Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Where would you describe a population of 22 as dizzy, amazing, extraordinary?

Where would you expect: but on the Lizard – a squamate one or a folded one – a scaled reptile or the more likely extremely old metamorphic rocks of the Lizard Peninsula – the latter, of course.

The Red-billed Chough, a member of the crow family, is now found once again on the rocky coastline of The Lizard in Cornwall, the south-westerly tip of Great Britain. They were thought to be extinct, but miraculously have reappeared after the landscape was allowed to revert to rough grazing, on which they thrive; they breed on the impenetrable coastal sea cliffs, feeding on the adjacent short grazed grassland.

Painting of Red-billed and Alpine Choughs Publication information: Johann Friedrich Naumann (1780-1857)

The Choughs have a large range across into Asia, but in the extremes of their regions the coastal archipelagos of Europe, and the western extremities of Great Britain they are and were under threat. Wildlife continues to amaze – how it finds its way back to areas previously inhabited, but which had been abandoned since humans interfered with their natural habitat, yet with careful management from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have returned.

There are two species of chough, part of the crow family: the red-billed chough that we have in Cornwall and the Alpine or yellow-billed chough . There is a white-winged chough found in Australia, but despite its similar shape and habits is only distantly related and is an example of convergent evolution – the wing is a classic example of convergent evolution in action: they have large white patches on their wings, particularly obvious in flight.

Appearance in flight: the Red-billed Chough has deeper primary feather "fingers" and a shorter tail

The choughs breed for life and display fidelity to their breeding sites, which are usually caves or crevices in the cliff face – and in The Lizard they can soar in the updraughts along the ridge, happily mastering the difficult conditions of the Atlantic winds as they meet the cliffs, pouring on over the land ahead.

The Red-billed Chough, with its red legs, has long been a part of heraldry, Cornish history, its legend, its culture while The Lizard has played its part in the annals of Cornish life, both ancient and modern, technological and cultural, as many of Daphne du Maurier’s books were based here.
The Red-billed Chough has an older connection with Greek mythology, when it was considered sacred to the Titan, Cronus. For Cornwall a legend says that King Arthur did not die, but was transformed into a Red-billed Chough, and hence killing the bird was unlucky.

Arms of Thomas Becket: Argent three Cornish Choughs proper two and one

In heraldry, Choughs are known as “beckits” and three were depicted on the coat of arms of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Choughs appear on the Cornish Coat of Arms, as they do on the city of Canterbury’s coats of arms, due to its connection to the Archbishop.

Older than Greek mythology, or heraldic depictions, the lands of the Lizard were created 35 million years ago and are thought to consist of three main units, represented as a slice through the ocean crust, extremely unique as exposed here in the Lizard (similar earth crusts’ foldings are found elsewhere in Cyprus, and Oman). Serpentine, one of the three component parts, is the state rock of California.

The name Lizard is probably a corruption of the Cornish name “Lys Ardh” meaning ‘high court’ and nothing to do with the squamate or scaled reptile, probably more appropriate to this extremely rugged, hazardous stretch of coastline, also known as the “Graveyard of Ships”.

Lizard Point

The Lizard points south protecting the natural deep water port of Falmouth, as well as hindering exiting ships, which were mauled by the Manacles, a square mile and half of jagged rocks just beneath the waves, guarding or watching the English Channel for marauding pirates, warships or returning maritime successes.

The Saxons came west inhabiting the area in the 6th century utilising its tin and copper, while the Domesday Book recorded the local manor of Helston. Fishing, smuggling, and the exports of tin, copper and china clay made up the bulk of the economy. The Second World War saw an airbase being built, which is now Europe’s largest helicopter base.

Titanium was also discovered here in 1791 by an amateur geologist and pastor, William Gregor; a German chemist four years later confirmed Gregor’s findings, having named the new element for the Titan of Greek Mythology.

Kynance Cove, The Lizard

While nearly 100 years later the Falmouth Gibraltar and Malta Telegraph company was formed with the intention to connect India and England with an undersea cable landed not at Falmouth but at Porthcurno, further west towards Lands End. In 1900 Guglielmo Marconi established the Lizard Wireless Telegraph Station, which in 1901 successfully sent a radio communication across the Atlantic to St John’s Newfoundland.

The land folds, the Titans are remembered, the underseas connect the mantle once again, an ancient bird transcends the ragged cliffs, a meagre population of 22 defying the odds of extinction celebrating with a buoyant acrobatic flight along the cliff ridge, the Lizard has seen more of life than most parts of this wonderful earth.

Dear Mr Postman .. thank you for letting me have this letter, my mother enjoys hearing about the land of her father, and her youth and there’s lots more to discuss too.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters


Marketing Unscrambled, Home edition said...

Hello Hilary,

That is such a nice post. It is good to know that they are back in a place that they have not been for quite a while. We always learn something every time we visit your blog.

Side note: how are things with your mother? Hope that they are going well. Give her a big hug from her fans.

Dan and Deanna "Marketing Unscrambled"

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Dan and Deanna .. Thanks .. the Choughs seem like a really great bird and it's good to know they're back - the description black rags in the air seems a good one as they rock and roll, twist and turn along the ridge face.

My mother is fine .. listening away, and still makes pertinent comments, and interacting, though I need to ensure she's a) interested in the subject, & ask what she'd like me to read about .. mostly Cornwall, b) talk slowly and clearly so she can understand and c) do what she wants me to do with her - essentials!

She still amazes me .. after 3- 4 weeks of not being terribly with it .. but after a "major op" and being in hospital for 6 weeks, she's made an amazing recovery. She will never recover and get better, but as long as we know that .. then we can deal with things.

Thanks so much for asking and for your thoughts - always very appreciated.

All the best and have a good weekend -
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Peter Baca said...

Hello Hilary,

The choughs are an interesting relative of the crow family. They appear to be almost identical to crows here in Southern California.....other than the color of the beak.

The crows here are very strong and aggressive birds. It would be very difficult to eradicate them. I suspect that when the choughs lost their habitat that they moved on to other areas.

Interesting post...

Pete Baca
The Car Enthusiast Online

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Pete .. thanks for your comments re your crows - these choughs are only found here in Europe and Asia. However I'm sure there must some link somewhere .. your crows it seems are just black beaked and are quite prevalent. As you say strong and agressive ..we now have crows in Eastbourne and magpies .. both unknown in the town or at the seaside until relatively recently.

The choughs certainly didn't like their habitat being disturbed .. as occurs with other speciies.

Thanks for visiting .. I have had crows waiting in the wings for a while - just 'got' to get to write the post!

Thanks for being here - Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories