Thursday, 30 September 2010

Reptiles in Corsica

We've just been in Corsica for a 12 day holiday where, it seems, you could walk from one side of the island to the other on the backs of lizards - they are everywhere. And they have the decency to sit still while you photograph them (sometimes). And lizards weren't the only reptiles we saw (as you'll see later)... Seeing lizards in profusion is one of the novelties of travelling to warmer climes, as far as I am concerned. We have three species of lizards in Britain - the common lizard, the sand lizard and the slow worm (which looks a bit like a snake but is actually a legless lizard), but in order to see them, you have to work at least a little bit hard. In Corsica, they are just everywhere, in gardens, out on paths, up walls, everywhere! Incidentally, we also spotted geckos a couple of times, but they proved impossible to capture on camera! Here are some of the more obliging reptiles of Corsica...

Ths is the Tyrrhenian Wall lizard, Podarcis tiliguerta, endemic to Corsica and Sardinia only. And it was EVERYWHERE we went on Corsica. You can find out more about them here, on an excellent site about the reptiles and amphibians of France.  

Another of the same species, sunning itself on a log. If you look carefully (ordouble-click on the picture for a larger view), there is an orange dot just above the front leg - zoomed in, it is possible to see that it is a tick attached to the lizard. Also, this lizard has lost its tail, a common trait in many lizard species which will drop their tail if attacked by a predator with the intention that the twisting and turning tail distracts the predator and allows the lizard to escape. This one is in the process of growing a new one. We saw quite a few lizards in this state.

Yet another Tyrrhenian Wall lizard, this time showing some beautiful colouration. Also, if you double-click on the photo, you can take a closer look at the beautiful pattern of plates on the head.

This photo, taken by the shore on Cap Corse, in northern Corsica, shows an Italian Wall lizard, Podarcis sicula. And as this is northern Corsica (at Cap Fleuri), it must be the subspecies Podarcis sicula campestris. Again, more information on this beautiful species can be found here, and double clicking on the photo will let you see the glorious green colouration more clearly.

One of our natural history aspirations for this holiday in Corsica was to see tortoises, as we'd managed to do in the wild on the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece previously (even rescuing one that was about to be crushed by a speeding builder's van!). Corsica has one native land tortoise, Hermann's Tortoise, Testudo hermanni, and a native terrapin, the European Pond Terrapin (Emys orbicularlis). The terrapin can be seen quite widely in Corsica, although we didn't spot it on our journey. But Hermann's Tortoise, although found throughout the Balkans and on several of the larger Mediterranean islands, has declined dramatically on Corsica over the past decade as a result of habitat loss, brush and forest fires (a major blight on Corsica anyway) and from competition from aggressive non-native Florida Turtles. This sign above is for one of the two tortoise breeding and release centres on Corsica (this one near Moltifao) which are aiming to reverse the decline.

We certainly managed to see lots of Hermann's Tortoises fairly close up, even if we stuck to the outside of the visitor control barriers (unlike most other visitors who just wandered at will across the whole site - I even told off one French woman who stepped across the fence, picked one up and pretended to kiss it. Idiot. That will really help the conservation effort). I think managers of species conservation projects in the UK might have palpitations at the lack of visitor supervision at the site we were at.

And here is the Hermann's Tortoise conservation effort in action. And a noisy little action it is too. Although I had to admire the stamina as it does go on a bit!

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Rock balancing in Corsica

We've just returned from 12 days in Corsica, where I was surprised to see lots of rock balancing everywhere we went on mountain and coastal trails. The phenomenon was so widespread that it must be a bit like the throwing of stones onto cairns by the paths in the Scottish hills (although probably not as polarising as that activity in terms of love/hate!).

As I know at least one of my friends will be interested, here are some pics of the more amusing or artful examples.

I really liked the artful simplicity of this one - it looked just like a little figure who'd nodded off beside the path!

No - the camera wasn't squint - this really was on a sloping rock on a steep hillside!

This was by a river at the bottom of the Spelunca Gorge and, I presume, must have been placed there this year, after the Spring meltwaters had receded.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Battle of Britain Day, 15th September 2010

15th September, while I was away on holiday so couldn't post this at the time, is designated as Battle of Britain Day in the UK, in memory of all the brave people who fought (and in many cases, died) to keep Britain free, particularly at the height of the aerial battle for Britain in August and September 1940. A Battle of Britain memorial was installed on the London embankment in 2005, and I saw it for the first time last year. It shows the true horror of the blitz, representing the men, women and children involved on the ground, and the men of both sides who battled it out in the air above southern Britain. Here are a couple of the pictures I took when I visited it for the first time earlier this summer.

My little brother, CHAMPION prize-winning amateur film maker, has made a new short film about the RAF Spitfire squadron that was stationed at Drem in East Lothian, near where we grew up. A long way from the London blitz, no denying, but this squadron was heavily involved in defending Britain in 1940, and claims to have been the first squadron to be engaged in aerial combat action during world war 2.

My brother's fantastic wee film can be seen from his blog here, where he has embedded his Youtube film, and where you can read his background to the film. You can also just watch the film below (although I recommend that you watch it through the blog, so you can read the supporting story):

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #17

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.


I go to the rockpool at the slack of the tide
to mind me what my poetry’s for.

It has its ventricles, just like us –
pumping brine, like bull’s blood, a syrupy flow.

It has its theatre –
hushed and plush.

It has its Little Shop of Horrors.
It has its crossed and dotted monsters.

It has its cross-eyed beetling Lear.
It has its billowing Monroe.

I go to the rock-pool at the slack of the tide
to mind me what my poetry’s for.

For monks, it has barnacles
to sweep the broth as it flows, with fans,
grooming every cubic millimetre.

It has its ebb, the easy heft of wrack from rock,
like plastered, feverish locks of hair.

It has its flodd.
It has its welling god
with puddled, podgy face and jaw.

It has its holy hiccup.
Its minute’s silence


I go to the rockpool at the slack of the tide
to mind me what my poetry’s for.”

by Jen Hadfield From Nigh-no-Place (Bloodaxe, 2008)

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 17
I am still at the seashore for this picture, but we are under the water in a rock pool – as the text says “At low spring tides, rock pools are formed, and in these we can see – in their living, underwater state – some of the creatures whose empty shells we saw in the last picture.” Quite. Much nicer alive aren’t they? In particular, the common sea urchin (Echinus esculentus) and the closely related common starfish (Asterias rubens) are on the bottom of the rock pool, along with a live shore crab (Carcinus maenas), some snakelock anemones (Anemonia viridis), which can stand up to 5 cm tall, but with tentacles up to 15cm long, and some small barnacles (described in the text as “acorn barnacles” - which could make it one of a few species – most probably the commonest one, Semibalanus balanoides – great Latin name! Barnacles are actually little crustaceans – shrimp relatives – which have effectively settled from the plankton and glued themselves onto a rock, protecting themselves with thick, interlocking plates. They feed by forming a net from appendages that were the legs of their mobile ancestors, flicking out and trapping floating organic material. But you probably already know that – and the inevitably amusing tale about having the relatively longest penis in the animal kingdom, maybe 40 times longer than their body... who says that size doesn’t matter?

There are two other species of sea anemones in this picture – top right, the blue-grey anemones are dahlia anemones (Urticina felina), the largest of the common sea anemone species of the British Isles. This species is more of a northern species, preferring cooler waters, although found around the whole British Isles coast. The little pink blobs in the top right, among the white limpet shells (not sure which species of limpet this is meant to be), are the most common sea anemone encountered while rock-pooling, the beadlet anemone, with the Latin name of Actinia equina. They may actually be red, brown, green or orange in colour. Individuals of this species are known to be aggressive to one another, using their stinging cells to drive off other anemones that encroach on their vicinity.

The only identifiable seaweed in the picture is the large brown wavy fronds growing across the picture – these look like a kelp species, commonly known as “sugar weed” or “sugar kelp”, what I grew up as a young marine biology student knowing as Laminaria saccharina, and what has been renamed by marine taxonomists (in 2006, I think) as Saccharina latissima. This has featured on our wild food menu at home – young plants, washed then air-dried, cut into approximately 2-3 cm squares and then deep-fried briefly in hot oil, will swell up to make a sweet, crispy, puffy snack. Slightly fishy and salty but actually quite nice!

Again, as in the last post, I am generally unable to comment on the trends in any of these species, a major problem with the monitoring undertaken of our marine life being that there isn’t systematic approach to tracking what is happening with the commoner marine species around our coasts. Again, though, I would refer you to the excellent information source on marine species and habitats that is the MARLIN (Marine Life Information Network) website, for ecological information on all of the species mentioned here, if you desire to know more (and who wouldn’t?).

So, apologies again for the lack of comparison with the time of publication of these books. I hope at least you enjoyed the picture!

Friday, 10 September 2010

Signs of the times: Summer #16

More comparisons between the British countryside of today and that from 1959-1961 in the paintings of Charles Tunnicliffe in the Ladybird "What to look for..." series of books.

They sprint eight feet and –
stop. Like that. They
sprint a yard (like that) and
They have no acceleration
and no brakes.
Top speed's their only one.

They're alive - put life
through a burning-glass, they're
its focus - but they share
the world of delicate clockwork.

In spasmodic
Indian file
they parallel the parallel ripples.

When they stop
they, suddenly, are

Norman McCaig “Ringed plover by a water’s edge

(Copyright: Ladybird Books)

Summer Picture 16
¡Vamos a la plaja!

It is well past high summer, the school holidays are now finished all over Britain, so it seems appropriate that we too should visit the beach at some point in this Summer odyssey, while indeed it is still Summer (although here in Stirling it feels like we are perched precariously on the cusp between Summer and Autumn!). In fact, this is the first of several pictures devoted to the coast and seashore between now and the end of the Summer book. In this picture, a group of ringed plovers, adult and juveniles, has landed on the tide line, sitting among the kind of natural marine debris I spent my childhood beachcombing through – in fact, I can honestly say I frequently found specimens of all of the featured items here during my youthful strandline perambulations!

The text addresses the conceit of a painting crowded with these treasures of the sea by saying: “They are not often so close together as in this picture, so some child must have collected these and spread them on the seaweed to view all these treasures at one glance.” Sweet! At the top of the picture, a cuttlebone from a cuttlefish lies next to a dried common starfish (Latin name: Asterias rubens). Immediately below the ringed plovers, the two valves of a razorfish shell (there are several species - I have no clue as to which one this is meant to be), and the purple test (shell) of a common sea urchin (Echinus esculentus) lie next to a dead shore crab (Carcinus maenas). Below them, a mermaid’s purse (a dogfish’s egg case) lies next to the pink and golden shell (well, one half of the shell anyway) of a queen scallop (Aequipecten opercularis) (or “queenie”, if you are interested in eating the shellfish that your diving friends bring up to the surface!). This isn’t the species you are normally served in restaurants but is a smaller and no less edible and tasty scallop species. The picture is completed by the large, white, coiled shell of a common whelk (Buccinum undatum), the shell of another dead sea urchin species, the sea potato (Echinocardium cordatum) which lives in the sediment drawing water and organic matter down a burrow from the seabed surface. These animals or the remaining empty, fragile shells (or tests) are often washed up on the beach after storms. In the bottom left of the picture, the granular mass of little “blobs” is a cluster of common whelk eggs, or at least the cases of them.

The principal purpose of this series of posts is to examine and discuss the changes that have taken place in the examples of British wildlife and countryside shown in the pictures since they were published between 1959 and 1961. I would love to do so for the marine species (or their remains) shown here but it is extremely difficult to do in the same way as I have been able to do so far for, say mammals, birds, flowers and butterflies in earlier posts. While all of those groups (and others) have long-term monitoring processes that have allowed me to make some interesting and in some cases alarming trends in populations (and sometimes to discuss why they are occurring), this is much more problematic for marine species in general and, for what are probably regarded as very common marine species such as shore crabs, razor fish and sea urchins, it is not possible for me to source information to provide an overview of what is happening to their populations, range or distribution in the face of climate change, fishing, the cleaning up of pollution in our coastal waters and estuaries, and so on

Oh, it is possible to tell some stories from specific places. For example, in 1997, I published a study of crab populations in the Forth estuary, by Edinburgh in eastern Scotland, that used records of crabs from the field notebooks of the local marine biological survey vessel to show how the population of shore crabs had increased dramatically over a period of several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, over the period that the water quality in the estuary improved drastically in response to pollution control measures placed on significant historical industrial discharges. As recovery was also seen (shown in scientific papers published by other people) in the beasties living in the mud of the extensive mudflats of the estuary over the same period, it is likely that the crabs were indeed responding to an improving environment. Which is great, but it is an example from a single place that had been subjected to some extreme impacts from industry and isn’t representative of what is happening everywhere.

We aren’t, however, completely devoid of excellent information sources on marine species and habitats – the fantastic MARLIN (Marine Life Information Network) website, for example, provides a wealth of ecological information on all of the above species, if you want to go looking for more.

The one species in the picture that I can say a bit more about in terms of how it is doing is the ringed plover (Charadrius hiaticula) - a small, and as the Norman McCaig poem at the top of the page implies, hyperactive wading bird of sandy and gravel shores and estuaries. As with many other plover species, when the parent birds perceive a threat to their nest or chicks, they pretend to have a broken wing, dragging one low on the ground and running away from the nest or chicks, to draw potential predators away. The British Trust for Ornithology reports that the breeding population of this species is not monitored annually, but a BTO survey in 1984 showed increases throughout the UK since the previous survey in 1973–74. The spread of the breeding birds inland between the two periods, especially in England, was “probably associated with the increase in number of gravel pits and reservoirs.” The 1984 survey showed that more than 25% of the UK population nested on the Western Isles, especially on the machair [the amazingly flower-rich coastal grasslands restricted globally to Western Scotland, the Hebrides and the west of Ireland], but breeding waders there have subsequently suffered greatly from predation by introduced hedgehogs – a problem that appears increasingly severe and which led to the recent highly contentious hedgehog capture programme on the Western isles, organised by Scottish Natural Heritage, our national nature conservation agency.

Surveys of ringed plovers in England and Wales revealed an increase of 12% in breeding birds using wet meadows between 1982 and 2002. The BTO's repeat national survey in 2007 found an overall decrease in the UK ringed plover population of about 37% since 1984, with the greatest decreases in inland areas. Ringed Plovers that choose beaches for nesting are especially vulnerable to disturbance, and human use of beach areas severely restricts the availability of this habitat to nesting plovers. Wintering numbers in the UK have been in decline since the late 1980s, but the BTO doesn't offer comment on why this might be.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Singing in Stirling...

The following Youtube video was put together to promote a music project that O and I have been involved in as two of 30-40 singers who collaborated to put together a CD earlier this year. Singing Stirling and Kippen Wee Sing are two amateur community singing groups in this area (there are many others too). We sing with the former, and the two groups decided to work together on a special project this year.

It is the first vid I've done for Youtube so the picture editing is a bit hammy, but at least the pics are nice! I hope you enjoy the music too - you can also watch it direct on Youtube here and read more of the blurb about the CD project, how to buy it if you are interested, and about the song featured here (Both Sides the Tweed, traditional, but better known as a song performed by Dick Gaughan, someone about whom I've blogged before).

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Everything's golden...

Having posted about the marine environment of East Lothian yesterday, I feel compelled to let you see this lovely little film made by my brother about what was happening on land! I should add congratulations to my brother for his recent prize at the Innerleithen mountain bike film festival (just so you know he is a serious film maker!). Lovely film, lovely music, lovely time of year, lovely county...

Great gannet grandstanding...

More dodging of my "timetabled" Ladybird book "seasons"  blog posts to tell you about a spectacular nature experience I had today, one described by no lesser personage than one of my own nature heroes, Sir David Attenborough, as “one of the Twelve Wildlife Wonders of the World”.

The Bass Rock is the largest single island gannet colony in the world, with over 150,000 gannets. The island effectively turns white between February and October once the gannets return from offshore where they over-winter. The latin name of the gannet, Britain's largest resident seabird, was formerly Sula bassana, now changed by bird taxonomists to Morrone bassana, and comes from the Bass Rock - the species was named after its most impressive population centre!

The Bass Rock from the west - the white colour is a mixture of thousands upon thousands of gannets and their droppings - guano!
I grew up in East Lothian and went to secondary school in North Berwick, the nearby harbour town and so probably saw the Bass rock nearly every week day of the year, barring holidays. But you know how it is, when you never actually manage to get around to visiting the local sights that all the tourists and all your visitors want to go to. So it was with me and the Bass rock. I lived in East Lothian until I went away to University and I have never moved back. Every summer for the last few (20?) years, I've said I must get out to the Bass. But I never managed to take the boat trip round the island to see the gannets, the seals and the coastal scenery. Until today, that is.

Now you have to understand that most of that time, there was only one boat trip around the Bass, on the Sula II, originally run by Fred Marr, and now by his son Chris and daughter Pat. You can find out more about this here, along with information on their excellent and valuable gannet rescue work here. There are more boat trips around now, and also the Scottish Seabird Centre near the harbour which allows a different perspective on the Bass Rock, with remote cameras, etc., but it seemed to me that the best way to visit the Bass Rock would be with the Marrs on Sula II, with their fantastic local knowledge - eleven generations of the Marr family have worked out of North Berwick harbour. I don't think you can substitute for that kind of experience and inheritance. So when I heard earlier this year that this might be the last season that the Sula II would be running (Chris is retiring), I was determined to make a trip after all these years.

And so I took the day off work, in anticipation of the current high pressure lasting another day or two, and went, via breakfast at my parents along the coast, to North Berwick. As a hopeless nostalgic sentimentalist, I always find it quite emotional when I manage to spend a day around North Berwick, which due to schooling, is probably in third place in the list of places in which I have spent the most days of my life. It is such a beautiful little coastal town and, to my eyes, seems even more bustling and well-to-do than it ever did. No gap sites on the high street here, despite the credit crunch and global financial meltdown, though no doubt a few former Edinburgh bankers live there - NB is a very "des-res" place for people looking to move out of Edinburgh (it probably always was). Many of the shops I knew as a school child have gone, replaced by cafes and pretty little boutiques selling nice things and coastal lifestyle stuff!

 Anyway, I joined the mid-day sailing of the Sula II today (times vary daily due to tides and weather conditions), skippered by Chris Marr, with other family members helping with the crewing.

Sailing conditions and weather were perfect. I couldn't have asked for (or expected) better.

We motored out to the Bass Rock where it looked a bit like this on the way out...

The sky around the Bass rock is a seething mass of tens of thousands of gannets, gulls and occasional shags or cormorants. And it is noisy!

And every available square inch of space on land seems to be occupied or fought over:

At one point, we went in close enough to take these:

Here's the old foghorn I remember hearing as a child when the typical Scottish East Coast summer "haar" (sea fog) rolled in (to spoil our precious school summer holidays) - now decommissioned as a foghorn (it is all electronics and satnav systems now) but still obviously popular with the birds!

A final image from the Bass, to show the steeps cliffs that are the result of the weathering and glacial scraping away of the softer rocks around this plug of basalt, the origin of the Bass Rock being a former volcanic eruption:

We sailed back via another smaller island, Craigleith, which has its own seabird and conservation story to tell, but that's for another day. I'm immensely happy after all this time to have made that trip, in that boat, with those people, on this fabulous day, to have seen these sights, those birds and views. If you want to do it, then go and do it before the end of September. The contact details are on the Sula II website.  I took my darling O home a wee box of "Berwick Cockles" ("A crumbly soft red striped traditional boiled sweet") as a "Gift from North Berwick", but I can't help but feel that I was given the greater gift today!

Some of Pat Macaulay's rescued gannet chicks, being fed and strengthened before being returned to sea. 

Friday, 3 September 2010

Scottish September sun sets superbly...

I know I should be posting up more of my Ladybird book seasonal posts and rounding of the stories of the summer pictures from that series of books, but I can't resist being diverted by yet another spectacular sunset seen from our upper floor tonight. Stunning colours and amazing views of the sun and Ben Lomond, looking into the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National park to the west of Stirling - I hope you enjoy these - they are still images of nature after all!

Ben Lomond looking suitably moody!

Going... going...
... still going... last! Night-time!