Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Birds on the cycle home

Only the second day back at work and on the way home this evening I picked up three dead birds. Sometimes I can go weeks and not see a dead bird and then three come along together. I don't know why and they were all lying by the roadside within half a mile of each other on a sunny late summer evening. The robin is so tiny when held in the hand and the larger black bird is a juvenile thrush I think while the tawny owl is little more than a shattered headless feathery memory of it's former self, the beautiful barred wing feathers waving sadly in the breeze. When I stop carefully to pick up dead birds the passing traffic must wonder what I'm up to, normally I can quickly pop one discretely on the bike rack but today I had another strapped to the side of the pannier and a third in my pocket.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Wharfedale Pt 2

Adding to Dunc's post about the wonderful weekend spent in Yorkshire, I thought I'd share this photo of the Wharfe, taken at the same time as Dunc's panoramic shot. It amused me that we both appear in each other's shot.

I loved 'Swallows & Amazons' as a child, and recall a scene in which Ransome describes a dipper, so I have always associated it with Northern waterways, but have never knowingly seen one - it's not present in Norfolk anyway. The quick flowing, rocky Wharfe is a very different river than those of the Broads with which I am familiar, but I shall always remember it with fondness for those moments of watching from water-level as the little brown and white dipper jumped from stone to stone, diving, bobbing and splashing.  For a moment, Ransome's description came to life, and I was submerged in river and memory.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The River Wharfe - Yorkshire

Had a wonderful weekend visiting family in Yorkshire. At the bottom of their garden, in Ilkley, the River Wharfe flows past through the trees with the level and pace of the water determined by the amount of rainfall on the moorland above the valley. Fishing with nets in the golden peat stained water with the children soon turned up a number of species of fish including the Bullhead (Cottus gobio), the only UK member of the cottidae family. (*The Miller's Thumb), many minnows and a few sticklebacks. The minnows and sticklebacks were easy to net as they could be reliably scooped out of the water downstream of your feet as they tried to find things to eat in the disturbed silt. The Bullheads were harder to catch as they stayed on the riverbed and had to be sought out under stones and, with the aid of a snorkel and mask, I could carefully chase them into my net.
Taking pond dipping to new depths I snorkelled into the deep hollows under the far bank and enjoyed swimming at speed over the river bed moving with the flow of the river and trying to spot hidden fish with my diving torch. Under water the light was considerably restricted by the clear but peat stained water and in the atmospheric gloom I was able to briefly chase a rather surprized brown trout but failed to uncover any of the elusive crayfish I was primarily hunting for.

Other creatures found included: Dragonfly and caddis fly larvae and several species of birds. It was wonderful to watch the wildlife from the level of the water surface out in the river and in particular to observe the bobbing and swimming of a Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) as it sprang from rock to rock above the fast moving shallow water. Also watched an iridescent kingfisher flying fast along the river bank, an urgent blue jewel speeding past the dark shoreline foliage. Such a beautiful part of the country.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Osprey 'Pandion haliaetus'

Great little birding expedition with the children down to Shapwick Heath. We were down there to try to see the osprey which has been seen in recent days hunting fish over one of the lakes and is regularly to be found on a water-bound tree stump to the left of the hide.(*A regular annual visitor) On the walk there were a lot of bird watchers with large scopes trying to see a rare small brown/grey 'Spotted Crake' in some distant reeds but I had no hope with my inadequate binoculars. We did see the following bird species however: Grey Heron, Little Egret, Sandpiper, Lapwing and Buzzard. With the help of Gary's telescope I was also able for the first time to distinguish a Green Sandpiper from a Ruff and a Black-tailed Godwit, but I don't think I could positively identify the Wood Sandpiper or Spotted Redshank that others were watching.
Once in the raised hide above the lake we were able to watch the osprey for 10 minutes, sitting on it's distant perch preening and stretching. All of the children had a look at it with Gary's scope and I was able to take some rather blurred photographs with my little digital camera through the eyepiece. The value of decent binoculars or a telescope is again very clear as without them the osprey was little more than a distant brown smudge on the top of a brown stump. The osprey then took off to fly towards Shapwick, presumably to hunt, and for a brief moment I watched it airborn being tentatively chased by a rook and sharing the sky with a female Marsh Harrier and a Buzzard, not a bad morning then.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Diving with grey seals.

A short film of the Farnes and scuba diving with the wonderful inquisitive seals.

On almost every dive in the Farnes we were accompanied by grey seals. On some dives, like the Hopper, the seals were the most dominant feature of the dive and would swim around you almost continuously. On one dive a seal grasped the leg of my dive buddy with it's paws and closed its eyes with pleasure, much as a dog might, as he scratched it's side with his other fin. They would frequently sneak up behind you to paw and bite at your fins and would often be seen peering at you from the kelp or rather half-heartedly hidden from behind rocks. Also as we explored the cliffs and gulleys looking for lobsters and octopus, in 10-20m of water, you would come across a seal just lying on the floor or wedged in a crevice as if asleep and you could approach to within inches without the seal seeming to mind. Although quite bulky and barrel-like, the seals were astonishingly fast underwater and could turn on a six-pence. Gliding past they would roll on their axis so that they could look all around with their big eyes, weightless and streamlined in the water the rear flippers alternately splayed as they effortlessly drove themselves along.

Farne Islands - Under Water

Spent a great 4 days diving in the Farne Islands. Dives characterised by good visibility, steep underwater cliffs, lobsters and seals. we dived a number of wrecks but mainly focused on scenic underwater landscapes. The gulleys and cliffs were thick with life and amongst the dead mans' fingers and other soft corals and sponges, we saw nudibranchs, squat lobsters, shore and edible crabs, thousands of sea-urchins and short-spined sea scorpions. There were a huge number of lobsters of all sizes with many out and about on the ledges and rocks while the really big ones could be seen deep in rock piles safe from divers, seals and lobster pots. Fish were surprisingly scarce, no doubt because of the predations of the seal colony, but pollack could be seen on the deeper dives, the occasional cod hidden under the wreck plates, butterfish and other blennies and scorpion fish on the rocks and few congers deep in the crevices. We saw one beautiful octopus hiding in it's daytime lair but failed to find any of the elusive wolf-fish which can apparently be more reliably found further north at St Abbs.

Saturday, 20 August 2011


The last few days have seen a reawakening of the hedges, garden and fields around us. It has been notable how birds that have been absent have reappeared, active and evidently stocking up. Included in this are the kestrel pair that hunt around Ashby St Mary; today the male came down to the meadow opposite us to hunt. In lieu of his normal perch of telegraph poles, he used the trees across from our house, allowing me to get some shots:

Although kestrels are known for their extraordinary ability to hover, it is clearly less draining to perch watching the grass for a tasty vole!

Farne Islands - Above Water

Really enjoying walking along the coast from Sea Houses back to the campsite each evening after we have filled the dive air tanks for the next day's diving. The 2 mile path takes you through a golf course and along a cliff and then along the huge arching beach behind the dunes by the road and the campsite. There are many birds, particularly pipers and other waders in the shallows and on the wallowing reefs just off shore. Also lots of wonderful rock-pools and I have collected many discarded crab shells and feathers as well as finding time to sit on the steps at Sea Houses harbour and sketch the fishing boats. Learnt never to sit at 5-o-clock in a harbour and draw because, as fast as I could sketch, new boats came into harbour to moor up for the night and so everything changed. Saw a common lizard sunning itself on the afternoon rocks, and was able to get surprisingly close before it darted off, and also found a striking yellow and black caterpillar on the footpath which I think will become a cinnebar moth although the last one I saw was as a child at a bird reserve in Hunstanton in north Norfolk.

Thursday, 18 August 2011


We enjoyed a delightful weekend in celebration of Duncan's 40th birthday. Camping in the woods, and enjoying the outdoor life for a weekend we were also able to indulge in a bit of hedgefinding. Undertaking the Big Butterfly Count allowed us to engage some of the children, which yielded 23 specimens of 7 species in 15 minutes. With reasonable certainty, these were:
  • Small White Pieris Rapae
  • Large White Pieris brassicae
  • Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta
  • Speckled Wood Pararge aegeria
  • Peacock Inachis io 
  • Gatekeeper Pyronia tithonus
  • Brimstone Gonepteryx rhamni
We also undertook a bug hunt and identification which the children seemed to enjoy. All in all a really memorable and satisfying weekend of natural history, friendship and family.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Shrimping at Frinton

Above in order:
• A Compass Jellyfish – (Chrysaora hysoscella)
• A Lesser Weever Fish – (Trachinus vipera)
• Common Shrimps (Crangon vulgaris) and Isopods (Idotea baltica)
Every year since I have been old enough to hold a shrimp-net I have been shrimping at Frinton-on-Sea on the Essex coast during our week long family holidays. The flat sandy beach seems, to many, to be devoid of life, but as soon as you start pushing the shrimpnet along, especially at low tide and along the breakwaters, allsorts of marine life can be found and studied. As my buckets and tanks fill up with specimens holiday makers, dog walkers and children seem genuinely surprized that so many things can be found so close to the beach. Each year the variety of species changes with the weather and temperature presumably altering the ebb and flow of breeding cycles, but each year the main players are always present - the shore crabs, the common shrimps and isopods. Some years there are hundreds of hermit crabs, gangs of gar fish on the surface and prawns on the breakwaters but this year none of these. Caught many shrimps as always and as for Frinton rarities, I caught two small straight nosed pipe fish (Syngnathus phlegon), a common starfish (Asterias rubens) and a lesser weaver fish.
The inventory in total over a sunny week is as follows: Common shrimp, isopod, common starfish, sea gooseberry jellyfish, compass jellyfish, common jellyfish, sand hopper, shore crab, swimming crab, weever fish, various fish fry, straight nosed pipe fish, beadlet anemone, common starfish, test of sea potato urchin, shells of edible 'brown' crabs, piece of tail of common lobster and many types of sea-weed and sea-shell - dominated by the 'Buckie' or common whelk.
• Note: We have now been natural history blogging for a year.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Essex Sting Rays

I was talking to two fisherman on the beach about when they choose to fish and what they catch. It seems that they are mainly after bass but also catch garfish, whiting, mullet, cod and various rays. I talked about the ray cases 'Mermaid's Purses' that I have round on the beach which I think are the egg cases of Thornback Rays (Raja clavata) and the fishermen explained that a number of very large stingrays have been caught at Frinton-on-Sea. A common stingray (Dasyatis pastinaca) was apparently caught last month from the beach here which weighed 50lb and one last year from the breakwater that broke UK records at 82lbs! These must be huge fish at over 6ft in length and with a dangerous venomous barb. Its easy to forget that such wonderful things live in our seas as I rarely see rays when I'm diving but then I don't spend a lot of time diving on sand ( *sand normally means that I have missed the wreck or reef). Apparently these large rays come into the warm shallow waters of the English Channel to breed.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Frinton Whelk and Crab Shells

In between times

This is an odd, liminal time of year. Balanced between the high summer of long days and high sun but not yet tipped over into autumnal bounty, there is a sense of pause, of slight caesura. The commonly seen garden birds are largely absent, moulting, vulnerable and shy, and only the last-man standing yellowhammer fanfares our morning cycle. The first fields harvested leave hares slightly startled to be unveiled again, and the last fledglings are finding their way in the world or not. Soon the swifts who still wheel overhead will quietly slip away and autumn fruits will become winter fat. But for now, there are unique sights to be seen; large Hawker dragonflies basking like exquisite Faberge pieces, and a road so biblically full of froglets that we can barely walk.