Tuesday, 10 July 2012

3 years ago, I was choughed to see

As Groucho Marx allegidly said " "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana". Actually there is no evidence that Groucho actually said this and many attribute this to a translation of Tempest fugit into "Time Flies".  Moreover an article in Wikipedia gives this poem;

Time Flies Like an Arrow : An Ode to Oettinger

Now thin fruit flies like thunderstorms,
And thin farm boys like farm girls narrow;
And tax firm men like fat tax forms -
But time flies like an arrow!
Like tossed bananas in the skies,
The thin fruit flies like common yarrow;
Then's the time to time the time flies -
Like the time flies like an arrow.

Edison B. Schroeder 1966

Anyway this is has absolutely nothing to do with todays posting, other than time really does fly. 3 years ago I spent a week on the Calf of Man for work, and it was here that I finally saw my very first chough. As a result of this sighting I wrote a short article of my time looking for them. Recently I came across this article again and realised it was three years ago.

And so, here it is...

Chuffed to see choughs

by Andrew Dawes for Birds on the edge of Britain, 23 June 2009

Braving the Irish sea, land-lubber Andrew Dawes is on a mission to see a mythical bird that he's waited 40 years to catch a glimpse of.

Midsummer's day had just passed and with it the unsettled weather had begun to improve. I may hail from a long line of seafarers but there is a land lubber in me trying to get out. Thankfully the seas were calm as I, and the other members of the radio team left the English coastline by ferry.

We were heading to an island just 33 miles long and 13 wide, sitting in the middle of the Irish Sea. Legend has it that the giant Finn MacCooil, standing in Ireland, picked up a rock and threw it at the mainland. Missing his target this rock landed in the Irish Sea and became Ellan Vannin, the Isle of Man.

The rarest of crows

This island is clearly the offspring of its creator, Finn MacCooil, and punches well above its weight as a wildlife haven, not least as an internationally important location for marine life due to the warming waters of the Gulf Stream.

I was excited. This place is a UK stronghold for one of the rarest members of the crow family, a bird I'd wanted to see for nearly 40 years. Would this trip give me that opportunity of a lifetime? Aside from making radio programmes, I had a personal ambition to fulfil.

Cornish folklore has it that King Arthur turned into this bird when he died and will return to rule again if they ever return there to breed. I was however 250 miles north of Cornwall, so hopefully wouldn't be required to fight off members of the Round Table to finally glimpse a chough, or to be more accurate, a red-billed chough.

The Calf of Man

To guarantee a chough though I'd need to travel to an uninhabited island off the Isle of Man's southern shores; the Calf of Man. A nature reserve owned by Manx National Heritage.

The Calf is just one square mile in size and separated from the mainland by a narrow strip of water, the Calf Sound. It seemed close enough to walk across however the Sound contains three treacherous tidal races, fast moving tides flowing through a narrow passage causing waves, eddies and hazardous currents.

So we left Port St Mary on the aptly named wooden supply boat the Scraayl, which is Manx for shearwater. The sea was like a millpond, sun glinting off the wavelets and many seabirds diverted my attention, particularly the rafts of guillemots passing by the boat like ladies off to a game of bingo.

Leisurely we chugged along the coastline stopping briefly underneath Sugar Loaf stack, home to thousands upon thousands of seabirds. I however scanned the cliff tops as choughs can occasionally be seen flying with their acrobatic undulating flight overhead. But not today.

A precarious existence

Just a handful of choughs exist in England (in Cornwall). The remaining 450 breeding pairs in the UK cling on to a precarious existence around the western coasts of Wales, Ireland, Scotland; and of course the Isle of Man.

At a distance, choughs are easily confused with other crows, however they are unmistakable at close quarters, having bright red legs and a down-curved red bill used for probing short wet turf for soil-dwelling invertebrates. In flight they constantly call a screeching “chee-ow” while performing wonderfully swooping and buoyant flying actions. There are few more agile or graceful flyers.

First glimpse

After recording all day, we found ourselves in the island's observatory preparing supper, before heading off on a midnight trip to record storm petrel ringing. I'd still not seen a chough. Others had seen one or two and I discussed my eagerness to see at least one chough before we left tomorrow. Kate (our guide from Manx National Heritage) informed me they were breeding in the old tower behind us and usually fed in the field in front. I had to go and see for myself.

We'd not walked 200 metres when Kate called, "over there in the field!" My first chough looking just how I'd expected it to look.

What a bill, in this evening sunlight the brightest post box red. But what's this? There's another and another. Kate was pointing across all the fields and there behind every tussock it seemed was a chough.

Had they been hiding all day waiting for me to arrive, and like a surprise birthday party, were now rushing out to say "chee-ow"?


I was looking at 11 choughs all told. I just didn't know where to look, they were flying, calling, swooping, this was just exceptional.

Birds that I'd long waited to see were now everywhere. I may be a manly naturalist from Northumbria, but emotions took over and a small tear dropped from my eye.

And then, behind me, a loud "chee-ow!" we turned and there, two chicks sporting leg ring bling, silhouetted in one of the tower windows like a pair of actors about to perform some Shakespearean play.

Eventually we had to walk back to the Observatory. I slept the sleep of angels that night and dreamt of choughs taking a curtain call at the end of the play. Truly magical.

Published 9 July 2009