A Cornish pelagic with Pelican extras – 17th Aug

At some time after 9am a blue Hyundai saloon disgorged three early rising Oxon birders into a grey and unwelcoming Cornish morning. Away to Mike, myself and Tom’s left a large creamy shape sat atop a cairn on a mud bank between low and high tides. This blob had the profile of a sleeping, long-necked bird of considerable size. It was without doubt the errant Dalmatian Pelican that has graced various locations in Cornwall since mid-May.

The latest site to be favoured is Restronguet Creek, an arm of the flooded ria of the estuary system to the north of Falmouth. And we were observing the visitor from Point Quay (SW805383). Few birders in God’s own county (Oxon) have bothered with this maybe “plastic” bird as there are questions over it’s origin that remain to be answered. But we were here on other wildlife business and so it would have seemed rude not to at least take a look.

I have in any case never seen any Pelican outside of a zoo. My understanding is that this individual is assumed to be one that was observed in Poland before taking up residence in Cornwall. In that other country it was accepted as a wild bird, ie not an escape from captivity. This is one of two European Pelican species whose home range is in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea areas. Eventually the great and good of the British sightings committees will pronounce their verdict as to the visitor’s provenance, and so in the meantime it is well worth seeing and adding to my British list as a “marginal”.

After a while the Pelican put it’s head up and had a little preen (pictured above, left). That was more like it and what a magnificent creature! With a physique to outmuscle a Mute Swan and a three metre plus wingspan this bird looked confident in the knowledge that nothing could trouble it. Then the head was tucked back in again and the Pelican resumed its slumber, still on top of the cairn. Tom said they spend much of their time sleeping. There were some hours to go until high tide when the bird would most likely become active again, and so we three continued on to our local appointment.

So what had brought me more than 100 miles beyond the usual range for only my second ever visit to Cornwall. Well pelagic birds sic Shearwaters and Petrels are one group that I have not caught up with, bar just two previous records. Mike had decided independently that he too needed to make the effort for these birds. So when he booked three places on a wildlife cruise operating out of Falmouth I accepted the invitation gladly. In the event though this pelagic was very disappointing for all three of us.

It began with a sail out to sea during which two Manx Shearwater were seen briefly and a fly-by European Storm Petrel, unusually close to shore provided the morning’s second lifer. But then the captain decided conditions were too rough to continue safely and opted for an estuary tour instead. We wondered if this was more to do with the unlikelihood of Dolphin and Porpoise being found in such a swell, since the rest of the group were probably rather more interested in marine mammals than birds. The easterly winds were also from the wrong direction for good seabird passage, but we still expected to stay out at sea for the £50 per head we had paid. There were plenty of birds and other wildlife interest in the estuary but little that we cannot experience in Oxfordshire.

On our way home we stopped at Point Quay again. It was now high tide and the Dalmatian Pelican was preening by the shore on the far side of Restronguet Creek. We admired it for around 20 minutes and put an enquring family of three onto what was undoubtedly the highlight of our day. To view this bird’s RBA gallery click here. Many thanks to top bloke Mike for doing all the driving. This was a trip to put down to experience but the visiting Pelican was a superb encounter in itself. We decided that if we do this sort of thing again we will check the weather conditions on the day before proceeding and make sure we are getting involved in a serious birding pelagic.

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