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!