Birding the Lizard by David Collins

Swift Report - Winter 2022

Where is the best place to go birdwatching in Britain? To see large numbers of birds and a wide range of species, the migrant hotspots on the east coast of England are likely to be high on most people’s list. However, because they are so popular with birdwatchers, the chance of actually finding your own rarity in such places is very limited.

The Lizard certainly doesn’t attract birds with anything like the regularity or in the numbers that these places do, but there are far fewer birders. When something really rare turns up large numbers of birders do flock to Lizard, but otherwise there is just a small but dedicated band of locals who focus their birdwatching efforts in the area. So a ‘crowd’ of birders on the Lizard is unlikely to be more than half a dozen unless something really special turns up. This means that there is every chance of finding your own birds – which is what matters most to me – and at least a few birders to share the more interesting birds with. There is a great camaraderie between us.

A quick flick through back copies of Birds in Cornwall will confirm its status as an important site for rarities, many of which are documented in Brian Cave’s book on the birds of Lizard. If there were any doubts about its attractiveness for real rarities, Britain’s third Brown Booby at Kynance Cove in September 2019 (which I was lucky enough to find) and the amazingly confiding Rufous Bush-chat near Black Head in August 2021 will certainly have dispelled them. It is also justly famous for its population of Choughs, which first reappeared in 2001 and have been delighting visitors ever since. A full account of the birds of Lizard by Ilya Maclean can be found online at www.lizardbirds.net. This documents the occurrence of as many as 369 species!

There can be few birdwatching sites in the country with such a spectacular scenic backdrop and such a range of high quality habitats.  From the sea cliffs and coves to the wild moors of the hinterland and the wooded creeks of the Helford River, the Lizard is a wonderful place to spend time. While a few spots such as Lizard Point, Kynance Cove and Gunwalloe can be pretty crowded with tourists in high season (although not at dawn!) walk a few hundred yards in any unfashionable direction and the place is all but completely deserted. In summer there are Nightjars, Cuckoos and Dartford Warblers breeding on the heaths, and other breeding warblers include Grasshopper Warbler in scrubby country and Cetti’s Warbler. The rich mix of habitats makes the Lizard a great place for plants and invertebrates as well as for birds. For me this adds greatly to its attraction. The Lizard is one of the richest places for flowers in Britain, and there are lots of rarities. I particularly enjoy the area around Kynance, with its unique mix of unspoilt flower rich grasslands and heath. A recent example of how the different elements of Lizard can make for a varied experience was the morning of 6th June, a day with light south-westerly winds and sunny periods. I started just after dawn with an hour’s sea-watching from the Point. Given the conditions, this was more in hope than expectation. The usual species were passing in fairly typical numbers, but I noticed a big raft of many hundreds of Manx Shearwaters feeding not too far out. Through my telescope I watched them milling around in short flights between the best feeding spots and diving below the surface, and amongst them was a handsome Sooty Shearwater, not a common bird here in June. After that I checked the area around the Point and Housel Bay for migrants and was delighted to find a Turtle Dove, a bird that I hadn’t seen at all the previous year. After breakfast in a local café I headed to Windmill Farm to enjoy invertebrates and plants, where I photographed Red-veined Darter as well as Marsh and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries and the diminutive and very scarce Yellow Centaury in flower.

Winter is perhaps the quietest time of the year for birds on the Lizard, but Great Northern Divers can be seen at any time in the more sheltered places such as along the Helford River and at Coverack, and when the sea is calm they can also be seen along the western shore between Gunwalloe and Porthleven where Red-throated Divers can also be quite numerous. Black-throated is perhaps best seen at Kennack Sands. Hundreds of Golden Plover winter around Predannack, and Cattle Egrets are to be found with cattle in the north-eastern part of the peninsula. Choughs are relatively easy to see around the coastal cliffs at this time of the year, and flocks of a dozen or more sometimes occur. On rocky shores Purple Sandpipers can sometimes be found with the Turnstones, especially at Lizard Point. The heaths tend to be fairly quiet, but there are wintering Merlins and Hen Harriers. Offshore Guillemots and Razorbills pass in big numbers. For example, during a moderate south-westerly on 22nd February 2022 I estimated 12,000 passing in an hour just after dawn.

From the middle of March attention turns to returning passage migrants. Chiffchaffs and Wheatears are first to arrive, with Willow Warblers, Blackcaps and hirundines a little later. Most days in late March and April, a morning’s birdwatching around the fields and scrub in the vicinity of Lizard village produces just a few of these birds (or even none), but now and again, when the weather conditions are just right, larger numbers are seen. On 29th March 2022, for example, in murky weather after overnight rain, there seemed to be Willow Warblers in every bush. Out on Old Lizard Head there were 18 Wheatears in one field, and other birds included plenty of Chiffchaffs, no less than 6 Black Redstarts, a Siberian Chiffchaff and a lingering Fieldfare.

Offshore, Manx Shearwater numbers build during March and this month is the best for seeing Puffins, although they do tend to be quite distant. Amongst the commoner migrants, scarcer species such as Common Redstart, Whinchat and Ring Ouzel also turn up and rarer birds such as Hoopoe, Woodchat, Rose-coloured Starling, and Serin are found by one or other of the dedicated band of local birders each year. Even rarer birds turn up at this time, recent examples being Black-headed Wagtail, Marsh and Dusky Warbler, Montagu’s Harrier and several Bee-eaters.

One of the problems with trying to find rare birds on Lizard is the unpredictability of occurrence. To some extent this is true of all migrant hot-spots, but it is a particularly acute problem at the Lizard, where arrival of migrants seems to be particularly difficult to judge. During a whole morning working the area around Lizard in what appear to be reasonably good weather conditions I often find no migrants at all. When this happens it can be easy to lose heart and give up early (and return home grumpy according to my wife). On 14th April this year, early fog lifted and the morning was then dull and rather calm. During three hours to the western of Lizard village a single Wheatear was the only migrant I had seen, so after breakfast in my favoured Lizard café my intention was to do some botanising rather than checking the Housel Bay area. Half way to Mullion I got a message from Tony Blunden to say that he had found a Western Subalpine Warbler in Housel Bay! I doubled back and was pleased to see and photograph it – but if only I had found it.

Just as spring passage draws to an end, thoughts of seawatching begin. The first Cory’s Shearwaters are sometimes seen in June, but July and August are the months when it really starts to get interesting. Strong south-westerlies with at least some rain are best, when Cory’s, Great, Sooty and Balearic Shearwaters can be numerous amongst the constant stream of Manx. Other species to be seen in these conditions include Storm Petrel and all four skuas. A small band of hardy enthusiasts turns out to watch them passing, hoping against hope for something really rare. And just occasionally the impossible happens: Black-browed Albatross, Wilson’s Petrel and Feas-type Petrel being amongst the species seen in recent years.

Towards the end of August, when the winds are more easterly, south-bound passerines such as Pied Flycatcher, Whinchat and Tree Pipit begin to move through. Of course, on most autumn days nothing very interesting is seen at all, even when there are half a dozen birders scouring every square metre of ground. But the long hours of finding nothing special ultimately reap reward. In recent years, in addition to those already mentioned, these have included Buff-bellied Pipit, Red-eyed Vireo, Brown Shrike, as well as Dusky, Barred and Booted Warblers. This is undoubtedly the most exciting time to be birding the Lizard.

One of the greatest thrills in my life was finding the Brown Booby in Kynance Cove, the story of which was related in a previous Palores article. Almost as exciting was the Radde’s Warbler on 23rd October 2021. The previous day a skulking warbler had been seen and heard calling in a hedge near Cadgwith so I decided to have a look at first light, when I hoped the bird might show itself. After half an hour or so of wandering up and down likely looking hedges I heard an interesting call, and lo and behold a Radde’s Warbler hopped into full view allowing me to get some decent photographs. This was the species I had most wanted to find since I was a teenager! So even if the Lizard isn’t on many people’s list of the best sites to go birdwatching in Britain, it definitely is on mine.

David Collins

Black Redstart at Gunwalloe by David Collins
Marsh Fritillary at Windmill Farm by David Collins
Olive-backed Pipit at Lizard Head by David Collins
Dusky Warbler at Cadgwith by David Collins