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The Lizard Peninsula, with the sea on three sides and the Helford River to the north, is an ecological microcosm and home to a broad selection of birds of sea, woodland, field and open moor. Recently it has gained a lot of publicity as the site of the return of one of Britain's rarest breeding birds, the Cornish Chough, a species of crow with distinctive red beak and legs and a haunting 'chee-aw' call. The Chough began breeding here in 2002 after a long absence and a concerted effort by local conservationists.

Lizard Bird DiaryDear Friends of the Lizard,

Steve Townsend at Natural England has asked me to write and tell you about my new book, A Lizard Bird Diary: A Study of the Birds of the South Lizard Peninsula 1970-2015. Much has been written about the flora of the Lizard but apart from two breeding surveys, the birds have received comparatively little attention.

My book, which I hope in some measure will help to fill in this gap, summarises 45 years of fieldwork beginning in April 1970 with my first visit to the Lizard when I was a young 23 year old art student studying in Falmouth.

Fast‐forward to 2007 and with my shelves bulging with notebooks I felt I was ready to begin a project to synthesise all this data although I really did not expect that it would take up to November 2016 until completion and final publication.

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Fig1: Balearic Shearwater (Puffinus mauretanicus)*

The Balearic Shearwater Puffinus mauretanicus is Europe’s only Critically Endangered seabird with a population thought to be around 3200 breeding pairs (18000-25000 individuals). The breeding population is mostly restricted to the Balearic archipelago but the seas around Cornwall are very important foraging areas especially for young birds.

Around and about Lizard Point is known as a good area for birding, but travel a bit further north and west, and there is plenty to see. The whole area is well served by a network of footpaths, most of which have The Lizard village as a hub, so the best sites are all very accessible.

Kynance Cove and Valleys

There are two valleys leading down to Kynance Cove (SW684134), both of which have scattered scrub, reed, iris and saw sedge beds, with further denser scrub and willow carr developing further up the valleys onto the heath.

Kynance Cove (photo: Tony Blunden)Access to the lower stretches from the carpark is very easy, but frequently narrow, wet and often overgrown tracks allow somewhat restricted access to the upper valley areas.

The valleys hold and funnel migrants with nearby open heath, and host breeding sedge, willow with occasional grasshopper warblers, chiffchaff and blackcap.

Winter brings some special visitors to the Lizard. This article describes some of the bird species you can hope to see on a December day.

As with all the seasons, winter brings some special visitors to the Lizard. I love getting out on the heath on crisp winter days and am always on the look-out for overwintering birds of prey. Our regulars (Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and Buzzard) are supplemented by Short-eared Owl, Peregrine, Merlin and Hen Harrier. Over the last 3 winters we have also had a wintering male Marsh Harrier – here he is flying over Windmill Farm last year:

Female Hen Harrier (note the white rump)

Hen Harriers and Short-eared Owls prefer hunting over downs and heathland and you can often get views of Short-eared Owls as they hunt low and fairly slow over the ground; Hen Harriers on the other hand are often gone in a flash! One really good spot to sit (with a flask of tea) is on the old WW2 Pillbox in the first field at Windmill Farm – this has views across the heath from the Lizard to Predannack.

Recently, the West Cornwall Ringing Group (http://cornishringing.blogspot.co.uk) paid a visit to the Lizard where they carefully scrambled into the Lizard chough’s cave (don’t worry they are fully licensed and trained to do this). They (and we) were delighted to find 4 healthy chicks in the nest, the chicks were a tad too young to gauge their sex, but the important thing is that they are healthy. If all goes well we expect these youngsters to take to the skies in mid-June. It will be a very exciting day for all our wonderful and weather proof volunteers, who watch over the nest around the clock and for all the visitors to the wildlife Watchpoint (http://cornishringing.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/a-very-lizard-day.html ).

To find out more about choughs and the Cornish Chough Conservation Network watch this fantastic new video made by Falmouth University :

 

Chough chicks

In 2013, Chough chicks were raised by a "champion Chough" male, under the watchful eyes of the Cornish Chough Watch Team. This article describes what happened. 

Since 2001, a team of RSPB volunteers have protected the Cornish choughs, from disturbance both day and night, helping to raise 101 chicks for Cornwall. This year we had nine breeding pairs in Cornwall, five of which we expected to have chicks (the others birds were still too young).

After three years of learning the ropes as the Species Protection warden for the choughs on the Lizard, for once, this March I felt prepared for the usual seasonal routine of our two resident pairs. However, nothing could have prepared us for what this season had in store.

A very cold spring dominated by bitter and strong easterly winds put our local choughs off nesting at their normal time. Here in the Lizard, the younger pair started nesting in early April and were on eggs by the middle of the month, but the original pair, at Southerly Point, hadn't even begun to build their nest at that stage.

Nesting ChoughsEarly April – The choughs in Cornwall have been very busy nest building over the last month or so, some pairs have quite a bit of work to do where their nests have been blown out by winter storms, others at less exposed sites only have to refurbish last year's nest and line it with new sheep's wool, cattle hair, or soft grasses. Younger pairs go at this with great enthusiasm sometimes building a couple of nests in different places before they settle on just the right one. Once a pair decide on a nest site they normally use it for their lifetime, but they can move, probably in response to changes around the area or another species moving in a bit too close for them to feel comfortable.

This small, dark, long-tailed warbler is a resident breeder in the UK but in low numbers. It has suffered in the past from severe winters: its population crashed to a few pairs in the 1960s, since when it has gradually recovered, increasing in both numbers and range.
Image copyright: Vic Froome (rspbimages.com)

This small, dark, long-tailed warbler is a resident breeder in the UK but in low numbers. It has suffered in the past from severe winters, its population crashed to a few pairs in the 1960s, since when it has gradually recovered, increasing in both numbers and range. It is still regarded as an Amber List species of conservation concern. In the UK 'Darties' are at their northern limit, being more normally associated with Mediterranean climes – their range has expanded further north over recent decades though.

Males have a beautiful, soft, almost plum colour wash to their chest (females are more camouflaged). (Image copyright: Vic Froome (rspbimages.com))

Many of you who follow the choughs will have heard of ‘George’, otherwise known, by local children, as ‘Champion chough’. He was the bird that usurped the original male at Lizard Point, stole his mate and, after losing her a fortnight later, was left to foster the original pair’s last brood. After a dramatic start to 2013, George proved himself a champion by raising these two chicks entirely on his own against all the odds!

Chough_n_Chick_small_©NationalTrust_TerryThirlaway

George and one of his 2014 chicks (Photographer: Terry Thirlaway. Copyright National Trust)

‘Champion chough’ nested near Lizard Point with a new mate (Nora) ever since; successfully raising 8 chicks. The pair started nesting again in early March this year, so we geared ourselves up for another season of nest watch, but to our horror ‘George’ vanished; leaving his mate the only chough on The Lizard and taking with him any hope of a brood of Lizard chicks this year....

...Or so we thought!