Friday, 11 October 2013

Wild West Cornwall

8th-9th October 2013 - West Penwith

 

Having something of an interest in shrikes, I decided a trip to Pendeen was in order to see the adult Isabelline Shrike. My good friend and this blog's official gull consultant Martin Elliott was on his way back to Penzance so I gave him a lift and took in a couple of day's birding in West Penwith. As for twitching the shrike, it's been a long time but I should have remembered that a laid back and casual approach to such things rarely pays off as we arrived a day too late. The bird was clearly not present, notwithstanding the optimist who was convinced he had it in his scope; when told he was looking at a Whinchat, he insisted that it must be the shrike as it had a dark mask!

Having got the obligatory dip out of the way, followed by the obligatory pasty - McFadden's in St.Just, highly recommended - we decided some 'proper birding' was in order and dropped in on Sennen Cove to stare at the gulls.

Real gull experts (and I'm certainly not one) seem to see far more 'don't knows' than the average birder. It may be just that the average birder doesn't really look at gulls that much; if you look hard at a lot of large gulls you'll a). realise how variable they are and b). start to see birds that just don't fit. In fact the great thing about being a novice gull watcher is that one's lack of ability to identify birds can be seen as a sign of increasing competence. Of course it helps enormously if there's a real expert on hand saying 'I'm not really sure either'. So at Sennen Cove we found three 1st years which, with varying degrees of confidence, could be identified as michahellis. Here's bird number one (next three photos).

Yellow-legged Gull 1st year - 8th October 2013, Sennen Cove
This is a big bird with a fairly hefty bill and long (and quite pale) legs; it has many replaced scapulars showing a sub-terminal anchor mark though many are darker than on a classic michahellis.

Yellow-legged Gull 1st year - 8th October 2013, Sennen Cove
 In flight it shows a good wing pattern with fractionally paler inner primaries and a solid blackish tail band (although a little broader than typical) contrasting with a lot of white on the outer tail feathers.

Yellow-legged Gull 1st year - 8th October 2013, Sennen Cove
Suspect number two (next two photos) is a much daintier bird and, to me at first, not at all obvious as a michahellis; here hiding behind an adult Lesser Black-backed.

Yellow-legged Gull 1st year - 8th October 2013, Sennen Cove
It's a slighter bird with a much less substantial bill and might conceivably be a Lesser Black-backed but the replaced scapulars, the tail pattern and the flanks/belly lean more towards Yellow-legged. It seems to me that this game is all about combinations of characters - no one feature is diagnostic of michahellis.

Yellow-legged Gull 1st year - 8th October 2013, Sennen Cove

Number three (below) is an even trickier bird. It's not particularly bulky, the legs are not very long and the feet are not particularly large. There are only a few replaced scapulars - although the new ones look good for michahellis. The odd thing is the tail, there is a solid black band and the upper and under tail coverts are whitish and sparsely marked but the usually white parts of the retrices are washed with dark grey. On balance this is probably another michahellis, but a far from classic individual; typical Mediterranean birds should be much more advanced in moult than this, possibly it's a later fledging Atlantic coast bird?

Yellow-legged Gull 1st year - 8th October 2013, Sennen Cove

Yellow-legged Gull 1st year - 8th October 2013, Sennen Cove
October birding in West Cornwall should always include a spot of bush-bashing for migrants - basically just staring at a hedge while 'pishing' hopefully. We put in a few hours at both Porthcurno and Nanquidno and found Yellow-browed Warblers at both sites, a great little Phyllosc that I don't see often enough and have never photographed before (must try harder).

Yellow-browed Warbler - 9th October 2013, Nanquidno


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