Tag Archives: choughs

In which I finally see choughs in Cornwall

Ever since I learnt that choughs have returned to Cornwall after decades of absence, I’ve wanted to see some. But a chough spotting expedition down to the Lizard earlier this year was unsuccessful (at least with regards to seeing choughs). A recent visit to my parents gave me another opportunity to spot the emblematic corvids.

Having learnt from the previous unsuccessful attempt to see choughs, we decided to get some expert advice. Dr C and I drove to the Lizard, and after a quick pasty, sought the advice of one of the National Trust volunteers who were pointing out wildlife of interest to visitors. It wasn’t what I was hoping to hear. September isn’t an easy time to spot choughs, as the youngsters have fledged and moved away, and the adults, no longer tied to the nest, can move further afield and are harder to predict. Apparently, if we came in April or May we would be virtually guaranteed a sighting, but not at this time of year… Still, they sometimes feed near Kynance Cove, a few miles around the coast, so if we walked in that direction, we might get lucky.

So that’s what we did, following the coast path. A kestrel put on a good display for us, repeatedly hovering in mid-air, then plunging to the grass, only to return to the air empty clawed. After perhaps a mile or so a pair of corvids flew past, dark against the blue sky. It was worth checking out, and a look through the binoculars revealed the bright red legs and curved red beaks that make choughs so recognisable among British corvids. After very little walking, watching or waiting we had seen our first choughs! It felt like we hadn’t yet earnt it that day – some wildlife spotting is hard work, but this was easy. We watched the choughs til they glided over the brow of the hill, then continued our stroll since it was a pleasant day.

On our stroll back towards the Lizard point, we got an even better view of the choughs – a pair were feeding right on the path maybe 50 metres in front of us. They seemed unperturbed by the walkers approaching from the other direction, and merely moved a few metres off the path when the walkers got right up to them. A perfect photo opportunity, but I had been lazy and not taken my camera on the walk, so I’m afraid I have no pictures of choughs to show you. The best I can manage is this panoramic shot of the coast that I took using my phone.

The Cornish coast, close to where we saw choughs

It was wonderful to see such splendid birds at close quarters (I’m a corvid fan anyway, but choughs win the beauty competition among British corvids in my opinion). And it’s particularly exciting to see a conservation good news story in real life, particularly one that is so closely linked to the history and culture of the place where we saw it. It was a successful start to our holiday, and boded well for our other wild adventures.

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Choughed to see porpoises

Having learnt that choughs have returned to Cornwall, I wanted to see them for myself. I’m not generally the sort of person who sets off on trips specifically to see a rare bird. But it’s nice to see the Cornish ‘national’ bird return after decades of absence, plus I’m a bit of a corvid fan. So, on a recent trip to the far south west, Dr C, my parents and I set out for a chough watching expedition.

I don’t normally take a telephoto lens with me when walking the coast path – I focus on the scenery. But since this walk was specifically to see choughs, I dragged my mammoth new lens along, and Dr C kindly lugged the tripod.

We set off from Cadgwith (on the east of the Lizard), and walked along the coast to Lizard Point. (We later learnt – from the pasty shop –  that this was a mistake: the choughs spend the morning on the west of the Lizard, moving towards the Point a lunchtime, at which point we had headed onto the west of the Lizard…) We saw plenty of corvids: crows, magpies, rooks, jackdaws. But no choughs.

I’d have been quite disappointed about that, but luckily I was distracted by the sight of porpoises a few hundred metres from the cliff we were walking along. At least I think they were porpoises – they were small and had the gentle roll and triangular fin of harbour porpoises – they’re much shyer and quieter than the dolphins I’ve seen. This was the best view I’ve had of them – they hung around for quite a while, and there were several of them.

I was pleased with the performance of my new lens. I was too excited to set up the tripod, so this was taken at 500mm, handheld, in January light. The vibration reduction obviously works!

A harbour porpoise(?) and gull off the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall
A harbour porpoise(?) and gull off the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall

It’s always a wonderful treat to see our marine mammals. I’ll just have to try to see choughs another time…

Choughed to be back in Cornwall

Chough on the Cornish Crest
Chough on the Cornish Crest

As you cross the Tamar Bridge, you know you’re entering Cornwall by the large crest displayed proudly. The Cornish crest features, among other things, a chough. Yet for years the crest was the only place in Cornwall where you could see a chough.

Choughs are members of the crow family, with distinctive curved red beaks. They eat insects, and hunt for food in the short grass of grazed coastal areas, where insects are easy to come by. They’re known in other parts of the UK as Crows of Cornwall, and are part of some of the legends about King Arthur (whom some claim lived in Cornwall).

The population of choughs in Cornwall declined from the nineteenth century until 1973, when the last, lonely, survivor died. The Cornish national bird was no longer Cornish. The decline is thought to be partly due to changes in farming practice, with livestock being moved further inland, allowing scrub to develop on the ungrazed cliff edges.

Then, in 2001, 3 choughs from Ireland found their way to Cornwall, settling on the tip of the Lizard peninsula. The next year two of them paired-up and bred, bringing up Cornish-born choughs for the first time in decades. The small colony of birds has been gradually expanding each year, through breeding and the addition of a few more immigrants.

A committed band of volunteers have been keeping a close eye on the birds to protect and monitor the nests. You can read more about their work, and this heartening story, on the excellent Cornish Choughs website.