Chough Hunt

Phyrrhocorax, the “fire crow” in Latin roots, enjoys his life as an aerial king. Heard before seen, the bird is mischievous without question as he stoops and dives out of sight, cackling all the way. In the United Kingdom, his numbers are dwindling quickly while he remains steadfast further east. But his increasing rarity is no deterrent to birders, myself included. I had visually hunted the chough since arriving in Northern Ireland, where only a single mated pair remains in my stretch of the coast on Rathlin Island outside of Ballycastle. With such low numbers, I knew my odds were slim, and the Irish chough was never seen. But as I shifted routes further east to London and then west to Wales, I was given the chance to find him once again on the RSPB preserve at South Stack, Anglesey.

The Welsh coast is bare, an open expanse to the harshness of the sea with steep cliffs covered in the unforgiving, sprawling limbs of gorse (which I affectionately nicknamed the Devil’s Shrub due to the fact that it’s fully replaced all its leaves with rigid thorns and spiders have a tendency to swarm the plant). Here, the rocks erode quickly in time with blame to their geology: schist is a fragile rock. And the air has a special quality that reminds me of Denali, with clarity to falsely allude that things are farther than they appear. But the chough call it home.

So I searched for the chough, climbing into narrow gullies that should not be explored in sandals and aimlessly wandering, searching for nooks and crannies where a chough might fancy to build a nest.

But no chough was to be found.

I recalled my earlier threat in Ireland, how I’d taint the name of the chough if I did not see him: “He kidnaps wee kids and makes them pick worms! And if they pick too few worms, he eats them instead! That’s why his beak is red!” How could I enrich it further? He was once a beautiful songbird, with blue plumage and adoring crystal eyes, but a witch cursed him to eat worms and his songs grew silent with hate… Yes, and he hated worms, and he hated the children who once danced to his songs, so he stole them from home… Yes, that’ll do.

As I scoured one last cliff, contemplating how I could grow a hate for the chough to justify his absence, a raven soared overhead, growling a single, deep croak. He circled my head and stared, alighting a few hundred feet beyond me.

Now, in Alaska the Raven is the Creator God and the guide through realms. He should be seen as an omen of change and guidance. When a raven speaks to you, you are to follow him, as he is there to guide you to or through something (his presence is not by default good, but he will not lead you astray). So I watched my lovely totem keenly observe his realm. He cocked his head one last time at me, and, with a rugged display, he took off further down the coast in open sight to claim a bare rock and seemingly gesture, come this way.

I burst down the trail after him, elated and simultaneously confused which trail to take to reach the stone outcropping. I hurriedly marched up a hill, still staring at the stone where, by then, the raven had vanished. At the crest of another hill I could no longer see the stone, but my ears caught a noise and they shifted violently, straining to hear it again. It was the call of a chough, the distinctive squawk that earned the bird its name. I was told I would hear him before I saw him, so I researched his call, and without question a chough was calling nearby.

The stone, still deceptively far off in the distance in the illusion of closeness, caught the eyes of two glossy black birds gliding towards it… CHOUGH.

They called again as they spread their wings and took footing on the stone where the raven was earlier, they possessed an aura about them that seemed as if they had just accomplished some silly task, raiding rebel forces and returning victorious. Without question I ran straight to them off the trail to quickly learn why one should respect gorse, the Devil’s Shrub.

I chose to hike in sandals that day due to an infected wound on my heal that needed to drain and dry out. Boots would smother the wound, so I opted to hike in Teva sandals. Any California-born knows that sandals are the state’s shoe, and they know how to fend their own in a proper pair of comfortable sandals. Cliffs, rivers, slick rocks, trees, eroding trails, even snow pose no threat to a seasoned Californian in sandals, but gorse, was another question and threat. Gorse was created by the Devil himself and its thorns burrow deep into the tender nerve beds of flesh and quickly fester and itch. Gorse can suck a bag of dicks.

Moments into the fleeting dash, the stinging burn ravished my feet and I looked down, horrified at the length of the thorns that had dug into my skin and broke free. A quick glance out revealed that the entire field was fully covered in gorse and I had bolted straight into the middle of it. Another glance down revealed that hundreds of tiny spiders did not appreciate my intrusion and now scurried up and over me. I opted to run back, fleeing for a nearby boulder in the field. The next 30 or so minutes were spent maneuvering the field, occasionally peering for my lovely chough as I awkwardly flinched at each misplaced step. In time, I found a route through. Sadly, the chough had vanished.

Further up the hill, the trail widened and flattened, with ample space to avoid the gorse on either side. They couldn’t have gone far, I thought, referring to the fleeting chough. At the very least, I had seen a glimpse, but I would be greedy, at least just this once.

Chooough! the call squealed overhead as two black birds whirled around a nearby hill. And I ran again.

Chooough, chough!!! I could hear them but not see them.

Chough.

At the pinnacle of a small hill, crested with a jagged stone, two chough fluttered their wings and preened beside each other. They glanced momentarily at me who stared back in absolute adoration. I hiked a parallel hill to their equal vantage point and shared their company some hundred feet away, adoring the precision of their long, red bill as they picked each shimmering feather into place. They hopped and chattered and seemed to tease as content couples do, cooing and chirping as necessary. I was blessed with their company for some time, but the chough had chough things to do, and off they flew to dance along the sea.

A Pair of Chough

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