As if the moths, dragons, bugs, flowers, owls, lifers, tea and cake weren’t enough, the weekend had one last treat in store. Potentially. The national bird of Cornwall is the chough, and Windmill Farm is not at all far – as the chough flies – from the spot on the Lizard peninsula to which choughs returned as a Cornish breeding species in 2001-2. On last year’s ‘Big Birdy Weekend’ we had a lucky run-in with a pair near Gwennap Head, obtaining distant views before Richard Smedley, aka ‘The Rice Birder’ and I had one fly past us as we made our way back down from the headland. But our party had become somewhat scattered along the Cornish coast, so I’m not sure if anybody else had views of such good quality. Thus we tried again at The Lizard itself, our last gasp of that weekend – a guaranteed spot, we were told, so we inevitably failed to find them.
What we didn’t know at the time is that once the year’s young have fledged, choughs tend to disperse along the coast from their breeding sites. Whilst we were staring at the cliffs either side of the viewpoint, they were almost certainly somewhere else, feeding in some cliff top pasture. This year, armed with a tip-off, we headed away from The Lizard, for a stunning stretch of coastline just south of Mullion. The walking was terrific – exhilarating – a winding but well-trodden stretch of the coast path, teetering vertiginously over rocky cliff walls and through lushly vegetated valleys. But as carefully as I listened, all I could hear were waves beating the sharp-edged rocks, drawn-out cries of the herring and black-backed gulls and a contented cud-chewing from the cows strewn along the path. Not a chough about. Not a corvid of any sort to begin with, though after a while three ravens drifted over the coastline, muttering and croaking between themselves.
Eventually we had to turn back – what with a five-hour drive ahead of us – but still took time to enjoy the displays of wildflowers either side of the path. Passing a nice patch of sea carrot, I noticed a pale yellow beetle (sulphur beetle, I was later told). Absorbed in observing it and attempting to take a decent photo, I almost didn’t hear Rebecca further up the coast path calling “Come and have a look at this moth!” “I’m looking at this yellow beetle!” I replied, when I eventually heard her, but clambered up anyway to see what the fuss was about. I couldn’t let it fly away unidentified, after all, even if the official ‘blitzing’ portion of the weekend was over.
There, basking on a lichen-strewn rock, was a beautiful species of noctuid moth, greenish in colour and mottled with black patterns. I didn’t have the faintest idea what it was. As we admired it, again absorbed in observation, I again almost failed to notice a shout, this time from Sally and Derek who had been busily botanising back down the hill.
What was that?!
I raised my binoculars. Scanning the cliffs, I was just in time to see two black sickles swooping out of view to the north. They did not return. Blast! The worst sort of dip – knowing that you’ve seen the species you’re after, but hardly well enough to have identified it beyond all possible doubt. This was, frankly, unprecedented. Me, the bird-crazed freak, not hearing a chough call because I was too busy crawling about looking at beetles and moths. If I needed evidence of my development into a fully-fledged naturalist, as opposed to simply a birder, perhaps this was it. At least that was some consolation.
But fate was kind that afternoon. The birds hadn’t actually settled far below the point on the hill behind which they’d disappeared, and simply by gaining a little height along the coast path we were able to get a distant view of two foraging for field invertebrates amongst the ‘sea-cows’, as I think the youngest in our party had dubbed them. Moments after setting up my scope they took to the air again, descended slightly closer to us and settled on a crag – looking every bit like the wild emblem of the Cornish nation. A peerless finish to the weekend, celebrated shortly afterwards on the harbour wall at Porthleven, which harbours a very good chippy as well as a small fishing fleet. Chough ‘n’ chips. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Thanks for a brilliant weekend are due to Sally Luker and Andy Pay for dreaming up and subsequently organising the Windmill Farm Bioblitz (and thanks Andy for the chough tip-off!), Richard Comont from CEH who kindly transported four of us and our luggage down from Reading, and Sue Scott from Cornwall Wildlife Trust who spent much of the weekend compiling records and generally made us feel very welcome. And to everybody else who turned up – it was most friendly and fun all round, thanks to the calibre of people involved!