The seas, coastline and the extensive Fal estuary attract a wide variety of birds all the year round. Numbers and variety of species fluctuates with the time of year and in the spring and autumn, during the peak times of bird migration, or during severe weather rarities are always a possibility.
It would be impractical to cover all species but this guide will hopefully help visitors identify the species most likely to be seen and where to see them as well as some rarer ones to look out for. Many visitors from inland are maybe not familiar with coastal birds so there is a greater emphasis on those species associated with a marine environment.
The Grey Heron and Little Egret are two large and very distinctive wading birds that are commonly seen throughout the year either fishing in rockpools close to beaches or along the banks of the estuary. It is only in recent years that the Little Egret colonised the UK but already it seems to be almost as common as the long established Grey Heron in the Falmouth area.
One of the most common birds seen diving for fish in the harbour, the estuary and Falmouth Bay are Shags and Cormorants. These birds are often seen fishing on their own but can be in rafts made up of hundreds when dense shoals of bait fish such as sandeels, sprats or mackerel come close to shore.
Watching Cormorants trying to swallow an eel or an oversized fish is always an entertaining spectacle. Often both species can be seen standing on rocks or mooring buoys with wings held open to dry. The Shag is smaller than the Cormorant, with a more rounded head showing a tuft in breeding plumage, and flies with a straighter neck. Plumages can vary with season and age.
Guillemots and Razorbills are members of the Auk family of diving birds and are more likely to be seen in the deeper waters of Falmouth Bay but individuals will occasionally be seen close to the beaches and within the estuary. They fly with a rapid wing beat close to the water and are often in small flocks.
One of the most spectacular diving birds to be seen at any time of the year is the Gannet. It is one of the few birds that spots fish in flight and then tucks its wings in and falls like a dart into the water. The occasional one may be seen in the estuary but daily sightings can be had from most coastal points looking out over Falmouth Bay. Headlands such as St Anthony’s Head, Pendennis Point and Rosemullion Head provide the best vantage points but more distant sightings may also be had from the beaches and the South West Coast Path.
Another bird that dives into the water from height is the delicate Sandwich Tern. Small numbers arrive in the spring and can often be seen perched on the yellow buoys off Gyllyngvase beach and feeding on sandeels in Falmouth Bay and within the Fal estuary. Other tern species may occasionally be recorded but the Sandwich Tern can be identified by the shaggy head crest and yellow tipped black bill.
The most common gulls to be seen are Herring Gulls and Black-headed Gulls. Their plumages change as they mature and lighten from shades of brown and black to white. When mature the Black-headed Gull develops its dark head colouring in summer.
The Great Black-backed Gull is the UK’s largest gull and can be commonly seen in small numbers anywhere around Falmouth both over the water and onshore. It is a formidable predator and will eat almost anything including young birds and fish as well as scavenging discarded waste. The Lesser Black-backed Gull resembles the Greater but is smaller, about the size of a Herring Gull, with a less densely coloured black back.
The once rare Mediterranean Gull is a species that is often overlooked because of its similarity to the Black-headed Gull but it is becoming increasingly common around Falmouth. The best time and place to see it is from late autumn to early spring when one or two can regularly be spotted amongst the gulls on Swanpool Pool.
A seabird commonly seen along the coastline and further out to sea is the Fulmar. With its white and grey plumage it is often mistaken for a gull but is actually related to the Albatross. Small numbers nest on steep cliffs at St Anthony’s Head and Swanpool and can be identified in flight by their stiff wings and long glides interrupted by rapid wing beats. These birds can often be seen flying by close to Pendennis Point.
The Birds of Prey, also known as raptors, most likely to be seem in and around Falmouth are Sparrowhawk, Kestrel, Buzzard and Peregrine Falcon.
Sparrowhawks are commonly seen patrolling local gardens and Kestrels can be seen hovering over open coastal grassland anywhere from St Anthony’s Head to the Helford River. If you see a hovering bird it is almost invariably a Kestrel.
One or two pairs of Peregrine Falcons nest on the cliffs around Falmouth and can often be seen patrolling over the town and docks looking out for feral pigeons. The smallest British bird of prey, the Merlin, can be recorded on the surrounding coastline in the winter but it is uncommon.
Ravens are the largest all black bird likely to be seen when walking on the South West Coast Path. Often it is their unmistakable deep ‘croak’ call as they fly overhead that draws your attention. They are huge in comparison to the other corvids likely to be seen such as Rooks and Crows. If scale is difficult to assess the wedge shaped tail of the Raven is distinctive. The Jackdaw is the smallest of the corvids and often the most common black bird seen on cliffs and coastal grassland.
Links to other parts of the Illustrated Guide to Falmouth Birds
Part 2 – Shorebirds and waders
Part 3 – Swanpool