13th April 2020 - Looe Island Nature Highlights

13th April 2020 - Looe Island Nature Highlights

Sunrise from top of island © Claire Lewis

I'm Claire, and Looe Island is my home all year round. I'm a nature warden on this extra-special nature reserve, owned by Cornwall Wildlife Trust, along with my partner Jon, some mischievous sheep and a few hens. And a lot of sea birds and marine animals, with Looe Island being particularly famous for our seals. Each week I’ll try to share some of the things we’ve seen, heard or smelt (!) on the island. Hopefully by following my blog you’ll get a sense of what it’s like on Looe Island Nature Reserve and when we open later this year, you might just want to come over on the ferry and visit!

It’s not everyday that you wake up to find a squid on your log pile, is it?

That’s what happened the other day.  Odd things have fallen from the sky before but this is our first squid.  It’s the gulls you see.  They grab a tasty morsel then the squabbling starts and before you know it they’ve dropped the prize from the skies.

The teeny weeny stuff

People keep getting in touch to ask about ‘signs of spring’ – well what about this:

Mating oil beetles on daisy (still from a video) © Claire Lewis

Mating oil beetles on daisy (still from a video) © Claire Lewis

Yes, that’s oil beetles mating on a daisy – ahhh, how romantic.

I think oil beetles are great, although in defence they can give off a horrible smelling liquid from… their knees, which I admit is a bit disturbing.  Putting that aside I think they are funny.  People have described them as looking like a fat man who is bursting out of his waist jacket and I get what they mean.  It’s their wing cases – they seem too small for their big bodies.  Their colour is great too – yes, I know they are ‘black’ but look closely and you can see a gorgeous metallic blue sheen.  Then there are the antennae – all segmented like a chain of shiny ebony beads.  However, the most fascinating thing about them is their life cycle – it involves hitching-hiking on bees, but that story will have to wait until another blog!

Oil beetle showing off antennae © Claire Lewis

Oil beetle showing off antennae © Claire Lewis

With all this fair weather we’ve added three more species to the number of different butterflies spotted here so far this year – yippee!

Two, the Holly Blue and Speckled Wood were seen by us both on the edge of the wood but the third was a treat just for Jon’s eyes.  It was a Brimstone. They are, unsurprisingly, sulphurous yellow in colour – which is more obvious in the males, the females look a paler green, almost white.  Yes, just to add to the challenges of identification, even male and female butterflies can look different.  Interestingly, it is thought that the yellow colour of their wings inspired the name 'butter-fly'.

Now which butterfly will turn up next?  Soon we should see a colourful bejewelled beauty, the Small Tortoiseshell, so let’s wait and see.

The greeny stuff

Who doesn’t like the smell of coconut?  It makes you think of sun cream and holidays, right?  Well, this bright and spikey gorse plant provides that scent right now.

Gorse © Claire Lewis

Gorse © Claire Lewis

There are a couple of different types of gorse and it’s the Common (or European) one that can flower throughout the year  – another bonus for those early flying insects in search of nectar.  We only have a small patch of gorse but on a warm still day you can walk down the hill and pow - you get hit by that coconut smell – lush!  Oh and did you know that traditionally gorse flowers were used as a colourant for painting Easter Eggs?

The island is currently in full blossom flow and many trees look stunning.  Surely cherry blossom has to be a favourite?

Wild Cherry blossom © Claire Lewis

Wild Cherry blossom © Claire Lewis

We’ve planted many wild cherry trees and they seem to like growing here.  I stood under this tree and it ‘hummed’ with visiting insects.  They were collecting nectar and pollen from the early blooms.  Cherries are a triple whammy of a tree.  Once pollinated, those flowers turn into glistening globules of cherries which will be a feast for the island’s birds.  And many moth caterpillars will munch on its leaves, including the brimstone moths – yes, just to confuse things there is a brimstone moth as well as a brimstone butterfly.  Nectar, leaves and cherry – yum, yum!

The feathery stuff

Swallow!

Yes, when you see the first swallow of the season it’s hard not to gleefully shout out their name!  I think it might be the law?

Usually we spot our first ones passing overhead in early April – so well done to that swallow for turning up on time.  It’s incredible really, as these tiny birds spend their winters in South Africa then fly around 6000 miles to breed here in Britain.  Typically they’ll fly around 200 miles a day – and some of them take a route straight over the Sahara desert, can you imagine how tough that must be?  And why migrate?  It’s all about the food.  They eat flying insects and as spring progresses here and winter approaches in South Africa, our aerial larder is more bountiful!  And with all that food they will have better chances of raising young.

Swallow (stock photo)

Swallow © Chris Gomersall

We’ve been seeing and hearing a lot of another migrant – the whimbrel.  If I said to you it’s a streaky, greyish-brown wader, then you might well yawn.  But really, it’s a lovely elegant bird with a long bill and a beautiful call.  Now, this is where it gets tricky as describing sounds is not easy!  Here goes: it makes a kind of rapid series of mellow pipe-like whistles – usually seven notes, if you need to be precise.  That’s why one of its other names is the Seven Whistler.  I love that sound and at this time of year we get small flocks calling while ‘on passage’ to their breeding grounds up north.  But, as we are special we also get the odd whimbrel staying here all year around.  It’s like they don’t know the rules.  If we enter a winter sighting of a Whimbrel on BTO Birdtrack a message always flashes up, ‘Are you Sure?’  Yep, I’m sure... I think.  Take that.  They are here and they are lovely.

Whimbrel blended in against rocks © Claire Lewis

Whimbrel blended in against rocks © Claire Lewis

The salty stuff

After the brilliant hues of Gorse and Brimstone I thought add another yellow.  This time it belongs to a tiny flat periwinkle.  It’s a small marine snail common all around the coast.  These periwinkles come in all sorts of colours from green to orange to brown but it was bright yellow one caught my eye as I went down the shore to collect some litter that had washed up.  This snail was grazing amongst the brown seaweed.  Normally you find that the snail’s colour matches their surroundings – with light coloured shells  amongst the greener seaweeds and darker ones amongst the browner seaweeds – so what was this little individual up to?  Maybe it was searching for a partner?  The male ‘tracks’ a female by following her mucus slime trail – charming.

Periwinkle © Claire Lewis

Periwinkle © Claire Lewis

What’s not so common?  A common seal in Cornwall.  That’s why I was surprised to see one travelling through still seas off the Jetty.  It caught my attention as it just looked different – a slightly smaller and rounder head?  Hmm, maybe it was a young Grey Seal?  Nothing for it – time to reach for the posh camera lent to me by Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust.  I’d be lost without the camera – as you can tell I don’t just use it for seal ID, I use it to record all sorts of island wildlife and happenings.  Anyway, back to that seal.  A zoom and click produced the tell-tale photo – a snubby nosed seal with freckly markings rather than the random shaped blotches that you tend to find on the greys.  BUT not only that – I recognised those freckly markings – it was Serena Lowen!  A beautiful female common seal who is normally encountered around Fowey.  Superb - this is was rare treat of a common seal.

Serena Lowena the common seal © Claire Lewis

Serena Lowena the common seal © Claire Lewis

Sure to be coming soon…

  • Striking Shags
  • Rampant Ramsoms
  • Migratory Moths
  • Of course, more super seals!
Pink full moon © Claire Lewis

Pink full moon © Claire Lewis

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Find out more information about Looe Island and visit later this year

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Grey Seal halued out