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A history or ornithology and birdwatching on the Lizard

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

Not much is known about the birds of the Lizard (or indeed across Cornwall generally) prior to the 16th century. Skeletal remains of birds do not last long in the Lizard's soils. One can infer the presence of at least some bird species as being at least quite well known in Cornwall generally by the survival of their names in Cornish languish. The name “nath”, for example, Cornish for Puffin, survives in Nathaga Rocks in Gwithian parish, and continued in use into the last century as a dialect name in north Cornwall well into the 19th century. Mediaeval records attest to the Puffin’s importance as food and as a means of currency. According to the Romans, the Cornish preferred to barter than to use coin, and undoubtedly this tradition lingered. In 1296-97 we find the payment of 6s. 8d. for 300 Puffins for rent, a payment probably made to all the earls of Cornwall, and for the Tudors, both gulls and Puffins were considered delicacies. Feral Pigeons were also of great importance for fresh meat in mediaeval times, and in a practice introduced by the Normans, large numbers were kept in dovecotes. Before the 18th century it was not possible to keep large numbers of cattle throughout the winter months, and pigeon meat was a useful source of protein. Only nobles and the clergy were allowed to keep dovecotes until the 16th century, but thereafter laws were relaxed and many lesser gentry had them by the 18th century. Several survive on the Lizard.

As well as introducing us to the dovecotes, the Normans were responsible for introducing the Cornish to the art of falconry and around this time we see our first specific mention of bird species from the wider Lizard area. When King James the 1st took up the throne in 1603, Sir William Godolphin happened to tell him that Mr. Reskymer’s hawks at Merthen Manor (near Constantine) were wont to prey upon seafowl, such as redshank and others, presumably around the Helford River.

The first formal documentation of the birds of Cornwall comes from Richard Carew 1602 Survey of Cornwall, which is the first work to contain an account of birds of any country. Carew’s interest in birds was primarily in which were edible. However, one extract from his work is noteworthy: “Not long sithence, there came a flock of Birds into Cornwall, about Harvest season, in bigness not much exceeding a Sparrow, which made a foule spoyle of the Apples. Their bills were thwarted crosswise at the end, and with these they would cut an Apple in two at one snap, eating only the kernels". Carew was referring to the great Crossbill invasion of 1593. No specific mention is made of birds on the Lizard however.

The first naturalists of international repute to visit Cornwall were John Ray and Francis Willoughby, though from accounts of their travels we learn more about the botany of the Lizard. John Ray, recorded ‘Fire-leaved heath (Erica vagans), with many flowers, by the way-side going from Helston to the Lizard. However, it is probably Walter Mayle of Bake in St. German’s parish that deserves the honorific title of the ”Father of Cornish Ornithology.” Moyle pioneered of art of taxidermy, though his collection of 129 species was unfortunately destroyed in a fire. Other notable figures of the time include Dr. William Borlase (1696-1772) who was unquestionably the most informed antiquarian, historian, and natural philosopher in 18th century Cornwall. However, he cannot be regarded as an ornithologists of any note. Nevertheless, it is to him that the first documented sighting of a Cornish Roller can be attributed – he recorded one shot on the moor near Helston in the autumn by a Humphrey Millet of Ninnis.

Walter Moyle, Father of Cornish Ornithology.

No Cornish congnoscenti seems to have taken much interest in birds in the late 18th century, and we are indebted to the military ornithologist Col. George Montagu for several informative observations between May 1796 and July 1797 when official duty stationed him in west Cornwall. Of interest are his notes on the Dartford Warbler, first established as a British resident in Kent in 1773. Montagu found them on the downs near Constantine on 27th September 1796, and saw them repeatedly until Christmas Eve when he shot a female.

Interest in natural history increased followed in the wake of the publication of such Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne (1788), Thomas Bewick, A History of British Birds (1797 & 1804), and William Lewin’s Natural History of British Birds (1789-1791). These inspired one of the Lizard's enigmatic natural historians, Mr James of Manaccan, to set down his observations in the anonymously written ”The Literary Repository of Cornwall and Devon; Quadrupeds, Birds and Fishes.” He commented briefly on 132 species of birds, including a Nutcracker he had seen, probably that very autumn, in the Lizard peninsula. James also observed several Quails around his house, but very little is known about him.

Undoubtedly the best Cornish ornithologist of the 19th century was Edward Hearle Rodd (1810-1880) with his report in 1840 on “Rarer British Birds found in Cornwall.” Rodd also published in September 1850 a list of British birds, noting 247 species as having been obtained in Cornwall. Several were added to the British list because of him, notably the Spotted Eagle (Temple, 1860) and Least Sandpiper (Marazion, 1853). E. H. Rodd’s nephew, Francis Rodd (1839-1922) continued his uncle’s ‘hobby’ by spending much of his spare time in shooting. The next noteworthy ornithologist in Cornwall is James Clark (1861-1935), a Scot who in 1899-1908 became Principal of the Central Technical Schools in Truro. He encouraged his students and friends to contribute observations and on 12th July, 1902 he completed The Birds of Cornwall, published in that year by the Royal Institution of Cornwall and available online. This arguably the first comprehensive list of species in Cornwall and makes several specific references to birds on the Lizard, including Alpine Swift, Purple Heron, Red-necked Phalarope, Dotterel and White-rumped Sandpiper. Characteristic of the habits of time, most notably records in the 18th and 19th century, including many documented by Clark, are of birds that were shot. Consequently there is considerable bias in records dating back to this period. For example, by the early 1900s there were several documented sightings of Little Bustard from the Lizard area and fairly comprehensive accounts of birds taken from some of the larger estates (e.g. Trelowarren and Lanarth). By contrast, much more common species, such as Cory’s Shearwater don’t feature on the Lizard list until the 1980s.

An excerpt from Clark's The Birds of Cornwall

By the early 20th century, what Cornwall lacked was not bird-watchers but a sense of purpose. Run-of-the-mill sightings remained almost undocumented and it became increasingly apparent during the 1920s that some vehicle was needed for sifting and evaluating local records. The man to whom this was most apparent was Benjamin Hervey Ryves (1875-1961), an ex-Indian army Lt.-Col. who retired to St. Mawgan-in-Pydar in 1921. Ryves took the initiative and founded our own Cornwall Bird-watching and Preservation Society in 1931, the year in which it can be said that ornithology entered modern times in our county. From this time onward, the society’s annual report was published. Nevertheless, during this early period, records from Lizard area, except around the Helford and Penrose where several of the society’s members were in residence, are rather scarce. The society appeared to function mostly as a gentleman’s club, with society members recounted their observations over during an annual get-together. This account of a Bewick’s Swan in 1936, typifies many sightings of the time: “..on March 1, I had a Wild Swan under view at close range and saw it standing, flying and swimming. There were two Mute Swans some distance away, and though I could make no comparison in size, my Chauffeur felt sure it was smaller than the Mutes”. One wonders what might have happened had the Chauffeur disagreed with his employers assessment.

The first and most recent annual reports produced by the Cornwall Bird-watching and Preservation Society.

A section of many of the reports of this period were devoted to providing an account of the birds of a particular Parish or District. The 1941 annual report gives such an account for the Lizard District. It is from this account that we learn that Purple Sandpipers were in residence, that a ‘Land Rail’ (Corncrake) was resting near the edge of the cliff near the Lizard Lookout on April 25 and that a Fulmar, then a rare bird in Cornwall, was seen close to the edge of the cliff near Lizard Lookout on September 8th.

The first evidence for the Lizard area being a hotspot for migrant and vagrant passerines didn’t emerge until the late 1950s and early 1960, when A. G. Parsons, one of the CBWPS's Honorary Secretaries, and arguably Cornwall's best birder of the era, covered the area finding such species as Bluethroat and Lapland Bunting. The tradition of finding rare passerines was continued by Eric Grace in the 1970s, and by and Paul McCartney and Brian Cave. Brian's “A Lizard Bird Diary” gives a comprehensive account of all of his sightings on the South Lizard Peninsula between 1970 and 2015. Many of the records detailed on these pages come from his diary. In 1982, Paul and Brian took on the task of creating a Breeding Bird Atlas of the Lizard as part of a University of Bristol Project. This atlas provides comprehensive one km square maps of breeding birds across the south Lizard area. These are reproduced in the report for context, though unfortunately no more recent such initiative has been carried out.

However, much of my knowledge of the history of Ornithology both on the Lizard and in Cornwall more widely is gleaned from Roger Penhallurick’s compressive volumes: “Birds of the Cornish Coast” (1969) and “The Birds of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly” (1978). Without these accounts, many of the historic records of interesting birds on the Lizard would no doubt have languished in obscurity.

From 1985 onwards, Andy Pay, for many years the voluntary warden at Windmill Farm was also active on the Lizard and responsible some mouth-watering rarities of the time. Windmill Farm Nature Reserve was jointly purchased by the Cornwall Birdwatching and Preservation Society and Cornwall Wildlife Trust with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2001. It remains one of the best managed sites for wildlife on the Lizard. In the 1980s, Steve Bury, along with Brian, the longest-standing currently active member of the Lizard birding community became a National Trust warden at Chyvarloe and continued the tradition of finding rarities. The tradition of trying to find rarities continues. There is now an active and growing, albeit still small group of dedicated Lizard birders. It is with their help that have been able to compile these records.

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