One hen harrier, two curlews, three choughs, four kestrels and five seals, waders, seabirds, finches and more… a day out in Cornwall.
Cornwall is a fabulous place to do a bit of wildlife watching, and the autumn is particularly good for spotting birds. With its spectacular coastline, towering cliffs, sandy beaches, muddy estuaries and wooded riverbanks there is a whole plethora of habitats. And what about inland? There’s the wild ruggedness of Bodmin moor, beloved by Eleanor Tomlinson of Poldark fame (see page 74 for more on the stars of Poldark); dappled woodlands and the wide open spaces of the Lizard and Penwith. With Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and Special Scientific Interest (SSIs) there are some pretty unique habitats too.
But Cornwall is special too because it makes you slow down and look around. And that is the secret to good wildlife watching… just stopping to observe what’s around you. Once you have found your spot, settle down, and just look – don’t even think of raising those binoculars yet! Once you have grown accustomed you will start to notice movements and silhouettes on top of telegraph poles and gateposts. Then with you eyes still firmly on whatever it is – raise your binoculars – and take a look! Deer, rabbits, fox or raptors (birds of prey to us) it’s always exciting and hugely rewarding.
I spend a day – a reasonably fine autumnal Monday – out in west Cornwall to see what I might find. The Lizard (AONB and SSI) with its wide variety of habitats seemed a good place to start. So I head out to Windmill Farm Reserve with its fascinating 17th century windmill building, which has been roofed and restored as a lookout. This impressive Scheduled Ancient Monument has quite a history; it was a lookout tower during World War II and a hideout for an infamous sheep smuggling gang in the early 19th century… kids old and young would love it! There’s an information centre with visitors’ book to check for recent sightings and then you can climb to the top of the windmill; it’s not that high but the land around is flat so you can see for miles, with stunning sea views. But… the stairs and the floor at the top are made of open metal mesh, so a little disconcerting and probably not for the faint-hearted! Outside, this wonderful home for wildlife comprises grassland and heathland, scrub, bog, swamp and hedgerow. I’m only there briefly and get chatting to a passing ranger from Cornwall Wildlife Trust who helps me spot a hen harrier swooping over the fields and also tells me about the barn owls which have successfully fledged four chicks this year that can sometimes be seen flying round the reserve at dusk, and the short eared owls – featured in our photographs – that return each winter and can be seen hunting over the old airfield during the day as they are diurnal.
From there it’s only a short trip down to the Lizard Point – though if you haven’t already visited, a stop at Kynance Cove is a real must. Arriving at the Lizard, walk down to the far point and you are almost guaranteed to see seals lazing on the rocks below when the tide is out. I am lucky and, although it is officially closed, there’s a friendly, informative NT volunteer at the Lizard wildlife watchpoint with the telescope already set up on the seals and spare binoculars for anyone to use. I stop to look and chat. There are five seals on the rocks and at least one ‘bottling’ in the water below us: when they rest, bobbing in the water with just their head above water. Then a family of choughs flies past: the parents have successfully raised at least two chicks this year. A bit later the resident family of kestrels swoop in, I think they are peregrines, but my new friend kindly points out the difference. No one seems to mind if you get it wrong… it’s being interested that’s important. And peregrines are often seen along the coast path. It’s a great place to see passing seabirds in their thousands especially in the autumn as migrating birds depart for their winter feeding grounds. Reluctantly, I draw myself away from the Point, it’s seriously catching this wildlife-watching bug, and I am worried that as soon as I leave pods of dolphins will glide by.
A quick trip up to Marazion, with spectacular views over St Michael’s Mount, to scour the beach for birds, there is the distinctive shrill ‘peep peep’ of oystercatchers flying in, and lots of other waders and seabirds. Then across the road to the RSPB reserve where autumn brings some unexpected migrants from the north, the pools and muddy edges are home to little egrets, waders and finches; you might even hear the foghorn like ‘whump whump’ of the secretive bittern. If you are in Cornwall in late November then there’s the chance of seeing the amazing spectacle of a murmuration of starlings as they head home to roost in the reeds at Marazion reserve.
Finally I head up to the Hayle estuary reserve. Here I spot a pair of little egrets, some curlews and plenty of seabirds. Vagrants seeking refuge following gales around the coast often turn up here and there is always a large flock of waders, gulls and ducks to be seen as the tide going out exposes the mud-flats for feeding. If you drive into Hayle and cross over the bridge to North Quay, park behind the open-air swimming pool – closed in the autumn and winte. There is a beautiful walk along a wide flat path along the estuary with lovely gardens and benches for watching the birdlife that’s perfect for wheelchairs and pushchairs or family bike rides.
Any of the estuaries around Cornwall will provide a lovely walk and the chance to spot birds and other wildlife. Cycle the Camel Trail to Padstow and take time out to stop and see what’s about. The Tamar and Lynher rivers are home to avocets and the occasional spoonbill. The Helford is another beautiful spot; maybe watch with a pint of local beer at the Shipwrights or the Ferryboat Inn. The Heron Inn at Malpas near Truro is aptly named with great views over the river and the heronry opposite, and, of course, at the Pandora Inn you can sit out right on the estuary. A trip from Falmouth to Truro by ferry is a wonderful way to spot wildlife, and the skipper is always good at pointing out anything he or she sees… watch out for kingfishers along the bank… just a bright streak of brilliant blue.
So wherever you are in Cornwall, it’s worth taking a bit of time to really look around… and don’t forget above you. But be warned it does get rather addictive. Next time I go I’m taking a flask and some sandwiches because you just want to stay a little bit longer… just one more sighting… whatever it might be!
CORNWALL WILDLIFE TRUST
NATIONAL TRUST CORNWALL