Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Banks Mining open cast planning application, Druridge Bay and a first half score draw


Banks Mining’s open cast planning application has reached its first deadline, for neighbours comments, although “neighbours” is a wide definition judging by the geographical spread of objectors and supporters.  As of the 8th December the comments registered came to a perfect tie 508 objections versus 508 in support, as Northumberland County Council’s page shows. The Northumberland Wildlife Trust and RSPB have objected and so have I, all of us unnerved by the problem at the heart of Bank’s plans for the site; they do not own the land and every good intention is a hostage to fortune. What if several years down the line we are suddenly confronted with the familiar excuses that circumstances have changed, priorities are different, economic pressures dictate... ? Maybe none of this Banks’ fault given that they have no ultimate control over the site. I suspect that if they did control the land and were able to offer a new Hauxley, East Chevington or Druridge Pools then conservationists would have a different view. Sadly they cannot. Instead, according to the plan,  the site will be restored to more intensive agricultural use than currently and any wildlife gains depend wholly on the land owner not changing his mind.
The objections and support have been a fascinating mix. Step back for a minute and read the comments on either side.  The parry and thrust or argument features all the classic arguments around the environment; space for nature, jobs for people, energy supply, climate  change, tourism, coastal erosion, threats to health, transport. Also all the more emotive threads that weave, often acrimoniously, through such arguments; who should have a say, whose views count, locals and who counts as local, greed versus tree huggers.  With over 1000 comments a detailed geographical study would be interesting. There are both objectors and supporters from very near and much further away. The Council is thinking about a public meeting but seems wary knowing that these events can rapidly collapse into a shouting match between increasingly hostile sides each seeing the other as heartless and selfish.  Good to see the bay attracting so much interest either way

Monday, 9 November 2015

When is pond not a pond? An existential crisis and the probolem of choosing the best


Here is an example of how the Druridge Bay field ponds fluctuate in area depending on the rainfall. This might be an even more existential questions: can you have a pond that has no water in it, is it still a pond? Yes it is, although I am not sure how long you can go before saying it is no longer a pond. My personal preference would be years. I am sure there will be ponds in some desert habitat that only fill very rarely with long hard dry years in between. The pond in the photos above is just in the field to the right hand side of the entrance to Ellington Caravan Park. It is wet most years and well established. On the left is the pond in mid July 2012. Yes, those are rain drops smudging the lens. Still, it is not lashing rain so this must have been a particularly dry day given the deluge of 2012. On the left July 2014. No water an there had not been for a while, instead carpet of weeds that weave a distinct carpet over the exposed earth. Mayweeds and annual meadow grass, bistorts and cudweed. In 2012 the plant life was dominated by other species growing luxuriantly in the damp summer, although the overall tick list was much the same.

Which is the better pond? That could be a classic question asked of conservationists. Is it the overflowing quagmire of 2012 with thick tufts of toad rush and even underwater starworts? Or maybe the dried out mayweed and cudweed carpet of 2014. Both are good, both are typical of the Druridge fields. The differences between years do not matter, they are part of the natural disturbance and change. The real challenge will be if the local wildlife is exposed to weather conditions so different to anything they are used to that they cannot cope. The plants seemed to cope with 2012 but I do not know about the invertebrates because I was not monitoring them Butterflies took a massive hit, but butterflies like it sunny and dry. I am worried that the invertebrates may have been hit harder than we know, especially those with flying adult stages to their life history

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Extreme weather and a not at all extreme graph: how rainfall influences the extent of the Bay's ponds

The first blog graph. I like a good graph, although these days it is very easy to create endless variety of rubbish graphs in colour and 3D.

This one shows how the areas of ponds varies between years and seasons at a site on the Bay, in particular the effects of extreme weather


Our autumn has been peculiarly warm, disconcertingly so. The fog is clammy rather than cold and there have been very few days when any wind strong enough to have shaken the leaves down. Instead I have stood in Newcastle and listened to the crisp patter of aspen leaves falling so neatly and gently you’d think it was a cheesy CGI effect. Unusual weather seems to be the norm. 

The example in the graph is from up on Druridge Bay at Blakemoor Farm. Every November and May between 2010 and 2013 I walked a zig zag route across the Blakemoor fields, a nine mile trek to find every pond and wetland down to the smallest pools of around 1m2. Their areas were measured and in the graph you can see the total area for ponds in four types of fields The black area is the ponds in amongst the dune grassland, the dark grey from the arable fields or cereal and oil seed rape, the pale grey from permanent pasture and the white the area of ponds in amongst natural wetland. In all four cases the areas change markedly with the local rainfall. Over the three years of walking back and forth the Bay was hit by a distinct sequence of extreme weather; unusual drought from 2009 to March of 2012, then sudden and sustained rainfall resulting in a record breaking wet year and finally a 2013 heat-wave.

Much of the contemporary work on pond has been spurred by concerns at the loss of ponds from the British landscape over the last 100 years. The seasonal change at Blakemoor show a more complicated story, even the suggestion that extreme wet year can be good for the pondscape. However the damp and cold probably did more harm throughout the summer than any benefit provide by more and larger ponds.

Druridge Bay continues to reveal surprises and challenges about even such familiar habitats as the farm pond
 


Monday, 19 October 2015

Great Expectations, Banks Mining open cast and "all the infections that the sun sucks up"



When the escaped convict Magwitch ambushes the boy Pip at the start of Dicken’s Great Expectations he does not just appear on some anonymous street corner or leap out from behind a tree. Instead he looms out of the miasma fog of a Thames estuary salt marsh, more resembling an ancient bog creature than a man, coated in mud, dripping slime to menace the boy who would become his great friend (that's them from David Leary's superb 1946 film). Dicken’s choice of a marsh is no co-incidence. Certain habitats have always had particular associations. Think of a hay meadow for the joys of early summer (Cider with Rosie) or a windswept moor for doomed, gothic romance (Wuthering Heights). Wetlands ooze a particular menace; unruly, unkempt, their inner workings barely visible. They can swallow up a man or women and leave not a trace. Dancing lights lure the unwary to their doom. Diseases rise from their foetid waters. In the Tempest Shakespeare has Caliban curse his vanquisher, Prospero,

“All the infections that the sun sucks up
From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall and make him
By inch-meal a disease.”

Then again Shakespeare would know all about the foul airs of bogs and fens since his famous globe theatre was then in unlovely Southwark, a mixture of very dodgy taverns, stinking fish ponds and even stinkier clientele.

One problem with wetlands is that they can be a hard sell, not just existing wetlands but also the possibility of creating new ones, for example managed retreat of the coastline or inland sites designed to hold flood waters. Wetlands provide a wealth of benefits: flood control, food, building materials, mopping up pollution, wildlife and recreation but these may not be obvious, except to specialist visitors such as bird watchers or flood control engineers.  New sites might even risk creating worries by visibly flooding.

The Banks Mining Open Caste proposal includes a wealth of environmental data and an emphasis on restoration, much of it focused on wetlands. Not a hint of Magwitch.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Low Newton and the new and old first years


Two days of autumn murk, the rain barely able to decide if it should be fog or cloud. Then two days of brilliant low sun, searing across the landscape, picking out every curve and trench, hollow and bump. Three weeks into their new course and we took the Environmental Science first years for a walk over the southern Cheviot foothills, then, the next day, along the coast to Low Newton. The sea was perfect pale blue with huge rafts of gulls, made white specks by the sun, bobbing off shore. This little dune slack pool is tucked behind the high dunes at Low Newton, a deep, warm hollow protected by the steep dune seaward and a cosy mess of wet woodland north and south. Red Admirals showed off with glide fly-bys around us

The pond was dug out some fifteen years ago by the National Trust who own the site. They could have dug out the whole area of the slack but, instead, put in six separate pools of varying sizes. Each one is now rather different. Clusters of smaller pools usually have more species of plants and animals than one large pond because each pool goes its own way. The pools at Low Newton are now chocked with bur reed and bulrush, over a vivid carpet of moss. Ideal pools to bury carbon, the moss layer keeping the sediment wet and anoxic even if the site dries out.

Post grad Scott came along on the walk, outlining his work to the students. That's Scott on the left. Two days of hard working, (and one night in Wooler of hard pool and pints), and they were still keen to note down the first hand account of research, a revealing mix of physical struggle in the mud and delicate geochemistry in the lab. Six years ago Scott himself was stood there, a first year himself.  An inspiration to our newer recruits. They probably learnt more in 10 minutes talking with Scott then in a two hour lecture. The one thing they can all do, whatever their future holds, is dig a pond.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Pretending it is summer with Druridge Bay's late butterflies


Autumn is not my favourite time of year. Where some people see a mellow, fruitful, contemplative landscape I just see it getting darker in the morning. Ruthless midwinter is just fine, the completed dark a stage set for lights and sparkle, but autumn is just grey and damp.

September however has been dramatically warm and sunny, the low rays casting each day into a silver and gold wonder. This speckled wood butterfly for instance, still out in good numbers and fresh specimens too, newly hatched and perky, flying up in battling pairs. Before 2008 speckled wood were a remarkable novelty in the north east but are now well established along the coast. They are one of the most reliable sights throughout the summer and multiple broods keep hatching so long as the warmth lasts. It is the expansion of butterfly and dragonfly ranges north into Northumberland that has me convinced that the climate is warming. These are sun loving species, not especially fussy about habitat: it is not some change to the landscape that had lured them from the warmer south Speckled wood, for example, are perfectly at home in gardens and parks. Along the Bay they do well at sites such as Hauxley with a mix of dappled hedge shade and open grass. Their caterpillars feed on common grasses, whilst the adults hold territories along the edges of paths and rises. This one is using the sun fuzzed seed pods of a willowherb as a launch pad to see off rivals

I do my best not to take them for granted. In 2008 I was startled to find on in Newcastle. In 2010 I broke my mobile phone, sitting on it in my haste to photograph one at Hauxley. Now speckled woods are a familiar, everyday companion. On the other hand I’ve not seen a wall brown for a couple of years and these more orangey cousins of the speckled wood look to be in trouble.

The butterflies briefly help pretend it is still June and July but the evening chill is creeping up on them. I know that the Bay is often at its best for bird watchers in Autumn but the colour is leaching away and the last flowers look scraggy and folorn.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Druridge Bay open cast proposal and exactly who owns the elephants

In the United Kingdom we are fond of elephants. They are the staple stars of natural history TV, their close knit family lives, endearing babies and charming eye lashes creating a ready empathy as we watch their triumphs and challenges. Their struggles in the face of drought and lions, or, worse, our industrial poaching for ivory only endear them further. Elephants seem to have a sense of their own mortality and existence, which are very rare properties in the animal world. It comes as a surprise to many people in the UK that elephant big game hunting is nonetheless legal in much of southern Africa, and that some conservationists positively support this sport. The logic is grimly simple. If hunters pay a lot of money to shoot an elephant and then a substantial chunk of that cash goes to the local people on whose land the pachyderm was shot then the local people will put up with living next to these large, fast, greedy, clever leviathans. We are fond of elephants in the UK.... but we don’t have them in our back yard.

The problem is with approach to conservation is exactly whose land an elephant is on (or, technically, was) when it was shot. Trophy hunts linked to conservation have often run into problems once people realise the potential pay out. The idea works best where it is wholly clear whose land it is and who counts as local. Which is also part of the dramatic tension at Druridge Bay as Banks are about to submit their planning application. Who is a supporter and who against, and how local do you have to be to count?
Or, as Ronald and Douglas Smith put it when describing objectors to the mine proposal in an interview for Look North:
 
“It’s the people as moved up from Newcastle”,
“Haven’t got a clue what they’re on about”
These are good points, familiar to many a conservation debate. Town vs countryside, locals vs outsiders, bunny huggers vs despoilers of the countryside.
The Smith brothers’ opinions matter a great deal. South east Northumberland is an area rather cut off and left behind by economic powerhouses further south. Jobs are needed, there is a proud mining heritage, the economy needs a boost. So will the objectors be immediately check mated? No. The trouble with the outsiders/local argument is it all depends where you draw those lines. Which is exactly where the problems start with who owns a valuable elephant.
Funny how the challenges of wildlife in Drurdige Bay or southern Africa can be so similar.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Druridge Bay, Banks Mining and the open cast die is cast



Druridge Bay is about to become an amphitheatre for a classic battle of ideas and ideologies that that fought over a countryside for hundreds of years. The battle will not in some exquisite Coliseum but down and dirty in an open cast mine, more the scenery for 1970s Dr Who than Gladiator. Banks Mining are about to lodge their planning application for a new open cast between Cresswell and Druridge villages. Look North did a fine job of tracing out the battle lines: jobs, tourism, landscape, wildlife, energy, community, money. Their storyline captured the contested views of what might or might not happen very neatly, a microcosm of environmental debates from around the world.  There were firmly held views, with anti-mine protestors dismissed as know-nothing outsiders whilst equally local opponents of the mine worried that alternative businesses would be snuffed out.

For conservationists the open cast proposal represents a complex and unnerving dilemma. The best wildlife sites along the Bay are restored open cast mines, from Hauxley at the north through East Chevington and Druridge Pools. The potential of a new site, restored as a fine reserve once mined out is obvious. On the other hand that might not be the outcome. Hauxley, East Chevington and Druridge Pools were all handed over to the care of the Northumberland Wildlife Trust or National Trust. Trouble is that Banks do not own the proposed new site and cannot offer this prospect as a definite prize to aim for  beyond the short term horizon of mining. I suspect conservationists will be caught in the cross fire, at least in the short term. Fail to oppose the mine and we will be challenged by protestors who can draw on the deep roots of anti-nuclear power and sand extraction campaigns on the Bay. Fail to support the mine and we will be portrayed as anti-jobs, lacking the vision to see the future benefits.

I suspect this very blog will haver between these two poles, not least because of both the brilliant potential for a new wildlife site but the deadly uncertainty that it can be delivered.

Meantime the light has changed to autumns spun gold, warm in the day but the edge of cold in the air giving the lie to pretending it is still summer.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The whole wheat diet is not doing these ponds any good


Here is one of the Ellington Farm arable field subsidence ponds in September 2013 (left) and this July (right). In 2013 the wide, shallow pool had stayed wet most of the summer, the open water ideal for gulls, and waders to loaf about leaving the water’s edge with a scum line of preened feathers and down.  It was ploughed through in the autumn but then left unplanted and soon reverted to its less domesticated state. In 2015 the pond was waterlogged over winter but only as a small central pool and the winter wheat has been drilled, germinated and is fast approaching harvesting. I doubt that any teal or avocets hung around this year. Since 2010 we’ve kept track of when these ponds dry and fill, and their changing areas. The arable field ponds are particularly sensitive to the rainfall of the preceding month, the ponds in amongst wetland mosaics and dune slacks less so, perhaps buffered by a more waterlogged surround. 
If the pond stays like this the whole lot can be ploughed and planted this autumn, which may be enough to knock it out of the wider pond-scape and banish the wildlife that likes these disturbed, open flashes. The wall of wheat looks likely to advance, unless the weather turns fearsomely wet.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Drought and the plough: the subsidence ponds' tough summer


July has been an unlovely mix of cloudy, clammy days. Nonetheless we have had little sustained rain and the effects are obvious as the Bay’s smaller wetlands dry out.  Not a problem in itself, especially with the mosaic of pond types scattered across the landscape.  Perhaps a greater threat is the interplay between the weather and other forces, in particular land management. For example this subsidence pond at the south of the Bay at Ellington Farm. These fields are dotted with seasonal ponds, shallow bowls that fill every year, roundels in winter then choked with the ephemeral mayweeds and oraches of disturbed ground in summer. You can see the white splodges of scentless mayweed in bloom. This pond has been the summer hangout of avocets and gulls in recent summers but not this year. The dry weather has allowed the wheat to grow thick and strong a long way into what is normally the pond’s core. It is now a small remnant, forlorn in amongst the crop. The dry ground also means that tractors can plough through, rather than round.
It could be worse, for example this pond.

 
It’s not there. You can make out the faint curve where it has been but this summer a solid mass of wheat.  There are none of the characteristic plants in amongst the phalanx of stalks, only a huddle of pineapple mayweed along the distant hedge line edge.
Pond and their wildlife can cope with drying out, so long as there are refuges to retreat to then re-advance from. However the dry weather has tilted the balance in favour of the intensive cropping.  The land use looks to be the greater threat to the pondscape’s survival rather than the dry summer itself.  It is a classic threat, a double whammy of drying out and land use intensification. Wildlife can ride out the occasional mishap. But multiple stresses take a toll.  The subsidence ponds are having a tough year.
 

Thursday, 23 July 2015

The drought canyons of Cresswell

 
The summer drying has come to Druridge Bay. In recent years I have done a regular walk every two to three months around the ponds at Blakemoor Farm. Many are temporary, whether in the dunes, grassy pasture or in amongst the arable crops. Most of them dry out in most summers, but not all. This summer though the drying out has claimed some new ponds.
 
The one in the photo is tucked away out of sight in pasture along the dune road and has never dried out since I started the walks in 2010. A spring seems out on the western slope and maybe this has kept it topped up whilst those around recede and dry. This summer though the whole pond has dried away, leaving a crazy-paving styled substrate of cracked mud. The cracks are six or more inches deep, zig-zagging between columns of concreted mud on which tiny plants perch, small tufts of pineapple mayweed or cudweed.  Down in the dark, cooler chasms the mud is not wholly dry, but these rifts create a oddly out of scale world. Individual columns of dried mud can be lifted out and replaced in a 3D jigsaw. This pond has always teemed with tiny invertebrates such as ostracods and chironomid midge larvae, a refuge in previous dry summers. The gloppy mud stayed largely free of aquatic plants, the water from the spring suspiciously high in conductivity, a hint of mine water perhaps from the abandoned seams of Ellington Colliery below. Why it should dry so completely this year I do not know but it is sad to see, a dry pond seldom worries me; temporary ponds benefit from a dry phase, however this seems strange. The gulls and teal of summer that once loafed around its rim, dawdling through July and August are gone and the field does not seem quite right.


Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Northumberland's shores and the geranium sea


Druridge Bay is decked out in its high summer finery. The dunes in particular are an intense barrage of colour: the yellows of ragwort, bird’s foot trefoil and ladies' bedstraw in amongst a pink-purple haze of bloody cranesbill. The cranesbill is so abundant that it is easy to take for granted, covering very dune face and hollow, even scuffed tufts hanging over dune paths. Try strolling out from Druridge Country park onto the dune-scape just beyond and the landward side of the tall dunes is a vivid sward of pink. They are wild geraniums, Geranium sanguinium. The odd sounding common name is not a botanist’s irate curse but a reference to their seed ponds that resemble miniature beaks of herons and storks and which become increasingly blood red in hue as summer advances, as if dipped in gore. You can make out a few of the pods, pointing skyward but still largely green in the photo above. So abundant is the bloody cranesbill along the Northumberland coast that it would make a good icon of our summer coast. From Berwick upon Tweed down to Tynemouth this geranium is widespread. Elsewhere around the shores of the UK it is scarce. I don’t know why this should be. It seems a tough and successful plant, surviving our north sea ravaged winters and summer sea fret. Right now just take time to gaze out over the pink haze to the blue north sea, ideally with a colourful cobble bobbing in picturesque cliché just off shore. The North Sea sounds too cold a name for July. Even if only for a month the dunes bright hues make these northern shores a geranium sea.
 

Thursday, 2 July 2015

The southern hawker dragonflies and the hailstones


Southern Hawker dragonflies, Aeschna cyanea, have been emerging for the last week. I’ve only found a few of the old cast skins, called exuviae, so far, spooky and forlorn still clinging to sedge and reed stems as if they may be reanimated and crawl back into their ponds, but I’d not spotted any adults. Until today. Our region was hit by ferocious thunder storms last night, with hail stones the size of musket balls ricocheting around our back yard. This morning two newly hatched hawkers, maybe a bit subdued by the ominous weather and still not fully coloured up, were clinging to the cover of iris and reed stems at a nearby pond.  They will soon acquire the vivid bright green or pale blue bands that make them a very colourful insect.  As they whizz past I’ve heard startled passers by mistake them for very large wasps. The two conspicuous patches on the top of the thorax are particularly useful for identification. Once hatched and coloured up they will be away, often hawking along paths and woodland edges and taking their time before heading back to the wetlands of their birth. If you can get over the panic of “a very large wasp” take your time with them; the southern hawker is well known for its habit of inspecting you with as much interest as you might take in it. They will repeatedly fly up to you, check you out and seem as intrigued by your presence as you might be by their beauty. “Southern” is a bit of a misnomer. They are now quite at home this far north as this map from the nbn gateway shows : the yellow squares are 10x10 km grids from which the species has been recorded source, https://data.nbn.org.uk/Taxa/NBNSYS0000005626)

Monday, 29 June 2015

A blue tailed damselfly wash and brush up


Blue tailed damselflies (Ischnura elegans) have joined in the summer fun. It may be my imagination but they seem the shyest of the local damselflies, diminutive compared to their cousins.  Common red damselflies have an assertive flight, positively bossy in manner . They are on the wing early too and have been quartering their wetland homes for a few weeks now. Azure damselflies are also purposeful, zippy, an effect accentuated by the vivid almost all over blue of the males. The blue tails though tend to be more wary, fluttering into cover if you approach too boldly. The males are a slate grey with the blue spot at the end of their abdomen sometimes seeming to be in flying solo if the rest of the damselfly is obscured amongst the sedges and herbs. The females are even less conspicuous, although if you can sneak up close you’ll often find one flushed with a lilac thorax (the middle part of the body, bearing the wings and legs) or pale chestnut. This little male is giving himself a wipe behind his eyes before setting off on patrol, stretching his left foreleg over his head to wipe any specks from his bulbous eyes.  His blue tail spot is not fully coloured yet, but will become more intense with time. Watch out for blue specks floating through the plants around wetlands; each speck is likely to be a male blue tail, even if the rest of him is hard to see.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Sun, sex and suspicious parents: damselflies get the same hassle

 
Summer’s damselfies are lifting off in glittering droves. The azure damselflies (Coenagrion puella) have coloured up and the air can seem full of bright blue cocktail sticks deftly exploring the grass and rush swards, or perched up sunning themselves. Times are good in the heat. The males particularly are fidgety, landing for a few seconds then flitting up to argue. They seem unable to leave each other alone. Females tend to be cannier keeping out the way, only venturing out into public when ready to mate and provoking a rash of males to chase after them. These two are mating, the male the bluer one, the female a delicate green, hiding away  a bit in the reeds because other males will attempt to barge in, crash landing to knock them apart. Females will mate with several males. This makes life fraught for all concerned. Males endlessly pester. If a male mates with one female then unwisely abandons her another male can come in, mate and physically remove the first males sperm (I am sure you can find out how but be careful what you web search for). As a result it is much more usual for pairs to stay together for a while, the males going in for what is called mate guarding. The female uncurls from this mating wheel whilst the male maintains his hold around the back of her head with special claspers. They can fly off in this tandem, surprisingly fast. The male keeps a firm hold when they land, his legs folded, sticking up over the females head like an ornate hat whilst the female dips her abdomen into the water to lay her eggs. They still get hassled by single males, but at least they don’t have their parents turning up, unlike in the TV series

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Schrödinger’s cat, the Large Hadron Collider and Cresswell's mysterious tadpoles

 

 
 

Blakemoor Farm’s new field corner ponds are doing nicely. The freshly hatched tadpoles of a couple of weeks ago (see 3rd April) are now plump and assertive. They are also playing statistical games. In one of the ponds all the tadpoles are squirming together in a dense black swarm. In the next door pond they litter the sediment, scattered with a pleasing eye for complete coverage. In a third pond there are none.  Statistics are not what inspires many people’s interest in  natural history, although I know of mathematicians who have been lured into ecology on the grounds that it is much more challenging. Statistics have their uses though, especially to summarise and test observations. The trouble is when nature plays fast and loose like these tadpoles. In the first pond there are fairly simple quantitative methods that will tell you that tadpoles have a clumped distribution, whilst in the second pond that they are more or less evenly scattered about. The trouble is that the perfectly clear maths makes no sense overall because the tadpoles are doing different things in different ponds, or not turning up at all in the third pond. I doubt that the Large Hadron Collider, turned back on again today to crack even more secrets of fundamental particles, could help unravel the problem of the mathematically inconsistent tadpoles.  Tadpole uncertainty may not have the ring of quantum uncertainty or the fame of Schrödinger’s cat as a conundrum but they are a lovely mystery right on our doors step, just over a wall from the dune road.

 

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Northumberland's dragonfly battles: the contenders are hotting up


The male Broad Bodied Chasers have got all dressed up for the summer.  It takes a week or so from when they first emerge as glittering, golden bundles of energy to acquire this fine blue. Slowly the males' abdomens darken then a haze of sky blue, called prunesence, coats their tails. The younger males look much like females except they have slightly narrower abdomens. They keep out of the way of the mature males in their blue war paint, hanging around hedgerows and paths rather than risk conflict with their older kin. This nervousness changes once their blue fighting and mating colours have developed . Then it is time to head to a pond and challenge for a territory. These Chasers fly fast, often low but with erratic zig-zags, back and forth across ponds, even small, garden sites. They do not mind nearly dug out pools and are happy in cities. Every few minutes the territorial males perch on obvious branches and stems, and you can get close (the photo above was taken with an ordinary digital camera, not a telephoto). They are much more concerned about air-borne rivals than sneaky humans.

Adult Broad Bodied Chasers are good colonists and can turn up almost anywhere. They may not have bred from the ponds across which they now patrol and fight. The best evidence for breeding is finding their larvae, called nymphs, or the cast skins left behind as adult emerge. These skins are called exuviae. They are as gnarly and peculiar to look at as the adults are glamorous and racey. Here is one, the exuviae looking like some parchment mould from which the adult has been cast. The wispy white strands are where the cast skin ran inside the length of the breathing tubes, (trachea), that ramified into the body of the larva to carry oxygen. When the adult emerges and pulls itself free of the old skin these are pulled inside out a bit like when you take off a jumper or coats and the sleeve gets pulled inside out. The dragonfly season is hitting its stride. Northumberland remains a poorly recorded county for dragon and damselfies, even areas such as Druridge Bay that attract good numbers of bird watchers and outdoor enthusiasts. Northumberland is a region into which new species have expended from further south, and the east coast of England is the likely first land fall for occasional vagrants from the continent, just as with rare birds.  The western hills and bogs are even less recorded. Well worth watching out, you are very likely to find something new.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The damselflies get ready to party


Like their larger cousins the dragonflies the damselflies are also hatching earlier, by several weeks. Here is a newly emerged damsel that has fluttered to a perch on which to hide. If damselflies had to catch their breath, this is the moment. When they first heave themselves out of the old larval skin, left clinging to a stem of reed or grass around the edge of the pond, the newbie adults are dull coloured and poor flyers. The blues, reds or greens of the mature adult have yet to burgeon and instead the dull, faintly marked brown intermediate is called a teneral. This one had just about made it to a handy branch, then snuck around the other side where it thought I might not see it. At this stage it can be hard to identify the species but this one if likely to be an Azure Damselfy, which are one of the most common. A give away is the dark line that runs diagonally to about half way across the thorax, in the photo just to the bottom right of the thick black bar that runs the length from the wing bases to the rear of the neck. This half-a-line is typical of the Genus  Coenagrion and in Northumberland Coenagrion puella, tha Azure damselfly, is the only likely find. That is a bit of a cheat, I know. It could instead be a remarkable find of a species never before found up here, and I will double check. For now I did not want to scare the little damsel. It feels a bit intrusive, sneaking up to gawp as it gets changed to dance and fight away the days of summer in search of a mate.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

A glamoruous dragonfly hints at summer’s warm days.

This exquisite creature is a Broad Bodied Chaser dragonfly, newly hatched and showing itself off  in the mid May sunshine. These are musclely, showy critters spangled gold when they first emerge. When they take to the wing it looks like someone has chucked a fistful of cheap and cheerful chocolates in the air, wrappers glittering. They are also confiding, allowing a close approach, confident in their getaway speed. Like many dragonflies they wiggle and tilt their heads as you sneak up trying to catch a better view of you. This one was loitering in Newcastle today. I am not sure if they have established at Druridge  Bay, but they have been moving north over the last twenty years, like so many of their relatives. Broad Bodied Chasers are often very quick to turn up in new ponds, even sites with very little vegetation. This individual may be a male or female. The females stay this beautiful collage of gold and browns whilst the males develop a powder blue coating over the abdomen as they mature. Newly hatched males have the same colours as females maybe to reduce trouble from their older kin who see off contenders for the same territories in aerial duels.
I found this one today three weeks earlier than I normally spot them, and the first Common Blue damselflies were fluttering up too, also early. Keep your eyes open along the Bay. The coastal wetlands are top spots for dragonflies and damselflies in the north east but under-recorded. I suspect there are many dragonflies  to be found between Cresswell and Amble that we’ve not noticed before and these unusually early arrivals may be a good omen

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Build it at Cresswell and they will come


The sheer rush of late spring is now in force along the Bay. The green flush of new grass and herbs are overtopping the scraggy debris from last year. “Build it and they will come, as the film” famously puts it and certainly the tadpoles have arrived. These tidtads area few days old in the new ponds dug in the corner of the field just on the Cresswell village side of Blakemoor Fram, by the track where many a bird watcher parks. The tadpoles have aligned themselves, strangely reminiscent of aquatic musical notes, along the underside of Flote grass (Glyceria fluitans) leaf blades. The tadpoles still huddle together for protection although the new ponds are still fairly uninhabited by more malicious wildlife. So long as the ponds do not dry quickly (and this corner is a fairly safe bet for staying wet) they should do well. New or temporary ponds make a good refuge from fish or many of the larger invertebrate predators that take a while to colonise. The frogs have got in quick. The new ponds are already markedly different to one another. One is filling up with straggling amphibious grasses as it dries out. Others remain nicely flooded and with varying amounts of Celery leaved buttercup (Ranunculus scleratatus) and Flote grass beginning to establish, classic colonists moving out across the bare substrate.
The adjacent oil seed rape has exploded into bloom, smartingly yellow on the eye and with an evocative wallop of mustard perfume if you walk close by. Well worth doing. It is the smell of late spring turning into early summer, a raw blast of scent and colour. Not every-ones’ favourite but very evocative, a modernist ruthlessness to the colour, smell and wall of stems in contrast to the rough half land, half pool of the untidy corner
 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

A very polite and literate eider duck

 
Druridge Bay is blessed with a fine range of bird-watching blogs. Not surprising given the richness of bird life and the regular rarities that turn up. I am not the world's best bird watcher, although I treasure the Bay for the first swallows of the year and the sheer incredulity of breeding avocets. I should be more used to avocets. As  a teenager I used to volunteer at the RSPB's jewel in the crown at Minsmere in Suffolk. Avocets were one of the specialities, then found at only a handful of southern sites. My rubbish bird ID was no hindrance to being a volunteer because there were always other vital jobs to do such as keeping an eye on the car park. Not a glamorous task but a year as a shop assistant had taught me great deal about helping people. Or explaining politely why they couldn't visit that particular day because the reserve was closed and they must have driven past five "Reserve closed" signs to get there. Now there are avocets back again at Cresswell, straining the brackish lagoon for tiny invertebrates in between prima donna-ish fits at the approach of just about any other species.
 
Other bird life is more polite. This eider tucked waddled along the road into Hauxley Reserve last week, then, presumably seeing the sign that the reserve is closed, settled down to queue. Clearly ducks just need one sign unlike their Minsmere visiting human brethren. Literate and polite: makes bird watching so much easier.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Pond creation made to look easy (because it is)



Here are some other examples of the relative simplicity of good pond creation, to follow up the last blog featuring the newish pools dug out on Blakemoor Farm near Cresswell. The pond above is not at all near Cresswell: it is from a Forestry Commission site in the SW Scottish Borders from the late 1990s. This is before the renaissance in pond studies and the spread of improved advice. The Commission was willing to have a go at pond creation. Nothing fancy ofrlarge scale, but successful. This site is a small corner of a plantation, one of three ponds scrapped out to create a cluster rather than one big, deep, boringly similar site. In high summer this new little pond was close to drying. I have never seen so many Emerald damselflies (Lestes sponsa) as I did that day. The rushes and grasses were a misted by their glittering wings and sparkling bodies. They like sites that dry out, with the females laying eggs in the stems of plants above the water which hatch the following year if water levels have risen sufficiently to submerge the lower parts of the shoots and leaves.



At another site the Commission’s staff had simply added a few deeper JCB gouges to another pool. These refuges were full of beetles and waterboatmen, hanging on for when the rains returned, although, knowing water beetles and waterboatment, the rains better not be too long coming or else they’ll all have eaten each other.
Nothing fancy or complicated but simple habitat creation and above all a willingness to try

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

The Blakemoor pondlife ideal home exhibition

 
Loss of habitat is one of the main threats to our wildlife. Mostly the loss is not intended to hit the species involved but simply the result of how we use and re-use the landscape. Habitat recreation can be tricky. Ancient woodland is impossible without a time machine and most landscapes take time and expertise: reed cutters, hardy sheep, nest creation.....It's all a lot of effort. However ponds are just about the easiest habitat there is, something anyone can do. Much of the advice that used to worry would be pond diggers turns out to be not essential. Once upon a time it seemed that ponds always have to be large and deep, over 1 metre certainly so frogs didn’t freeze, and with stepped edges like an inverted Mayan temple to make sure you got all the different plant zones.
Thankfully most of these problems turn out to be myths, well and truly nailed by Pond Action (now the Freshwater Habitats Trust. They have lots of excellent information and advice at http://www.freshwaterhabitats.org.uk/habitats/pond/). Shallow, temporary, small ponds do very well for many plants and animals, although fish may be the exception. Good water quality certainly helps, and also ponds created in clusters so you get a bit of variety. It is surprising just how varied adjacent ponds can become. Nor do you have to worry about getting the ponds planted up. They will colonise rapidly and over doing the planting can miss out the earlier pioneer stages as beetles and bugs explore the new opportunities. Given how easy it is to create new ponds and how rich they are in wildlife it is the one thing everybody should do.
Here are some fine new ponds in a field corner just by the entrance to Blakemoor Farm. This is a wet  hollow, more or less where the road to Cresswell sometimes floods over. Rather than dig out the whole area (which would be a shame… the wet grassland is valuable in its own right) they have put in a cluster of ponds. They look a bit gaunt and square at this stage, but that is just how we see the world: the bugs and plants do not fret about the geometry of an ideal home. Great to see some pro-active, thoughtfully done habitat creation. These are ponds to be proud of.


Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The sands of Druridge Bay: a reverse egg timer



 
The mysterious linear  pond at the country park does seem to be an anti-tank ditch, one of many disconcerting objects and shapes scattered along the Bay.
There are other questions prompted by the report on the historic environment of  the Bay (Check out at http://www.aenvironment.co.uk/downloads/Druridge%20Bay%20Management%20Plan.pdf)
For example the map above is from Armstrong 1769, part of the report and more of less the area of the Bay for which Banks the mining company are hoping to develop as a new open cast. At the southern end of the map is “Blakemoor Hall”, and, maybe “Cook esq”. I am not sure what the Hall could be (if anyone knows I'd be grateful to hear), having always assumed the row of houses at Blakemoor farm, just as you walk into the hide at Cresswell lagoon, are much more recent with no older structures of any substance. However the farm outbuildings are older looking. There is also a road that meanders out onto the beach from Cresswell, heading north, suggesting more use and industry than you’d find there today, barring the occasional sand extraction excursion at Hemscott.
 
For such a walked, watched and loved stretch of coastline there remain many uncertainties. From the Neolithic footprints in the peat beds and flooded forest stumps, through the medieval at Chibburn to the WW2 pill boxes the Bay seems to capture time. Whereas an egg timer’s sand marks the tumbling progress of the time it seems that at Druridge Bay the sands clog and mire the passing years and hold all these fragments  in a jumble of half forgotten histories.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Bay during war time: crusader knights, French pirates and anti tank ponds



Peaceful, tranquil…
Druridge Bay attracts many of the descriptions we associate with natural and fairly empty wild places. Put aside for a moment that inland of the dunes the terrain is intensively farmed or the restored sites of old open cast mines: the contemporary Bay is steeped in a mix of big skies, ceaseless breeze and seaward horizon. For me though the Bay has always had a slightly curious feel: for example this blog on 23rd February with Robson Green, his polite skinny dippers and other users of the Bay a few entries ago. Another of the unsettling elements of the landscape are the hints at a militarized past. The anti-tank blocks on the beach itself arte the most obvious, but there are also scatted pill boxes and block houses plus, best of all, the deceptively reworked ruins of Chibburn Preceptory which sports gun slits added at the start of World War 2. The Preceptory is associated with the Knights Hospitallers of St John , a military order founded in the Crusades so the more recent military ruins are nothing new. The original Preceptory building was also fortified including a moat, so the more recent additions of gun-ports and observation slits are not so anomalous. The site even had an unfortunate encounter with French pirates in 1691who ravaged Widdrington. However most of the military remains are not so old although they lie half buried. The sand has covered many of them over and the occasional pill box tumbles out of the dunes in the wake of a storm.

One unexpected outcome is that the second world war created some ponds along the dunes. I’m not sure but if anyone knows I’d like to find out. In several places, notably just out on the dunes by the Country Park, are long, narrow, fairly straight and steep ditches, as in the photo above. I’ve never seen anything like this in any dunes anywhere; they look like they were excavated on purpose, although in amongst these tumbling dune scapes it is hard to work out what the purpose could be. They might well be an antitank ditch. They hold water well and provide a refuge for wetland plants and animals as many of the shallower dune pools dry out.
You can find out much more about the military architecture of the Bay in a superb report which includes some delightful old maps http://www.aenvironment.co.uk/downloads/Druridge%20Bay%20Management%20Plan.pdf

Peaceful… tranquil…. But hinting at a more ominous past
If you know what those ditches are please let me know

Thursday, 12 March 2015

History repeats itself at the Hauxley pond time machine


 
Most ecological research is done in the here and now: what lives where, how many of them are there, what are they doing? There is an immediacy to ecology, which is one of its strengths because so many people are ecologists, even if they may think of themselves as birders or butterfly lovers or wild flower cultivators. Ecology as a rigorous science has also struggled with history, not least because of the lack of long term data. This is one of the reasons that so much work done by amateurs is so very important. The long term data we have in the UK for birds and butterflies is mostly the work of dedicated amateurs, many of whom have an expertise that shames those of us paid to do ecology. Regulars to this blog will know that time features large in our work up at Druridge Bay and the Hauxley pond time machine is beginning to reveal new data. The photo above is one of the ponds in February 2015, originally dug out in 1994 and re-dug in 2014 as part of our work on carbon capture. The pond today looks much like it did in its early years in the late 1990s, with the branched alga stonewort (Chara species) re-appearing in thick swards. Below is a photo of the pond from ten years ago in 2004 with a Chara bed across much of the bottom.

 
Chara species are famously early colonists of newly dug sites. It looks like ecological history is repeating itself rather than the pond being able to miss out these pioneer stages and return rapidly to being choked by moss and grasses. Before it was re-dug last year it was filled by a thick sward of amphibious grasses, rushes and moss. The other ponds around about still are like, twenty years on from being first excavated, for example:
 
 
It might have been possible for the grasses, sedges and mosses to get back into the re-dug pond very quickly, since they have nearby bridgeheads in other ponds from which to re-colonise, but no. Perhaps they will still arrive a bit faster than in the previous twenty year sequence. So far though it looks like history does matter

Friday, 6 March 2015

From Druridge Bay to Roman York, via the Lizard Peninsular


Most of our work focuses on Druridge Bay: monitoring how the communities of invertebrates change over the years in ponds at Hauxley, how the number of wetlands  at Ellington Farm (the new Crown Estates name for Blakemoor Farm) vary with rainfall and quantifying the carbon capture across different pond types throughout the Bay. The ponds and wetlands certainly bury more carbon than the other habitats such as pasture or arable fields, but we need to check if that holds true in different regions of the UK or else we can’t say much beyond just the detail we have for Druridge. Pete and Scott have been venturing further afield, first to the Lizard Peninsular in Devon where many of the wetlands are technically Mediterranean, at least in their plant life. Last week Pete was down in Yorkshire, with the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust taking sediment cores from small ponds on Askham Bog. The Bog is on the outskirts of York, and has long been used for peat digging and livestock, but retains a mysterious feel, especially amongst the denser scrub where a wrong turning can have you face to face with half wild horses. I don’t know which half is wild, though when I met them a few years back the front ends seemed plenty dangerous enough. Pete opted for cores from slightly less hazardous terrain, distinctive small rectangular ponds, some inside an enclosure which creates the undignified impression that he is a type of livestock.
 
The pond’s origins are uncertain, with some suggestions that these may be peat excavations going back as far as Roman York. The important criterion for selecting these sites is their small size. We want to characterise the carbon dynamics of smaller wetlands because these are the ones missing from carbon budgets, although such wetlands are ubiquitous and numerous. The Lizard and Askham Bog are lowland sites, to match the broad landscape of Druridge. We also plan to include some sites in Norfolk, which should add a hotter, drier biogeography into the mix. Lowland Northumberland, Yorkshire, Norfolk and Devon will make a good start to capture the variation in carbon burial around the country.  The differences between wetlands around Druridge Bay is striking. Regional variations from cool northern, to hot southern should only add to this mix

Monday, 2 March 2015

The hebridean inhabitants of Hauxley



Winter’s grip is loosening. The ground is still sodden, and scabbed over with dead flower stems and grass blades barely green from the cold but the air is full of bird song. The little birds have kicked off, finches  and buntings, tree sparrows and wrens. Work is well underway at Hauxley too, on the new straw build hide. The burning down of the old hide turned out to be a blessing. It was a beautiful wooden building, substantial and snug. I still treasure the strange grand opening breakfast as the great and the good of respectable Northumberland squeezed into its main room for scrambled eggs and bacon. With so many more people coming to Hauxley it rapidly became obvious that a bigger building would be better with classrooms and a cafe so that the bacon and eggs were not a one off.

The western edge of the reserve has been enlarged too now, following a land purchase and a flock of pretty Hebridean sheep are now at work grazing, or they would be if they did not follow any passer- by in the hope of a feed. They have the deepest brown wool, fluffed up akin to a Cruft’s poodle and propelled on delicate legs so that from a distance they appear to be animated woollen bobbles that have come adrift from a hat. The new land is largely stark grassland, but like so much nature conservation think ten or twenty years ahead. New woodland and scrub will form a rich fringe to the reserve and hopefully saline grassland can take over the inundated edges. Room for some new ponds too, perhaps larger, permanent ones in contrast to the shallow flashes and pools that already ring the car park. A mix is best. The winter flashes around the car park area riot of summer flowers but some deeper ponds would be good for submerged species such as Potamogeton pondweeds. Meantime the JCB started work levelling and preparing the brow where the old hide was incinerated. You can check progress on the Wildlife Trust’s special straw build Facebook group; the videos may by students from Hirst Park Middle school are a joy. Here’s the link https://www.facebook.com/HauxleyNatureReserve

Monday, 23 February 2015

Nature and the naturists: Druridge Bay as the last outpost before respectable Northumberland


Despite the many kilometres of written text in wildlife conservation manuals, or terabytes of e-text detailing how to manage sites, one subject which affects many a nature reserve is missing from the literature:  nature reserves and nudists. It is largely a coastal specialism, a bit like salt marshes and barnacles; I doubt there are many regular naturist spots on Cheviot.  However for anyone responsible for sand dune sites around the coast of Britain the sights you can see in sand dunes can be a source of problems. There have been some famous nature versus naturist clashes, Dawlish warren in Devon the most well known. A key point is that the naturists have often been there first, it is the conservationists who are the interlopers. Those of you who watched Robson Green’s  “More Tales From Northumberland” on the 16th will have been treated to a flash of dune nudity as skinny dippers braved the North sea for what has now been established as a regular North East Skinny Dip, a charity fund raiser.  Cheeky, but not really naturists. However the Bay does have a longer standing, more discrete nudist scene. You’ll not see it sign posted or on TV, for it is not entirely respectable, not sanctioned nor tame. Which is part of the charm of the Bay. I regularly drive up to Druridge Bay and the journey north from Newcastle is an odd mix. All the way up, until beyond Lynemouth you are still in the gravitational pull of the industrial north east. Even if there isn’t the industry anymore, the culture and history has roots deep into the ground and the coal. With this culture a love of the countryside, but not respectable: pigeons and ferreting, rough shooting and angling. North of Amble respectable Northumberland begins, almost exactly with the area of Outstanding Natural beauty designation. In-between lies the Bay, a transition, scarred but created by industry, shifting with the tides, sinking over the coal seams, with silent smelters and anti-tank bocks. A contentious arc of very different opinions and delights.  Part of the bay’s character. The respectable skinny dippers are a fleeting presence: the Bay has other heritages too.