Looking back at 2016

After travelling down from mid Wales by train, I am now safely back in a mild and damp Falmouth. With exams looming on the immediate horizon, I will mostly be incarcerated away from distractions to focus on revision for the coming days. That said, it’s never hard to find ways of procrastinating when one should otherwise be absorbed in memorising test statistics, properties of a normal distribution and other such sumptuous details that a Stats module entails. What better way, I thought, than to take a quick look back at 2016 and summarise some of the highlights from another superb year? Well that’s what I did.

I’ve tried not to make it too wordy! I hope you enjoy…

Winter in Cornwall

After making it home to Bardsey for Christmas 2015, I only just made the briefest of weather gaps to leave the island in time to speed down to cornwall for exams in early January! With such unpleasantries out of the way, the rest of the term was great fun: modules on field and lab techniques involved several fiel trips around the county, keeping field sketches and notebooks on species’ IDs and wildlife;  a module on vertebrate zoology included a practical session where we studied the skeletal structures and anatomical arrangements of a range of species; and spare time was spent stealing away to watch a superb array of wildlife that Cornwall’s coast has to offer.

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Gylly beach on a sunny winter’s day – I consider myself very lucky to be able to have this as a view en route to uni on some mornings!
The Penryn campus grounds provided plenty of enjoyable birding in the winter months, from watching Redwings and Song Thrushes plucking worms from the soft earth, to tracking the yaffling calls of Green Woodpeckers and marvelling at the industrious feeding flocks of Long-tailed Tits and mixed warblers in the broadleaved trees
Spurred on by the enthusiasm of fellow students like Will Hawkes, it was great to delve into the fascinating world of invertebrates: venturing out at night to see what species of spiders were active or rooting through rotting vegetation after insects like this Pill Woodlouse
The nearby lakes of College and Argal are home to several pairs of Great Crested Grebes, which are always a lovely sight – not least when their breeding and courtship plumage shines through towards late February

Falmouth bay offers some superb rockpooling – the diversity of organisms you can find in the space of a few hours is incredible. These anemones, seaweeds and flat topshell are amongst just a few of them

‘Gullfest’ in Norway

See my blog posts on the trip here: Part I and Part II

In mid-March I was invited to attend the annual ‘Gullfest’ event in north-east Norway: an initiative set up by Tormud Amundsen of Biotope to celebrate the superb birding on offer on the Varanger peninsula, whilst at the same time promoting birding for the benefit of local communities. I was joined by fellow young birders Tim Jones, James O’neill and Ed James, and we met up with Jonnie Fisk in-country who was at the time working for Biotope.

The event was fantastic, and the birding top class. The cooing songs of Long-tailed Duks echoed about the harbours, with small, bobbing aggregations of King and Common Eiders floating amidst fesity-looking Glaucous Gulls and bulky argenatus Herring Gulls; we saw grosbeaks and hawk owls in the forest; gyr falcons and moose in the hills. On top of this was the breathtaking scenery that goes hand-in-hand with being in the arctic circle.

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aurora borealis
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Reindeer in a fitting setting
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King Eider perfection
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Siberian Jay

 

Ynys Enlli in spring

The long spring break around easter time, primarily functioning as a tim for concerted revision ahead of spring exams, provided an opportunity to escape back home and enjoy some time on Ynys Enlli. In between helping out with lambing on the farm, revising and writing articles for the spring issue of Life Nature Magazine, it was great to get out birding, looking for moths, help BBFO out with ringing and generally take in the heady and refreshing characters of springtime

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thrift and squill with Bardsey mountain in the backdrop
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bladder campion on the nearby Ynys Gwyllan Fawr – a great seabird colony that I helped survey as part of the annual breeding counts

Just a few of the superb species we managed to catch on the island during the spring – the Long-eared Owl was a particular highlight (thanks Steffan!)

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mild weather facilitated a good appearance of spring moths on the island including this oak beauty

blog2It was great to help out with the work of Bardsey Bird Observatory in both the surveying and ringing of the island’s seabird populations. A great season for the island’s auk species appeared to be linked with an abundance of bait fish in the surrounding seas. Here a Razorbill chick and Guillemot eggs beside

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Manx Shearwater beneath the stars – you simply can’t have the full effect without the sound though!

Revising hard for exams

After a time on the island, I headed back down to Falmouth for the exam period. It was brilliant to spend some time exploring bluebell woods and an invertebrate-rich landscape after several years on Bardsey where both are rather less prevalent. It was, however, deeply challenging to buckle down to revision when one just had to step out of the door and be met with all manner of fascinating creature!

cornwall-blog2A collage of some spring invertebrates (plus a rogue vertebrate). From top left clockwise: speckled bush-cricket nymph, cardinal beetle, common toad, cock chafer, hairy shieldbug, chrysolina beetle, rhingia campestris, weevil sp, red rumex weevil, nomad bee sp.

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Being able to spend some time soaking in the beauty of bluebell woodlands and the smells, sounds and sights within such spring landscapes was brilliant – quite the contrast to the coast

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we set out one or two moth traps on campus most days of the spring whilst we were back, racking up some smart species such as least black arches. It’s great to get to carry out this activity on campus and get other students enthused too!
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A typical bike-load set for uni…panniers stuffed with actinic heath moth trap and gear for snorkelling #falmouthlife

 

Scotland – Coll, Tiree and Skye

After the dreaded exams, I travelled back up to north wales with my sister, where we returned home for a brief few days before embarking on the annual family holiday: 2016’s destination was western Scotland, and it was with a sublime weather outlook that we trundled along in our VW campervan to the bonny isles of Coll and Tiree

We were certainly blessed with some great weather, which made exploring the two tranquil islands very enjoyable. From a naturalist’s perspective, the islands were bursting with life: the damp iris beds and meadows echoed with the buzzing of displaying snipe, piping calls of lapwings and redshanks, and the carrying songs of skylarks. Looking seaward, the sleek, glistening back of a minke whale might occasionally break the surface, along with the occasional bottlenose dolphin. A plethora of insects were on the wing too, including the scarce moss carder and red-shanked bumblebees and the not-so-flightful short-necked oil beetle

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Coll | wild camping spots like this will take some beating

A selection of insects from Coll (clockwise): short-necked oil beetle, ancylis badiana, chrysolina beetle and common blue butterfly

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one of six minke whales seen on the crossing between tiree and coll from the Calmack
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Lapwing silhouette

 

Redshank and Snipe populations were fantastic on the islands

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brown hares were particularly abundant on Tiree, and rather approachable too

After Coll and Tiree, we travlled up to the noth-west part of Skye (Dunvegan) for a few days. Despite somewhat less favourable weather, we had a great time exploring the coast and it’s impressive hexagonal rock pillar formations, plus some hill walks around the Quirrang and up to one of the lower peaks on the Cuillin Ridge

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Dad spotted this handsome beast, an adder, as we sumitted one of the peaks on Skye’s Cuillin ridge. Two firsts in one! My first adder, and my first Cuillin peak

Ringing surveys in Romania

See my full round up of the ringing surveys here

Taking an overnight sleeper train from Scotland to London, I boarded a plane in Luton airport the following evening bound for Tirgu Mures in Romania. I was destined for the country’s amazingly diverse Transylvanian region of forests and wild flower meadows, where I was joining a two month expedition lead by Operation Wallacea to document the biodiversity of the region. My role was to conduct bird ringing surveys and take out groups of students to show them the process involved.

The expedition was a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience from many aspects: for one, the diversity of life that exists in harmony with the traditional farming techniques is a poignant reminder of what the UK might once have been; the associated birdlife is superb, and so resulted in some stunning species during the ringing surveys; introducing the students to ringing was great fun, especially when seeing them release their first bird – a very special moment. Spending time amongst the Romanians and an enthusiastic and knowledgable team of staff further added to a brilliant time that simply flew by!

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I managed to catch and ring just over 1100 birds over the seven weeks, including golden oriole, bee-eater, hawfinches (above), lesser grey shrikes, 150 red-backed shrikes and great reed warblers (to name a few!)
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the village of Richis in the Tarnavu Mare region of Romania – rather idyllic!

p1080224_mg_0052yours truly with Oak Hawkmoth and Green Woodpecker

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Cuckoo and the common fodder of birds in Romania: orthopterans such as this Wart-biter
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Red-backed Shrikes were abundant in the grasslands and scrub, yet I never tired of their sight or sound; what superb birds!
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I was lucky enough to have an unforgettable encounter with this mother Brown Bear and her two cubs whilst in one of the villages. An ex-hunter and his invaluable knowledge of the forest fauna was key to getting the chance to see these magnificent beasts, but luck played its part too!

Some insects, and there were literally tonnes. Kicking up hundreds of grasshoppers as you stride through meadows full of bettone, sainfoin and a hundred other wild flower species…what a true ‘meadow’ should be

 

August on Bardsey

After an amazing time with Operation Wallacea in Romania, I returned to the sun-baked shores of Bardsey in early August. With the summer visitor season in full swing, it was great to spend time with good friends, help out with the harvest and other farm jobs, get out in the field to peruse the island’s abounding wildlife, and generally just settle back into the island pace of life.

With the island’s breeding colony of Manx Shearwaters busily stuffing their fluffy chicks, one of the enjoyable activities of summer time is helping with the ringing of these remarkable seabirds; it was also great to get out ringing Storm Petrels on many a still night. The calm and often clear waters surrounding the island make for great snorkelling, and the grey seals often become particularly curious too, which wakes for some great interactions! Moth trapping is a key past-time for any naturalist (or, at least, it should be), and setting out heath traps around various habitats leads to many a morning spent examining the contents of a night’s catch, like opening a box of chocolates at christmas time.

The birding was particularly good towards the end of August, when a group of Next Generation Birders also arrived on the island for a week at the obs to participate in the various monitoring activities we carry out. This year’s crew of ‘NGBs’ included George Dunbar, Will Langdon and Elliot Montieth, who cashed in on a superb arrival of Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Icterine Warblers, Melodious Warblers, Ortolan Bunting, Long-eared Owl and much more, not to mention the Risso’s Dolphins and Ocean Sunfish out to sea!

left to right: Melodious, Western Bonelli’s, Icterine and Willow Warbler

No fewer than six Convolvulus Hawkmoths arrived on the island during late August when the rest of the UK also experienced an impressive invasion of these continental wanderers

Back to Uni!

Early September saw me making the thrice-annual pilgrimage back to south-westerly ‘home’: Falmouth. I was now embarking on my second year in a degree in conservation biology – a course which I have thus far very much enjoyed. The last signs of summer were firmly clinging on in many areas in Cornwall, although easterly airflows throughout September and October resulted in some superb birding too!

A Whiskered Tern on my local patch just a day after returning was brilliant, and a Pectoral Sandpiper in October further added to #patchgold during the autumn. In between lectures and writing up practical lab reports, I spent my time getting involved in a host of endeavours on campus: I was chosen as one of three new presenters for the universitie’s ‘Naturewatch’ production (take a look here); I continued to work amongst a small student team to bring out the ‘Life Nature Magazine’ which we publish here on campus; I helped run many wildlife-orientated trips and events with the ecological society on campus, including bird ringing demonstrations and moth trapping; additionally, I also spent a lot of time crewing aboard some superb AK Wildlife Cruises out around Falmouth’s coastline.

It was great to spend time pursuing photography with many friends at the uni, heading off on birding trips to sites afar as Somerset, and generally enjoy an autumn in the colourful county of Cornwall…

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Small Copper
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Autumn colours at the nearby woodland of Gweek
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Common Dolphins were the commonest cetaceans we encountered off the coast of Falmouth onboard AK wildlife cruises, but coming across feeding frenzies of Bluefin Tuna was spectacular!
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Long-tailed Tit
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Alongside ringing on campus with many other enthusiastic young ringers, I periodically headed down to the amazing site of Nanjizal towards Land’s End. Particular highlights from here included Little Bunting and Dusky Warbler, although Kingfishers are always a delight
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Max Thompson and I spent a great weekend travelling through Somerset to Richmond Park and back in October, seeing some great wildlife en route
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thrush migration over Falmouth was simply breathtaking in late October: I recorded over 10,000 Redwings in the space of an hour from my caravan one morning!
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A superb trip to Somerset in late November with Max Thompson, Jack Burton and Calum Urquhart was particularly memorable for the Starling emergence we witnessed: the sound of half a million Starlings lifting off if hard to convey in an image!

So there we are – a somewhat hotchpotch of highlights from my year. It was great fun, and I am very much thankful to all my friends and family (of course) who made it such an enjoyable time. Here’s to 2017!

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