My grandson sometimes asks me what my favourite bird is. He says his is Goldfinch. For the last decade my favourite bird has been Oystercatcher. The old English name for this bird (and one used in Cornwall) is the ‘Sea-pie’ – a reminder of its black and white livery. Perhaps Sea-pie may actually be a better name, as here they do not catch oysters! Mussels and limpets, yes…
My infatuation with this colourful and definitely loud wader began one day in 2008 when I visited Looe Island and we were advised as we landed (on the main beach) that we needed to make a detour to avoid an Oystercatcher’s nest which had been planted bang in the middle of the path from the landing stage. For the first time I saw the bare scrape that constitutes the nest, containing three beautiful eggs, streaked with black squiggles and scrawls, and watched the parent bird take evasive action issuing its distinctive alarm call, kwik-kwik , pik-pik. I was hooked.
For the last seven years I have been carrying out monitoring of the breeding seabird populations of Looe Island for its owners the Cornwall Wildlife Trust; this entails regular visits from March to July to identify and count the seabird nests, to count the eggs and young, and follow the progress of each nest through the breeding season. Initially I focused on Cormorants, a relatively easy bird to monitor. They build large conspicuous nests on the open cliffs, and their initially helpless chicks stay in the nest for weeks. But I got drawn increasingly into the much greater challenges of finding the highly camouflaged Oystercatcher nests and of discovering what happened when the eggs hatched. Oystercatcher chicks are nidifugous; they leave the nest within hours. Finding Oystercatcher nests – and the chicks – each year has become something of an obsession. And Oystercatchers almost always see you before you see them…….
My next picture was taken in the summer of 2016. It illustrates the dimensions of the Oystercatcher nest recorder’s problem. I was lucky enough to visit this nest on the day the eggs hatched. One of the eggs is still unhatched and you can see how well camouflaged a clutch of three or four eggs could be, lying in a shallow scrape in the stones at the back of the beach. Two eggs have hatched. One of the chicks has already left the nest and is hiding – they leave the nest within hours of hatching, with eyes open and a covering of down. They can run and swim. But their best chance of avoiding predation is to melt into the rocky shore or some vegetation and crouch motionless.
My next picture, taken in 2015, shows an adult Oystercatcher defending three very young chicks, which have left the ‘nest’.
Oystercatcher guarding 3 young chicks, 18th June 2015.
June 28th, 2020. It is now six months to the day since I last set foot on Looe Island. Normally in this period I would have visited the island about twenty times. But these are not normal times. Because of the pandemic the Island has been closed to visitors.
Looe Island is the most important location in South-east Cornwall for seabirds, with at least 250 nests each summer. Its colonies of Cormorants and Great Black-backed Gulls vie with those on Mullion Island to be the largest in Cornwall, and there are also important colonies of Herring Gulls and Shags, and a small colony of Fulmars. The Oystercatcher population is possibly the most significant cluster in Cornwall. May and June are the peak months for monitoring; the season is nearly over.
However I have had some good news. Tomorrow a boat is going to the Island and there is a spare seat. I have been invited by the wardens to take it, and do some monitoring. The weather forecast though isn’t good, with strong winds in the offing.
Restless with anticipation, I decide to walk the coast path west from Looe to Talland Bay. This may give me some clues as to what to expect. I park on Hannafore and set out westward along the path. The wind is strong from the south-west and blustery. Beyond the Island the sea looks rough. The small birds that frequent the hedgerows along the path are less in evidence than usual. There are Goldfinches of course, and a couple of Stonechat families. Stonechats are endearingly jaunty birds.
It has also been a good year for Linnets. Behind Portnadler Bay a male is singing in the gorse, and there are singing Chiffchaffs. Somewhere in the brambles my ear catches the brief jangly song of a Whitethroat. Suddenly my eye is caught by two large birds, jostling together high above the path. They tumble away over the brow of the hill. I scan the ridge anxiously and see one alight briefly on a fence post. A Peregrine! The hunched shape, the black moustache and white cheek – unmistakeable.
A second and third bird appear and disappear. For ten minutes I watch them play fighting, and then suddenly with a burst of power they tear along the cliffs and disappear. But it is clear that there is a Peregrine family in the vicinity!
Peregrines have haunted my imagination since student days, when an extraordinary book by J.A.Baker (The Peregrine) was published. It told of the author’s obsession with these birds, which he followed alone around the wintry estuaries and coastal marshes of Essex. Inspired by his example, I saw my first Peregrines flying high over the Norfolk coast. But for many years the British breeding population of this supreme predator was in disarray as a result of the detrimental impact of organochlorine pesticides. Fortunately the Cornish breeding population has recovered (though still potentially precarious), and now you can hope to see Peregrines throughout the year along the Cornish coast.
I move on along the path, looking for an Oystercatcher pair. I have been watching Oystercatchers at their nests along this stretch of cliffs for several years. Nests on the mainland coast are not common, as beach-nesting birds are vulnerable to disturbance by people and dogs. On 9th June I had watched a pair, with two young chicks, on the cliff below the path. The nest here each year is nearly always in the same place. The adults are remarkably camouflaged, despite the bright orange beak and piebald pattern, and I doubt if many walkers have seen them. The chicks are even more difficult to see.
Today I find the pair roosting together close to the nest site. I scan the cliff carefully but cannot see any chicks. They could be hidden, or they may have been predated. Many chicks fall prey to crows, gulls and raptors. Kestrels are resident along this coast, and later I see one hovering intently above the cliffs.
I begin to retrace my steps, and become aware of commotion on the hillside. Close to the skyline, two Peregrines and a Carrion Crow are quarrelling. The birds are on the ground in the grass, and there is some sort of dispute. The crow spins noisily up into a large hawthorn tree. One of the falcons hurtles down the hillside towards me and then lunges up at the crow, calling angrily, before returning to the ridge. I crawl laboriously up the hill, trying to keep out of sight. The crow departs. I lie in the shade of the tree, and manage some photographs. The cause of the quarrel remains unclear. There is no prey on the ground. Then the Peregrines also depart.
June 29th. It is early morning and a message has arrived that the trip to Looe Island is on! There are just two passengers, so we can keep an appropriate social distance apart. Boatman Dave guides the boat past the Banjo Pier; in the bay the sea is relatively calm, but as we approach the island the south-westerly wind picks up, whipping spray over us.
A Herring Gull glides down, lands on the bow and hitches a ride, conjuring a comforting sense of déjà vu. Is this the same bird that did this last year? Dave expertly manoeuvres the boat against the landing trolley on the beach, where wardens Jon and Claire are waiting. I have brought some newspapers for Claire’s chickens, and take some eggs in exchange!
The annual island nest count carried out in May by Claire and Jon indicated that the numbers of breeding gulls in 2020 is similar to 2019, with 123 Herring Gull and 83 Great Black-backed Gull nests, and 19 Oystercatcher nests. But the ringing of Great Blackback chicks by Bruce Taggart and his colleagues a week ago has found a disappointing yield. Only 44 chicks were ringed, less than half the number in good years. This might be explained by a combination of factors – problems of food supply, the persistent dry weather, and perhaps excessive grazing by the new flock of Shetland sheep, reducing the covering vegetation for the chicks to hide in.
I have decided to focus the couple of hours at my disposal on monitoring the productivity of the Oystercatchers. Over the decade that I have been studying Looe Island’s Oystercatchers the density of nests has definitely increased, doubtless aided by the removal of rats from the island in the noughties by the Cornwall Wildlife Trust (although it is also true that we have become better at finding them). Rats are a hazard to ground-nesting birds. Since the rats were removed the population appears to have doubled. I found 21nests in 2017 and 2018 compared with 10 recorded in 2013 and only 5 in 2012.
On Looe Island most nests are found at the back of a beach, or perched on rocky platforms a few metres above it. Crucially in terms of their survival prospects, the nests are sometimes only a couple of metres away from the nest of a Herring or a Great Black-backed Gull. Both these species are potential predators, especially on chicks. In early summer the beautiful shores of Looe Island become a war zone.
In other parts of the country Oystercatchers may nest in quite different environments. I have found their nests along the shingle banks of rivers in northern England. In eastern Scotland, Oystercatchers have become city-dwellers. In Aberdeen, they nest on the flat roofs of new modern buildings, and even on the ground in public gardens. Interestingly in 2020 a rare Cornish case of an Oystercatcher nesting on a building was reported in Wadebridge.
My walk takes me first along the sheltered east side of the island, one of the favoured breeding areas for Oystercatchers. Straight away I see a young Oystercatcher on the beach, with two adult birds. It is at the water’s edge and swims briefly. It is well advanced, but it is easy to distinguish from the adults by the black tip to its beak, its lack of a coloured eye-ring, and its different leg colour. It is a reminder that the nesting season for these birds is almost over.
There are usually at least 7 nests along this side of the island. The pairs are territorial and soon perceive my presence, and pipe warnings to their chicks to conceal themselves. I can see two more, and there is a pair behaving in a way that clearly indicates that at least one more chick is in the vicinity.
Vigilant adult Oystercatcher pair, guarding unseen young
Two Whimbrel surprise me by flying from the rocks, uttering their tittering call. Are these late (or early?) migrants or non-breeding birds? I move past Jetty Cottage into prime gull territory, and crowds of noisy Herring Gulls take to the air. Along the cliffs however there are surprisingly few gull chicks visible. To the south-east I can see plenty of adult Great Black-backed Gulls scattered on Little Island, one of the two main areas for the island’s colony.
An Oystercatcher flies out from beneath the cliff, uttering its alarm call, and I carefully look down into a deep gully. Sure enough a large chick, almost fledged, is sheltering at the base, concealed from the swarms of predatory gulls. A reassuring sense of déjà vu returns – a year ago I watched a chick, probably raised by the same pair, hiding in exactly the same place. But there are no signs of its siblings, which have probably been predated.
Out on the rocks to the south towards the Ranneys, I can see Cormorants and Shags; there are both adult and juvenile birds. Cormorants nest early, sometimes laying eggs in January, and their young are often fledged by early May. By the bird hide I spot another Oystercatcher pair in the expected territory, and another large chick hiding in the rocks.
As I move round to the west side of the island I am battered by the strong south-westerly wind, and I sit down on the cliff by High Cove. This is normally the focus of Shag and Cormorant colonies, and the large number of birds scattered on the rocks below indicate a successful breeding season for Cormorants especially.
Towards the back of the cove there are still Shags on the nest, including some with chicks. Two adults are sitting on the remnants of an old Raven’s nest, built several seasons ago. A Fulmar sweeps in from the sea, glides around the cliff face and then turns into the wind, hanging for a few seconds about five metres from me, before sweeping out again. A wonderful demonstration of its aerial prowess. There is probably a Fulmar nest tucked out of site below me. It repeats the manoeuvre several times. Why is it doing this? Perhaps just because it can! It seems to be enjoying it and its mastery of the wind means that it is using little energy.
I turn around and realise I have company. The island sheep have turned up! These are the only mammals on the island apart from bats and people (Grey Seals are present offshore but rarely land on the island itself). The sheep are bold and possibly contemplating mugging me for some food!
As I move on they follow me, and then decide that a visit to the beach is likely to be more productive. They demonstrate their agility.
I complete the circuit of the island and on the north-west side tick off more Oystercatcher pairs, each with at least one youngster. Some of the youngsters confirm that they have fledged by flying after their parents. Another resorts to the hiding strategy.
There are worryingly few signs of Great Blackback chicks, which are usually easy to see on this stretch of the cliffs. I tot up the Oystercatcher count – I have seen 10-12 young birds. This seems a meagre return from the 19 nests that were found this year by Jon and Claire, but it is fairly typical. The low survival rate each year can be heart-breaking to observe and might seem dangerous for the species, but as Oystercatchers live for many years (their average is 20), every pair does not need to rear a chick successfully every year to ensure numbers are maintained.
My visit to the island is nearly over, and my ‘Sea-pie deprivation’ has been dealt with! But it has been a salutary reminder that, whatever might be happening in the human world, the rhythms of the natural world carry on relentlessly. My absence from the scene has made not a jot of difference. As my former colleague Philip Larkin once wrote in a quite different seaside context: ‘Still going on, all of it, still going on!’
Back on the beach the boat is ready to depart, and we are soon back in Looe harbour. The island has worked its charm, and I cannot wait to return again.
Postscript. Those of you who were interested in the fortunes of the Mute Swan and Shelduck families that featured in my last blog, might like to know that on 6th July there were still 5 ducklings, very close to fledging, and on 14th July, there were still 3 cygnets.
My next monthly bird blog will be in September.