Corvid quest

Find out how an easy bird­ing chal­lenge - to spot seven corvids in one day – can be both fun and ed­u­ca­tional

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: IAN PAR­SONS

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 bird­watch­ing@bauer­me­dia.co.uk 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

T.m.o.birds / Alamy

JACK­DAW Jack­daws are our com­mon­est corvids

David Chap­man / Alamy

JU­VE­NILE CHOUGHS The short, dull bills and yel­low gape be­tray these birds as ju­ve­nile Choughs

Sabena Jane Black­bird / Alamy

JU­VE­NILE MAG­PIE The yel­low gape line gives this bird away as a ju­ve­nile

David Ti­pling Photo Li­brary / Alamy An­drew Dar­ring­ton / Alamy Lewis Thom­son / Alamy

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

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