The World of the Rock Pool

One activity I can spend hours and hours doing at the beach is rock pooling. The love of exploring the rocks and finding the creatures that live in the pools has stayed with me ever since I was young.

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The intertidal zone is a unique and fascinating habitat, with no two rock pools being exactly the same. The pools vary in character depending on their proximity to the shore and their position on the tideline. Deep, sandy-bottomed pools nearest to the sea are inhabited by fantastically spiky spider crabs and ornate hermit crabs. Steep, weed-coated pool walls provide infinite hiding places for gobies, blennies and butterfish, some fish even hiding in damp crevices as the tide retreats and surviving out of water until it returns.

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Shallow pools are encrusted with smooth pink paint weed (a type of calcareous algae), delicate seaweeds and anemones with their flowing tentacles elegantly outstretched in the still water. The structure of the rocks is sculptural: tall cliffs of smooth grey stone, swirled patterns on the surface coated in tiny white barnacles and hundreds of mussels attached tightly, packed together.

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My rock pools of choice are on Saunton Sands in North Devon: miles of sandy beach, sand dunes and undulating rocks at the base of the sloping cliff to the north. There have been years when I have found hundreds of hermit crabs swarming on the sand at low tide; seen small, camouflaged cushion starfish hidden under rocks, caught eels, slippery and elusive and once found a solitary green sea urchin. One spring day, a huge log had washed up on the rocks: it was completely covered in goose barnacles! Having never seen these seemingly otherworldly creatures before, I had no idea such things existed. Sadly, being out of water, they were doomed, but persisted in pulsing their ‘cirri’ through the air: these are the feathery combs they and other types of barnacles use to sieve plankton from the water.

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There are particular pools I will return to again and again, as they are guaranteed to have some large fish and crabs to catch. Observing the blennies change the colour of their skin to match their surroundings is fascinating: these fish are perfectly adapted to the rock pool environment. Even the more stationary creatures are endlessly interesting: beadlet anemones, gem anemones and snakelocks anemones are bright as jewels, as though sculpted from glass.

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The easiest rock pool creatures to observe are often slow moving dog whelks and common prawns, which home in to investigate fingers and toes dipped into their pools. Shore crabs of different colours and sizes can be found, each full of character: there are tough, old, large crabs, crusty with barnacles, legs or claws missing and small, delicate green or sand-coloured crabs, with many more moults of their skin before they reach full size. The life of a crab before it settles in the rock pools is spent floating free in the ocean: for the first 2-3 years of its life it is plankton.

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Using an underwater camera gives me a realistic glimpse of the view of a rock pool creature: what may seem like an insignificant small pool to an observer on land, is actually full of life, food to eat and places to hide for many species.

Transylvania Expedition

I travelled to the Tarnava Mare region of Transylvania in June 2015 as a research assistant with Operation Wallacea. The purpose of the expedition was to study the wildlife that resides in the habitats and the traditional farming practices that shape this unique area. Designated as a Natura 2000 European protected area, there are a multitude of species that make the ecosystem extra special, including bears, wolves, birds and butterflies.

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The village of Richis

The landscape was beautiful: not a fence or gate in sight, with thick forest clothing the hills into the horizon and villages nestled in the valleys surrounded by small arable fields and rich hay meadows. As part of a team of other students, I assisted in a number of surveys: bird point counts, bird ringing, botanical surveys, butterfly transects, small and large mammal surveys, bat surveys and farm visits. A highlight of the trip was going out with a local hunter for the evening: we sat quietly in a clearing by a meadow until dusk and were lucky enough to observe a family of wild boar emerge from the woods, as well as spotting a roe deer, watching noctule bats wheeling high above our heads and hearing the elusive corncrake calling!

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Forester moth and Green lizard

It was exciting exploring a landscape where large mammals live and thrive: we saw the scratch marks of brown bear on a cherry tree in the woods and found tracks and hair of beech marten. Sightings of roe deer were a regular occurrence, as were sightings of red-backed shrike – a beautiful bird with a wicked hook at the tip of its beak. We saw the smallest and largest woodpeckers in Europe: the lesser-spotted and black woodpecker. Observing bee-eaters, hoopoes and tawny owls was a treat, as was listening to some of the bird species I’d never heard before, such as golden orioles and marsh and river warblers. Standing watching pipistrelles feeding over a pond at night reminded me of the swallows zooming over the fields and roads in the daytime.

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Brown bear scratch marks and male and female red-backed shrikes

It was interesting to see deciduous woodland that was unlike anything I had seen before: the woods had a high canopy dominated by beech and hornbeam, with oak and occasional cherry and field maple. The trunks were tall and straight and even-aged in some areas, though there were some older, more interesting trees that had large girths or lightning damage. There was evidence of selective felling of trees throughout the woods in areas. The shrub layer was sparse, but contained small beech and oak seedlings over a relatively bare ground layer that was thick with beech leaves and included plants such as sanicle, herb paris and solomon’s seal.

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Inside the forest

One of my favourite habitats in the area were the hay meadows. The traditionally managed hay meadows were completely different to the high nutrient, grass dominated meadows that are now the norm in the UK. Firstly, the structure of the vegetation was much more open, with an understorey of low-growing plants, such as red clover, wild thyme, crown vetch and bird’s-foot trefoil, and a taller layer above, composed of grasses, dianthus, field scabious, oxeye daisy and st. john’s wort. Secondly, the smell of the cut hay was wonderful; it was rich with the many types of herbs and must have good nutritional content when fed to horses and livestock. Thirdly, the meadows were alive with creatures: every step I took, something sprang out from under my foot. Dozens of different grasshoppers and crickets, the occasional lizard, and of course the many types of butterfly and bee. In one day, we counted over 34 butterfly species along a transect.

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High brown fritillary and wildflowers in the meadows

We observed villagers cutting the meadows with a scythe and creating tall haystacks. I noticed how some of the meadows were only partly cut, perhaps to stagger the amount of time and labour required in drying and collecting in the hay. This method ensures an area of long vegetation is available for species seeking refuge from the newly cut, open meadow. Hopefully the large amount of rainfall we experienced during our stay didn’t ruin the crop too much!

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Haystack and honeybee

The local people were very friendly and welcoming: we visited a small bee farm which made the most delicious honey, a buffalo farm and a small farm where we got to have a go at hand milking the cows. This visit was made all the better by the copious amounts of wine, cheese and cherries provided by the lovely farmer and his wife! The village of Richis was home to an abundance of birds adapted to live alongside people: we saw house and tree sparrows, swallow and house martins nesting under eaves, black redstarts calling from the rooftops and a white stork nest on a tall chimney. There was also a greater mouse-eared bat maternity colony in the belfry of the church: we stood under the roost and heard their excited chattering.

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Scarce swallowtail and Short-tailed blue butterflies

The expedition was like going back in time: the countryside was managed by the local community, horse and carts were a regular form of transport, and there was little or no use of chemicals on the land. Many species that have become extinct or are rare in the UK are common in this region. Going back home to the UK and revisiting our degraded landscape was a stark reminder of what we once had, but have now largely lost. I believe the Romanians of the Tarnava Mare region are all the richer for possessing such natural wonders that have been completely or almost destroyed in the UK. Perhaps witnessing such rich mixed farmed ecosystems on the other side of Europe can inspire us to protect and recreate these special habitats on our small, overcrowded island.

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Horse and cart ride to Biertan and Marbled white butterfly

The Need for Weeds

Weeds are unwanted, ugly and troublesome, right? And any self-respecting gardener should be well rid of them? Numerous adverts are dedicated to demonising the evil dandelions that can ‘take over’ your garden and must be exterminated. Working as a gardener, I agree there should be a certain degree of tidiness to a garden, but with the obsession of farmers, land-owners and councils to tidy up ‘weeds’ along our roadsides and hedges, it can seem that there is little space left for these unloved plants.

Almost everyone loves butterflies, beautiful Small tortoiseshells, striking Peacocks and bold Red admirals, but how many people love nettles? Yet you can’t have one without the other: the caterpillars of these species are dependent on nettle as their main foodplant. Overall, forty species of insect depend on nettles.

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Small tortoiseshell butterfly

Last year, I neglected a previously tidied area in the corner of my horse’s field: being so busy with college, I didn’t have time to cut down the ‘unsightly’ weeds. Spring progressed and summer arrived, and this area became a mass of common nettle, white dead nettle and dock: the usual weedy enemies. The number of insect species I have spotted using this area astounded me, who knew that a bunch of unwanted weeds could actually be so wanted!

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Drinker moth caterpillar

Insects, whether big or small, beautiful or ugly, are hugely important for the ecosystem: they are the primary consumers near to the base of the trophic pyramid. From an insect’s point of view, on a very small scale, the structure of the weeds has great diversity; akin to a miniature rainforest, with tall spires of stems and broad canopies of leaves. The insects I discovered included: Green dock beetle, Dock bug, 7 spot ladybird, 2 spot ladybird, Nettle tap moth, Scorpion fly, Pied shieldbug, Small tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillars, Peacock butterfly caterpillars and aphids.

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Nettle weevil

This spring the weeds have returned, with all the usual species, and a number of new discoveries: Garden tiger moth caterpillars, Drinker moth caterpillars, Nettle weevil, a lovely weevil called Liophloeus tessulatus, as well as ants and spiders.

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Spider in silk cocoon

The white dead nettle begins to flower in spring and can be an extremely valuable source of early nectar and pollen for many bee species. A queen bee creating a nest may need to visit up to 6,000 flowers every day: if she can’t find the flowers, she may fail to make a nest and lots of new bees. Bee species visiting my dead nettles include: Early bumblebee, Common carder bee, White-tailed bumblebee, Red-tailed bumblebee and some types of solitary bee.

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Early bumblebee (worker) on White dead nettle

I have found plenty of Garden tiger moth caterpillars feeding on the dock leaves: these formerly common moths have declined by 92% since 1968! The value of weedy areas such as this could be instrumental in providing a safe haven for a number of species threatened by the sprayer or the strimmer.

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Garden Tiger

Garden tiger moth caterpillar and adult 

I believe a lot could be done to change the public’s perceptions on weeds and flowering grass: it seems to be almost offensive if grass is allowed to grow tall and flower, so used are we to cutting it short! Whilst not a suitable option for all of the garden, wildlife can greatly benefit from weedy areas; remember, a weed is defined as any unwanted plant, so please make some weeds part of your wanted list.

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The weeds in all their glory

 

References:

Goulson, D. (2013) A sting in the tale.

http://www.nettles.org.uk/nettles/wildlife

http://www.mothscount.org/text/19/moths_in_decline

A summary of 2014 – a year of nature.

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Following on from 2013, 2014 was also a year of discovery for me. Since starting my FdSc Countryside and Wildlife Management in September 2013, what was previously a supposedly keen interest in animals and nature has become an obsession, a way of life, an ongoing understanding of how things really work – learning the ways of nature and the emerging science of ecology.

2013

2013 was a turning point: deciding what I wanted to do and discovering I could do it led me to enrol on my course in spring with a whole summer ahead for volunteering and discovery. After a harsh and snowy late winter and spring, I couldn’t wait to see the season’s turn and life returning again. I volunteered at country parks, Wildlife Trust reserves and a National Trust garden, learning as much as I could. Throughout the year, I took photographs of every wild plant I came across, storing it and identifying it later – a really helpful technique. Walking with an experienced birder through Watermead Country Park in spring introduced me to the multitude of bird calls and songs. A summer’s day trip to Lundy Island revealed the amount of enthusiasts that would record everything they saw on the island in a book kept in the pub. Taking part in the Big Butterfly Count numerous times during that lovely hot summer was always enjoyable, with the abundance of butterflies compared to the year before. Volunteering at Stoneywell Cottage in Leicestershire from May – October was in part a collection of biodiversity: every species I found was recorded, including the beautiful Slow worms, which generated a county record for numbers.

I was well prepared for the start of college and looking forward to the challenges ahead.

2014

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January and February saw a wet and mild winter: not the wettest parts of our region has seen, but some spectacular flooded fields to splash through with swollen rivers and days of rain on end. Spring started early with the delicate pink and vivid green Hazel flowers appearing in January, followed by the snowdrops in February. At college, we covered winter tree identification: observing in detail each tree’s buds, from smooth, pointy Beech to silver, downy Rowan. We discovered the miniature world of mosses and lichens and fascinating symbiotic relationships, as well as the workings of ecology and the importance of biodiversity.

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We had a very warm spring, as everything fast-forwarded from March: Soft Pussy Willow catkins, Sweet Violets, Blackthorn blossoms and Celandines appeared. I surveyed my local village for the BTO Breeding Bird Survey in early and late spring: spotting Skylarks and Yellowhammers, as well as the first Swallows and House Martins of the year was very exciting. I also observed birds in the gardens where I worked: Spotted Flycatchers feeding their fluffy young fledgling, a well-hidden nest of Wrens, a whole clutch of Coal tits in their nest hidden in the crack of a tree, the Kingfisher zooming along the river and the young Great and Blue Tits learning how to fly in the branches of a cherry tree.

Newt trapping as part of my work experience with Lockhart Garratt was really interesting: I loved learning about their ecology and finding beautiful male Great Crested Newts and a tiny Smooth Newt Larvae in the bottle traps.

Springtime in the woods saw Orchids, Wood Sorrel, Greater Stitchwort and Bluebells, as well as Cow Parsley, Yellow Archangel and Red Campion: a magnificent display to rival any tropical rainforest.

A college trip to the Great Fen Project in May revealed some things I’d never seen before: in some parts, it was a very man-made landscape, with long, straight lodes and hedgerows. But these were teeming with tadpoles and bursting with Hawthorn blossom. Everywhere there was something to see or hear: a Sedge Warbler’s chirring song, a perfectly constructed Caddis Fly larvae’s case, a Cuckoo calling, bright blue Damselflies mating and rare Black Poplar trees.

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Summer saw perfect conditions throughout the growing season – mostly warm, with just enough rain. Although I was in my summer holiday from college and working as a gardener, I always kept an eye out for nature and read books such as David Attenborough’s Life on Earth and Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us.

A holiday to the Outer Hebrides in June was perfect for a nature enthusiast. Plant identification skills came in handy to name the specialised heath and bog plants. Bird identification was also necessary as I saw birds I’d never seen before: Wheatear’s white rumps flashing as they flew away, Fulmars nesting on cliffs, Gannets diving for fish, Red-throated Divers on the lochs and best of all, the magnificent Golden Eagles and White-tailed Sea Eagles in their mountain dominion. Glimpses of the resident Otter in the sea loch by our cottage were the perfect finish to a holiday in this wildlife haven.

Back at home, there were more opportunities to participate in surveys with Lockhart Garratt. I gained experience with habitat surveys, where we found a large Badger sett with plenty of activity evident and helped with a reptile survey, recording the number of Common Lizards and Grass Snakes found under tiles. Learning how to conduct a Bat survey was interesting: how different species of Bat squeak at different frequencies on the bat detector and how they can occasionally catch a meal using sight rather than echolocation.

Spring and Summer in the gardens at work saw quite a number of Honeybee swarms, which were absolutely fascinating to hear and see up close: in a swarm the bees are calm and approachable. I also observed a Tree Bumblebee nest and an underground wasp nest that I left well alone!

At home, I was lucky enough to have the space to create a wildflower patch: this was brimming with Cornflowers, Oxeye Daisies, Poppies, Corn Marigolds and Red Campion, perfect for invertebrates. I’d also created an unintentional nature area around our horse’s muck heap: the nettles and other weeds I had left uncut and unsprayed, and was rewarded with Beetles, Ladybirds and the caterpillars of Garden Tiger Moths, Small Tortoiseshell and Peacock Butterflies. Two swallows built a nest in my pony’s stable, successfully rearing five chicks in two broods over the summer: watching them grow every day and fledge was wonderful to see, especially when they learnt to swoop and soar in the sky.

I tried Moth trapping for the first time this summer: on warm nights in June and July, I discovered just how interesting and diverse they are. I couldn’t believe how many moths came to the traps and how beautiful each one was. I loved the tiny, furry Sallow Kitten moths and the huge, elegant Poplar Hawkmoths, the bizarre Early Thorn, shaped like a leaf and the wonderful Elephant Hawkmoth, with stripes of bright pink on its body.

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Autumn was dry and warm with some windy days. Hawthorn berries and other fruits were thick on the hedgerows, providing a feast for the birds and mammals. Fungi emerged whilst late summer flowers lingered, the colours of leaves and fruits seemed especially beautiful this year. College commenced, with some habitat survey assignments: a good opportunity to practise what I’d been learning. We also conducted small mammal surveys, practising how to correctly ‘scruff’ a Wood Mouse as well as carrying out Otter surveys along the River Ise corridor by Kelmarsh House in Northamptonshire. We managed to find perfect Water Vole prints in the soft mud (not recorded there for seven years!) as well as Otter prints and spraint. Surveying an abandoned quarry in Pitsford for an assignment revealed it wasn’t as barren as it appeared: beneath the yellow rocks scattered near to newly formed ponds, we found over twenty Smooth Newts in less than an hour. Being extremely observant is such an important skill for an ecologist to have.

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Winter has been quite mild and dry, but with some pleasant frosty mornings that were much missed from last year. I love seeing the tiny frost icicles coating every part of grass, dead Hogweed stalks and Knapweed seedheads, sparkling and backlit by the sun. I went along to some bird ringing sessions with Stanford Ringing Group at Stanford Reservoir: the early morning starts (5.30am) were worth it to see some familiar birds up close. It was fascinating to watch the process of catching, weighing, measuring and ringing, as well as how to determine the age and sex of certain birds by looking at details on their feathers. I was lucky enough to handle some beautiful Tree Sparrows, Reed Buntings, Redwings and Long Tailed Tits, as well as measure some Blue Tits and see a Sparrowhawk at close quarters!

A college trip to Epping Forest was extremely interesting: observing the strange mix of man and nature and how they have left their mark on the land and on the huge, knobbly ancient pollard trees. A visit to Wicken Fen finished the term at college. This is another site with a long history of man and nature; this reserve impressed all the students with the various wetland habitats, the huge flock of Lapwing in the sky and the friendly Konik ponies (used as grazing tools, along with the Highland cattle). Standing next to the last untouched Godwin plot really impressed upon me how interesting succession is and how arresting this natural process can also benefit species other than humans.

Finding evidence of an Otter on the River Swift in Misterton near to my home finished off the year for me. I can’t wait to see what next year will bring, but I’m especially looking forward to seeing the first Swallows and the Bluebells.

The Country Diary of a Leicestershire Lady