A Biotope Weekend


The trains to Glasgow and Largs and the ferry to the Isle of Cumbrae were all fine. It was when I boarded the bus to the Millport Field Centre that it dawned on me: what on earth had I let myself in for?! I’d booked onto a weekend course run by the Field Studies Council called ‘Marine Species and Habitats: The Biotope Approach’. After volunteering at an aquarium had sparked a new fascination for marine wildlife, I wanted to learn more about what could be found on British shores. I’d done a bit of research using the course’s suggested reading list, and had half an idea what a biotope was, but as I dragged my bags off the bus I wondered if I’d booked myself onto something that would sail completely over my head. I imagined working alongside a team of marine biologists with decades of experience in the field, and here I was with a newborn interest in fish. I was suddenly terrified, and literally marooned on an island for the weekend.

Blue Mussels (Mytilus edulis)

As I was mulling this over in my head, a girl my age carrying a black hold-all asked me if I was attending the Biotopes course. I was thrilled; fate had brought us together on the same ferry and meant I didn’t have to amble around alone wondering where I needed to be. Our rooms weren’t ready yet so we went for a wander towards the town of Millport. Her name was Abbie, and she was currently part-way through a PhD in non-native seaweeds. This was something I knew literally nothing about, but we chatted about uni and wildlife and all things in between. Meanwhile, it was a chance to see where we’d be spending the weekend, and it was beautiful. Of course, almost everywhere is beautiful in bright sunlight, but even so the Isle of Cumbrae promised a fascinating chance to survey marine wildlife.

A well camouflaged Sand Goby (Pomatoschistus minutus)

After a loop around the bay we headed back to the Field Centre and took our bags to our rooms. I had feared with some trepidation what the washing facilities would be like, but was very pleasantly surprised to discover a large ensuite shower, not to mention a bed like a cloud. I hastily unpacked then met the rest of the group for our first briefing. Here I met Emily who worked at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, and before dinner Abbie and I went for a walk with her to the shore to soak up the last sun of the day.

Dinner was macaroni cheese and apple crumble, perhaps one of the most perfect combinations of courses there can be. Then it was time for our first lecture: an introduction to biotopes. My research had prepared me well – a biotope is the combination of a physical habitat and the biological community found living there. Although some of the lecture’s content was lost on me, I left feeling inspired and ready to face new challenges over the weekend. I’d already met lovely people, and all my earlier worries began to feel very insignificant.

A fragment of broken sea urchin shell


Today began early, and by 9am we were down on the beach beginning our first biotope survey. It was a beautiful day for it, and we wasted no time getting stuck in, in my case literally getting my wellies wedged in rock crevices and clinging desperately to my balance. Common species included beadlet anemones, dog whelks and acorn barnacles, but we also found common starfish, hermit crabs, a star ascidian (type of sea squirt) and plenty of seaweed. My knowledge of seaweed species was even smaller than my knowledge of seashore vertebrates, but as Abbie was doing her PhD on them I had a source of very valuable information.

Star Ascidian (Botryllus schlosseri)
Common Brittlestar upside down (Ophiothrix fragilis)

Once we’d covered as much of the bay as we could we ate lunch out in the sun (an excuse for some of the group to catch up with the goings on at the royal wedding) and then headed back to analyse our results and try to determine which biotopes we’d found. This was also an opportunity to play with lab equipment, which I haven’t been able to do since A Level Biology. I had good look at the bryozoa I’d found on a strand of seaweed (below). Bryozoa means “moss animal” and viewed up close reveals an intricate lattice of animals situated closely together. I studied these individuals for a while but couldn’t decide between Sea Mat or Hairy Sea Mat.

A cluster of bryozoa: either Sea Mat (Membranipora membranacea) or Hairy Sea Mat (Electra pilosa)

After beating the queue and getting served dinner almost first, I went back to my room for much-needed downtime before bed.

Sunday 20th

Today was another early start, and this time we drove the short distance to the northern end of Great Cumbrae to a much larger site. The weather was a little dreary but armed with quadrats, transects and clipboards we began to survey the biotopes. Findings started off slowly but once we reached the rock pools things really got exciting. Our course leader Paula found a slug species called a sea lemon – a very pretty blob – and a butterfish. Abbie, Alex and I found a sand goby, sand mason worm, lots of brittlestars, more hermits and beadlets, and my favourite from today: a dahlia anemone. It was the largest anemone I’d seen before, and had beautiful striated and brightly coloured tentacles that slowly emerged again once we’d calmed down to watch it properly. Just as I was squatting to try and get a decent picture, two common prawns appeared underneath a nearby rock. I didn’t know if maybe these were boring sightings but I recognised them from my volunteering at the aquarium so was thrilled to be able to confidently identify something in the field.

Dahlia Anemone (Urticina felina)
Common Prawn (Palaemon serratus)

Back at the lab, Abbie got to work identifying her seaweeds and Alex had an ID test to do for his assignment, so I had a bash at identifying today’s biotopes by myself. Once I’d done that, I realised I’d accidentally brought a tiny brittlestar home with my sea urchin shells. With Paula’s help, I identified it as Amphipholis squamata. Later, Paula asked us what we’d found, and Alex and I had got the exact same biotopes! I was so pleased with myself.

Dinner was Sunday roast and sticky toffee pudding. I must have put on about eight stone this weekend – I’ve been fed like a queen and although my brain has been working overtime, my body hasn’t done so much. After dinner we had our last round-up lecture and went to the bar for drinks. I ended up talking to the two guys from Belfast about Father Ted – it was pretty funny talking to Irishmen about it. I would have stayed longer but I was absolutely shattered. So I headed to bed, falling asleep almost instantly.

Beadlet Anemone (Actinia equina)

The Avian Orchestra

There is an overwhelming quiet that comes with winter; a hush descends over the landscape that only adds to the bracing chill. As the season turns, the first few tentative voices break the spell of silence and before long there is an overpowering variety of diverse voices filling the air. While in the height of spring there can be hundreds of songs reverberating through the trees, there are a select few who can be heard again and again, reliable as the seasons. I took it upon myself to begin to tune in to this soundscape, a treat for the ears. Learning to birdlisten not only unlocks the ability to distinguish birds by song, but is also very useful as advanced warning for the reveal of the bird itself.

Robin (Erithacus rubecula)

Perhaps the most significant voice is that of the robin, mainly because he never left the scene when other, less hardy birds took off for warmer climes. Even through the dark, bitter winter the robin endures, his lone song often the only consistent sound during the colder months. In spring males and females pair up and defend their breeding territory, often the first to start singing and the last to finish.

The robin’s song is a delightful melody; a high, twittering burble heard from all around. Although varied in its range and tempo, the robin’s voice is almost unmistakable – high, thin and soft but still richly diverse. Hear the robin and he won’t be far away, perching in plain sight and puffing up his red breast as he fills it with air. He is a proud bird, often chasing other robins from his patch, but with a voice as pretty as his, who can blame him?


Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

Another commonly heard voice belongs to a rowdy bird that makes up for small size by belting out a piercing song for everyone to hear. The wren can often be seen speeding bullet-like through knee-high bushes. The wren sings like it’s scolding somebody; a furious round of high, loud chirrups with a distinctive trill at the end of some phrases that sounds like a miniscule machine gun. If you hear a very loud song wait for the trill, as it will inevitably come sooner or later and you’ll know you have your wren. Scan the lower branches and before long a stout brown bird holding its tail up like a stiff flag will appear, giving you a fierce reprimanding for something or other.

Great Tit (Parus major)

If robins and wrens are violins in the avian orchestra, the great tit is percussion; not quite as dazzling but just as important. In early spring, a two-toned call can be heard among the other singers, with emphasis on the first syllable. I like to think of it as the sound of a saw – effort on the forward stroke, then quieter on the draw back. After a few strokes of the squeaky saw there is a pause, and then the great tit sings it again, very resiliently as if rousing the troops to join in.

The great tit has other songs in its repertoire, including a “churr” call that reminds me of the chatter of a magpie, but a little faster and far gentler. This is the great tit’s alarm call, a sign of agitation that indicates something has disturbed it.


Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

With a lot of birdsong, it can help to adopt a Morse code approach when it comes to deciphering the rhythms of some particular species. Take the blue tit. A common little bird with splashes of blue, green, yellow and white with a fetching black goatee. The blue tit’s song is similar in tone to the great tit but gentler. Among its quite varied repertoire is a particularly distinctive melody, consisting of two clearly separated notes followed by two or three much faster ones. In dots and dashes it would look something like this:

– – . . .

Imagine, perhaps, that the bird is saying “I’m. A. Pretty Bird”, putting particular emphasis on the first two words.


If you like this, have a read of this post and find out where my inspiration to start birdlistening began.

Help For Red Squirrels

According to Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE), there are approximately 138,000 red squirrels in the UK. For some people this may sound like a lot, but the grey squirrel population currently stands at 2.5 million. Due to the difficulty of monitoring these animals accurately, this number could be even greater.

Undoubtedly a much-loved aspect of British wildlife, red squirrels have faced many challenges in recent years, predominantly the impact of invasive grey squirrels and the subsequent squirrel pox that has decimated populations. While grey squirrels are immune to the disease, reds have a mortality rate of 100%. The virus causes skin ulcers, swelling and scabbing, and after contracting it, most animals die within two weeks.

However, our native reds still have strongholds in northern England, including Northumberland, North Yorkshire and several sites in Cumbria. For a chance of seeing this elusive mammal, it is important to know where exactly to look. Two particularly good spots for Cumbrian red squirrels are Aira Force on the Glencoyne Farm trail and Grasmere. There was an outbreak of squirrel pox at Grasmere in 2016, with more than ten confirmed cases in the valley. However, as a result of the hard work of the Grasmere Red Squirrel Group, the population of reds pulled through.

Feeding red squirrel (photographed in Lockerbie)

With the squirrel pox virus having such drastic consequences, it can be difficult to know what the best solution is. In 2012, RSNE established a monitoring programme that samples 300 forests and gardens in northern England each spring, using trail cameras to record where red squirrels can be found. The Wildlife Trusts are working to improve the red squirrel’s favoured habitat of coniferous woodland, initiating reintroduction schemes and combating the presence of grey squirrels in a few carefully selected areas where red squirrels face the greatest risk.

If you are interested in the red squirrels of northern England and want to learn more about their status in Cumbria, Red Squirrels Northern England Project Officer Simon O’Hare is doing a talk on Monday 5th February and will be sharing updates on how red squirrels are faring and explaining why it is so important to protect them. The event is taking place at Kirkby Stephen Friends Meeting House. For more information take a look at the Cumbria Wildlife Trust.

Like this?

Have a read of my post about filming red squirrels in Lockerbie here.

European Beavers

This week, I will be going on an expedition recce with Wild Intrigue to a Perthshire site, in the hope of studying European beavers. We’ve got loads of blogs to write and vlogs to film and I can’t wait to get back in the wild. I’ve loved my second year at uni and it’s been great to be so busy, but due to assignments and increasingly bad weather I’ve hardly been able to go on any walks to take photos.

So in preparation for my next exped, I wanted to find out a little more about the largest rodent in Europe, which I’m really hoping to photograph while we’re there. I didn’t know hardly anything about beavers, and due to their elusiveness it seems their lifestyle is largely a mystery.

Living by still or slow-flowing water with adjacent woodland, beavers are known as ‘ecosystem engineers’ for their river handiwork. By building their dams, they regulate the water level and alter its flow pattern, which ultimately reduces erosion, as well as providing an important store of water for plants and animals during droughts. By felling trees, beavers open up their forest habitat and create new, small-scale landscapes such as ponds and swamps.

Beavers were driven to extinction in Britain in the 16th century. For many years they were hunted for their valuable fur, but also for the secretions from a pair of musk glands beneath their tail, which the beavers use for marking their territories. The secretion (castorium), was sought after for traditional medicine and the manufacture of perfumes. Despite this persecution, beavers have since been successfully reintroduced to parts of Scotland and southern England.

Beavers have two layers of dense fur, a courser outer layer and a woolier under layer. Their hind feet are webbed and used to propel the body through water, while the front feet have opposable digits for gripping branches. Similar to crocodiles and hippopotami, the beaver’s sense organs are aligned in a row so that they can swim with their nostrils, eyes and ears raised above the water while keeping the rest of their body submerged.

A beaver’s tail is a multipurpose tool. Broad and covered with overlapping keratin scales, it’s used as a prop for balance when cutting trees, as a rudder during dives and an alarm signal when in distress, where the animal slaps it against the water. Fat reserves are stored in the tail and a counter-current arrangement of blood vessels enables an efficient heat exchange system, that can result in a 25% heat loss through the tail in summer and 2% in winter.

Entirely vegetarian, beavers are crepuscular, meaning they are mostly active at twilight. They can use their chisel-like incisors to gnaw through an 8cm wide tree in five minutes. In fact, they can carry on gnawing while submerged underwater by sealing the backs of their mouths with folds of skin. On dives they can close their nostrils and ears and cover their eyes with a nictitating (transparent) membrane.

So it turns out that beavers are fascinating creatures. Now that I’ve got myself acquainted with these industrious rodents, now I can only hope that I’ll get a glimpse of some this weekend.



Coming soon!

Last week, I went on an expedition to the Northumberland National Park, where I spent four days living in a bothy and discovering the ecology of the Cheviot Hills. During that time I had several wildlife firsts, including some real rarities!

Stay tuned for the full posts, which I’m hoping to publish very soon. In the meantime, enjoy this little bank vole who paid us a visit each morning.


Puffballs, Prints and Pellets

Due to a lecture cancellation, Zahrah and I seized the day and paid Watchtree Nature Reserve a second visit. As the sun was actually shining, we made haste before the English climate returned to its usual cheeriness.

As we’d found several roe deer skulls at the reserve last time, we headed straight to Pow Wood and began to forage. My first find was a cluster of puffballs (Lycoperdon sp.). I find these little guys are extremely difficult to identify, but they’re always fun to see and remind me of terrestrial sea urchin shells.


Further into the wood I was extraordinarily excited to identify more fungi. This ID lark is slowly getting easier! I found a patch of jelly ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) on some dead wood, and wrestled for some time with said dead wood to get close enough for my macro lens to work its magic.


Shortly afterwards, I found several violent red blooms amongst the green foliage. The only scarlet elf cup (Sarcoscypha austriaca) I’d seen before was the size of my little fingernail, so to see some two inches wide was fabulous.


Finally, my eye caught on a bright patch of yellow as we untangled our clothes and hair from the low-hanging branches of the pine trees and, completely forgetting my wildlife voice, I shrieked “witches’ butter!”. In my defence, Tremella mesenterica is a really intriguing fungus and it’s the first I’ve seen up close.


In addition to our success with fungi, we also did some pretty good tracking. Putting the tricks we’d learned from Alex to the test, we found some deer tracks in the mud. As we found roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) skulls in Pow Wood on our last visit, we deduced that the same species had left these prints. Our suspicions were confirmed when we saw a flash of white and watched as three female roe deer darted into the forest, white bob tails stark against the brown and green of the trees.



Incidentally, I didn’t realise that I was on a walk with Hawkeye. In just a few hours, Zahrah found two roe deer skulls, what we suspect was a sheep skull, and a headless skeleton with beautifully pristine white vertebrae. I guess I’d been too distracted by the fungi. We scooped up the bones into a plastic bag, ready to douse them in hydrogen peroxide when we got back home.


Despite my ineptitude at finding skulls, I did find a collection of pellets at the foot of a tree along with a discarded white egg shell. The combination of these two signs suggested that the tree was home to a nest. After some research, I discovered that barn owls (Tyto alba) are known for their stark white eggs and dark, charcoal grey pellets, so perhaps this was our bird.

Back at the house, I dissected the pellets and in just three I recovered the remains of six rodent skulls, seven mandibles (lower jaws), several loose rodent incisors and a variety of leg bones. I attempted to identify who the skulls belonged to, but sadly they all looked the same. Still, it was fascinating to see how many kills the owl had made; there were at least two skulls in each pellet. This indicates that the bird was hunting regularly, as a barn owl usually regurgitates 1-2 pellets each night (Barn Owl Trust).

In addition, the egg shell I found had no yolk, suggesting the chick hatched naturally and wasn’t predated. If this were the case, the edges of the shell would have been pushed in and parts of the membrane would still be visible.


In short, it was a very successful day’s foraging! It’s amazing how much you can see when you know what to look for.

‘Gossamer Days’ Article in Watermark Magazine

Every year, the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, Cumbria, hosts the literary festival Words by the Water, which is a wonderful celebration of words and ideas from a variety of topics including science, art, politics and history.

In parallel to the festival, students from the University of Cumbria produce a magazine publication with pieces inspired by the speakers and their topics. This year, I was asked to be the student editor of the magazine, which was a fantastic experience. Part of the job involved writing articles, so here is one inspired by Eleanor Morgan’s talk on spiders, a subject that fascinates and horrifies me in equal measures. I decided to shun my shivers and find out more about these unfortunate-looking invertebrates. To my surprise, I discovered some truly astonishing things.



Camera Trap: A week in January

In many cases, wildlife can only be truly photographed without the photographer. After falling in love with Kingmoor South, Zahrah and I decided to set up camera traps to see what we could find. We had just attached all three traps when we realised we’d forgotten to bring bait, but decided to leave them a week and hope for the best. When we returned, we were thrilled to discover we’d had some visitors.

European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus)
Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)
Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)


I reckon we’ve found a good patch for traps, so I’d love to plan a second trip and set them up again. I’ve got my sights set on catching a badger…

Heartwood Forest Summer Festival

After a week of stressful moving out of halls of residence, I am now settled at home for the summer. On Saturday I volunteered at the Heartwood Forest Summer Festival, an event held at a Woodland Trust site near where I live. We had fantastic weather all day and many hundreds of visitors – it was a great success!

Making a masterpiece with natural materials
Visitors enjoying a willow weaving activity
Some of the farm animals on show
Dissecting owl pellets to discover which rodents the owl had eaten
One of the impressive entrants to the Great Heartwood Bake Off
The queen honeybee specimen was a favourite among the colouring in enthusiasts
The colouring in wasn’t just for the kids!

To see more of my photos from the festival, please read my post on the Heartwood Forest blog.