Chough – Cape Cornwall, Cornwall

The next day, Monday, was gloriously warm and sunny, we ran the dogs on Harlyn Beach and enjoyed bacon and egg rolls in St Merryn. In the evening I did more Chough research online and this confirmed that Chough were more difficult to see than I had realised. The numbers of birds across Cornwall were much lower than I had thought and they are harder to locate in the winter due to dispersal. I made contact with Dave Parker who is the Cornwall County Bird Recorder and he agreed that Botallack and Cape Cornwall were probably two of the best places to try. The forecast for the rest of the week included a lot of rain and wind but Tuesday morning looked dry and calm and so I decided to set the alarm early and try Botallack and Cape Cornwall again. In the end, however, we delayed the alarm until 7:30am so that Sarah and the dogs could come with me.

After a dog walk along the river in Wadebridge we set off for Botallack. I was disappointed to see the rain starting to fall as we got to St Just, this was four hours earlier than forecast. We parked in the National Trust car park and I then noticed how windy, as well as rainy, it was. As planned, Sarah stayed in the car with her book and the dogs.

Over the next three hours I walked more than five miles along the cliff tops at Botallack. The rain soaked through my bag and into my sketchbook and the wind made the rain even more difficult to cope with. I didn’t see any corvids at all around the cliffs and I felt sure that the wind and rain were keeping most birds on the ground. I did see two very large Jackdaw and Rook flocks in the fields several hundred yards back from the cliff tops but there were no Chough tucked away in them. As I was heading back to the car I noticed two soaking wet Ravens hunkered down in a field looking thoroughly miserable and I knew how they felt.

Before the 1.5 hour drive back to the cottage I decided to make another attempt at nearby Cape Cornwall.

We stopped in St Just briefly for a pasty and a coffee and when we were finished we drove down the headland to the car park. I paid for another two hours, it was already 2pm and so that would take us to dark. The rain and wind were even stronger here and I suddenly felt that seeing Chough was a hopeless task.

As the wind was from the south east, in order to get some shelter, I walked over to the north side of the Cape Cornwall headland via the South West Coastal Path which runs across the field passed the tiny ruined chapel. I then looked north east across the cove towards Kenidjack Cliff Castle. I was hoping to see distant Chough feeding on the grass around the cliff slopes. I then walked around the north side of the headland and up towards the striking monument which was originally a chimney for the mine. The mine was later moved but the original chimney was left as a striking landmark.

From here I had great views of all of the grassy fields (including the golf course) which ran back up the hill either side of the road towards St Just. Through the binoculars I could see several corvids on the golf course. I switched to telescope and saw that the first was a Jackdaw. The other two corvids were much higher up the hill on a green in front of Nanpean Apartments. They did look more elegant and longer legged and I began to get excited.

From my OS map I later measured that I was 600 metres away and viewing through that much rain and with lots of rain also on my lens I couldn’t be certain that they were Chough. I pulled out a dry piece of kitchen roll dried the telescope glass and I could then see their red bill and legs! It was 2:30pm and I had been looking for four hours. I jogged down the slope back down to the road and then jogged back up the hill passed the car park and right up to the top so that I could get much closer views of the green in front of Nanpean Apartments.

I couldn’t see them immediately but I soon picked them up flying towards me and right over my head, they didn’t call but thankfully they landed within 50 yards of me in front of the large manor house. I made some quick sketches before they flew back over to the golf course side. I jogged back down the hill and got more good views and sketches. At times the Chough paused from their feeding to stand motionless looking like they were bracing themselves against the wind and rain. They then flew further down the golf course in the direction of the car park. I walked back to the car and set the scope up again so that Sarah could see them. My optics were soaking wet again and my sketchbook was buckling from the four hour rain soaking and so I decided to call it a day.

Selected comments from the RSPB website – The steady degradation of the Chough’s preferred habitat of grazed cliffs played a major part in its demise. In past centuries, sheep, cattle and ponies would have grazed the cliffs all year round, keeping vegetation short and open, providing perfect conditions for Chough to find a supply of insects such as cranefly larvae, dung beetles and ants. 1947 saw the last successful nesting attempt in Cornwall. The last sightings were an ageing pair of Choughs who lived near Newquay between 1960–1967. One of the pair was found dead in March 1967 but its partner patrolled the cliffs alone until 1973 when it too, the last of the Cornish choughs, was seen no more.

Twenty eight years later, in 2001, there was a small influx of wild Choughs to southern England and three birds stayed on the Lizard in Cornwall. DNA testing subsequently proved that these colonising Choughs were from Ireland.

Over the subsequent 18 years the number of Cornish Choughs has risen, from the initial Lizards birds, slowly and steadily. In 2019 12 pairs bred successfully which was two more than in 2018. 38 birds fledged in 2019 which compared to 28 in 2018 and 23 in 2016.

The Cornwall Chough Project has helped to ensure this progress by working with landowners to restore grassland and heathland habitats along the coastal fringe. Grazing by suitable stock provides a chough-friendly mosaic of open, short grasslands where they can forage for invertebrates.

Across two days I spent more than six hours looking for Chough and most of the time it was wet and windy although the effort made it all the better when I finally saw them. This takes me to 255 for the year.

One thought on “Chough – Cape Cornwall, Cornwall

  1. Great to see these whilst walking the South-West Coast path. Have you ever seen the Alpine Chighs at the Pico d’Europa in Spain? Quite confiding birds with yellowy bills.


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