15th June 2020 - Looe Island Nature Highlights

View towards Trelawney Island by 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!

The Return of the Pink Pool. 

This isn’t the title of a thriller but one of the island’s freaky natural phenomena.  Every now and then a rock pool will turn an unnerving deep pinky colour.  It took the help of volunteers and experts to understand what was going on.  So, we now know that the rock pool will be a perfectly prepared but unappetising stew of bird poo, Euglena (fresh water green alga) and Cyanobacteria (a blue-green algae that is actually pink!).   I don’t know about you but that’s really not very appealing, looks whacky though.

Between two mossy rocks is a brilliantly pink pool on Looe Island

Pink Pool Rock by Claire Lewis

The teeny weeny stuff

Have you been puzzled by the sight of spitty frothy foam on plants?  At this time of year its shows up everywhere.

A foamy white blob clings to a plant stem

Cuckoo spit by Claire Lewis

People call it Cuckoo spit.  Hmmm, it’s not actually spit and it’s not made by cuckoos…. but it does show up when people start to see and hear these migrant birds. Inside the ‘spit’ will be a tiny  pale coloured young nymph of a bug called a froghopper.  Oh and its other name is spittlebug, which I guess is a much better description of what it really is.

Anyway where does the foam come from?  You’ll like this … it starts with the tiny froghopper nymph eating plant sap.  Now, we all know that what goes in, must come out, right?  So the nymph forces air into the liquid sap that it’s just ‘eaten’.  It then excretes it by pushing it out as bubbles… through it’s bum! And wait for it, it then hides inside the foam – maybe its embarrassed?  In fact as well as it keeping it hidden the foam keeps the nymph moist.  Seems like a good plan.  What predator wants to eat to that?  

But what about frogs and hoppers?  The tiny nymph is green and I guess it looks a bit like a frog?  And as an adult bug it has a massive ‘hop’ or jump. Apparently they can jump up to 70cm and can accelerate at more than 14km per second – even a frog would be impressed by that leap.

We’ve started seeing Meadow Brown butterflies – yeah!

A meadow brown butterfly perches on top of a bright purple thistle-like flower

 Meadow Brown on knapweed and plantain by Claire Lewis

Now I know the thought of a brown butterfly isn’t necessarily that exciting but over the summer we’ll get hundreds of these fluttering beauties on the island.  They will look magical as they raise from the grassland as you walk by.  And what’s more, they don’t seem that bothered by the weather - so you can still get a flutterby treat even on the dullest and dampest of days.

It’s often the male meadow brown that you’ll see flitting by.  He’ll be constantly patrolling his ‘patch’ – checking out any passing butterflies but really he’s hoping to find a mate.  The females seem more chilled out and less ‘flighty’.  If you are lucky you might spot one laying its eggs on grasses or maybe fluttering between flowers as it feeds.  Lepidopterists (yes that the top word for someone who’s into butterflies and moths) call it ‘nectaring’.  On the island meadow browns seem to enjoy the sweet nectar of our flowering bramble – and there’s certainly plenty around.  The rest of the time the females seem to just rest, well camouflaged with closed wings, low down in vegetation – ahhh, lovely, that’s the life.

The greeny stuff

Who doesn’t like a rose?  They are so romantic.  Previous islanders have planted different types but my favourite is still the scrambling blooms of a wild dog rose.  They may not be the strongest smelling of roses, but I just adore the delicate pretty pink flowers.

The plant uses strongly curved spines to hook on and weave through hedges and up into trees.  I think it’s the way it freely winds and flows as it grows that makes it so naturally beautiful.

And later in the year the hips, which, did you know, are higher in vitamin C than blackcurrants, will be enjoyed by birds – what a healthy gift.  But not so nice if the fact that those hips are the source of a practical joke?  How?  Well from hairs inside hips, pranksters can make itching powder!  Hmmm, not so nice and definitely not romantic!

Rough Chervil is looking so pretty along the edges of or paths and the island’s woodland.

Delicate bundles of white flowers hang off long stems - similar to cow parsley

Rough Chervil by Claire Lewis

It’s like a delicate version of cow parsley.  The leaves are a bit like flat-leaved parsley or coriander, but don’t eat it – this plant is toxic!  Oh and the stems, the stems are completely or just blotched a reddish purple colour.  And guess what?  Like the rosehips, it too is hairy.  Only it has hairs on it’s stem.  They are quite bristly hairs – that’s what makes the stem feel rough, and hence the name Rough Chervil.  Oh, I do so like it when there’s a clear clue to identifying a plant from its name.

Now if you’ve been following this blog you may have noticed that I’ve often talked about white umbels of flowers.  And that’s for good reason.  We have a lot of these… wait for it….  umbelliferous plants’ on the island.  Yes, they look beautiful but they are super great for insects too.  Why?  The big, flattened spray of their flower heads are easy places for insects to fly onto.  Think of them a bit like helicopter landing pads.  Landing pads for nectar and pollen rich tasty food service stations.  Very practical, eh?

The feathery stuff

Bring out the banners and trumpets, the Oystercatchers have started to hatch!  Oh and the young are sooooo cute.  They are leggy and grey and fluffy and run around in a scatty way.  Hey, I’m a bit scatty, so maybe that’s why I like them?

A comically grey and white fluffy chick with long orange beak sits atop a grey algae covereed rock an almost blends in!

Oystercatcher Chick on rocks by Claire Lewis

Posh word alert: oystercatchers are ‘nidifugous’ or ‘precocial’.  Which, to you or me, means they are well developed when born.  So, soon after they chip their way out of their shell, they walk away from the nest and can even find some of their own food.  For the parents it means they need to be extra vigilant – watching out for danger as their young investigate their new world.  

The result?  The parents can be even noisier than normal!  The adults seem to split up and call, as if to say look at me – there’s nothing else here, just look at me.  During this distraction the young chick scurries away to hind from a potential danger – phew!  

A far less showy bird that breeds on the island is the subtly coloured rock pipit.

The rock pipit's yellow and brown plumage seamlessly blends in with the algae-covered yellowed rocks behind

Rock Pipit by Claire Lewis

These bulky bodied pipits flit and run about the coast as they search for invertebrates to eat.  We sometimes see them perched on a post with a sandhooper in its beak.  But they are harder to spot amongst the rocks and seaweed.

It’s because they are a dullish smokey grey coloured bird.  And OK, they aren’t brightly coloured but they are fab.  Why?  Their song.  Well, their song and the way they deliver it.  You see they sing as they launch themselves up in the air and then they stiffen their wings and twist and turn as they ‘parachute drop’ back to down to earth, making a lovely trill –see, that’s cool!

 

The salty stuff

Take a look at this toothy strandline find:

A brillianty white and incredibly pointy set of teeth sit on a curved bone - held against a bright blue sky

Monkfish jawbone by Claire Lewis

I was so chuffed to find this strandline treasure with its set of impressive gnashers!  These are very freaky fish and that’s shown in their other names – like Sea Devil, Allmouth, Anglerfish and Fishing frog!

An illustration of a Monkfish - a long, dark brown fish with many spines and one lantern-like antenna on its forehead.

Monkfish Illustration from the Marine Conservation Society

So, why do they look so strange?  It’s because they are ambush predators.  They blend in with the sea floor and use that weird ‘spine’ on their heads like a fishing pole with bait to tempt prey towards their mouth.  Then, as the prey gets close the monkfish makes speedy plunge forward, taking in a big gulp of water to suck in the prey.  And that’s where the back-pointing sharp teeth come in … they create a spikey trap to stop their meal from escaping.  Ugly? Yes?  Impressive, yes?  Great standline find?  Yes, yes, yes!

 

This week I spotted what I think is a new seal to the island.  At the start I only saw it briefly as it disappeared under the waves.  I was lucky this time though as swam under water and popped up really close in to shore.  I was already primed with the camera and I think this seal must have known what I wanted as it did the best model like poses ever!  

Seriously.  It turned to the left and paused.  It turned to the right, paused.  It faced me and…. paused.  So, click, click, click with the camera. Happy that I’d got all angles it then swam away, job done!  What a professional.  If it is a new seal I might ask for it to be called Cindy Crawford or maybe Gisele Bündchen as I think she’s a bit of an environmentalist and would probably like to know that she has a seal named after her.

Coming soon…

  • Wrapping up the cormorant colony
  • Marvellous Mallow flowers
  •  Crystal Jellies
A bright red poppy stands tall and open with a bee flying in from the right to pollinate

Bee coming to land on poppy by Claire Lewis

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Grey Seal halued out