Monday, 2 September 2019

Chasing boobies in Cornwall

Photo: Brown Booby, Kynance Cove, the Lizard.
News of a brown booby in Cornwall earlier in the week which was a first for Britain piqued my interest but unfortunately (depending on your point of view) when news of the bird first broke I was about to board a plane to Inverness and then drive over to Applecross in northern Scotland for work, a good 780 miles from where the booby had been seen. I had no choice therefore but to forget about it for a few days, by which time I reasoned that it would surely be gone.

I wasn't too concerned at this point because reports suggested that the bird was a bit hit and miss, occasionally it would be seen really well, but often it was distant and the multitude of immature gannet plumages seemed to be causing more than a little confusion. Positive reports were often being overturned when the observers had time to reconsider, and conversely there were also negative reports turning positive as other observers, probably desperate, tired and not wanting to admit defeat, pieced together bits of distant sightings and adopted the "what else could it have been?" attitude.

Ray and Dave tried for it on Wednesday while I was stumbling around in a boulder field looking for ptarmigan but unfortunately they didn't see it. However on Saturday it showed better than ever and we took the decision to try again, and this time I was able to go with them. We set off from home at 10pm on Saturday evening and drove through the night, arriving at Gwithian Towans beach on St Ives Bay at 5:30am on Sunday morning.

At 6:15am we joined the assembled throng of birders at the viewing point and started to scan the sea. Thousands of Manx shearwaters were streaming west, alternating black and white as they glided past the headland and across the bay. There were a few early shouts and scrambles of excitement as people thought that they had found the booby, but each soon receded and were consigned to the rapidly filling bin of misidentified immature gannets.  There was plenty to keep us interested, with lots of Mediterranean gulls over the sea, a grey phalarope flew past as did distant arctic skuas and a bonxie, but eventually we began to tire. It had been a long drive and we hadn't had more than about one hours sleep in the past 30 hours. The adrenaline which had kept us going at the start had now faded and been replaced by depression and resignation to the fact that the booby, which had so far never been seen in the afternoon, was now very unlikely to show up today. We decided to take a break and headed over to Trevescan near Land's End for a look at a stunning little western Bonelli's warbler which was a first in the UK for me. It was a cracking little bird, very grey looking with a yellowy wing panel and we even heard it call a couple of times.

Then we found a cheap B&B in Penzance and booked in for the night before heading back to Gwithian Towans beach for another couple of hours or three looking over the sea in the evening. Still no booby and we retired to the pub. At 8:30am the following day we were back again for another attempt (at the beach not the pub).

Photo: Gwithian Towans beach.
The first couple of hours or so on Monday passed in much the same way as Sunday. Thousands of Manxies headed west, I estimated about 3000 per hour at least, a grey phalarope flew across the surf, arctic skuas and a bonxie flew past distantly and probably 30 Mediterannean gulls were knocking about on the sea, but depressingly still no booby. I'll be honest, I'd given up. Still, at least I'd got a lifer out of the trip and it was a beautiful location. I wandered down to the beach to take a few photos.

I'd just about reached the beach when my phone went and I just knew what it was even before I looked at who was calling.  A voice cried "Colin get back to the car it's at Kynance Cove!". I had no idea where Kynance Cove was, and I wasn't even sure that we were talking about the booby, but the voice was sufficiently assertive to convince me that it was time to forget my walk on the beach. Something good was at a place that I'd never heard of and we needed to get there fast. A few minutes later we were all in the car and heading south to the Lizard peninsula.

It took us an hour to get to the cove, stuck behind tractors and day trippers and Sunday drivers and we even took the wrong turning once, but eventually we got there. I jumped out of the car even before we had parked in order to get a parking ticket, Dave jumped out and grabbed his stuff and was gone and meanwhile an over keen parking attendant was telling Ray that he was parked 3 inches outside of the correct position! Please just let us park the car!

Kynance Cove is a beautiful and tranquil spot where one can enjoy the solitude of nature. Yeah right, perhaps on some days that might be true, but not today. We legged it over the hill and joined the ever increasing group of birders perched high on a headland. Out in the bay were several stacks and on the extreme left stack, the small pyramidal rock, a couple of birds were perched. One was a shag.....

.... the other was a booby! And relax! Fantastic, we'd snatched victory from the jaws of defeat and had seen this wonderful bird from the tropics. The only other time I'd seen this species was in tropical Australia, most memorably on Michaelmas Cay on the Great Barrier Reef. Time to drink it in and celebrate.

However something was wrong. Even though we hadn't seen the bird at Gwithian Towans beach, we had all seen the photographs. That bird had a pale creamy bill and face. The bird we were looking at didn't. It had a steely grey bill and a dark face. And there were plumage differences too. This was clearly a different bird. In fact it's not even the same age. The other bird is a sub-adult / 2nd summer, the bird at Kynance Cove is a 1st summer. Wow! The magnitude of this began to sink in. What are the chances? Go to Cornwall to twitch a 1st for Britain, dip on it but then drop on the 2nd for Britain!  Unbelievable.

Some of my photos appear to show a creamy coloured bill, but that's just a trick of the light. In the field the bill was clearly steely grey and in the photo above notice the contrast between the colour of the bill and the feet. The feet look almost pale yellow whereas the bill is grey and the face is dark. The Gwithian Towans bird had a bill and face the same colour as the feet.

After a while the bird left it's perch and began to plunge dive for fish. Boobies are obviously related to gannets but they are smaller and they are much more gentile fishermen, with delicate swoops and shallow plunges into shallower water in contrast to the bullet like and aggressive "ave it!" dives of gannets. We watched it flying around the bay and diving for at least 30 minutes and it seemed to be catching fish without too much problem. With my little bridge camera the best photos I could get were when it flew along the beach because the background was less busy and the pictures are more interesting, especially those with people on the beach.

One fish which the booby had no chance of catching or eating was an Ocean Sunfish which we saw swimming across the bay. Typically from land only the species dorsal fin is seen which flops from side to side as the fish swims close to the surface, unlike the stiff dorsal fin of a dolphin or shark. Ocean sunfish can grow up to 3.3m long and weigh up to 1000kg. Just another amazing part of what was a wonderful weekend from start to finish.

A weekend like this with the experiences we had disproves the myth that some non-twitchers have that twitching is all about the tick. Complete nonsense. We had a great weekend in a beautiful part of the country which I otherwise probably wouldn't have visited this year and saw many amazing sights.

This is the final clincher. If you find a photo of the Gwithian Towans bird in flight you will see that the underwing is clear cut and sharp, big areas of white bordered by chocolate brown. The Kynance bird has a far more blotchy underwing.

I was made up to see a couple of Cornish choughs, the first time I have seen these birds in the county.

Birders at Kynance Cove. Understandably a smaller crowd after the Sunday no-show and with Monday being a work day, but like us a few chose to stay over and were well rewarded. We left the Lizard at 13:15 and headed home, arriving back at 20:00 on Monday evening.

Another photo of Gwithian Towans beach.

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