This piece was originally published on James Common’s blog Common By Nature. James asked what influenced me to take an interest in conservation and this is my response:
When I was younger, I would occasionally feel jealous of friends who seemed to travel to the outer reaches of the world. They would head into the classroom after the school holidays with deep tans, photos of themselves bathing in warm seas and glamorous tales of mysterious places I knew nothing about. My holidays were nothing like this. They consisted of midges, anoraks and castle ruins. We never ventured outside of the UK when I was young and you could certainly never call anything we did glamorous.
It might sound boring in comparison, but my upbringing was incredible; outings were exciting and holidays filled with exploration and it is those moments which shaped my entire future.
A lot of our time together as a family involved getting outside and into nature and I have the most wonderful memories of these experiences; collecting shells from the beach and accidentally taking home a tiny crab which I tried to keep alive in the bath; pulling up in the car somewhere that always ‘had to have a view’ in order to eat our sandwiches; building dams out of fallen branches and stones to hop across rivers; devising a book which would contain pressed leaves which would help the world with identification; trying to rescue dead jellyfish stranded on the beach; spending hours staring into the large pond in my parents garden, hunting for newts and dragonfly larvae…to us, the outside world was one big playground and the games were made through imagination.
One of my most prized possessions when I was young was a Michelin ‘Eye Spy’ Nature book; a little spotters guide and checklist. I poured over the photographs, only dreaming what it would be like to spot a fox, tick off a stag beetle from my list or figure out which cloud I was looking at. I loved animals and was fascinated with the sea; its vastness and the activity beneath the waves left me totally enchanted and all of this wonderment came through the trips we took as a family and the books my parents kept in the house. I couldn’t imagine actually seeing any of these natural wonders with my own eyes.
This excitement over the natural world has stayed with me and has influenced my life in so many ways. My love of the sea led me to study Marine Science and take up diving. My love of animals saw me work a zoo keeper for years and take an interest in education. And the realisation that it was wildlife that truly enthralled me led me to trying to educate through words and communication. Although these days I could tick off a large majority of the things in my little Eye Spy book and I have seen things I never thought I would, my tick list has simply gotten longer as I have gotten older and that little girl, getting over excited at the sight of any wildlife, is definitely still in there (except these days her hands are firmly placed around a camera instead of a round the pages of a tiny guide). The things we did as children also help our family retain our bond; we still stare into that same pond counting newts, my brothers were told off only a few years ago in Spain for creating a dam on a beach and clambering up rocks is just a standard day out for us all.
The truth is many children simply don’t get outside enough to experience the natural world as much as they should these days and are often given technology as a substitute. But I implore parents to get their kids outside as often as possible, because when I think of my childhood it’s not the toys I remember, but the day my brother and I swung bags filled with water at each other in the sea, the shells my mother and I found and tried to imagine the creatures that once lived in them and the fossils our family spotted together in the rocks at Lyme Regis. These are the moments that inspire children and shape them into the adults who could be the difference between harming our world and saving it.
Tune into the news today and you will hear all about the ‘Beast from the East’; freezing winds arriving from Siberia, caused by a polar vortex. Phrases such as ‘3 feet of snow’ and ‘minus 15 degrees’ are being throw about on a whim at the moment, but the true extreme of the weather is yet to be seen.
Unfortunately for me, it could not have picked a worse time. Yesterday morning my fiancé hopped onto a plane and jetted off to the sunnier climes of Palma. Okay, so he was going to work which means hard physical labour and long days, but at least he gets to do it in a tshirt. I had also treated myself to a week off work. With him being away, it would mean that the dogs would be stuck at home alone all day, so I have taken time off to keep them entertained. I had planned on dedicating the week to the garden, I needed to re-establish some beloved stinging nettles which had been destroyed by cats before the red admiral breeding season started again, and January’s wet weather has been causing havoc with the lavender. But it seems that the weather has other ideas.
This morning, I woke early, bundled the dogs into the car and headed out to a local field. It is a field that we visit fairly often; a space which has easy access from the car to the grass is something valued quite highly by Lexus, my collie x lab. He has mobility issues and cannot walk too far but loves to lie about on sand or grass at any given opportunity. We had last visited this particular field around a week ago, and I recall thinking to myself how much it felt like spring. There was nothing in particular that I could put my finger on, just that feeling that the world was on the change.
Today, my surroundings were completely different. My car temperature read 2.5 degrees, but outside the wind chill feels a lot colder. A smattering of snow had been falling for several hours, the flakes tiny and dry. Thankfully they were not settling. Yet. Whilst Lex lolloped awkwardly over to somewhere he could sit and investigate and Laika ran off to explore and chase her ball, I walked the perimeter, partly to warm up and partly to explore.
The last time we had been here the ground had been soft, puddles of sloppy mud left from when the rain felt as though it would never cease. I spent a lot of energy trying to redirect Laika, who often finds herself drawn to the muckiest of spots. Today, the ground is hard; tractor tyre marks solidified in the mud, the ridges make the walk uncomfortable. The tracks had been caused when a machine had circled the fields outskirts, cutting the top of the hedgerows. I felt saddened at the change; where only a week a go a large patch of galls had been threaded through an entanglement of branches, now just stood stark, spiky cut offs of branches, like rough stubble. Galls were littered on the floor. I moved many of them back into the hedgerow, hoping that being on the floor wouldn’t scupper the wasps inside chances of survival. These hedgerows are usually full of birds too, Stonechats, tree sparrows, chaffinches; many different species come here, hopping around between the branches, enjoying the cover and spoils the hedgerows have to offer, from blackberry fruits in autumn, to seed heads in the winter. Now, the birds had been forced to move on, their lifeline cut off and removed. I understand there must be a reason for this, but I have never seen these fields used for livestock or for crops in the years I have been visiting them to walk.
One mercy if that the grass has not yet been cut. Not only are there signs of rabbits enjoying the area, but around here the long grass usually hides a special bird. Sometimes, when I am here in the winter and the sun has already set, if I shine my torch around the fields I will catch a glint of sets of eyes, glinting in the light, staring directly back at me. After a few seconds, the animal will launch itself into the air with a flurry of sound. Snipes are quite common around here, the long grassed fields above Loe Bar providing the perfect habitat for them. In the summer, they are a delight to observe. The males launching themselves in to air, reaching dizzying heights, making loud drumming sounds as the air passes through the feathers in their tails, hoping to attract a mate. For now, they lie low, disturbed only when my crazy dog gets a little too close to their hiding places. WE don’t stay too long, the freezing temperatures managing to get through my 7 layers. Instead, I decide that today we will have to focus on entertainment at home, intermingled with short bursts of exercise throughout the day, instead of our usual long trips outside the house. I worry about Laika as the has a very short coat but isn’t very bright, so is unlikely to tell me when the cold has set in. On the drive back, the snow flurry increases and I can see it settling on the dormers of houses. The sun is due to make an appearance tomorrow before the snow really sets in on Wednesday and I plan for us to make the most of it whilst we can. Spring? You lied to me.
A few Sundays ago, I was woken by a sound familiar to every dog owner; Laika, my blue staffy was being sick. It was 3am when I had to get up, calm her down and clear up the mess and by the time I had finished, I knew sleep would not return to me. Thus it was, I found myself packing my back pack and heading up to Bodmin Moor at 5am. The drive itself was pleasant, I saw few cars on the road and was guided for the full hour by my headlamps. Arriving in Bodmin a little after 6, I still had over an hour before the sun would be in the sky, giving me the perfect opportunity to find a place to enjoy its rise – easier said than done. I have been given many instructions over time about great places to visit in Bodmin, but attempting to locate anywhere in pitch black without having my bearings proved extremely difficult and on multiple occasions I found myself turning down road after road to discover it led to nothing more than a dirt track.
Slowly, as time passed, the earth came to life. The sky was painted in an inky blue, the watercolour effect of the light seeping in starting from the horizon and despite the cold, I lowered my windows to listen to the first calls of the birds; blackbirds and robins up and singing early, despite the fact the sun had not yet risen. I found myself driving through a field which was flanked by a mixture of wild horses and ponies. Bodmin has lots of wild ponies; they have roamed the area for thousands of years. Many are owned by locals who allow them to live a free life, the moors providing the right habitat and enough food to keep them going. One white animal however was covered in mud, its hooves covered in thick brown dirt. It appeared to have a slight limp but was nervous, moving away from my car as I passed. There have been issues with the Bodmin ponies before; in fact, back in 2011, several ponies were found emaciated and later dead due to lack of care. The council stepped in and along with the support of horse charities in the area, the ponies were all looked after. Still, after I got home I contacted the South West Equine Protection group to let them know of the animal in the hope that someone might be able to head out and check on it to ensure that everything was okay.
As well as the ponies, there are a lot of cows and sheep that also roam free across the moors. Many of these animals have become used to human interaction, and whilst they won’t approach you, nor do they run from humans. I was particularly enamoured with the Highland cattle, theirs eyes hidden beneath their thick fringes, their sharp horns at odds with their otherwise soft and slightly dopey appearance. These cows have beautiful faces and are difficult not to fall in love with.
As the sun began to rose, I came across Delford Bridge, a small concrete bridge which crosses a shallow river. As I drove slowly over it, the sun began to finally rise over the moors, bathing the fields in a stunning light and revealing the true beauty of the area. All around me I could see nothing but the blue of the sky and the patchwork of the craggy pastures, knitted together by expertly made Cornish walls and patches of wild gorse.
I carried on my journey, getting increasingly lost. Pulling over, I scrabbled in my bag for a scrap of paper I had written a postcode down on. It was a post code for a mini car park so that I could stop and climb some of the local hills. The direction took my back onto the A30 for a time, before suddenly turning off to the left and onto a dirt track. The feeling that something wasn’t right started to niggle in my stomach, but I carried on, before getting to a thin road. Half way down, the pot holes started, but with marsh land on each side, there wasn’t really the space to turn around; I had to continue till the end. As I drove, increasingly slower, a sudden movement in front of me made me touch my breaks. Something large had jumped across the road, from one patch of gorse to another. Then another figure leapt from one side to the other, then another, and another. I sat for some minutes, waiting before driving in case there were other creatures hiding in the bushes waiting for their moment. When I was sure this wasn’t the case, I drove slowly again along the track and over a tiny bridge, leading to a solitary farm. Following the path that the animals were likely to have taken, led me to a few fields and sure enough a herd of roe deer stood, huddled together, staring directly at me. I didn’t take the chance to get any closer, fearing I would frighten them off. Roe deer are a fairly small deer species, with large ears, large black eyes and a large black muzzle. They are native to Britain and have been year for over 10,000 years. Once extinct in England due to hunting and habitat destruction, roe deer made a comeback, breeding from those which remained in Scotland, after work on woodland habitats meant that the right conditions have been re-established so the species can flurry once more. They are usually solitary, but in winter the animals will come together in small groups and it was amazing for me to get the opportunity to see them. They seemed completely at ease where they were, clearly spending time tearing through the countryside and across farmers land, where it is quiet enough that they likely get the peace they so desire. I watched them for a while. Some of them disregarded me, continuing to eat and go about their own business. Others watched me cautiously, whilst one large individual did not take its eyes off me. Roe deer mate during the winter months but are able to perform embryonic diapause; when the egg does not implant and the baby begin to develop till January. There are a few species that can do this; wallaby’s and polecats to name but two. It is thought that this is to birth the animals during a more appropriate time. For roe deer, it is thought that harsh winters are the reason why the deer’s go through this delay, meaning that the babies will be born as the spring arrives. I did not stay too long, not wishing to interrupt their solitude and as I had hit a dead end, begrudgingly started back along the dirt path, crossing my fingers that my little car would make it out okay.
Back at the main road, I headed in the direction of home but stopped off at Colliford Lake. There was no one else around, the air deathly quiet except for the occasional bleat of a sheep. I walked through the fields to reach the lake side. By the clear water, there was a lot of evidence of waterfowl, but not a single one was in sight. Behind me, separated by fencing, rooks, magpies and jackdaws walked between the sheep, picking at the earth for their breakfasts. A sudden commotion broke out, and at first I thought the birds were arguing amongst themselves. I walked a little closer, watching the birds fly up, surrounding something. Through the entanglement of angry wings, a large buzzard was attempting to make its way out of the fray, not doubt simply looking for its own sustenance amongst the grass. The corvids worked together to push it out of the field and it rose higher, circling the area before heading off towards the horizon.
I walked around the lake a little more, the landscape appearing bleaker with every step. I stood for a while, staring across the flat, crystal water. There was no life in the water that I could see, but beneath that translucent still surface, there would have been a myriad of excitement going on, a whole other world that I wasn’t able to explore. I headed back to the car to continue the journey home, taking the back roads past fields and through woodlands, admiring the scenery and dreaming of the day when I would be able to buy my own house up here, surrounded by nothing but nature, hearing nothing but wildlife. By the time I was forced out on to the A30, the sun was high in the sky and even though it was still not yet midday, it felt as though I had been out for ages.
I STILL haven’t climbed Brown Willy, the crown of Bodmin and the highest point in the county, but I will be heading back to Bodmin as soon as I can. There is something so alluring about this area of Cornwall; the raw, rugged landscape has an air of mystery to it, as though you can never be sure what is around the corner. Steeped in history and tales of beasts and ghostly sightings, the moors have long been a source of fear-tinged obsession for many. In fact, the term ‘going Bodmin’ even means to be going a little crazy, thought to be from spending too much time alone here in the wilderness, the locals here were once described as being a little different due to their stark surroundings.
As soon when the weather warms up, I will be packing up the trail cam, jumping in the van and spending the weekend in the area; wildlife and tales of ghostly apparitions, what more could you ask for?!
Over the weekend, my partner and I found ourselves with a couple of days off together. As the sun had decided to make a rare appearance, we agreed that we would spend as much time as we possible could outside. Our first excursion was over to Poldhu beach, also sometimes known Black Pool Cove, Mullion. The beach has a dog ban from Easter through to October due to how busy it gets, so we still get to enjoy it for the next month. The cove here and round the headland at Gunwalloe, both are quite changeable and when we arrived in the morning, a small pool had appeared further up the beach and the dogs spent a happy time paddling, dunking their heads underneath the chilly water to look for rocks at the bottom.
Whilst we entertained Lexus and Laika, Justin and I debated where to go and explore, and as per usual, settled on the decision of ‘lets just go and see what happens’. We dropped the dogs back at home; Lexi’s leg isn’t currently good enough for him to walk any distance, and headed towards Penzance. Travelling in a van can really change the perspective of journeys you have taken previously; being that little bit further up means you can suddenly see things you never could in a car. I forget sometimes, that even thought they don’t have the drama of the Scottish Highlands, Cornwall does have rolling hills, despite its unfair label of being ‘boringly flat’. We passed through Marazion and peered out at people walking the path to St Michael’s Mount, which is revealed at low tide, the castle appearing to glitter in the sunlight.
As we passed Penzance, a few ‘which turning?’ questions were fired out as we approached roundabouts and we eventually found ourselves taking the turning that led down the steep slipway to Sennen Cove. As it was half term, the beach on the right was fairly busy, with some brave souls even venturing into the water. First stop was the local café where we grabbed some cake and stood in the sunshine overlooking the water, eating thick slabs of rich tiffin and coffee cake. Not exactly the best idea before climbing the steps to reach the coastal path, but despite the feeling of having large rocks in our stomachs, we made it to the top and went to the watchhouse to look out across the water.
The West coast of Cornwall is famous for it’s fantastic bird watching opportunities, and Sennen is no exception. Along the shore line 3 egrets sat at random intervals, too far out for me to ID properly. An oystercatcher began to call when another flew to join it, before together they continued pecking around the rockpools for their lunch. In the sky was a mixture of gull species and I identified herring, greater black-backed and Glaucus gulls, and between them, large white birds with thick black wings tips. Every now and again, one of the circling individuals would suddenly dive downwards, reaching high speeds, their long neck outstretched. Their sharp beak would hit the water and the birds would disappear beneath the waves. Gannets are an honour to watch when they are hunting, they divebomb towards the ocean with the most incredible aerodynamics, reaching up to speeds of over 60mph. Their dives, which will start as high as 30m above the waterline, help to propel them under the water, giving them the opportunity to hunt deeper than most other species. The dives are powerful, but gannets have air sacs in their face and chest to help cushion the impact.
As we were watching the acrobatics take place, 3 dark shapes cut through the water, dorsal fins rising and falling with the waves. Bottlenose dolphins are seen fairly often at Sennen and whilst we only spotted 3 breaching the surface, pods of up to 15 individuals have been sighted in the area, and more may have been staying underwater. They seemed to be making their way in towards the shore, but a few metres out, where the water appeared shallower, we lost track of them, assuming that they must have changed direction.
Before we continued our walk, I let a couple heading up the headland brandishing large-lensed camera’s (something I had disappointingly forgotten to bring with me) know about the dolphins; sharing the excitement with others is something I always do, hoping that others can share in those special wildlife moments. Around the headland, we watched as two rock climbers scaled the rock face and another photographer dared herself closer to the edge to try and photograph the corvids which swopped around the crevices of the rock face. A pair of jackdaws argued as they flitted in and out of a hidden space. It is too early for them to be nesting already, but pairs tend to stick together, forming very strong bonds with each other throughout their lives, so it is possible that this pair was window shopping. Jackdaws like to nest in small spaces, and whilst it seems the majority of them seem to be in mine and my neighbours’ chimneys, rock faces are highly favoured spots to start a family in. They will start to lay around April time before babies fledge around June.
The sun was short-lived, and the rain set in causing us to make for home. The dogs had been alone for a couple of hours, so it was about the right time for another walk anyway, albeit a slightly soggy one, before the 4 of snuggled up under a blanket in front of a film as the came down outside the window.
This was originally posted on the Cornish Seal Sanctuary blog:
We are currently in the middle of half term at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary and visitors are enjoying seeing all our usual faces, as well as the many pups that are currently in the process of rehabilitation.
But we have also got an exciting new attraction for visitors to see. At reception, renowned Cornish artist and environmentalist, Rob Arnold, is exhibiting his work ‘Plastic Pollution’. The exhibition compromises works created from Rob’s many beach cleans. The aim is to educate people about the horrific devastation that is being caused by plastic in our oceans, which is killing marine life, including seals. In fact it is estimated that 1 million sea birds and over 100,000 marine mammals are thought to lose their lives due to ocean rubbish annually.
Rob became passionate after a documentary about albatross dying after ingesting plastic aired. This inspired him to try and make a difference and he became a prolific beach cleaner. His Facebook page displays the incredible amount of plastics he has found; including over 3 million nurdles and pieces of microplastic from just one beach clean. In fact, he has even built a machine which helps to sort through plastic, separating the rubbish from the sand.
“I can’t bear to see animals suffering and dying from the way we’re polluting the planet and destroying their environment,” Rob says. “We humans have the intelligence and technology now to preserve all the beautiful life forms that we share this planet with, but instead, we’re selfishly destroying it for them, but ultimately for us too.”
From all of Rob’s finds, he has created some incredible pieces, which look fantastic but actually hide a darker message. Among the art being displayed at the sanctuary is Rob’s exhibition namesake ‘Plastic Pollution’; a sad scene of the damage being done to the ocean created entirely out of white plastic finds, a piece about lost Lego and a scene involving toy soldiers which have been in the sea for over 30 years.
One exhibition is a prawn made entirely of orange and red plastic pieces. “Microplastics contain practically no orange or red” Rob says, “this is because fish eat them, mistaking the colours for food particles and therefore, not finding the microplastic indicates they are already in the food chain”.
Another incredible part of Rob’s finds on display are plastic rocks. These mysterious rocks were introduced to the seal sanctuary team last year by Rob when we met him during a photographic event in St Ives. Since meeting him, the team have been finding their own plastic rocks during beach cleans at local beaches, which we are now using as part of an activity at our rock pool. In Rob’s exhibition, there is a case filled with hundreds of plastic rocks and one real one – but can you tell it apart? The plastic rocks are utterly shocking and what is scarier, is that no one is exactly sure what they are, however it is suspected to be possibly from burnt plastic that has entered the sea.
These are just some of Rob’s works currently on display and the exhibition will be remaining at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary for the rest of 2018. “I spend a lot of time removing plastic litter from our beaches to try and reduce the human impact on sea life, but I feel that no amount of beach cleaning with solve the problem. In fact, in a way it hides the problem. So this is why I create my art with the litter I collect, to raise awareness and show people just how bad things have gotten. Maybe then, they will make some simple changes to their lifestyle and behaviour to reduce plastic pollution at the source.”
So what can you do to help?
Plastic is a really big problem in our oceans and something we need to tackle together. So what can you do to reduce the amount of litter in our oceans?
Try and select products with less plastic – single use plastic makes up around 50% of the plastic we use. Use refillable drinks bottles, avoid plastic straws, use cotton tote bags instead of plastic and choose a bamboo toothbrush instead of a plastic one.
Don’t drop litter – anywhere. It is thought around 80% of ocean litter has originally been dropped on the land, then enters the sea via drains, rivers or the wind, so always ensure you dispose of it correctly.
Recycle – try and reuse or recycle everything you can to ensure it doesn’t end up in landfill.
Check your beauty bag – make up wipes are clogging up our drains and microbeads have been making their way into our oceans and up our food chains. Try and use products which are better for the environment and dispose of everything correctly.
Pick up any litter that you can – all litter can cause a problem, so if you see it, pick it up and dispose of it correctly.
Join a beach clean – the more we can get out of the ocean, the better! Pick up litter when you are at the beach or check out your local wildlife groups to join them in organised beach cleans. Check out our Facebook page to join our latest beach clean.
We were barely out of the car when Wayne Dixon headed for a nearby stream to retrieve an old bodyboard. “These are a nightmare,” he explained in his soft Lancastrian accent, “places sell them for five or £10, so for some people its easier to just leave them behind at the beach rather take them away”.
Wayne is currently nearly halfway through a 7,000-mile journey around Britain with his Northern Inuit dog, Koda. The pair have undertaken the challenge of walking the coastline picking up litter in memory of Wayne’s late father and Koda’s first owner, John, who loved walking. Raising money for the charity MIND and for the Northern Inuit dog rescue, the pair have raised over £12,000 so far and covered 2,700 miles. Official Ambassadors for Keep Britain Tidy, Wayne is armed with a litter picker and bin bags, even Koda has his own mini backpack, as they walk around 6 miles per day, clearing as much as they can.
In order to support Wayne in his challenge, members of the Cornish Seal Sanctuary team joined him and Koda for a beach clean at Kennack Sands yesterday, accompanied by artist Rob Arnold and local wild swimmer Denise Gent.
At first glance, the stretch of golden sand and designated nature reserve appeared to be clean, but on closer inspection, the beach clean team found it had a lot of micro plastics; nurdles and bio beads. Nurdles, sometimes nicknamed mermaid’s tears, are tiny plastic pellets which are melted to make plastic products. Bio beads are similar sized plastic pellets but are used in filtration in sewage works. Both have been found in their masses along our coastlines and can release toxic chemicals and be eaten by marine animals. There was also a very large amount of polystyrene, as well as the usual pieces of fishing litter and discarded dog bags. Some of these finds are daily occurrences for Wayne, who has also found a flymo in the middle of a woodland, washing bowls discarded down quiet country roads and spare dog bags; in fact he finds so many on his travels that he never has to buy any.
Despite walking largely around the coastal paths, Wayne was quite keen to stress that beach cleaning wasn’t the only thing we need to consider, “We need to focus on land litter. A large percentage of litter starts on land and makes its way into the sea. I find a lot of paper cups and crisp packets that have been thrown out of car windows that kill small animals.”Wayne’s main focus is to change people’s mind set’s when it comes to litter; encouraging everyone to pick up at least one piece “I find it frustrating when you see a dirty beach and you know 100 people have been on that beach. If they all just picked up 1 piece, it would clear the place up”. As part of his tour, Wayne has been popping into schools to teach children about litter picking, including not dropping litter and taking action when they do see it, explaining the impact that litter has on wildlife, something we see regularly at the sanctuary when our seals and pups become trapped in discarded nets and plastic bags.
After cleaning up the beach and returning to the sanctuary with sacks of litter and pockets full of nurdles, Wayne and Koda visited the seal sanctuary for the first time to visit the pups in the hospital and following the rescue stories, as well as enjoy a coffee and a pasty. At the convalescence pool, Koda was by the seals and Wayne saw his first ever real-life otters; the sanctuary’s very own Apricot and Harris!
After spending the day with the sanctuary team, Wayne and Koda headed back to Henry’s campsite, the Lizard, where the pair spent the night before continuing their journey up the South Coast of Cornwall. Wayne encourages people to join him when they can, so if you would like to join him for a clean-up, follow his journey or donate to his incredible cause, check out his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/WayneDixonwalkingtheUK/
I have never really considered myself a serious twitcher. Whilst I have always adored birds and love to see and photograph them, my interest has been more of a casual byproduct of generally loving nature, rather than a specific hobby. Over the last few years, I have become more serious about birding, developing my skills and falling further in love with this class of animals. But at the beginning of this year, I became aware of Birdwatching Magazine’s #My200BirdYear, and a slight obsession has set in. The avian publication has set a challenge to all of its readers; can you spot 200 different bird species in just one year? During my initial investigation, I discovered that apparently not many people have managed to complete this challenge (so far no one I found has hit 200, one person made 187..)and I began totting up the bird species I know I see regularly. As I started to hit the 50’s I thought ‘surely this can’t be that hard? I know I see those birds on a regular basis and I’m not even trying’. But then it hit me – I see those birds on a regular basis…over and over again. Another 150 on top of that? That was where the challenge was. I decided I wanted to join in, and sporting my new bird watching book, I began to take notes of the species I saw. (N.B I am counting properly, I haven’t just thought about what I see on a regular basis and included them! As of today, the current count is 48!)
It only took a few days for this casual new hobby to develop into an ornithological obsession, and I found myself developing an excel spreadsheet to keep a log of all my sightings, joining new facebook groups to aid with identification and stopping constantly, much to the annoyance of others, to follow any tiny movement amongst tree branches. Overall, the challenge is going to be a positive one for me. I have always been stronger with other animal groups, so anything which develops by birding skills can only be a good thing. I find myself photographing everything I see and then scrutinising the pictures after, hoping for something I have never witnessed before, as well as pouring over bird ID guides, wondering what I might have spotted. Thus far, one of my favourite spots has been goldcrests and firecrests, who I enjoyed a short spell of following. The way they weave quickly around tree branches makes them a delight to observe, although a nightmare to try and photograph.
I was also excited to spot my first ever lapwings when a small group flew over the RSPB estuary at Hayle and I enjoyed discovering willow tits nesting site at work, as well as the usual suspects which have been fairly regular in my world for some time, such as curlews and choughs. A couple of days ago, I had a particularly special moment. Whilst taking an early morning walk on my patch, I heard a repetitive chirrup and a scratching sound from high above me. Squinting into the sunshine, I searched the branches, thinking ‘please, please, please’ in my head. Sure enough, at the top of the tree, my first nuthatch was pecking at the bark, looking for insects beneath the lichen. The first of the season for me, and although I haven’t yet seen another, it has made my year (already!) to know that they are around again.
But not only is this new found infatuation a positive step personally, but I hope that overall it will be beneficial to the birds themselves. It has opened my eyes further to the large amount of species around my patch, and as a lot of my work will be focusing on conservation in the future, it means that I can log these species and help to create an environment which is more beneficial for them in the future. I have made links with the local BTO and am excited to be taking part in future counts and surveys and have developed a keen interest in curlews, with ideas about projects ongoing. Because at the end of the day, this is all it takes. An interest, a little bit of excitement and this develops into care, which is something that all of our natural world needs if it is to survive.
Have you been taking part in #My200BirdYear? If so, what number are you up to already? If you haven’t, why not join in? It isn’t too late to start!
As storm Eleanor looms over us, the winds were already fairly strong this morning. But despite this, a group of us made our way down to Gunwalloe to brave the oncoming storm to clean the beach. We are all aware of the pollution our marine environment is struggling with, not just plastics, but all sorts of alien items we have been duping at sea over the years, which we are only just now starting to understand the ill effects of.
We got to the beach at 11am to start the public beach and I was really excited to see a large group of people of all ages, ready and waiting to join in. The beach clean would actually compromise of 2 beaches; Dollar Cove and Church Cove, both in the National Trust owned area of Gunwalloe. The beaches, despite being right next next to each other, are very different. Roughly similar in size, Dollar Cove is made up of stones and rocks and clay lumps which have fallen from the small coastal cliffs surrounding it. Rocks lay along the water line, creating amazing rock pools, and whilst the tides do reveal some sandy areas, they are few and far between. Church Cove is separated by a small section of cliff and St Winwalloe’s Church, a small yet beautiful space which gives a moment of tranquillity when the waves are raging. This beach is largely covered in sand, and is connected to the stream which runs alongside the golf course. The river that runs down to the ocean changes depending on the wind and tide and some days it isn’t there at all.
We began the clean on Dollar Cove, clambering over rocks to collect up all the items we could. Bottle tops, bits of netting and plastic wrapping were the main items we picked up here and a lot of plastic nurdles. We located some large items here, including large plastic bottles and an enormous piece of netting, which we managed to retrieve and get in the back of the car. “Have you found any exciting items yet?” I asked a couple as I passed them on the beach. “”Not really, ” the gentleman replied, “We have never done anything like this before, I can’t believe how much there is here”.
After we had spent a decent amount of time searching the beach, we made the walk past the church and onto the second beach. The difference here was immediately obvious and if we thought there had been a large amount of pollution on the first beach, we were not prepared for the second. “I see netting!” someone called out as the beach came into view and started running off to retrieve it, excited by what we were doing. As we got closer to the beach, we realised it was littered; chunks of net, huge strands of rope, pieces of plastic in all sorts of different colours, the beach was scattered with different alien objects which should not have been there. Everyone set to work, collecting what we could. Packets, bags, a tiny plastic rake, plastic straws, some Lego flippers – the list of foreign objects was endless and they were everywhere. The team spread out, all bent over, repeatedly throwing brightly coloured bits into bags, a workforce set against the crashing waves as Storm Eleanor became angrier. Others who were not officially a part of the small team joined in, helping to pick up the mess which littered the sand. But as well as foreign objects, there were lots of natural ones too. This beach is well known for the amount of cuttlefish bones which are beached here, and recently, large amounts of by-the-wind sailors (velella) have been stranded here, and died, their tentacles long gone, only the hard sails left behind, some ringed with the deep blue colour they possess in life. Sand pipits skipped along the same at the top of the shore, chasing each other and calling out as they flew.
After several hours, the group were tired and with aching backs, we called it a day before the rains came in. I brought the car over and we loaded up; the boot and back seat filled with the rogue-treasures of the day. We decided to head over to another beach over the headland, Poldhu. This area has its own beach cleaning group, so we decided to use the time to drink hot chocolate from the little cafe instead, huddle around benches, trying to shelter each other from the wind, as we warmed our fingers around ridged cardboard cups of creamy cocoa.
I took the items back to the sanctuary, where I will sort them; those items to be recycled and those to be used in a future project. The large amount of items was shocking, and even though I feel positive about the amount of people who turned up, it is yet another example of the shocking devastation we are causing our planet; the thing that feeds us, that house us, that enables us to breathe. From the mess along our coastlines, to the creatures getting washed in from the ever-increasing storms, our environment in screaming out and we still aren’t listening.
We need to change our behaviour immediately, before it is too late.
These words, spoken by Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream, talk about confused seasons; of ice covering rose petals and of humans, unhappy with the poor luck in summer. This is just one example of when Shakespeare references climate change; the bard made multiple references to unseasonal goings-on throughout his work, although what he and others at the time would have understood of it is not really well-documented, as our current understanding on the human impacts were not really understood until the last century.
Today, the erratic seasons seem to be more glaringly obvious, and this December is a perfect case study of our confused climate. The expected cold snap arrived late, only for the temperature to heat up again, before another sudden decent into zero temperatures occurred without warning. Snow flurries were unprepared for and as the UK became embroiled in the annual argument of how poorly we cope with the white stuff, our wildlife must also struggled, with many not ready for the colder climate. In the days before the temperatures dropped, there had been a lot of activity here in Cornwall. Bumble bees set about searching for pollen and they would have been in luck, as many plants came into bloom again. Fields of daffodils erupted, lighting the grey skies with their butter-cream bonnets, and even sea pinks coloured once more along the coastlines. Of course, snow never hit the county, except for on the Cornish ‘highlands’ of Bodmin, but we did see temperatures drop to zero in pockets across the county, each of the microclimates creating its own meteorological display.
One aspect of winter which has been bothering me is the distinct lack of nuthatches. Last year, I counted many nuthatches in the area, their plump bodies scaling tree trunks, hunting for insects in the bark with their long, pointed beaks. They are fantastic birds, adorned in stunning colours and with a real feisty attitude; bold and territorial. I love to watch them, and whilst they have confidence, they often circle round the tree trunk opposite to where you are; meaning photographing them can be tricky! But despite many sightings last winter, this December, they all seem to have disappeared and I haven’t yet counted one. This concerns me as research has been recently published which proves that birds are being greatly affected by climate change. On the surface, warmer winters may sound preferable to many birds, and in truth, it is. Many species will thrive thanks to few deaths from freezing temperatures and an abundance of food; however the issue is that as those species which prefer colder climates are forced elsewhere, their ranges greatly reduced, and as a result the biodiversity is ultimately decreased which will have a serious knock on effect to our environment overall. The report, The State of UK Birds, was released earlier in December, and many aspects of it are shocking; changes to bird populations are startling, as rising sea levels and increasingly warmer temperatures affect habitats and breeding of many of our species. Of course, the curlew is once again highlighted as being a bird in serious danger, and I will address this in a later post by itself, but in Cornwall the birds are now only thought to be breeding high up in Bodmin and little is known about population numbers. I interviewed Dr Daniel Hayhow, a Scientist who has been leading the research, for New Nature magazine, and despite his positivity about the future, I came away feeling slightly distressed. Dan Jarvis, Welfare Development and Field Support Officer with British Divers Marine Life Rescue, just this month showed me some research he had done regarding call-outs to marine mammal rescues. They have been tracking the amount of call-outs over the last few years, and whilst this is always a busy time due to grey seal pupping season in Cornwall, in the last couple of years the dramatic increase has been alarming, with over 80 call-outs in October alone– and Dan believes it is all due to the recent storms we have been having. Seal pups are struggling in the rough seas and are ending up wounded, malnourished and separated from their mothers. The recent increase of storms is thought to be directly linked to our ever-changing climate and many predict it will only get worse; especially if El Nino arrives as predicted.
We are only at the beginning of winter of course, and with 2 more months left to go, it may be that those cold temperatures will arrive during January and February, so we have time yet to see what changes will occur. Time will also tell what effect the late blooming flowers will have during the warmer months, when those species will need their energy to bloom once more. I will still be out daily searching for those beautiful nuthatches, whom I hope, we haven’t seen the last of yet.
On Friday, I took a walk through the woods. The sun was shining, and autumn was in full swing. A light breeze caused the occasional scatter of crisp leaves, which drifted to the floor around me, settling on the already-golden carpet…
Of course, this type of rhetoric is quite common around this time of year, but autumn is a biologically important time and it is sometimes easy to overlook that with the beautiful changes which occur.
In truth, autumn means vital adjustments for nature as the start of the cold weather sets in. The loss of leaves may be aesthetically pleasing, but there is an important reason behind the process, and I really love the fact that the process means you get to see parts of nature that you don’t always get to, and it was for this reason that I took a walk by the river.
The loss of leaves is an important occurrence for trees. It actually happens as a way of protection during the colder months. Deciduous trees tend to be broadleaved and such leaves are highly susceptible to damage during the colder months, and by shedding them, the leaves protect themselves, conserve energy and prevent water loss. The annual process begins around the same time every year as the temperature begins to decline. Trees will cut off certain cells which provide leaves with the vital supplements they need. Nutrients are reabsorbed and stored in the roots. As chlorophyll is one of the first nutrients to be broken down, this triggers the colour change that we love so much, as the lush greens drain out. As food and water leech from the leaves, so does the life, and eventually they die, causing them to dry out, crisp up and fall off. And with them, come some amazing sights that you don’t usually to see.
I was looking for something quite specific on my walk, and I was super excited to find several specimens. The first was a pair of perfectly round spheres stuck to an oak leaf. These alien globes are often mistaken for fungi, but they are in fact, gall wasps.
The wasps themselves, in this case likely the oak marble gall (Andricus kollari), aren’t seen that often so finding their galls is extra exciting. These balls form after the female lays her eggs inside the plant tissue. The larvae feed on the tissue, and whilst very little is known about the actual process which is occurring, it is thought that the grubs secrete chemicals which adjust the plants normal growth process resulting in abnormalities in the plant cells. The wasps are exploiting the plants to give their young a protective home, aiding them in the start of their life, pupating inside these strange but exquisite orbs.
The galls largely contain single larvae, but in some cases, such as with the oak apples, multiple larvae can be secreted. Sometimes, the galls will also contain other insects, some just feeding on the gall without being the cause, others parasitise on either the gall or the wasp larvae inside.
Continuing my search of the woodland, I was treated to a few other specimens. I came across a different shape of gall on an oak leaf, this time flat and in larger number. These are common spangle galls (Neuroterus quercusbaccarum). Another oak leaf treated me to a doughnut shaped gall, the work of an oak silk-button spangle gall wasp (Neuroterus numismalis).
Whilst the few I found have all been caused by wasps, not all galls develop due to insects. In fact, there are lots of different types of galls and they can be caused by bacteria, viruses, mites and fungi, as they are the result of a reaction within the plant cells. In fact, galls are not restricted to plants either, they can be found on animal bones or even on humans. Galls are so widespread that there is a form of study dedicated to them, cecidology, and the truth is we don’t know a great deal about them. However autumn is a fantastic time to study these nature phenomenon’s, so whilst you’re out walking, take a closer look at the leaves which fall, study the changes, and get more acquainted with some of the fascinating secrets which are going on around us all the time.