Looe Island is the most important breeding area for seabirds in South East Cornwall, while the Looe river valleys are also a key site for breeding herons and egrets. In winter the Voluntary Marine Conservation Area is an important haven for many water birds from more northerly climes.
Looe’s signature bird is the noisy herring gull, which nests on roofs in the town and scavenges food from tourists, but there is a substantial colony on Looe Island too. The island is also home to a large colony of great black-backed gulls (the world’s largest gull), this is one of its key breeding sites in SW England. Two other colonial breeders have their main site on the island – the cormorant and shag. Both birds can be seen throughout the year fishing in the bay and estuary. The fulmar‚ a graceful flier related to the albatross‚ is a fifth breeding seabird, with a few nests on the island and on the mainland at Plaidy. Gannets do not breed here but are frequently seen feeding offshore.
One of the most delightful year-round residents in the Voluntary Marine Conservation Area (VMCA) is the oyster-catcher: its red beak and pied plumage make it conspicuous. Other waders can be seen in spring and autumn, particularly whimbrel and common sandpipers. In winter almost anything can turn up, especially on the foreshore at Hannafore. Curlews, turnstones and ringed plovers are regulars, plus sometimes a small number of brent geese.
In the channel between Hannafore and the island the sheltered water attracts diving birds, especially Slavonian grebes and great northern divers. Herons, egrets and even kingfishers visit the rock pools at low tide, and the strandline is a magnet to crows, wagtails and pipits.
The estuary in autumn and winter is home to hundreds of gulls‚ especially herring, great black-backed and black-headed. Canada geese congregate in large numbers in the autumn. Redshanks and curlews are the most common waders on the mud in winter.
There has been a breeding colony of herons in the West Looe valley for many years, and in the last decade they have been joined by little egrets. Other breeding waterbirds in the estuary include shelduck, mallard, Canada goose, mute swan and kingfisher, while a new resident in 2010 is the Egyptian goose.
Since December 2008 the Cornwall Seal Group has been undertaking bird counts on its monthly visits to Looe Island, and has recorded 51 different species, including of course many land birds like chaffinch, robin and blackbird. Perhaps the most exciting record was the five purple sandpipers that appeared in February 2010; this species has become very rare in the VMCA in recent years. The biggest oddity has been the lone eider which appears to have taken up residence in Looe and has been seen on several occasions. Total numbers of birds on these counts peaked in the autumn, when very large numbers of gulls, especially herring, were recorded.
To become and volunteer and take part in these surveys, please contact us using the online form.