January 28th. Ping! An email message has dropped into my inbox from Claire Lewis, resident warden on Looe Island. She has seen the first Cormorant’s egg of the year! The seabird nesting season has begun!
Cormorants are truly early birds and on Looe Island many start nesting in January. They may be the earliest nesting Cormorants in the UK. They are usually a month ahead of North Cornwall. My British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Field Guide to Monitoring Nests gives March as the start of the egg-laying period.
Probably the first time I thought about the nesting habits of Cormorants was many years ago when I read Christopher Isherwood’s poem. The author of Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin (the inspiration for the musical Cabaret) wrote a short piece of doggerel which starts ‘The common cormorant (or shag)/ Lays eggs inside a paper bag/ You follow the idea no doubt?/ It’s to keep the lightning out.’ These are among Isherwood’s most quoted lines, memorised by many children, and one of only three entries against his name in The Oxford Book of Modern Quotations. The poem may have helped perpetuate the misconception that Cormorants and Shags are the same: I’ll return to that a little later!
From 2013 to 2019 I spent many hours on Looe Island as a volunteer nest recorder, collecting records for the Cornwall Wildlife Trust who own and run the Nature Reserve, and for the British Trust for Ornithology which collects data from volunteers scattered across the country. Initially the Cormorants were my main focus. The island is home to one of the two biggest Cormorant colonies in Cornwall (the other is on Mullion Island), usually with 40 plus nests. Each spring I waited with increasing impatience for the chance to start the survey, with access to the island sometimes difficult because of weather and sea conditions. But of course in 2020 I waited in vain. The lockdown in March meant that the island was closed to visitors, and by the time it re-opened the nesting season for early birds like the Cormorants was more or less over.
For a novice nest recorder, counting Cormorant nests was ideal. The birds build big bulky nests on the open cliffs ( with no paper bags in sight!). All I needed was a vantage point where I could sit and photograph the colony. On my photos I could number the nests, and then check their progress on my weekly visits.
The birds sit on their large white eggs for a month, and when the chicks hatch they are ‘altricial’ – naked, blind and helpless, and need to be nurtured for weeks by both parents. The feeding of the youngsters in the nest lasts seven weeks, and the young birds stay in the vicinity of the nest to be fed for several more weeks. By the end of this period the nests are trampled flat and the site of the colony reeks of guano!
Cormorants are hardly beautiful – one naturalist described them as resembling a cross between a goose and a vulture! There is something prehistoric, almost reptilian, about their appearance. On land they are clumsy. But over the years of surveys I have become quite addicted to them.
I found that the precise location of the colony shifted from year to year – the nests had to be rebuilt from scratch – but the most favoured area was on the steep cliffs in High Cove, on the south-west side of the island. In 2015 however I had a shock. The cove was deserted. The cause was competition from another large black bird. Ravens had built a huge nest on a ledge at the top of the cove, and the Cormorants had moved elsewhere!
Ravens and Cormorants until the sixteenth century were thought to be related; the name cormorant appears to be a corruption of corvus marinus meaning sea raven. In fact the Ravens did not stay, and moved on. In subsequent years Cormorants returned to the cove, and the old Raven nest was taken over by a pair of Shags, the Cormorant’s smaller relatives. There is a small colony of Shags on Looe Island and they nest in much less accessible sites. They breed widely along the coasts of Cornwall, but the species has declined in the UK and is now Red-listed.
Much as I wish I was on Looe Island counting Cormorants and Shags, the reality in 2021 is that we are in another lockdown, and are exhorted to stay at home. The island remains closed. I need to look for other opportunities to interact with the natural world. On my daily exercise walk I regularly visit the rocky shore or the estuary close to home.
6th February. The tide is coming in and I head for Looe’s Second Beach. Access to the beach is restricted by the tide and it is well populated with roosting birds. Just off shore the rocks of the Limmicks are partly exposed, and here there is an impressive assembly, with plenty of Herring Gulls, but also several Eiders, including some adult males in full piebald breeding plumage, a as well as a handsome Grey Heron. There is a large flock of wintering waders – mainly Oystercatchers and Curlews.
But when a few of the Curlews lift into the air I notice that there is a smaller wader with them, and one that lacks their striking down-curved bill. When the birds settle again on the rocks I manage to find it, and my photograph tells me that it is a Bar-tailed Godwit in winter plumage. Its bill is slightly upturned.
Small numbers of these birds winter in Cornwall, and probably come from sub-Arctic Fenno-Scandinavia or Russia. The waders are wary, and the air is pierced by their mournful cries. The Curlew lift off again; a few disperse in the direction of Rame Head across the bay, providing a striking image.
15th February. Today it is the turn of the estuary as I carry out the monthly count of water-birds for the BTO. On the East Looe river the flock of wintering Redshank is satisfyingly in the usual place, but at Terras Bridge I find a much scarcer relative, a solitary Greenshank. This species breed in the bogs and moors of Highland Scotland and the Hebrides, and on average about 60 winter in Cornwall.
Its legs are characteristically greenish-yellow, and its bill bluish-grey. This is the third consecutive winter when I have seen this graceful species here. Is it the same bird? This would seem likely, but why is it alone? The species is generally much less sociable than its red-legged cousin. It obligingly provides a photo with a Redshank. A perfect illustration of why these birds are called waders.
Down river, banks of mud are emerging as the tide drops, and gulls are gathering. Among them is a Cormorant, in its striking breeding plumage, with a prominent white thigh patch; its head is streaked too with white plumes. Fishermen used to describe the white patch as ‘having a watch under his wing’. Another Cormorant is swimming in the river.
I also spot a Shag. Many people have difficulty distinguishing the Great Cormorant (to use its full name) from its cousin the Shag, and spring is the time when the differences are most obvious. Shags are smaller and slenderer, black with a dark green sheen, and lack white markings. In spring they display prominent crests, as shown in this photo of a group on Looe Island.
But even without the crest the head shape is different – the Shag has a steep forehead, while the Cormorant’s head has a flat profile, as you can see in the next photo, taken on Hannafore.
There are other clues to aid identification. Both species fish by diving from the surface of the water, but the Shag tends to jump clear before plunging. Both species come into the Looe river to fish, but Shags rarely go up river beyond the Millpool carpark. The Shag is a much more maritime species, feeding especially on sand eels. Cormorants may fly far up river to feed, and are also found on lakes and reservoirs (there are several large inland colonies); as a result they are very unpopular with anglers.
But there is another early bird that I am looking for. My count takes me past Trenant Woods, home for over 170 years to a small colony of Grey Herons. The eminent Cornish naturalist, Dr Jonathan Couch of Polperro, was aware of it in the late 1840s. The precise location of the heronry within the Woods has varied. Herons generally build large nests in tall trees close to water and the valley oakwoods of south Cornwall’s estuaries provide the ideal combination for them. Cornwall currently has 13 heronries, and many of them are on the tidal creeks along the south coast. The Trenant colony is the only one on the Looe river system – its nearest neighbours are on the Lynher and Fowey estuaries. By national standards these heronries are relatively small; Trenant consistently has about a dozen heron nests. Compare this with Northward Hill in Kent which in 2015 had 250 nests!
Herons nest early. As I scan the trees across the river from the Millpool car park I can see the bulky shapes of nests in the usual favoured tree (a sweet chestnut). I count three nests with birds present, and the nests look complete. In another tree, building has started.
Further upstream I find more heron activity spread across several trees. Birds are scattered in the leafless branches, some apparently collecting twigs or prospecting sites. This is the best time to count the nests, before the trees come into leaf, but the mass of uniformly coloured branches still makes it difficult, even with binoculars. Close to some of the sites there has been a tree fall with huge branches deposited in the water.
From time to time a heron flies into its nest, reminding me of the size of their wings; as Alice Oswald put it in her lovely poem ‘Dart’, about the South Devon river: ‘I knew a heron once, when it got up/Its wings were the width of the river/I saw it eat an eel alive’. There is a reminder here too that the Grey Heron is a formidable predator, ‘a knife on stilts’ as nature writer Paul Evans put it.
As I turn for home I hear the reverberations of a distant drummer. A line from Housman is triggered in my brain: ‘Far I hear the steady drummer/ Drumming like a noise in dreams’. I doubt though if Housman was thinking of a Great Spotted Woodpecker! I had seen one here a few days earlier. The drumming is the woodpecker’s song – signalling that it is defending a territory, and attempting to attract a mate.
2nd March. I take a break from the river and pay a visit to the rocky shore at Hannafore at high tide. At the western end at Wallace Quay I can see roosting Oystercatchers and Curlews on the beach, but my eye is caught by something much smaller. It is a very active and relatively tame Chiffchaff, hunting for insects. Another early bird.
Chiffchaffs are usually among the first summer visitors to arrive, but many birds now overwinter. I have seen them on this sheltered coast several times already this year. As I watch this delightful little bird flitting from bush to boulder, I hear the tell-tale repetitive chiff-chaff song coming from another bird in the trees behind the beach. Spring is definitely on the way.
4th March. Another visit to Second Beach. The Eiders are still there, close to shore. Nearby stands a Mediterranean Gull, with the black head of its summer plumage. These birds are regular winter visitors to Looe. Confusingly it poses for a picture with a Black-headed Gull, which is still in winter plumage and therefore lacks a black head.
10th March. Ping! Another message from Claire; there is a Raven at the old nest site on the island! Ravens are another early nesting species, with eggs often laid in February. Ravens were once heavily persecuted, but their numbers are recovering. It is the world’s largest species of passerine or perching bird, and sometimes also described as the most intelligent. Their croak is unmistakeable and I often hear that distinctive ‘kronk, kronk!’ as they fly over Looe. Occasionally I encounter them on the cliffs less than a mile from home, where I took the next picture a few years ago. They sometimes nest too in Kilminorth Woods in the West Looe valley.
14th March. A month has passed and I set off again on my Wetlands Bird Survey of the Looe river, keen to check the progress in the heronry. On the East Looe river, where the tide is dropping fast, I find there has been a small influx of Shelduck. There are seven handsome birds out on the mud and in the shallow water, and it is plain that they are establishing pairs.
Males (which have a large knob on their bills) are behaving aggressively; there is wing-flapping, lunging, chasing. Hopefully some pairs will stay and nest. Redshank and Curlew numbers are diminished, but I have a lovely, close encounter with a Redshank. As it walks away from my vantage point it creates a line of wader footprints in the mud.
When I reach the Millpool car park and look across the river at Trenant Woods I can see that there are still three nests in clear view. In each of them there is the low profile of a sitting bird, suggesting that they are incubating eggs. Further upstream new nests have appeared. After prolonged study of one nest with my binoculars I see in brief glimpses that it has two chicks. Early birds indeed. Heron chicks are semi-altricial, with soft down as well as some bare skin, and a shock-headed crown.
In the river below the nests another member of the heron family, a Little Egret, is fishing. This species is now well established as a breeding bird in Britain, having first nested in Dorset in 1996. Egrets are not early birds and nest later in the spring than their larger relative. But that may be a story for another day….
My blogs focus upon the birdlife of the area of sea coast and estuary around Looe. The first appeared in February 2020. They draw upon my experiences bird-watching in this area over many years, but with an emphasis upon the current. There were 8 blogs in 2020, and this is the first in 2021. All can be accessed on the Looe MCG website at http://looemarineconservation.org/