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Saturday, 16 July 2016

A Whale of a Time

Sperm Whale at Perranporth
It felt like a pilgrimage. Hundreds of people were walking northwards from Perranporth along the shining pink road towards the beached whale.

We heard on the Sunday news that a female Sperm Whale was found beached near Perranporth and decided we just had to take the opportunity to see it in the flesh. We had underestimated how far from the nearest car park it was. Along with many others we walked 50 minutes to see the whale and another 50 minutes back to the car. The beach was covered in a pink tide by millions of Moon Jellyfish and the odd Blue Jellyfish. We judged we would have plenty of time to get there and back as the tide was ebbing from full. People of all ages were striding out with dogs and children. People who would normally just manage to walk a couple of yards from their parked car to empty the dog and get an ice-cream were making the journey.
The pink jellyfish path

Being two days after it had beached, the whale had been post mortemed on the beach with obvious incisions and jaw removed. The carcass was beginning to darken and bloat and the exposed entrails were bubbling and fizzing with the release of decomposition gasses.  
When the pilgrims arrived there were hushed conversations “Such a pity it had to die for us to see it.”, “They say some lads were trying to get souvenir teeth”, (in fact the autopsy team had removed the lower jaw with teeth to age the whale), “Well worth the walk to see it.”, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

On our return there was still a continual stream of people walking northwards to pay homage.

Post-mortem team
The following day I has a call about another stranding. This time, a female juvenile Minke Whale much closer to home at Bude. I was unable to get to it until the evening due to tides and commitments. Arriving at 9pm, there was a team of people from the Marine Srandings Network, British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) and of course James the volunteer veterinary who was beginning the post mortem.

James was assisted by both divers, one handling and wrapping the samples, the other listing what these were – Kidney, Liver, Ovaries, Eyes, Heart, Stomach contents (Krill) with Niki the Strandings officer taking record photographs. Duncan was the local Strandings callout with us other three local yokels provided guidance and porterage to get them, the samples and equipment back up the cliff in the dark at 10:30pm.

What a difference in the two experiences – Perranporth, a long walk along a sandy beach to see a Sperm Whale – 11 metres long with a long thin toothed jaw for feeding on octopus and small fish; Bude a stiff climb to a rocky beach to find a Minke Whale – 7 metres long with a large jaw with baleen filters to eat Krill and small fish.

Minke Whale at Bude
Both were judged to have been live strandings. The Sperm had died as her organs collapsed without the support that the sea gives to it; the Minke probably driven ashore by perhaps Dolphins had, judging by pre mortem lacerations and bruises, injured herself fatally whilst trying to squirm back to the sea.

They say things happen in threes – let’s hope this old adage is wrong. Nice as it is to experience the huge marine mammals at close range, I would rather there were no more such strandings.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Fritillaries on my Butterfly Transect

What a fantastic butterfly survey today. (10th May).
Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary

The local weather forecast warned of a blanket of rain for the whole day over the southwest ruling out surveys of any kind. In the event, the day dawned clear with a heavy dew but fine, no wind and warm.

So we grasped the opportunity for a late morning survey expecting the weather to come in later and planned to have lunch in our local pub, the Bush Inn, which is conveniently situated at the start and finish of the transect.

Violet Oil Beetle
It was very muggy and close as we parked the car with a shade temperature of 19ยบC – I leave a thermometer under the car in the shade.

It was a good walk in sheltered woodland followed by a steep climb up the southwest coast path with a refreshing on-shore breeze.

The survey increased our survey count of butterflies as is expected as the year progresses, but the number of invertebrates was very good too. The butterfly highlight has to be the three Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries in the valley. But we also added Small Copper, Wall and Meadow Brown bringing our species list from 6 to 10.

Additional invertebrate species recorded included two Violet Oil Beetles, three 24-spot Ladybirds, and shieldbugs. I was looking for and found Dock Bugs as well as chancing on a Sloe Bug and a new one, a Boat bug (Enoplops scapha) and a mating pair of nice bugs, Dicranocephalus agilis or Spurge Bugs.

The highlight of these highlights was a Bee fly. I have seen everyone posting pictures of these on Facebook so was delighted to see one even if I didn't manage a photograph; this time … …
Spurge Bug

The Tidna Valley continues to be a delightful are to survey coming up with unusual and interesting species each time we visit.

Boat Bug
Lunch at the Bush Inn was a shared Garden Platter and a pint of cider to round off an excellent survey.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

A Wonderful Wildlife Week

Every now and then there is a week that is day after day of natural history. 

This last week was just such a one. There was an event planned for every day and the weather was kind.

Great Crested Grebe on her nest

Monday The monthly BTO Wetland Bird Survey was due, and as usual we deferred it for a day to avoid the busy weekend at Tamar Lakes. It is April so the winter visitors had gone and there was only a chance of spring or summer visitors being present. We did hear a single Sedge Warbler staking out his territory and spotted a Great Crested Grebe sitting on a newly constructed nest. There was also one or two Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and a lone Swallow.

Peacock butterfly

After lunch the weather was warm and sunny with hardly any wind. It was the ideal time to walk our newly registered UKBMS butterfly transect. This starts at the Bush Inn at Crosstown in Morwenstow, descends to the Tidna Valley and follows the river to the coast then up the cliff before heading inland along a green lane to Crosstown Green. It was a good decision with butterflies of four species – Speckled Wood, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma and Peacock.

Sunset over the south end of Lundy

Tuesday We had an early start, leaving Bideford quay at 9am for Lundy. The sea was like a mill pond but we saw no cetaceans and few birds. The island was alive with spring birds though – Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps. I spotted a Sparrowhawk at Quarter Wall Pond after a long meeting inside. The return trip was spectacular with a brilliant orange sunset over the island as we returned at 7pm.

Piscicola geometra

Wednesday The first Riverfly survey of the year on the Torridge near Bradford Mill and the first since the July 2015 was planned. In August and September last year, the river was in spate and two metres higher than normal. In the event, the river was slightly higher and faster than normal, but it turned up plenty of invertebrates. It was interesting to record the difference in abundance of the eight indicator species. Stoneflies were particularly abundant with a few extremely large specimens almost ready to become flying insects. The normal Perlodidae were joined by two specimens of Taeniopterygidae. Another unusual species, not part of the survey set, was a fish leech, Piscicola geometra.

Planting Marram Grass
Thursday This was a Bude Valley Volunteers working party day. Following the “planting” of retired Christmas Trees after 12th night in January at Widemouth Bay the plan was to supplement this with the planting of Marram Grass. The trees were already doing their job of accumulating sand around themselves. We were allowed to dig up randomly selected Marram plants and transplant them between two rows of the trees. The expectation is that the Marram will further stabilise the sand allowing and embryo dune to form.

 This will in future plug a gap where the dunes had “blown out” and reduce the chance of sand blowing onto the adjacent coast road.

Picnic at Dexbeer Bridge
Friday The culmination of a busy week – to walk the whole length of Bude Aqueduct. Four of us started from Lower Tamar Lake and walked the whole 5 miles to Vealand Reserve where we then followed the permissive path for a final 700 yards. The weather was again kind allowing us to have our first picnic of the year at Dexbeer Bridge on Councillors Shadrick's memorial table. We shared the area with a pair of Willow tits – confirmed as they responded strongly with identical calls to those Willow Tit lure. We recorded a total of 34 species of birds on our walk including all 5 tits – Great, Blue, Coal, Long-tailed, Marsh and Willow and 4 finches – Gold, Green, Chaff and Bull. We also noted 4 spring plants – Wood Anenome, Wood Sorrel, Cuckoo flower and Lesser Periwinkle together with all 3 mammals so far seen on this walk – Roe Deer, Grey Squirrel and Rabbit.

The only let down was Friday night's Garden Moth Survey which due to the cold and wet attracted not a single moth.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Bude Marine Conservation Group

Abby with 60 attendees - adults and children
I had known for a few months that Abby Crosby our local wildlife celebrity of Radio and TV fame was to hold a Strandline Discovery event at Sandymouth. When she asked me to join her afterwards to talk about community engagement, I jumped at the chance of a free cuppa.

She had an extremely good crowd of about 30 adults and 30 children who she sent of with buckets to see what they could find and identify.

After an hour's scrabbling along the strandline and in rock pools she called everyone together. She held her audience spellbound while she held a show and tell with all their finds.

Egg Wrack - 4 years old
She coaxed the children in to correctly identifying a mass of “snail” eggs which she explained were actually Whelk eggs and that sailors used the mass as a makeshift washing sponge. She explained the gory story of how the first hatchings gorged themselves on their siblings to cries of mock horror – survival of the fittest.

Next was a shore crab – prompted and eventually identified as a female, followed by a Limpet with stories of nightly foraging after which it followed its chemical slime trail to the exact spot it left earlier in the night. Then Egg Wrack which, by counting the “eggs” proved to be four years old. Finally the difference between shrimps and prawns – shrimps are almost totally transparent whereas prawns have stripy pyjama bottoms (legs).

With each item she took the opportunity to stress conservation and care of living creatures after which each was replaced in their original (or as near as possible) location.

The tide was too high for Honeycomb Worm, but one was found in a gully quite near to Dog Whelk eggs. The adults hatch into the predators of the seemingly impregnable limpet.

Dog Whelk eggs
A single Honeycomb worm
Over our tea, Abby introduced her colleague Natalie who had just started a contract to expand the current Voluntary Marine Conservation areas (currently Fowey, Helford, Looe, Polzeth and St Agnes) to include Bude.

Plans are in hand to engage with local groups of all kinds and individuals to establish a similar group in our area.

We await developments with eager anticipation.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Like the Clappers!

Morwenstow Parish Church

When I am not out and about looking at wildlife, I spend some of my time ringing church bells.
Thursday is bellringing practice night at Morwenstow Parish Church.  Last night, we were five plus one new ringer.  We rang five bells up and had a peal then brought them back down again for practice for our competition next week.  Pete, our new learner then had a guided session learning how to handle the rope.

The second time round, we began ringing the bells up again when we heard a loud thud from above in the bell chamber.  I said, “That’s the sound down dropped down.”  “No,” replied the Tower Captain, “it’s still up.”  Then there was a second lesser thud.  I said, 
“I think we had better set the bells and go up and have a look.”
Morwenstow Bell Ringers

As we were still only halfway to ringing the bells up, my rope jumped out of my hands, taking my fingertips with it, and the rope and bell swung wildly out of control.

We all thought I had broken the stay, but as the bell was still on its way up and nowhere near the stay, it just did not seem right.  Everyone else set their bells; the Tower Captain took the opportunity to show our learner the bell chamber and they both climbed the steps to the tower.  Meanwhile, the remainder of us set about untangling the rope from the guides around which it had wrapped itself.
The Clapper and bolt
The pair descended after some little time with the clapper of my bell and its fixing bolt in their hands.  The bolt had sheared inside the bell allowing the clapper to fall – the first thud, followed by the long bolt and nuts – the second thud.

As this happened, the rope had jumped off the wheel, hence the sudden whipping away of the rope rather than as a result of a broken stay, allowing the bell to swing uncontrollably.

The pieces have gone to a local metalworker to fashion a new bolt so that the clapper can be re-attached.

It could have been worse.  The bolt could have lasted until Tuesday when three other teams of bellringers join us for the final leg of our Winter Competition.  But, if the bell is not repairable before then, we may have to relocate to another tower.

[The bolt goes through the Gudgeon into the bell and attaches to the swinging arm from which the clapper hanges in the centre of the bell]
Anatomy of a Bell

Friday, 8 January 2016

Stranding 7400

After a couple of false alarms, this week I had my first real Marine Stranding.

In September last year, about 30 volunteers attended a Marine Strandings Network workshop in the Parkhouse Centre in Bude.

Abby Crosby lead the day and described how the MSN operates then showed and described to us the typical species that are washed up on the Cornish beaches.

We then went through the recording process for the two most common strandings; Seals and Cetaceans. This was followed by a gruesome film showing what the volunteer veterinary surgeon has to deal with when a stranding is sufficiently fresh to be worthy of a post mortem examination. Thankfully this was after we had eaten lunch, not before!

The rest of the day was taken up with simulated recording exercises outside in the sun. First we practised on a blow-up dolphin then a seal.

.."placed under the waterfall"
After three long months the call came on Thursday afternoon that a dolphin had been washed up on nearby Sandymouth beach. The coordinator told me where it could be found and that it had been moved above the High Water mark as the tide was within an hour of High Tide. I also had to describe what I would be wearing in case of accidents so that the Coast Guard would know what to look for and agreed to phone in to confirm that I had found the stranding and successfully left the beach.

As agreed with my local colleagues on the training day, I phone Duncan who wanted to help. My kit had been packed for three months, but I still needed to go through my check list before driving the mile or so to Sandymouth.

The carcase was immediately visible when I arrived at the beach. Unfortunately the considerate people that had reported it have moved it almost directly under a waterfall. The strong onshore wind was blowing the stream of water regularly over the corpse drenching it and anyone who approached it.

Duncan and I moved it to where we could photograph and record and tag it as Number 7400. A concentrated 45 minutes followed while we went through the procedure we had been taught. Duncan had already recorded a couple of seals so his expertise was most useful. We were battered by the wind and covered copiously in the blowing spume.

Common Dolphin - Stranding 7400
My first stranding was a beautiful Common Dolphin. It had lost one eye and suffered a broken jaw, but on the post mortem can explain why it died. It was a privilege to see one of these magnificent animals at such close quarters, to touch its skin and gaze into its eye. It is such a pity it had to die so that I could have that experience.t