A while back people were worrying about what Hurricane Katia might do. As it turned out, Katia never came onshore in the US. It did, however, remain a large, powerful storm as it made its way across the Atlantic, thereby making British birdwatchers salivate in anticipation. That’s because the most sought after rarities around here are North American birds and the way those get here is by storms moving across the Atlantic. I’m more than happy to make my England list as long as possible, but, still, North American birds aren’t the ones that make me most excited. Storms, however, also push pelagic species to land where I stand a chance of seeing them. That, and the fact that I’d long wanted to go birdwatching in Cornwall anyway, made me buy a train ticket to the most southwesterly corner of England for last Tuesday, a little after the storm was scheduled to hit here. I came back late last night after tramping around the Penwith Peninsula for a few days.

I had a great time. I love the scenery (what’s not to like about heaths, cliffs, sandy beaches, ocean, and fuschsia hedges along the roads?) and I saw lots of birds, including eight new species for me (16 new species for my UK list).

On Thursday I hiked to Gwennap’s Head, which is a promontory on the south side of the peninsula. It’s one of the best places in England to catch seabirds as they fly by. It’s also where the SeaWatch Southwest team is stationed, so I joined them. I sat there there on the windy cliff for about six hours, peering through a scope onto the ocean about a mile out (not an exaggeration), looking for little specks to come flying by. Most of the birds in question are actually quite large, but they don’t look like it when they’re a mile out on the water. It was a good thing that I was with the team, since even with a scope most of the birds were too far away for me to identify. Distinguishing species that look very similar to each other when they’re flying by with ocean glare behind them and the scope vibrating from the wind … well, it takes more experience than I have to identify birds largely on the basis of subtle variations in shape and how fast they beat their wings.

We had fun (though I imagine ten hours a day, day after day, takes some dedication). One of the team members spent some time in Belize doing research on sea turtles. She also kindly offered to drop me off in Hayle, the town where I was staying, so that I didn’t have to hike another couple of hours to catch the one bus that would go back to Penzance where I might then be able to catch a train back to Hayle. Another member turned out to be from the States; his father taught at Cornell for a long time.

When no shearwaters were flying by and we ran out of things to talk about, we were entertained by a pair of choughs that nested nearby. Choughs are the county bird for Cornwall, so people are very happy to have a few pairs back after they went extinct in the area for a while. Few birds are as fun to watch. They’re incredibly playful and acrobatic, making the best use possible of the cliffs that they prefer as their habitat. What better bird to be number 500 on my life list?

Red-billed Chough

Photo by Paul Roberts.

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