Sunday, 30 December 2012
Monday, 24 December 2012
Wednesday, 19 December 2012
Friday, 14 December 2012
Mid winter conjures a Medieval vulnerability across the landscape; the world of Bruegel’s peasant skaters, tiny figures making merry as the fields stretch away to be lost in the snow. Even when having fun they keep their heads down, braced againts the cold. Druridge Bay retains little from that time. Low Chibburn Precaptory dates from the early 1300s but is marooned in the rectilinear fields of ex-open cast and nearby Widdrington Castle long demolished. There are tucked away corners where the winter’s cold, unvisited woods and fields not dug out for coal suggest a world before. The frost has turned the top inches of sodden pasture to a crackling, scrunching crust. Hard work to walk over, with every other footstep breaking though the iced floor into the goo below. The cold has leached the colours too. Winter thrushes move quickly away, not even wasting energy on a call and on the ponds teal, mallard and moorhen keep their distance but are loathe to fly. There are pockets of ridge and furrow at the south of the Bay, picked out by a foggy sun. Step into the shadows and you can feel winter willing you to stand too long and get too cold. All wise peasants would best be indoors but I have been out counting the pools and flashes of water left by 2012’s deluges. Water boatmen still row under the ice which is thick enough to carry my wieght, squeeking and snapping under my boots.
Monday, 10 December 2012
Wildlife conservation is a choice, too often portrayed as a clash between some short term goal for our benefit versus the inconvenient natural world, exemplified in the common place the glib dismissal of nature standing in the way of development. However the choice may be between competing wildlife. There is no commandment that demands the Northumberland coast must remain as it is. The peat seams at Hauxley (see 5th December blog)are witness to the woodlands and swamps that once stretched out to a more distant shore now submerged. Before the Alder carr and Birch entombed in the of 4000 years old peat came an even more elusive landscape joining England to the continent; Doggerland, named after the Dogger Bank which remained as an island as the North Sea Basin filled from 7500 years ago. Occasional antler or mammoth teeth, or rarer still, a Neanderthal skull fragment hint at a lost world. Before Doggerland the North sea plains had been tundra, akin to Verner Hanke’s glacial world from Kai Peterson’s 1957 “Prehistoric Life on Earth”. Approach the problem of managing Druridge Bay from the perspective of a Martian in a time travelling space ship. Which habitat would you conserve? The ice fields and glacial tundra or the Doggerland steppes with mammoths and rhino? Perhaps you would prefer the wet woodland with its fleeting hunters who have left all too human footprints in the peat layers. All of these might justifiably be better choices than restored open cast lagoons or parks. Mammoths are an unlikely addition for some years, even taking the most optimistic mammoth cloning projects at face value. This should not stop us from thinking big, working with the landscape as a whole rather than hunkering down in isolated pockets of heavily managed unnatural nature.
Wednesday, 5 December 2012
Over the last twelve months we have gone from a major drought to the wettest summer on record. Newcastle upon Tyne, capital city of north east England and thirty miles south of Druridge Bay, has endured three separate spates of flash flood. The wet summer has spun out the oil seed rape's fluorescent monopoly on the arable fields inland from the dunes for weeks longer than normal and now much of the winter wheat has been washed out. There is a sense of deeper change, shifting rhythms undercutting the familiar seasons. Hard to be sure, year to year. Druridge Bay bears witness to much more substantial change. Walk out onto the beach at Hauxley, head south along the dune front and you will soon see a dark, fibrous mat layer of peat. Beneath lies a blue-grey boulder clay, ground to a fine grained plastic. Above sit the modern dunes with occasional lines of shell and iron pans. Tree trunks and branches jut out from the peat, whilst occasional stumps and roots hook into the boulder clay below. The peat is the remains of wet woodland, the older layers dating back to 4500 years ago, the youngest to 2800, finally succumbing to the invading sand dunes. The peat is rich in pollen, varying through time but starting with wet woodland rich in Alder and Oak, then Birch. The trees succumbed to rising water tables as the land first became a mire then was over run by sand dunes driven before the encroaching seashore. The dune face is a compressed history, time squeezed like a rarefied gas until solidified in front of our eyes. The Hauxley peat beds are a highly unusual and significant site, telling of the North Sea’s expansion and how much the familiar can change. Not much consolation in the face of the floods, but a striking reminder of the difficulty we have capturing a sense of time and scale.
Saturday, 1 December 2012
Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Mosquito larvae are not straight forwardly lovely to look at. They are adorned with whiskers, sprout combs of spines and tufts of bristles. Fan-like mouth parts strain algae form the water or hoover fine grains of detritus. They have the steam-punk feel of being slightly over-engineered, with a snorkel tail and directional antennae. Culiseta morsitans is the most widespread along the Bay and common in the UK too, although the map (from the National Biodiversity network, http://www.nbn.org.uk/ ) tells us more about how few people record mosquitoes than it does about the overall spread of the species. For example there are no red squares, which represent a record, plotted on a 10x10 km scale in national data bases, shown along the Bay (the arrow). Culiseta morsitans is catholic in its needs for breeding; slacks, pools, ditches, freshwater or brackish. The females attack birds for a blood meal more than they do mammals, although humans are targeted. The fields and slack inland of the dunes have been submerged in the latest storm, but the new puddles and pools make a home for the mosquitoes as water levels rise and eggs are prompted to hatch. It is an ill wind.....
Friday, 23 November 2012
.... says Scott. The late November storm blew through over night. Today the sun, low in the southern sky, was picking out the Blakemoor windfarm blades as they appeared to thresh the winter rooks out of the trees around Queen Elizabeth park. At Hauxley the oblique rays picked out every shade of gold at the experimental ponds. Dave and Scott have excavated the pond from which we sliced out the sections of sediment earlier in November. The slabs of clay topped with a thick crust of organic debris and black mud, which they removed, are now being ground down in the lab to measure the trapped carbon. Scott will be monitoring the newly cleared pond to record the productivity and accumulating detritus from the very beginning of the pond’s new life. We ended up as an incarnation of some medieval farming scene, puddling the clay on the base of the pond flat in a squidgy tap dance, to create as neat and precise a volume as we can. The next storm is on the horizon, the pond is likely to fill up in any downpour. In the first spring after the ponds were dug in Autumn 1994 they choked with snaggled clumps of Stoneworts (Chara), often called 'Quarry Weed' because it appears quickly in new, bare wetlands. I am keen to see if ecology repeats itself or the newly cleared pond develops along a novel path.
Monday, 19 November 2012
Wednesday, 14 November 2012
There is a furtive quality to adult mosquitoes, unlovely and fidgety. They do not inspire affection, instead a sense of nuisance and recoil, as if they set out wantonly to persecute us, worse still to spread disease. Autumn is a time they seem more obvious, conjured out of the gloom which their colours and manner match. They are, at least, an insect we pay attention to. The Health Protection Agency has revamped a Mosquito Recording Scheme, partly out of concern at the surprisingly little we know about the distribution of species in the UK but also the possible arrival of new species, part of a wave of continental insects whose very delicate fragility is no hindrance to being wafted across the North Sea. The wetlands and pools along Druridge Bay and along the whole Northumberland coast offer attractive habitats to the discerning mosquito, and they do discern. The females of some species in search of somewhere to lay eggs are able to sense the presence of predators or competitors and so move on in search of more promising sites. Along the Bay Anopheles claviger and Culiseta morsitans are common but I have not searched in any systematic way letalone some of the more brackish sites. Further north at Low Newton I’ve found larvae that appear to be Anopheles algeriensis , Aedes cantans and Culiseta litorea, the latter much further north than other UK records. The squirming shoals of mosquito larvae in the Druridge Dune slacks, and further north along our coast, hint at a new invasion shoreline and would be well worth an expedition to record our mosquito infested swamps. Here is the HPA mosquito Recording Scheme website. (http://www.hpa.org.uk/Topics/InfectiousDiseases/InfectionsAZ/Mosquitoes/MosquitoRecordingScheme/)
Thursday, 8 November 2012
Sunday, 4 November 2012
Watching Storm Sandy bring New York to a halt carried echoes of Thunder Thursday in Newcastle: the irresistible raw power, tower blocks left as blacked out stumps, cars wedged into flooded underpass caverns as if by a child wrecking their toys. An extreme event, even by the USA’s practised hyperbole. Trouble is trying to define what an extreme event is. Not a priority in the desperate hours of the storm or the drawn out agony of the clear up but important eventually because climate predictions suggest more extremes and we need to know how to recognise shifting patterns in the weather that may result. The British Ecological Society, the UK’s learned body for ecologists, has set out to crystallise what we know about extreme events and their impact on freshwater habitats. Lakes, rivers and ponds all depend on water, how much of it and the quality, but these vary naturally. All these habitats develop as an interplay of landscape with climate, the changing seasons and occasional unusually high rainfall or prolonged dry spell. These ups and downs are important, creating new habitat and rejuvenating the old. Humans are very good at taming natural changes, for the understandable reason that we do not want to be flooded or have our crops fail for want of water. We are good at engineering out the everyday rhythms of nature. A genuine extreme is much harder to define: something that is both remarkable in amount or duration or timing but also that has a demonstrable effect, resetting the ecological stage. Storm Sandy certainly fits the first criteria and for many people in Newcastle, Morpeth and any of the other flood-struck neighbourhoods I suspect the storms have altered their world irrevocably. The stickies above capture part of the British Ecological Society’s concern, especially at “double whammies” as multiple problems pile up: droughts and floods, habitats fragmenting and climate shifting. Working on a large enough scale across whole landscapes is one approach to resist extremes. We cannot put a giant dome over the whole of the Bay to protect it. Instead give nature room for manoeuvre, refuges to hunker down and space to change.
Wednesday, 31 October 2012
Here is the target of Scott’s coring, pictured in last Saturday’s blog; a core of sediment drilled out from the bottom of a pond at Hauxley Nature Reserve. The ponds were dug in a field that was back-filled after the Hauxley coal mine closed. The soil that was used for this was very clayey. To the right you can see the sheer, glistening clay from deeper in the core. To the left side of the core the clay is conspicuously gnarly and flecked with bits of plant; this is the sediment from the bed of the pond and immediately below. The ponds started as bare, square holes but since their creation in 1994 have colonised with amphibious mosses and grasses, or, occasionally, submerged plants such as water buttercup, Ranunculus aquatilitis, and Stoneworts, Chara. As the plants die their debris is mired in the sediment at the bottom of the pond. Where thick swards of moss have covered the bed of the pond the mud underneath has become black and foetid because of a lack of oxygen and these conditions slow natural decay. Hence the top of the core has the accumulated plant fragments, creating the darker, rougher texture. Coring is surprisingly hard work in the clinging clay but the greater challenge is to measure how much organic carbon the plant fragments have locked into the mud. The little ponds are very verdant and productive so the plant growth has the potential to take significant amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air and down into the mud when the plants die. One little pond may not seem very important, but there are a lot of little ponds out there.....
Saturday, 27 October 2012
October has experimented with the possibilities of every season. Blue skies and the last of the Red Admirals showing off in the sunshine, boy racers at heart, barely alighting long enough to flaunt their colours before away again, impatient. Then fog leaving the Blakemoor wind farm as stumps propping up the gloom or else we’d all be squashed down into the mud and browning grasses. Now snow, the flakes freezing together in an overnight crust . The blues skies in the photo above are Hauxley Nature Reserve scarcely a week ago. Scott is using a corer to drill out a plug of sediment from the little pond. This pond and twenty nine others were dug out in the Autumn of 1994 to monitor the initial colonisation by invertebrates and plants, then how the various species would respond to changes such as dry years or prolonged flooding. This also means we know how old the ponds are to the day, along with their history. Age and history are not the same thing. The ponds are all eighteen years old but some have had a fraught life of drought and flood. Others are more sedate, a steady progress of clogging by mosses and grass. The ponds are the closest we have to a time machine. We can ask questions of their contemporary nature and know enough to check back how their history may be responsible for this. Scott, Pete and Dave are extracting the plugs of sediment to measure the amount of carbon trapped in the mud since the ponds were dug. Some of the carbon is bound up in the obvious fragments of plant which have drawn carbon dioxide out of the air as they photosynthesise but there are also microscopic algae plus bits of plant fallen in from the land around too. The ponds may be small but the verdant plant growth, much of it trapped in the sediment, may be a powerful trap pulling carbon out of the air and down into the mud.
Sunday, 21 October 2012
...an antelope round it and an ant through it” is an evocative summary of how different animals see the world, the “it” being a scrub thicket and the obvious trait being size. Humans are relatively large animals so we see the world through a mix of elephant and antelope scales. Up at the Bay this means we see fields and woodland, dunes and lagoons. Most of the Bay’s creatures are much smaller, so the world becomes much bigger for them and much of our familiar landscape invisible, just as the whole of Northumberland is to any one of us as we walk through it . The photo shows a pond at Hauxley from a water beetles’ perspective. Not that we know how beetles interpret the world but their subtle reactions suggest more than just dull ‘turn left, turn right’ mechanics. One species takes flight more often from ponds harbouring higher numbers of its own kind. This would make sense if the populations were so high that lean times beckoned as beetles overwhelmed their prey. Another species leaves ponds as the density of pond weeds increases beyond a tolerable threshold of tangles and stems, which suggests some sense of space and structure. For some predatory beetles a thicket of pond weed is both a baffle to their hunting and perhaps camouflage for their own predators to use. For invertebrates the underwater wetlands must feel much like the wall of a forest does to our senses. The world becomes a much more complicated shape at beetle size. There are many more ways to crawl and swim, hide and seek. Much smaller than 1mm though and the pattern changes, the world becomes simpler in many ways. The architecture of plants becomes insensible, although surfaces matter very much. Plants are revealed as corrugated or sheer, encrusted or furred. I know nothing about the microscopic ciliates or algae of the Bay, although they sometimes twitch into view when I’m puzzling over larger creatures. Their world beckons to be explored.
Monday, 15 October 2012
Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Water fleas are not the biggest or fiercest of pond-life. They are food for most predators: you can even buy them in bags of bloated, farmed fleas for feeding to tropical aquarium fish. The wild water fleas of Druridge Bay tell a more successful story. The water flea, top left, is a species called Daphnia obtusa, a 3-4mm long crustacean and common in shallow, muddy pools along the Bay. You can spot them as jerky specks swimming indecisively hither and thither, although “swimming” is too elegant a description as they row themselves with their antennae (the long arms in the photo). Their legs are enclosed within the carapace which gives them their rounded shape, each limb equipped with a fine-meshed net of bristles for raking algae out of the water for food. Each Daphnia may not be large, but the photograph to the right shows a swarm of thousands, each speck a Daphnia, in a dune pool near Cresswell. In the good times they reproduce by cloning. Most of the population are female and they develop embryos asexually. In the left hand photo you can see several baby Daphnia, the greenish blobs to the right of the adult’s sinuous gut. This cloning allows rapid population growth. As water levels drop and ponds begin to dry out the Daphnia produce tougher, drought resistant eggs which linger in the mud long after the adult hordes have been wiped out. When the rains come and ponds refill these eggs hatch and the Daphnia numbers boom, benefitting from the absence of fish. It is a successful strategy; Daphnia obtusa is found throughout Europe and North America as well as just north of Cresswell.
Monday, 8 October 2012
Today Druridge Bay glowed in a luminous autumn sun, picking out every gradient of green turning into brown or orange. The low rays saturated the reds; a robin singing on a Blakemoor farm rooftop, Hawthorn berries being revealed as the leaves fall away, the faces of goldfinches working the hedge lines. Enough warmth to bounce back off walls and wood. Deceptive too. One step into the shade and the frost lingered, picking out the edges of lost leaves, waiting for the shadows to move back across, unhurried. The birds seemed overly casual, putting on a brave face but busy. Autumn nervous ticks, still pretending this was summer. The lapwings on Cresswell lagoon could not settle. Every few minutes they would rise, a drifting chequer board, out over the water, white bellies flashing against the sun, then settling back, fidgeting. The Bay makes a fine theatre for the seasons and the wildlife is rehearsing for winter, reluctantly and nervously. Many pools have refilled and the amphibious grasses make a late flush of green. Flote grass, Glyceria fluitans, is particularly vivid, the parallel sided leaves criss-crossing over the surface in a style reminisecnt of the artist Goldsworthy. Look closely and the leaves show occasional runs of pink or purple green in the bright sun. Flote grass and its companions Creeping Bent (Agrostis stolonifera) and Marsh Foxtail (Alopecurus geniculatus) are common enough, often overlooked but it is these pond margins where grass and water refuse to define an edge that are especially rich in invertebrates. If you want a good wildife pond you will do better with straggling grasses than you ever will with water lilies.
Wednesday, 3 October 2012
Science and scientists are condemmed to suffer from easy cliches: studious, introspective, objective sleuths in pursuit of some incomprensible data. Perhaps scientists are good at hiding a deeper truth in case it is seen as undermining what we do. Science is fun. For example here are Dave Thomas, Scott, Pete Gilbert, Dave Cooke (you met Scott and Dave C in the 20th September entry) and, to the right, Mike Deary, plus me taking the photos, struggling with a complex problem. How do you remove a plug of mud taken from the bottom of a pond using a plastic tube core without demolishing the mud in the process? The core might reveal subtle layering from year after year as the pond silted up, each layer perhaps trapping nutrients from the water and revealing the changing enviroments at Druridge Pools, which is where these cores came from. We have technology worth tens of thousands of pounds able to detect delicate variations in the patterns of elements and molecules. If only we can get the mud out the tube. Watching half a dozen people in white lab coats fretting how to do this without the mud rocketing across the lab as if shot out of a bazooka makes for an entertaining half hour. The expertise in these pictures could explain to you how to separate out different sources of carbon buried in the mud or the process of X-ray diffraction or emergency response to a major air pollution incident. Much more challenging is to take cores whilst teetering in clinging, foetid mud, hammering the tube down without falling over and all the while fending off overly inquistive wild ponies. That needs at least three hands.