In mid-May my daily exercise walk shifted. I forsook the cliff path and the beach: the spring migration was mostly over. I decided it was time to return to the estuary, and follow the fortunes of its resident breeding birds. I had spotted a Shelduck pair on the river in March and I was keen to discover whether they had stayed to breed.
The Looe estuary is relatively small, but parts of it are not easy to access. It has two arms – the West and the East Looe rivers – so most days I focused on one or the other. The estuary is fringed by woodlands, many of them ancient, and in spring is enchantingly beautiful.
Estuaries are extraordinary places, and in the UK as close as you can find to true wilderness. The rhythms of the tides and the mixing of salt and fresh water produce conditions that potentially support a rich avifauna, with many specialist species. And there are some seriously large birds!
14th May, 8 am.
As my car turns the corner of the country lane to run parallel with the river, I am astonished to see a pair of adult Shelduck walking ahead of me in the middle of the road, followed by ten tiny black and white ducklings! I have not arrived at a good time. The Shelduck take to the wing, the ducklings turn to face me.
I pull in to the side of the road. The ducklings head for the river bank and to my relief drop into the river. The adults are flying above them highly agitated, calling to them. They land on the far bank. They want the ducklings to head downstream, but there is a problem. A solitary Mute Swan is parked in the middle of the river, and is behaving aggressively, patrolling its territory. The ducklings, which have not been hatched from the eggs for more than a few hours, and have never before swum or seen a river or a swan, turn upstream. Then they see a parent landed on the far bank, and begin to scramble out of the water. They straggle into the long grass and disappear from sight.
Shelduck are ‘precocial’; their young hatch from the egg covered in short dense down, their eyes are open, and they are on the move as soon as they are dry. They can swim, but it will be several weeks before they can fly. The adults lead them down to the river more or less straight away. The nest is usually in a burrow or other cavity, and may be several hundred metres from the river. In a wooded area like this they are very hard to find.
15th May, 8am.
I return to the same spot and comb up and down river with my binoculars. There are no adult Shelduck to be seen, let alone ducklings. Shelduck are big and apparently conspicuous birds, but these have vanished.
The tide is low and I console myself by watching a Grey Wagtail on the mud. It is feeding a solitary youngster. Grey Wagtails are somewhat confusingly named; the noticeable colour that you see is yellow, and some people mistakenly think they are Yellow Wagtails. ‘Wagtail’ certainly fits the bill, this is the member of the family that wags its tail most outrageously. The tail is very long, and the legs are very short. Grey Wagtails are usually associated with fast-running streams, although they may winter on the estuary or on the beach. But in Looe they also breed on the estuary, sometimes on small side streams, but also on buildings. As I watch the feeding chick I wonder where the rest of the brood are. They have probably been predated, the fate of so many young birds.
Across the river I spot a Roe Deer feeding under the cover of some overhanging trees. It has not seen me. It sits down in the long grass. They are beautiful animals. Some compensation for my failure to find the Shelduck family.
16th May, 8 am.
I am in another part of the estuary, looking for Mute Swans. The UK’s largest resident bird prefers fresh water to salt, but will feed in brackish water, primarily on submerged vegetation. There are several pairs on the estuary. I have been watching a nest, a massive structure built in the reeds at Steppes Pond, but the pair seem to have lost interest in it. However I have been tipped-off that the same pair built a second nest out of sight nearby, and a few days ago hatched six cygnets! Earlier this morning the adults took the cygnets across the road on to the estuary, a potentially hazardous business. The new family should be somewhere on the river.
It does not take long to find them. The tide is out and they are on the mud on the edge of the channel. The grey cygnets are sat clustered together, with both adults. Mute Swans pair for life and are most attentive parents. I sit down at a distance to watch. There are other species to relish here – overhead I see the scimitar shapes of Swifts – my first sightings this year. Swallows and House Martins are collecting mud from the banks exposed by the low tide.
After a while the swan family enters the water and drifts up river. The cygnets stay close to the parents. They appear to be learning to feed.
Swans are highly territorial in the breeding season and as they move upstream, another bird swims into view. The cob (the male bird) immediately takes off, flapping those huge wings, and assails the intruder, who beats a swift retreat. Ever since my childhood I have been advised about the strength of these birds’ wings, which can (allegedly) break your arm, or drown a swimming dog.
A flash of electric blue and I am distracted by a much smaller bird flying low across the water. After a while I locate it. It is perched. A male Kingfisher! It has caught a small fish. Then a second bird appears briefly, a female. You can tell the difference by the colour of the lower mandible. It is a pair! Hopefully they are breeding nearby……
Kingfishers are often seen in the estuary in winter, but move up river to breed. They may nevertheless be nesting in the bank of the estuary, though this is potentially risky, because of tidal variability. But there are also potential sites in side streams, which are less likely to be flooded.
20th May, 8 am.
I am at Terras Bridge on the East Looe river and can see the swan family further upstream. They are out on the mud. I am struck by how tiny the cygnets are compared to their parents.
They dutifully follow an adult out on to the water single file. The cygnets will not be able to fly until they are 13 weeks old. It is a long and hazardous apprenticeship for life. By that time they will be nearly as big as their parents. They will take three years to reach breeding age.
Further upstream Canada Geese are prominent on the salt marsh, and are trumpeting warnings. They are most vigilant birds. I wait patiently and before long a family of four goslings appear, shepherded by a couple of adults. These are perhaps two weeks old already.
Then two more goslings appear. These are smaller and younger, and an attractive yellow colour. A single adult is stationed prominently to watch out for danger. Overhead there is a clamour from more arriving geese, and a dozen or more join the party. These are probably non-breeding birds.
The Canada Goose may be the most numerous species of goose in the world. It was originally introduced to the royal waterfowl collection in the seventeenth century, and in the late nineteenth century escaped birds led the wild population in the UK to escalate in numbers. There has been a further big growth in numbers in recent decades. The breeding population in the UK has increased by more than 70% since 1995. Canadas are often unpopular with farmers because of the damage they do to crops. In Cornwall they are easily the most numerous goose species present in both summer and winter, and I love to see them.
Among the geese I see a pair of Shelduck, and later I spot another pair further downstream. These birds do not have ducklings and may be non-breeders. But it is time to search again for that family on another part of the estuary.
23rd May, 8 am.
It is more than a week since my encounter with the Shelduck family. I return to where I last saw them. I scan the emerging mud downstream, and then suddenly I see the two adults, but sadly now with just five ducklings. The parents have chosen a secluded reach of the estuary to shelter in.
They are feeding in the very shallow water, presumably on snails, worms and tiny crustaceans. The adults feed with a scything movement of their extended necks, sieving the surface of the mud. The mud snail Hydrobia ulvae comprises a major part of their diet. The ducklings are feeding in their own fashion, submerging their heads in the water.
From time to time the adults issue a warning call to them to stay close, especially if any bird flies above them. A loud ‘ak-ak-ak’. It sounds more like a slow machine gun than a duck. Crows and gulls are dangerous, but the biggest threat is probably the Grey Heron.
This is a formidable predator and often takes ducklings and rodents as well as fish. Mallard ducklings are particularly vulnerable. Earlier in the spring a Grey Heron was regularly visiting Steppes Pond and most of its Mallard ducklings disappeared, with the low water levels making it easy for the long-legged wading bird. But while I am watching, the Shelduck ducklings keep out of harm’s way. In deeper water they have the ability to dive to escape predation. Foxes are another danger, and they of course can swim.
There are other mysteries on this stretch of the river. A pair of Mute Swans had been nesting in a secluded patch of reeds, but the pen (female) has left the nest and there are no cygnets to be seen. Were the eggs predated? It appears that although there are at least five pairs of Mute Swans on the estuary, only one has bred successfully this year. Rather worrying.
28th May, 8am.
Time to check again on the cygnets. I find them at Terras Bridge. I count them carefully, and have a moment of panic, there are only five! But then I realise that the sixth is riding on the back of the pen. I have not seen this behaviour before and it makes an endearing spectacle. What determines which cygnet gets the ride? Is this the weakest of the six, or do they all take it in turns? Another mystery to ponder!
29th May, 8 am.
I search again for the Shelduck family. I cannot find them initially, but then I hear the ak-ak-ak warning call. There are still five ducklings!
They are now more than two weeks old and have certainly grown. But they still have a long time to go before they fledge, perhaps five more weeks…..I cross my fingers. Four days later, on 2nd June, there are still five.
4th June, midday.
Excitement as I receive a report of an injured Kingfisher, stunned by collision with the window of a house close to the river! I rush to the scene. The Kingfisher is sitting in a cardboard box, looking a little sorry for itself, but thankfully it has recovered. The black feet tell me it is a young bird. Adult have pink feet. There has been a nest somewhere on the river! I take some photographs, and the bird suddenly flies straight as an arrow back into the wild.
6th June, 8 am.
I am catching up with the Mute Swan family and the Canada Geese. The latter appear to have moved into the salt marsh upstream. I can hear them but I can’t see them. I have not seen the swan family for a few days and am beginning to worry. But then I glimpse the long necks of the parent pair. They are hauled out on the bank. The cygnets are next to them, huddled sleepily together in the cold morning air. There are still six.
12th June, 8 am.
Sadly my story does not have such a happy ending. It is almost a week since I last visited the estuary, and I at length locate the swan family. I am shocked to find that there are now only three cygnets! I can only speculate on what has happened to the missing three. So many young birds are casualties in the first few weeks. Predation is a possibility, with foxes the most likely culprits, and a weak or ailing bird could fall victim to corvids. Pollution and lead poisoning is also a risk. Perhaps there has been some sort of accident, or they have simply not fed well enough. Nurturing a brood of youngsters is a marathon endeavour for large waterfowl. This story is a stark reminder of the difficulties that wild birds endure in raising a family, the trials of sustaining new life.