Friday, 15 February 2019

Goswick beach clean

Yesterday, a team of eight volunteers took to Goswick for a litter pick, cleaning the area north of the Golf Club car park towards Cheswick Black Rocks. The beach was generally clean, but the team still managed to fill three bags of litter which they removed from the beach. No fishing line was found on this particular beach clean.

The group discovered a dead harbour porpoise decomposing on the beach. There were fortunately no signs to indicate that this was from anything other than natural causes. Its carcass will provide food for birds such as crows and gulls, and flies drawn to feed on it will become food for species such as starlings and rock pipits. Once washed back into the sea, its remains will be eaten by crustaceans and fish.

The event was coordinated by Reserve and Coast Care volunteer Andy Pigg, leading a team of Coast Care volunteers. Coast Care are one of the Reserve's partner organisations; a fantastic local initiative that supports volunteers to care for the beautiful Northumberland coast. Four volunteers joined the group for the first time. Our thanks to all of the volunteers who put time and energy into helping to keep the beaches on the Reserve beautiful for people and safe for wildlife.

Interested in helping with future beach cleans? See our social media and events page for updates, or the Coast Care blog for their list of activities in the region.

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Dame Allan's John Muir Challenge

Last week, a hardy group of students completing the John Muir Award were challenged to explore and conserve a natural environment. 16 pupils from Dame Allan’s School in Newcastle braved the icy wind to study the winkling activities around St. Cuthbert’s Island. The data the students collected will contribute to future management plans of the rocky shore around the Reserve. 
People taking periwinkles off the shore to sell or use as bait is an increasingly popular activity, and often a huge amount of biomass is being removed in one episode. The effect it is having on the wider ecosystem requires further study.

The students were tasked with investigating patterns in the distribution, abundance and size of three marine snails; Common Periwinkle, Rough Periwinkle and Dog Whelk. The profile of the rocky shore surrounding St. Cuthbert’s Island allows for quite a sheltered environment, which periwinkles prefer rather than large waves crashing against the rocks. Because of this, we would expect them to be more abundant on the mid shore. We also would expect smaller individuals to be more abundant as winkle pickers are more likely to take the larger ones. 

The data collected showed a higher abundance of all three species at the mid shore compared to the lower shore.

There was no significant difference in the lengths of the two periwinkle species on the different shore heights, however the length found at both locations was relatively small. The average length of a Common Periwinkle is 2.7cm, compared to the 1.4cm average found on the mid shore. This could suggest that larger individuals are being removed and the population is not having enough time to recover between episodes of winkling, bringing the average size of this population down.  

After leaving the shore at mid-day, the students headed out to Sandham Bay on a much-needed walk to thaw freezing fingers and toes! They were in search of a small but mighty threat to the wildlife in both in the marine and terrestrial environment… Nurdles. 

These are tiny pieces of plastic that end up in the sea which attract harmful and toxic chemicals. Like other plastics they are being mistaken for food and are consumed by animals such as fish and birds, being absorbed into their tissue and hence passed on to anything that may then eat it… whether that be animals higher up the food chain or humans. This is known as bioaccumulation and can cause all sorts of health problems. 

Upon arriving on Sandham Bay, the beach appeared relatively clean, however on closer inspection, small pieces of plastic were found tangled in washed up seaweed. Ghost fishing gear, from three large lobster pots to well-camouflaged bundles of fishing line, yet again made up a large proportion of the litter collected. The students did a great job cleaning the beach, with three large bags of rubbish safely removed. 

The students had a great day and returned to Newcastle with a better understanding of the work done on the Reserve to protect the species living there. They also appreciated the dangers plastic poses to the natural environment, from the obvious threat of entanglement in rope and plastic bags, to the bioaccumulation of small and microplastics up the food chain.
For more information on Nurdles, see

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Volunteer update: The final Low Tide Count

On a calm and sunny day I did the last of my winter Low Tide Counts at Lindisfarne. It was quite a change from the gales in November, the loose dog scaring off the birds in December and the pilgrims doing likewise in January. My tetrads were astride the Pilgrims Way poles and just off St. Cuthbert's Island.

Today was the most interesting in terms of bird sightings for me. My first Long-tailed Ducks with eight, and close by three Slavonian Grebe and one Black-necked Grebe in the channel by the Island.

Around seven hundred golden plover sat on the nearby rocky platform. Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Grey Plover and Oystercatcher and Shelduck were scattered across the flats but it was the two and a half thousand Knot that caught the eye, especially when something disturbed them and they all lifted.

Today felt like Spring instead of Winter!

Richard Poyer
Shelduck © JJD

Friday, 1 February 2019

Selected peak bird counts: January 2019

Geese and swans:

6000 Pinks flighted off the Goswick roost mid-month; 1303 Light-bellied Brent; 1000 Barnacle; 41 Whooper

Image ©  JJD


1900 Wigeon; 1200 Shelduck; 226 Pintail; 5 Long-tailed duck; 1 Black Scoter

Image ©  JJD


3005 Golden Plover; 1018 Grey Plover; 2000 Dunlin; 750 Curlew

970 Lapwing and 2900 Golden Plover recorded during our WeBS count at Budle Bay on the 20th 

Image ©  JJD
The current cold snap means that birds, like us, require more energy to keep warm, and in these wintry conditions they often find it harder to find food. They are particularly vulnerable to disturbance when it is cold - each flight expends a great deal of energy. Repeated disturbance can cause death from starvation or exhaustion. Please keep your distance when birds are roosting or feeding, and keep dogs on a lead on the Reserve at all times. 

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Alien Invaders from the Deep?

Not quite. However, our rocky shores are under threat from small creatures that are arriving in our waters from foreign seas. Last week, with the help of the Natural England Marine Team, we were searching the rockpools for marine invasive non-native species; plants and animals that shouldn’t be found on our coastline and are consuming resources that should be reserved for our native species. Many marine species reproduce by releasing embryos into the water column, which float around as plankton until they are ready to permanently settle on a hard surface. Therefore, a suitable place to settle and grow is the most sought-after resource for rockpool flora and fauna, as many species are sessile and do not move from the surface they land on. Therefore, competition between both animals and plants for space is fierce.

Reserve staff and Natural England's Marine Team surveying the rocky shore

The invasive non-native we were focusing on was the Orange Tipped Sea Squirt (Corella eumyota), which have arrived on the UK coastline from the southern hemisphere. They are small invertebrates, whose appearance has been described as that of a Werther’s Original. They belong to the class Ascidiacea, and actually have a distant relationship to humans; the tadpoles they release have a very simplified version of a backbone and nerve chord characteristic of fish, birds and us! The Orange Tipped Sea Squirt is thought to have arrived in our waters attached to ships, and a combination of sea temperature rise and the ability to out-compete native species have led to it spreading around the rocky shores of the UK in only 10 years. 

Orange Tipped Sea Squirt (Corella eumyota)

They are found as individuals and are not a colony species. However, they can form large clusters on the underside of rocks, in crevices and even on large seaweeds, as they hold their embryos inside them until they are ready to permanently settle and begin feeding for themselves. This process often results in the embryos settling on or next to their parent, or anything else already growing on that surface, forming dense clusters, smothering other sessile native species and occupying valuable space.

Multiple Orange Tipped Sea Squirts forming a large clump on the underside of the rock competing with Breadcrumb Sponge (Halichondria panicea) for space. 

Species most at risk from the Orange Tipped Sea Squirt are other sessile species including Star Ascidian (Botryllus schlosseri) and various species of Bryozoans. They are all filter feeders, which means they take in sea water and sift out tiny pieces of food for consumption, and so not only compete with the Sea Squirt for space but also food. 
Star Ascidian (Botryllus schlosseri)

Unfortunately, we did find a large number of Orange Tipped Sea Squirt last week, and we will continue to monitor the rockpools to get a baseline understanding of the distribution of this species on the rocky shores around the Reserve. Once this is known we will carefully consider how we manage this sensitive issue and will post updates on our progress soon.

During our search, we also came across a vast array of weird and wonderful creatures, from beautifully elegant Nudibranchs to bold and daring Squat Lobsters and Porcelain Crabs. Native sessile species of Breadcrumb Sponge and Star Ascidian are still thriving and are as beautiful as ever.

Long-Clawed Porcelain Crab (Pisidia longicornis)

Dahlia Anemone (Urticina felina)

The rocky shore is an amazing place and is one of the most diverse habitats on earth. If you are visiting the rockpools, please remember to put rocks back exactly where they were found, to ensure the species living on the underside of the rocks remain in the water!

Sea Hare (Aplysia punctata)

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

A busy start

A new year on the Reserve – and after a busy start, it’s hard to imagine that it’s only a few weeks since Christmas. Daily stock checks continued over the festive season, offering an opportunity for a moment’s windblown tranquility by the shore, or a Boxing Day game of hide and seek with the cattle amongst the dunes. It is a matter of constant astonishment how thirty well-built cows in calf can conceal themselves so effectively - we suspect a spark of mischief in these gentle-eyed, placid ladies, who would begin their exodus to a new location once we have come within counting distance. Short-eared owls watched our progress, yellow-eyed, then flew off in search of unsuspecting voles.

The last of the Christmas chocolates finally finished, we returned to work as normal – or at least, normal for an NNR - in the first week of January. The following Wednesday saw us farewell the sheep and cows who grazed the dunes and slacks since September and October respectively. It was an early start, working around the tide. One of our volunteers - a Reserve stalwart and frequent stock-checker – helped the three of us to load heavy metal hurdles into the large trailer, working in pairs and sharing brief New Year greetings as we passed one another. At Chare Ends we unloaded the trailer of its hurdles – beginning to feel heavier by now, but aided towards the end by the farmers and their workers, come to take their stock home. We split up – some securing a corral with the hurdles, others parting to walk the cows through the dunes. They appeared in a slow procession – if we must. They parted in three rounds of ten, leaving island life for the warmth of winter sheds.

The sheep left us too, from the Snook where they have grazed the dune slacks intensively since September. Sweet collie Meg showed her prowess, sent to the left and right of the flock by the calls of ‘come bye’ and ‘away’. Reluctant to leave, perhaps, the flock split and then reformed. Two parted from the flock, to be shepherded by us whilst Meg brought the other score in. A head-count followed, along with the reflection that anyone who has suggested counting sheep to get to sleep has never tried it! Meg, the hard work done, pleaded for tummy rubs.

It is strange without the stock - it has become habit to scan the dunes for the cows, chestnut and black, to load the Ford Ranger with water and sheep feed in a yellow bucket. They have done their job though, our four-legged colleagues. Their grazing efforts have paid off and the flora of the dunes and slacks will benefit. We have brought in the fences and the signs – the former will be used in not too many months for shorebird season, the latter stored for the autumn. Twite passed by in dipping flocks overhead, noisy in flight.

In the workroom we have varnished the willow sculptures of wildlife that form a nature trail on the island – we will put them out come Easter, which begins not to feel so far away. As we worked, we talked – reflecting upon last year’s shorebird breeding season and preparing for the next. Winter Warden Katherine is doing an audit of the Reserve’s signage to see where we can improve.

On the coast between Sheldrake Pool and Emmanuel Head, we spent two hours last Friday picking litter – too much found for us to carry, so lobster pots were lifted above the tide line for later collection, while we picked up the glut of smaller litter that had been washed up. In one 200 metre stretch we found 67 plastic bottles at the high tide mark. 

Returning to the office, two of the Reserve’s volunteers appeared in the yard to alert us that they had found and moved a lobster pot on their afternoon’s walk - duly collected, we added it to the pile in the yard. Ghost fishing and single-use plastic pollution have an incredible impact upon our wildlife – last year two seals were found tangled in rope on the Reserve, while autopsies of birds in Northumberland have all too often shown plastics in their insides. We continue to work to clean our beaches, helped by Reserve and Coast Care volunteers, and a programme of beach cleans will be forthcoming.

For now, we wish you a good week – wrap up warmly, and please take care not to disturb the birds. 

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.

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