As November drifts into December and autumn gives way to winter, the focus of my ornithological attention increasingly moves offshore. I frequently visit the seafronts at East Looe and Hannafore. This is the time to scan the shallow seas for exciting visitors from the north. Divers!
Great Northern Diver
We do not think of divers as ‘seabirds’. Their breeding grounds are usually on lakes and lochs, but many spend an appreciable part of their lives in the marine environment. Living on the coast of Cornwall, in November I find myself scanning the horizon from the cliff path or the beach, impatient for a glimpse of a haunting shape offshore that has become increasingly familiar. On the internet reports of sightings from other parts of the Cornish coast are multiplying. A 24-mile stretch of the south coast further west, from Falmouth to St Austell Bay, has been designated a Special Protection Area because of its important winter aggregations of divers and grebes, but these birds also appear in Looe Bay.
At last on the first of December I see what I have been expecting. From the coast path between Looe and Plaidy my telescope picks out a long dark shape low in the water. From time to time it dives. It turns towards me revealing its white chest. It is not a Shag or a Cormorant, which are a regular presence here. It is a Great Northern Diver, a visitor from the Arctic!
Two other smaller species of diver, Black-throated and Red-throated, also visit the Cornish coast but only occasionally appear in this part of Looe Bay. From Hannafore, a day later, I spot in the distance two much smaller winter visitors than the diver, with slender necks, white cheeks and smart black caps. They are startled and take flight, pitter-pattering across the surface towards Looe Island. These are Slavonian Grebes.
Like the diver they are in winter plumage; in summer they are spectacularly colourful with golden ear tufts, which in North America have given them the name of Horned Grebes.
Slavonian Grebes are curiously named. Slavonia is a region in eastern Croatia. The map in my field guide suggests they are not now found anywhere near Croatia, but considerably further north. These birds off Hannafore may come from the small breeding population in the Scottish Highlands, or they may be visitors from Scandinavia or Iceland.
I return to Hannafore a few days later. A strong south-westerly is blowing. I anticipate that this should provide good conditions for an influx of divers and grebes into Looe Bay, but I lug my telescope along the seafront in vain. Disappointed, I walk west along the coast path towards Portnadler Bay but still divers are elusive. There are compensations. On the rocks I see, an attractive small wader, my first Ringed Plover of the winter.
Ringed Plover on Hannafore
Overhead my attention is attracted by a hunting Kestrel. These beautiful birds of prey are regulars here, but every encounter is special.
Some lines from a favourite poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Windhover, surface in my mind: ‘ I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon….’
The bird faces into the strong wind and hovers, then swoops forward, hovers again: ‘the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!’ It concentrates intently on a patch of grassland on the hillside, starts to drop, changes its mind, and then rides on into the wind.
Back in East Looe there are other distractions which draw my attention away from the search for divers. On the seafront, one day during early December, my eye is caught by a large flock of Turnstones on the seaweed which has accumulated on the lower steps of the sea defences at the back of the beach. Among the Turnstones I notice a bird that is a little different, with a longer beak. To my delight it is a Purple Sandpiper, an increasingly rare visitor to Looe, quite likely from eastern Canada. In my last blog I bemoaned the absence of this species in recent winters; my prayers have been answered! Like the Turnstones it is relatively tame and poses nicely with one for a photograph.
Purple Sandpiper and Turnstone
As I turn away from the flock of small waders I scan the cliff behind the sea defences. Other walkers along the seafront look at me rather suspiciously, clearly wondering why on earth I have turned my back on the beach and the sea to stare through binoculars at a cliff less than twenty metres away. The answer is simple; the cliff is densely covered with bushes, and there are masses of berries, especially ivy. These are a magnet to some interesting visitors. Today there are Woodpigeons, Blackbirds, Robins and Song Thrushes, all gorging on the cornucopia of berries.
The berry eaters – Song Thrush
But the most interesting presence is a marauding gang of Blackcaps. In recent years these beautiful grey warblers, which we are accustomed to think of as summer visitors, have appeared increasingly in winter, often at garden birdfeeders, and clearly feeding on a much wider range of food than the insects which we think of as their standard summer diet.
Research has revealed that these winter Blackcaps in south-west England are actually visitors from the continent, especially southern Germany, attracted by the mild climate. On the cliff there are several handsome males, displaying the black cap, and competing aggressively for berries with each other and with other species. After some searching I also locate a couple of females whose caps are not black at all, but a shade of chestnut.
But I am forgetting the divers! I turn back to scan the bay. Out beyond the Banjo Pier towards Looe Island a Great Northern Diver suddenly appears. These birds can sometimes stay submerged for over a minute and are thus easy to miss.
Encounters with wild creatures can linger in the memory for a lifetime. I can still remember my first sighting of a Great Northern. I was a teenager living in Southampton. I was excited to read a report in the local paper that a Great Northern Diver was wintering on Hatchet Pond in the New Forest. I had recently read Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome, the last book in the Swallows and Amazons series, a story set on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. I persuaded my parents to drive me to Hatchet Pond to see it. I suppose it was my first ‘twitch’ of a rare bird. We had never been there before; it is the largest water body in the New Forest, about a kilometre in length and surrounded by heathland, a gloomy and rather dismal place on a winter’s day. With my binoculars I eventually located the bird, a dark shape drifting in a distant corner of the pond. In truth it was a bit of a disappointment, but I duly ticked off Great Northern Diver on the check list in my field guide.
Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome: the front cover.
Great Northern? is a fictional story about the quest to find the nest of a Great Northern Diver, something of a holy grail for ornithologists. The Great Northern is not normally a breeding species in Britain, unlike its two smaller relatives, the Red-throated and Black-throated Divers which both breed in Scotland in small numbers, though in 1997, long after Ransome wrote his story, a pair nested in Northern Scotland. In Great Northern? the children find a nest and then struggle to protect it from a ruthless egg-collector. It is remarkable that this issue was raised in a novel published in 1947. Egg-collecting was not at that time against the law. It only became illegal to take the eggs of most wild birds under the Protection of Birds Act 1954 and to possess or control any wild birds’ eggs taken since that time under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Reading this book was my introduction to the issues of protection and conservation of rare species.
Many years passed after my visit to Hatchet Pond before I saw another Great Northern Diver, but in September 2008 one appeared in Looe harbour and was observable at relatively close quarters. Moreover it was still in its striking summer plumage, with an exquisitely patterned pied back and smart black head.
Great Northern in summer plumage in Looe Harbour (photo by Christine Spooner)
There was one disappointment however – the bird was silent. I was hoping to hear the eerie wailing call that echoes through many Hollywood movies, the cry of the Common Loon, often used to evoke the spirit of wild and remote northern places in North America. Common Loon is the name by which the Great Northern is known across the Atlantic and it is Canada’s national bird. My field guide to European birds calls this species the Great Northern Loon.
From that day onwards I began to watch for the appearance of ‘Loons’ along the coast of South-east Cornwall in autumn and winter. I learned too that their visits to this coast were not a new phenomenon. The great Victorian naturalist from Polperro, Dr Jonathan Couch, recorded that his friend Clement Jackson, the Looe pharmacist, had seen 20 in the Looe Roads, one day in 1853. Jackson shot many of his sightings to present to Couch. Hopefully there was not a diver massacre!
Seeing Great Northern Divers, usually one or two at a time, became a regular feature of winters in Looe, but on January 3rd 2016 I hit the jackpot. (Keeping a diary is vital!) A message arrived in my inbox from a friend in the town that there were Great Northern Divers (plural!) in the harbour.
I grabbed binoculars, camera and telescope, and headed down the hill, crossed the bridge into West Looe and walked toward the sea along the quay. The tide was in and the water level high. As I glanced across the river towards the fish quay I saw a large grey and white shape, slung low in the water. It dived and disappeared from view. But then I realised that there was another…..and another. I was only a few metres away from them; the telescope was superfluous.
Great Northern Divers in Looe harbour January 2016
There were several other people out for a Sunday morning stroll, and some of them saw me photographing the birds. A couple sidled up and asked what I was looking at, and soon a small huddle developed. I explained that these were rare winter visitors from a long way north, probably Iceland or Greenland. A man wandered by with a dog and informed me ‘they’re divers, there were four yesterday’.
Four Great Northern Divers
I looked again and realised that he was right, there were definitely four, three of them swimming alongside the fishing boats moored at the quay in East Looe.
By the fish quay
They all had that bold white front which is typical of their winter plumage, surmounted by a variety of shades of grey, some almost black. The heads had a distinctive domed profile with a steep forehead, and the horizontally held bills were heavy and dagger-shaped. I watched them dive; they appeared to be fishing despite the murkiness of the water brought on by recent heavy rain. These birds can swim as well as they can fly. They propel themselves with their huge feet, a feature of their anatomy which makes them very clumsy on land.
I walked on towards the sea, past the statue of Nelson, the one-eyed bull Grey Seal which frequented the harbour a few years ago, and past the Banjo Pier where the estuary meets the sea. I now had an excellent view back across to East Looe Beach and out into the bay. I could see more divers here, most of them basking in the sun rather than fishing. Further out the sea was rough in the strong south-westerly wind, but there was some shelter in the bay afforded by the barrier of Looe Island. I counted seven more. Among them was the familiar black and white shape of Looe’s resident Eider. But I listened for their wailing cry in vain. They were silent. Further along the bay in rougher water I also found a Slavonian Grebe, bustling in the surf.
So now at the turning of the year I hope for the appearance of more of these extraordinary birds in the coastal waters and (in particular weather conditions) the estuary. Around 2500 Great Northerns come to the UK each winter, with the majority in Scottish waters. Some find their way to inland bodies of water, but many are scattered around the coasts. I hope too to see their more slender relative, the Red-throated Diver. These attractive birds usually appears in a small flock further east off Keveral Beach in January and February. I am unlikely to see any red throats however, as these are not a feature of the winter plumage, as you will see from these photographs.
Red-throated Divers, Keveral beach, January 2018
Perhaps as a footnote to this tale I should comment on the phrase ‘Don’t forget the diver!’. I picked this up long ago from my parents. They were from the generation of radio listeners who followed the show called ITMA (It’s that Man Again’) which ran from 1939-49, and provided morale-boosting solace to beleaguered families during the Blitz. ITMA was rich in catchphrases and this one was allegedly inspired by a diver who solicited pennies from bystanders who watched him dive into the sea from a pier: ‘Don’t forget the diver sir, every penny makes the water warmer.’ There is a story too of a man in the 1940s who regularly rode his bicycle off the end of the landing stage (a fall of 10-20 feet) at New Brighton as the ferry across the Mersey pulled in, while his colleague proffered a collecting box and repeated the catchphrase.
Happy New Year to you all, and don’t forget the divers!