2nd June 2020 - Looe Island Nature Highlights

Sunset from Looe 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 two weeks 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!

What is going on?  The other week it was zebras on the island and now there are tigers!  This time it’s a large strikingly bold coloured Cream-spot Tiger moth.

They mainly fly at night but sometimes if disturbed or newly emerged you can get lucky and spot them during the day.  They might look flashy but those bright colours tell predators to ‘keep away’ as I might be ‘grrrrr’ deadly.

Cream-spot tiger moth by Claire Lewis

Cream-spot tiger moth by Claire Lewis

The teeny weeny stuff

Oh I do love a Ruby-tailed wasp.

I’ve been seeing a few around recently.  For some reason they make me think of circuit boards and resistors.  It’s because they are so beautifully coloured.  And what’s more those colours are metallic so they glitter in the sunlight - yeah!  The front half will be a shiny blue-green colour and the rear a deep pinky ruby-red.

Now, these are solitary wasps so they don’t live in big colonies like common wasps and honey bees.  They are also very lazy.

Instead of building their own nest they lay their eggs in the nests of other solitary bees or wasps – how sneaky!  I guess you could say it’s a bit like a cuckoo.  Oh and just in case the female ruby-tail should get caught in the act of laying its eggs in another’s nest it has some handy defences.  She has a kind of concave hollow abdomen which means they can easily curl up into a tight ball.  Then its exposed outer surface (the cuticle) is super tough meaning that it’ll be protected from the stings of the host – cunning eh?  In a final gruesome twist, when the ruby-tailed wasp’s eggs hatch out they eat the larvae of their host. Some ‘guests’ really are very unwelcome.

Another colourful minibeast has been spotted greedily helping itself to the leaves of mullein plants.  Check this out:

Photo of Mullein moth caterpillar - Claire Lewis

Photo of Mullein moth caterpillar - Claire Lewis

It’s the caterpillar of the mullein moth.  It’s so brightly coloured you can’t really miss it.

As well as eating mullein leaves we have found them shamelessly munching on figworts and buddleia too.  Like the tiger moth their bold colours warn predators not to eat them.  After about a month of gorging themselves, the juicy caterpillars can be almost 5cm long… but at this point it’s all change as they move underground to pupate.  Once in the soil they create a very tough cocoon which means they can survive several years before they emerge as adult moth.  And those bright colours?  All gone – the moth is all greys, buffs and browns.  To be honest it’s a bit dull but being inconspicuous it can cleverly disguise itself as a bit of dead plant.  Not glamorous but it might stop it from being a predators meal.

The greeny stuff

The island seems to be smothered in the sweet scent of Elderflower at the moment.  t’s such a delicious smell and reminds me that I need to find time to make elderflower champagne.  We follow the original Atkins sister’s recipe.  The Atkins sisters being the amazing women who bought the island in the 1960s and then gave it to Cornwall Wildlife Trust so that it could be cared for as a nature reserve.

The aromatic creamy coloured elder flowers are on large, flat pretty umbels which seem to glow in the shady edges of the woods.

Elderflower by Claire Lewis

Elderflower by Claire Lewis

The smell of the Elder’s leaves and bark is, however, not so welcome.  In fact it’s not nice and a bit stinky.  Traditionally though, the leaves were hung up to repel flies from around kitchens, dairies, and barns.

Something else that doesn’t smell nice is Stinking Iris.

I always feel sorry for this plant.  When you think of Irises you imagine a large showy and dramatic flower but not with this one.

Stinking Iris by Claire Lewis

Stinking Iris by Claire Lewis

I think its dull purple (and sometimes pale yellow/grey) flowers are a bit apologetic.  Like they don’t want any attention but if you look up close the petals are quite pretty with those dark purple veins.

But let’s not get carried away, I still feel sorry for it. It’s that name - most unfortunate.  The stinkiness won’t really come through if you just sniff the flower, instead it’s released if you crush the leaves.  People describe it as smelling like roast beef, marmite or rotten meant – not very flattering for a flower, eh?

The feathery stuff

Well, well, well, LAH:1 is back.

Who or what is LAH:1?

It’s a very special and well-travelled Great Black-backed Gull.

LAH1 Great Black-backed Gull by Claire Lewis

LAH1 Great Black-backed Gull by Claire Lewis

Back in June 2010 local birder Bruce Taggart and his team started a Looe Island Gull Ringing Project.  As a young gull LAH:1 was given its coded ID leg ring…. and the following autumn it was spotted in Ponteverde, NW Spain – that’s about 940km from here!  And what’s more it’s been spotted there 3 more times since.  It was last seen there in November 2019 so I was pleased to find it back here on the island again.

Ponteverde is the furthest away any of our ringed birds has been spotted but more impressively this bird has a sub-lingual oral fistula.  Huh? A what? I know, not a phrase you use every day.  If you look at the photo you’ll see that it’s tongue comes out through a hole (a fistula) beneath its bill.  It’s upsetting as these injuries are often caused by fish hooks.  The tongue might then hang through the hole that’s left.  If lucky the wound may heal and the bird can then amaze us like LAH:1 to survive and fly many, many miles more.  Go gull, go!

Waaah, have you ever heard a Grasshopper Warbler singing?  There was one here the other day.  Funnily enough it sounded like a ‘needle-stuck’ on a recording of a churring grasshopper.  Some people say that it sounds like a fishing reel being spun out.  Whatever, it was high pitched and just went on and on and on.

Grasshopper warbler - Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

Grasshopper warbler - Chris Gomersall/2020VISION

We didn’t see it though.  They are shy birds and just passing through as they migrate to breeding grounds. Apparently they move their heads as they sing to make it difficult to tell where the sound is coming from – like a ventriloquist.  My Field Guide to Bird Songs and Calls by D. Farrow tells me that the song is made up of double notes delivered at a rate of 24-26 per second at a frequency of 6kHz.  I’m not all that sure what that means but I was impressed by the little warbler’s effort!

The salty stuff

Is it just me or does Sugar Kelp look like a wonderful blend of melted caramel and honeycomb? 

Sugar kelp by Claire Lewis

Sugar kelp by Claire Lewis

As the tide drops you can sometimes find this long belt-like brown seaweed with its ruffled sides growing out on the lower shore. 

Did you know that sugar kelp’s name comes from a sweet white powder called mannitol?  The powder rises to the surface as the kelp seaweed dries. It’s really popular in Japan where cultivated sugar kelp is said to be one of the most delicious edible seaweeds.  They call it ‘kombu royale’ as it’s just so sweet and flavoursome – yum!

But it’s not just as food for us humans that this kelp is special.  Around the UK you mainly find around 7 different types of kelp.  Growing in dense patches they can create wonderful kelp forests.  Scientists believe these underwater gardens to be amongst the most productive and diverse ecosystems on the planet. So they are a bit like forests on land - who’d have thought it?

Now I couldn’t complete a blog without mentioning the seals, could I? Of course not!  I have seen my old faithful, Duchess looking chilled out a few times.

Duchess looking serene by Claire Lewis

Duchess looking serene by Claire Lewis

But generally it has been quiet on the seal front.  From all the data we’ve collected with the lovely Looe Seal Group team we know that there are times when the number of seal sightings drops off. It makes me a bit sad when I don’t see many about, but more will be back soon.  You see, our records of seal sightings show annual patterns of who is here when.  Combined these ‘seal calendars’ suggest that we often have fewer seals here just after they have moulted in the Spring…. wait a minute did I say moult?  Did you know that they moult?  D’oh, no?  Nor did I!  I knew that grey seals start life with a cute furry white coat and that they soon grow a grown up grey coat but I didn’t know that they then had an annual moult.  So there you go, a fresh new coat for the summer – lucky them.

Finally, talking of fresh coats I thought I’d end this blog with the shearing of those mischievous Shetland Sheep.  Alan (the) shearer visited the other day and using his clippers he gave the sheep a most appreciated ‘hair cut’.

Coming soon… I’m sure to mention:

  • Copious cuckoo spit
  • Swathes of charming chervil
  • And more seashore treasures
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Find out more information about Looe Island and visit later this year

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Grey Seal halued out