Tag Archives: Cornwall

Close encounter

Ever since I learnt to sail, at the age of 10, I’ve dreamt of having my own sailing boat. Part of the appeal of sailing was the thought of seeing exciting marine wildlife up close. Last year I finally took the plunge and bought a 14 ft sailing dinghy.

My parents let me keep the boat with them, down in deepest Cornwall, so I only get to sail it on visits to them. That means I’m still getting used to the boat, and, more tricky, the cove I launch her from. Last week was my first opportunity of the year to take the boat out.

The weather was perfect – sunshine, with the right amount of wind coming from the right direction. The wind swirls around a lot in the cove, but once you’re out from the cliffs things get a lot easier. It was early on a weekday morning, so not many other boats were out.

Within 15 minutes of setting sail, Dr C spotted something in the water some way off – the sedate roll of a porpoise’s fin breaking the surface before disappearing. We continued in that direction, hoping to get another glimpse. We were in luck, with the appearances of the fin getting closer and closer to the boat.

But there was something strange about it. On one sighting it looked small and dark, and the next time taller and light grey, then again small and dark. We worked out that it wasn’t one animal we were seeing, but at least two – some kind of dolphin (most likely common) as well as a harbour porpoise.

I’m not sure how long the encounter lasted – not long. But it was the closest I have come to a harbour porpoise, who are generally quite shy and tend to keep boats at a distance. I suspect that us sailing, rather than being propelled by a noisy engine, probably helped us to not alarm the porpoise too much.

I had decided to leave the camera ashore (one less thing to worry about, and I was sure we’d see something exciting if we didn’t have the camera with us). So I don’t have any photos of it. You’ll just have to picture the scene: a quiet, sunny morning in a marine conservation zone off the south Cornish coast; blue sea fading into blue sky; just one small sailing dinghy and the gentle glimpse of the backs of a couple of cetaceans. Living the dream.

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Trail camera footage from Cornwall

One of the first things I did when I arrived at the holiday cottage a few weeks ago was to make a tour of the garden, looking for signs of wildlife. The signs were promising.

Behind an old barn was an area of, what looks from the map to be old orchard gone wild. Running through it was an animal path. On and by the path were snuffle holes, and the remains of spring flowers with the bulbs bitten off and eaten. It looked badgery to me, so I set up my trail cam in the hope of catching some footage of them passing through.

For the first few days, when the camera was set to record only at night, I didn’t get many triggers at all. I changed the setting to 24 hours, to see if anything interesting was visiting during the day (we’d spotted deer across the field). I got plenty of triggers then. All of one particular creature, but sadly not the one I was hoping for…

I’m not the world’s biggest pheasant fan. They’re strikingly handsome, but incredibly stupid, inclined to forget they can fly when faced by a car. They’re a danger to reptiles, but heavily protected by the hunting estates that release millions each into the UK wild each year for rich people to shoot.

I still think the path looked badgery, and maybe badgers do use it sometimes, just not the week I happened to stay there. Pheasants are pretty omnivorous, so it may well have been them eating the bulbs. But I’m not sure they’d make such a distinct path (whereas badgers are creatures of habit, and will follow the same path even when the obstacle it skirts around has been removed). Do pheasants make paths? Or was I just unlucky to miss whatever did make the path?

Pilgrimage to the River and the Wild Woods

I spent last week following in the (fictional) footsteps of my heroes: the Mole, the Rat, the Otter and the Badger. I suspect The Wind in the Willows is one of the reasons that, as a child, I first fell in love with wildlife. So imagine my excitement when I realised that the holiday cottage I’d booked was half a mile away from the river that (is said to have) inspired Kenneth Grahame’s classic.

I couldn’t resist spending some of my holiday re-reading The Wind in the Willows. I’d forgotten how lyrical some of the writing about the countryside was, and the strong thread of melancholy that runs through the book, behind the more boisterous adventures of Mr Toad.

The village of Lerryn nestles on a fork of the creek that joins up with the Fowey River. From the village to the next branch of the creek, the river is bound on both sides by woodland.

Lerryn (don't ignore the signs!)
Lerryn (don’t ignore the signs!)

The river itself doesn’t look very water vole-y: the daily inundation of salt water means there’s not a lot of plantlife in the water. But it’s definitely suitable for messing about in boats on, and there are some good hidden picnic spots along the river.

While the river isn’t very suitable for Ratty, it looked perfect for the Otter. I spent my walks along the river looking for confirmation of this hunch – spraint on stones or tree trunks sticking above the edge of the river, or pawprints in the mud. I didn’t find any signs, but it just felt like there must be otters using that stretch of river – it would be a waste not to.

Further inland there were signs of Badger. A well-used animal path even went through the garden of the cottage where we stayed, so I set up my trail camera – more on what footage I caught in a few days…

It was a beautiful place to spend some time, and, once winter is over I’m sure it would be wonderful for messing about in boats (I agree with Ratty on the subject of boats). While I didn’t have as many wildlife encounters as I was hoping for, it felt like there was plenty of wildlife around, hiding in the shadows. I’m sure I’ll be back.

 

September Photography Challenge: seascapes

I had no shortage of opportunities to take photos for September’s Photography Challenge, the theme of which was seascapes. The photos below are a mix of ones taken with a proper camera, and ones taken by my phone.

Near Kynance Cove
Near Kynance Cove
Near Kynance Cove
Near Kynance Cove
St Agnes sunset
St Agnes sunset
Bishop Rock lighthouse, west from the Isles of Scilly
Bishop Rock lighthouse, west from the Isles of Scilly
St Agnes, Isles of Scilly
St Agnes, Isles of Scilly
A sailing boat and Cromwell's Castle, Tresco
A sailing boat and Cromwell’s Castle, Tresco
Looking from Byher to Tresco
Looking from Byher to Tresco
Isles of Scilly
Isles of Scilly
Isles of Scilly
Isles of Scilly
St Agnes, Isles of Scilly
St Agnes, Isles of Scilly

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.

Threat to Manacles Marine Conservation Zone

The Lizard peninsula, down on the southernmost tip of Cornwall, is a special place. The beautiful natural scenery and abundant wildlife attract tourists, which the local economy relies on. Just off the eastern coast of the Lizard lie the Manacle rocks, which have caused many wrecks over the centuries. The rocks are a haven to wildlife, including rare maerl beds (like coral – slow growing and irreplaceable), bottlenose dolphins, and basking sharks. The sea around the Manacles was one of the first areas to be designated a Marine Conservation Zone. The land by it is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. But all this is under threat from plans to open up a superquarry and build a huge breakwater out into the Marine Conservation Zone.

Picture of Coverack harbour, just over the hill from where the Dean Superquarry is planned
Picture of Coverack harbour, just over the hill from where the Dean Superquarry is planned

Marine Conservation Zones were set up two years ago to provide strong protection for some of our most precious marine habitats. The government is currently considering designating a further 23 zones, to add to the original 27. But the threat to the Manacles Marine Conservation Zone could undermine this.

There’s a history of quarrying in this part of the Lizard. In fact, my great great grandfather moved to the area to help open Dean Quarry. In the next bay along from Dean Quarry there is a smaller active quarry. But the scale of the planned superquarry goes beyond anything previously seen in the area.

Large amounts of rock are needed to build a tidal lagoon in Swansea bay, to generate renewable energy. There are also a number of other tidal lagoons rumoured, which would also require massive amounts of rock. The plan is to reopen Dean Quarry as a Superquarry, extracting 500% more rock per year as in its heyday, and operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Generating renewable energy is vital for tackling climate change. But that doesn’t mean that the stone needed for the Swansea lagoon has to come from one of our most precious and highly protected areas. The impact of the scheme on the marine and land wildlife, and the local community and economy also need to be considered. So far this hasn’t happened. Marine experts are worried that silt from the quarry could kill off the 8,000 year old maerl beds, and negatively impact on other marine wildlife in the Marine Conservation Zone. The Secretary of State recently ruled that a full environmental impact assessment should have been carried out before planning permission was granted for the first phase of the development. This wasn’t done, and Cornwall County Council have ignored the Secretary of State’s intervention.

The local community are also concerned about the impact that the Superquarry will have on the local environment, tourism, and their health and quality of life. They have set up a campaign group, and are taking Cornwall County Council to Judicial Review over the initial planning decision (which means they need money to pay for expert legal fees).

If the Superquarry is allowed to go ahead (particularly with the planned breakwater and jetties) it sets the precedent that Marine Conservation Zone status offers little actual protection, and may enable other damaging activities in other Marine Conservation Zones. It’s vital that this first challenge is defeated to protect both the Manacles Marine Conservation Zone, and ensure the protection of other zones is not undermined.

To find out more about the campaign, visit the Community Against Dean Superquarry facebook page or the CADS website.

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…

January photography challenge

It’s not really news that January is probably the worst time of year to start a new resolution. In fact, I could shorten that sentence to “January is probably the worst time of year.” So it’s not a huge surprise that I didn’t do as much photography as I’d hoped in response to my first photo challenge: wildlife in winter.

On the plus side, I did treat myself to a new long lens with image stabilisation. On the down side, I managed to miss all the snow, so didn’t get to catch the frozen scenes I was hoping for.

I tried out the long lens with a tripod for some garden bird shots, and was reasonably pleased with the results.

This chaffinch is too fast for me!
This chaffinch is too fast for me!
Chaffinch
Chaffinch
Blue tit
Blue tit
Great tit
Great tit

I was even more impressed by the results handheld when I spotted porpoises(?) several hundred metres from the coast path – the image stabilisation makes a real difference. (I’m not 100% sure it’s a harbour porpoise – feel free to correct me if you think I’m wrong!)

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

The final shot came as a bit of a surprise when I downloaded the photos, as I’d forgotten taking it. Little Egrets are such elegant birds, and it looks like this one has hit the jackpot.

Little egret with big fish
Little egret with big fish

Bird nerd part 8: Big Garden Birdwatch 2015

The last weekend in January was the annual Big Garden Birdwatch, when hundreds of thousands of people from across the UK record the numbers of birds they see in one hour. This year I was down in Cornwall that weekend, staying with my parents, so there were four pairs of eyes to keep watch.

The list of what we saw is a little different from what I’d expect if we were at home (see my report on last year’s birdwatch). Here’s what we saw down in Cornwall:

Great British Birdwatch results from my parents' garden
Great British Birdwatch results from my parents’ garden
  • 4 Blackbirds (we usually get a couple)
  • 2 Bluetits
  • 4 Chaffinches (we rarely get chaffinches)
  • 2 Dunnock
  • 2 Great tits
  • 3 House sparrows (we’d beat them on sparrows)
  • 2 Magpies
  • 3 Robins (we usually only get 1)
  • 30 Starlings (We rarely see more than 10 at home)
  • 1 Woodpigeon (we’d beath them on woodies as well – we usually get 2 or 3)
  • 1 Wren
  • 1 Greater spotted woodpecker (We’ve never seen a woodpecker in our garden)
  • 25 Rooks (there’s a rookery in the trees by their house)

No collared doves though – we usually get 2 or 3.

Chaffinch
Chaffinch
Blue tit
Blue tit
Great tit
Great tit
This chaffinch is too fast for me!
This chaffinch is too fast for me!

Later this year they’ll release the full results, which will give a useful snapshot of how the nation’s birds are doing.

 

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.