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

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 @

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!