An Introduction to Seawatching in Cornwall – Late Summer
1. Where to go
2. When to go
3. Seawatching – the basics
As the first of the summer storms start to batter the Cornish coastline we are now into that time of year when many keen birders around the country start to turn their attention to the iconic headlands of the South West, and Cornwall in particular, with the allure of the ‘big two’ shearwaters and the hope of something rarer proving an irresistible draw …
Cory’s Shearwater and Great Shearwater are both regular visitors to the warmer waters of the Bay of Biscay further to the south west and the western approaches but are difficult to catch up with anywhere in the British Isles in season. Even in Cornwall, away from a handful of sites and in anything less than ideal conditions, they are not at all guaranteed – and even then it seems to be down to luck with other factors at play.
So, for the chance of large shears and the hope of a rarer seabird, firstly aim for the far west of Cornwall…
Strong westerlies, and the seasoned seawatcher will be getting excited …
If there is a northerly component to the westerly winds – head for the northern coast – Pendeen or St Ives. If there is a southerly component – then go to Porthgwarra.
So Pendeen in north westerly, Porthgwarra in south westerly winds, or either perhaps in due westerlies. As the season progresses, Pendeen perhaps becomes the better of the two when winds are due west as birds come down and out of the Irish Sea.
Strong westerlies veering overnight to northerlies or north westerlies can trap birds in St Ives Bay (leading to good or exceptional views as they exit by St Ives Island), and Porthgwarra can sometimes perform well in a light southerly or south-easterly.
Brief guide to the main seawatching sites
Pendeen has a convenient wall around the lighthouse providing shelter and some level ground, with a small (free) car park by the road above. A line of reefs offshore provides a good reference point with most birds passing just beyond in normal conditions, although the larger shearwaters and petrels are normally further out, and in certain conditions some birds will pass through closer.
St Ives – viewing can be good from the furthest north west tip of the island, or when birds are being strongly blown into the bay and being swept close in, from the railings on the north side. The (pay) car parking situation later in the day can be very awkward, and even first thing it can be a problem as it is used by B&B guests for overnight parking.
Porthgwarra – There are a couple of options, from some of the nearest cliffs beyond the (pay) car park where most seawatchers tend to gather loosely in the shelter of the rocks near the top (Hella Point) or a quarter mile or so beyond (Gwennap Head), as used by the Seawatch South West team a few years back. The third option is the cove – viewing from the benches at the top of the beach between the car park and the foot of the cliffs, and better for certain species in certain conditions. The Runnel Stone, c.1 mile offshore and marked by a distinctive floating warning buoy is a useful marker.
Other headlands in West Penwith (essentially the far tip of Cornwall west of Marazion and Hayle), such as Cape Cornwall and Tatur-du lighthouse by Lamorna Cove may produce the goods. In good conditions you may increase your chance of finding your own birds, balanced by the good chance of completely missing out as more pairs of eyes pick up more birds elsewhere.
On the north side of the peninsula, Trevose Head and The Rumps can also perform well, especially a little later in the season and at times when conditions would otherwise suit Pendeen well.
The main sites are probably popular down to a combination of access, height above sea-level, comfort and shelter available, in addition to being ‘perfectly located’ in the far south west. Land’s End is not ideal as a site, with height above sea level, and offshore rocks two factors leading to birds being rather distant in addition to birds already being pushed out by nearby headlands.
Lizard Point is another good option in south westerlies especially (and sometimes on south easterlies) – and has been generally underwatched in the past. It actually juts out further south into the channel than the traditional West Penwith sites. Car parking is in the main NT car park (pay) by the toilet block / lighthouse a short walk from the point (it should be noted that as a popular tourist destination car parking and congestion in the area can be a big problem in the summer months).
Viewing is generally from the Watchpoint by the tea rooms down by the end of the point itself, with the National Trust seawatching hut manned by volunteers generally being open from 10am to 4pm in the summer. There are also guided sea watch events throughout the year, see the NT website or CBWPS events calendar for dates and more information.
Nearby Bass Point can also be rewarding as birds swing out of Falmouth Bay on south easterly winds, and does offer much closer view of shearwaters in some conditions compared to the Point .
Further east and again, any headland in Cornwall can be worth watching from in strong winds or gales (again essentially, north coast when north or north west, south in southerlies), but not recommended if you are able to get to one of the top sites already mentioned. Good birds can occur throughout the year, but the summer specialities (large shears and rarities) do seem to genuinely drop off away from the far SW of the county.
Pelagics – The Scillonian III ferry to the Scilly Isles, not quite Cornwall, or seawatching, and not normally to be recommended for guaranteed scarce seabirds, but seems to be performing this year with the reduced price Friday RSPB Wildlife day return trip regularly producing a handful of large shears, in addition to other wildlife and the general pelagic experience.
Closer offshore, and other mini-pelagics or holiday excursions can be taken – the Mermaid II mini evening birders pelagic from Penzance has certainly proved itself so far this season with both Cory’s and Great Shearwater and multiple Wilson’s Petrels.
That’s the million dollar question – birds don’t always do what you want them to do, and they don’t always like following the weather predictions. Then the weather predictions can be wrong … So far however this year has been exceptional in a good early start to the summer seabird season.
If this follows, then any good blow from the south or south west should produce the birds.
Perhaps there’s never been a better time to catch up with Wilson’s Petrel from land in the UK, with multiple sightings from Porthgwarra and Lizard Point, and seemingly lots of birds in the region, with an astonishing 20+ seen from the Isles of Scilly Pelagic on the 27th July and 4 off Penzance on the mini- pelagic on the 29th there.
So presumably there are good numbers of seabirds in the area to start with this summer – seemingly as a result of warmer than normal sea temperatures and cooler conditions further south in the Bay of Biscay. At the moment it seems that any half-feeble south westerly, and good numbers of large shears are being seen from the main sites above in addition to almost any sea facing spot in the western half of the county (and beyond).
Generally, however, good seabirds require certain good conditions if you are to see them from land. Follow the weather forecast closely, monitor social media, such as twitter or Birdforum to see what others are thinking, if you are into such things. Getting back to basics there are a number of useful sites on the internet, for example the surfing site Magic Seaweed for wind speeds in the western approaches and the immediate coastal regions.
So, firstly the birds have to be pushed into the general area, then they have to be pushed close enough onshore to be seen by land-based observers (pelagic seabirds don’t normally come close to land unless they can avoid it). And then you have to see them (more on that later). Strong winds, gale force can do the trick, excepting offshore winds (ie from the land). Otherwise poor visibility can bring birds close inshore to headlands that they would otherwise avoid. Rain and fog can do this, but poor visibility then hampers the observers efforts to see them … Otherwise, good visibility with showers or spells of rain can be ideal and are often followed or preceded by birds tracking around the squalls. Ideal visibility conditions are hard to predict and can vary by site. The day after very strong winds or storms can be very productive as birds re-orientate and pass close by offshore (as long as there is still something of an onshore wind).
Seawatching – the basics.
Aimed primarily at the birder or birdwatcher new to seawatching, but may include some useful pointers/refreshers for those who only occasionally indulge when the season strikes.
Birding etiquette – if new to seawatching or the site, don’t be put off from mixing with others. Most seawatchers are keen to share their knowledge and sightings of birds as they see them. Find a reasonably comfortable spot within close earshot of others and hopefully you won’t miss out on too much (don’t expect to see everything).
Don’t obscure the view of others, otherwise most normal polite human behavioural things go. Share your sightings of good birds as you see them – it’s a shared experience not a private competition (equally if you are more experienced, share sightings of commoner birds with those around – we all have to start somewhere and don’t assume they’ve seen that obvious (to you) Arctic Skua kicking about offshore).
If part of a spread-out group do pass on sightings ‘up-the-line’ to those who may be out of earshot of the original observer of a good bird – a short distance away, overly concentrating on your own little scope-view world, and the wind blowing the wrong way, and folk can easily miss out otherwise.
If you think you have found an interesting bird, then call it out immediately to give others a chance to get on to it, even if you aren’t 100% sure. You won’t be very popular if you ask “was that a Wilson’s Petrel that has just flown around the corner!”
Calling ‘possibles’ is perfectly acceptable – for example, calling “skua sp.” or “possible Pom” and others will try and get on it to confirm/avoid missing out.
Seawatching technique – everyone probably does it slightly differently, but one effective strategy is to slowly scan against the direction of the main seabird passage. The aim is to pick up on anything interesting or different. Take a minute or more (depending on how far out you are looking) to scan a good percentage of the available field of view (it can be pointless to look too far right or left as birds get too distant). As soon as you hit a bird (ie a bird appears in your field of view), follow it for as long as you want to for id or enjoyment, before returning to your slow scan. Once you’ve reached the end of your scan (somewhere to your left or right depending on where the birds are coming from), eyes up, and instantly re-position your scope to where you started, and start again … (Every now and then, maybe every 2 – 5 sweeps perhaps, take a moment or two to look with the naked eye (or bins) to check up on your fellow birders and the immediate shoreline in front of you). Or vary by choosing a different distance, for example scanning the distant horizon.
Don’t look too far out if birds are going to be essentially unidentifiable at that range. (Seabird id by jizz (aka giss – general impression of shape and size) will increase id capability as you grow more experienced, although not necessarily the likelihood of acceptance for rare seabirds. Or enjoyment of them).
Where are they? Seabirds often follow an invisible ‘line’ – eg the manxie line – where c.90% of the birds all seem to pass within a certain distance (eg 6- 800 yards) offshore. Checking out where the birds are can be productive, but also check different distance too, including just offshore (ignore at your peril – eg for Red-billed Tropicbirds when at Pendeen …). Large shearwaters often have their own line further out from the Manx Shearwaters, and Skuas can sometimes pass remarkably closer in. Seabirds often flock. Terns, for example may fly above the horizon in loose flocks – scan around for others as you loosely follow one.
It should be noted that in Cornwall the majority of south coast birds fly left to right and north coast birds fly right to left (from the viewpoint of the land-based observer), as birds fly west in both instances to move back into the western approaches/feeding areas, with birds usually flying into the prevailing wind. This helps viewing – birds with a tailwind can move along at a fair pace otherwise.
Waves – seabirds have different flight techniques. Depending on your height above sea level, the sea state and species, birds can be in the troughs of waves for long periods. Persevere if you think you are trying to find a bird in a certain area. Petrels especially can be difficult – be ready for brief views. Track ahead to where you think the bird will rise above the crest by scanning at the same pace as you expect the bird to. Quickly scan back and forth if unsure where it will pop up.
Directions – it can be incredibly difficult to pick up on an interesting and distinctive, yet tiny seabird in a relatively featureless and vast expanse of rolling water. Directions can be seemingly useless (‘it’s next to a wave’), so worth thinking through how you would ideally expect to be given directions by others, as well as how you would give them if you found a good bird.
Even if you don’t use it much yourself, learn the clockface method – in case someone else calls a bird – looking straight out to sea is 12-O-Clock with the coasts at 9 and 3 to your left and right. Work out where 10, 11, 1 and 2 will be and the rough half hours etc between. Know where the sun is, and which way is East and West!
Consider height below the horizon (or above it – eg terns, skuas and divers at times). In terms of scopes width, or distance.
Distance is difficult at sea. Get used to how far certain landmarks are by comparing features directly with eg OS maps both elsewhere and directly on the coast – eg the reefs at Pendeen are approximately 450m from the main seawatching spot by the lighthouse wall. The Runnel Stone at Porthgwarra is c1 mile offshore.
One useful way to inform others mentioned earlier is to refer to ‘scopes width’ – generally speaking most optics will be roughly similar if using the same magnification level eyepiece (the field of view varies somewhat between scope manufacturers, with wide angle lenses also showing a wider view, more sea at once). “Two Scopes left of the red container ship on the horizon” can be a very useful pointer.
Look at the direction people who are onto a bird are looking, and where their scopes are pointing. Bear in mind the slight apparent angle change from where you are situated.
Objects in the water – look for all (and note colour of) buoys in the water, include near and far crab pot floats and markers etc. eg 3 orange floats in a loose line, for later reference. Ships passing distantly on the horizon, as mentioned above, are very useful too – monitor what is out there.
Bearing in mind where other seabirds are is very useful. Directions such as ‘just passed above a lone Shag on the water’ or ‘it’s about a scopes width ahead of 3 adult Gannets flying west’ may come out. Know where those birds are already! Or try and get onto them quickly – get a feel for where an interesting bird is moving in relation to where all the others are about.
Occasionally directions compared to waves can be useful – especially when white water, underwater reefs or big breaking waves are involved.
Try and get a handle on where others are seeing birds (eg how far out they regularly look). If you think you are in the general area a bird is being seen, but still can’t find it, try panning around quickly in the widest area you can, back and forth, being prepared to stop instantly on catching a glimpse of a bird.
If you still can’t find it, be prepared to take your eye off the scope again – perhaps to find everyone is looking a lot further to one side than you were, as the seabird has quickly moved through! Get back on it quick …
Re-finding a bird you have lost – tracking a bird behind a wave, following it but it seems to have just disappeared? Birds do stop and investigate, or feed, so be prepared to wait sometimes, but birds sometimes just ‘disappear’.
Don’t forget close birds can move through rather quickly, distant or feeding birds obviously a lot more slowly.
Optics – a popular scope magnification is 30 x or 30x wide angle. A good, stout tripod is far more important in windy conditions than an expensive telescope. A smooth, fluid head action is also extremely important – panning continously and you want minimal vibration to your view. Tripod more important than scope, but a good scope with ED glass obviously helps. More powerful scopes (eg with a larger objective lens) will allow more light in and give better views in gloomier weather conditions. Zooms are perhaps not that useful, although some prefer them to pick up extra features on a tracked bird (they generally collect slightly less light, often have a narrower fov, and zooming in increases haze effects and vibration etc.)
Picking a spot – aside finding a sheltered spot from the prevailing wind and rain (man-made and rock features can all help), height above sea-level is an important consideration. Some seawatchers prefer being down at sea-level, others prefer higher up (sometimes there is no choice). Advantages of being lower down include seeing more birds as everything passing by can go through the field of view. Birds going above the horizon as they fly are easily seen – but equally they can be silhouetted leading to poorer views. Other disadvantages are that birds can be hidden in the troughs for long periods – or even all the time in bigger swells.
In sunny, calmer conditions heat haze generated from the ground/rocks in front of you can be an issue when you are an appreciable distance from the actual water’s edge – in those circumstances get closer if you can.
Seabird id – experience is the biggest advantage, and you can only really get that by doing it! Video guides, online youtube videos, books and id guides can all help. Size, flight action and familiarity with the commoner seabirds are all imperative. Get used to the flight action of Gannets (in all plumages), gulls and the commoner auks etc in all wind conditions, distances and light conditions. Learn from others at regular seawatching spots (all coastlines around the UK have them).
One book stands out – the Helm Guide to Flight Identification of European Seabirds with realistic photos of seabirds at range and in poor light (note – the photos in this article are not indicative of normal seawatching views!)
Don’t be afraid of letting birds go – auk sp., tern sp. skua sp. bird sp., commic tern etc. Many birds will be unidentifiable, even to the experts at times. Don’t forget, rare birds are … rare. Conversely, expect the unexpected – you never know what will fly past next (seawatching has been likened to viewing a vast conveyor belt, with seabirds moving past in a continuous stream … Gull, 2 Razorbill, Arctic Skua, Herring Gull, c20 Manx Shearwater, 2 auk sp., Dead Cow, 3 Herring Gull …) Be also aware of land birds at sea – they can look confusingly different when distantly battling a headwind, but can also provide extra interest.
When – the accepted knowledge is the crack of dawn. Certainly there tend to be two main periods of activity with birds passing by – the first few hours of the day, and again to a lesser extent in the late evening. At good seawatching sites in windy conditions however, birds can pass through more or less continuously. Skuas and divers amongst others can also have an extended passage throughout the day. But turn up at 10 am at your peril – you won’t want to know what flew past an hour or two earlier!
Warning – never look directly into the sun with optics and similarly be extremely cautious of sunlight reflecting brightly off the waters surface – views will be very poor in any case and permanent eye damage can easily follow.
Hypothermia, starvation, cramp, deep vein thrombosis, falling off cliffs etc etc – suitable precautions should be taken. You are responsible for your own safety.
Lunch/snacks/hot or cold drinks, mobile phone with suitable numbers (coastguard is 999, and know how far away signal is), waterproofs (even if it’s not wet – effective at keeping the wind out on exposed headlands). A cushion or one of those folding fisherman’s chairs can be invaluable for long sit-ins. Even an old carrier bag is great for resisting damp rising from the ground…
(Other hazards include the general public – if too close to a public path expect to be questioned on what you are looking at/photographing on a regular basis! Suitable answers include looking for dolphins and counting waves. If you do tell them you are looking for rare or interesting seabirds passing out at sea they will generally appreciate it and move on politely after a brief discussion – you can discuss further if you so wish and talk about migration routes, upwellings and benthic food supplies etc etc – aim to enthrall and encourage.)
So get out to your nearest headland and start seawatching … or if you can, head to one of Cornwall’s iconic seawatching spots and join the assembled birders waiting for that next mega Herald Petrel or Cape Verde Shearwater … you have to be there to have any chance!
Errors/omissions/alternative viewpoints/suggestions etc – please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and look out for Cornwall Seawatching Part 2) …
To catch up with the latest seawatching sightings from the county see the ‘Recent Sightings’ page on the cbwps website, updated throughout the day.
Dan Chaney, July 2017