Friday, 10 August 2018

Shorebird Season 2018
an account by Ceris Aston
It is the end of shorebird season. The signs and fences have been removed, the netting rolled up, our small warden’s hut taken away – and we look out upon just another stretch of beach, indistinguishable from that 100 metres to the north or to the south. For the past three months, this small area of dune, sand and sea has been the centre of our hopes, thoughts and fears – or one of the centres, for this season we protected five nesting sites for little terns and ringed plovers. Both species have seen declines in their breeding population in the UK, with a major factor being human and dog disturbance. Happily, efforts of reserve staff and volunteers, and the co-operation of walkers, have enabled these charismatic birds a small window of space and time to court, lay eggs, and rear chicks and fledglings.
We fenced off areas of the shore across the reserve, chatting to locals and holidaymakers about the birds and the reasons for access restrictions. Look – we pointed – those are little terns! The UK’s second rarest nesting seabird. People squinted hopefully into the sky. Occasionally a little tern would oblige, fly near enough to point out the sand eel hanging from its bill. More often, they were visible only as a white dot on the sand or in the sky. We proffered binoculars. 

Some were fascinated; delighted to watch as a little tern fished in one of the tidal lagoons. Others were harder to convince of the need to close off areas of beach. Yet we feel we must do what we can to protect these tenacious creatures, who travel so far to breed - from West Africa to Northumberland - and whose decline is attributable to changing human behaviour. There are so many more of us, for one thing - and fewer and fewer remote spots for these birds to safely breed. Some things we can’t change - the weather, for one; Storm Hector hit the little terns hard with both sand-blow and flooding. The tides - with tide tables and surge charts anxiously scanned. Aerial predation of chicks by gulls, kestrel and crows, whose presence we noted but could not alter. But we can speak to people - show them the nesting sites - try to share what it is we find so special about these birds. 

It’s hard to describe what it has been like here. This patch of sand and sea rocket, fenced off by yellow netting, bordered by the sea. Those small grey-white terns – a black cap raised briefly from a scrape. Those sand-coloured chicks against sand, so still and then suddenly frantically flapping for food. The ringed plovers, such loyal, concerned parents, and their chicks like fast-moving pom-poms on stilts. The sites have seen some high drama. Fish-waggling courtship, love triangles, high-speed aerial battles, tempests, flooding, mortal peril. Shakespeare couldn’t write it better. 

Our little terns will soon farewell the Northumberland coast, making their way back towards West Africa for the winter. With the adults will fly an additional 17 juveniles, making the journey for the first time. The ringed plovers may move south or choose to overwinter here – but they too have grown in number; with new fluffy pom-poms becoming doughty fledglings. This is what we have been working towards. 

It’s a strange feeling; the end of shorebird season. Our gaze, so tuned in to these small areas of beach, expands – the reserve has 3,500 hectares, covers 65km of coastline. Soon the geese and waders will come to overwinter here – 50,000 migratory wildfowl will fill the reserve. We stack the fence poles in the reserve yard, untangle the netting and roll it up neatly. Some will be used this autumn, as we graze the dunes with sheep leased from a local farmer. We empty sand from our pockets and our shoes; look forward to the next chapter of life on the reserve.

To find out more go to:

Monday, 25 June 2018

Practicing yoga for over 10 years Elaine Catherine Young qualified as a yoga teacher in Mysore, India in February 2018.  Elaine practices and teaches traditional Hatha Yoga with elements of other yoga styles such as Vinyasa flow and Ashtanga.

Yoga is very much part of Elaine’s life. She is very passionate about sharing the benefits of yoga, not only for the health of the physical body but also for metal wellbeing too.  

Elaine is a full time Senior Marine Adviser for Natural England and created EarthSea Yoga in order to combine her enjoyment of the outdoor environment with yoga practice.

Come and join Elaine. All levels welcome!

  • Next outdoor session is on the beautiful Lindisfarne National Nature (North Shore, Holy Island).
  • 6th of July, 17:00-18:15
  • Donations to support the work of the Reserve will be gratefully received.

To Book your place contact:

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Apprentice diary: the weighing of the shrew

It’s a busy time on the reserve, as shorebird season demands so much of our energies, and at times I forget that there is anything but sand and shore and little terns. Last week, though, meant a break from shorebird wardening and a trip to the island to assist volunteer Veronica with a small mammal survey. 

I drove the work van across the causeway - very slowly - it’s still new to me and feels very strange to be so high up. Steering the whale very slowly into the car park, I spotted Veronica, wearing a bright yellow mackintosh. We waved.

I walked over, apologising - I’m afraid I don’t know anything about small mammal surveying but I’ll help however I can! Veronica smiled. These are the small mammals we have in the UK - she passed me a fold-out picture guide. And these are the shrews and rodents we’d expect to find here. I pricked up my ears. Aren’t shrews rodents? It would seem not. 

I had, I realised, come to define rodent as meaning ‘small furry creature resembling a mouse’. And somehow, over the years, there had never been cause to change this workable, but quite wrong, definition. Rodents (for those who don’t know) are characterised by their constantly growing incisors - the name comes from the Latin ‘rodere’, to gnaw. Shrews, on the other hand, are insectivores and play quite a different role in an ecosystem. Not just mice with long noses, I realised.

We gathered our kit - bedding, bait, one bucket, one large plastic bag, one small freezer bag, one set scales - and set off for the dunes. The traps were marked with ribbons, Veronica told me, pointing one out. I looked and looked again, then spotted it - a tiny slip of ribbon tied around some Marram grass. At its base, well concealed by mosses and grass, the Longworth trap. 

Longworth small mammal traps are one of the most commonly used - comprised of a box filled with bedding and bait, and a corridor section with a door which can be set to remain open or to shut when a point in the trap is triggered. These traps had initially been put out for prebaiting, with the door not triggered to shut - allowing the small mammals to discover the existence of a splendid new food supply and run in and out at will. To tempt them: sunflower seeds for the rodents (kibbled so the seeds don’t germinate and sprout sunflowers in the dunes); fruit to relieve thirst; and blow fly casters for the shrews. A few hours earlier, these traps had been baited and triggered and we were now off to see whether anything had been found. 

There probably won’t be anything, cautioned Veronica - they’re mostly active at night time or dawn and dusk. It was - I checked my phone - exactly noon. So perhaps not. But as we reached the first box, Veronica checked the door. It was shut. It could be a misfire but - she looked inside - we had something.

Placing the trap at the bottom of the large transparent plastic bag, Veronica unhooked the corridor section from the main trap and gently angled the trap. Slowly, a bundle of bedding, bait, and one small furry slid out. It was a shrew - a common shrew, to be precise - tiny, scurrying and, it seemed, absolutely furious. Nobody does indignant quite like a shrew, I thought, watching its nose quiver as it looked up at the enormous, rude humans who had disturbed its luncheon. How dare we? 

A gloved Veronica scruffed the shrew - catching it, holding it carefully in one hand and then gently decanting it into, of all things, a small freezer bag. She then clipped scales onto the top of the bag. 5 grams? She asked. I confirmed. 5 grams. The weight of a twenty pence piece. It really was very tiny. Veronica confirmed identification - a juvenile common shrew, too young to easily sex. And then, release - and with a wriggle into the undergrowth, it was gone. 

On to trap number two - three - four - and all the way to twenty seven, seeking ribbons in the long grass. All but trap no.1 were - unsurprisingly - empty. Beginner’s luck had served me well. Longworth traps must be checked every four hours - we would return later that afternoon, and then Veronica would check again, and again, into the night. She has carried out these surveys in spring and autumn for the past 9 years, forming a picture of the situation for small mammals on the island. 

We said goodbye in the parking lot. I thanked her, and drove away, smiling. I love to learn and it is a joy to meet someone so generous with knowledge and time. And I saw a shrew! I look forward to the autumn. 

Monday, 11 June 2018

Shorebird season: our first little tern egg

As wedding bells pealed in Windsor, and millions of people around the world watched the royal wedding on May 19th, the wardens at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve were celebrating quite different news – our first little tern egg of the year. Quietly, with no fanfare: one small speckled egg.

If we’d had flags we’d have waved them - it’s what we’ve been hoping, and working, for since long before the beginning of shorebird season. Preparation and planning is year around, and in April staff and volunteers set out laden with fence posts, coils of rope and a heavy mell hammer in order to fence off safe areas for the birds – as well as coils of plastic predator-proof netting to encircle potential nesting sites. Where to put them? Well… who can predict the ways of terns, but based on knowledge of their habits and the evidence of previous years, we fenced off five areas across the reserve, the mell becoming heavier with each post that we drove into the sand.

Little terns are the UK’s second rarest nesting seabird and Britain’s smallest seabird – delicately built, agile and very sweet. Despite their size, they migrate thousands of miles each year – all the way from West Africa to the Northumberland Coast. I’d never seen one except in photographs. You’ll love them, I was told. But where were they? We’d expected them at the beginning of May yet this brought only a couple of pairs to the reserve. Everything was ready… but the terns were late. Days passed. Where we had expected flapping, squeaking busyness, there was only silence and stillness. We began to wonder – would they come at all? What had happened, so far away?

Then news – on Twitter, appropriately enough – from the south: they’re on their way. Sussex had started to see their terns arrive. A message of hope for the north – and gradually, finally, they arrived, squeaking like rubber balls and dipping into the surface of the sea for fish. We still didn’t know what had delayed them, but they were here – and, we hoped, ready to mate. What’s the tern equivalent to mood lighting and Marvin Gaye? we wondered. Their late arrival meant there wasn’t much time… time to break out the really good sand eels.

In the meantime, shorebird wardens were watching the sites – watching, waiting, and commiserating with those whose walks were cut shorter by the fenced off areas. The little terns are a Schedule 1 species, meaning it is a criminal offence to disturb them. Sadly there are many hazards for a species that lays its eggs in small scrapes in the sand – including, but not limited to crows, gulls, kestrels, foxes, humans, dogs off leads, high winds, high tides, and their own sometimes poor sense in choosing nesting spots. After the joy of our first egg, the fear (I wonder: is this what parenthood feels like?). They are so very vulnerable. Yet these brave little birds return, year on year. And we do what we can to help.

Yet every intervention is a gamble - putting up the predator-proof netting runs the risk of treading on scrapes or eggs, causing the birds to lose their bearings, or simply leading them to abandon the site. We move swiftly and carefully to complete the tasks - normally barefoot. Every now and then a sharp blade of the marram grass on the dunes prompts an exclamation, but we keep moving - eyes downward - as the terns flutter and squeak above us. We have ten minutes, max - in and out. Fingers fumble. We’re near the end of our time.

And then it is done and we move fast, a bee line to the dunes. We throw ourselves down, breathless, out of sight. Eyes glued to binoculars, we wait. Will they return? Will they find their scrapes? Have we done more harm than good? It’s a gamble, always. We wait, and wait... and after about ten minutes are rewarded in our efforts by the sight of the terns returning, one by one, to their scrapes. A quick count. A sigh of relief. They’re okay. Tonight, our local Mr Fox - however fantastic - will have to seek easier prey.

It’s an intense time, and though each successful stage comes as a relief it isn’t until the end of shorebird season that we’ll be able to really breathe again. When, we very much hope, we will see our little terns fledge. We celebrated our first egg. We’ll celebrate our first chick. But our first fledgling? Deck out the beach in bunting and ring the bells. We might even run to a commemorative plate.

Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve is situated on the North Northumberland coast and includes not only the Holy Island of Lindisfarne but 3500 hectares covering 65km of coastline. It is managed by Natural England. Our work with shorebirds is powered by both staff and volunteers and is part of The Little Tern Recovery Project – this work is part funded by the EU Life+ Nature Programme. If you are interested in volunteering on this or other projects on the reserve, please contact Annie Ivison at or on 01289 381470.

Photographs copyright to Kevin Simmonds. Little terns are a schedule one species and may only be photographed by those with a license to do so. 

Friday, 13 April 2018

Undergraduate Work Experience on Lindisfarne NNR

We may not have had warm, sunny weather the past week on Holy island, however this has not stopped me from getting stuck in to my Lindisfarne NNR work placement with Natural England! I am completing the placement as part of one of my BSc Marine Zoology modules at Newcastle University. I aspire to go into conservation and as I enjoy outreach this placement was ideal for me to gain valuable transferable skills and knowledge by working alongside Annie, the Reserve Manager.

Tuesday: Having been used to the relatively laid-back life as a university student it was quite daunting initially entering the work placement regardless of how prepared I felt when I arrived. Although I was a little nervous I didn’t let it put me off and I quickly settled into my role. The first day we were running a ‘Signs of Spring’ event which allowed visitors to complete a variety of spring crafts including dragonfly bookmarks and butterfly lifecycles. The aim of the events was to highlight key messages about safeguarding nature when visiting the Reserve, these messages included keeping dogs on a lead or at heel, keeping to desire lines and observing advice on signage. I felt like a sponge as I absorbed all the aspects of how to effectively prepare, set-up and run the events which are taking place over the coming week. I also got to know Gill and David, two Lindisfarne NNR volunteers who often help with various reserve activities.

Dragonfly bookmark making

Wednesday: By day two my nerves were a distant memory – I arrived on site and once greeted by Gill and David we went over the causeway to set up the days event, ‘Marine Pollution Solutions’. Having done previous marine outreach I was familiar with the main craft of the event - canvas bag decorating. I really enjoyed interacting with the reserve visitors to raise awareness of how marine pollution affects the wildlife and the environment around us. To help get the message across there was a litter sorting game that involves sorting litter into biodegradable and non-biodegradable items and guessing how long specific materials take to break down. Additionally, visitors were encouraged to pledge to ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’ and their promises were displayed on the pledge board. During the afternoon I had the opportunity to develop my administration skills as this is a key part of Annie’s role; although I appreciate the importance of the admin tasks to the successful running of the reserve I much prefer the practical elements for sure!

Canvas bag decorating

 Thursday: Thankfully the weather forecast held out and we had a glorious day on the reserve for our shorebird event! Although birds aren’t my forte I shocked myself at how many species I could already recognise and from this I took the opportunity to learn more about the little terns, (Sternula albifrons). This species has long migrations from their wintering sites in Africa and are unfortunately the second highest declining shorebird species, therefore the protection the reserve provides is essential to maximise the chances of a successful breeding season. The crafts encouraged children to recognise the colour patterns of the little terns and ringed plover, (Charadrius hiaticula) and how to spot them when out and about on the reserve. The most popular activity was the badge making – I can now add ‘professional badge maker’ to my CV! David, being a keen birder, set up a telescope and got binoculars out for visitors to use through the ‘Window in the Wild’, overlooking some of the beautiful landscape which I has been my ‘office’. On our return to the mainland our plan to do admin was halted by a power cut, however being flexible workers, this did not cause any issues – Annie and I went to the most southern point of the reserve at Budle Bay and then on to Fenham le Moor bird hide to carry out essential maintenance checks. The views from the hide were stunning and I gained a new appreciation towards the importance of signage on the reserve as a management strategy.

Friday: On the penultimate day of my work placement it was my time to shine as I mainly focused on the execution of my ‘Signs of Spring’ event. It followed the same theme of day one however I expanded my skill set through successfully planning and preparing crafts such as a variety of animal masks and origami butterflies. The event went incredibly well and was very busy – there was a constant flow of visitors and spaces at the craft activities were always full – yey! This came as a great relief for me having executed an equally successful event to the three I helped with prior. It was very rewarding for me to see many excited children (and adults) getting involved in the event which I had planned. During Friday afternoon I utilised my organisation skills to sort through the event boxes, so to make preparation for future events on the reserve more efficient.

Spring masks and origami butterflies

Saturday: This was my last day in placement; it has been very enjoyable and rewarding week! I started the day by researching Natura 2000 – this is the European network which protects the vulnerable habitat and species which the reserve hosts; during university I have studied relevant laws and policies such as the Habitats Directive and so through researching Natura 2000 it allowed me to consolidate my understanding of how various SPAs and SACs protect some of Lindisfarne NNR’s most valuable species and habitat. Once again we ran the shorebirds event. We chose the shorebird theme as the focus as by the end of April the entire reserve will host many species in great abundance thus, it is very important to correspond effectively the correct information to the public regarding protection of the shorebird nesting areas and feeding sites. I also developed my blog writing skills – something else which is completely new to me!

Overall this week has been inspiring and has given me a multitude of skills and a wealth of knowledge relating to conservation and reserve management. I have loved working alongside Annie and experiencing what the role of reserve manager entails – to be honest it is a much more interesting and varied role than I previously thought, and I will be sure to consider a similar role when looking for graduate jobs!

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Second chance for injured seal
Lindisfarne NNR staff and British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) volunteers mount two rescue missions to find and rescue injured seal
21st March 2018
This week, a badly injured seal received a second chance at life after rescuers spent two days searching for him. The seal - nicknamed Rufus - was found badly entangled in rope and fishing line, with a large infected wound on his neck where the line had cut into him. He is the latest casualty of ghost fishing on the Northumberland coast.
A rescue mission was first mounted on Sunday by BDMLR volunteers Jane Hardy, Jane Lancaster and Steve Dixon after a sighting was reported to the charity, on Ross Back Sands beach, part of Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve in Northumberland. After a 4 mile trek to the beach and 5 hours of searching in hostile weathers, they reluctantly had to admit defeat for the day. Lindisfarne NNR were contacted on Monday to say that the seal had been sighted again at a remote area of the reserve. He was finally found late on Monday afternoon lying at the top of a 10 foot dune, as rescuers left the beach to avoid the oncoming tide.
Rufus, rescued 19th March 2018, Pinnacles, Ross Sands
© Natural England/Annie Ivison
'I was so relieved when I saw him,' recalls Annie Ivison, who works on the Reserve, which is managed by Natural England. ' I alerted the others, and Jane [Lancaster] and I held him still while Steve [Dixon] cut the many pieces of rope and fishing line. I can't describe the smell from the infection in its wounds - it smelt like dead, rotten flesh. It was the worst entanglement we’ve seen.'
Jane, Steve and Annie then bagged and weighed the seal for the 4 mile trek back to the car. 'The seal weighed 26kg and proved a challenge to carry even with the three of us,' says BDMLR volunteer Steve Dixon. 'We eventually made it back to the car and headed for Morris and Plumley vets to get the seal the treatment it needed.'
The Alnwick vets cleaned Rufus's wound and removed the rotten flesh, then gave him antibiotics and much needed fluid. Happily, the rescued seal was well enough to be released on Tuesday afternoon,
Despite their aching muscles and having become covered in seal poo, it was a satisfying outcome for the rescuers. Yet there is a sense of deja vu - earlier this year they rescued seal pup 'Netty' from the same beach, where she too had been badly tangled in discarded fishing gear. Annie Ivison, who is reserve manager at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, says the rescues highlight the dangers of marine pollution.
Netty, rescued 3rd January, Budle Bay end of Ross Sands
©Natural England/Annie Ivison

Neck wound on Netty 
© Natural England/Annie Ivison

'People don't always realise the impact that litter can have - sadly, we see every day how it affects wildlife on the reserve. This year so far, amazing volunteers at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve and Coastcare have already collected over a ton of beach debris from Reserve Beaches. If you have time, and want to help us to protect wildlife, please get in touch.
                        Lindisfarne NNR Staff and Volunteers cleaning the North Shore, January, 2018 
                                                        ©Natural England/ Annie Ivison
The Reserve office
01289 381470
About Lindisfarne NNR:
Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve (3,541 hectares) protects a long stretch of coast, including the dunes of Holy Island. Natural England works to ensure that the birds and plants of the area continue to survive in harmony with each other and the people who live and visit here.
About Natural England:
Natural England is the government's adviser for the natural environment in England, helping to protect England's nature and landscapes for people to enjoy and for the services they provide.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

February- Launch of the Reserve’s New Events Programme

February may have been cold but it was full steam ahead on the reserve! We undertook beach cleans at the far north of the reserve, Goswick Black Rocks (supported by Coast Care), and to the far south at Budle Bay. Half term was busy, as expected on Holy Island, despite the inclement weather. We celebrated our love of birds on Valentine’s Day and continued the theme of ‘Love Bids’ for 4 days. We spent time with around 330 visitors, highlighting the wonderful array of wildlife that inhabit the reserve.

Photo courtesy of Lindisfarne NNR volunteer, ©Ceris Aston. 

We provided binoculars, telescopes and identification advice for the watching of birds on the Rocket field. Additionally, we enjoyed bird crafts and games designed to educate visitors of all ages about the resident and migratory birds of Lindisfarne. All of the activities were focused on key conservation issues and how visitors can help to support the protection of vulnerable species across the reserve.

Photo courtesy of Lindisfarne NNR volunteer, ©Ceris Aston.

For information regarding upcoming events contact the Reserve Manager:

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Cetacean & Sea Bird Survey

After the snow, sleet and ice of recent weeks, it came as a relief to be welcomed by blue skies and sunshine for the cetacean and bird survey last Thursday. Eleven volunteers gathered in the hopes of spotting whales or dolphins off the eastern rocky shore of the reserve, in an event organised by Coast Care and Natural England.
Photo © Anna Chouler (Coast Care)

Sporting binoculars and telescopes and well bundled up in layers, we separated into pairs and perched at intervals along the coast. Partner One scanned the sea for ten minutes, in slow steady sweeps, while Partner Two sat poised, pencil and clipboard at the ready for the call – any moment now - ‘Dolphins at two o’clock!’ Every ten minutes, we alternated.
Photo © Anna Chouler (Coast Care)

My partner Philip, who took part in the cetacean identification training earlier in the week, shared some of his newfound knowledge. The four species we were most likely to spot in Northumberland were the bottlenose dolphin, the harbour porpoise, the white-beaked dolphin and the minke whale. The harbour porpoise is the smallest of our local cetaceans and have more triangular and less curved fins than the other three. Different sizes are hard to make out through binoculars and against a backdrop of sea. Bottlenose dolphins will attack harbour porpoises (savages with a smile). White-beaked dolphins are rarely seen near shore waters – locally, they are resident at Farnes’ Deep. On our shared clipboard we had a handout with pictures and descriptions of UK cetaceans. We were ready.
Me in action!

Photo © Anna Chouler (Coast Care)

Over the next two and a half hours, we discovered several things that can appear suspiciously like cetacean dorsal fins to the hopeful eye, including rocks, birds and buoys. We did not, however, spot any actual whales or dolphins. And this, it seems, is the common experience amongst cetacean spotters. Oh whale.*

It would be hard to complain. Sitting by the sea on a bright clear day, with views of Bamburgh Castle and the Farne Islands, it felt as though any cetaceans would have been a mere bonus. The sea and skies were far from empty, with bird sightings to delight both the birder and the novice. Dark-bellied Brent geese flew low, and settled to eat on the shoreline; oystercatchers strode through the shallows, then skimmed the water as they moved onwards; a tall heron waited; curlews waded and called their names; and a group of huddled golden plovers baffled the non-birders until expert David helped us out.
Dark-bellied Brent geese as they flew over the surveyors
Photo © Anna Chouler (Coast Care)

As far as cetacean surveying events without any cetaceans go, it was a good one. And who knows? – maybe next time.

Tips for a cetacean survey:

  • Bring binoculars and scan the water slowly
  • Dress for the weather
  • The best time for cetacean watches In the North Sea is March-June  

  • Look for a day that is overcast and not too sunny – else sunlight will reflect on the water
  • Hope for calm seas
  • Watch out for feeding birds – cetaceans are often found in the same areas of sea
  • Don’t expect to see anything – but enjoy it if you do
  • More information on cetacean spotting at ORCA
*I couldn’t resist the pun. It was on porpoise.
Blog entry By Ceris Aston (Lindisfarne NNR Volunteer)