For most of my life birdwatching was largely focused on identification, and (hopefully) seeing new and rare species: it was about list-making – life lists, locality lists, annual lists etc, as I illustrated in my last blog (March 2022). In my teenage years I flirted briefly with bird nesting but became aware that interfering with bird nests and taking eggs had become illegal. I assumed that experience in this area should be left to the activities of ‘professional’ ornithologists. However, a chance decision in 2012 to attend a training event for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)’s Nest Recording Scheme, opened a new dimension to my birdwatching. I discovered that the BTO wanted more nest recorders – amateurs like myself (but trained in a strict code of practice), to look for nests and submit records, and ideally to monitor those nests from nest-building through to fledging. What at the age of fourteen had been a guilty pleasure, now was transformed into purposeful ‘citizen science’. The months from March to June each year became extremely busy and looking for nests became an obsession. Like the young King Arthur in T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, I had ‘been bitten by the craze for birds which bites all sensible people in the spring, and which sometimes even leads to such excesses as bird’s nesting’.
The search for nests took me to a range of habitats – gardens and hedgerows, woodlands, riverbanks, moorland. But one location quickly came to dominate – the cliffs of Looe Island, once the home of two extraordinary ladies, the Atkins sisters, but thanks to their foresight, now the property of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, and a flourishing nature reserve. In 2013 I was invited to visit the island regularly to monitor the progress of its seabird colonies, starting with the Cormorants, but soon including other island species – Shag, Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Fulmar, and above all a special shorebird, the Oystercatcher. For seven years I regularly sat on its cliffs and beaches with camera and binoculars and filled out nest recording cards to send to the BTO. But in 2020 this activity came to a halt because of the pandemic, resuming in 2021 on a more limited scale.
So in 2022 the coming of spring was eagerly anticipated, as the Island was again open to visitors on organised trips. Weather conditions made access difficult in February and March, but in April, May and early June – the crucial period – I managed a total of eight visits. This is a diary of my experiences of springtime on the ‘bird island’ that I see on the horizon every morning.
April 16th. My first springtime visit of 2022 comes courtesy of the Looe Island Seal Surveys, which have been running monthly since 2009. These trips, organised by the Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust, involve landing a group of volunteers on Looe Island in the early morning at high tide. The team stays all day to count the Grey Seals seen swimming close to shore or hauled out at low tide on the rocks of the Outer Ranneys. Bird counts are an integral part of the surveys. Today the weather is misty, and this makes seeing distant seals difficult.
The breeding season of one seabird is already in full swing. Cormorant nests are arrayed on a steep cliff on the southern side of the Island close to the bird hide, and there is a busy traffic of adults bringing food from sea to cliff. Almost all the nests have chicks, some of them already large. Some nests had eggs in January! I take some photos which will enable me to make a more detailed count on the computer screen. There are at least 30 nests. There are also Great Black-backed Gulls in the vicinity. They will be hoping to steal food, or worse.
Large numbers of Herring Gulls are congregating on other cliffs and beginning to take up nesting sites.
As the bird count continues, we move around to the west side of the island, where there are bigger cliffs and some deep coves. High Cove is the largest, and here we find a smaller group of Cormorants, which appears to have nested later. One nest still has eggs. There are several occupied Shag nests.
But the most exciting find is the massive Raven’s nest, on a ledge high up the cliff. The nest structure has been renewed since 2021, when a pair successfully raised a brood for the first time, and four large chicks are in occupation. Ravens are also early nesters. The birds are quiet, but they look close to fledging.
The presence of Ravens is a reminder that the Island is not just home to seabirds, and later in the day as we watch for seals on the north side of the Island, I have another reminder of this. There is a commotion in the undergrowth and a Mallard duck emerges, shepherding a creche of 14 ducklings.
They may be the amalgam of two broods. She appears to be intent on taking them from the safety of the woodland where they have been born down to the beach, a much more hazardous environment for young flightless birds. It does not bode well for them!
24th April. A week has passed, and I have returned for a second briefer visit. I am hoping not just to find seabird nests but to see migrants moving north. On the rocky shore I locate two favourite waders, Whimbrel and Bar-tailed Godwits (affectionately known by birders as ‘Barwits’).
These are regulars at this time of year, and still have a long way to travel. Iceland is a likely destination for the Whimbrel. At this time of year Barwit plumage is in transition from winter to breeding season. A gorgeous male appears on the main beach, arrayed in its rufous summer livery.
I approach the Raven’s nest, expecting it to be empty, but the four chicks are still there. They are huge!
They are surprisingly quiet. I listen for the deep, distinctive, ‘kronk’ of a parent but fail to hear it.
Ravens are the largest and among the most intelligent species of ‘passerine’ or perching bird. In the past they were often treated as ‘vermin’ and persecuted, but their numbers are now recovering. In medieval England the Ravens were seen as useful scavengers of carrion in cities like London but from the late sixteenth century onwards ravens were persecuted in Britain, hated by sheep farmers in the uplands for their alleged attacks on lambs, and wiped out by gamekeepers on lowland estates and grouse moors (along with crows) as vermin.
Legal protection only came in the modern era. Once widespread, the Raven was lost as a breeding species from many Midland and eastern counties in the nineteenth century. However, according to Roger Lovegrove in his book Silent Fields, in Cornwall there was a paucity of records of the killing of ravens in the centuries when it was persecuted elsewhere, and he speculates that this was because, according to local legend, King Arthur would return in the guise of a Raven, and that it was taboo to kill the bird in the county. The south-west peninsula remains the English stronghold of the Raven, though in the last thirty years it has successfully returned to a swathe of counties in Midland and southern England.
As I watch the young Ravens, I find the phrase “Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore’” coming into my head. This is from Edgar Allan Poe’s poem ‘The Raven’ that I first read as a child. I loved its rhythm and imagery. Poe’s poem was written in 1845, and describes his grief for Lenore, a dead lover. In that era the Raven was often seen as an omen of death. Poe describes the unexpected visitor who comes tapping at his window and enters his chamber both as ‘a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore’ and as ‘grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous’, a reminder of the ambivalent attitudes towards the species.
As I wander round the Island I encounter a passerine at the other end of the size range, the tiny Wren, and the one that proportionate to its size has the loudest song. It is a year-round resident and probably the island’s commonest passerine.
Ted Hughes described the Wren as ‘the burglar alarm of the undergrowth’. One briefly appears on a fence and pours out its song with machine-gun delivery. Looe Island is a relatively safe environment for Wrens, provided they stick to the woodland and the hedges, and singing males seem to be everywhere.
The Cormorant colony is still very busy, and I watch a parent give a demonstration of the way it feeds its young. It regurgitates partly digested fish, and the chick reaches deep into its throat to retrieve it!
28th April. A few days later I return to the island and find the Raven nest is empty. The chicks have fledged. On the edge of the wood, we encounter one youngster practising landing and take-off, while the parents are having a noisy fracas with two Carrion Crows, whose proximity is not appreciated. As we wait on the beach for the return boat, among the roosting Oystercatchers I spot a single much smaller wader, a Dunlin, easily identified by its black belly.
10th May. It is time to start a serious search for Oystercatcher nests. These are shallow scrapes or ‘scoops’ with minimal vegetation. The clutch of three eggs is well camouflaged, requiring intense observation to find them. Many of the nests are in the same place each year, and some pairs stay together for many years. I have an easy start; on the path up from the beach where we have landed warden Claire points out the single egg of an Oystercatcher. There is usually a nest here. On Jetty beach I can see parent birds sitting on their nests. In a couple of cases these are a short distance up the cliff, while others are on the upper part of the beach.
In total I locate seven nests. It’s a start. Elsewhere on the western cliffs I find more Shag nests, often tucked into crevices where it is impossible to discern the contents.
On the main beach there is a reminder that some birds have still not returned to their nesting grounds. Among the Oystercatchers there is now a flock of smaller waders. There are several Dunlin, but the majority are harder to identify, particularly with their heads tucked under their wings. They prove to be Sanderling in transition from winter to summer plumage.
These are rare visitors to Looe Island and are presumably en route from Africa to their breeding grounds in the high Arctic. Sanderling normally prefer sandy beaches where they feed with distinctive running action ahead of the breaking waves, but these are resting.
I make one other less happy discovery. I find two dead Great Black-backed Gulls at their nest site on a low shelf below a cliff.
There is no obvious cause and I report the news to the Island Wardens, Jon and Claire. Perhaps the birds are victims of avian flu, which would be bad news for the Island.
16th May. This is the day of the annual nest count, when a small team visits all parts of the Island (as described in my June 2021 blog). This year there are four of us: I am joined by Bruce, and by Dave and Drew, who do most of the clambering over the rocky shore. The Great Black-backed Gulls nest in two areas in grass and sea-beet; here we form a chain to walk systematically through the colonies taking great care to avoid treading on the nests, which are sometimes partially concealed. It soon becomes clear that this is a bumper year for Herring Gulls. Nests are profusely scattered around the cliffs on the eastern side of the Island, most with 3 eggs.
We find our first Herring Gull chicks of the year. The total number of nests reaches 128, the highest number since these counts began 20 years ago.
The number of Great Black-backed Gull nests is 71, a few less than in 2021.
The eggs of these massive birds are larger, and I find one nest with a strange, unpatterned, egg.
On Little Island on the edge of the Black-back colony we find two Oystercatcher nests, one extraordinarily close to a gull nest – a potentially risky choice of site.
Thankfully our survey finds no more unexplained Black-back corpses. We learn later that those I found had been tested for avian flu by DEFRA, and the results were negative. Good news, but the cause of the deaths remains a mystery.
The Oystercatcher nest on the path from the main beach now has three eggs. More Oystercatcher nests are located, all with three or two eggs, though we fail to find a nest in a couple of territories. The total is now 16. To my surprise I catch a glimpse of a chick with adults on Jetty Beach. The nest a short way up the cliff shown in an earlier picture proves to be an extraordinary construction when examined close-up. It is not just a shallow scrape, but fragments of stone have been arranged fastidiously into a wonderful pattern.
On the main beach we have a delightful encounter with a small flock of Turnstones, late in departing north. These are in full breeding plumage, and I now understand why the full name for this species is Ruddy Turnstone!
They are doing what Turnstones do, neatly summed up by Cornish poet, Charles Causley:
Turnstone, tangle picker,
Sifting the ocean,
Wading the water,
Tipping the stone.
They are rummaging in the tangle of seaweed, which provides good camouflage. They turn to face us and sit and rest, briefly merging into the background. They have a long journey ahead of them to breeding grounds in Greenland or Canada.
With our survey complete, we have time to scan for other sightings. To the south of the Island, Bruce spots a stream of Gannets travelling west.
He soon counts close to a hundred birds. Where do these birds come from? The answer is probably Brittany. Gannets nest in huge, widely spaced, colonies, each of which appears to have its own fishing grounds. There are no colonies in Southwest England. According to Adam Nicolson in The Seabird’s Cry, each colony develops a fishing pattern and a way of life and geography unique to that gathering of Gannets.
18th May. It is time for another Seal Survey. We find Whimbrel and Turnstones are still on the main beach, and a few Gannets are fishing off the eastern side of the Island. After each spectacular dive the bird rests briefly on the water.
A strong south-westerly wind is beating up the Channel, and the exposed rocks of the Outer Ranneys are taking a bashing. Grey Seals have hauled out above the breaking waves at low tide, and we count at least seven. Plenty of photos using zoom lenses will provide opportunities to identify individual seals.
Warden Claire tells me that the Oystercatcher nest on the path from the main beach has been predated, though one egg is found a few feet away from it. What is going on? She also brings news of another unusual nest on the Island. Jackdaws are nesting in the chimney of Island House, perhaps for the first time. The Jackdaw is a very common bird in Looe, with numerous pairs nesting in the buildings of the town, and on cliffs near Plaidy, but I have never seen one on Looe Island until 2022. Islands have a distinct biogeography. What has deterred this species from crossing the short stretch of water that separates the Island from the mainland?
Jackdaw is not the only common species of British breeding bird that is hardly ever seen on Looe Island. In more than 200 visits I have never seen a Blue Tit. And there are summer visitors that I have never seen here, even on passage. On the 5th of May, I found Bodmin Moor alive with Wheatears and Cuckoos, which must have crossed the south coast on their journeys from Africa. Wheatears regularly appear in spring on their way north, but I have never seen a Cuckoo in Looe or on Looe Island.
25th May. On this visit I find another Oystercatcher nest with one egg near the flagpole, number 17. The Cormorant colony by the bird hide is now considerably depleted. Many birds have flown. Yet another of the Island’s seabirds, the Fulmar, has barely started and young Fulmars will not fledge until August. Birds are still courting and competing for nest sites.
6th June. Spring is merging into summer. Most migrants have departed, though a couple of Whimbrel fly off as we land on the main beach. Here the Oystercatchers continue to mystify me. A new nest with two eggs is parked on the open beach with minimal preparation of the site and the wardens have had to rope it off to preserve it from the feet of visitors.
Hopefully it is just far enough up the beach to survive a particularly high tide. Perhaps this is a second attempt by the pair whose nest by the path was predated? But there is another new nest (number 19) further up the path, in a small pile of wood – whose is this?!
I spend some time checking the Shag nests in the coves on the western side of the island. Some have quite large young, but they have reached this stage much later than the Cormorants. I find a new nest with three lively chicks, in an open position on the cliff. How have I overlooked it?
I find my first Great Black-backed Gull chicks of the year. These tend to stay in the vicinity of their nest, often hiding in the shelter of rocks.
There is no sign of the departed Ravens, but warden Jon reports that a very healthy-looking family of six visited the island yesterday!
In the wood I meet another Mallard duck, with another creche of very young ducklings. On the beach by the jetty, I am delighted to see a new Oystercatcher family, with two adults keeping a watchful eye on two chicks, as they explore their environment. The chicks are flightless and vulnerable, and like the ducklings will do well to survive the next few weeks. Their battle for survival is just beginning, amid Looe Island’s crescendo of new life.
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