A Cornish Spring is in the air…

It might be cold, but I’ve been away from Cornwall for most of the last two weeks with work, and driving back today I was struck by all the early signs of Spring – they arrive so much earlier here. It got me thinking about all the lovely plants and other wildlife I’m looking forward to seeing a bit later in the year, and I decided to share a few photographs so you can anticipate their arrival with me!

Yellow centaury: watch out for this tiny gem on the old trackways on the Lizard from late May into June. There's lots of it at Windmill Farm Nature Reserve
Yellow centaury: watch out for this tiny gem on the old trackways on the Lizard from late May into June. The flowers only open when the sun is shining – I know how they feel! There’s lots of this plant at Windmill Farm Nature Reserve
Pigmy rush: in the UK this wonderful small rush is only found on the Lizard. Look for it in May - it's another plant of the old trackways, and again Windmill Farm is a good spotting place.
Pigmy rush: in the UK this wonderful small rush is only found on the Lizard. Look for it in May – it’s another plant of the old trackways, and again Windmill Farm is a good spotting place.
Swallow: I can't wait for these to arrive!
Swallow: I can’t wait for these to arrive!
Bees of all species are wonderful to see and hear, buzzing round the flowers. It's a bit cold as yet, but they should be out and about soon! - the Bumble Bees first with their furry warm 'coats'.
Bees of all species are wonderful to see and hear, buzzing round the flowers. It’s a bit cold as yet, but they should be out and about soon! – the Bumblebees first with their furry warm ‘coats’, then their cousins, like the one in this photo.
White clover: common, it will be everywhere, but pretty, and a great plant for bees, butterflies and other insects.
White clover: common, it will be everywhere, but pretty, and a great plant for bees, butterflies and other insects.
Gatekeeper butterfly: look out for this in mid-summer. Let's hope our butterflies have a better summer this year (ie. less rain, more sun! - we're all hoping for that...)
Gatekeeper butterfly: look out for this in mid-summer. Let’s hope our butterflies have a better summer this year (ie. less rain, more sun! – we’re all hoping for that…)
Foxgloves will be brightening up the hedges and heaths and gardens..just about everywhere, really!
Foxgloves will be brightening up the hedges and heaths and gardens..just about everywhere, really!

Hang on in there, Spring proper isn’t far away!

Playing detective on Pennance Point

I was sorting through photographs today, and I found some from a couple of years ago when I went to visit Pennance Point, not far from Swanpool and Falmouth on the South Cornwall coast.  The images brought back some lovely memories – I remember it as a blowy, cold-ish November day, but in the company of good friends from the ecology course I was studying.

The view from Pennance Point (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
The view from Pennance Point (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

It’s a beautiful spot, a County Wildlife site lying within the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and the neighbouring coastline is an Important Bird Area and Special Area of Conservation. Dominated as it is by cliffs, broadleaf woodland and scrub means there are lots of different things to see and discover.

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We were in fact practising doing a habitat survey – and that meant we were searching for all kinds of signs and evidence for what might be snuffling in the undergrowth or curled up underground, keeping safely out of sight. Looking for ‘micro-signs’ like this means you catch so many small details that you would otherwise miss – a nibbled acorn, a footprint, hairs caught on a low branch, scratches in the bark of a tree. Put all these little things back together into one big canvas and you end up with a much more complete sense of what’s happening around you.

So, what did we find, on our day as nature detectives?

  • Honeysuckle plus hazel = dormice. We didn’t find any dormice themselves (they’re nocturnal of course and would already be hibernating by November), but hazel nuts to nibble and honeysuckle for building nests are big clues that they may have been there, snoring away.

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  • Deep gouge on fallen log = badger (probably!). This was quite a big deep scratch – it would have to have been a powerful animal that made it – so we felt pretty sure it was a badger. We also saw badger paths – the characteristic trodden down trails through the undergrowth, made because a badger takes the same route every evening as it forages for food, and a footprint. So lots of clues for badger!
  • Many of the trees were old with cracks and crevices = good spots for bats to use as roosts..
  • Spraint is a really good field sign – different animals have different shaped ‘poo’, with characteristic smells. We decided this was fox. Do you agree?

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English: Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens...
Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We saw lots else of course, out in the open. A kestrel hovered over some scrub, and other birds dashed from tree to tree – long-tailed tits, wrens, chaffinches, dunnocks, goldcrests, and a song thrush perched high on a branch. The wood was full of lovely old trees – sycamore, silver and downy birch, hawthorn, oak, holly, beech and ash. Smaller plants included angelica, old man’s beard, creeping buttercup, sea campion, red campion, navelwort and common dog-violet. We saw a honey bee and a red admiral, and a spectacular drinker moth caterpillar cavorted through some scrub. Nothing out of the ordinary, but no less lovely for it.

Looking back through the photos has prompted me to get back there soon, and see how it looks in early spring. If you want to visit and see what signs and clues you can find, or just enjoy the sea air in your face, then park in the carpark at Swanpool and head south a few metres to make your way on to the path to Pennance Point. You won’t regret it.

Rolling waves, baffling birds and a surfing seal…an afternoon at Polly Joke

DSCF0657_edited-1Just five miles from Newquay. Enjoyed by surfers and dog walkers and those wanting an uncrowded beach walk. Worth a visit. No toilets or cafe. That’s the kind of information you get if you do an internet search for Polly Joke.

To say that this is underestimating the call and stark beauty of this small Cornish beach is itself an understatement. I visited a couple of weeks ago with two good friends, one of whom had been visiting the beach since a child, and the other for many years, whereas for me it was my first time. And yet for each of us there were new things to find, fresh wonders to experience, a sense of apartness from the stresses of everyday life.

Polly Joke
Land around Polly Joke (Photo credit: NickDeluxe)

We parked in the small National Trust car park nearby (turn off the road at the sign for Treago Farm), or you can park at West Pentire, a mile away. The National Trust owns the land around the bay, Cubert Common, which definitely sounds worth a ‘spring flower’ explore. But for now, on a brisk early-year day, you should go through the gate and head down the river valley towards the beach.

Polly Joke is derived from Porth Joke. A Google search turns up that ‘Joke’ either means ‘chough’ or, and perhaps more likely, that the name comes from the old Cornish words for Jackdaw Cove – Pol-Lejouack. We didn’t see either of these corvids – choughs (not likely!) or jackdaws (more possible) – but we saw plenty else.

You do in fact have to look hard. Isn’t it amazing how many creatures have adapted to merge into the background as much as possible. You have to be pretty alert and able to look beyond the “obvious” to see what is really lying there before your eyes. Literally lying there, in the case of one immature seal. Or rock. Until it hmmphed and lifted its back flippers to us. Definitely a seal.

Seal masquerading as a rock (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Seal masquerading as a rock (Photo credit: Amanda Scott)

We also had to work hard to spot this bird hacking away at mussels on a rock. None of us being experienced birders, we only sorted later that it was a Turnstone. Can you spot it?

Turnstone attacking mussels (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Turnstone attacking mussels (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

And what about the surfing seal of the title of this post? Ecological ‘received wisdom’ is that animals do nothing energetic that isn’t focussed on survival gain. And yet we do find animals doing things for no obvious reason. For quite a while we watched an adult seal surfing, seeking out the decent waves, riding them into shore, and then repeating the show over and over again. One of us had in fact been there the day before, surfing alongside (probably) the same seal. It was hard to believe the seal was doing this for any reason other than sheer delighted fun.

Kestrel: Polly Joke (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Kestrel: Polly Joke (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

We ourselves had a bit of fun with a kestrel, that swooped over our heads and then hid itself in the cliff side. Poised with cameras, we waited for it to take off again, dreaming of an amazing in-flight shot. Not to be! It took off before we were ready, but we still enjoyed the drama and grace as it soared away. Here’s a rather fuzzy shot of it watching us from the cliffs.

Caves at Polly Joke (photo credit: Amanda Scott)
Cave at Polly Joke (photo credit: Amanda Scott)

The beach itself is sandy, full of shells and small stones. Caves beckon, and ripples in the sand lead you on towards the northern Cornish sea.  I studied geology a few years ago, and one of the things I loved best was to find evidence of old beaches in the geological record – shell lines in rock faces, ripples preserved in rocks, cross-bedding reflecting the ebb and flow of tides. DSCF0660_edited-1

Here at Polly Joke those sand ripples are here and now – no different in form from those we can examine in rocks from millennia ago. We cannot escape our connection with the past – we are part of it, and it has structured our very being. Do not ever think we are separate from nature. It was then, it is now, and it is our future. We are as much a part of it as is the seal, the turnstone, the kestrel, the sea and the sand.

At Polly Joke, or Porth Joke, the Bay of the Jackdaw, or wherever, we are called to remember that.

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