Monday, 14 September 2015

Rockpooling at Robin Hood's Bay

I have mentioned the Phoenix Group several times before, here and here, and you will likely be hearing a lot more about the group. Every year us Phoenix members get to go on a wildlife-watching weekend, as a sort of thank you for helping with conservation work on the Phoenix events. Last year we had a wonderful time looking at coastal migration with Richard Baines, and this year we looked at the broader theme of coastal wildlife.
The weekend away took place in August, and we all had a very good time. Of all our British wildlife, those living on our coasts are of particular interest to me, so this trip was just perfect for me.
On the first day we did a very enjoyable fossil hunt, which I was very happy about because as well as loving the wildlife of the present day, I also like prehistoric life. We found several rather nice ammonites, and discovered some beautiful specimens left out on the rocks by a previous fossil-hunter. As well as finding a great deal of beautiful fossils, we also sampled some edible seaweed known as pepper dulse, Osmundea pinnatifida. It is a sort of red algae, though it can also be brownish in colour, and has flat branching fronds emerging from its main stem. It is fairly small, but each tiny frond packs a lot of punch. Upon sampling some of the pepper dulse, the first thing I got was an explosion of salty flavour in my mouth, and then a distinctly peppery tinge. Upon further research when I got home I found that in Scotland it is dried and used as a sort of pepper alternative, or even in curries.
After collecting our fair share of fossils (my coat felt like it weighed a ton, as I had stuffed the pockets with as many fossils as I could! I'm still picking shards of stone and fragments of ammonites out of my pockets) we headed back to our minibus to drive up to the main part of Staithes. I had visited Staithes once before, and had rather liked its cosy, peaceful atmosphere, in which everybody seems to know and get along with each other. Staithes is located in Scarborough, and is a rather nice little fishing village, with a small beach and peaceful harbour.
We headed out to sea in a small fishing boat in the hope of seeing whales or porpoises. Whales had recently been sighted in the area, so we all had our fingers crossed.
However, it was not our lucky day, and even after getting a radio call from a fisherman, saying that he could see a pair of minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) mere metres away from our boat, we failed to spot them, and saw only some fulmars (Fulmaris glacialis), a couple of gulls, and a gannet (Sula bassana) or two. However, I was not too disappointed as I rather like going out in boats, so the whole experience was enjoyable, whales or no whales.
We checked in at Cober Hill, a lovely hotel in Scarborough, after our boat trip, and enjoyed a pleasant meal and sleep, before rising early for the following day's activities.
That Sunday, our final day, was most certainly my favourite part of the whole trip. We went to Robin Hood's Bay, another nice little fishing village, which is situated in North York Moors National Park. I have recently found out that the village has a darker history. Apparently during the 18th century Robin Hood's Bay was being used to smuggle goods into Yorkshire. Even more interestingly, supposedly there is a series of secret underground passages connecting the houses which may have helped with smuggling and are still around today. However, it is not certain if this claim is true or not.
Robin Hood's Bay has some very good rockpools, probably some of the best in Yorkshire. Our arrival was timed with an unusually low tide, which exposed the kelp forest. Completely forgetting about keeping my clothes dry, I waded into the deep rockpools, with long fronds of kelp wrapped around me like octopus tentacles.
We found a variety of creatures in the rockpools, including several that I had never seen before. Our first find was a small common lobster (Homarus gammarus), speedily followed by the discovery of a pair of small edible crabs (Cancer paguras). We found several fish species, including a rather tame 5-bearded rockling (Ciliata mustela), which often curled around my hand if I put in the container we were temporarily keeping it in, a long-spined sea scorpion (Taurulus bubalis), and a butterfish (Pholis gunnelus). I also saw what I suspect may have been a common dragonet (Callionymus lyra) when I peered behind some seaweed, but it darted away too quickly for me to get a decent look at it.
Next came the sudden discovery of nearly 10 edible sea urchins, Echinus esculentus, which aren't too common over here in the east of England. We found the typical light pink form, as well as one with a greenish tinge and some beautiful purple-pink specimens. This particular species is so-called for its edible gonads, which are known as roe.
I found a large crack in the rocks and slithered in to see what I might find in there, which was perhaps rather foolish as it was a tight squeeze and I could easily have got stuck in there. However, I found nothing more than a rather cute strawberry-sized edible sea urchin, and got a rather wet shirt. I did, however, have fun when emerging from a hole directly above me and bursting out of a curtain of kelp to shock my fellow Phoenix members!
I also found 2 common brittlestars (Ophiothrix fragilis), with beautiful red-and-cream bands on their long arms. I have held starfish before, which are close relatives of brittlestars, and found them rather sessile, just lying limply in your hand. I was shocked at the stark comparison when I held a brittlestar - it slithered along over my palm, its long arms wriggling like octopus tentacles!
We also found a variety of crustaceans, including common hermit crabs (Pagurus bernhardus), velvet swimming crabs (Necora puber), broad-clawed porcelain crabs (Porcellana platycheles), a hairy crab (Pilumnus hirtellus), and many tiny chameleon prawns (Hippolyte varians), which are remarkable in that they can change colour depending on their surroundings.
All in all, our day rockpooling at Robin Hood's Bay was very enjoyable, and very much worth getting a little wet!
The whole Phoenix trip was wonderful, being the subject of one of my main interests (coastal wildlife), and I keenly look forward to our next trip. Keep an eye out for more posts on the Phoenix group!

Until next time, keep on the wild side!

Monday, 8 June 2015

Sea Birds At Bempton

On the 8 April, I went with the Phoenix Group (for more information on this group, see my previous post here) for a trip to Bempton Cliffs, a truly wonderful RSPB reserve. I had not been to this area for a while, so I was looking forward to seeing the multitude of seabirds and other wildlife that makes its home there!
Unfortunately, for the whole of the morning the weather seemed determined to make sure that we would be utterly miserable, by raining a great deal. We didn't see much, just a few bedraggled-looking guillemots (Uria aalge). However, we did see 2 bridled guillemots, which are a form of the normal species, which can be distinguished by the white around the eyes and the lines that stretch out from behind the eyes. This was a first for me, and they were great to see!

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The bridled form of the guillemot.

A new visitor's center has recently been opened, and it is a very nice place, with plenty of interesting books and other things for sale, as well as hot drinks. We had our lunch in there, and thankfully by the time we'd finished, the clouds had disappeared from the now blue sky, the rain had stopped, and the sun was shining brightly.
We had a wonderful afternoon, in which I learned lots of fascinating information. I saw one of my favourite birds, the razorbill (Alca torda), and learned that the inside of their mouths are bright gold in colour! I saw this for myself when a surprisingly close razorbill turned straight towards me and opened its mouth as wide as it could, as if to show off its lovely gold colour!

  A razorbill opens its mouth, displaying the gold colouration inside.

But of course a trip to Bempton Cliffs would not be complete without puffins (Fratercula artica). We were not disappointed, and we saw many of these lovely creatures. Surprisingly, during the winter, when the puffins are out at sea, they shed their brightly coloured bills, leaving a drab one in its place. This is because the bright colours are only used in the breeding season to attract a mate, so when the next summer comes, the bill once more becomes beautiful and colourful!
The highlight for me, though, was a barn owl (Tyto alba) which flew over the meadows that grow on the cliffs. The red campion growing beneath it reflected on its belly, making the feathers glow pink.
We also saw many kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), a sort of gull. We saw a large group of them flying into a nearby field to pick up mud and grass to put in their nests on the cliffs. Apparently visitors often complain about mud falling onto their heads, because a kittiwake flying above them has just dropped some of its nesting material!

A kittiwake, showing its dark-coloured eyes, which I always think give it a rather amiable appearance.

Every year the volunteers at Bempton count up the seabirds, which us at the Phoenix Group got to have a go at, too. We were given clipboards with images of small patches of cliff. We had to find that area, count up the birds there, then compare that to the amount in the image. In this case we were counting guillemots. It is more difficult than you might think, even with binoculars, because you keep forgetting which birds you've already counted! After doing that, we did another survey, in which we counted the nesting pairs and the eggs visible. This was even more difficult, as sometimes it isn't very easy to tell which ones are brooding an egg and which aren't. The guillemots very rarely allowed us a glimpse of an egg, keeping themselves huddled over it to keep it safe. It was an interesting insight into the difficulties the volunteers at Bempton face!
We were all thoroughly surprised and bamboozled when the volunteer who was showing us around told us that she was taking us to see 'the elephant'. We were led to a viewing platform, from which we could, apparently, see the elephant. It turned out that the elephant is in fact a massive, natural rock formation that juts out of the cliff. It resembles the front half of an elephant, complete with legs (or alternatively tusks), and a large trunk that disappears into the sea, apparently sucking up water!
Overall, it was another wonderful day with the Phoenix Group. I can't wait for our next trip, and we will hopefully visit Bempton Cliffs again soon.

Until next time, keep on the wild side!

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Phoenix Group

First of all, I would like to apologise for the lack of posts recently. I will try my best to start blogging more often!
Last year I joined the wonderful East Riding RSPB Phoenix Group. It is an environmental and wildlife group for youths aged 12 to 19 years old. It is run by the East Riding's Countryside Access Team, and members of the group can simply turn up on the activities they like. I had been wanting to join for a while, so I was happy when I finally turned 12 and I was old enough! Since then I have attended many of the activities, and enjoyed absolutely all of them! They are very hands-on (exactly what I love!) and most of the time we are doing important conservation work. I always come home feeling that I have made a difference to the local wildlife.
Here's a summary of some of my favourite Phoenix activities to date:

Coastal Migration Weekend:
Every year the Phoenix group does a weekend away wildlife watching, and in 2014 we were looking at coastal migration. We learned about bird ringing, and even got to have a go at it ourselves. I loved getting up close with a great-spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), watch it being ringed, then released! As well as seeing some species that I hadn't seen before, I also got the opportunity to fully appreciate the beauty of common garden birds. It is easy to take these species for granted, but when you see them up close, even hold them, you realise what wonderful little animals they are. I particularly liked the goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) that we saw being released.
My favourite part of the whole weekend was when we were stood beside the sea, watching two amazing animals. Looking out to sea we spotted several harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) splashing about in the waves, but looking behind us to the cliffs a pair of peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) could be seen!
Walking along Filey Brigg, we found several rare black oil beetles (Meloe proscarabeus), which I was particularly pleased about.
All in all, it was a lovely weekend away - perhaps my favourite Phoenix activity yet!

Wild In The Woods:
On this day we went to Millington Wood (in Pocklington) and learned how to manage an ancient woodland and also make charcoal! I learned how to use an axe to chop pieces of wood, which are then arranged in the charcoal burner. When it is lit, it starts smoking so much that it is quite difficult to go near it! We only saw a small part of the process of charcoal-making, since we were there for a day, and it takes several to get the charcoal just right. The charcoal burners can tell when it is ready just by the colour of the smoke rising out of the kiln! This was certainly a fun, educational day that I won't forget!

Winter Wildlife Day:
For this activity we went to Blacktoft Sands RSPB Nature Reserve, a wonderful place that I would highly recommend. We went right into the reed beds to do some hands-on conservation work, which was great fun! We learned how different animals depend upon reeds of different ages and sizes, so areas of the habitat are cut and burnt to allow for new growth. This makes it a very varied mosaic of reeds in various stages of growth, making habitats for many species. We had the opportunity to help out with this process, moving some of the cut reeds into piles and burning them (safely, of course!). While we were doing this we heard a bearded tit (Panurus biarmicus) making its distinctive 'TEEP . . . TEEP!' call. The winter of 2014 has been a good one for this species at Blacktoft Sands, because in this area we had little ice and snow. This means that the reed seed that the bearded tits feed on during the winter did not freeze and become difficult to get to.
In the afternoon we retreated to the bird hides to relax and watch some fascinating species. I saw over 100 widgeon (Anas penelope), as well as 2 of my favourite duck species: pintail (Anas acuta) and shoveler (Anas clypeata). I also saw a first for me, goldeneye ducks (Bucephala clangula).
We also spotted 1 kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), 1 sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus), 1 hen harrier (Circus cyaneus), and 6 marsh harriers (Circus aeruginosus). The marsh harriers provided us with some interesting behaviour to observe, including one individual attempting to catch a coot (Fulica atra) paddling in one of the lagoons. We also saw a male displaying to a female in the air, doing complex loop-the-loops, to 'Wow!'s of amazement from myself and the other Phoenix members.

As you can see, I have a great time when I attend these activities, enjoying myself and often doing useful conservation work at the same time. We have cleared areas of invasive Himalayan balsam, cleaned ponds of litter, and helped coppice woodlands. If you are aged between 12-19, then I would highly recommend joining the Phoenix Group!

Until next time, keep on the wild side!