Wildlife top 6: What to look out for this spring at Lizard Point
In Cornwall spring arrives a few weeks earlier than in the rest of the UK and at Lizard Point you can make the most of the warmer weather and longer hours of daylight by discovering its resilient native flora and fauna, as well as some of the fascinating migrant and vagrant species that visit during this season. To help you with this we’ve compiled this short guide featuring six species that represent this diversity, and hope it will be useful for nature lovers of all ages and experience. Some will be easy to spot, but with others binoculars or a telescope will help with identification. Patience is also needed as animals and birds don’t always turn up when and where expected—it’s often just being in the right place at the right time. Whatever you see and whatever the weather, enjoy your time at Lizard Point.
Choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax): Wild choughs naturally re-established a breeding territory at Lizard Point in 2001 and the first chicks hatched the following year, the first in Cornwall for over fifty years. Close monitoring of nest sites in spring and early summer provides detailed information about the choughs’ activities and helps to protect them from disturbance.
Identification: Look out for a medium-sized crow that has a curved bright red beak and red legs. On the wing they are swift and agile and can often be heard emitting their distinctive call, a high-pitched ‘chee-ow’
When and where to see them: In March the breeding pair are seen around the coast of Lizard Point looking for suitable material to build or renovate their nest. After a busy couple of months rearing young, the adults and their fledglings can be seen flying as a family group, usually from early to mid-June.
Bluebells (Hyancinthoides non-scripta): This quintessential spring flower grows in a variety of habitats on the Lizard Peninsula—from grassland to cliff tops and especially in woods before the trees come into leaf.
Identification: The bluebell has clusters of blue bell-shaped flowers that have a distinctive perfume and droop to one side of its stem. It grows up to 50cm tall and has long narrow leaves. The non-native Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) has no perfume and bares its pale blue flowers on an upright stem.
When and where to see them: From April to May along the clifftops and especially along the Helford River at Tremayne Woods and Frenchman’s Creek and in woodland on the Penrose Estate, near Helston.
Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus): These giant sharks appear along south and western coastlines during the spring as they follow the plankton blooms on which they feed. Although the second largest fish in the sea they are harmless to humans.
Identification: They can grow up to 10m long and are predominately grey-brown in colour. The dorsal ‘shark’ fin and crescent-shaped caudal (tail) fin are distinctive, and they have huge mouths through which they take in the water that is filtered by the gill slots that circle their heads.
When and where to see them: Through April and early summer basking sharks are seen around the Lizard coast and especially from headlands such as Lizard Point. They are often solitary but may be in small groups.
Hoopoe (Upupa epops): A few of these colourful birds from Africa turn up as vagrants in southern England during the spring.
Identification: This distinctive medium-sized bird is mostly cinnamon coloured. Its striking crest that it fans up when excited has black and white tips. The back and wings are also boldly barred black and white. Its dark coloured, down-curving bill is long and thin—ideal for probing for invertebrates and worms.
Where and when to see them: From March to May in gardens or areas of short grass near the coast, where they can easily forage for food.
Coastal Wild Flowers: plants growing in a coastal environment have to be tough as poor soil, sea-spray and high winds make for difficult growing conditions. Despite this, a number of flowering plants put on colourful displays along the Lizard coastline in spring.
Spring Squill (Scilla verna): from April to May this low growing plant with star-like lilac-blue flowers can be seen on many grassy cliff tops such as at Blackhead and Predannack.
Sea Campion (Silene uniflora): from late spring this drift-forming plant, with white flowers that have a noticeable bladder-like calyx, flourishes in full sun and is often found at the foot of walls and hedges.
Thrift (Armeria maritima): from April to July this cushion-forming plant, with pink pom-pom like flowers, carpets cliff tops all around the peninsula.
Long headed clover (Trifolium incarnatum ssp. Molinerii):This rare but robust maritime clover has cone shaped creamy pink or yellow flowers from May to June, and thrives on terrain such as at Caerthillian Cove where the underlying schist rock is covered in short grass.
Northern Gannet (Morus Bassanus): Flocks of the UKs largest seabird are frequently seen from clifftop walks. They do not breed locally but travel here from colonies on the north coast of France, Alderney or as far away as the Welsh island of Grassholm.
Identification: Gannets are white with buff coloured head and neck feathers and dark wingtips. Their distinctive blue eyes are surrounded by blue skin. They have a wingspan of up to 1.5m and fly close to the sea with deep wing beats and glide expertly in strong winds.
When and where to see them: The gannets passing Lizard Point and other headlands are likely to be young non-breeding birds looking for food. If there is a shoal of mackerel or herring close to shore you may be treated to the spectacle of many gannets plunge-diving to spear the fish, often diving from heights up to 40m and reaching speeds in excess of 60mph. To prevent them sustaining injuries on entering the water they have evolved air-sacs in the face and chest.
Did you know?
The Lizard’s warm, moist and almost frost-free climate provides ideal growing conditions for the rare Fringed Rupturewort (Herniaria ciliolata), a tiny plant more commonly found on the Atlantic coasts of France, Spain and Portugal. Caerthillian Cove is a good place to find it but its yellowy-green flowers and low growing habit make it easily overlooked.
Author: Bev Payton - Wildlife watchpoint volunteer.