sand martin holes
Sand martin nest holes

The corrugated roof of the recently abandoned Winniaton Farm has become inhabited for the evening. The metal canopy, which has been heating up all day in the spring sunshine, is now covered by a congregation of companionable birds; herring gulls, starlings, woodpigeons and sparrows are amongst the faces huddled together, enjoying the warmth on their feet. Soon, they will be joined by migrating swallows that use the tiny gaps underneath the farm roof to nest in. Along the hedgerows which surround the estate, stonechats temporarily break their song to mutter alarm calls to one another about my presence as I head towards the rocky beach.

Like much of Cornwall, this area has a long history with smuggling. The caves here are said to be linked by a series of tunnels where contraband would be dropped off, leading to different safe locations in the area. Shipwrecks are also thought to have been frequent due to rocks offshore. A Spanish ship carrying several tonnes of coins is thought to have been lost a few miles out to sea and some claim that the money washes up over the years, making the beaches name, ‘Dollar Cove’, seem very apt.

This coastline is laden with riches, but it isn’t historic gold coins that I am referring to. Instead, I am on the beach looking for burrows containing treasures of a different kind. On the north-west facing sandy cliff, a flock of birds are flitting around several holes and my heart leaps at the sight of them. These sand martins have recently undertaken the 7,500 mile journey to summer here on the Cornish shore. They arrived in late March, taking up residence in the cliffs, as they prepare to welcome their young in June. I love to watch them in the summer, taking turns to leave the nest to gather food as the chicks get bigger, sometimes lots of tiny brown faces all poking out of one nest, appearing as though they don’t quite fit. Then, usually around September, they are gone as quickly as they arrived and the cliff is quiet again, only the empty holes serving as a reminder of what has taken place here over the warmer months.

This site attracts around 50 birds; although at other locations there can be hundreds in one colony. It is a joy to see them; circling and swooping around the cliff tops, sometimes clinging to the side of the rock face before disappearing down a burrow, leaving a trail of sand behind them as they excavate it for their nest chamber. In the summer, you can see their outlines as they skip over the waves, the pink sun setting behind them. Every year it feels like more of an honour to see them, especially as there has been a decline in sand martin populations over the last few decades due to droughts in their winter home of Africa. Extended hot periods mean that the damp habitats where they usually reside have been struggling and insect populations have decreased, meaning the birds are finding it increasingly hard to find food. Here in Cornwall however, food is plentiful; the washed-up seaweed rotting in the midday sun attracting a plethora of insects to feed upon.

I watch for a while as the birds fly up and down the coast before a black shape appears overhead, sending the birds into a sudden panic. They flock towards the sea as the female kestrel swoops closer to the cliff. This kestrel is a familiar face to the area, often perching on the flags at the golf course, waiting for small mammals to break cover at dusk. Her youngster, a male who she had two years ago, has the domain directly next to hers, choosing a life on the cliff edge where he looks for small birds and mice in the long, tussocky grass.

The female kestrel sits motionless, her frame a shadowy figure perched atop the cliff overlooking the nest holes. A brave sand martin circles back towards her, screeching as it does so, getting closer and closer before it finally it is near enough to have an effect and the kestrel takes off backwards towards the graveyard.

The last sand martin, its duty done, then disappears around the coast with the others. As I wait for the birds to return, the sun begins to drop behind the horizon and the cold sets in, finally forcing me to leave without another opportunity to see them.

As I walk, I pass the farm again. The roof is now mostly vacated.

Sparrowhawk 1
The female kestrel who hunts over Gunwalloe
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