Monthly Archives: October 2011

The English River-Area

This year I toddled off for my holidays in early July. I rather innocently termed this break my ‘summer’ holiday, as it happened to fall at a time of year when the earth’s axial tilt during its annual orbit of the sun produced longer daylight hours and historically higher average temperatures.

Sadly, I decided to go to West Wales and the number of sun-kissed days was minimal to say the very least. My overriding memory was sitting on the open deck of the Skomer ferry, in shorts and a gortex jacket, head pulled down inside the collar, breathing into my chest in a fruitless attempt to keep warm in the heaviest rain I have ever experienced.

Looks like I chose the wrong summer month to take a beach holiday, I should have booked October!

For the past three days I have spent each lunchtime and afternoon with picnic, daughter and snorkel on Exmouth beach, making the most of the splendid sunshine; temperatures into the high twenties and more time spent splashing about in the waves chasing sandeels than the rest of the year put together!

Indeed, much of East Devon had the same idea as me and the beach at Exmouth more closely resembled the Monaco Riviera, than good old England! People lay strewn across the beach, the sun beat down and baked the golden sand and the air was filled with a din of engines that sounded like a Grand Prix was being held around the Pole Sand; The only grit in my Indian Summer sandwich.

With heatwaves an all-too transient phenomenon in high summer, let alone October, everything was put on hold at home as the beach shelter was dragged out from under the stairs, picnic box dusted down and filled with portable offerings, and the swimmers dug out from the back of the drawer. This was too good to miss.

Unlike the summer, where water temperatures are several degrees cooler and a normally warm air temperate exasperates this difference, my two-year old daughter was comfortable in the water for far longer than her dad and we spent most of the afternoon wading about in the rockpools on Maer Rocks looking for creatures. Bit of a busman’s holiday for me as I do exactly this activity as a core part of my ranger work 9-5, but I do it because I love it and to see my own child enthralled by a beadlet anemone and giggling hysterically at a hermit crab made for a perfect day.

The heatwave was also good enough to coincide with some of the lowest tides of the Autumn too. This meant lower parts of the shore were accessible for a few hours and new pools and kelp beds were within reach. In Ellie’s eyes we hit the jackpot when I turned a rock and beneath it lay three small common starfish. Each was about 5 centimeters across and we studied them for so long, the tide began to rise before I could persuade my daughter to return hers under a crevice and go back to the rug to warm up!

While she huddled under a towel with Mum, I put on my snorkel and short wetsuit (typical boy, I feel the chill) and dashed back in to watch the incoming tide from underwater. This is something I have been meaning to do all year, and the Autumn is definitely the time of year to experience this thrill.

I first went for a bit of a drift, riding the strong current down the beach over kelp beds dotted with golden sandy banks. Even on an incoming tide, the current of the exiting Exe is hard to subdue. Pale sand gobies sat prominently on the sun-dappled sand in small groups, heads raised as they pushed themselves up on their pectoral fins. As long as I didn’t make a swimming stroke I could drift overhead without them shooting off. A flounder spotted my approach and flapped-up a cloud to disguise its escape, however by moving very gently, I was able to find it again lurking under a stout kelp frond. Its two bulging eyes circled about wildly, to get a fix on me, before I let go of the kelp and I carried on along my leisurely drift.

Looking directly ahead, shoals of sandeels and smaller silver fish, possibly young whiting, darted on the edge of visibility in the clear water. To get anywhere near these fast moving fish I needed to paddle strongly and I was enjoying being carried along too much to bother with all that effort! All this took place in water no deeper than 4 or five feet, often considerably shallower. There’s no point going deeper than this, as the interesting stuff to see, within range of water clarity this close to the estuary mouth is in the shallows.

I turned and front-crawled my way back up the beach against the current to my start point just off Maer Rocks and held on to a large Lamanaria kelp to fix myself in position. While doing this, I likened myself to a big grey seal, settling myself in position for an afternoon snooze. However, compared to the seal, I was a wallowing lummox.

As the tide rose, so sand gobies flitted about on the seabed below me, nodding and posturing to each other as they dashed over the sediments in search of food. Hermit crabs trundled along the edge of the rock next to me, not venturing too far out into the open, lest they were spotted by a passing cuttlefish. I stayed there as long as I could, the sandeels remaining stubbornly on the periphery of view, before running back up the beach to share my experience with the family.

If the last 7 years as a ranger has taught me anything, its that you have to seize the moment when wildlife watching, and this weekend was certainly a case in point. Now, where did I put those dust sheets and paint roller… back on with the DIY!

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Posted by on October 14, 2011 in Marine


An Autumnal Glut

If any of you own fruit trees, especially apple or pear, you are probably feeling a little overwhelmed by now.

I know I am, the trees in my little garden are groaning under the burden of ever-ripening fruit and, a bit like the magic porridge pot, there seems no end to the harvest!

It started off with the first couple of pears being picked rock-hard and totally under ripe, such was the family’s impatience to start unloading the weighed down boughs. In seemingly no time at all this transformed into piles of over-ripe fruit in bowls on every surface in the houses; apple sauce being eaten with everything, including cereal; and a daily task to clear the grass of rotting windfalls in case the boozy fruit attract hundreds of wasps to a garden with a toddler.

So I am a little jaded with apples and pears, to say the least. And yet, fast forward 10 months to August 2012 and things will be totally different. We’ll be cheering and waving tiny flags under strings of patriotic bunting, everything will have an Olympic theme and I will be craving my own, home-grown pear!

Its so easy to become complacent, so hard not to resist taking for granted riches you see every day. I have found a similar tendency creeping into wildlife watching too.

There was a time I would have dropped everything to photograph a Sabine’s gull on Exmouth seafront, or a grey phalarope: wow! For the past couple of weeks both these beautiful species have been loitering just off the beach near the lifeboat station, and I’ve still not managed to get down to see them!

The Sabine’s gull is named after 19th Century scientist Sir Edward Sabine, originally from Ireland, Sir Ed was something of a polymath and while on Arctic exploration with the Navy he sent back dead specimens of a gull which he had not seen before. It was identified by his brother as a new species, originally put in its own genus and named after its discoverer, and so the world got Xena sabini, later changed to fit within the wider gull genus it is now known as Larus sabini. It is a truly beautiful gull, the only genuine tri-coloured seagull.

The juvenile birds which have been seen locally have a dark eye and bill, making them look a bit like winter plumage black-headed gulls. However the back of the bird is a dusty grey, extending up the back of the neck to give a hood. A white body and black wingtips can be seen when resting, but when the gull takes to the wing it shows off this colour with a fabulous triangular pattern across its back. They breed in the high Arctic, and winter off the coast of West Africa, so Autumn and Spring migration is the best time to look out for the odd one passing by, seems we struck lucky to have these few spend such a time on our beach?

The grey phalarope is another interesting bird, which should have sent me dashing off for a closer look. Known to UK birders as grey phalarope, in its breeding plumage in the high arctic you would not recognise it from this name as it is a vivid burnished orange in colour. However, unlike most birds it is the female which is the more brightly coloured as she does the displaying and leaves the male to tend the eggs.

They look like slender grey and white waders, however they are far happier at sea than their coastal counterparts. They have a wonderful habit of pitching up on the surface of the water, and whizzing round in tight little circles, nipping tiny organisms from the water’s surface with their thin bill.

To see either of these birds is a notable occurrence, but to have both in the same place at the same time is really remarkable. To be able to get an awesome photograph of both birds, together in the same photo is truly astounding! So, throw off your autumnal, jaded glasses and look afresh with the rosy-tinted ones you once wore. We are so lucky to call this place home.

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Posted by on October 6, 2011 in Uncategorized