Sunday, 16 October 2016

SHAAARRRK!!!! Everyone out of the water!!!!

SHAAARRRK!!!! Everyone out of the water!!!!

Saturdays weather was a bit odd. Easterly winds whipped up the sea at Druridge into a proper old lather, to the point where foam was skidding across the beach like icebergs calving.The retreating tide left piles of debris including big blocks of seaweed with the large stones they sit on still attached via the holdfast.

The visit was my inaugural training session with Dan Turner on the Northeast England Beached Bird Survey. We walked the beach searching for evidence of beached birds, in particular fulmar, which are recorded, measured and in some cases collected for further work. It was enlightening to see how this was undertaken and the data will be added to a growing international effort collating information on the impact of human plastic waste on seabirds, in particular fulmar.

These fabulous pelagic birds sweep the waves plucking food from the crests. Watching them, they effortlessly ride the wind, masters of the air. Small items of plastic, foil and even balloons are mistakenly swallowed in place of their normal diet of shrimp, fish, plankton or jellyfish. 

No surprise then that the guts of fulmars are becoming packed with plastics, including nurdles, sweet wrappers and latex. This is one of the outputs from the work for which this survey is being completed monthly, and by volunteers. It may seem macabre but the science is needed. 

Amongst the flotsam, the first find was a fresh guillemot, an immature bird and underweight, possibly unable to feed adequately due to the weather? Wing length, weight, bill measurements and other biometrics were taken and finally the wing tips were trimmed to prevent double counting.  
Dan examines the Razorbill
Nearby the remains of a small passerine were also recorded and bagged for later identification before the discovery of a razorbill, stripped off flesh but again quite fresh. This time an adult and aged three (counting the marks on the bill). 

The force of the waves had deposited a huge amount of debris on the beach including logs, rope, buckets and lots of plastic. In particular, the strandline was littered with nurdles, they were everywhere! 

Multi-coloured lentils of plastic bobbing around the oceans at the whim of currents and tides to be cast upon our northern shore, hiding themselves within the sand to be freed when the waves come back to claim them. Will some of these find their way into any of our fulmars I wondered. Even worse, a bakers dozen of MacDonalds Happy Meal balloons lurked in the flotsam, the residue of an innocent child's treat that escapes to become another hazard to our embattled seabirds.

It makes me feel like dressing as a clown and lurking outside burger bars to frighten the punters. That seems to be a twist on a current theme and it would be great if a few of them came down to work off the cholesterol with a beach clean workout, picking up where they left off. 

Then it happened; I found the best thing I have ever found on a beach to date - a SHARK! 

Small and grey, it was in very good condition and very unexpected. It was collected and taken from the beach for a clean up and identification. I was so excited I bought a shark book today from Tynemouth market.

Leaving Dan after a very interesting morning, I returned to another part of the beach near Cresswell Pond, determined to make an effort to address the crap dragged in by the sea. By this time the sea had started to come in and it was fast, fast, fast. Small waves zoomed in over the preceding ones where the foamy residue lubricated the sand and their reach got greater as I wandered along the top of the beach, picking up polystyrene and cellophane. I was almost caught out by the silent approach of foamy water on more than one occasion, surging up the shore as if Neptune was unhappy that I was there, stealing the offerings provided so regularly by those less aware then myself.

I haven't seen the waves so slick here before and the incoming tide was well ahead of me, forcing me into the dunes to wend my way back slowly. My reward for the work appeared suddenly out of the marram, a fantastic Short-eared Owl flushed from cover by my sudden appearance. His own eruption forced a flock of 200+ small birds to flight - Goldfinch, twite and linnet sent twittering into the sky to dance in the sky like sooty snow, breaking the roar of the sea with their sparkling song. 

The waves were surging into Cresswell Pond as I passed, hide windows partially open gazing blindly into the sunset as the channel swept itself without the aid of man, as it should. No doubt "she" will leave too much water, making twitchers twitch on Twitter.

For the record, this was my first sighting of the Playmobile Great White Shark and it came home with me. It's safe to go back into the water - but not today.

Monday, 10 October 2016

The remains of the day

I don't like Mondays - normally.

However, today I managed to escape the early morning management meeting for a meeting with Dr. Clive Waddington to look at the Low Hauxley excavation site we completed two years ago. 

Despite the forecast, Hauxley reserve was bathed in sunlight for most of the day and the bushes were full of robins, goldfinch and lots of redwing, song thrush and blackbirds, obviously newly arrived. I was surprised when a chiffchaff started to call from the rosa rugosa thicket, creating the feel of spring rather than autumn. 

The new path through the reserve gives the visitor a much greater range of habitats including reeds and scrub woodland and new screens provide opportunities for views into bits that were previously out of sight. This rewarded me with a great view of a group of 20+ oystercatchers lurking at the edge of new scrape. The light was excellent and the birds were quite close. This group were all perched on one leg and it was hilarious watching them jostle for position without putting the second leg to the floor. It was as if they were iron filings on paper with a magnet beneath! When the music stopped, the bird without a chair proved to be a Grey Plover which had been hidden by the throng. Nice!

On reaching the beach, it was apparent that the erosion of the dunes (and the dig site) was severe and the peat's that had been revealed was stripping back faster than expected. However, the visit proved useful as Clive found some in situ stones within the peat layer which suggest the presence of a man-made structure, probably a fire hearth. Having excavated a similar feature with Clive and a few volunteers, it was exciting to think another relic from the neolithic ages was tantalisingly close but could be gone with a single high tide or storm. 

Whilst chatting I asked Clive about what looked like a piece of metal in the peat. On examination this transpired to be a nodule of ironstone within the peat, ochreous enough to be visible. Clive was excited with the find as this material has shown up in excavations as a residue on flints and it is a component of the material mixed with tree resin that waterproofed animal skins used in the construction of boats. Wow!!!

The peat is a perfect record of the local environment after the last ice age and the erosion is stripping back the pages to reveal some of its secrets, in this case a perfectly preserved silver birch trunk with the paperlike bark as good as the day it formed. Every little bit recorded makes the picture clearer and its brilliant to be able to use this to add structure to tell the story. 

It was also amazing to look at the new visitor centre, build by volunteers from straw, clay, wood and stone only to think these techniques would have been utilised by the residents who arrived in this area after the glaciers had retreated. The only difference is probably health and safety. And chocolate biscuits.

Just to add more sugar, I found a well preserved vertebrae from a cetacean, possibly a small neonatal porpoise, to add to my growing collection. 

I think Mondays should be optional if they are not like this.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Murton Meandering

A sunny start to the day greeted me as I wandered up to the top of Caudwell Lane to lead a walk around Murton with local residents who are collectively campaigning against proposed housing in the area.

North Tyneside Councils local plan suggests 3000 houses will be required in this area, removing the greenbelt which has kept the individuality of small settlements. Having lived in the area since my teenage years, this has been part of the countryside that nurtured my own interest in natural history. I have walked, cycled and ran through these fields and hedgerows, drawn by the variety of things I would see whilst sweating, grunting or hobbling. 
I will freely admit the prospect of gardens, roads and suburbia here are not exactly welcome, albeit recognising that the location of my own home would have been just the same once upon a time.

Whilst waiting for the group to gather, robins sang from the bushes whilst redwings flew over, probably recently arrived on migration. Up to 500 greylag geese flew south as the group formed. Our cohort  wandered westwards along public rights of way noting more robins, small groups of linnet and groups of winter thrushes (blackbirds and redwing) feeding on elderberries. A low flying kestrel caused concern as it drifted through one of the two aged apple trees in the sparse hedgerow, their ripening fruit hanging heavy.

It looks to be a good berry year and the birds are starting to make use of it and there were blackbirds, redwing and a single song thrush amongst the hedges. Goldfinch and house sparrow lurked silently deep in the depths, but the wren didn’t like being so close to us. Just as well the cover was there when a beautiful male sparrowhawk appeared, only to be mobbed by linnet and jackdaws, making his way towards New York. Close examination revealed the history of the hedge where hand layed branches showed the intimate care taken, sadly replaced by flails and the loss of winter food.

Peppered with discussion about the fear this lovely mosaic of habitats will be lost, the walk proved the value that is placed upon urban fringe countryside far outweighs the immediate or visible elements. It is personal wellbeing at the core, a connection with the environment that is easily overlooked.

The walk back to the start point (without the tractor that had broken the silence earlier) threw up a small tortoiseshell butterfly, late for the year. Even better were the skylarks ascending, the carousel of sound greeting us and highlighting the quintessential nature of countryside that will be lost should this productive ground be lost under concrete and brick. Worth a fight I think.