Sea watching article by Paul Freestone, previously published in Birdwatch Magazine.
Late summer means only one thing on the Cornish ornithological calendar. Seawatching. On their day, Pendeen Watch and Gwennap Head, Porthgwarra, are arguably the best places in the UK for observing seabird passage and birders from across the UK congregate at these famous headlands generally in the hope of finding something rare, but often just to marvel at the sheer number of birds and range of species.
Porthgwarra is located at the south-westerly tip of the Land’s End Peninsular. The rocky outcrop of Gwennap Head, Porthgwarra affords some protection from the south-westerly winds needed to bring in the birds at this location. Any prolonged winds from the south or south west bring the possibility of good numbers of rarer species and Gwennap Head is renowned for its huge numbers of large Shearwaters. Cory’s Shearwater has been recorded here more frequently than anywhere else on the mainland coast of Britain (Norman and Tucker 1997) and on a single evening in 2010 over 2000 individuals flew west! These ‘big Shear Days’ vary from year to year, in 2008 it was the turn of Great Shearwaters with over 800 flying west on August ??. Good numbers of Manx Shearwaters are usually evident along with Balearic, Sooty and occasionally the much rarer Little Shearwater. Black-browed Albatross and Fea’s Petrel have also been recorded. Skua numbers begin to increase into early autumn with Great and Arctic Skuas being the most common. Terns, Gulls, Gannet, Fulmar and Auks also pass westwards and rough sea days inevitably produce good numbers of European Storm Petrels around the Runnel Stone buoy.
The north facing slopes on the seaward side of Pendeen Lighthouse afford uninterrupted vistas and superb light, ideal for sea-watching. The outer wall of the lighthouse compound affords some shelter from the prevailing westerly winds, which are essential, especially after long periods of South-westerlies for producing notable passage. The rocks at the base of the cliffs help as a reference point for passing birds and many pass close by between the rocks and the mainland. Pendeen is renowned for close and sometimes prolonged views of Wilson’s Storm Petrels, occasionally found amongst small numbers of its European cousin. Cory’s, Great, Sooty, Balearic Shearwaters are seen regularly and Manx’s can pass in their thousands. Very late summer into early autumn can produce a range of species including Grey and Red-necked Phalaropes and early Sabine’s Gulls. Great and Arctic Skuas pass in large numbers on occasion bringing with them the possibility of Long-tailed or Pomarine Skuas. Black, Arctic, Sandwich, Common and Little Terns are recorded annually and good numbers of commoner seabirds pass through including Fulmar, Kittiwake, Mediterranean Gull, Gannet and Common Scoter.
Both sites are located on cliff tops and care should be taken on the sometimes slippery slopes and rocks. There is limited disabled access at both sites but the lower car park at Pendeen can be used to view the sea, although the viewing area is more restricted. Be prepared for bad weather, unfortunately rough seas and high winds are the best conditions for seabirds but can be uncomfortable for birders, so dress sensibly in warm, waterproof clothing. Most of all, be patient. Seawatching can be laborious and a seat of some description is advisable! If you are inexperienced, sit with the crowd. Spotters generally shout out birds as they pass and don’t be afraid to make mistakes, even the most experienced sea-watchers do occasionally!
Both sites are accessed off the main A30 towards Land’s End. For Porthgwarra take the B3315 just before the Land’s End complex and follow that road until you reach the hamlet of Polgigga. At the crossroads take the minor road signposted to Porthgwarra. There is a pay and display car park at the bottom of the valley and also public toilets. Walk up the steps following the coastal path to the large rocky outcrop of Gwennap Head to view the sea.
For Pendeen take the B3071 off the A30 at Alverton roundabout north of Penzance. After about 3km, take the B3318, North Road towards Pendeen and continue on North Road until you reach the village. At the crossroads go straight ahead where you see the brown Lighthouse sign and follow the minor road all the way to the lighthouse’s free car park.
P.Freestone (c) Cornwall Birding 2017