Sunday, 30 December 2012

The ponds that come and go

At Hauxley Nature Reserve the wet December has submerged the field with our experimental ponds. You can see a few of the square pools which have not been overwhelmed at the far right of the flood waters. The last time the site flooded so extensively was the summer of 1997, after rainfall in June that was reckoned to have a return time of 1 in 300 years. "Return time" is one of those phrases that has slipped the leash and terrorised news bulletins this year; there were weeks when bedraggled Environment Agency or Council staff were being interviewed daily to explain the damage wrought by that week's 1 in 100... 200... 300... year flood. One striking result of the rainfall is how the numbers of ponds and pools has changed with the seasons. Simply counting the number of ponds along Druridge Bay is not that simple. Maps only record ponds large enough and permanent enough coincide with surveyors' revisiting the Bay. There are many large ponds missing on any published maps. Small ponds are wholly over looked. To get a feel for the numbers and how they wax and wane with the seaons I have been walking the same route across Blakemoor Farm at the south of the Bay every couple of months for the last two years, recording all the ponds I can see. This is roughly all the fields from the coast road at Blakemoor inland across to Ellington, with occasional detours to avoid bulls or impenetrable walls of late summer oil seed rape. In Decmber 2010 there were 66 ponds, in December 2011 49 ponds and this December 107. The largest is over 11,000 square metres, the smallest just a metre or two. Landscape can feel very familiar and certain but the ponds hint at the liminal nature of the habitat. Regardless of the changes the sheer number of ponds in so small an area is very unusual. We look forward to 2013 and the pond time machine of Druridge Bay throwing up fresh surprises. Happy New Year to all our readers.

Monday, 24 December 2012

The wettest year

Christmas Eve in the UK....   Stonehaven in north-east Scotland is flooded whilst in the south-west of England train lines are closed as heavy rains flood off the sodden fields. Britains' once safe conversation topic of the weather has become an uncertain and alarming subject. We have a Minister for Floods and a growing sense of political fear; fear of water. At a time of grim cuts to government spending flood defences have suddenly received a reprieve. Schemes are to be hurried up, or reprieved and new ones proposed. Druridge Bay remains glinting under the mid winter skies, either mirror-grey sheets of water under the unbroken cloud or dazzling platinum as the sun travels low. A local farm manager warns me that bread prices will rise sharply becuase so much winter wheat has been lost to the deluge. That lake in the picture above is supposed to be a field green with shoots of wheat. Mid winter has always been that uneasy see- saw between the old and new. Come droughts and floods we will be back up at the Bay exploring the exquisite pondscape in January. Meanwhile a Merry Christmas to everyone who reads the blog (....and that includes folk in Russia, Italy, Germany, the USA; we hope the wild northern landscapes of Northmberland cast something of their spell on you) and a Happy New Year. Mike J.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A "Plan A"

Counting, digging, walking and identifying make up our days out at Druridge Bay. We are fortunate; the Bay lures visitors for its wide open sweep and skies but we get to go there to work. Counting, digging, walking and identifying can be a distraction though, so I have days out there with no other purpose than tuning into the colours and sounds. Or summer ice cream cones from Cresswell Shop. Being out in the field in winter is more of a struggle, padded with thermal vests, jumpers, more jumpers, windproof jackets, hats, fingerless gloves, three layers of socks, hi-vis jacket, emergency whistle and nursing an electronic water conductivity probe up my jumper to keep the battery alive. Still, that is better than fretting in the office over all the emails that pile up as soon as your turn your back. Somewhere in between the days out under a baleful midwinter sun and days in with the less lovely PC screen glow lies the struggle with research plans. One of science's tasks is to make some sense of the world, to piece  together the blizzard of seemingly unique examples and conjure the underlying rhythms and structure. Ecology has a hard time doing this because we work with such contingent places and creatures. The natural world is a slippery stage. Scott and Pete are putting together their postgraduate project proposals; an important discipline. I'm keen to get students to write down questions, to doodle plans. It is no good telling me that you understand it in your head but can't actually find the words. What do research plans look like? Here is Scott's. I like the struggle of colours, lines and words as we wrestle the ideas to the ground. It is all too easy to get lost in the day to day of lab processing and field sampling and forget the overall goals. All postgraduates should be given a packet of multicoloured felt tip pens to help them remember.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Medieval mid winter

Mid winter conjures a Medieval vulnerability across the landscape; the world of Bruegel’s peasant skaters, tiny figures making merry as the fields stretch away to be lost in the snow. Even when having fun they keep their heads down, braced againts the cold. Druridge Bay retains little from that time. Low Chibburn Precaptory dates from the early 1300s but is marooned in the rectilinear fields of ex-open cast and nearby Widdrington Castle long demolished. There are tucked away corners where the winter’s cold, unvisited woods and fields not dug out for coal suggest a world before. The frost has turned the top inches of sodden pasture to a crackling, scrunching crust. Hard work to walk over, with every other footstep breaking though the iced floor into the goo below. The cold has leached the colours too.  Winter thrushes move quickly away, not even wasting energy on a call and on the ponds teal, mallard and moorhen keep their distance but are loathe to fly. There are pockets of ridge and furrow at the south of the Bay, picked out by a foggy sun. Step into the shadows and you can feel winter willing you to stand too long and get too cold. All wise peasants would best be indoors but I have been out counting the pools and flashes of water left by 2012’s deluges. Water boatmen still row under the ice which is thick enough to carry my wieght, squeeking and snapping under my boots.

Monday, 10 December 2012

A mammoth choice

Wildlife conservation is a choice, too often portrayed as a clash between some short term goal for our benefit versus the inconvenient natural world, exemplified in the common place the glib dismissal of nature standing in the way of development. However the choice may be between competing wildlife. There is no commandment that demands the Northumberland coast must remain as it is. The peat seams at Hauxley (see 5th December blog)are witness to the woodlands and swamps that once stretched out to a more distant shore now submerged. Before the Alder carr and Birch entombed in the of 4000 years old peat came an even more elusive landscape joining England to the continent; Doggerland, named after the Dogger Bank which remained as an island as the North Sea Basin filled from 7500 years ago. Occasional antler or mammoth teeth, or rarer still, a Neanderthal skull fragment hint at a lost world. Before Doggerland the North sea plains had been tundra, akin to Verner Hanke’s glacial world from Kai Peterson’s 1957 “Prehistoric Life on Earth”. Approach the problem of managing Druridge Bay from the perspective of a Martian in a time travelling space ship. Which habitat would you conserve? The ice fields and glacial tundra or the Doggerland steppes with mammoths and rhino? Perhaps you would prefer the wet woodland with its fleeting hunters who have left all too human footprints in the peat layers. All of these might justifiably be better choices than restored open cast lagoons or parks. Mammoths are an unlikely addition for some years, even taking the most optimistic mammoth cloning projects at face value. This should not stop us from thinking big, working with the landscape as a whole rather than hunkering down in isolated pockets of heavily managed unnatural nature.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Capturing time

Over the last twelve months we have gone from a major drought to the wettest summer on record. Newcastle upon Tyne, capital city of north east England and thirty miles south of Druridge Bay, has endured three separate spates of  flash flood. The wet summer has spun out the oil seed rape's fluorescent monopoly on the arable fields inland from the dunes for weeks longer than normal and now much of the winter wheat has been washed out. There is a sense of deeper change, shifting rhythms undercutting the familiar seasons. Hard to be sure, year to year. Druridge Bay bears witness to much more substantial change. Walk out onto the beach at Hauxley, head south along the dune front and you will soon see a dark, fibrous mat layer of peat. Beneath lies a blue-grey boulder clay, ground to a fine grained plastic. Above sit the modern dunes with occasional lines of shell and iron pans. Tree trunks and branches jut out from the peat, whilst occasional stumps and roots hook into the boulder clay below. The peat is the remains of wet woodland, the older layers dating back to 4500 years ago, the youngest to 2800, finally succumbing to the invading sand dunes. The peat is rich in pollen, varying through time but starting with wet woodland rich in Alder and Oak, then Birch. The trees succumbed to rising water tables as the land first became a mire then was over run by sand dunes driven before the encroaching seashore. The dune face is a compressed history, time squeezed like a rarefied gas until solidified in front of our eyes. The Hauxley peat beds are a highly unusual and significant site, telling of the North Sea’s expansion and how much the familiar can change. Not much consolation in the face of the floods, but a striking reminder of the difficulty we have capturing a sense of time and scale.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Pond anti-freeze

A clear night has allowed the frost to grip the Bay. You can see to Cheviot through the rain washed air, the hill tops now with snow, though more a light dusting than the full royal icing effect. Thousands of winter geese are milling over the fields at Cresswell, taking their time to land. Against the blue sky last Thursday the distant flocks milled and switched, suddenly lining up then falling apart like the iron filings in one of those magnetic beard sketching toys. The calls of the geese have a counter point in the squeek of new ice which has clamped across most of the ponds. Most but not all. One or two have not frozen over, especially where springs emerge in the fields around Blakemoor Farm. The water in the springs has a peculiarly high conductivity, which is a means of measuring the amount of material dissolved in the water; very pure distilled water has almost zero conductivity because the current needs disolved ions, such as salts and metals, to be conducted. The conductivity in unpolluted ponds in lowland Northumberland varies but is typically 200-300 microSiemens per centimetre. The water in the springs is ~1000 microSiemens. Trouble is that conductivity does not tell you exactly what is dissolved in the water, although our occasional attempts to pin this down have revealed high sodium levels. It could be that sea water is getting in under the Bay, perhaps via the now abandoned deep coal mine galleries which run beneath the site. The low sun has thawed the frost from the turfs in the field above, but not in the shadows beyond. However the little pool of spring water remains clear and ice free, the very slightly higher salt levels providing a natural anti-freeze.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

...more mosquitoes

Mosquito larvae are not straight forwardly lovely to look at. They are adorned with whiskers, sprout combs of spines and tufts of bristles.  Fan-like mouth parts strain algae form the water or hoover fine grains of detritus. They have the steam-punk feel of being slightly over-engineered, with a snorkel  tail and directional antennae.  Culiseta morsitans is the most widespread along the Bay and common in the UK too, although the map (from the National Biodiversity network, ) tells us more about how few people record mosquitoes than it does about the overall spread of the species. For example there are no red squares, which represent a record, plotted on a 10x10 km scale in national data bases, shown along the Bay (the arrow).  Culiseta morsitans is catholic in its needs for breeding; slacks, pools, ditches, freshwater or brackish. The females attack birds for a blood meal more than they do mammals, although humans are targeted. The fields and slack inland of the dunes have been submerged in the latest storm, but the new puddles and pools make a home for the mosquitoes as water levels rise and eggs are prompted to hatch. It is an ill wind.....

Friday, 23 November 2012

Sun, sea and sequestration......

.... says Scott. The late November storm blew through over night. Today the sun, low in the southern sky, was picking out the Blakemoor windfarm blades as they appeared to thresh the winter rooks out of the trees around Queen Elizabeth park. At Hauxley the oblique rays picked out every shade of gold at the experimental ponds. Dave and Scott have excavated the pond from which we sliced out the sections of sediment earlier in November. The slabs of clay topped with a thick crust of organic debris and black mud, which they removed, are now being ground down in the lab to measure the trapped carbon. Scott will be monitoring the newly cleared pond to record the productivity and accumulating detritus from the very beginning of the pond’s new life. We ended up as an incarnation of some medieval farming scene, puddling the clay on the base of the pond flat in a squidgy tap dance,  to create as neat and precise a volume as we can. The next storm is on the horizon, the pond is likely to fill up in any downpour. In the first spring after the ponds were  dug in Autumn 1994 they choked with snaggled clumps of Stoneworts (Chara), often called 'Quarry Weed' because it appears quickly in new, bare wetlands. I am keen to see if ecology repeats itself or the newly cleared pond develops along a novel path.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Pools, snooker and pea mussels

Once or twice a year nervous secretaries gingerly hand me an unexpected envelope, the contents often swathed in bubble wrap or, occasionally and rather beautifully, squashed flat with by a Post Office franking machine with a precision that the most perfectionist Victorian naturalist would admire. I look forward to these letters asking for an identification of the creature enclosed. My favourite was the Great Diving Beetle letter. The beetle, a species of Dytiscus, 3cm of clockwork black and yellow mechanical precision, had crash landed on a snooker table in garage, mid game. The sender was worried that this intimidating creature was woodworm; we were able to provide re-assurance.  Great Diving beetles can fly well and, like many pond creatures, their mobility is a way of finding new homes and surviving tough times. Other pond life cannot fly but can cadge a lift. The illustration above comes from Kew's 1893 book The Dispersal of Shells. Clamped around the hand front leg of the Diving Beetle is a pea mussel, a small clam, the two valves of its shell holding firm, possibly enough to be taken on a flight by the beetle. Beetles, bugs and birds make good vectors for moving smaller wildlife from pond to pond. Charles Darwin famously wrote of his experiment dunking the feet of a stuffed duck into an aquarium to see what little creatures might attach to this potential lift. Tricky to do with birds in the wild but next time you are checking the ducks, geese and herons pottering in the shallows you are watching an arrivals and departures terminal to rival any airport.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The mosquito coast

There is a furtive quality to adult mosquitoes, unlovely and fidgety.  They do not inspire affection, instead a sense of nuisance and recoil, as if they set out wantonly to persecute us, worse still to spread disease. Autumn is a time they seem more obvious, conjured out of the gloom which their colours and manner match. They are, at least, an insect we pay attention to. The Health Protection Agency has revamped a Mosquito Recording Scheme, partly out of concern at the surprisingly little we know about the distribution of species in the UK but also the possible arrival of new species, part of a wave of continental insects whose very delicate fragility is no hindrance to being wafted across the North Sea. The wetlands and pools along Druridge Bay and along the whole Northumberland coast offer attractive habitats to the discerning mosquito, and they do discern. The females of some species in search of somewhere to lay eggs are able to sense the presence of predators or competitors and so move on in search of more promising sites. Along the Bay Anopheles claviger and Culiseta morsitans are common but I have not searched in any systematic way letalone some of the more brackish sites. Further north at Low Newton I’ve found larvae that appear to be Anopheles algeriensis , Aedes cantans and Culiseta litorea, the latter much further north than other UK records. The squirming shoals of mosquito larvae in the Druridge Dune slacks,  and further north along our coast, hint at a new invasion shoreline and would be well worth an expedition to record our mosquito infested swamps. Here is the HPA mosquito Recording Scheme website. (

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The power of ponds

There are moments, rare and sometimes only dawning slowly, when science tears itself away from the trench warfare of lab processing and statistical output, to become an object of compelling fascination. I dare say the slab of drooling clay shown above is not, at first sight, a object of great beauty but the picture speaks of the power of ponds and how the underwater world holds important secrets. The wall of mud and clay is the bed of a little pond that we have cut into from the side, a slice through the sediment. You can see the edge of the original pond at the left and right sides of the image, with a meter rule lying on what was the bottom of the pond before we drained the water. We have stitched together photos from across the width of the cut (hence the floating green box in the sky.... it appears in several of the photos). The slice shows a dark layer, run through with roots and plant debris overlying the paler clay which was the original bed of the pond when it was dug in November 1994 at Hauxley. That black top layer is what we are interested in; the colour suggests a rich seam of orgnaic matter has built up, trapping carbon, a lack of oxygen slowing down decay. We will measure the carbon content precisely, produce tables of data and graphs of trends and gradients, but for now that image has us in its thrall. Pete Gilbert and Scott Taylor thought that slicing through a pond would be a good idea. I thought it would be a muddy mess. Shows how much I know....

Sunday, 4 November 2012

A question of extremes

Watching Storm Sandy bring New York to a halt carried echoes of Thunder Thursday in Newcastle: the irresistible raw power, tower blocks left as blacked out stumps, cars wedged into flooded underpass caverns as if by a child wrecking their toys. An extreme event, even by the USA’s practised hyperbole. Trouble is trying to define what an extreme event is. Not a priority in the desperate hours of the storm or the drawn out agony of the clear up but important eventually because climate predictions suggest more extremes and we need to know how to recognise shifting patterns in the weather that may result. The British Ecological Society, the UK’s learned body for ecologists, has set out to crystallise what we know about extreme events and their impact on freshwater habitats. Lakes, rivers and ponds all depend on water, how much of it and the quality, but these vary naturally. All these habitats develop as an interplay of landscape with climate, the changing seasons and occasional unusually high rainfall or prolonged dry spell. These ups and downs are important, creating new habitat and rejuvenating the old. Humans are very good at taming natural changes, for the understandable reason that we do not want to be flooded or have our crops fail for want of water. We are good at engineering out the everyday rhythms  of nature. A genuine extreme is much harder to define: something that is both remarkable in amount or duration or timing but also that has a demonstrable effect, resetting the ecological stage. Storm Sandy certainly fits the first criteria and for many people in Newcastle, Morpeth and any of the other flood-struck neighbourhoods I suspect the storms have altered their world irrevocably. The stickies above capture part of the British Ecological Society’s concern, especially at “double whammies” as multiple problems pile up: droughts and floods, habitats fragmenting and climate shifting. Working on a large enough scale across whole landscapes is one approach to resist extremes. We cannot put a giant dome over the whole of the Bay to protect it. Instead give nature room for manoeuvre, refuges to hunker down and space to change.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Coring for carbon

Here is the target of Scott’s coring, pictured in last Saturday’s blog; a core of sediment drilled out from the bottom of a pond at Hauxley Nature Reserve. The ponds were dug in a field that was back-filled after the Hauxley coal mine closed. The soil that was used for this was very clayey. To the right you can see the sheer, glistening clay from deeper in the core. To the left side of the core the clay is conspicuously gnarly and flecked with bits of plant; this is the sediment from the bed of the pond and immediately below. The ponds started as bare, square holes but since their creation in 1994 have colonised with amphibious mosses and grasses, or, occasionally, submerged plants such as water buttercup, Ranunculus aquatilitis, and Stoneworts, Chara. As the plants die their debris is mired in the sediment at the bottom of the pond. Where thick swards of moss have covered the bed of the pond the mud underneath has become black and foetid because of a lack of oxygen and these conditions slow natural decay. Hence the top of the core has the accumulated plant fragments, creating the darker, rougher texture. Coring is surprisingly hard work in the clinging clay but the greater challenge is to measure how much organic carbon the plant fragments have locked into the mud. The little ponds are very verdant and productive so the plant growth has the potential to take significant amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air and down into the mud when the plants die. One little pond may not seem very important, but there are a lot of little ponds out there.....

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The carbon economy

October has experimented with the possibilities of every season. Blue skies and the last of the Red Admirals showing off in the sunshine, boy racers at heart, barely alighting long enough to flaunt their colours before away again, impatient. Then fog leaving the Blakemoor wind farm as stumps propping up the gloom or else we’d all be squashed down into the mud and browning grasses. Now snow, the flakes freezing together in an overnight crust . The blues skies in the photo above are Hauxley Nature Reserve scarcely a week ago. Scott is using a corer to drill out a plug of sediment from the little pond. This pond and twenty nine others were dug out in the Autumn of 1994 to monitor the initial colonisation by invertebrates and plants, then how the various species would respond to changes such as dry years or prolonged flooding. This also means we know how old the ponds are to the day, along with their history. Age and history are not the same thing. The ponds are all eighteen years old but some have had a fraught life of drought and flood. Others are more sedate, a steady progress of clogging by mosses and grass. The ponds are the closest we have to a time machine. We can ask questions of their contemporary nature and know enough to check back how their history may be responsible for this. Scott, Pete and Dave are extracting the plugs of sediment to measure the amount of carbon trapped in the mud since the ponds were dug. Some of the carbon is bound up in the obvious fragments of plant which have drawn carbon dioxide out of the air as they photosynthesise but there are also microscopic algae plus bits of plant fallen in from the land around too. The ponds may be small but the verdant plant growth, much of it trapped in the sediment, may be a powerful trap pulling carbon out of the air and down into the mud.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

"An elephant walks over it...." antelope round it and an ant through it” is an evocative summary of how different animals see the world, the “it” being a scrub thicket and the obvious trait being size. Humans are relatively large animals so we see the world through a mix of elephant and antelope scales. Up at the Bay this means we see fields and woodland, dunes and lagoons. Most of the Bay’s creatures are much smaller, so the world becomes much bigger for them and much of our familiar landscape invisible, just as the whole of Northumberland is to any one of us as we walk through it . The photo shows a pond at Hauxley from a water beetles’ perspective. Not that we know how beetles interpret the world but their subtle reactions suggest more than just dull ‘turn left, turn right’ mechanics. One species takes flight more often from ponds harbouring higher numbers of its own kind. This would make sense if the populations were so high that lean times beckoned as beetles overwhelmed their prey. Another species leaves ponds as the density of pond weeds increases beyond a tolerable threshold of tangles and stems, which suggests some sense of space and structure. For some predatory beetles a thicket of pond weed is both a baffle to their hunting and perhaps camouflage for their own predators to use. For invertebrates the underwater wetlands must feel much like the wall of a forest does to our senses. The world becomes a much more complicated shape at beetle size. There are many more ways to crawl and swim, hide and seek. Much smaller than 1mm though and the pattern changes, the world becomes simpler in many ways. The architecture of plants becomes insensible, although surfaces matter very much. Plants are revealed as corrugated or sheer, encrusted or furred.  I know nothing about the microscopic ciliates or algae of the Bay, although they sometimes twitch into view when I’m puzzling over larger creatures. Their world beckons to be explored.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Daphnia HQ

The swarm of water fleas (Daphnia obtusa) featured in the 10th October blog were photographed in a dune slack just across the road from Cresswell Lagoon in 2008. Their pond has changed rapidly and conspicuously. The left hand photograph shows the slack in 2007, largely bare mud, with a tuft of bulrush (Schoenoplectus lacustrus) in the middle and grasses around the edge. To the right is the same field edge in winter 2011, now thickly carpeted with grasses, spike rush (Eleocharis palustris) and silver weed (Potentilla anserina). The Daphnia are more abundant when the substrate is bare mud. Perhaps they are wiped out as the plants create a climbing frame for the many predators which favour the Daphnia as food, or the planktonic algae that the Daphnia themsleves need do less well amongst the thicker stems. If you spend some time watching the twitching shoals of Daphnia you will notice they steer clear of plants or other underwater architetcure. The slack is routinely inundated when Cresswell lagoon overflows across the dune road. The water is saline, which does not cause too much of a problem for the plants and animals in the slack, but cars surfing through the backwash may end up rather rustier rather more quickly than expected. The slack is at its best when largely bare of vegetation. There is a string of thse little slacks along the fence line adjacent to the road, easily overlooked but strikingly beautiful when ochre black mud combines with the flash of shallow water, lurid green of early colonisers such as celery leaved buttercup (Ranunculus scelatatus) and fluted blue-green arches of bulrush.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The meek inheriting the Earth

Water fleas are not the biggest or fiercest of pond-life. They are food for most predators: you can even buy them in bags of bloated, farmed fleas for feeding to tropical aquarium fish. The wild water fleas of Druridge Bay tell a more successful story. The water flea, top left, is a species called Daphnia obtusa, a 3-4mm long crustacean and common in shallow, muddy pools along the Bay. You can spot them as jerky specks swimming indecisively hither and thither, although “swimming” is too elegant a description as they row themselves with their antennae (the long arms in the photo).  Their legs are enclosed within the carapace which gives them their rounded shape, each limb equipped with a fine-meshed net of bristles for raking algae out of the water for food. Each Daphnia may not be large, but the photograph to the right shows a swarm of thousands, each speck a Daphnia, in a dune pool near Cresswell. In the good times they reproduce by cloning. Most of the population are female and they develop embryos asexually. In the left hand photo you can see several baby Daphnia, the greenish blobs to the right of the adult’s sinuous gut. This cloning allows rapid population growth. As water levels drop and ponds begin to dry out the Daphnia produce tougher, drought resistant eggs which linger in the mud long after the adult hordes have been wiped out. When the rains come and ponds refill these eggs hatch and the Daphnia numbers boom, benefitting from the absence of fish.  It is a successful strategy; Daphnia obtusa is found throughout Europe and North America as well as just north of Cresswell.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Autumn nerves

Today Druridge Bay glowed in a luminous autumn sun, picking out every gradient of green turning into brown or orange. The low rays saturated the reds; a robin singing on a Blakemoor farm rooftop, Hawthorn berries being revealed as the leaves fall away, the faces of goldfinches working the hedge lines. Enough warmth to bounce back off walls and wood. Deceptive too. One step into the shade and the frost lingered, picking out the edges of lost leaves, waiting for the shadows to move back across, unhurried. The birds seemed overly casual, putting on a brave face but busy. Autumn nervous ticks, still pretending this was summer. The lapwings on Cresswell lagoon could not settle. Every few minutes they would rise, a drifting chequer board, out over the water, white bellies flashing against the sun, then settling back, fidgeting. The Bay makes a fine theatre for the seasons and the wildlife is rehearsing for winter, reluctantly and nervously. Many pools have refilled and the amphibious grasses make a late flush of green. Flote grass, Glyceria fluitans, is particularly vivid, the parallel sided leaves criss-crossing over the surface in a style reminisecnt of the artist Goldsworthy. Look closely and the leaves show occasional runs of pink or purple green in the bright sun. Flote grass and its companions Creeping Bent (Agrostis stolonifera) and Marsh Foxtail (Alopecurus geniculatus) are common enough, often overlooked but it is these pond margins where grass and water refuse to define an edge that are especially rich in invertebrates. If you want a good wildife pond you will do better with straggling grasses than you ever will with water lilies.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Six scientists and a bit of plastic tube

Science and scientists are condemmed to suffer from easy cliches: studious, introspective, objective sleuths in pursuit of some incomprensible data. Perhaps scientists are good at hiding a deeper truth in case it is seen as undermining what we do. Science is fun. For example here are Dave Thomas, Scott, Pete Gilbert, Dave Cooke (you met Scott and Dave C in the 20th September entry) and, to the right, Mike Deary, plus me taking the photos, struggling with a complex problem. How do you remove a plug of mud taken from the bottom of a pond using a plastic tube core without demolishing the mud in the process? The core might reveal subtle layering from year after year as the pond silted up, each layer perhaps trapping nutrients from the water and revealing the changing enviroments at Druridge Pools, which is where these cores came from. We have technology worth tens of thousands of pounds able to detect delicate variations in the patterns of elements and molecules. If only we can get the mud out the tube. Watching half a dozen people in white lab coats fretting how to do this without the mud rocketing across the lab as if shot out of a bazooka makes for an entertaining half hour. The expertise in these pictures could explain to you how to separate out different sources of carbon buried in the mud or the process of X-ray diffraction or emergency response to a major air pollution incident. Much more challenging is to take cores whilst teetering in clinging, foetid mud, hammering the tube down without falling over and all the while fending off overly inquistive wild ponies. That needs at least three hands.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Deluged by the unusual

On 28th June I spent two hours wading home through Newcastle. I was lucky, I was walking. All I had to do was mind my footing as I waded through the log jams of cars marooned in the rising waters. A thunderstorm, fronted by a black wall from horizon to horizon and rippling with lightening bolts to rival those of John Martin, Tyneside's great painter of apocalypse, had brought the city to halt. Video of a lightning strike on the Tyne Bridge or shaky phone footage of shoppers cowering in doorways gasping with each thunder clap is still shocking to watch. The day is now mythic: Thunder Thursday. A supercell storm was responsible, "exceptionally severe" according to the  Met Office. The Met office and Environment Agency staff are having to struggle to find new measures of exception. On the 5th August flash floods hit the city again, and yet again on the 24th September as an "unusually deep area of low pressure", "deepest since 1981" inflicted, according to Newcastle's Chronicle, £100 million of damage. The exceptional is starting to feel routine. Up at Hauxley the experimental ponds dug out in 1994 to track how the invertebrates and plants changed over time have turned out to be an insightful means of  following how variations in the weather, primarily rainfall, affect the wildlife. I had always intended to record the animals over several years but climate had not been the main focus. Research often turns out to be about something more, or something different, to what was planned. Results from recording the animals have shown major changes depending on dry or wet years, although their has been a trend of ponds drying out earlier over the years. The main challenge is more the practical difficulty of keeping a long term study going. The animals in all thirty ponds were recorded twice a year between 1995 and 2004. Ten years. That counts as a long time in research, although ten years is all too short a time compared to the Bay's history. Time is tricky thing to research, even to describe. Met Office staff are looking weary of explaining why we are having "one in a hundred year" events once a month.

Monday, 24 September 2012

The strange stranded sticklebacks

The summer of 2012 has been unusually wet, the rains filling out the subsidence ponds which dot the southern landscape of Druridge Bay. Around Blakemoor Farm and Ellington the fields jostle, their boundaries mis-matched as if some chinese puzzle has been abandoned by bored giants. The land is also prone to dip and rise over the ten seams of Ellington's abandoned coal mine, the last deep mine to close in Northumberland. The hollows and troughs create a dense scatter of subsidence ponds. Some ponds are expansive pools obvious amongst the cereal or oil seed rape. Others are more subtle, the water collecting in tyre ruts or track ways. The wet summer topped up tyre-rut pools amongst the oil seed rape in fields north of Ellington. Most ruts managed a half hearted mix of amphibious grasses and toad rush, Juncus buffonius, along with figure-of-eight wiggling bloodworms which are not worms at all but the larva of midges, their bodies rich in haemoglobin to make the best of what little oxygen there is in the pools. One rut though had a more unexpected fauna; sticklebacks. Right in amongst the oil seed rape, no pond or stream nearby or ever connected yet here were adult sticklebacks in breeding red, cruising their minature pool with the same ominous dark silhouette as sharks might patrol a beach of seals. I do not know how they got there. The ruts were new this year. The fish seemed conjured from the clay, both out of place but also a compelling example of how animals get about the Bay. The photo shows one of the sticklebacks along with its temporary domain. The ruts had been ploughed out now, following the harvest but there will be sticklebacks somewhere nearby. We cannot protect every last puddle and pool, but a landscape with enough pools and ruts, somewhere, sometime, is what the wildlife needs and then the toad rush and sticklebacks can find their own way. Allowing landscapes to change is as much part of conservation as resisting the damaging changes we inflict.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Science is done by people

Meet two of the team working up at Druridge Bay; Scott, a postgrad (on the left) and Dave, from Northumbria University. At their feet one of the small ponds dug out at Northumberland Wildlife Trust's Hauxley nature reserve in the autumn of 1994 so we could record the changing wildlife from each pond's creation. There are thirty of these ponds, now choked with moss, amphibious grasses and spike rush, but once a tapestry of stoneworts and water buttercup which thrived in dry years when pond dried out and baked to hard clay. A pond that dries out need not be a problem. It is still a pond, just not a pond with any water in it. Temporary ponds have their own specialist animals and plants. The Hauxley ponds were particularly good for tiny crustaceans called pea shrimps (Ostracoda is the scientific name), although they look more like those exotically flavoured multicoloured jelly beans you find in pick n'mix racks. The species of pea shrimp in each pond would vary year to year depending on how long a pond dried or flooded. Dry summers like 1995 and 1996 were best. Then came the wet July of 1997 and the ponds did not dry at all. Thick, clogging algae took over in bubbling mats and lank strands. The pea shrimps did not like that and had to wait until 1999 when the ponds dried out again and the tiny crustaceans reappeared, probably from tough eggs which had hung on through the wet years until the good times of the summer droughts resumed.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Where this started.....

..."over the bridge to enchantment", as Aberlady Bay, on the East Lothian coast, has been described. In 1985 walking along the dune slacks I was startled by the differences between the plant life of small ponds created when anti-tank blocks had been taken out. Some of the ponds were choked with stoneworts, others with Mares tail or Shining Pondweed. The photo shows the nearest pond with Shining Pondweed, Potamogeton lucens, but, barely a metre beyond, the other pond is full of vivid algae. The ponds are the same size, shape, age and within metres of each other; why should they be so very different? Hard to tell, without a time machine to go back to their creation. Maybe this was just a fluke, an accident of history, or perhaps the plants are minutely attuned to tiny variations in the conditions of each pond. A picture which haunts my research. In 1994 at Hauxley Nature Reserve, at the north of Druridge Bay, we dug out small ponds in imitation of Aberlady so their wildlife could be recorded from the very first day. A sort of time machine after all.