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  • rshill1973

Winter in Cornwall - part 2

In my previous post ( ) I eulogised a bit about the two weeks we spent down in Cornwall back in January. Hopefully I conveyed how much we love the place, and I described some of the seabirds we saw.

But not all the action was offshore. As I mentioned before, we stayed in Marazion ( ) which has two beaches. The large, dramatic and photogenic beach that sweeps away towards Penzance, and a smaller beach on the east side of town.

This beach is bordered on the landward side by modest cliffs, maybe 50ft high, but steep. I presume the soil is sandstone, as the cliffs are a vivid, deep orange. The slopes are capped with plenty of bushes, the largest of them hanging down over the edges. The tideline on this beach is high, with the thin brown ribbons of seaweed being dumped almost at the foot of the cliffs.

All this creates perfect habitat for passerines, providing warmth, shelter, and a huge abundance of food. So there was always something to see. Dumpy Stonechats preferred the clifftops, easy to spot and appreciate, due to their habitat of perching right on top of a favoured bush. Large numbers of Pied Wagtails were common, scuttling amongst the stones like tiny clockwork toys, legs going, tails pumping away. They were accompanied by lots of Meadow Pipits and Rock Pipits.

Rock Pipit

Hiding amongst these small brown streaky birds was a rarer small brown streaky bird – a Water Pipit. It didn’t take long to track down its favoured feeding area, after which I was able to enjoy superb close-up views. Maybe it was these views which made me appreciate, for the first time, that Water Pipits are actually rather smart birds. They have white bellies with defined, thick black streaking, a similarly gleaming white throat and supercilium (for non-birders, that’s the eyebrow), and double white wingbars. The overall impression is of a tiny bird that's cut from cleaner, smarter cloth than the smudgy, rather lacklustre Rock Pipit.

However, a lovely Black Redstart was my favourite bird of these walks. Black Redstarts have a charisma which seems entirely derived from anxiety. This individual was either a female or a first-winter male (they look very similar). It would feed amongst the rocks, regularly stopping, and looking about. At the first sign of danger, it would fly swiftly up to the cliff face, and not descend again for some time. Like many birds from the chat family, Black Redstarts combine a slightly pot-bellied, upright stance with various nervous tics and flicks. They twitch their tail almost continually, and often spread it when they take flight, fully revealing its spectacular burnt orange colour, like a setting sun or a smouldering fire.

High tide feeding frenzy

For an avian spectacle though, it was hard to beat the results of a few especially high tides towards the end of our stay. The water delivered a huge amount of seaweed which then sat on a concrete ledge below the sea wall like some giant glutinous mass in various shades of brown and dark green. It must have been absolutely teeming with sandflies and other insects, because it attracted a feeding frenzy of hundreds of birds.

Luckily we were able to stand at the top of the seawall and look down onto the action without disturbing the birds. Mind you, so focussed were they on feeding, I think they were beyond being disturbed by the presence of a few pesky humans.

By far the most vocal and numerous birds were the Black-headed and Herring Gulls. The Black-headed Gulls mostly rode the waves a few yards offshore, twisting in the air above the surf before flying away to rest and preen on the water. The larger and more aggressive Herring Gulls didn’t leave the ledge, feeding voraciously and constantly arguing amongst each other.

Looking down on the masses from above, it initially took a moment or two to pick out all the Turnstones. We heard them before we saw them, their soft, yet rather urgent rattling call cutting through the gull noise. In winter their rather cryptic plumage is a hodgepodge of black and dun brown, and looking down from above, seeing how well it matched the colour of the seaweed, was to witness a perfect example of how perfectly a bird can be adapted to its environment. Turnstones are rarely leisurely in their movements. They’re continually on the move, small flocks sticking tight together as they feed. Then suddenly, they’ll all stop and take flight, chattering away as they wheel around above the waves before alighting on a nearby rock. They’re a delight to watch.


There were a few other waders in amongst the Turnstones. Gleamingly pale Sanderlings, fast, dumpy and active; nervy and vocal Redshanks; the odd Oystercatcher; and best of all, a subtle prize, one or two Purple Sandpipers. These small furtive waders prefer the most unwelcoming of habitats. Don’t look for them on sandy beaches. They prefer rocky coasts which are continually lashed by waves. I presume the two that we saw came from somewhere else in the bay, accompanying the Turnstone flock to the bonanza.

Finally, dashing amongst the waders and gulls, were an astounding number of Pied Wagtails. At least one hundred birds. Add in a few Rock Pipits, Starlings, and on one occasion, another Black Redstart, and the result was an enthralling spectacle. We went down to enjoy the show on three consecutive afternoons, watching the birds as dusk fell, before going to the pub for a pint of Tribute. A perfect way to end a superb holiday!

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