Tuesday, 20 December 2011

In the Bleak Midwinter...

On the eve of the winter solstice it seems appropriate to give you the last update of 2011. You have probably noticed that its been quite quiet on the blog front this month. That is certainly not because nothing has been happening; just the opposite, in fact. The truth is that so much has been happening that there just hasn't been time to write anything on the blog!

Its funny, the question us Rangers get asked most often is "what do you do in the winter?". And its one that it is difficult to give a satisfactory answer to. And again, that's not because we go into hibernation, its just we do so many different things that it is difficult to give a succinct answer. So, here, for your delectation, is a precis of what I have been up to during November and December.

Firstly, there are a fair few meetings - anything from the coming together of all the Countryside and Islands staff from the south of the Trust's domain to the AGM of the Marine Reserve (at which I act as secretary). I have also been on a couple of training courses: one on recruitment and interview techniques and a chainsaw course - again, a bit of an illustration of he breadth of the role!

I have also been drawing together the final paperwork for a funding bid to the Scottish Rural Development Programme in order to bring in funds to help us manage our species rich grasslands at St Abb's Head and at the Lumsdaine Strip. I just heard this week that this has been successful, which is great news. Also on the application front, I have put together and submitted a planning application to seek permission to site a mobile home behind the Ranger's Office to house volunteers in the summer months.

Other office work has included pulling together and analysing biological data collected over the field season, writing reports, work planning and setting budgets for next year, and organising everything needed to recruit a new Seasonal Ranger for next year (as, sadly, Elaine will not be returning next year).

Then there is carrying out maintenance around the property - either doing it myself with the assistance of our volunteers, Dave and Ernie, or bringing in contractors to do the work. Over the last couple of months we have tackled jobs ranging from blocked urinals to footpath maintenance ourselves; and have had contractors in replacing a fence at Blackpotts, putting in drainage in the nature reserve car park and decorating most of our buildings inside and out.

Phew - so, I am rather looking forward to my Christmas break! Which leads me on to wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Science Group meets for the first time

On 6th December we were joined by staff from the Dove Marine Laboratory, Heriot-Watt University, The Wildlife Information Centre, the Berwickshire and North Northumberland Coast European Marine Site and the Marine Conservation Society for the first meeting of the VMR’s Scientific Study Group, the aim of which is to focus current and future research the VMR carries out. The meeting was a huge success with lots of exciting ideas being discussed and it was a great opportunity for different organisations to network and share information. New projects for 2012 were discussed, including sea urchin surveys and mapping horse mussel beds.

Friday, 18 November 2011

A picture is worth a thousand words

Well I think the picture above just about says it all! It was taken at an on Tuesday where pupils from Coldingham and Eyemouth Primary schools, got together with Eyemouth Fisherman's Choir and Mission Crew; a small ensemble from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and composer, Howard Moody, to share music inspired by St Abb's Head. This was the culmination of the first 6 months of the Trust's pARTicipate project at St Abbs (mentioned several times before in this blog). The event wasn't a performance as such, rather a sharing of the music with each other and a few selected folk who had been involved in the project, and, of course, some proud parents!

There were two sharing events, one at Eyemouth Primary School and one in St Abbs Visitor Centre. Both were excellent, but the latter, being in a much more intimate venue with great acoustics, was particularly moving. Luckily there were media students there from Stevenson's College in Edinburgh filming the occasion, with a view to putting a piece about it on the web to allow others to share the enjoyment too.

This project will now go into hibernation for a while, well for most of us, whilst Howard beavers away composing his big St Abbs Suite (a working title only) that will be performed at the SCO's South of Scotland tour next May. The world premiere will be in Duns - watch this space for more details. Below are a couple more pictures for your delectation!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

My kind of engineering...

I have really posted this for my fellow Rangers here at St Abbs to prove that I am not the only one who believes that these two particular items are essentials in any Ranger's tool kit. I only have one criticism of the above flow chart - it doesn't include baler twine and silicon sealant!

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Looking at things from a different angle

I have been away to Pitlochry for a Trust Staff Conference for a couple of days. We have a two such meetings each year, where the Property Managers who look after the Trust's diverse portfolio of 129 properties have a chance to get together with Trust Managers from a range of other disciplines and review the last season and plan ahead for the future.

Its always really inspiring and refreshing to meet up, to share experiences (both good and bad) and knowledge, and just to be reminded as to the enormous breadth of specialist skills that Trust staff possess between them.

On returning to St Abb's today, I went up to chat to a fencing contractor who is replacing a fence line on our land up behind the Rangers' Office, at a place called Blackpotts. The fields that we own here have minimal nature conservation value in their own right, but are an integral part of the grazing management of the delicate, flower rich grasslands of St Abb's Head. This is because they provided alternative grazing for the stock that we use to graze the Head, and enable us to be able to ask our grazing tenant to move the sheep from the Head to Blackpotts at very short notice. I don't have a reason to go up to Blackpotts very often, and every time I do go up there I am struck by the fantastic view you get from there (see picture above), and today it seemed somewhat symbolic of the importance of looking at things from a different angle.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

A wave from St Abbs...

There have been tremendous seas followed by high onshore winds over the last couple of days, so I thought I would head down St Abbs harbour at high water to see what was occurring; and as I suspected there were some spectacular waves breaking over the harbour walls. I was particularly keen to see how the repair works on the sea wall are going, as these have involved taking down sections in order to completely rebuild them. As you can see to the right of the photo, there are still some holes in the wall, and the sea is getting through, but not apparently causing any havoc when it does.

The repairs being carried out to the sea wall are part of the project to build a Marine Research Station at St Abbs. If you would like to find out more about this project then please check out their website at http://www.marinestation.co.uk/StAbbs.html.

A call for support for Marine Protected Areas for Seabirds

The following is an excerpt from the Seabird Group Newsletter which I thought would be of interest:

"...there has been a recent whirlwind of activity around the designation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the UK’s seas. Much of the impetus for this comes from the passing into law of the UK Marine and Coastal Access Act and the Marine (Scotland) Act in recent years.

The creation of this legislation has been much welcomed by the environmental NGO community – the culmination of over a decade of campaigning supported by a huge swathe of the British public. One of the major successes of these laws was the legal duty placed on Ministers to designate a network of protected areas at sea – particularly for nationally-important habitats and concentrations of species which receive no protection through EU legislation (the Birds and Habitats Directives).

The processes for selecting these sites differ across Scotland, England and Wales. In Scotland, the process is science-led, with proposals for nature conservation MPAs brought forward by SNH, JNCC and Marine Scotland. In England, four independent stakeholder-led groups were convened to nominate Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) for protection. In Wales, given the high level of territorial waters already designated under EU legislation, the Welsh Government is leading on the selection of a limited number of ‘highly protected’ MCZs. These national level sites will prohibit any extractive or depositional activities, and aim to compliment the existing network of MPAs in Welsh waters.

As you would expect, the RSPB hoped that these MPAs would fill in the gaps for our nationally-important seabird colonies – presently protected on land through SSSIs but lacking protection in maintenance areas adjacent to their colonies and at important foraging sites offshore. In particular, we expected that black guillemot – the only seabird species in the UK which cannot be protected by marine Special Protection Areas – would be protected by the new national level designations. Without pre-judging the outcome of the site selection process, we hope that key areas for this species will be protected in Scotland, the UK stronghold for tysties – particularly the far north.

It is thus a major disappointment that, in England, seabirds – as well as some other mobile species – have been largely excluded from the ‘nationally-important’ site designation process (though one site for black guillemot is currently proposed in the English MCZ network at St Bees Head in the north west). In Wales, the restricted number and size of MCZs will offer very little in the way of additional protection for seabirds or other mobile species. In both cases, this is in spite of the relative simplicity with which colony extensions to protect maintenance activity areas could have been identified using agreed methodologies already applied to identify these extensions for SPAs across the UK (albeit that only those in Scotland have thus far been classified). Identifying key seabird foraging sites is admittedly more difficult – but not without precedent, and tracking technology is already revolutionising our understanding of seabird foraging – RSPB, working with partners across Europe (as part of the FAME project - www.fameproject.eu - see SGN115 Oct 2010), is using GPS technology in an attempt to proactively inform such designation. How key areas for seabirds are included in the Scottish site selection process remains to be seen – but we are continuing to engage with Marine Scotland, SNH and JNCC through workshops and consultation responses in the hope that seabirds will be actively protected through the process.

It is especially frustrating that much of the rationale for the exclusion of seabirds from the national MPA selection processes has been the fact that all species bar black guillemot qualify for protection within SPAs classified under the Birds Directive – 30 years after the deadline for implementation of the Birds Directive in the UK, we have only three truly marine SPAs (all in inshore waters), maintenance extensions to SPA breeding colonies – although identified and agreed some years ago have thus far only been classified in Scotland, and there are no areas protected for foraging seabirds in the breeding season.

Many members of the Seabird Group have been actively engaged in MPA work as it relates to seabirds – and we hope that you share our concern about the creation of the UK’s first MPA network being a massive missed opportunity for our seabird colonies. If you have time, we’d appreciate your show of support by signing our pledge at www.rspb.org.uk/marinepetition or by contacting your local elected representatives."

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Home grown

I was out with two of our volunteers, Ernie and Dave, today, planting trees to the west of the Mire Loch. For Ernie, this was the culmination of a many years patiently waiting as he collected the acorns several years ago, planted them out in his garden and then dug up the resultant trees yesterday in order for us to transfer them to their final resting place on the reserve today. They are in the shelter of the more mature trees that are already growing around the Mire Loch, and have been staked and encased in tree tubes to protect them from browsing deer, so hopefully folk who visit St Abb's Head in a hundred or even several hundred years time will be able to enjoy the fruits of our labours.

Seabird Summary 2011

I am pleased to say that 2011 was a good year for the seabirds - its been a while since we've been able to say that. We must be careful not too read too much into this though, population numbers fluctuate wildly from year to year because there are so many factors effecting the seabirds, but nevertheless, it is nice to be able to report good news for once after all the years of doom and gloom.

You may remember me reporting that the breeding season caught us on the hop somewhat this year, with the birds starting to lay eggs more than a week earlier than ever recorded before. So we had to start early with our monitoring too.

The first monitoring to start is the shag productivity monitoring which the Seasonal Ranger carries out, starting in April and carrying on through until all the shag chicks have fledged, which can be as late as September some years. Basically this involves following the breeding activity at nests on a series of fixed study plots throughout the whole season, recording the number of nests built, the number of eggs laid, chicks hatched and eventually the number of young fledged per nest. This means you can then calculate the breeding success which was 1.85 chicks per active nest for shags this year, the second highest on record! Picture top left - a shag, looking resplendent with its shag (from which it gets its name) all fluffed up.

Next off is the whole colony count of herring gulls and shags, and yes, this is what it seems - we count every single nest we can find of each species. This is quite time consuming as it involves walking all of the cliff tops, scanning the cliffs from every possible angle and vantage point in order not to miss any nests. The count has to be done over several days as it is pretty physically tiring going up and down all the cliff tops, and out onto all the headlands, but also mentally - it takes an awful lot of concentration! Then we go out on a boat (weather permitting) and count the areas that cannot be seen from land. Both shag and herring gull numbers were very similar to the last few years (with 220 pairs of herring gulls and 160 pairs of shag . Picture right, a herring gull chick and an egg - it is best to count them at about this stage, any later and all the chicks start to run all over the place and its difficult to work out the number of active nests!

Then I start the kittiwake productivity monitoring - which follows the same principles as the shag productivity. Again, the kittiwakes had a good breeding season this year, with 0.95 chicks being fledged per active nest. This may not sound very high, but it is significantly above the 25 year average of 0.63.

Next up I start on the auk monitoring - now as we have something like 33,000 guilliemots it would be madness to try and do whole colony counts of these each year, so we only do total counts every five years. But each year we count the number of guillemots and razorbills on a series of fixed plots, doing a series of counts in the first three weeks of June and then taking an average. This gives an indication as to whether numbers are increasing or decreasing from year to year, this year counts of these two species were up on last year. Picture bottom left, a razorbill chick, oft overlooked.

Then comes the whole colony counts for fulmar and kittiwake - again, following the same principles as the counts for gulls and shags...but much more mind boggling as there are so many kittiwake nests! Again counts have stayed about the same as the last few years with 4,688 pairs of kittiwake and 205 pairs of fulmar.

Then last, and very much least, is the puffin count. This involves counting the number of birds seen ashore on one evening in late June. This count doesn't take long as there are so few puffins at St Abbs, this year there were just 7 birds ashore.

So, all in all, the seabird monitoring is a pretty major undertaking and keeps us pretty busy. All the data we gather doesn't end up on a shelf in the Rangers' Office, but gets fed into a national database and so helps to add to the picture of how seabirds are faring in the UK as a whole. And as the UK is the breeding site of nearly half of Europe's breeding seabird population it is pretty important that we know what is going on, and if possible, to work out why, and is there anything we can do about it. Also, seabirds are excellent indicators of the health of the marine environment as a whole, so another good reason to justify all our hard work!

An Inspector Calls...

Last week we had the dam inspector visit us - and no, I'm not being rude, what I mean is that an engineer had to come and inspect the Mire Loch dam to make sure that it is sound. It is only a small dam, but under UK law at present, all dams must be inspected annually, and have an extra rigorous inspection every 10 years. This is to ensure that they are solid enough to hold back the water they are impounding and also any once in a century flood incidents that could possibly occur, so making sure that the dam is not causing any threat to either lives or property. It does seem a little over the top for dams such as the one at the Mire Loch, as if it did burst, the worst you would get would be a few paddling cows! But nevertheless, the law states it has to be done.

This year it was one of our 10 yearly inspections, so the whole of the top and the downstream surface of the dam had to be visible to see if there were any wet areas suggesting a breach. This is why we had to clear all the lovely scrubby vegetation off the dam before his visit - not just me getting carried away with the strimmer! And then he took measurements of the height of the dam (accurate to the nearest millimetre) at intervals along the crest to see if there has been any settlement since 10 years ago ie any places that were lower than others so might allow water to flood over.

I am pleased to report that all seems to be well, so Northfield Farm's cows can remain dry for a while yet!

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Missing Links...

I knew there was something missing...a list of useful links. Well that was relatively easy to rectify - if you look on the panel to the right hand side of the posts you will see a list. I have also added a link for our Artist in Residence, Sarah Riseborough's, blog and flickr page for your perusal.

So now you can enjoy St Abbs any time of the day or night with just a click of a mouse!

Theres gold in them there woods...

If you go down to the woods today... then you might well come across people very intently peering into the tops of trees with binoculars. What they will be looking for is a bird called a yellow browed warbler which is a species that migrates south-west from its breeding grounds in Siberia, and often stops for a meal and a break in coastal woodlands en route. We see them most years at St Abbs, but there have been a good number this year so we have also had a migration of groups of birders searching them out. They are tiny, and dot about a lot in the tops of trees so its a pretty neck aching job to find them. Luckily there are also large numbers of goldcrests (picture left) about too, so even if you cannot catch sight of the YBW then you will be able to watch these beautiful little birds instead. This is Britain's smallest resident bird (weighing in at a mere 5-6g) and breeds in pine forests, but large groups of them get together and roam further afield in autumn and winter. They are about the same size as a YBW so a good way of getting your eye in whilst you search too!

But not everything that glitters is a goldcrest...there are also flocks of goldfinches flying around out there too (picture right). Most people are more familiar with these delightful looking birds as they are a relatively common site on farmland and open ground in the breeding season and regular visitors to bird tables in the autumn and winter. Your attention is usually drawn to flocks of goldfinch by their lovely twittery calling as they fly around, and they love to feed on thistle seed heads in late summer and autumn.

So, its an exciting time of year to be bird watching, as you never know what you might see. And St Abbs, being a headland sticking out into the sea, is a great place for birds to make first landfall, and refuel before carrying on with their mammoth journeys. So why not get out there and join the gold rush?!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Trees are us!

This week is Borders Tree Hugging week - no, I haven't made it up, its an event being organised by Borders Forest Trust for raise awareness (and funds) to help with the conservation of the woodlands of the area. And, being a bit of a tree fan myself, I have thrown myself into this with gusto, and I decided to start off at St Abbs. "Trees at St Abbs", I hear you cry, "you must be joking?!" Well, I'm not - believe it or not there are actually 33 different types of trees on the species list for the National Nature Reserve. So I decided, what better way to start off Tree Hugging Week than to remind myself (and others!) of all the fabulous trees that are right here on our doorstep.

Most of the trees at St Abb's Head are concentrated around the Mire Loch, planted here in the early 1900s when the dam was built to form the loch for fishing. But there is also quite a concentration at the car park (where the old farmhouse and its gardens used to be) and around Northfield House. So, I decided to take a circular route from the car park, along the coast path (passing alongside Northfield House gardens, where a fair few trees overhang the wall), then around the Mire Loch and back to the car park again. Without having to deviate far from the path I managed to hug 21 different species of tree of all sorts of sizes. From the knarled and wind-sculpted hawthorns of an old hedgeline (probably pre-dating the Mire Loch) to the east of the Mire Loch (picture top left) to the newly planted ash along the west of the loch (picture right).

Purists might tut and shake their heads to see so many types of trees in the area that would not naturally be here. For instance, most of the mature trees around the Mire Loch are sycamore, which are not native to Britain. But at St Abbs they form an important part of the woodland habitat and we are happy to have them. Having said that, when we do plant more trees, we are sticking to native species these days.

So, why not get out on the reserve this weekend and see how many types of tree you can spot (and hug if you fancy!)? We have put some laminated ID sheets in the visitor centre to help you use leaves, twigs and seeds to tell what is what. It can be tricky sometimes, as the windy and salty conditions at St Abbs have resulting in trees taking on weird and wonderful shapes (see the larch pictured left). But you don't actually need to know what they are called in order to enjoy them, so don't so tied up in looking at the ID guides that you miss the beauty of the trees themselves!

For those of you who like tick lists, here is a list of the species I hugged: alder, ash, beech, silver birch, blackthorn, wild cherry, elder, hawthorn, hazel, horse chestnut, larch, pedunculate oak, osier, scots pine, rowan, sitka spruce, sycamore, common whitebeam, goat willow, crack willow, yew.

If you would like to find out more about Tree Hugging Week or the BFT, go to http://www.bordersforesttrust.org/support-us/tree-hugging-week

Monday, 19 September 2011

Basking shark is back!

Myself and many others saw a rare sight yesterday as another basking shark was seen in the area!! Though slightly late in the year for them to be around, this time the shark was seen at the mouth of St Abbs harbour where is lazily swam feeding! My dad with his eagle eyes spotted the shark by seagull rock. Though we could only see its dorsal fin and occasionally its tail fin it was still great to watch! A few divers on two of the dive boats spotted the shark as well and got some amazing views as it swam in between their boats!

Unfortunately my camera isn't great, though I did manage to snap some pictures of its dorsal fin as it came to the surface to feed. It was also spotted in Eyemouth after it left St Abbs so if your in the area keep your eyes out for a black dorsal fin!!

Saturday, 10 September 2011


Yesterday evening, during another beautiful sunset over the Firth of Forth, I got a perfect view of Lorna's Species of the Month, a Minke Whale! I have never seen one before and it is a magical experience. As it was such a lovely evening and unusually calm at the Head I decided to chill out on the cliff at the edge of Foul Bay, just northwest of the Lighthouse and enjoy the sunset. The usual suspects were about, juvenile gulls, a couple of Greater Black Backs, the odd Shag doing a fly by and plenty of Gannet commuting to and from the Bass Rock. The sea was so calm despite a slight swell and the high tide was on the turn.

Just out of the corner of my eye I saw a dark shadow and a little spray. I saw nothing through the binoculars so thought I was imagining things. Same thing happened again. And then by pure coincidence I managed to get the binoculars on the right spot just in time to see a full blow, followed by a graceful arch of a massive black back through the water showing the small dorsal fin and a final flick of a huge tail fluke! I could not believe my eyes. It was so close I even saw its nostrils (or the whale equivalent!). At that point it was very close in, it was near two white buoys, which I assume were marking the position of some lobster pots. After that it hung around for a good 20 minutes surfacing occassionally. I saw some spray and the tip of its nose but I didn't get anymore amazing views.

What a magical moment and a perfect way to end a wonderful season here.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Species of the month - the Minke Whale!

There have been quite a few sightings recently of Minke Whales off St Abbs head!! With so many minkes spotted here is a bit of info for you all about these magnificant mammals and how to identify them.

Minke whales have a world wide distribution and are found in tropical, temperate and polar seas. They can be spotted from Norway to France and in the Northern North sea, where they can be seen in small numbers mainly from May to October.

Minke whales are the most abundant of the baleen whales as well as the smallest. The males range from 7-9.8m in length and the females are slightly larger from 7.5-11m! The head of a minke whale is slender, triangular and pointed.

The feature to look for to idenitify minke whales is their dorsal fin which is situated 2/3rds along their back and is small, triangular and curved in shape and is often the only feature seen when they are swimming. The head and body are dark in colour from grey to black. Another distinctive feature to look for if your up close or have binoculars are the white markings on each flipper.

The jaw of a baleen whale has approx. 300 short smooth baleen plates used to filter food from the water! The whales often ‘lunge feed’ where they lunge towards their prey at high speeds. Minke whales can reach speeds of 30km/hr! They feed on fish such as herring, cod, capelin, saithe, haddock, whiting and sand eels. In polar regions they feed on plankton or krill.

In the northern hemisphere reproduction takes place from October to March and gestation is about 10 months. Some whales migrate from polar feeding grounds to temperate water breeding grounds. Females normally give birth to a single calf but a very small percent give birth to twins or triplets!

Minke whales can be seen in small groups or as solitary individuals but they may congregate in larger feeding groups where up to 15 minke whales may come together at once! They also sometimes spy hop and breach and some curious individuals may even investigate boats.

During the 1930s in the northern hemisphere and the 1970s in the Antarctic minke whales were major targets of the whaling industry. In 1986 they were given protection from commercial whaling. Despite this Iceland continued their whale fishery until 1993 and in 1998 Norway resumed catching minke whales. Another concern for these large mammals is entanglement in fishing nets and traps. Some minke whales become entangled in fish cage nets.

This cetacean species can be seen quite regularly at the moment feeding off St Abbs Head or passing by. So if your planning a visit to St Abbs over the next few weeks keep an eye out for these incredible creatures.

Photogrpagh shown by Christopher Swann and taken from www.seawatchfoundation.org.uk

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Party time!!!

Come and party with us at a fundraising ceilidh on Saturday 22nd October, Coldingham Village Hall! All profits being split 50:50 between the Voluntary Marine Reserve and St Abbs RNLI :)

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

A joining of nations

Last weekend saw another handfasting ceremony at St Abbs, and it appears that we are on the international map as far as suitable locations to get married are concerned. This occasion saw a German groom joined to a Spanish bride and so the ceremony contained four languages: English, Gaelic, German and Spanish!

The wedding was relatively kind to the happy couple, Thomas and Lucia, as it was not blowing a force 5 and raining as the forecast threatened. I think Thomas and Lucia would have preferred a calm sunny day, but I rather think that the moody sky in the background rather added to the atmosphere!

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Splash In 2011

Last weekend the St Abbs and Eyemouth VMR hosted the 24th Splash In underwater photography competition! The winning photo was taken by Martin Davies of two pollack on the wreck of the Glanmire. To see all of the images entered visit out flickr page. http://www.flickr.com/photos/30592553@N03/sets/72157627569341202/

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Sarah takes pARTicipate project into the next phase

Those of you who are regular followers of the blog will remember I alluded to a local visual artist coming to spend time at St Abbs to work on the visual side of the pARTicipate project (which aims to celebrate the specialness of the NNR and VMR via art). Well, Sarah Riseborough (pictured top), started her period as Artist in Residence at the beginning of the week.

During her residency, Sarah will be making work from materials found on site, working in harmony with nature, leaving nothing permanent behind, and doing no damage to the reserve. Sarah will be based at the Old School Community Centre, in St Abbs village, one or two days per week. She would very much like input from residents and visitors alike to help her develop stories and ideas as to what makes the nature reserves so special to so many people. Please pop in and see her at the Old School, stop her when you see her out and about around the reserves, or contact her at sarahinresidence@btinternet.com.

Here's a short biography of Sarah to help you get to know her a bit better:

Sarah is an artist living and working in North Northumberland. Having pursued a painting career for 10 years, exhibiting in private galleries and taking commissions, she recently returned to higher education and graduated from the fine art degree course at Northumbria University and will soon embark upon the MA. Sarah has taken part in both local national exhibitions, and more recently assisted with the organisation of Seahouses Festival and Network Art Tour. During her course she has explored themes of time, consciousness and movement which relate strongly, she feels, to work on the pARTicipate project.

Sarah says “Erosion, evolution, migration and the way we perceive and relate to the reserves are sources of fascination for me. The project offers me the opportunity to, not only directly, represent the reserve in a traditional visual manner, but to respond to the rhythms of the place, and obtain a greater sense of its significance in the wider world through the migrations of people, animals and plants. This is a very exciting opportunity for me to take the themes I have developed in formal education and apply them in the wider world."

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Species of the month - the Oceanic Sunfish!

Over the last couple of weeks there have been a couple of sightings what I think is an amazing and unusual fish: the Oceanic Sunfish! They are not often seen around these parts, so I thought I'd give you all a bit of information on our new species of the month.

The Oceanic Sunfish is otherwise known as Mola mola, can be found in all tropical and temperate waters and is one of only three species of sunfish. It is the worlds heaviest bony fish and the largest Mola ever recorded weighed 2235kg, was 4.26m tall and 3.1m in length!

It has a compressed body with long fins and the tail fin is actually an extension of the dorsal and anal fins. Amazingly the skin is so thick that it is believed to be bullet proof against a .22 calibre bullet!

The sunfish is well known for 'basking' in the sun on the surface of the water which is how it is often sighted. This behaviour is thought to be a way to remove parasites from its skin (which are eaten by birds or fish!) or possibly just a way to warm itself up. They are slow swimmers, drifting with the current and can dive up to 600m deep. The ocean sunfish feeds on jellyfish as well as some crustaceans and fish.

Sunfishes are also very fecund meaning the females produce many many many eggs! An adult female can carry up to 300 million tiny eggs!! So look closely next time your sea watching, you never know, you may spot a sunfish basking on the surface!

Photograph by Mike Johnson @ www.earthwindow.com/mola.html

Sunday, 14 August 2011

They think its all over...but they're wrong!

As the vast majority of the seabirds have disappeared from our cliffs and have headed out to sea, where they spend most of their lives, most people think that it is not worth coming to St Abb's Head for a seabird experience at this time of year. But actually there is still plenty to watch, particularly those species that are overlooked in the height of the season because the hoards of bustling guillemots and kittiwakes steal the limelight!

If you look down at the bottom of the cliffs, on flat-topped rocks and wide ledges, you will see large dark birds with long necks. These are shags, and they are always worth watching. Shags are the earliest of our seabirds to nest, laying up to 3 eggs as early as March, and quite often there are still juveniles at or around the nest right the way through till September. Shags build big untidy nests of twigs, seaweed, vegetation and, well, anything they can find really; they often utitlise bits of marine litter too. The picture on the left is a shag I spotted on the Farnes who had built itself a real des res! And the birds spend a lot of time tending to their nests, rearranging things, bringing in new material and quite often stealing material from their neighbour's nests when they are not looking! And quite often the twigs that are brought in are a little too long to be practical, and the scene is like the classic slapstick routine with a builder carrying a long plank and knocking people over!

At this time of year you see large groups of juveniles standing about on the rocks, which is somewhat reminiscent of groups of youths hanging around on shop corners (picture right). In fact, I have just googled "collective noun for shags" and, apart from the obvious collection of crudeness, one offering was a "hangout" of shags, which seems highly appropriate! There is often a certain amount of squabbling and jostling for space which is fun to watch. And when they are not "hanging out" on the rocks they are learning the art of catching fish in the shallow inshore waters around their breeding site, before they disperse further afield.

So, not only are the shags a veritable soap opera to watch, but it is worth searching out the fulmar nests too. These oft overlooked birds nest further up the cliffs on small flat ledges often in cracks between rocks. Actually, nest seems rather a grand word for the small scraping with maybe a few bits of vegetation that they make do with. Fulmars are the last birds to nest in the colony; one egg is laid in mid to late May, and this is incubated for 50 odd days and then it is another 50 odd days before the chicks fledge so it means that there are fulmar chicks on the cliffs at the moment. There is certainly not much action as far as fulmar chicks are concerned (unless you get too close, in which case you may be on the receiving end of a stream rancid fish oil!), but they win the cute competition as far as I am concerned, being basically a round ball of fluff with a small head perched on the top! The picture on the left illustrates how tricky they are to spot sometimes, but worth searching out for sure!

And that's just the seabirds that are still breeding. If you look out to sea there is a constant steady stream of gannets flying up and down the coast in search of fish, when they find a shoal then they plunge dive spectacularly into the water to spear them with their 6 inch, pointed beaks. And then there are terns diving in a more delicate fashion in the shallow bays and shearwaters, petrels and skuas that are on passage out to sea.

So, all in all, still quite a seabird spectacle to be seen at St Abbs, I think you'll agree!

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Everythings gone to seed...

Why does that phrase have such negative connotations? Sometimes it can be quite beautiful, as I hope these pictures I took today illustrate.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Basking shark!!!

A 15ft long basking shark was spotted today between St Abb's Head and St Abbs Harbour by a sea-kayaker! Lets just hope it stays around for our seawatching event on Sunday!

Thursday, 21 July 2011

St Abb's to benefit from Newman's Own grant

You may have heard the good news in the press that the National Trust for Scotland fundraising department have been successful in securing a very generous grant from the Newman’s Own Foundation.

The grant of £50,000 will be used to support Marine Ranger position and the work of the Voluntary Marine Reserve in achieving its aims of conserving the marine environment and getting more people involved in its management. The VMR is entirely dependent on grants and donations so we are very grateful to have received this vital funding.

I am still waiting to hear confimrmation of the finer details of the grant but I just wanted to confirm this excellent news with you and keep you in the picture. More details to follow when I have them!

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Fighting the good fight...

We have been waging war with various invaders over the last few weeks. Not little green men from outer space, but a couple of plants that are making a bid to take over our flora-rich grasslands - namely creeping thistle and ragwort. And this year I have enlisted the help of as many people as I can.

Our regular volunteers (John, Dave and Ernie) have been thwacking away at the thistles for the last few weeks, as have Elaine and I whenever we have a spare hour or so. Then at the weekend we had a residential group of Conservation Volunteers (CVs) from the Trust's Lothian and Grampian groups; 12 hardy folk who persevered through the relentless rain in order to help out with both thistle control on the NNR and also marine litter clearance and surveys on the shores of the VMR. Sadly I have no pictures as the weather was just too foul to get the camera out! They were joined on the Saturday by the Trust's Director Of Human Resources who lives not too far away and wanted to experience St Abbs from the sharp end (pun most definitely intended!). Then yesterday a group of students from Berwick High School came to the Head to add to the thistle mortality rate, as part of their John Muir Award activites (picture top left). And this morning Dave, Ernie, Elaine and I have pulled all the ragwort that has been growing in our butterfly exclosure on the Kirk Hill (see Dave looking particularly pleased with a large specimen that he had pulled up in the picture to the right.

Phew! As you can see, volunteers have a huge impact on what we can do at St Abbs, and, in fact the Trust as a whole, which could not do what it does so well as Scotland's largest conservation charity without the help of our volunteers. So a big thank you to you all.

If you would like to find out more about volunteering for the Trust go to the volunteering section on our website at http://www.nts.org.uk/Volunteering/ .

We have recently taken on three additional volunteers at St Abbs, but more about them at a later date!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

A spot of cetacean searching

Well it was far too nice a day for being in the office so Lorna and I decided to head out for a coastal walk and a bit of seawatching to see what was about. There have been quite a few reports of cetacean sightings lately (whales, dolphins, porpoises) so we were hopeful that we might be lucky.

Conditions were a wee bit windy for ideal seawatching but visibility was excellent with Berwick Law and Bass Rock well visible on the horizon. We noticed several large aggregations of seabirds on the surface which are usually a good indication of the prescence of cetaceans. This is because cetaceans hunt for small fish and force them up towards the surface and seabirds take advantage of this 'rounding up' for a feeding feast.

Despite watching for a good while we sadly didn't spot any cetaceans. There was however plenty of other interesting things to see: gannets; fulmars; kittiwake fledglings practicing their new flying skills; razorbills and on the walk back hundreds of butterflies and wildflowers so it was a great day out on St Abb's Head National Nature Reserve.

If you fancy trying a bit of cetacean searching yourself why not join myself, Lorna and other volunteers at our 'Searching for Cetaceans' event on 7th August? We will be watching from the south side of the lighthouse compound at St Abb's Head from 11am - 4pm. The event is totally free, just drop in any time and help us search!

Here is a photo of Lorna showing how it's done!

Monday, 11 July 2011

Music to the ears?

A couple of weeks back we headed into the second phase of our pARTicipate project. This was when the school children from Coldingham and Eyemouth primary schools got a chance to have a show an tell session with Howard Moody, our composer for the project, and Kirsten Hunter from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (pictured left).

The children were recounting their visit to St Abb's Head, their experiences observing, listening to and recording the seabirds and the "sonic postcards" that they put together to portray their experiences in sound. Howard then spent some time working with the children on some composition - using sounds from their recordings and words that the children used to describe their thoughts and feelings about the wildlife of St Abbs. A fantastic experience for all involved.

But this was only part of what Howard and Kirsten had come to St Abbs for. They were also wanting to spend time in the area, learning more about the coastal and marine reserves and experiencing what is special about them (picture right, exploring the site of St Aebbe's Monastery). But also exploring the wider locality, learning more about the history of the area and the links between man and the sea and the sea's wildlife. And meeting with people locally to see if they would like to be involved in the project, like the local Fishermen's Choir and the Mission Crew singing group. In total Howard and Kirsten spent three days in the area, and during that time I think they really became inspired by how amazing this small part of the Berwickshire coast really is.

The next phase is for Howard to star work on his composition. He intends to return for a few short visits in the autumn and spring to work with the local community, and by May or June next year the Scottish Chamber Orchestra will be showcasing the new composition on their South of Scotland Tour.

If you would like to find out more about Howard Moody and/or the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, here are the links http://www.howardmoody.net/index.html and http://www.sco.org.uk/ .

Thursday, 7 July 2011


I do hope you can join me (Elaine, Seasonal Ranger here!) for one of two walks I will be giving soon. These walks will be held at an easygoing pace so we can get more intimate with the wonderful wildlife here and really enjoy the stunning scenery on offer. At this time of year we should see several species of butterfly and bumble bee, wildflowers, some remaining seabirds and the odd cetacean if we're lucky! But you never know what you could bump into here, so be prepared for any encounter. I also hope to inform you of the turbulent geological past and of the cultural legacy left by St. Aebbe herself.

TIME: 13.30 until 16.30
PLACE: St. Abb’s Head Car Park, grid ref: NT913673
PRICE: £3 per adult, £2 per child, free for NTS members.

No booking required.
Please wear walking boots/sturdy footwear and wear appropriate outdoor clothing.
Children must be accompanied by an adult.
CONTACT: tel: 018907 71443 email: EOMahony@nts.org.uk

Sad sight at the marine reserve yesterday

Lorna and I came across a very sad sight at Coldingham Bay yesterday. A dead shag tangled up in a fishing lure. This bird had obviously got the lure caught in its bill whilst diving for a fish and then in its panic used its feet to try and remove it and caught them too and so drowned and died a really horrible death. Its things like this which should make us all more aware of how we dispose of our litter, not just fishing tackle but plastic bags, rope etc. so that other marine creatures do not suffer the same fate as this poor bird. If you would like to help tackle marine litter by taking part in beach or underwater clean up then please get in touch with me, cheers gconolly@nts.org.uk

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Hi everyone! I'm Lorna, the voluntary marine ranger here for the summer so here's a little bit about myself. I have almost completed my undergraduate degree in Marine Biology and Oceanography at Newcastle University (Graduation soon!) and volunteering here is a great experience and a chance to put to work all that I've been taught these last few years!
I've been coming to this little part of the world for a few years now exploring the scuba diving sites and it is my absolute favourite place to dive (I have quite a soft spot for diving Cathedral Rock despite the long walk around the harbour!). I was very excited and lucky to have seen a John Dory on my last dive at the reserve! And I spotted my first nudibranch which was very exciting for me! Hopefully this summer there will be more opportunities for diving.
So far everything has been great fun as I'm sure the rest of the summer will be too. I'm looking forward to meeting everyone else over the summer and will see you all around the reserve!

Monday, 4 July 2011

In the pink

Last week as I was heading along the lighthouse road when a strange sight met my eyes - the sea at Petticowick was pink! A blink, a shake of the head, and yes...it was still pink (see left)! Basically all this colour was caused by a whole load of moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) being washed in shore by the tide and being caught up in the bay there.

There have been a lot of jellies around this year; nobody is really sure why you get these blooms of jellies, but it may be to do with decreasing fish stocks meaning there are fewer predators around to eat them. And phenomena such as these can have surprising knock on effects - who would have thought that jellyfish could cause Torness nuclear power station to have to be shut down...twice? Basically the huge smacks (the collective noun) of jellyfish were blocking up the filters on the intake pipes for the cooling water for the plant. I personally always get a bit of a buzz out of nature reminding us that we cannot control everything!

I have a bit of a soft spot for jellyfish (no pun intended) - I think they have got a bad reputation with many people being scared of them or at the very least disliking them for their stinging ways. But if you see them literally in their element they are extraordinarily beautiful (see right), their bell-shaped bodies pulsing to propel themselves through the water and their delicate tentacles catching the light.

There are 6 main types of jellyfish that are found in UK waters, and all of them sting, but some have stings so mild that they cannot be felt by us humans with our thick skin (moon jellies have a sting of a similar strength to a nettle). And they are an important part of the food chain with many iconic marine animals (like whales, dolphins and turtles) relying on them for their survival. And our jellyfish are not just important to UK species. Did you know that each year leatherback turtles make a beeline from their breeding grounds in the tropics to UK waters, just to feast on our jellies, and then they head back down south to breed again? No short journey, so an illustration of the importance of this food source.

So next time you see a jellyfish caught in a rockpool of washed up on a beach, maybe you will look at it through different eyes. If you would like to do your bit towards conservation of species like the leatherback turtle, why not take part in the Marine Conservation Society's jellyfish survey http://www.mcsuk.org/what_we_do/Wildlife+protection/Report+wildlife+sightings/MCS+Jellyfish+Survey .

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Minke whales about!

Minke whales were spotted off Coldingham Bay yesterday! Here is a photo of one so you know what to look out for. They have a distinctive dorsal fin situated nearly two thirds along their back.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Flower Power

Last week myself and Elaine went up to Dunblane to attend the Trust's annual Wildlfower ID course. This is an in house course organised by Lindsay Mackinlay from our Nature Conservation to help Countryside staff hone their botanical ID skills. Lindsay also brought in 3 experts from the BSBI (Botanical Society for the British Isles) to help advise us on some of the trickier areas of ID.

The weather on the first day was kind, and, as you can see in the picture above, we rather took over the local park, hogging the benches and generally behaving in a peculiar way - reading out passages out of ID books in a strange botanical language and peering closely at things with handlenses. We were concentrating on being able to identify all the parts of a flower and use an ID key on common plants, and you could almost hear the locals mumbling "well I can tell the that's a buttercup without looking in a book" as they passed us by!

Day two was less kind - it was tipping it down! So we ventured out, picked some plants, and brought them back in the dry to ID. Then, in the afternoon we headed into Dollar Glen to ID some species in the fantastic woodland there. Unfortunately, Elaine and I had to head back to St Abbs at this stage as we had commitments here, but, as usual, we came away inspired, enlightened and having had a chance to explore another one of the Trust's amazing properties.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011


Butterfly season at St. Abb's is finally underway. Today, for the first time since the beginning of May, I was able to complete a butterfly transect in full sunshine without having to dodge between clouds and rain showers (and thunder storms!). As part of my monitoring duties I must complete one butterfly transect per week and submit the complete dataset to Butterfly Conservation at the end of the season. They compile nation-wide statistics each year to determine the health of our butterfly populations and to inform environmental policy.

What sounds like the best job in the world has left me despairing over the last month or so. Because our work forms part of a nationwide survey, we can only monitor on particular days where there is over 60% sunshine and no wind or rain so that our data is comparable with data from around the country and with previous years. There have been days that have started out beautifully sunny but by the time I've walked to the starting point of the survey, black menacing clouds have appeared from nowhere and I've had to turn around and head straight back to the office! So today was a real pleasure. It was a perfect day weather wise and butterfly wise...8 species and 75 individuals. Dark Green Fritillary, Ringlet and Grayling appeared on a transect for the first time this season. I want to say a big THANK YOU to all the visitors who have been telling me about their butterfly sightings around the reserve. It has been so helpful to be forewarned before I have to do an official transect so I have time to gen up on the different species.

Friday, 24 June 2011

3 become 4 at St Abbs!

Summer is a busy time of year at the Marine Reserve, so each year the Marine Reserve takes on a Voluntary Marine Ranger to assist over the busy summer months. This year’s recruit is recent Marine Biology graduate, Lorna Hall from Sunderland.

Lorna will be joining the St Abbs Ranger team to assist Marine Ranger, Georgia Conolly in the management of the Voluntary Marine Reserve and also Liza and Elaine in management of the National Nature Reserve. Whilst she is helping to lighten the heavy summer workload she will also be getting on-the-job training and gaining valuable experience in managing a Marine Nature Reserve.

Lorna is a keen scuba diver and her favourite dive site is Cathedral Rock. Here is a photo of Lorna so you know who to look out for over the summer months.