You may not be aware that I have been finding some success as a tour operator this year. Wildlife tourism is a huge, lucrative industry (I presume lucrative, given the prices of some nature holidays), so it seemed well worth setting up a sideline as a guide whilst doing the master’s, in case no other gainful employment was forthcoming. I like to think I offer a unique experience, from transport by drafty, slightly sluggish Nissan Micra, to rock-bottom prices — generally I’m happy to receive a share of the petrol money and a handful of jelly babies or a bag of magic stars. That might actually be where I’m going wrong if I was planning on making this some kind of commercial enterprise, but laying aside finances I gain enormously from recruiting friends onto my expeditions — I’ve written about the joys of solo nature watching but nothing really beats the fun and satisfaction of a group trip.
So far, my ‘tours’ have mostly been to familiar Hampshire locations I know and love. I knew where they were and what we were likely to find, even if I do, without fail, get lost on the way to Titchfield Haven. I even managed to show off by leading a group to the exact oak in the New Forest where I hoped we would find a roosting tawny owl. They were suitably impressed. But finishing our theses called for something special. It was time to hit the road, and catch up with fellow bird-heads from the ‘Bird List 2011’ Facebook group in their adopted Cornwall homeland (yes, it is real, and super geeky).
Like the long-distance vagrants we hoped to catch up with, I was put at risk being so displaced from my natural habitat. Would I have the first clue how to find anything, or how to tell what that distant black speck was when sea-watching off the cliffs? Would my group have the time of their lives, or come back cursing me, having seen nothing but a few Cornish woodpigeons? Would we even make it back alive as I attempted to drive 500 miles in two days on the back of our French holiday, a week’s late night project writing, Greenbelt festival, and a few days of early morning station runs? I hadn’t had a lie-in for weeks.
Luckily, we not only arrived at Hayle Estuary RSPB with a minimum of mishaps and exactly on schedule, but found a knowledgeable and only slightly patronising local birder set up in the hide with all birds present fixed and identified, and a vastly superior scope set up to view them through the murky drizzle. Many waders were duly added to year lists, with splendid views of both godwits feeding alongside each other for field guide style comparison — the black-tailed still with a lot of handsome summer orange red in their plumage. Following a tip off from our new friend, we hit the mud and shingle bank the other side of the main road, finding the tamest flock of small waders imaginable. Turnstones and dunlin in good numbers, and in amongst the dunlin, four or five taller, longer-billed curlew sandpipers, with slender peach-washed necks and pale streak-free under-parts. Returning after a quick traipse along the wall during which we picked up a few flighty rock pipits, a pair of sanderling had joined the flock, resplendent in gray, black and white.
These were great birds and you couldn’t really ask for better views — just as well, since there wasn’t really room to set up a tripod without standing halfway into a busy A road. That was the only drawback of the spot, along with the impending rain, which hastened our retreat to a local pasty shop, one of many excellent tip-offs from our Cornish friends for which I thank them profusely (hopefully next time we will manage to be more organised and see a bit more of each other!). Provisions-wise things were looking great, but the weather really wasn’t. Still, even eager birders can’t guarantee the weather and I am considering adding a disclaimer to the tour small print absolving myself of responsibility for it, despite having a first degree in Meteorology. Perhaps I should hush that one up.
We spent much of the rest of the day determinedly not seeing a wryneck. Not exactly what I had envisaged, having hoped for scarce migrants to be dripping from every bush in this extreme south-westerly part of the country. We followed wryneck reports around but got no closer than a shy green woodpecker, but it didn’t really matter. We were far away, in a beautiful place with nothing to do but bird, so we simply enjoyed what was on offer. Nanquidno valley, near to Land’s End airport, was beautiful, secluded, and alive with passerines. Spotted flycatchers, chiffchaffs, and a garden warbler fed in and around a dense tangle of blackthorn and bramble; on the heather both male and female stonechats flicked about; and where the valley met the sea we found a (presumably juvenile) wheatear peering out over a rock. Offshore, a few gannets and a fulmar passed, bright against the dark grey sea and sky. The rain had even stopped — surely a good omen.
Well, not for long. Eventually the rain blew in again and the moors and headlands became obscured by mist and cloud. We beat a retreat to the warmth of our hostel accommodation, which turned out to be a room above a cafe. In which we had use of a microwave, fridge, and urn for hot water, but were cruelly locked out of the gleaming kitchen in which we could see the day’s leftover cakes, tantalizing in their sugar-rich bulk. Alas. The pub was a short stagger across the car park, which I thought was well-planned on my part, but there was barely room to move inside. I should probably add another disclaimer about not having foreknowledge of either accommodation or local drinking establishments! To add to the slightly bizarre atmosphere, at 6 the next morning as I was emerging for a shower, the police knocked on the door. Apparently somebody had called them to say a man and a woman had locked themselves into one of the bathrooms. They asked if I had just come out of the bathroom, so I explained I was heading in the other direction. I think, from what the owner told them, equally bleary-eyed and pyjama-clad, that they had the wrong hostel.
Well, no early morning police call ever set a Chris Tour (TM) back, so we set out for Gwennap Head, and a morning’s sea watching. I’ve never been very good at it before: identifying distant dark specks is somewhat difficult, and I don’t think I’ve ever been in the right place at the right time either. By good fortune, for once we were, and arrived in the midst of a fairly spectacular passage of shearwaters. Close enough to see with binoculars were the small black and white Manx variety scything back and forth, whilst about a mile off shore small parties of great shearwaters headed purposefully west past the head, skillfully skimming over the waves, disappearing in and out of the spray as they went. We each saw at least one balearic shearwater, browner above and duskier below than the similar Manx — and critically endangered, so a bittersweet sighting. It was such a successful morning that I think I may finally have acquired a taste for sea watching, although I suspect the best few hours’ weather of the weekend and generous numbers of birds, even for this excellent site (host to a formal Seawatch project which is worth reading about) may give me unrealistic expectations in future.
On our way to another fruitless wryneck hunt (I wondered if they should be renamed ‘Whyneck’, which to me sounds like a kind of existentialist woodpecker from a children’s TV program about philosophy. Must remember to call CBBC with that one), from out of a small flock of corvids we heard an unmistakable ‘cheow!’ Choughs! The national bird of Cornwall, marvellous acrobatic small corvids with a curved orange-red beak and similarly daubed legs (not pink, I hope that is clear!). I think we picked out the choughs from the flock, though one I followed into a distant field turned into a jackdaw when I got a good scope view. They had actually been extinct in the county for many years before returning to breed on the Lizard peninsula in, I think, the year 2000. This year, at least four pairs have raised a good number of chicks from the Lizard to Land’s End. We had clearly caught up with perhaps a pair or two of the young — on our way down from the hill, we finally got closer views as they flew back past with the corvid flock, calling wildly. Let’s hope the Cornish choughs continue to be successful, as to my mind no other species better embodies the wild spirit of our western coasts.
I hoped for better views at The Lizard itself, the most southerly point in Britain, but to no avail. All we found on an initial recce were a couple of hefty grey seals bobbing down by the foot of the cliffs. Once the rain cleared up again spotted flycatcher, sedge warbler and fulmar provided avian consolation, and a stoat entertained us by chasing a rabbit round, and round, and round, as if, as Richard pointed out, it was on a scalextric track. A final chough sighting, or further big year or life tick, was not forthcoming, so we left with a somewhat modest weekend total of 70+ species (I haven’t seen the official list yet myself) — but I think we can call it nearer 90 via the Duckworth-Lewis method for rain-affected matches. Applies to birding too, right? I can’t really make the journey home very interesting, although it did feature excellent chips, a last bit of motivational cheerleading from yours truly (give me a B! give me a U! give me an R! give me an R! give me an R! give me an R ! give me a D! what have we got?!), and my extreme, probably placebo reaction to a can of Blue Bolt. We made it back alive and dreaming of birding adventures to come. The only question is — where next for Chris Tours? Advanced booking starts soon!