Cornish Seawatching – Day 3 – 28/viii/15

At first light, I headed up to the watchpoint at Porthgwarra for my final few hours of seawatching. The wind had picked up again since the previous afternoon, and there had been several heavy rain showers overnight. Several others soon joined me, and by half seven, there were twelve of us present. The variety of birds was excellent once again, and included large numbers of Cory’s Shearwater (well over fifty birds in the first hour).

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However, nobody expected what was to happen next. At five past eight, Martin Birch alerted everyone to an odd looking bird that was moving quickly west. Several of us got onto it immediately. It was about six or seven hundred metres offshore (well within the ‘runnel buoy’), and flying about 10 metres above the water’s surface.

It’s flight was a fast and constant flapping, and it appeared to have the ‘tri-coloured’ wing pattern of a Sabine’s Gull. For that reason, Geoff Wyatt suggested Sabs as a possibility, but Martin disagreed, pointing out that it had a long tail. Just as the bird was about to disappear from view, it banked, and headed straight towards us. Martin shouted “It’s a Tropicbird!!” (or something along those lines), and the adrenaline really started pumping!

We could see that the bird had a large orange-red bill and black ‘bandit stripe’ through each eye. The bird continued to bank, until it was heading back to the east at about half distance to the ‘runnel buoy’ (no further than five hundred metres). We could now clearly see that the all-white tail had two long central tail feathers (which were approximately double the length of the tail itself).

The bird was clearly a RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD!!

We continued to watch as it associated with a couple of Gannets, and we could clearly see that it was a large bird – approximately two-thirds the size of the Gannets. By this point everyone present was on the bird, and a surreal few minutes passed as we watched the bird linger offshore. It gradually became ever more distant, and then disappeared to the west at twelve minutes past eight.

Everybody sat back from their scopes in a state of disbelief, and several of us were shaking violently. Geoff hurried off to find phone signal and put the news out, but unfortunately the bird was not seen again.

Over the phone, Ian Lewington suggested that the bird sounded like a second calendar year bird, which explains why the bill was more orange-red than blood-red, and the central tail feathers were not as long as an adult birds’.

Some google searching brought up the following image, which closely resembles the bird:

The fact that it is this age, means that it is a new individual rather than a lingering bird (such as the adult that past Pendeen in 2013). If accepted, this will be only the 6th British record of the species!

My totals for the rest of the species seen on the watch are as follows; 5 Balearic Shearwater, 1 Pomarine Skua, 6 Great Skua and 23 Storm-Petrel.

By eleven, things had quietened down, so I took my leave and began the long journey home, still struggling to believe what I had just seen. I made a quick visit to Labrador Bay RSPB, where I saw a single male Cirl Bunting, which was a nice bird (and another British tick).

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My personal total seawatching tallies for the trip were:

1 RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD, 70 Cory’s Shearwater, 2 Great Shearwater, 29 Balearic Shearwater, 5 Sooty Shearwater, 2 Pomarine Skua, 3 Arctic Skua, 9 Great Skua and 37 Storm-Petrel.

An unforgettable few days!


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