Sunday, 26 October 2014

Cornish Choughs

I have a soft spot for Choughs. They were a bird I knew about, long before I took up birding properly, from childhood holidays in Cornwall, where the Cornish Chough featured prominently on the counties coat of arms and various tourist memorabilia. It wasn't until my first holiday without my parents, taken post A-levels, when I visited Bardsey off the end of the Lleyn peninsula that I saw my first Choughs in the flesh. Four further very enjoyable visits followed over the next 3 years, as voluntary warden and also lambing assistant for the Bardsey farmer. Cavorting Choughs were a daily facet of island life and their distinctive call (and the nocturnal cries of Manx Shearwaters) will forever remind me of some very happy times.
Work and relationships ended my visits to Bardsey and I rarely had cause to visit the distant extremities of the UK where Choughs reside other than a trip to South Stack in 2003 for the Black Lark. It was fantastic news when Choughs returned to breed in Cornwall on the Lizard in 2002 and they have steadily increased and spread so there are now 7 pairs breeding. Annual visits to Scilly in autumn meant that Choughs were in reach again but with 2 children in tow and a 460 mile drive ahead of us we always headed straight for home from St Just airport. This year I returned from Scilly on my own and unlike last year, with nothing to rush away for, I decided this was the year to reacquaint myself with Choughs. Happily, I had been told that Nanquidno valley next to St Just airport was a good site for them, so this year I turned left out of the car park instead of right and made the short journey down the road to the turning for Nanquidno. I had been to Nanquidno once before but at first had no recollection of my visit. Then turning a corner I came to a spot where trees arched over the road next to a house hidden amongst more trees. The sight was instantly familiar even though it had been 27 years since I had stood there and seen a stunning Parula Warbler. The Parula had obviously made quite an impact on my brain! I drove on a little further and came across a small group of birders intensely watching a group of bushes. It turned out they were looking for a Red-breasted Flycatcher but having seen 7 already this autumn my mind was still focused on Choughs. A local helpfully told me the path to take and I headed for the coast.
The path wound down the valley lined with bushes but after crossing some stepping stones I came to a stile where the land opened out in to some rushy grassland with the coastal grassland and cliffs ahead. A Raven flew low past me and then 3 distinctive glossy black birds came over the brow of the hill and landed on the short cropped turf 100 yards ahead of me. With their long curved bright red bills and red, colour-ring bedecked legs I had found (or rather they had found me) my first Cornish Choughs. I watched them for several minutes as they probed the turf, until disturbed by coastal walkers they lifted into the air and flew off further down the valley towards the sea. Although I had just spent 2 weeks on Scilly these were the bird of the trip, and gave me a bigger kick than even the dainty Lesser Yellowlegs at Hayle which I called in to see as I passed through on my way home.

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