Looe Island Nature Highlights: Winter Special

Seal in the winter surf, Image 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. Lot of sea birds and marine animals also visit the island and we're particularly famous for our seals.

As 2021 is now well underway, I wanted to give you an update on what we've seen and heard during winter so far. By following my blogs, I hope you’ll get a sense of what life is like on Looe Island Nature Reserve and when we open later this year (covid-pending... fingers crossed!), you might just want to come over on the ferry and visit!

What’s it like here in winter? Well, noisy! You weren’t expecting that, were you? Don’t worry, its good natural noises – crashing waves, howling winds and boisterous birds. Yet, despite the island looking naked with its lush summer vegetation long gone, the reserve seems more alive than ever!

The teeny weeny stuff

You never know what you’ll find in the woodshed, right? Don’t worry this isn’t a horror story…. but lurking within the log piles we found, not beasts but beauties! We had accidently uncovered Herald moths. Their warm, orange and funky white markings make them pretty easy to ID. It’s a moth that is often seen flying late in the year but the ones we spotted were cosily overwintering in the shelter of the woodshed. This moth also has a penchant for spending colder moths in caves. I’ve never spotted one underground but in 2010, the German Speleological Federation named it Cave Animal of the Year!  What a wunderbar thing to herald, ja?

Herald Moth found in the wood shed

Herald Moth from the wood shed, Image by Claire Lewis

Working in the woodland you never know what you might stumble across – like early violets peeping out along the woodland paths or a Sparrowhawk zapping through the bare branches of the trees. One of the things that fascinates me the most is when I discover a snail hibernaculum. I’m not sure if that’s actually the correct term, but you get the idea: a clump of snails huddled up for the winter.  

Clustered together, the globular outline and tweedy herringbone pattern on their shells gives them away. Often tightly packed behind thick ivy stems or tucked into nooks and crannies of tree trunks – imagine the effort to climb up high into trees while carrying your shell home on your back?

Cluster of snails

Cluster of snails, Image by Claire Lewis

Apparently, snails have been recorded travelling on the ground at about 0.005 miles per second. Would it be even slower if they were scaling up a tree? I guess the effort must be worth it if it avoids predation. And once in their winter hiding place, they also have to make sure they are safe from the elements. This is where their magical slimy mucus comes in handy. They seal themselves into their shells with a hardened dried lid of mucus. This helps to keep the snail keep moist while it…. well, it does, nothing or rather, it ‘hibernates’…zzzzzz.

Now, fascinating fact time: snails don’t have ears! Instead they have incredible retractable tentacles to use as sensory organs. To see, they use their top set of tentacles and to smell they use their lower set. And to make up for lack of hearing, they have excellent memories. They cleverly use thought association to remember locations… hmm, like where tasty lettuces are growing! Oh, and in case you are wondering what the collective noun for snails is? There appear to be several like a rout or a walk. But my favourite, as it sounds very sophisticated is, ‘an escargatoire of snails’.

Find out more about the weird and wonderful lives of snails in the video above! 

The greeny stuff

Now, I could tell you about winter blooms like, Herb Robert, Primrose, Red Campion and sweetly scented Honeysuckle that we’ve been spotting but instead I’m going to go all exotic and then seedy.

So, did you know that we grow yams on the island? I know there was a heatwave this summer, but yams? Really? Well, ok not edible yams like the tubers you find in tropical food sections of grocers… but Britain’s only native member of the yam family. And what is it called? Black Bryony. And I love it!

Black Bryony berries wrapped around tree

Black Bryony berries, Image by Claire Lewis

This is one of those plants with a host of other names.  Adder’s Poison, Mandrake and Rueberry hint at its toxicity.  Still, to look at it, it’s simply a stunningly wonderful twinning climber.  It always spirals clockwise as it grows around trees and through hedgerows.  Apparently, this is called chirality (or ‘handedness’) – some plants spiralling clockwise and others anti-clockwise.  Scientists don’t know exactly why plants do this but it’s said to be down to genetics and that’s good enough for me.

Anyway… early in the year, Black Bryony has amazing glossy, ace-of-spade shaped leaves.  Then in the late summer, the leaves start to die off and it produces gorgeous garlands of black berries which slowly turn a specular shiny red.  Be warned though, to us these are poisonous fruits (as is the tuber from which it grows).  Overall, 10 out of 10 for year around interest on the plant scale, don’t you agree?

I couldn’t talk about winter vegetation without mentioning… Teasels! Teasels are beautiful at this time of year. They are just so architectural. All the books say about Goldfinches cleverly using their beaks to tease out the seeds. So if I’m in the garden and can hear the jingle jangle of goldfinches, I look towards stands of the spent spiny conical flower heads… and yes – there’s a Goldfinch hanging off the plant as its picks away. What a tasty treat!

Did you know that Teasels may have a dark and sinister side? And nope, it’s not to do with those prickles. It’s because this plant can ‘catch meat’? You know, like Venus Flytrap? Let me explain…. Teasel can be described as a borderline carnivorous plant. In this case it traps insects in ‘cups’ of water where pairs of leaves join the main stem. Teasels aren’t properly carnivorous though, as this prickly plant doesn’t have special enzymes needed to dissolve insects and absorb the yummy nutrients direct. Still, the captured insects naturally decompose and… don’t ask me how, but it’s been found that where this has happened, teasels have produced more and bigger seeds. This can be over 3,000 seeds per plant! That’s a lot of grub up for grabs by those goldfinches!

Close-up photograph of a Teasel

Teasels, Image by Claire Lewis

The feathery stuff

Talking of finches, we get large wintering flocks roosting here at night. As well as goldfinches there are chaffinches and greenfinches. But over the last few winters, these birds have been joined by lovely twittering linnets! We often see them flitting about the brambles where they busily pick at the pips of old blackberries.

At dusk, we sometimes walk to the top of the island for our island ‘finch murmuration’. OK, it’s not on the same scale as some swirling starling displays but the masses of finches still flock and swarm together making wonderful patterns in the dusk sky. They descend and rise up from trees, chattering away until eventually they quieten down and prepare for their overnight rest in the island’s Sycamore and Olearia trees.

A much more elusive visitor to turn up in the winter is the secretive Water Rail – honestly, it’s like The Scarlet Pimpernel of the bird world. Which explains another of its names, and read this carefully: Skittycock. And what makes these rails tricky to find is that they have a habit of darting away and slinking into thickets of vegetation.

I’ve only ever properly seen Water Rail a few times and they are super smart. They look like slim, warm coloured, barred and streaky versions of moorhen… but with a long red bill. That bill is put to good use when feeding – and it’s not fussy what it eats. It’ll probe and pounce on virtually anything. To name a few: spiders, fish, grass roots, berries, frogs and small mammals or even carrion. Most gruesomely they have been known to kill birds such as sweet jenny Wrens by impaling them on their beaks – yuk! But what fascinates me the most is their call. We regularly hear Water Rail from deep within the vegetation. And what does it sound like? Odd! It’s like a squealing pig – honestly, it’s the most bizarre and slightly disturbing sound you can imagine.

The salty stuff

It’s a rare, calm day. What’s that I can hear? A toot? The tooting of the Looe Valley Line train of course. It always amazes me just how well sound travels over water.

And it’s not just me – this seal heard it too! It was happily sleeping at the water’s surface when the ‘toot toot’ came rippling down the valley, out of Looe harbour and onto the island’s shores. The disgruntled seal looked towards Looe, checked a locomotive wasn’t chugging its way….. and soon slipped back to sleep again. It all seemed very odd to me but perfectly within norms for the seal.

Seal in the water

Seal alert to the sounds of Looe, Image by Claire Lewis

Obviously rough seas are far more common at this time of year. One of the best things about the winter is what might turn up after a good old storm. And back in November, I was super surprised to see a translucent hot pink and electric blue psychedelic pasty on the strandline! Well, OK, not a pasty but a Portuguese Man O' War.

Portuguese Man O' War washed up on the shore

Portuguese Man O' War, Image by Claire Lewis

There’s no getting away from it, these creatures are weird! We tend to call them jellyfish …but they aren’t. They are made up of lots of tiny animals called zooids, which I think sounds cute. These zooids all live together, each group of zooids having its own role within the Man O’ War. Some are responsible for floating – did you notice that pink ‘balloon'? This gas filled chamber acts like a sail. It catches the wind and, along with ocean currents, moves this amazing animal around our seas. Other groups of zooids have the task of capturing prey, feeding, and breeding, and without each other these zooids can’t survive – proper teamwork! Together though, this colony of zooids are anything but cute. As a colonial creature they are top predators – using powerful stinging cells in their long tentacles to catch prey. Did you know that their tentacles can be tens of metres long? That’s a crazy weapon! Oh, and watch out as their powerful sting is dangerous to us humans too – even if we stumble across a dead Man O' War. You have been warned!

So, there, a taste of what we see here in the winter…but there’s so much more! I could talk about the massive flocks of gulls gathering on the rocks, diving daggers of gannets, baubles of ivy berries or oodles of woodlice and of course, the stupendous antics of seals!

Still, I think I’ll wrap up this winter special blog with our mischievous Shetland sheep. Their fleeces have thickened up for winter so they look super cuddly. Oh, and they still love hanging out on the beach – do they look like they are queuing for a winter boat trip to you?

Sheep lined up on the beach track on Looe Island

Sheep lined up on the beach track, Image by Claire Lewis

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Grey Seal halued out