Country diary: The choughs patrol the cliffs, cawing at everything

I sit as close to the edge as I dare. Below me, great hulks of former cliff sit below the surface. Rising up among them is the Sugarloaf. Just a few weeks ago it was festooned with thousands of seabirds. Now, only three kittiwake chicks remain unfledged among the guano. But today I’m not here to see the seabirds, I am here to see a crow.

Chiarr! It takes just two minutes to hear one. These birds want their presence known. Soon it is not just one bird I hear, but four, no five birds patrolling the clifftops. I have found some choughs.

They approach noisily, flying into the steady breeze, scolding as they draw near. Their flight is erratic, travelling in one general direction yet many others at once. Like a gang of bullies, they caw at everything and anything, including me. They pass over my head, then tuck in their wings and plummet, demonstrating their unique, undulating flight reminiscent of a rollercoaster. Once across the bay, they alight on a steep, grassy bank, where they feast on what are presumably flying ants, the sea slowly lapping below them.

The Isle of Man is a stronghold for the birds, with around one pair for every kilometre of rocky coast, about 130 pairs in all – an incredible one-third of the British and Manx total. Within our small island nation, the southern coast is the best place to enjoy them. Here you can regularly see flocks of 50 to 60 birds, sometimes more.

The reason for such abundance is simple. In summer, being insectivorous, choughs gather in our tightly grazed farmland, where there is plenty of dung. In winter, when the fields are bereft of tasty morsels, they take to the seaweed-strewn beaches and dine on sand hoppers. Come the spring, they seek out the caves, abandoned buildings and (increasingly) farm barns for nesting. Nowhere else do they thrive as they do here in Ellan Vannin – the Manx name for the Isle of Man – with its green hills by the sea.

Back on my spot, 100 metres above the sparkling sea, I see in quick succession a family of peregrines, a male hen harrier, two ravens and a basking shark. But none to me are as captivating as those feisty, red-legged king of the crows.

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