Friday, 14 August 2009

Conservation Volunteering with SeaWatch SW

West from Gwennap Head

Of the world’s 190 critically endangered birds Europe has only two, one of which is the Balearic shearwater – down to about 4000 individuals2000 breeding pairs and declining rapidly. In five days I had the privilege of logging 51 records of these Mediterranean birds dispersing past Gwennap Head, just south of Land's End; although I honestly identified only a dozen. At a distance, which is so frequently the case, they look similar to their cousin and abundant British species, the Manx shearwater.

It takes a trained eye to separate them and fortunately we had a couple in the head of John Swann, resident of Cornwall and veteran sea-watcher. He also had a telescope designed for the job with its wide-angle, 30x magnification eyepiece. My tiddly 25x zoom jobbie simply didn't trap enough light or give a decent field of view. I almost fared better with the trusty old 10x42 binoculars, so my first lesson covered getting the right equipment for the job.

It may have been as well that I didn't know this before starting: I felt challenged enough by the prospect of five days’ getting up pre-dawn to spend twelve hours on an exposed Cornish headland. If the summer had been anything but the monsoon we've been experiencing, I might have relished the idea. As it was, I nervously packed everything I owned that was waterproof and windproof.

Getting to Penzance the morning before my shift started, I made a preview visit to the site to meet Russell Wynn, the co-ordinator of the project. To get the Balearics, which tend to pass relatively close to shore, the team had set up camp somewhat lower than the well-known watch-point at Porthgwarra. This involved a scramble down the unforgiving Cornwall granite and particularly through a defile we got to know as The Crack of Doom. Fortunately an easier, but more roundabout, route also existed. I got into the habit of taking this.

Preliminaries and introductions over, I decamped to the B&B, which came as part of the deal, and then spent the rest of the day being a tourist: i.e. driving into and out of Land’s End without paying the four quid to stop there; and failing to find anywhere at all to park in St. Ives. Hey, it was August.

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