For at least six weeks now, during lockdown, my day has started in much the same way. 7.00 am: a cup of tea at the kitchen window. I listen to the male Blackbird that is broadcasting his gorgeous leisurely song from a roof somewhere in the vicinity.
Blackbird, the herald of the morn
I check on the progress of the Collared Doves that have been nesting in the monkey-puzzle tree in my neighbour’s garden. The female sat on the nest for a couple of weeks but then the attempt was abandoned. Perhaps the eggs had been predated by the neighbourhood crows? Now the birds appear to be trying again in a different tree, a magnificent horse chestnut in full flower. Collared Doves did not breed in England until the 1950s. Their song is rather monotonous but they are graceful birds.
Having satisfied my curiosity about the doves, I set off on my exercise walk. Within an hour I can walk to Plaidy beach and along the coast path into Looe, or across the Wooldown, with frequently a walk on Looe’s Second Beach thrown in. The best time is early morning, when there are few people about, and I am usually home around 9 o’clock. I have recently done this walk more than 30 times! The area is familiar, part of my ornithological ‘home patch’. For many years I walked our Spinone, Scully, along these paths. She loved visiting the beach and swimming in the sea.
Doing the same walk repeatedly is an interesting exercise, because I have developed ‘informed expectations’ of what I may see, and there is great satisfaction in locating the expected birds. But of course I am sometimes surprised, and no two walks are ever exactly the same. In a marine setting there will always be changes of the tide, winds and weather to make each walk a unique experience.
I am not just looking out for birds. There is always the possibility of a mammal in the early morning. As I am often the first person to have trod the sand on the beach there are undisturbed footprints. Most mornings there are no human footprints on the sand but a lot of mammal prints which suggest dog or Red Fox. As I hardly ever see dogs on their own these days I am inclined to think it is a fox that has preceded me. But I never see him.
I do however at last see a Grey Seal. It is ‘bottling’ briefly close to the beach but then swims purposefully into deeper water. I do not immediately recognize it as one of the familiar Looe Island regulars, but hopefully the Looe Seal Hub team will be able to identify it.
In my last blog I speculated on the likely departure of some of the shore birds, and anticipated the arrival of passage visitors. The flock of Oystercatchers halved in numbers during April, as I expected. I remain addicted to them and can’t resist another photograph. They are such handsome birds and one of the few waders species it is impossible to confuse with anything else!
Turnstones disappeared on 13th April, but to my surprise a small flock re-appeared on the 24th! However there was a difference – they were now accompanied by another, smaller, wader, a Dunlin. This attractive little individual was beginning to show the black belly it sports in summer, and I found its behaviour engaging. It is often difficult to get close to waders, but Turnstones are an exception and I was able to photograph the Dunlin from less than ten metres.
Like Turnstone, Dunlin is a winter visitor to Cornwall. How long will this individual hang out with the Turnstones before re-joining other Dunlins? This is another species which breeds in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, with a relatively small breeding population in upland Britain.
To my surprise, some of the Eiders have lingered. By the beginning of April the adult males were gone, but a small number of juvenile birds appeared irregularly until the end of the month. There were sightings too of another winter visitor, a Great Northern Diver.
On the 19th April I heard the seven-whistle call of the Whimbrel that I had been hoping for, and that I wrote about a month ago. A solitary bird was on the beach, clearly showing that stripy brown head.
Two days later I saw three of these lovely waders on the East Looe river, and then on 22nd April there were three on the beach. By the 26th the flock had built up to a dozen and as I approached the beach I heard those tittering calls of the ‘Seven Whistlers’, long before I saw them.
Early in April strong south-easterlies brought wilder seas and a flock of terns. These graceful fork-tailed birds do not stay in South-east Cornwall, but pass through on their long migrations. Off shore they were hovering and then diving into the waves for fish. Identifying terns isn’t easy in these conditions, especially if you are looking into the sun and cannot see the colour of their bills. I was hoping to see a ‘Commic’ Tern (Common or Arctic) with a red bill, but was unable to confirm it. Arctic terns undertake probably the longest annual migrations each year of any bird species – from Antarctic to Arctic (and back).
A day later at low tide I could see terns resting on the rocks offshore among the gulls and Oystercatchers. Their shape was different from their neighbours and they had shorter legs. These birds had dark bills with yellow tips, a crucial identifying feature. This plus the shaggy punk hair-dos confirmed that they were Sandwich Terns, the largest breeding tern species in the UK. Another day there was a bigger flock on Hannafore. Formerly Sandwich Terns bred in the Isles of Scilly, but now the nearest breeding colony is in South-east England.
Throughout recent weeks my walk has included repeated visits to a place that is less than a kilometre from home which provides an extraordinary window into the lives of a very special seabird, the Northern Fulmar. It is a small cove that you pass on Plaidy Lane on the walk down to the beach. I first walked down this lane over 50 years ago. I do not remember precisely when I first became aware of the special residents in the cove, and published records are hard to find. Fulmars only began breeding in Cornwall in the 1940s. There are small colonies at a number of locations within reach of Looe in Whitsand Bay, on Looe Island and along the coast path to Polperro, but the colony on Plaidy Lane is the only one visible close up from a road in an urban area! I doubt if there are any more accessible places for viewing Fulmars in southern Britain.
The cliff has long diagonal ledges in the Devonian slates, and from the road the nearest birds are less than thirty metres away. Many people who walk down Plaidy Lane and glance at the cliff may think that the grey and white birds that they see are gulls. They are not: they are Fulmars, members of the petrel family, and close relations of shearwaters and albatrosses.
Watch a Fulmar fly and you soon realise that it makes a gull look like an amateur. As you can see from these two great photos taken by Paul Lightfoot near Polperro, the Fulmar has stiffer straighter wings.
It uses its strong tail muscles to achieve an astonishing mastery of flight; it loves strong winds and stormy weather, gliding with short bursts of rapid wing-beats, and covering astonishing distances with little apparent effort. To me it is our mini-albatross.
Ever since I was a child I have wanted to see an albatross. It was the effect of Coleridge’s extraordinary poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the eponymous ‘hero’ shoots with his crossbow the great bird ‘of good omen’ that has been following his ship in the southern ocean, and brings disaster on it, arousing the wrath of his shipmates.
‘Ah, well a-day! What evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung’.
‘Albatross’ thus became a metaphor for an unwanted burden.
You are not likely to see an albatross in the North Atlantic, though a Black-browed Albatross did once spend several summers at a Gannet colony in Scotland. You need to visit the Pacific or the southern oceans. I did finally achieve my ambition on a trip to South Africa nearly twenty years ago, when from the promontory at Cape Agulhas I saw sweeping across the ocean a long way from land a Yellow-nosed Albatross. In truth it was not much more than a glimpse, and was a bit of an anti-climax. It has made me appreciate the more my experiences with Fulmars, though a Fulmar is only half the size of a Yellow-nosed Albatross. Fulmars have a wingspan of about 1.1 metres. The bird world’s largest wingspan is the Wandering Albatross’s 3.1 metres!
Of all the seabirds that breed along this coast, the Fulmar is the one that is most truly a bird of the ocean. You will not see a Fulmar flying up the Looe river to fish or nesting on a roof in Looe or Liskeard. They come ashore only to nest and spend much of their lives roaming far out at sea. Their appearance on the cliffs at Plaidy is like a visitation from another world, and it is always a privilege to see them.
Over the last month, Fulmars have frequently been on the cliff at Plaidy. Usually there are up to a dozen birds and in a good year six or seven pairs will breed. But this is a slow process. Since December the birds have been intermittently visiting the cove. You are more likely to see them on calm days. If it is windy they will be flying out over the ocean.
There is also a flock of Jackdaws which frequents the cove in the early months of the year. They also use it as a nesting site, but their nests are largely invisible. They disappear into smaller and deeper holes in the cliff, and it is impossible to know exactly what is going on. They appear to have an uneasy relationship with the Fulmars. They nest earlier than the Fulmars and will have left the site by mid-June.
Fulmars have several remarkable characteristics. From my vantage point in the lane I can see easily their dark eyes, and the ‘tube-nose’ structure above the bill in which two nostrils are enclosed, a feature they share with other petrels, albatrosses and shearwaters. These birds have a powerful sense of smell, which helps them in locating food supply (they feed mainly on zooplankton and on fish offal on the surface of the sea) and it may also help them to navigate their long journeys. The tubes also help them to expel salt.
Fulmars pair for life and that life can be a long one, sometimes over 40 years. In recent weeks the activity on the cliff has become more frantic as the courting or re-courting of partners intensified. I have found that there are certain sites on the ledges which are re-used each year, almost certainly by the same birds, though it is difficult to be sure as the birds all look much the same (the males are slightly bigger headed). The courtship is noisy, with a lot of clacking of their formidable bills. The Fulmars will come and go from the cliffs, before finally laying a single egg in May. They hardly build a nest, but use a scrape on a ledge or in a recess, sometimes overhung by vegetation.
For over 50 days both male and female will take turns at incubation and then the single chick will be nurtured and fed for two months before being abandoned. It will have to take the leap from the cliff face into the unknown alone, usually in late August. It may not then return to land for several years. Fulmars do not breed until they are at least six years old. While they are alone on the cliff young Fulmars could be vulnerable to predation, but they do have the ability to projectile vomit an oily, sticky, smelly liquid, which is a formidable deterrent to other birds. It is this behaviour which gave the bird its name Fulmar which in Old Norse means ‘Foul Gull’.
Modern technology is beginning to provide insights into their extraordinary journeys. GPS and geolocators attached to individuals from Scotland have shown that some journey hundreds, even thousands, of miles to feed between visits to their cliff, some flying out into the mid-Atlantic. The more I learn about Fulmars the more I am in awe of these grey and white visitors to a cliff on a Looe suburban street.
Fulmars are a very common bird in northerly latitudes, but until 1878 their only breeding colony in the British Isles was the remote archipelago of St Kilda, where Fulmars formed a staple part of the islanders’ diet. They then embarked on an extraordinary expansion around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, despite their relatively slow rate of reproduction (think one chick per year). The spread seems to have been based primarily upon the abundance of offal from first whaling and then fishing fleets in the north Atlantic. Now their numbers have begun to decline for obvious reasons, and they are also at risk from ingesting plastic floating on the surface of the sea.
The risks to seabirds from floating marine debris were demonstrated to me by an encounter on Plaidy beach a few days ago. The tide was high, and I noticed a bird close inshore that was splashing and preening excessively. When I focused my binoculars on it I realised that it was a Guillemot. This common auk species is not often seen here, and its nearest breeding sites are much further west. The bird kept standing up in the water and flapping its wings, twisting its head and preening frantically, and then submerging and splashing. I watched it for a while and took some photographs. When I looked at my photos on a computer screen I realised what was amiss. It was entangled in fishing line. Whether it was fatally compromised I do not know, but it did not look good.
I returned to the beach the next morning but it was not there.
If you want to read more about Fulmars, I recommend the classic monograph by James Fisher in the New Naturalist series, entitled simply The Fulmar, published in 1952. Much more recent is Adam Nicolson’s excellent The Seabird’s Cry (William Collins,2017).