Welcome to the first of our monthly bird blogs by local naturalist Derek Spooner.
February 12th. Early morning; I part the curtains and peer anxiously at the weather. For three days Looe has been hammered by Storm Ciara. I need to carry out a water-birds count on the Looe estuary, and for three days the storm has prevented me. I have been participating in this monthly national survey – the Wetland Birds Survey (WeBS) of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) – for seven years. Thankfully the storm has abated, and I need to do the count before the onset of the next one – Storm Dennis. I do the survey from September to April each winter and this will be my 53rd WeBS count on the estuary. The count targets waterfowl (ducks, geese, swans) and waders, which visit the estuary in winter, but also includes gulls.
I grab binoculars, camera and walking-stick, don wellies and waterproofs, and head for Terras Bridge on the East Looe River, near the head of the estuary, where I always start my survey about an hour after high tide. It is best to carry out a survey like this when the tide is relatively high, because counting is easier when the wading birds are clustered on the river bank rather than spread out over acres of mud. But when I arrive at the bridge it is still partially flooded thanks to the combination of the high tide and heavy rain. The saltmarsh is partly submerged, and there isn’t a wader in sight. A Dabchick surfaces briefly in the flood water but dives out of sight as soon as it sees me. They are nervous little birds.
The plan is to survey the estuary from Terras Bridge down to the Banjo Pier and the East Looe seafront, and then walk back up the West Looe River to Watergate, close to the tidal limit. There is something satisfying about doing the survey in exactly the same way each time, as I have ‘informed expectations’ of what I am likely to encounter. No walk produces exactly the same outcome, and there are occasional surprises, but there is a pleasure in finding again a similar set of birds in familiar places.
Estuaries of course are potentially fantastic places for birds. The intertidal mudflats are a rich feeding ground for waders – a priority habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan – and are also used as resting and preening territory for many species at low tide. The Looe estuary is the only one between the much larger Tamar and the Fowey, and it has an intimate scale; I can see both sides of it easily (with binoculars). Here is wilderness in the heart of Looe. The numbers of birds do not match those on the bigger estuaries, but there are important breeding birds here – herons and egrets.
I linger at Terras Bridge waiting for the tide to drop a little; there are some Mallards, and on the saltmarsh I can see the long necks of a couple of pairs of Canada Geese. A Little Egret is roosting in the trees, waiting for the tide to drop. I move downstream to Steppes Pond and pick up the first Mute Swans of the day and a solitary Moorhen. This stretch of the estuary is difficult to access on foot. The road is a potential death trap. The tide is still pretty high, and I scan the west bank of the estuary anxiously looking for waders. There are none. But as I approach the outskirts of Looe I at last pick out a cluster of small waders on the west bank. They are waiting patiently for the tide to drop, at the water’s edge, their reflections in the water. They are Redshanks, winter visitors, and I usually find them here from October onwards. Their mournful cries filter across the water. I carefully count – 25 – and take some photos as an insurance. Zoom lenses are amazing!
Three larger birds are nearby; these are Curlews, now a species of wader in serious decline in Britain, and Red-listed as a bird of Conservation Concern. They breed in the British uplands, but come to the coast in winter. Their long curved beaks make them adept at feeding for worms deep in the mud. But their numbers are much smaller than found here twenty years ago. Later I find four more, but seven is a disappointing total for a species that is a conservation priority. One calls, an evocative sound in this wild place.
The tide is still fairly high as I wander along the waterfront in East Looe. Of course there are plenty of Herring Gulls, many perched on roofs, and counting them is a problem, as many are constantly on the move. At the Banjo Pier the sea is surprisingly calm. I scan it for visiting divers, but there are none. I add a Great Crested Grebe and a couple of Eiders to my list. Then I walk back across the bridge and head for the Millpool. As I walk past the chandlery my eye is caught by a robin-sized bird which bounces up on to the roof of the Creekside flats opposite. But it has no red breast, and I know instantly from its ‘jizz’ – its combination of shape, movement and behaviour – that it is a Black Redstart, a delightful winter visitor to Looe, but one which this winter has been hard to find. Nor have I seen any in this part of town before. It is the grey female and I catch a glimpse of its ‘red start’, its russet-red tail. Not a water bird, but one worth pausing for. More camera clicks…..
I walk on, past the confluence of the two rivers at Trenant Point. Here is a favourite perch for a Kingfisher, but the conditions are poor for fishing – deep, silt-laden water – and there are none. How do they survive in these conditions? By now mudbanks are beginning to emerge, and there is a growing presence of gulls (principally Herring and Black-headed) with a scatter of Oystercatchers. The Black-headed Gulls are in their winter livery, without the black heads.
Opposite the huge Millpool car park is a heronry in Trenant Woods, probably the most public in Britain, and now used by both Grey Herons and Little Egrets, their smaller relative. There are Little Egrets picking their way fastidiously through the shallow water, showing glimpses of their yellow feet. They have not yet started nesting but in the usual tree I can see four bulky nests, two of them occupied by Herons. It is a relief to know that the nests have survived Ciara; they may already have eggs.
I go through the gate and take the footpath through Kilminorth Woods. There is a pleasing background of woodland birdsong on a spring-like morning; I hear a woodpecker drumming and the shrieking of Jays. Overhead Buzzards circle. To my surprise on the big bend I spot a Kingfisher, on a favoured low perch where I have seen one many times before. It drops frequently into the water but I realise it is not fishing but bathing. Above in Trenant Woods are more Grey Herons, and I can see six nests in similar positions to previous years. Numbers in the colony seem to be relatively stable. Further upstream I squelch through the saltmarsh and flush another Redshank.
Four hours after beginning my survey I reach Watergate. It is beginning to rain. Christine arrives by car to pick me up. Back home I enter my records on the BTO website. The computer tells me I have registered a total of 431 birds (of which 295 are gulls) and 20 species. This is how citizen science works. Job done.
NB This is the first of a series of blogs Derek will be writing for the Looe Marine Conservation Group about the birdlife of coast and estuary.