On The Cornish Cliffs

Over the past few months I have been looking for Cornwall’s national bird – the Cornish chough to film for an RSPB film. The mission has taken me all over Cornwall’s coastlines, and the wildlife I encountered has been spectacular, here are some of the highlights –

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The Cornish Chough is Cornwall’s national bird and can be found on the Cornish coat of arms. The bird has this black glossy plumage, bright red curved bill and legs that make it easy to identify among other corvids, it likes to dive and swoop in its acrobatic flight, and it has a loud and clear ‘chee-ow’ call. Its Cornish name is Palores, which means Digger, a reference to it digging up loose soil to find invertebrates. It was extinct in Cornwall in 1973 due to trophy hunting and loss of suitable feeding habitat. However in 2001, three came back (from Ireland according to DNA testing), and their numbers have been recovering since.

They were really hard to film – scaling and hanging on to almost perpendicular cliff faces (or even overhangs) with their sharp red claws as I struggled to follow suit with a big lens, tripod and camera bag.

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Because the choughs nest in caves, often down mine shafts in Cornwall, the parents could be gone feeding for some time up to an hour each time, and them swooping back into the nest silently and quickly are really easy to miss. We got better spotting them with more days watching them. But hours spent sat on the cliffs waiting to hear the call of the chough gave us the perfect excuse to sit and admire the wildlife, especially at a time when the Cornish cliffs come alive.  One morning, whilst Irene and I were waiting for the choughs to appear, Bloody-nosed Beetles kept us entertained as they slowly made their way through the coastal path.

We were also extremely thrilled to see Bottlenose Dolphins passing by, navigating their way along the coastline.  We also saw at least one calf in the pod!  I was fortunate enough to see the dolphins on two different days in the same week!

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A male Kestrel doing what he does best – hovering in the wind, looking and searching intently for prey.  The easiest way to distinguish between male and female Kestrels is the colour of their heads – the male has a grey head and the female has a rufous head (next photo).

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The resident female Kestrel at Botallack tried her best to blend in with the background whilst she checked me out one cold morning:

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Whitethroats are extremely bold and loud warblers.  They arrive in the UK in April after wintering in Africa, filling the cliffs with their songs when they come back from wintering in Africa.  To prepare for the breeding season, the male would make multiple nests and the female would choose the one she likes and line it with fine grasses and hair. After breeding they would leave the UK in August or September to migrate to Africa to winter again.

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Whitethroat singing through the sea mist by the coastal path at the Lizard, Cornwall.  Keep an ear out for their scratchy and lively songs next spring !

 

Blackbirds also breed on the cliff tops within the bracken.  Here’s one of them carrying out their parenting duties, but stopped briefly for a breather, allowing me to take this photo.

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A common sight on the cliffs of Cornwall these days is the Six-spot Burnet.  It is a day-flying moth and often mistaken for a butterfly, also the commonest and most widely distributed burnet moth in the UK.  They are a joy to watch as they flutter from flower to flower, their metallic dark wings with bright spots clearly visible in their slow flight under the warm sun.

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Spotted a grey seal chilling in the cove when we were walking back from a shoot:

 

Not only has the RSPB been working with a dedicated team of volunteer chough watchers to monitor nest sites, they have also been encouraging farmers to manage suitable habitat around the coast for choughs, as grazing is essential to maintain the short open grass in which choughs prefer to forage. Thanks to conservation efforts in the past 17 years, the volunteers have been monitoring 19 pairs of possible breeding pairs this year, a new record!  All the nest sites have fledged now, so keep an eye out for these charismatic (and sometimes noisy) birds along the coast! Shooting for the film is nearly finished so keep an eye out for the film coming soon!


Lastly, just wanted to say that I have just graduated with a degree in Marine & Natural History Photography and I left Cornwall a few days ago, needless to say I’m missing it already!  I’ve had the best three years in Falmouth and Cornwall – all the people I’ve met and all the wildlife I encountered and learned about – I will definitely be back to visit!  

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