along to tracks by the mighty Lionel Richie and Dire Straits. Yes readers, I can hereby confirm that Dan Pointon has the musical taste of a 59 year old accountant called Roger. On the journey down we also became victims of a cyber bully who trolled derogatory comments about us on certain social media sites. He (or she) obviously did not share our enthusiasm or tenacity for driving over 300 miles to oggle seabirds. We were determined to make he (or she) eat his (or her) words!

After a quick stopover at the 24 hour Tescos for wine purposes we arrived at our backpackers hostel before midnight. Upon entering our budget dormitory we found one individual shivering away on the lower bunk of my bed. I was immediately unsettled and double-backed to the lounge for a drink to calm my nerves. Sleeping in a room with complete strangers is obviously not my bag and I ended up embarrassing myself. Whilst tucked up in my bed I suffered a bit of a night terror and shouted out at the top of my voice "MURDER, MURDER!" Needless to say the other geezers in the room were not impressed except for Dan who just calmly reached over and placed his hand gently over my mouth to muffle the din.... at least I think it was his hand. 

Mike doesn't share Dan's relaxed approach to hostel accommodation!
Photo by Adam Archer

By 6.00am we had made our way through the early morning murk and across to the extreme south-westerly point of the British mainland to Porthgwarra. As we approached Gwennap Head it was soon evident that a few other birders were looking to take advantage of the strong south-westerly winds too. We settled down and made ourselves as comfortable as you can perched upon a jagged lump of wet granite. A quick lift of the binoculars though made all thoughts of the awkward viewing conditions evaporate as swath upon swath of Manx Shearwaters passed through just offshore. Gannets were also very much in evidence as were Kittiwakes and the odd Fulmar. Despite the rain and the 25mph winds I was absolutely loving it already. 

Looking east from Gwennap Head towards St Levan.
Photo by Adam Archer

It was not too long before the odd Balearic Shearwater was picked up amongst the numerous Manx Shearwaters and before we knew it a true king of the oceans, a Sooty Shearwater made an appearance. It is amazing to think that last October this bird may have bred on the small islands around the Falkland Isles before making its 8,000 mile migration north to spend a few months feeding in the North Atlantic. I then picked up our first Cory's Shearwater and shortly after Dan shouted out the two words I had been waiting an age for, it was my first Great Shearwater in British waters. The mighty wanderer from the South Atlantic passed distantly yet perfectly identifiable past the Runnel Stone, nearly a mile offshore. The pressure was off but I yearned for a closer view.

Dan Pointon asks me... "How the f*ck did you miss that?"
Photo by Adam Archer

At around 8.30am the first of several heavy showers hit us head on and out came the umbrellas. Due to the winds bellowing in from the south west the rain came at us sideways so if you were careful you could continue scanning the swell by strategically wedging the brolly to your right without getting too wet. I was cursing my makeshift shelter soon enough though as it blocked my view of another Great Shearwater passing by just beyond the range of the Manx Shearwaters. I was absolutely gutted and quickly prayed to Neptune for second bite of the maritime cherry. I was gently mocked due to my sea-watching incompetence and I deserved it.

Our friend for the day wonders what all the fuss is about!
Photo by Adam Archer

Then one of the most orgasmic birding events of my life occurred. At around 9.10am I was taking a break to rest my aching 'scope eye' and I happened to glance over to my right towards the assembled gang of local Cornish birders. Whilst quietly admiring their dedication to the cause I heard one of them calmly mutter the words "possible Fea's.". The same sacred words were then repeated amongst the agitated crowd each time getting louder and louder until someone snapped and blasted out that inevitable word "DIRECTIONS!?!". To his enormous credit Dan picked up the bird more or less immediately and shouted "I've got the bird..... and it looks good..... it is... IT'S A FEA'S!". 

Then, all hell broke loose. Despite Dan calmly providing a running commentary I could not get onto the bird. What followed was the longest 15 seconds of my life. My mouth was drying out and I could feel my hands starting to shake. This was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity for this land-locked West Midlander to see one of the ultimate icons of British sea-watching.  I took a deep breath, composed myself, scanned slowly back left to right and shit, there it was! I really could not believe what I was seeing. The presumed FEA'S PETREL seemed slightly bulkier but much longer winged than the Manx Shearwaters. As the beast rose up high over the waves and dipped back down you could see the bright, white underparts contrasting with the dark underwings. Then as it banked, the acute triangle of silver grey on the tail stood out like a beacon against the darkness of the distinctively patterned upper-wing and medium grey back and head.

The 28 lucky birders shortly after the FEA'S PETREL passed by.
Photo by Adam Archer

Yes, yes, yes I realise you cannot be 100% sure that what we witnessed was actually a FEA'S PETREL but whether it was this species, or a Zino's Petrel or even a controversial Desertas Petrel it does not dispute the fact that seeing a Pterodroma species off a British headland is always going to be a very special moment indeed. I ensured that I absorbed every millisecond of viewing time before our superstar from Cape Verde or Madeira disappeared forever behind Gwennap Head. Then came the cheers, the man hugs, the back slapping, the hand shaking and even a stream of tears from one emotional individual. For the first time in my life I actually lived up to the term the media like to label eccentrics like us with, my legs would not stop twitching with some kind of warped excitement!

The rain-battered sightings board... we dipped the jellyfish!
Photo by Adam Archer

After we had all recovered from our amazing experience it was time to get back to the job in hand. Could there be any other pelagic gems lurking out there waiting to be picked off? About a hour later came the sticky icing on one huge delicious cake as another Great Shearwater passed by at very close range. Once again I savoured every moment with a species that had given me so much heartache over the years. All was well and truly forgiven. In a salty blink of a straining eye this species had transformed itself from being my nemesis to my new best pal. As the day progressed we enjoyed even more stunning views of several Great Shearwaters, Sooty Shearwaters and Balearic Shearwaters. We were also lucky with a particularly obliging Cory's Shearwater, a species that usually shuns close proximity with the land in my past experiences.

A Great Shearwater passes close by.
Photo by Joe Stockwell

On any sea-watch the tallies will vary from person to person. My personal log of species (in taxonomic order) was as follows: 

Fulmar - 38
FEA'S PETREL (probable) - 1
Cory's Shearwater - 15
Great Shearwater - 26
Sooty Shearwater - 13
Manx Shearwater - 1,350 approx
Balearic Shearwater - 32
Gannet - 315
Cormorant - 2
Shag - 22
Arctic Skua - 1
Long-tailed Skua - 1
Great Skua - 7
Puffin - 1
Razorbill - 3
Kittiwake - 55
Black-headed Gull - 1
Lesser Black-backed Gull - 2
Herring Gull - 46
Great Black-backed Gull - 14

We also had a pair of colour-ringed Chough to keep us entertained throughout the day as well as raptors including Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and Peregrine passing overhead and the odd Rock Pipit feeding around the cliff-tops. We also enjoyed some fabulous views of at least 3 Basking Sharks, one of which fed right at the base of Gwennap Head for a while.

By 4.00pm we were back in Dan's car speeding our way back north. By 10.00pm I was back at home in Warwickshire, exhausted yet ecstatic after another epic birding trip. We really could not have wished for a better day.

Magpie moth at Porthgwarra.
Photo by Adam Archer

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