Spurn Migration Festival – Still time to book


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Wheatear at Spurn, Autumn 2014

Next weekend is the Spurn Migration Festival, and the programme looks excellent (download the pdf).

Having never bothered with this before, I’m looking forward to the day (I’ll be there Saturday) and have an idea of the schedule I will be working to, hopefully up to and including the hog roast and evening talk.

Spurn is one of my favourite places, and having had to buy a new camera and lens this week it will be a great opportunity to give it a run out!

Tickets are available on their site HERE.

Wryneck, Spurn, Autumn 2014

Wryneck, Spurn, Autumn 2014

Posted in Birds, Yorkshire | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The badger cull – an egregiously dishonest and disgraceful action


I try really hard to not get political on this blog. I have my occassional rant, but I try to be fairly politically neutral even then. So if you don’t want to see that trend spoiled, look away now…

Still here? Okay…


Back in May I was more than willing to give Liz Truss a chance. Her predecessor, Owen Patterson, had been an absolute disaster as Environment Secretary and it could at least be hoped that she would bring in a new era. An era where decisions within a department were made based on facts and evidence, not the whims of financial supporters. Sadly, such hopes have been burned away.

Today it was announced that the controversial badger cull will be extended into Dorset. This is an egregiously dishonest decision. A couple of years ago we could, if we were feeling charitable, at least say the government were testing the waters. We maybe didn’t all agree with the decision to run a trial that had already been shown to fail. But they put all the right conditions and safeguards in place. Independent monitors, and a commitment to only proceed if it was shown to be safe and effective. Not my choice, but reasonable.

It has been shown to be neither. The independent monitoring concluded it was not effective for reducing TB, it was not humane, it was not safe, it was not reliable, it was not cost-effective. The reaction to this report? The government ploughed on, and removed the independent monitoring. After all, what’s the use of independent monitoring if it doesn’t say what you want it to?

So we got a second year, and it was yet another failure, at least as far as could be gleaned from the now secret trials (and let’s be clear, secrecy is the opponent of good science here).

Yet here we are with a third year, and even an expansion. This ha snow gone beyond reasonable disagreement into sheer, bloody-mindedness and outright dishonesty. We were told there would be no continuation or expansion unless strict conditions were met. They were not. Yet on we go.

The government have now lost the support of every relevant body, bar one. The National Farmers Union still back it. Every professional body with an understanding of the relevant science, every professional body with an understanding of biology or veterinary standards, has now said this cull is wrong. Why?

Let’s be quite clear, this cull will not make a dent in the bTB issue. It will not help farmers. I have friends who are farmers, including some who have been hit by bTB. My heart breaks that they are being failed by their government and their Union. As is wildlife in the UK, and the electorate.Opposition is not because badgers look cute and fluffy, and anyone claiming otherwise is a liar, plain and simple.

There are a growing number of farmers that understand this. Random free-shooting was always, pardon the pun, a wild shot in the dark. It was never likely to meet the conditions necessary to guarantee an effective cull. The trial has only confirmed this. So why continue, and expand?

There is only one conclusion left to draw. Faced with the alternative of admitting that the solutions are long and hard, and require change across Europe, the government and the NFU have opted for the pretence of action. They know they are engaged in a course of action that will not help matters. Yet they hope to pull the wool over the eyes of an electorate and their paying members. Who cares if badgers die unnecessarily and our money gets wasted?

The reality now is that this will only stop two ways:

  1. The farmers that disagree with this action, who get that this may very well make things worse, can stand up and oppose their own union. The NFU will back off as soon as t is clear their membership sees through their deception.
  2. There is a strong legal challenge through the courts that exposes the central lie Liz Truss and George Eustice have been happy to peddle, namely that this was ever really about badger welfare.

This cull is about money. It doesn’t matter that the action being taken is hideously wasteful with public money, that it is an expenditure massively disproportionate to the impact. Because the key is that certain landowners are not being stung as badly in their own wallets, leaving plenty free to back the Tory party.

This cull is about senior members of the Conservative Party making their friends feel valued. Nothing more. It is an utter disgrace.

Posted in Mammals, Media | 1 Comment

“See you otter? Stick this!” – Accents in animals


Since I’m on a bit of a roll about animal voices this week, I thought I’d touch on accents.

I spoke yesterday about the subtleties of animal voices. But does that have any direct relevance for us and our engagement with the natural world?

Otter on the Ribble Picture courtesy of Pete Liptrot

Otter on the Ribble
Picture courtesy of Pete Liptrot

A few years back I was talking to a conservationist who had been working on the reintroduction of otters in Lancashire. Apparently they had brought some otters down from the west coast of Scotland to help supplement the local population and diversify the genetic stock (this is necessary to avoid inbreeding). But it had been largely unsuccessful as the two groups basically segregated themselves. Why?

It turned out, after testing various hypotheses, that the Lancashire otters didn’t take to the Scottish otters, because the pitch and tone of their voices was slightly different, and the unfamiliarity of it meant they were treated as unwelcome intruders.

This is by no means unique. The Seal Life Centre in Oban had to put two otters brought in from Canada under special protection because the ‘locals’ didn’t accept them and turned aggressive. Although, as I have been reminded since originally posting this, the Canadian otters are also a separate species.

These stories may sound amusing, and generally anything like this is reported with a wink and a smile. Yet as you can imagine, for anyone trying to manage conservation programmes aimed at recovering wild populations, it is a genuine problem to consider.

Fortunately, animals do adapt. Chimpanzees at Edinburgh Zoo were observed to change the pitch of their vocalisations to blend in with the locals. In other words, they lost their ‘Dutch’ accents and picked up ‘Scottish’ ones. Wild populations of animals often accept outsiders, so they are barriers that can be broken with time.


You may have noticed there are no pictures of otters by me accompanying this story. I’m sorry. Otters are a species that consistently elude me. I’ve seen them in passing (literally when training for a marathon a few years back). I have been to sites that everybody says ‘guarantee’ otters. Nothing. It’s a weird curse. Maybe it’s my Yorkshire accent?

Posted in Mammals, Ethology, Zoology, Wildlife stories | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Listen! Do you want to know a secret…


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Yesterday I talked a little about the world of noise going on in the times we think of as ‘quiet’, with quiet defined purely as ‘no human-made noise’. But what is all this extra noise for?

“Why do birds sing?” is a question that occupies hundreds, thousands of books and articles, both populist and scientific.

A romantic and anthropocentric point of view that has been held at times throughout history is that it’s for us, that a god or gods created everything for our benefit, and therefore birdsong is just beautiful sound as background and inspiration. We will come back to this idea in a minute, but essentially it’s one we can reject. Nature does little for the benefit of other species, and any sounds we here have meaning to the individual. Very few, theist or otherwise, believe this anymore.

For a long time any animal noise was seen as the most basic form of communication, barely worthy of the word, and certainly nothing approaching language. Noises could easily be bracketed into a few small categories. “Alarm”, “Attraction”, “Contact”, “Food”. Nothing more.

SONY DSCBut throughout the twentieth century a growing body of research started to expand on this, to really truly study the ways animals communicate and what that meant. What has been discovered is that it is a far more sophisticated world that we realised.

Yes, birdsong is ultimately about demonstrating you are fit and ready to breed. But the song is not just repetitive. It contains complexities, it contains dialect, it contains mimicry, it contains call-and-response. It evolves over the animal’s lifetime. The bird learns, it practices, it gets better. It introduces and disposes of elements. In other words, it analyses it’s own performance. This doesn’t occur in any way we would easily relate to, but nonetheless it must occur.

Animal calls, such as alarm calls, are more complex too. Analysis of the apparently simple ‘bark’ of the prairie dog has shown that it doesn’t in fact have the one alarm call. It has one for every species that is a threat. So what sounds like a simple bark to our limited range actually contains subtle distinctions for ‘coyote’, ‘wolf’, ‘snake’, ‘eagle’ and so on. This also means every individual must be able to recognise the different threat, know the appropriate call, and make it*. Young animals have to learn that, they cannot be born with it.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. If you have one call for ‘threat’, and start scanning the horizon for wolves, you may miss the eagle diving in. An evolved behavioural response distinguishes where the threat comes from, and gives you an advantage.

????????The more we study animals, the more we learn how much more complex they are. For centuries it was thought that any suggestion animals behaviour and ours could be compared was anthropomorphism, poor science. Only humans had sophisticated behaviour, animals were just animals. Happily, we increasingly see complexity for what it is, not an illusion based on the observer, but genuinely distinctive signs of complex social intelligence.

As a final note, I said I’d return to birdsong being for our benefit. Now, while birdsong exists for its own purpose, psychological research is showing that hearing birdsong has a benefit for our wellbeing. It also stimulates creativity (this is no shock given the wealth of music drawn from birdsong).

So when I suggest you get somewhere ‘quiet’ and listen for the sounds around you, it’s not just a technical recommendation. It’s genuinely for your own good!

David


 

* An intriguing addendum to this incidentally is that some prairie dogs will use an alarm call to scatter their friends, making it easier for them to access food sources. The implications of that sort of behaviour in terms of developmental intelligence are pretty impressive, because you have to be able to think from the point of view of another.

Posted in Amphibians, Biology, Birds, Ethology, Green exercise, Invertebrates, Why watch wildlife? | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The sounds of silence – rarely silent


I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of listening recently, and of how crucial it is to any wildlife watching you do.

Some of this has been prompted by the current nightly sound of Tawny Owls outside the house. When it’s the male hoot ‘Hoo-hooOooo’ it’s a lovely, gentle, restful noise. When it’s the female going ‘Kee-WICK!’ loudly, and very close to the window, it’s not quite so welcome. I’ve even taken to nicknaming this bird “Alarm”, as she has a tendency to wake me at 3am! Incidentally, has anyone ever heard owls go ‘Twit-twoo’? I certainly haven’t. I know we are often told that it’s call-and-response from female to male and back, but even so, not something I’ve heard. I suspect it’s a myth from hearing those two Tawny calls relatively close together. Anyway…

This all reminded me how, even when we think of it as quiet, it rarely is. Birds are still calling, as are insects and amphibians. Even more impressively, much of the time when we believe it to be silent, it’s still not the case. We have a hearing range of between 20 and 20,000 Hertz, which sounds like quite a lot. Yet there are species such as some bats and marine mammals that can hear as high as 200,000 Hertz!

Stand outside your house on an evening and a whole world of communication is going on that you are just not aware of. You can use a bat detector, but this is really a glimpse, not a true experience of the reality.

So what’s it all for? Is it just pleasant background noise? Or something more sophisticated? We’ll return to this tomorrow.

Posted in Amphibians, Biology, Birds, how to, Invertebrates, Mammals, Scientific Terminology, Why watch wildlife? | 1 Comment

Wild horses? Couldn’t drag me away. On Koniks and other horses.


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The four Blacktoft Koniks

I mentioned yesterday that the Konik deserved its own post, so here goes. It’s a story of sex, genetics and Nazis.

The name Konik is a Polish word for ‘small horse’, the equivalent of our word ‘pony’. Hence when they are referred to as Konik Ponies, we are engaged in a bit of grammatical redundancy!

Like all modern horses, the scientific name is Equus ferus caballus. This covers all living breeds of horse and pony, barring Przewalskii’s Horse, Equus ferus przewalskii.

So where do the Nazis come into this?

In the early twentieth century, a Polish scientist became convinced the Konik wasn’t a domesticated horse, but was instead a direct line from the extinct wild horse, the Tarpan (Equus ferus ferus). He based his conclusion on the build of the horse, the markings on the foals, and the fact some adults turned white in winter.

He was convinced that he could ‘back breed’ selected Koniks to bring back the extinct Tarpan. You can think of this a little like Jurassic Park, with less fanciful science and a lot more horse sex!

Following the German invasion of Poland, much of the stock he had bred was shipped to Germany, where it contributed to a similar programme being run at a Berlin Zoo by the Heck brothers.

For the Nazis, the idea you could ‘breed back’ to other forms supported their racist ideologies, meaning these sturdy little horses found themselves subsumed in some pretty evil philosophy. After all, if you could revert these horses back to a superior form, you could do the same with people. Unfortunately for the Koniks, as the Germans were increasingly pinned back into Munich and Berlin towards the end of World War II food became short, and the Koniks were a readily available source of fresh meat.

With the Nazis defeated, the remaining population of Koniks was put back into the wilds of Poland. Modern science defeated the notion of ‘back-breeding’ these horses. Genetic studies have shown that Koniks, like all other living breeds of horse, are much more closely related to the same domesticated stock.

They have been introduced to manage areas of nature reserves in the UK for around 15 years now, and are a real success. Their grazing opens up areas that may otherwise become overgrown, forcing artificial intervention. This provides breeding habitat for birds like Skylark, Yellow Wagtail, Curlew, Corn Crake, and many waders.

It may not be a Tarpan, but it is doing a great job of filling in for our now extinct wild horses.

Posted in Biology, Evolution, Mammals | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

RSPB Blacktoft Sands – Spotted Crake, Water Rails, and uncommon beauty in common species


I’ve spoken about this before, but I’m just not a twitcher. Chasing numbers for a list doesn’t, to me, feel like you are really watching birds, and hammering a private plane from the Scillies to Shetland to tick off two birds in two days feels environmentally questionable to say the least. So when I get a rarity, it tends to be close, or coincidental.

Such was the case this week when a trip to RSPB Blacktoft Sands was planned, then we discovered there was lots of excitement about a Spotted Crake. But we’ll come back to that.

Waders at Blacktoft

Waders at Blacktoft

Blacktoft is tucked on the banks of the Ouse, just before it and the Trent merge and form the Humber. Despite the name suggesting sandy flats, the habitat is predominantly reed-bed, and it’s good home for breeding Marsh Harriers, warblers, Bearded Tits and Bitterns. It’s also starting to fill up at this time of year with various waders and wildfowl.

I should at this point apologise, as the quality of pictures in this post won’t be great. I had an accident in the first hide we visited, and knocked my camera to the floor, breaking the lens. That. Added to light that never quite managed to be coming in right made for some gloomy and slightly fuzzy pictures!

"Yeah, we both know you are giving me that cake..."

“Yeah, we both know you are giving me that cake…”

Picnic muggers were out in force around the carpark, including blackbirds, tree sparrows, chaffinches, and a baby robin that nearly got into the car at one point.

What was notable was how many birds that are often skulking and elusive, such as Water Rail and Snipe, made a decent appearance. Not dramatic in the case of the Water Rail, but standing there a while. Snipe are birds I mostly encounter as they burst out of a patch of undergrowth in a whirl of feathers and noise. So to see around ten across the reserve out in the open was great.

Snipe

Snipe

Waders are a brilliant example of evolution, and studying their body shape can tell us how they feed. Most work off a smiliar body shape, but as you look at the various waders here look at the variation in size and length of bill and legs. Long legs? Wade out into the water. Long bill? Probe deep into the mud. A snipe’s bill may look a little comical, but it is a brilliant adaptation to allow it to get invertebrates from deep in the mud.

Two Snipe? Two Snipes? Two Sneep?

Two Snipe? Two Snipes? Two Sneep?

The rail didn’t come much out of his reed-bed, but you can clearly see him here.

Water Rail

Water Rail… just about

Water Rail

Water Rail… a little better view

I knew Green Sandpiper was prevalent here at the moment, but I wasn’t sure how distinctive they would be. As it turned out, they are easily separated in the way the white of the breast comes to a sharp line here:

Green Sandpiper

Green Sandpiper

Green Sandpiper (they only ever face left...)

Green Sandpiper
(they only ever face left…)

By contrast, with the Common Sandpiper, the white curves up around the shoulder of the wing as you can see here in a picture from a couple of years back:

Common Sandpiper on Kentra BayGreenshanks are a bird I forget about. Redshanks I see a lot. They are quite small, noisy, and the red of their legs is very bright.

Redshank

Redshank

Whereas a Greenshank’s legs are quite drab and unremarkable. It’s the only thing that is though, as the markings on the rest of the bird are quite beautiful, from the scalloped greys of the back through the delicate markings around the head and eye.

Greenshank

Greenshank

Incidentally, ‘shank’ comes from Germanic roots in Old English and just means ‘legs’.

Greenshank

Look at the shanks on that!

There were plenty of Black-Tailed Godwits around too, and they are another really striking wader, tall and elegant.

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit

Black-tailed Godwit

We did pretty well for birds of prey too, with Buzzards and Kestrels drifting around, and a Marsh Harrier making a distant, languorous pass over the reeds.

You may have to take my word for it that this is a Marsh Harrier.

You may have to take my word for it that this is a Marsh Harrier.

At the other end of the speed spectrum, a Hobby made a dive on a flock of Ruff, Lapwing, and Godwit. It was through and gone before anyone in the hide could react, yet was entirely unsuccessful. The birds scattered, and the section of the reserve was quiet for the next five to ten minutes.

Lapwings take to the air

Lapwings take to the air

Once settled back down, there were plenty of Ruff to be seen. At this time of year the variation in plumage can kid you into thinking there are multiople species present.

Juvenile Ruff, admiring his own reflection

Juvenile Ruff, admiring his own reflection

Adult Ruff, moving into winter plumage

Adult Ruff, moving into winter plumage

Juvenile Ruff Short bill - feeding close to the surface

Juvenile Ruff
Short bill – feeding close to the surface

There were also a fair few Little Grebe about, some still feeding young.

Little Grebe and chick

Little Grebe and chick

Juvenile Little Grebe Also known as a Dabchick

Juvenile Little Grebe
Also known as a Dabchick

Flitting about the reedbeds were smaller birds like Pied and Yellow Wagtails, plus at least one Bearded Tit showing in the distance.

There were mammals out and about too, including a fox using the reedbeds to try stalk a few gadwall and mallard. Sadly no moment of drama unfurled and he disappeared back into the stems.

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Less than fantastic, Mr Fox. Tuck your tail in when hiding!

In a field of more than 20 Curlew, two hares were also active. While rabbits are definitely ‘bunnies’, being slightly cute and vacant-looking, I doubt anyone could call a hare a bunny. Hares look tall, elegant and serious. They don’t hop around, they stride, or they run. When they sit, they sit with an erect and noble bearing.

Hare, dismissive of the Curlew

Hare, dismissive of the Curlew

Definitely not gamboling

Definitely not gamboling

All that was slightly undone by one of these hares who stretched out, lay down, and then rolled over a couple of times. So, maybe slightly ‘bunny’ after all.

Sprawling hare

Sprawling hare

"Hope nobody is looking..."

“Hope nobody is looking…”

Also worth noting the Koniks, used to manage the section of the reserve where the Curlews were thriving. Their grazing creates a habitat for nesting birds and various insects.

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Koniks

There are four Koniks (or Konik Ponies) here, and they are a really interesting horse that will get their own post later in the week. They deserve it (you can now read it here). They are pretty close to the wild horses that used to roam Europe.

Not so many insects about, though a few Peacock butterflies and the odd Meadow Brown were spotted. However, this Longhorn Beetle was enjoying the nectar of the Cow Parsley.

Longhorn Beetle

Longhorn Beetle

All of which brings us to the ‘highlight’ of the day. I saved the Spotted Crake for last, not because it was the most beautiful or vivacious. Far from it, it is a pretty dull grey-brown, and basically just skulked about the reeds. It’s last because it was the last bird we saw. On our way out, not having seen it originally, we popped back in on the off-chance. Only to be told “Yeah, it was just out but it’s gone again”. Happily, five minutes later it did another little trot across the water, the first Spotted Crake I’ve ever seen.

Spotted Crake. No really, it is.

Spotted Crake. No really, it is.

As with the Pied Billed Grebe a few years back, I find myself wondering if anyone who came just for the one bird ultimately found it underwhelming? As an interesting new spot in a generally lovely day out, it’s great. As the centrepiece to the day? Some of those more ‘common’ waders would have stood out.

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In case you are interested, these are all the bird species seen in the day:

Robin

Blackbird

Tree Sparrow

Chaffinch

Goldfinch

Blue Tit

Great Tit

Wren (heard)

Blackcap (heard)

Chiffchaff (heard)

Bearded Tit

Yellow Wagtail

Pied Wagtail

Kestrel

Buzzard

Hobby

Marsh Harrier

Green Sandpiper

Greenshank

Redshank

Snipe

Ruff

Dunlin

Black-Tailed Godwit

Water Rail

Spotted Crake

Little Egret

Little Grebe

Lapwing

Curlew

Gadwall

Mallard

Shoveler

Teal

Posted in Biology, Birds, Green exercise, Mammals, Yorkshire | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

In praise of the British coast


Apparently visits to the British coast have declined by 20% across ten years, from 62% of people visiting the coast at least once in year in 2005, down to just 42% now. I find this really depressing.

The coast of this country contains many of my favourite places, some of which I’ve featured here, some I haven’t. Plus a whole range of places I have yet to visit. It’s a wonderfully diverse place.

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Bempton Cliffs

My heart lies on the Yorkshire coast, in both its traditional seaside towns like Scarborough and Bridlington, and the more remote and wild sections of clifftop. I love the little towns and villages that exist purely for small fishing communities. I love the geology, and the botany, and the zoology and entomology. I love the microcosm of the rockpool. I’ve loved it since I was a child, and I imagine I will always love it.

Alnmouth

Alnmouth

My recent trip to the coast of Northumberland was eye-opening, reminding me of another place I love, and why. Big open seas and skies, wind-swept and interesting.

I love the more remote and barren feel of the West Coast of Scotland, a place where you can watch actual eagles soaring overhead. It has a range of wildlife you don’t currently see anywhere else in the UK. It also has some of the best seafood in the world, and it has the best whisky distilleries too!

Calgary Bay, Mull

Calgary Bay, Mull

I love the Cumbrian coastline too. It’s often seen as a place of poverty and deprivation, home only to nuclear power stations. But actually there are expanses of sand dune and tidal lagoons.

Then there is Morecambe Bay. As a Yorkshireman, I am unwilling to admit missing much of Lancashire, but the stretch of land from Kent’s Bank round to Carnforth is glorious. Open tidal flats and salt marshes, with reserves like Leighton Moss tucked just inland.

Bridlington from Dane's Dyke

Bridlington from Dane’s Dyke

Across the sea we find Ireland, and across Ireland to a coastline open to the Atlantic Ocean. Connemarra is a place I visited once, but still feel a pull to visit again.

I’ve spent plenty of time in Wales too, and have a nostalgic attachment to Barmouth that only fading memory could ever take away. I spent time further South along the Pembrokeshire coastline too, both on holiday as a boy, and on fieldwork with university. It was the first place I ever saw dolphins and porpoises.

We took multiple holidays along the coast of Somerset, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset too. The fishing and mining villages are places I adore. The railway line from Exeter to Penzance is a journey everyone should try take at least once. Not a ‘role model’ memory to share, but being allowed cider outside a Cornish pub made me feel like a grown-up!

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Seal off Scotland

It’s also a short hop across to the Scilly Isles from Penzance, by plane or boat. These are some of the most beautifully empty places I’ve ever been, and a visit at the height of bird migration is guaranteed to throw up a few curiosities.

Sadly the South-East is an unknown to me, though I will put the right one day. From Portsmouth all the way round East Anglia and up to Skegness, these are areas I don’t know. But I know the fossils of places like Hunstanton and Cromer and would dearly love to visit myself.

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Spurn Point

Finally we come up through Lincolnshire and Humberside back to where we started. We pass places like Blacktoft Sands and Spurn Point, and anyone who has followed this blog awhile knows I make time for Spurn each year.

If you are in the 58% that haven’t visited the coast even once this year, you still have four-and-a-half months to put that right. The coast isn’t just a high summer thing, a shoreline in the deep of winter as late sun hits snowy rocks can be astoundingly beautiful. I was once working in a remote bay near Swanage in January. Watching the sunrise across glistening rocks, a fox walked down to the edge of the sea. It stood there looking out across the water a minute, then looked at me. We stared at each other for what seemed like days, then he turned and trotted off, looking for sleep at the point I was just waking up.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, all bring their own form of beauty to our coastline.

An Uamh Bhin, Staffa (Fingal's Cave if you must)

An Uamh Bhin, Staffa
(Fingal’s Cave if you must)

It would be good ten years from now to see that 42% climb not only back to 62%, but ideally past it towards 100%. While it may be cheaper for a lengthy vacation to go abroad, just one day out is achievable for all. Even if you live in Coton-in-the-Elms, according the Ordnance Survey the farthest place from the coast in the British Isles, you can still reach the sea in two hours. That’s more than quick enough for a day out.

Our local coast provides great scenery, good exercise, lovely food and drink, and wonderful wildlife. So plan a trip.


Any personal favourite places or stories from the British coast? Do you like the big resorts or the tiny villages? Or do you seek obscure and remote bays away from all prying eyes?

 

Posted in About the blog, Birds, Botany, England, Fossils, Geology, Green exercise, Invertebrates, Lancashire, Mammals, Media, Phenology, Plants, Scotland, Why watch wildlife?, Wildlife stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A stroll around Strensall Common


With another random day off work in-hand, I decided to take a wander round Strensall Common. What I remembered of Strensall Common is that it’s always good for a Green Woodpecker and some butterflies. What I forgot is that, because of the nearby army base, your peaceful walk is constantly accompanied by the sound of small arms fire. It’s very unnerving, even if you know it’s miles away.

Gatekeeper

Gatekeeper

But it was one of those strange days where, despite plenty of singing and calling, there is little to be seen. At one point we could hear a Woodlark, but it just never made even a fleeting appearance.

There were however plenty of Gatekeeper butterflies around the open heathland:

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The constant chirp of grasshoppers was another ever-present, though they rarely hopped into good view. When they did, they tended to leap for the undergrowth before any good in-focus picture could be taken.

Common Grasshopper

Common Grasshopper

As the rains came down, the birds went silent and steadily moved for cover. All bar one Great Spotted Woodpecker that landed on numerous trees and, at one point, a telegraph pole. You can clearly see the rain in this photo:

Great spotted woodpecker

Great spotted woodpecker in the rain

As we moved through into the main open heath of the common, the sun came back out, but still the birds proved elusive. That was until we hit upon one small group of no more than six bushes. In that group of bushes we spotted Siskin, Robin, Chiffchaff, Wood Warbler, Spotted Flycatcher, Dunnocks and Goldfinch. There may well have been more in there, but nothing was cming into the open and it made unpicking the mess of adult and juvenile birds an impossibility.

Juvenile Robin

Juvenile Robin

Spotted Flycatcher

Spotted Flycatcher

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff

Chiffchaff

Spotted Flycatcher

Spotted Flycatcher

I have a great record of spotting Green Woodpeckers here and, technically, this record was maintained just before we left. One flushed noisily from cover, but was only really seen flashing away through the trees.

The day had one little surprise left though. You can travel hundreds of miles to see wildlife, but if there’s a point I keep trying to make it’s that you don’t always have to go far.

Sure enough, walking along just two minutes from home after getting back, a flash of colour in a dark beck caught my eye. A kingfisher. While standing looking down the course to try spot it through the undergrowth, we were delighted when it flew back and posed pretty clearly:

Kingfisher

Kingfisher

If I was a betting man I’d say it’s a juvenile as they are often a little more open. You can also make out a slightly pale tip to the bill in the reflection in the pictures.

Long-term readers know I’ve been looking for a decent kingfisher photo for a while, so I was delighted to get this, even if it wasn’t shining in the sunlight.

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A quick jaunt along Filey Brigg


As a boy, Filey is one of those towns we visited a lot. Sometimes we’d just get in the car after my parents finished at work, and go there for a summer evening. In my head it basically consists of a fish and chip shop, a lifeboat station, and a memorial garden with caged birds.

Filey from the top of the Brigg

Filey from the top of the Brigg

Filey Brigg is taken to refer to the whole peninsula, but the brigg itself is a spit of rock sticking out from the headland about 500 metres into the sea. The word brigg is from Norse and means a jetty or quay, probably a reference to the historic use of the tidal rocks.

Filey Brigg, looking South across the bay to Bempton

Filey Brigg, looking South across the bay to Bempton

Amongst those rocks are a number carrying these unusual markings:

Roots? Burrows?

Roots? Burrows?

This is something called thalassinoides, a type of fossil. It’s actually the track left behind by burrowing animals in ancient sands under the sea, in this case from the late Jurassic (around 160 million years ago). Each burrow is 2-3cm across.

Thalassinoides fossils

Thalassinoides fossils

The burrow was probably made by something like a crayfish or shrimp, burrowing into the sediment as it searched for food.

The way the fossil is seen here is as a cast, where mud and other sediment has filled in the burrow. The surrounding rock is a little less robust, weathers away more quickly, leaving these natural casts.

Thalassinoides fossils

Thalassinoides fossils

For some reason I didn’t actually take a photo down the brigg to show it. But there was a little life to be found, including Redshanks, Black-headed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Common Tern, Oystercatcher, and gannets out to sea.

There was actually a dead gannet there, presumably washed in from the sea, which I photographed but won’t share here.

Oystercatcher

Oystercatcher

Redshanks

Redshanks and an oystercatcher

I’ve often seen common seals off the brigg, sometimes watching me with as much interest as I watch the, but not today.

There are many fine rockpools along the brigg, and as long as you are careful it’s a great spot to introduce children to this particularly British experience. There were plenty there on this day looking for fish, crabs, and starfish.

A microcosm of marine life - the rockpool

A microcosm of marine life – the rockpool

We then hiked up the side of the brigg (Carr Naze). There is actually the remains of a Roman signal fort there, but we didn’t have a look. Also, escaping the dominance of the gannets, a small colony of kittiwakes on the North side of the brigg.

Kittiwakes

Kittiwakes

An obliging little Tree Pipit posed for a while on the drying Cow Parsley.

Tree Pipit

Tree Pipit

Tree Pipit

Tree Pipit

That was that for Filey. Except we wandered back down into the town, saw the caged birds, and had our fish and chips. Because even 30 years on, there are some things you have to do!

 

Posted in Biology, Birds, Geology, Green exercise, Scientific Terminology, Tracks, Yorkshire | Leave a comment