One Big Day in May

A light-hearted look at a potential mega day in Cornwall!

So you’re planning a trip to Cornwall in May. You have 24hrs to see as many species in the county as you can. Planning is essential and you never know what might turn up that will have you driving to the other end of the county. Traditionally Cornwall is best known for its Autumn scarce and rare species and the Spring can often be poor in comparison. However, it can and has experienced some great passage and rare visitors and it is those that we will concentrate on here. So, hypothetically speaking, if you take all of the birds recorded in Cornwall in the month of May from every year in the past and condense them into one mouth-watering day list, what could you get with an unlimited amount of petrol, no speed limits or traffic hold ups, 24 hours of daylight and a bit of imagination?

We start the day early, in the North of the county, at Tamar lakes, just inside the border with Devon, where the Spotted Sandpiper and White-winged Black Tern show really well. Next we head east to Boscastle where the county’s first White Crowned Sparrow is in a private garden. We then head south across Bodmin Moor catching up with another county first and arguably the rarity of the day in the shape of a Northern Oriole. A Bonaparte’s Gull is a somewhat unexpected bonus at Siblyback Lake and a Pectoral Sandpiper makes the list at nearby Colliford. An Iberian Chiffchaff is added at Dunmere Wood where we also pick up plenty of moorland specialities like Redstart, Wood Warbler and Pied Flycatcher. Saltash is our next destination where we encounter a fly-over Alpine Swift, an Ortolan Bunting and a superb Orphean Warbler. A quick detour to Rame, the most south-easterly headland in Cornwall gets us a nice Black-headed Bunting and a Roller. An unseasonal Laughing Gull is another unexpected American vagrant further down the coast at Polperro and a group of four Black-winged Stilts at Par Beach is too good to miss! A Great Reed Warbler in the reeds there is also a real bonus. A Squacco Heron at Portmellon takes us further south than we had wanted to be at this point in the day and we are a long way off when news breaks of an American Bittern at Walmsley Sanctuary on the other side of the county!

We cross the county again to the Wadebridge area. En-route we pick up Honey Buzzard, Black Kite, Hobby and Osprey flying overhead before stopping briefly on the River Amble for a Whiskered Tern. The Walmsley reserve holds some great birds and we add the American Bittern plus Terek Sandpiper, Cattle Egret, Green and Blue-winged Teals, Common Crane and another Black-winged Stilt. We have now covered hundreds of miles in the east of the county and really need to start heading west. We decide from now on we will follow the coast, heading west along the north coast, checking out the valleys furthest west back east on the south coast to our final destination for the day, The Lizard.

Our next addition to the day list is a Red-footed Falcon at Trevose Head, followed by a cracking Black-eared Wheatear at Kelsey Head near Newquay. The old sand works at Gwithian produces another Black-headed Bunting, a Tawny Pipit, four Black-winged Stilts, yet another Great Spotted Cuckoo and a potential first for the UK with an incredible Dalmatian Pelican!! We were aware that the estuary at Hayle had a reputation for rarities but we weren’t expecting the variety of species at this time of year! We were greeted with two Ring-billed and three Bonaparte’s Gulls, two American Golden Plovers, fly over Black Stork and Red-footed Falcon’s, Long-billed Dowitcher, Broad-billed Sandpiper and an American Wigeon. From there we took a quick detour to a Lesser Kestrel at St Ives, a Marsh Warbler at nearby Treveal Valley and a Squacco Heron at Towednack.

The valleys in the far west can be hard work in Spring but our luck was in today and we ‘cleaned up’, at Land’s End, Nanjizal and Porthgwarra with Squacco Heron, Little Bittern, Sardinian Warbler, numerous Subalpine Warblers, Golden Orioles, Bee-eaters, Woodchat Shrikes, Hoopoes, Icterine Warbler, Red-rumped Swallows, Red-throated Pipit, Desert Wheatear and a House Finch of unknown origin! The annual Red Kite influx is in full swing and we are treated to flocks of up to eighty birds in the Polgigga area. A Little Swift at nearby Skewjack was our second UK first of the day and as we watched the bird hawking for insects over the small pools a Night Heron watched us warily from the surrounding vegetation.

With the far west exhausted we head for Mounts Bay and Marazion Marsh. A quick detour to Drift reservoir secured the American Herring Gull before we hit the Bay. Luckily the Pacific Diver was still offshore and Marazion Marsh held Lesser Yellowlegs, Whiskered Tern, Purple Heron, Great White Egret, Citrine Wagtail and a Great Reed Warbler. It was now getting late and The Lizard beckoned. The most southerly point in the UK is riddled with small valleys and inaccessible areas and local birders work hard to eek out a few rarities, despite this our productive day was to end on a high. We headed a bit further north to Stithians Lake in the first instance, a bit off our planned route, but necessary to ‘tick’ the county’s first Baillon’s Crake along with Ring-necked and Black Duck and a Little Bittern. Criss-crossing the Lizard added plenty more miles to our journey but also added more species to our bulging day list with highlights such as Stone Curlew, Golden Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Woodchat Shrikes, Subalpine Warblers, Glossy Ibis, Collared Pratincole, more Bee-eaters, Red-footed Falcon’s and our final bird, a Dark-eyed Junco!

Exhausted and with a list of well over 200 species we retired to The Witchball Pub and as we sat down to enjoy our first pint of Tribute the pager went off………..*MEGA ALERT* – CORNWALL – SCOPS OWL SINGING AT SALTASH!!

Paul Freestone (c) Cornwall Birding 2017

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