Tag Archives: Larus argentatus

Crabs and Compasses

As a fitting coda to our trip to the Isle of Wight we had been invited to join some friends in Lyme Regis for the weekend. As I mentioned in my Isle of Wight post the eastern half of the English south coast was tipped on its end by tectonic forces so the geological history of that part of the world is exposed for all to see. In fact, moving from east to west is literally going back in time, heading as far as the Lower Jurassic era at Lyme Regis and Bridport, which is around 183-200 million years ago.

The Jurassic rock strata of the south coast westward from the Cobb at Lyme Regis

Those of you with a cinematographic interest may recognise the sea wall at Lyme Regis, it’s known as the ‘Cobb’, and was the location for the famous scene in The French Lieutenant’s Woman where Meryl Streep stands gazing out to sea. Which incidentally, is the only thing that myself and Meryl have in common, albeit for rather different reasons.

All our activities whilst we were in Lyme were marine orientated, I even managed to spend a couple of hours sea kayaking and peering into the crystal clear waters. The clarity of the water was incredible, it’s difficult to judge depth but I reckon at the deepest point I saw it was probably 15-20 feet deep. I could clearly see the bottom and the kelp fronds waving in the current, fish were darting in and out of the kelp and jellyfish were floating at the surface. I resolved to get up early the next morning and head out on the kayak to go snorkelling off the boat. So I got up and paddled out into the bay, but overnight a swell had risen which was swirling the sand around on the seabed and there was zero visibility in the water. So I need to make a return trip in the not too distant future so I can get in the water for a snorkel.

My son Jake and his friend Sam inspecting the contents of their crabbing bucket

Glancing over the sea wall while the children were crabbing I saw this handsome compass jellyfish (Chrysaora hysoscella) gently patrolling the periphery. I’d seen several of them in the bay the day before when I was kayaking and they’re common around English shores. They can pack a nasty punch for any poor unfortunate who makes contact with the tentacles which can cause a stinging, burning sensation and red raised lesions on the skin. I don’t know if it can get worse than that but it’s apparently fairly unpleasant while it lasts.

The compass can grow up to 30cm across which is about the size of this one.

Eyeing up the progress of the crabbing exploits was a hungry herring gull (Larus argentatus). He was very interested in any potential meals the kids may catch for him and he was ready to swoop onto any escapees.

Looking eastward from the Cobb are more cliffs and the rocks here are full of fossils. We were staying in the white houses on the left and just round the corner from there lies a prime fossiling beach which alas we were cut off from by the tide. There were lots of folk busy cracking open rocks on the part that was accessible but I think most of the fossils from that spot had already been found.

The cliff on the right with the yellow patch is called ‘Golden Cap’ and is the highest point on the south coast of England, rising to 627 feet (191m).

The catch:

Shore crabs – Carcinus maena

The bait for the crabs was bacon, they’re mad for it, and there was a prize for the first crab caught, the largest crab caught and the most crabs caught. My daughter won, every time she dropped her line into the water it was a couple of minutes or less before she hoicked one out. So, much to the chagrin of the boys, she won all three prizes and was as smug as hell for the rest of the day!

And as the bucket filled with crabs the gull got braver and braver:

But he was to be disappointed. At the end of the competition our bucket of crabs was emptied into the water at the bottom of those steps and they all scuttled away to freedom.

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The Isle of Wight, Part 1

This summers holiday took myself and the family to the Isle of Wight. I’ve often sat on the mainland and gazed at the island wondering what it was like, but apart from a sailing weekend from Cowes some years ago I’d never been there. Prior to the trip, several folk I spoke to who had been there said, ‘It’s very nice, but very 1950’s’, implying that were a bad thing. I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, so I set off expecting bakelite telephones, knobbly knee competitions and casual racism. But the reality was nothing like that, in fact the Isle of Wight turned out to be a lovely place, very green and full of cool wildlife.

Shanklin Bay looking over the garden of out holiday abode

Within a day of arriving at our destination at Shanklin, on the southeast corner of the island, we’d encountered a pair of ravens who were keen to share our fish and chips on the seafront, and several red squirrels running around the trees in the garden below our apartment. Red squirrels are delightful creatures and the island is one of the few places in the UK where they haven’t been ousted by the bigger and more aggressive North American grey squirrel. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get photographs of these but there was plenty of other flora and fauna to keep me occupied.

The weather on the island during the first week in August was remarkable, it was hot and sunny virtually the whole time we were there, but that coincided with continuous heavy rain and big floods a short distance to the west in Devon and Cornwall. As well as the trees in the garden, there were flowers and butterflies basking in the glorious sunshine:

Wild pansy (Viola tricolor)

The wild pansy is a lovely little flower and has been used as a herbal remedy for eczema and asthma and it was believed it was good for the heart, hence its other name of ‘heartsease’. It’s laden with potentially beneficial chemicals including salicylates (aspirin), antibacterials and antiinflammatories and has many amusing common names such as ‘love lies bleeding’ (!), bullweed, ‘tickle my fancy’ and ‘love in idleness’.

Gatekeeper

Also frequenting the garden was the equally beautifully coloured, but less poetically named, gatekeeper butterfly (Pyronia tithonus). I was pleased to see lots of butterflies here because the dreadful spring weather meant I’d seen very few around Cambridge, a horrid situation which, alas, prevailed for the rest of the summer.

Below the garden at the bottom of the cliff was lots and lots of beach with lots and lots of birds, including the ravens I mentioned earlier. And amongst them was this gull youngster. It wasn’t at all fazed by me and my son running around and seemed more curious than nervous.

A young gull – either a herring gull or a lesser black backed

Alas, I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about gulls to be able to differentiate the first year herring gull (Larus argentatus, Dansk: Sølvmåge) from the lesser black backed gull (Larus fuscus, Dansk: sildemåge), even with my Collins bird guide to assist. And while the gull was peering at us a sandwich tern patrolled the shallows occasionally diving into the water:

Sometimes returning to the surface with a fish… and other times not:

Sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis, Dansk: splitterne) fishing off Shanklin beach

From our limited explorations around the island it seemed to be quite distinctly in two halves. The eastern end, where we were based was green and agricultural with wide sandy beaches, and the western end, at least on the south side, was more chalk down rising to imposing cliffs toward the Needles at the far western tip. All the photographs in this post were from in and around Shanklin in the east and I’ve divided the IoW into two posts, so ‘Part 2’ will be from the western end.

A bit of a tern

In my last post I talked about the highlights of my trip south to  Hampshire, but I didn’t mention our excursion to the beach at Lee on Solent. On a warm but very cloudy day but we took a punt on the weather so the children could go for a swim in the sea. The tide was out and revealed an extremely colourful shoreline festooned with different seaweeds, snails, limpets and sundry other shore dwellers.


The diverse array of life forms revealed by the receding tide

Pecking around the rocks was a lone oystercatcher who seemed to be largely unconcerned by the whooping and hollering of the kids splashing around in the shallows:

The statuesque oystercatcher.
People rave about the avocet , but I think oytercatchers are just as impressive!

But the real stars of the show were  the arctic terns which were fishing in a small lagoon left in a dip in the beach when the tide went out. The precision aerial acrobatics of these amazing birds makes the Red Arrows look like amateurs! They are also expert at long haul, spending their summers in Europe and overwintering in southern Africa or even further afield. According to the BTO one individual was ringed in the Farne Islands in June 1982 and was next recorded in Melbourne, Australia, in October of the same year. Arctic terns return to their place of birth to breed so by the time this one saw the UK again it would have covered approximately 27500 miles over the sea!


Looking for a fish,

Manouevering into position for the dive,


Making fine adjustments…


And into the dive,


Mission accomplished.


Bandits at 6 o’clock

The terns were diving down through numerous other seabirds including black headed gulls, great black backed gulls and herring gulls, so they didn’t have it all their own way. Every time a tern made off with a fish a black headed gull would be in hot pursuit, both birds squawking and shrieking. The terns seemed to invariably escape with their spoils, but the gulls never seemed to tire of harrassing them.

All that, and the children got to go for a swim, so we all went home satisfied with our afternoons achievements.