Friday, 22 April 2011

Here's congratulations to Leigh Howarth (limelight hog and allround nice guy) and the guys at COAST

Leigh is once more getting his face, and his point, across. This time with a mention in "Scotland's first marine reserve already producing benefits" at Science Daily. Kudos

Summer at Spurn Point

Its the start of the Easter bank holiday, its cloudless, a perfectly tolerable 18 degrees, and I'm in the office. I'm hiding from tourists, listening to The Beatles and getting some much needed reading done. Whilst I'm here I might as well tell you all about Spurn Point, a spit of sand extending 3 miles into the Humber Estuary, graced with 2 lighthouses, a permanent life boat crew, an ABP station and a wonderful Yorkshire Wildlife Trust reserve.
The newer of the two lighthouses (both now disused) stands around three quarters of the way down to point, be nice to Andy in advance, you may get a tour
If you're a birder the odds are you've heard of the place. The mix of habitats and position on the North East coast makes it a prime site for both resident natives and falls of migrant birds and occasionally something rarer.

The reserve varies greatly moving inland from the sandy foreshore, a scrub of  dense gorse, grass and Sea-buckthorn flank the concrete road and occasional Pyramidal orchids show a flash of purple in the verges. This gives way to salt marsh and then extensive mudflats through which Curlew and other waders pick their way, their numbers swelled bi-annually by huge flocks of migrants. At the entrance are reed beds and ponds which hide Teal and warblers, and in the evenings Barn owls patrol the local grazing pasture.
The spit curves markedly into the estuary, the lighthouse is barely visible in the distance.
When I first went to Spurn with a university field trip on coastal erosion (the coast here is eroding at an incredible pace but that's a subject for another post) I had no idea what to expect. I really fell in love with the place, it has a very isolated feel to it and the passing seals and porpoises proved an excellent distraction from observing the crumbling coastline. I was lucky enough to meet the warden, Andy, a month or so later at the Humber Estuary Conference. I told him that I was looking for a two month summer placement at the end of my MSc and he agreed to put me to work on a project.
Home for two months. The ex-army bunks and my well organised floor-drobe.
After some negotiation with the great guys of spurn bird observatory, who included me in the daily goings on and made sure I got to the pub more than was good for me and my studies, I was put up in the beautiful cobble built bunkhouse. From this base I had perhaps one of the greatest summers I've had since I was little (and the six weeks were always blazing hot and seemed to last forever and every pond was full of frogs). I had the privilege of setting off daily whilst the reserve was still quiet and peacefully walking the three miles to the point.  I was often accompanied by hares, common lizards, weasels, butterflies, clouds of hover-flies, streaming out over the estuary for a week, similarly swifts, arcing the length of the reserve, and shy Roe deer which gingerly creep between the Buckthorn.

Whilst there I was working on mapping anthropogenic pressure on the reserve. I have to say I was astounded by the numbers of people who would flock there when the sun shone of a weekend, but in the week it could be calm and peaceful. On occasions when I was alone in the bunkhouse and the fret rolled in from the sea you could easily forget that there was anyone for miles.

Those days when I wasn't working I was free to explore, to brush up my very poor bird ID skills, and to pester whoever was passing through. I made some brilliant friends whilst there, obviously committed to the field, whom I regularly miss whilst out and about by myself. There was always something new to see as well, from the day that the wind carried hundreds of butterflies in from the sea, the fantastic sunsets that would light turn the damp exposed mudflats bright orange, solitary spider wasps bringing back prey to their burrows, to the gathering of the migratory flock toward the end of my stay. The sound of Sandwich Terns in particular (something that I came to begrudge for its constant intrusion whilst working) is something that will always remind me of my summer on the North East coast.

If you like you're spotting (whatever the species), enjoy your walking or want to go somewhere with a little history, I would recommend going whenever you first get the opportunity. Watch out for Brown Tail moth caterpillars, keep an eye out for passing porpoise, tread lightly near the Little Tern colony, and tell them Natalie sent you.

If you want up to date information on what's around, or to stay in the bunkhouse check out the bird observatory website for general information on the reserve visit the YWT website.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Natalie Welden | Blog -

If you've read my bio you also know that I'm a PhD student. From time to time if its of general interest I'll post interesting papers here. If you want more of the academic side, head to Natalie Welden | Blog -


Lizards next door

My neighbours are decidedly common. I can say this without the slightest hint of snobbery, for they live in a field. You should see the things they eat! I had barely moved to this wonderful Scottish island (home for the next three years) when I was distracted by them.

Cumbrae isn't short on things to look at. I'll go into birds in more depth later, for now I'll simply say that you can see more coastal species on the bus from the ferry to town that a lot of places can give you in a day's walking. There are seals and harbour porpoises to distract you daily. Rock pools stocked heavily enough to interest the most tiresome of children. Hedgehogs, badgers, rabbits.... My heart, however, has been stolen by the Common Lizards.

The first glimpse I had was on a particularly sunny walk. A swishing of dry grass stopped me in my tracks as I walked back toward the house... a flash of tail between the leaves... and joy of joys, emerging to enjoy the same sunlight as myself, a small lizard.

Instantly I was down on my haunches at the side of the road, peering at the tiny animal which was nervously eyeing the horizon, twitching his feet when I moved to quickly. Passing cyclists, of which the island has a never ending supply, looked at me as though I was crazed. Peering intently at the undergrowth, perilously close to the road. I was so concious of this that I resorted to such comments as "I'm not mad, there's a lizard". To be honest I don't believe it helped. I was then faced with the dilemma common to those who unexpectedly come across a little gem like this... Could I get to my camera without flushing the little beast?

No. I was infuriated.

However the lizards of Cumbrae have not left me wanting. I hear them whenever I walk in the sunshine, passing their field on the way to work, sauntering out with birding in mind, nipping to the shops. Infrequently I get good views, adults of around five inches, adorable three inch tiddly ones, particularly around the sun-baked sandstone wall beside my digs.

I adore this tiny community that makes me work so hard to be involved in its too-ing and fro-ing and hope soon to have some better pictures to post.

Vanishing Tails; the usual glimpse

Infuriatingly Close; the best view I got all afternoon.

Anyone interested in Scottish lizards can find more information at