Monday, 18 July 2011

Maybe the storms aren't so bad....

Since my last post it's been sunshine all the way, the hottest week of the year so far, down at Land's End the seas have been flat calm and we all thought that we'd be swarmed with basking Sharks left right and centre. The first day it seemed as though our predictions were right, with at least 8 sharks drifting around the coast including 4 in the bay right in front of the hide.

Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus)
We even had a shark approximately 1.5-2m long (so a wee baby!) which we think is one of this years youngsters and we've been checking around to see if there have ever been reports of a birthing in Cornwall but with none found, this could turn out to be the first confirmed Cornish baby shark!

Most mornings, whilst the weather has been so good, I've been out with my ringing trainer Kester down one of the nearby valleys - Nanjizal. Mention the name of this place to bird-watchers anywhere in the country and you get a glassy-eyed reaction from everyone.... it's one of those very special places in Cornwall that, in the past, has turned up some unbelievably rare birds like the first British Alder Flycatcher in 2008 that had made it over to our shores from North America. Even the more scarce birds that many birders travel to see like Hoopoe, Wryneck, Melodious, Icterine and Aquatic Warblers turn up here annually and sometimes in 3's or 4's (at the right time of year).

Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler and Robin in the nets.

Even though most of the birds caught in the nets so far have been standard fare such as blue tits and blackbirds, chiffchaffs and willow warblers as it's still a little early for those scarcities to come in, we do get the odd cracker in the nets..... a bird that I watched zip into the net low down, which at first I thought was a Sedge Warbler, turned out to be a rather nice 3J Grasshopper Warbler (3J means that the bird is a youngster from this year and has not completed its post-juvenile moult - which in turn means that it hasn't quite got all of its proper feathers ready for its migration to Africa for the winter). The reason it's called a Grasshopper Warbler is because of its call, a long reeling which sound a little like a grasshopper (but goes on much longer!). They can be infuriating to see in the field as they skulk around in thick vegetation, so to get one in the hand and get up close and personal with one was great.

Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia)
It does get pretty busy down there in the mornings too - in 3 hours we had 210 'new' birds (that's ones where we put a shiny new ring on its leg) and 137 re-traps.... between two of you its a little hectic getting that lot out the nets! Recently it's quietened down though now as migration is just starting, the numbers of tits going down and numbers of warblers going up.... a good sign.

Male Silver-studded Blue (Plebejus argus)
Male Silver-studded Blue (Plebejus argus) underside
I've also been keeping going on my butterflies during the settled spell. I spent a day walking around the Towans which is an area of coastal dunes just north of Hayle looking for a very special butterfly, the Silver-studded Blue. Other places that I have searched for them I've only managed to find them in reasonably
 small numbers (<20), but here they were everywhere.... I lost count after 300! The south-west tip of Cornwall is great for these little gems, but countrywide few strongholds remain.... to my knowledge the area around Studland Heath in Dorset and Prees Heath in Shropshire are the only main areas that you stand a good chance of seeing one of these beautiful blues. The reason they are called 'Silver-studded' is due to the markings on the underside of its wings which show silvery-blue metallic spots which can be found next to the orange at the edge of the hindwing.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis)
Also there were some other bits and pieces whilst I wandered around, Dark Green Fritillaries, Small and Large Skippers and a few migrant Red Admirals and Painted Ladies. I even had my own theme tune as I walked around the site, well I liked to think so as I listened to the constant sound of Skylarks that breed in the area.... usually it's pretty tricky getting close to them on the ground, as they hide in the long grass then fly up just as you get close, but spying one descend, I kept my eye on when it went down and crawled on my front until I was only a matter of feet from where I thought the bird was hiding and waited, hoping that it would show itself. After 30 minutes I started to think that the bird had run out the other side of the grass, but just as I was getting up, out he strode to the edge of the grass, no more than 10 foot from me, after firing off a few shots he about faced and disappeared.

The good weather held up for a while, peaking on a day with no wind, no clouds and a scorching 28 degrees, which was great for all of the holiday revellers coming down to the hide, but even thought the sea was so calm we hardly saw anything. The only sightings of note were the previous Basking Sharks but with a turn in the weather, we had a surge of wildlife and on the 6th of July it went a bit crazy. When I got down to the hide there was a strong SW gale blowing around force 6-7 and the sea was choppy with white horses breaking everywhere. I really felt as if we were going to be right out of luck seeing anything and I think that the tourists thought so too as no-one bar a single guy from Norfolk decided to brave it. It was a shame they didn't, as during the day we got to see a fantastic array of seabirds including no less than 58 Cory's Shearwater, 8,000+ Manx Shearwater, 2 Sooty Shearwater, 15 Storm Petrel and 2 White-beaked Dolphin.... who says that wildlife's easier to see when it's sunny.... it was a brilliant day as I'd never seen the White-beaks or the Cory's before, so two new wildlife ticks for me!

This weather has continued since then, with no signs of letting up, but hopefully it will so we can have a little bit more summer-time and also we can get the nets back out.... it's been too windy so far, but next week.... who knows?!