Monday, 27 January 2014

Of Pies and Plastic

The weekend before last Allan and I went "birding" down the Clyde. 

When I say birding, I mean that we started at the reserve, where there was a very pretty ring-tail quartering, and then made a punt for Stevenson's Point, where we ticked off purple sandpiper and met a very nice bloke who works on lesser whitethroats. Then we dashed down to Ayr to check out the ducks and deer, and glanced over Bogside for short eared owl - nothing doing - and grabbed lunch at The Ship. 

Seriously, if you ever find yourself in Ayr, drop in for a chicken and banana pie. Its one of those things that, once seen on the menu, has to be tried. So it was chicken and banana pies with mash and roast veg all round. 

I can't explain how brilliant the are, you'll have to follow your curiosity and seek them out for yourself. However, to enjoy them to their fullest, don't eat anything prior to going... honestly, nothing for a week. They also serve up excellent home made shortbread.

Female Hen Harrier (with wonderful glare from the window)

The was also a full adult portion of plastic available for those who know where to look.

You'll have heard me bemoaning the winter weather and its effects on the beaches of Cumbrae. The impact on Ayr was no less severe than that on the island - plenty of tree trunks and car tires - but, the composition of the debris was a little more diverse. The storms had bought more than macroplastics ashore.

Tucked away beside the car park was this wonderful demonstration of my thesis. Raw plastic pellets (nurdles) measuring around 3 mm in diameter, are mixed in with fragments of plastic marine litter. All the perfect size for consumption by fish, waders and any number of passing beasties. Another research question is forming in my mind... "How do seasonal storms affect plastic uptake by biota?..." Watch this space to find out....

Fragments, cotton bud sticks, nurdles; Ayr's got the lot

Most of these beads are pre-production nibs, commonly found in the sea's surface microlayer

Friday, 17 January 2014

Micro 2014 - the first microplastic conference

Apparently Brittany is quite pretty; however, at the first Micro conference, I was seeing none of it. Up, dressed, and to the venue before it was light; leaving at seven - mind shredded and voice aching - in the evenings. I was tired, I was alternately roasted or chilly, and I have the standard post-conference cold. I wouldn't have changed a thing.

Two days of excellent, varied presentations on the formation, distribution, uptake, and impacts of microplastic pollution, from speakers from all over Europe and a few other countries besides. Stand out talks included Bart Koelmans' excellent thought experiments on the partitioning of pollutants between organism and plastic, Matt Cole's wonderful work on planktonic uptake, and Lisa Devriese's work on the movement of contaminants to Nephrops (of course, I am biased).

We emerge, blinking in the unfamiliar daylight, for the group photo.
Being such an emerging field, many of the talks revolved around similar topics; where it was found, what it was found in, where it is coming from, and what it is doing when it arrives. However, there were a few core take home messages:
  • Think before you begin your experiment - those little thought experiments can put a whole new spin on otherwise routine research
  • Translocation of plastic from the gut to lymph or other tissues is a hot topic. In my humble opinion, in the event of potential sample contamination, if you can't rule out a false positive, you should try getting an actual negative
  • Fish from both midwater and benthic environments take in plastic (although this appears to be in the order of a few items per contaminated individual).
  • Invertebrates in labs have been seen to take up hydrophobic contaminants from plastic particles (see note below).
  • Read papers carefully, just because they allude to a link between an organism and microplastic, doesn't mean they found it!
  • The French serve excellent conference food (3 course lunches every day!)
  • Natalie is job hunting. Seriously - I worked that into every talk

A few thing in particular stood out for me:
  • In the world of hydrophobic contaminants, the microsphere is currently king (as is the massively unreasonable concentration of contaminant). While these experiments are an indicator of possibility, they are in no way relevant to the high variability of size, shape, and surface area to volume ratio observed in plastics recovered from the marine environment. We also have residence times for very few species, therefore the length of exposure is pure supposition. These studies should be viewed with caution.
  • The increasing level of research being carried out in rivers is encouraging. Mapping the route of plastic is the only sure way to attribute accountability. Until we do this, any contamination will be passed of as someone else's problem, and we will be unable to put financial pressure on major contributors.
  • I am still all for the idea of trophic accumulation of microplastics, but believe this occurs through the ingestion of animals which are retaining plastics within the gut. I have yet to be convinced of microplastic translocation from gut to tissues.
  • Four filled crepes is my limit.

In other news, I got no birding time in, aside from glimpsing a white wagtail on my way through Brest.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Eider are a Woooo-ing

Nothing says new year like wooing eider. I've managed to get out of the flat 3 time this year, and each time they've been there waiting for me. With some lovely friends. New year's day bought sightings of both red throated and great northern divers and, surprisingly, large numbers of razorbills and guillemots. Again today, there were a pair of RT divers (one a real corker) and eight or nine little groups of razorbills and 'mots.

I'm used to seeing the oddly patterned black guillemots in their higgledy-piggledy winter plumage, but seeing large numbers of other auks so close is a sign of all this bad weather we've been having. We've also had a trio of barnacle geese (not common on the island) in with the greylags. One with a black forehead and darker belly (anyone got any ideas on the cross?).

One thing I haven't seen this year is a wren, I've been keeping an eye on the garden, but so far nothing, none of Farland point either. Not a hint of the scolding chur. I'll keep you in the loop. Not much to report on the feeders, usual hungry winter mix. Getting greenfinches regularly at the moment though.

In other news, the next report of NB will be fresh from the Mirco2014 conference in Brest.

Hope everyone had a great holiday, despite the storms.