Find out how an easy birding challenge - to spot seven corvids in one day – can be both fun and educational
A birding quest doesn’t have to be difficult to complete – why not try this one?
IRECENTLY WENT ON a birding quest. It didn’t involve seeing anything particularly rare or counting up as many species as possible. It wasn’t even that difficult, but it was good fun, and it taught me a lot about a much-maligned family of birds. My quest was to see seven corvids in one day. The corvid or crow family is made up of about 120 species worldwide and they really are worldwide, with species only absent from the polar caps and the midst of our oceans.
In Britain, we have eight species: the Raven, the Carrion Crow, the Hooded Crow, the Jackdaw, the Jay, the Magpie, the Rook and the Chough. Five of those eight are widely distributed across Britain, a sixth, the Raven, is common in the west and expanding its range eastwards all the time. Two though, are more restricted in their ranges – the Hooded Crow and the Chough. As my quest was to take place in Devon in the south-west of the country, the Hooded Crow wasn’t on my list, with its restricted range in the north and west of Scotland. The quest started at a leisurely pace; a coffee in the garden, looking out over the thatched roofs of a Devon village. Immediately the first corvid of the day was ticked off, a pair of Jackdaws that had nested in a nearby chimney breast were strutting along the ridge of one of the roofs. The Jackdaw is our smallest corvid and our most numerous, with an estimated 1.4 million pairs. Jackdaws, where they aren’t persecuted, are happy to live very closely with people and are a familiar sight in many villages, towns and even cities. Like the humans they share their territories with, they live in a complex social environment. Without having to move, I added the second corvid to the day’s list as a Carrion Crow flew overhead, closely watched by the Jackdaw pair below it. The familiar crow numbers about one million pairs, making it the second most numerous member of the family in Britain. It can be found in most habitats, from rural countryside to urban development, and has readily exploited the feeding opportunities presented by humans. Famed for its intelligence, this is a bird that never misses a trick. It was time to get going, so we drove along the lanes checking for our next corvid. The fields of Devon grow plenty of cattle and the pastures in which they graze are great places to find the Rook. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before we spotted a flock of large black birds in a field in front of us. Lots of Rooks, or to give them one of their many group names, a clamour of Rooks, were busy
Heading to the northern end of Dartmoor, we were confident of picking up another three species; the Magpie, the Jay and the Raven
probing the field with their bare bills searching for invertebrates. Rooks have always been a bit of a favourite of mine. Watching their noisy, bustling rookeries in the spring is always a pleasure as the birds squabble over ownership of the twigs used in their scruffy nests. We stopped and watched the birds for several minutes and, in among them were a few Jackdaws, looking small in comparison to their bigger relatives. There is something mesmeric about watching Rooks, but we knew we had to move on if we were to complete our quest. Heading to the northern end of Dartmoor, we were confident of picking up another three species; the Magpie, the Jay and the Raven. Northern Dartmoor is the highest part of this large National Park, open moorland descends steeply into oak-lined valleys through which rivers tumble. It is the sort of habitat that the Raven has been long associated with in Britain. Persecuted for years, the Raven became a rare and often absent bird in many parts of the country, but, in these more enlightened times, it has bounced back strongly and every year sees it spreading even further east as it regains territory. As a result, it is no longer restricted to its traditional upland haunts and can even be found breeding in many cities. Despite this though, the moors are still the habitat most closely associated with this, the largest of all passerines. We parked up and walked out on to the moor, heading for a tor that gave us a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. While eating a packed lunch and watching a Sky Lark, the
Persecuted for years, the Raven became an often absent bird in many parts of the country, but, in these more enlightened times, it has bounced back strongly
distinctive cronking call of a Raven caught our attention. Looking skyward we soon spotted two large black birds flying high towards us. Ravens are large birds, as big as a Buzzard, and with their wedge-shaped tails they are a bird that stands out in the open sky. We watched the two of them for several minutes as they circled, before they eventually drifted off towards rough pastures that border the moor. We got lucky with our next corvid. The Jay is a beautiful bird, but it can also be a wary one and there are days when you can struggle to see them. Thankfully, today was not one of those days. We walked across the moor until we were looking down on to a tree-lined valley. From our elevated viewpoint we could see birds moving above the tree tops and straight away the bright white rump of a Jay caught our eye as it flew from one tree to another. It briefly posed on a high branch before dropping down and disappearing into the leaves below. We waited for another five minutes but the bird never reappeared. We had definitely been in the right place at the right time! Now it was the turn of the tricky one. The Chough is a bird that has only recently returned to breed in the south-west of England after a long absence. The first pair bred successfully in 2001 and they are gradually expanding in numbers and range along the cliff tops. They are still a rare bird in this part of the country, but after a bit of research we were driving down to the Lizard peninsula, confident that we would see them. After a frustratingly slow journey we arrived to a cloudy scene and a surprisingly strong breeze blowing in off the sea. Undaunted, though, we followed the cliff top path and, after a short walk, we spotted a black bird in flight some 200 metres in front of us; with its characteristic fingered wings and the contrasting dark body and coverts we didn’t need our binoculars to identify it. Choughs seem to love flying. They perform a whole host of acrobatic manoeuvres, rolling over, diving, riding the wind and this bird was certainly doing all that. The wind might have been an annoyance to us, but to the Chough it was something to exploit. We stood and watched this bird and its mate for a few minutes, occasionally picking up their metallic call on the wind. They put on a great show of flying finesse, making the resident Fulmars look even more stiff-winged than usual! Feeling pleased with ourselves, we headed back to the car, discussing whether it is possible for birds to do something simply for fun. On the evidence of what we had just seen, it certainly seems as if some at least can. Out of the wind and heading back, it suddenly dawned on us that we hadn’t seen a Magpie. We knew that the Chough could prove to be elusive and that possibly the Jay or the Raven would be difficult to see, but surely we weren’t going to dip on Magpie. By the time we crossed back into Devon we still hadn’t seen what must be one of Britain’s most recognisable birds. We decided to have a well-earned drink and it was in the pub garden that we finally got our last corvid of the day. Sat watching the goings on from the top of a tree was a beautiful Magpie, showing well in the early evening light. How apt that a bird so often associated with superstition and omens turned out to be our lucky number seven. Seven corvids in one day, job done. Have you completed your own birding quest? Email us at email@example.com and let us know!
Out of the wind and heading back, it suddenly dawned on us that we hadn’t seen a Magpie. We knew Chough or Jay could be elusive, but surely we weren’t going to dip on Magpie
JACKDAW Jackdaws are our commonest corvids
JUVENILE CHOUGHS The short, dull bills and yellow gape betray these birds as juvenile Choughs
JUVENILE MAGPIE The yellow gape line gives this bird away as a juvenile
JAY Easily the most colourful UK corvid The massive Raven is the size of a Buzzard CHOUGH The scarce Chough is a master of flight and aerobatics RAVEN