The warmer climate of southern Britain means there are still plenty of great birds to see during the colder months
Head for the warmth of Cornwall this winter and enjoy a range of great birds
CORNWALL A COUPLE of weeks before Christmas has a lot to recommend it. It’s warm. Warm enough to use the hot tub on the terrace of our lodge, comfortably, while gnats swarm around the porchlights. There’s a great Christmas market in the streets of Falmouth. And there are birds, lots of them. In fact, if I learn anything from a weekend based at the Gwel An Mor resort, near Portreath, it’s just how different from the rest of the country the warm south-west of the UK can be.
Those insects should have been a clue. They’re a source of food for species that, in the rest of the country, would have to head to southern Europe to survive, and the warmth also means that they don’t have to eat quite as much as in colder climes. So, as we leave the lodge on an overcast but very
mild morning, there are plenty of common finches, Robins, Blackbirds and Dunnocks in the grounds of the resort, plus Yellowhammers along the hedges outside. And stopping for the latter, five minutes’ watching produces both Chiffchaff and Blackcap. While increasing numbers of both
species are wintering all over England and Wales, in the course of the weekend it becomes clear that the south-west is a particular winter stronghold. Later, watching from the quayside in Falmouth, I also come to appreciate how rich the estuaries of the south-west are in birdlife at this time of year. In fact, it’s true of the estuaries of the whole of the south of England – species that the field guides will tell you should be a lot further south, such as Greenshank and Spotted Redshank, are always around in small numbers if you look for long enough. On occasion, it’s even been known for a young Osprey to linger throughout, while unseasonal records of the likes of Common Sandpiper aren’t unheard of. And it’s also great for good numbers of species that we do expect round our shores in winter. So, I start by picking out a group of distant Blacknecked Grebes, then a Black-throated Diver, and finally, a couple of Great Northern Divers. Carrick Roads and its associated inlets is the perfect shelter for bird such as these – deep enough to offer plenty of feeding opportunities, but protected from the prevailing winds and warmed by the Gulf Stream. That’s true of many of the estuaries of Cornwall and Devon. Another estuary we visit, the Hayle, is somewhat different. You can watch large sections of it from the car, and it’s north-west-facing, rather shallow, and flanked by mudflats and dunes. Gatherings of Lapwings and smaller groups of Curlews are the main attraction here, as well as Oystercatchers, and plenty of Black-headed and Herring Gulls. It’s much more like the estuaries that you find from Poole Harbour eastwards – at such places, you can expect a good variety of waders, plus Brent Geese and other wildfowl, but again the warmer temperatures than you’d find even a little way further north (thank the Gulf Stream, again) mean that surprises are possible, or even likely. We miss out on the Ring-billed Gull that has been seen in the area, and the Spoonbills, but it’s a glorious location to wander around anyway, and again there are Chiffchaffs to be found in the nearby hedges and scrub, flitting around as though it were late April. Around Marazion Marsh RSPB, a Siberian Chiffchaff has been reported, but although we dip on it, we hear Firecrests, usually something of a bogey bird for me, and watch more Blackthroated Divers offshore. We finish by heading to The Lizard in search of Choughs, but leave distinctly un-choughed. That’s no matter, though, because the whole weekend has been an education – in this part of the UK, autumn can seem to segue seamlessly into spring, with birds to match.
HAYLE ESTUARY A magnet for Lapwings and Curlews, plus Oystercatcher and gulls
BLACK-NECKED GREBE Matt saw a flock off Falmouth SPOONBILL They are there, even if they eluded Matt this time BLACKCAP An increasing winter visitor, especially in the warm south-west