Friday 24 October 2014


After the remnants of hurricane Gonzalo hit the west of Britain earlier in the week, it was inevitable that we would receive a few transatlantic treats to keep us birders occupied. As I sat there in the office on Thursday, the battery on my pager was nearly drained within one afternoon. The day before, a FORSTER'S TERN had passed Pendeen Watch in Cornwall, one of Britain's prime sea-watching spots and a place I had been just a few days before. Scotland then hit back with a HERMIT THRUSH on North Uist. It was the day after though when it all finally started to kick off big time.

For starters, a GREY-CHEEKED THRUSH was located on Barra, an Hebridean island that had already hosted a SCARLET TANAGER earlier in the month. The south-west of England then chipped in with a YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO in Cornwall, only for the north to go one better with a BLACK-BILLED CUCKOO on North Ronaldsay. It was all getting very exciting indeed. News then filtered through of a CHIMNEY SWIFT on the Isle of Lewis in the Western Isles followed by the second GREY-CHEEKED THRUSH of the day in Orkney, again on North Ronaldsay.

My gaffer at work had already heard the wail of the MEGA alert several times that afternoon. At one stage he looked up at me with his eyebrows raised and quietly enquired whether I was going to be off the next day. There was certainly a strong possibility that I would be, I sheepishly replied.

YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO (first-winter) - Porthgwarra, Cornwall.
Photo by Pete Morris

With a backlog of work completed and my holiday approved, it was time to start making arrangements for the long trip down to Cornwall. After careful consideration I thought it best if we got on site for first light. It was a huge gamble to make the three hundred mile journey rather then wait for positive news and then head off, but what a stressful five hour car journey that would be. In any case, if there was no sign of the YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO we could still have a good mooch around and attempt to find our own American vagrant in one of the famous Cornish valleys.

After a few hours sleep, I picked up Martin Smyth at 1.30am and headed down to Worcestershire to meet up with Jase Oliver and Steve Allcott for the onward journey down the M5. Within a few hours we had hit Exeter Services. Predictably, there were other weary-eyed birders in situ, sipping away at over-priced coffee in order to stimulate their exhausted senses into staying awake for a few more hours. Amongst the group was the infamous Garry Bagnell who regaled us with tales of woe surrounding booked-up charter flights, younger twitching rivals and the heartbreak of loitering around Aberdeen airport in anticipation of a SIBERIAN THRUSH being relocated on Shetland. 

The YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO twitch at Porthgwarra.
Photo by Adam Archer

We finally arrived at the extreme south-western tip of England sometime around 6.30am. It was cool, dark and extremely quiet down in the cove of Porthgwarra, with a mist rolling in off the sea adding to the eerie atmosphere. With other dishevelled looking birders arriving on site and slowly climbing from their vehicles and stretching their tired limbs, it was reminiscent of a scene from the eighties horror classic 'The Fog'. As the light improved and the mist turned into rain though, it was time to make a move and do our best to relocate our target bird.

As all you experienced birders will know, the YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO is a bitter sweet species to see on this side of the Atlantic. It is a rarity that has never really been easy to successfully twitch, based on the fact that the majority of them probably expire within a few days of making landfall in Europe. The last bird that was truly 'twitchable' in Britain was fourteen years ago in the neighbouring valley of St Levan just a few miles east of Porthgwarra. Since then, there have been just five accepted records in Britain and tragically, three of those involve dead or dying birds.

With such statistics to dwell on whilst standing in the rain for a rarity to show, it is sometimes a struggle to remain positive. Personally for me though it was still a great privilege to be positioned in one of my favourite places in the whole world, breathing in the fresh sea air and watching Chough rising and tumbling above the grand cliff tops. Finally though, after a long ninety minute wait, a few excited whispers were heard to the right of where we were standing. I looked across to see a birder pointing towards the mass of willows just in front of where he was stood. Within seconds the whole crowd had descended upon those two excited fellows and after some scrabbled directions I caught my first glimpse of my first ever YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO in Britain. Against the odds it had survived through the night and even better still, it seemed to be in good health!

YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO (first-winter) - Porthgwarra, Cornwall.
Photo by Pete Morris

Initially this handsome bird was quiet elusive as it remained low down feeding amongst the dense vegetation. Eventually though, as the weather conditions improved it showed extremely well at times, often perched up in the same position for several minutes at a time. During the few hours we spent enjoying the bird, it was seen to catch and eat a few prey items including bush-crickets and caterpillars. At this rate it looked good for those birders who were unable to make the trip until the weekend. Other species of note included 6 Swallow passing through, a few Common Buzzard, a hunting Sparrowhawk, a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a few European Stonechat.

As another dense carpet of fog rolled in, we then decided to head back to the car and plan our next move for the day. It was here that we celebrated with a dram of single malt whiskey courtesy of our fellow West Midland birders from Coventry and a hot pasty from the nearby cafe. It was yet another stunning rarity in a superb location with some top notch company to share the memorable moments with. It really does not get any better than this.

The notice board at the excellent  Porthgwarra cafe!
Photo by Adam Archer

Afterwards, we then made our way over to the north coast and the beautiful Nanquidno valley. Despite a thorough search of the area we could do no better than a male Blackcap, a single Chiffchaff, a few Goldcrest and a Grey Wagtail. On the way back up the A30 we made a quick detour over to Hayle where a juvenile LESSER YELLOWLEGS performed well as it fed in the company of the Common Redshank around Copperhouse Creek. Also in attendance were a few Little Egret, the odd Curlew and 7 Dunlin.

LESSER YELLOWLEGS (juvenile) - Hayle, Cornwall.
Photo by Adam Archer

It had been a great day all round, full of laughs, dramatic scenery, the odd decent bird and another step closer to my personal target of five hundred species before I snuff it..... like an unfortunate American cuckoo!