A photograph of a chough on cliffs near Godrevy is being hailed as proof that Cornwall's national bird has not only firmly re-established itself – but is thriving.
Since choughs returned to Cornwall in 2001 after a long absence, the population has gone from strength to strength. This year five pairs fledged 18 young and small colonies can now be seen, by patient observers, at sites near Land's End, Newquay and Cadgwith.
However, last week a lone bird was spotted for the first time in St Ives Bay. Renowned wildlife photographer David Chapman – who has captured images of the birds on a number of earlier occasions – said he was surprised and delighted by the sighting.
David, who is a trustee of Cornwall Wildlife Trust and a passionate campaigner for the protection of the region's natural environment, said he did a "double-take" before realising the bird in his lens was indeed a chough. He was even more intrigued to see that it had no ring on its leg.
A lecturer on the Marine and Natural History Photography degree course at University College Falmouth, he said: "I had agreed to meet up at Godrevy with one of my students, Felicity Millward, who is studying farmland birds for her third-year project. The idea was that we would look for skylarks to photograph around the headland.
"In fact we struggled to find any skylarks but while we were looking we came across a chough feeding among the short grass of the headland. I was completely taken aback, having never seen a chough at Godrevy before. On closer inspection I had an even bigger surprise – it didn't have any rings on its legs. This got me really excited because almost all the choughs in Cornwall have obvious leg rings to help identify them."
David immediately realised the significance of the chance encounter and took a couple of quick photographs of the bird to prove it didn't have rings. After observing the chough feeding for a few more minutes, it flew on to the seaward side of the promontory where he was able to take a photograph of both bird and location.
"I couldn't believe my luck when I was able to get a shot of the chough with Godrevy lighthouse in the background," he said.
Claire Mucklow, coordinator of the RSPB's chough project, confirmed that it was highly unusual for the bird to be seen there. She said there could be three possible explanations: that it was a young bird which fledged without being ringed at a site on the north coast; that it was a known adult bird previously spotted in the Cape Cornwall area; or that it was a new bird for Cornwall. "The only way of knowing for sure is if other people saw the other two un-ringed choughs at the same time as I was watching this one at Godrevy," said David. "Or if simultaneous sightings can be made at some point in the future."
The recent success of Cornish choughs has been largely due to the number of hours spent by volunteers watching over nest sites and to the management of the clifftop land and the reintroduction of grazing cattle.
David, whose books, which include Birds Of Cornwall And The Isles Scilly, Iconic Cornwall and A Cornish Year, are published by Alison Hodge of Penzance, said it was important to gather as much information as possible about the birds to ensure their continued success.
He encouraged anyone seeing a chough to send photographs and details of the location and leg ring colours to: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more details about Cornish choughs, visit: www.cornishchoughs.org