Saturday, 5 August 2017

Back to the birds: a week of writing and a week off work

I have been escaping work for a while. A week writing in the peace and quiet of North Yorkshire followed by a week at home, using up holiday. For the first week, I had a couple of reports to clear and a book chapter to write, tucked away in Hebden with limited internet, some beautiful scenery and a laptop. 

I spent five days waking up early and taking the camera down the River Wharfe. The river was picturesque mix of stepping stones, mixed woodland, and tumbling water. Over my wanders I clocked up brilliant views of nuthatches, redstart, spotted flycatchers, green wood peckers and dippers.

Nuthatch beside the Wharfe at Hebden

Spot fly beside the Wharfe

Juvenile Green Woodpecker beside the Wharfe

On my week off I decided to check out Summer Leys, a local nature reserve where I knew little ringed plover bred. It was late in the season and I wasn't sure whether my luck would be in, the site would be fantastic, swarming with dragonflies and warblers. The leys were full of terns, gulls, egrets and redshank; and, thankfully, one distant but distinct Little Ringed Plover. In addition to the great birdlife, there was a particularly bold muntjac which rounded the closest pool, passing close in front of the hide.

Little Egret at Summer Leys

Litte Ringed Plover at Summer Leys

Muntja Deer at Summer Leys

Inbound Muntjac at Summer Leys

Reed Warbler at Summer Leys

Little Egret at Summer Leys

I also went out for a couple of walks between Lavendon and Milton Keynes, picking up Quail at Pitsford as well as a hare, grey partridge and a couple of other bits and bobs around Lavendon.

Grey Partridge at Lavendon

Hare at Lavendon

The real highlight of the holiday was a last minute trip to Ouse Washes to catch the Black Winged Stilts before they moved on. After an hour and a half drive, I got to the reserve, there was no one else around. I practically ran to the hide, ignoring the the hedges swarming with sedge warblers, I headed up the hide steps, tucking myself onto the benches. I scanned the pools for a while with no luck, but then, gliding, legs trailing, they dropped in. I watched them feed for 30 minutes, occasionally driven from one pool to another by the avocets. It was a short time, but the highlight of the holiday.

Sedge Warbler at Ouse Washes

Black Winged Stilt at Ouse Washes

Black Winged Stilt at Ouse Washes

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Tom terns 30

Last weekend was Tom’s 30th Birthday Party (the much anticipated Birthday was the week before), I think my liver has almost recovered. More importantly, a few weeks before Tom, Jack and I had bundled into the car in hope of Tom’s all important 300th bird.

With it being such an important tick, we had our eyes set on one of the UK’s scarcest breeding birds, the thought being that we could be certain of a good view near their nest site. For Jack and I this meant a four-hundred-and-sixty-mile round trip, for Tom it was a mere 400 hundred miles. We decided to head to his and let him do the bulk of the driving; three and a bit hours and a lot of junk food later, we were safely on the Northumberland coastline, enjoying one last coffee in The Fat Mermaid (cakes highly recommended) before meeting our boat.

The harbour was full of redshank, black headed gulls, eclipse eider, and the occasional sandwich tern (each one causing us to flinch). We had a worrying few minutes wondering whether we would be allowed onto the over booked boat, but fortunately places were found for all. Jack took the 450D and the 250 lens, I took the 7D and the Sigma 500, and the frantic snapping began. The air was full of guillemots, razorbills and puffins, gannets dove further offshore, and there was a constant coming and going of terns.

Tom and I flicked between cameras and bins, looking for dark bills, bright clean wings, long tail feathers; the hallmarks of the roseate tern. We approached Coquet Island over fifteen minutes, somewhat impatient as the boat stopped to take in seals hauled out in the shallows. We had both had likely looking birds at a distance, but nothing definite to our untrained eyes.  

Slowly, we edged around the island, nipping in close to peer through binoculars at the pairs perched around their nest boxes. Then, joy; not 5 meters from the boat an adult fluttered down to the sea surface and began to bathe, allowing us some awkward but beautifully clear pictures. Delighted doesn’t begin to cover our mood as we snapped away, then put aside the cameras for a really focused look. We were so chuffed that dipping on black tern on the way home (and missing little bittern in the process) didn’t bother us at all.

Bathing Roseate
Jack had even greater success with the 450D than I did with the 7, the shorter lens coping much better with the changing light. He managed to get all of the following shots, catching many of the best diagnostic images ...and he's never borrowing my camera again...

Jack's improved image of the beak

Jack's shot showing the individual crown feathers...

...and Jack's image of the dark primaries...

Of course, Tom being Tom, a few days later he snuck out after work for the East Leake bee-eaters, entering his third decade on 301. So now we both have 400 before 40 firmly in our sights, with Tom holding a 47 species and two year advantage. I’d better get my skates on. 

Monday, 12 June 2017

Menai to Milton Keynes - via Shrewsbury

On Sunday I was driving from Mitlon Keynes to Menai Bridge and back to pick up Jack from his first ten day trip on the Prince Madog research cruise. With the long staying night heron in Shrewsbury a mere 20 minutes out of the way, it seem rude not to pop in. 

This was one of the briefest twitches I've done. Jack and I pulled up on a side street at 15:45 and asked some locals if they'd seen the bird. A kid gave us the rough details and off we went. By the time we got there he'd sprinted down the park to catch us up and, within two minutes, put us straight onto the happily sitting heron. Bish, bash, bosh. One closer to the elusive 400 for me, and Jack's first twitch.

The bird was happily sat on the island amongst the rhoddies, barely moving but for a quick wing stretch. We gave it half an hour, then were back on the road for home. 

Monday, 5 June 2017

Blonde Birders go south on a Sunday

Tom had been having all the fun, and was just five birds away from his target of seeing 300 birds before age 30 (6 weeks to go); meanwhile, I have been languishing at my desk or in the lab, and had only managed one new species since January. In fact, I’ve barely been birding at all. So after watching all of Tom’s lovey reports from his trip to the Scotland (and having had some stress-related health hiccoughs) I decided that a spot of birding was in order. Of course, I am dead-keen that Tom hit his birthday birding target, so I suggested that we spent last Sunday with the birds. I’d head over to his place on Saturday night, and we’d head out from there in the morning to where ever seemed to hold the best birds.

Having a scan through the reports on Saturday evening, we decided on the Minsmere Savi’s warbler (which would be a lifer for both of us), followed by a thorough sweep of the Suffolk/Norfolk border to scoop up whatever else we could get. A good two and a bit hours each way… and back past my house too… ah well, you can’t plan for everything. So now all we had to do was wait til morning. Tom employed his time by driving to Belper and taking part in an epic stand-up gig. I stayed, crashed, at the flat, enjoying a fantastic migraine which felt like icepicks were being pressed into my left eye and nostril. The only benefit to this was going to bed at seven, sure of a good night’s sleep before our 4 am wake-up call.

When four A.M. rolled around, my migraine had subsided to a mere headache. I’d taken my meds and grabbed last night’s pizza and was ready to drive. The drive is one of the best bits of birding with a stand-up comedian, old jokes mix with new as we try and keep the car in its lane through laughing fits. At the services I we amuse the woman at the checkout as I loudly abandon Tom whilst he pays for his sandwiches, announcing that I’ll be in the car cramming my newly purchased nurofen into my face. Then we’re off again, finally rolling into the Minsmere carpark at seven.

Leaving the car we head for Island Mere hide, where the Savi’s had been heard the previous day, checking with the locals we pass en route for the best spots for stone curlew (one of my targets for the day). The reed beds are swarming with reed and cetti’s warblers as we wander down the boardwalk to the hide, and then it begins; the tedium of a warbler twitch. It’s not singing, it's in dense cover, and all we can do is wait.

Having said that, there are many, many worse places to wait than the Island Mere hide at Minsmere. Marsh Harriers quartered the reed beds and a bittern boomed away. An otter was beset by angry mute swans. A lone common tern aggressively chased away the Med and Black headed gulls which occasionally alighted on the water. Off course, my camera battery had been neglected in the head crushing pain that was the previous evening, so I was sparing with my pictures.

Lucky Bittern

Marsh Harrier

We were in the hide for an hour and a half, chatting to the locals, and I was starting to get twitchy… I could feel the day ticking away, and knew that Tom had to be back by 6:30… Other birders had come and gone, and I was considering suggesting that we move too; then the reeling began. Thank god. We listened to the bird calling for five minutes and were rewarded with a brief glimpse of it flitting from cover. 249 for me, 296 for Tom. A brief high five and we were off in search of stone curlew.
As we wandered seaward toward North Wall and the resident breeding pair we were treated to fantastic views of a stoat moving its kits, more mewing Med gulls, and a quick pit stop at the cafe. We were also given some local intel on the woodlark at Westleton Heath.

Two of many Med gulls

Arriving at the fenced “St-urlew” nest site we scanned with scope and bins to try to find the elusive birds, our hopes soaring when a couple announced that they had found them. Unfortunately it turned out that they were stringing a couple of red legged partridge, and we gave up and bundled in the car to head to Westleton.

When we got there it was roasting… however, I managed to bag my first tick not five minutes from the car. Turtle doves “turring” in the trees by the path. We were lucky in seeing one bird flying out over the scrubby gorse, landing in a sycamore, where it was instantly invisible. I got a couple of terrible shots and my 250th bird.

Swift Turtle Dove Snap

From here we forged out onto the heath, following the wooded field margin for best chance of woodlark. After an hour’s walking we were hot, bothered and beginning to lose heart. We’d covered almost all the available ground and began to double back for the car. Coming back through a kissing gate I caught a glimpse of something perched on a bare branched of a fallen tree. The offending article. Tom managed a quick, if blurry, shot and I watched through bins for a minute until the bird flitted. We waited, but the bird failed to reappear, lost in the gorse. We wandered back to the car as happy as you like, three for three on our targets. 251 for me, 297 for Tom, a great day all round.

Tom's Blurry Woodlark Shot

Feeling pretty confident, we decided to try and get me those elusive stone curlew, deciding to detour to Weeting Heath on the way home. Cheerfully we gossiped in the car for an hour, planning trips in the next six weeks to ensure Tom hit his 300, and we soon pulled up in the carpark. The centre was locked and we headed toward the North Hide, stopping to talk to a couple who were scanning the fields the far side of the road… who had their eye on a pair of stone curlew and their chick. One of the quickest ticks I have had. 252. One adult and the juvenile were out in the open, the other was half in cover. The angle of the far field gave us excellent views (although the pictures are still awful) and we watched the birds for around half an hour.

Distance "St-urlew"

Heading back to the car we checked the time. With our amazing luck so far we had a few hours in hand, and we checked the reports in hope of a last minute miracle. There was an obvious choice… despite living up in Scotland and making regular trips up and down the west coast, I had failed to connect with corncrake. Fortunately, one had appeared in Warwickshire, just 15 minutes from Tom’s house. Depending on the traffic, it could have been on.

It was a focused drive back, with one eye permanently on the clock. We pulled up to Alvecote Pools just as Tom’s phone battery gave out, we had forty mins to connect with the bird. Fortunately there were a few birders on site. They reported hearing the bird not five minutes before, and we settled in to wait. Turned out that luck was on our side again, and within a few minutes there was a clear “crexing” from the iris bank in the field bottom. Five for five, and thirty minutes to get Tom to work. We bundled into the car and, thirty minutes later, I was happily wending my way back along the M6 toward home. I may not have many chances to go birding any more, but I can be happy in the knowledge that occasionally my luck holds out. Not only that, but in the next six weeks before Tom’s birthday I have at least one more tick on the cards, so watch this space.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Delayed Post from October: Blonde Birders Ride Again

Leaving work on Friday - now at the Open University - I headed to the station to catch the train to Birmingham. Tom had some talk, or mime act, or something... I forget; I was going along to be supportive. I stepped onto my super cheap, excruciatingly long train to be met with a wall of commuters and, joy of joys, a stag do travelling from south of London to poor, unfortunate Brum. I dragged in my rucksack as far into the pack as I could, tucked it behind me to protect the camera within, and settled in for the long stand.

After chatting with the teacher next to me for a few minutes I finally ended up in conversation with - amongst others - “Peppa Pig” and “Jeff Goldbulm” in the stag party (I was “Pixie”)… Turns out, they were an epic bunch; like seriously great! Friendly dudes who were very, very happy to share the beers; even buying my in on another round when they ran out. By the time we rocked up in Birmingham we’d been chatting for about an hour and - with hugs all round - I headed off on my now slightly tipsy way for food and comedy. (Guys, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re weekend was amazing!). With a start like that, you know the weekend is going to be great, and boy did it deliver.

During the evening I managed to see my cousin and the lovely Rachel, drink a lot of gin, meet Jasper Carrot, and roll in at two. At two. We were getting up at four. So after just two hours of sleep, Tom and I were cursing as we dragged ourselves out of bed and into the car, bound for Spurn point. By 6 we had pulled into services at Doncaster, filling up on toasties and coffee to fend of my threatening hangover. At 7:45 we were at Easington, roaming the church yard in search of the previous day’s red-flanked bluetail. There were already a handful of eager birders about, but no bird; we gave it half an hour and then headed towards Kilnsea. En route we stopped off at the wetlands, picking up tree sparrow and what would be the star of a big bag of redwing. Here we also found out that at least two little bunting had been seen on the point. Steeling ourselves for a trek, we headed toward The Warren; parking up and pulling on the walking boots.

As we walked down the point we were plagued by goldcrest, redwing and robins; they were everywhere, and after our dip in the church yard we jumped at every wing flick. The best bird we got was a brief view of a flushed woodcock and a nice whinchat. By the time we reached the point, we were ready for a new tick. At the entrance to the lifeboat station we met up with Nathan, who put us onto a black red that he had just seen, then we piled on for the VTS tower and our potential little bunting. 

When every wing flick grabs your attention, the hoards of robins and GC's are enough to give you a tic

Boy was our luck in, after a few seconds of waiting our target flitted up to the top of a hawthorn opposite. Sat high for a minute, before disappearing off again. Two minutes later it was back. We snapped another frantic set of pictures and it flew again. This time we properly celebrated; high fives, mountain dew, and lemon ice relentless all round. Time for another hour’s walk and hopefully a few more gems like this…

Man, it is one hell of a walk now. But halfway round we hit a bonus. A group of birders were clustered at the wash over. Focused firmly on a Lapland bunting… which was not happy to be observed and was soon flushed. We carried on north, now set on rustic bunting; the bird of Big Year notoriety (seriously folks, watch that film). After what seemed like forever now, we reached the car and headed back toward the Crown and Anchor, parking just before Church Field. Here we managed a quick chat with a couple of other birders and took a quick look in Church Field for the rustic bunting, but it was far too busy. Ring ouzel and shrike at Sammy’s Point it was.

Good views of breast "scales"

Luckily the ring ouzel was feeding in the open right by the car park, giving better views than any we had on our last trip around the Cairngorms. The shrike was a different matter. We trudged along the top, scanning every bush, getting steadily more annoyed at the number of robins. We considered dropping into the scrub for a brush bash, but after the trip down the point we lacked the will. Reaching the end of the hedges we swung round and headed for the car, and as we wandered back we passed Steve again, who let us know that the shrike had been refound on green lane. Picking up our pace, we bundled back into the car and hopped to the other side of Easington. Wandering up the lane, the birders we passed were happy to inform us that the shrike was sitting happily in full view. A nice easy tick for me and a few blurry photos to go along with it. 

Bright sunlight catching on the GG shrike's white breast

We rounded the White Horse, and took up position with the birders starting into the trees; preparing ourselves to just at every flitting movement. We chatted to the other birders, and I managed to get a longer chat with Andy Roadhouse (who’s book I will get round to buying soon). I explained that no, we hadn’t seen the olive-backed pipit, we hadn’t seen it shouted for a while; only to be quickly informed that it was still there and easily viewable. Suddenly, I didn’t have much patience for the flycatcher. I glanced at Tom, he needed the bird, not me. Then, thankfully, the flycatcher dropped onto a branch to the right of the tree; I called it, just as it decided to fly out onto the roof of the building, flash its underwing, show its arse and disappear back into the foliage. After pausing for a high five, Tom and I boosted over to Vicar Lane for the Olive-backed Pipit and what turned out to be the easiest bird of the day. Out of car, along lane, birders, bird, watch bird, bird flies, too tired to wait to refind bird, back to the car. Seriously though it was a beaut, the colour change from orangey buff to white in the supercilium and the relatively unmarked back were clearly visible, even through the fence. My pictures do not do it ANY justice. Back in the car, we shared our last high five of the day.

Ah, photography through fences

Form here it was 3 hours of driving, jokes and real talk, during which we realised that we’d not eaten in 16 hours, sending us in search of kebab, naan bread, fried chicken and battered sausages (Tom bought something too I think). Getting back to the house I managed about a third of my food and an episode and a half of Red Dwarf, before realising that my real craving was for sleep. Making my excuses… I crawled off to sleep.

On Sunday morning I woke up at 8, dressed, and wandered in search of my leftover kebab. We had made a vague plan to go for a sedate wander in search of purple heron; but after the joy of the day before, we wanted to ride the luck wave. After a vague conversation and some shovelling of remaining food, we pointed the car in the direction of Norfolk and the Radde’s warbler.

It certainly felt luxurious leaving the house at 9 o’clock, but we regretted it later. Turning up at Holkham, we were met by a stream of slightly miffed looking birders trudging back along the path… “1 hour wait, no bird”... “1 ½ hours walk, no bird”... then… “2 hours wait, quick sighting, ten minutes ago.” Boy did we hustle then. And we stood… and stood. Surrounded by around 5 un-appreciated yellow-browed warblers. One person, with consent of the group, tried the tape… a warbler shape flew over… that was it. Sod it. We weren’t going to end the weekend on a dip, we hopped in the car and headed for Titchwell. Out of the car, boom, yellow-browed, hide, pectoral sandpiper, snap snap snap, home-bound, cheeky little stint on the way out.

Pec Tick

Slightly more awake on this drive, we made plans for using my new base - the “bird-barn” - for future birding trips, caught up on 6 months of gossip, and plotted our 300 before 30 and 400 before 40 dreams. If they’re all weekends like this, we’re unstoppable.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Here Endeth the Hiatus

For the past few months I've barely been out. Its been papers and work, work and papers. Weekends have generally been spent going to and from Nottingham - with hardly a bird in sight - and I haven't been checking the alerts or meeting up with any birders. If it weren't for the great mix of breeding waterfowl on the lakes at the University I think I'd have gone doolally. 

Life after the PhD seems to be a stress of temporary contracts, CV building, and job applications. Thankfully for my sanity, I did manage to get one exciting thing done in the past four months. A two week research cruise on the Prince Madog. Below are some of the extracts from my ship board diary. Enjoy.

09/04/2016 Inauspicious beginnings
As I left the train at Milford Haven I could see an Italian man asking directions from the other passengers, a fishing rod strapped to the side of his pack. We group up, and begin to wander in the direction of the harbour, making our introductions as we go. His name is Federico; a mathematician, who had been advised to volunteer for the cruise by a friend.

Further up the station platform our conversation took the attention of another girl, who promptly announced that she would be joining us as well. Her name was Niki, a little shorter than me, with auburn hair cut into a neat bob. She, like Federico, was fabulously friendly.

Together we crossed the bridge toward the waiting Prince Madog, sitting quiet at her berth in the calm water of the harbour. As we approached, others were disembarking, packing a car with samples and people to return to Bangor. We had barely a moment for a wave and a greeting before they were whisked away and we were welcomed on board. Quick behinds us were Sarah and Lucy who were also joining the ship, and Leigh, James, and Marin, already aboard from the previous fortnight’s surveying. We are shown to our cabins, and I swiftly unpack, happy to rid myself of rucksack and camera bag.

Then the unwelcome news is delivered. We would not be sailing that evening. Outside our calm harbour the wind was rising, creating un-workable swells. Last fortnight they had lost a member of the research staff, taken back to shore in a state of extreme sea sickness. I did not want to repeat her uncomfortable experience.

One by one, we gathered in the dry lab; bringing the collection of laptops, hard drives, headphones, coffees and snacks that follows the researcher abroad. Together we worked for the next six hours, each on their own projects, or on papers in varied stages of completion. Enjoying the welcome catch up time provided by our floating “hot-desks”, I forced myself to catch up on the required reading for an upcoming review, before pulling together the methods and results from a thesis chapter (the last to be prepared for publication).

Eventually the day wore away and, simultaneously disheartened by the delayed departure and full of the joys of being in a new place with new people, we wound our way to the pub. Here James and I chatted about the cetacean surveys planned for the next fortnight, mulling over some of the potential sightings. I make a passable show of playing pool, before one pint too many takes the edge off my aim. From there it is a short amble back to the boat and our berths.

RV Prince Madog at Milford Haven

I slept well in my narrow bunk, waking at seven to the noises of the crew beginning their day. At 7:30 I rose myself, dressed and went in search of tea in the galley. Here I heard the first mention from Jerry and Rob that we might not be sailing that evening either. The wind had swung to the south east, leaving us with nowhere to anchor comfortably overnight. Even in the harbour the water had gained some chop. The Madog, which had sat as still as a rock at its moorings, now gave the occasional sway, as if trying to prepare us mentally for the next fortnight.
Home Sweet Home

I take a stroll around to the marina, bitten by the brisk wind. I have taken my camera to get some external shots of the boat, but the wind buffets me and my footage is wobbly. Soon my hands are bitten by the cold and I give in, flipping the DSLR back to the camera setting. Some of the boats in the harbour are very charming. I am particularly taken by Three Sheets to the Wind, a trimaran painted in British racing green. She is in need of a little love, her decks stained green with the grown of algae; the paint on her matching tender beginning to peel. I take a snap of her name and her triplet bows to remember her by and amble back toward the Prince Madog.

After a truly mammoth brunch of sausage, egg, bacon, black pudding, mushrooms, beans and chips, we had our safety tour. I had remembered just enough from my sea survival not to look a complete moron (even though my memory of fire extinguisher labels was lacking a little). With nothing to do until dinner that evening, we again fell to our laptops and work to cure our boredom. If we continued in this way for much longer I would at least have something new to submit on my return to York.
The alarm went off at 6 30 and I forced myself to get up. Tomorrow I would be on deck working from six, and I intended to ease myself in to it. I slunk upstairs to get myself the first coffee of the day and watch the weather forecast. The forecast was promising, a mix of local lows and swirling air currents making for calm conditions. It even looked sunny. Spirits were high all round and I enjoyed a fantastic fry-up curtesy of Colin, the chef on board.

Ten past eight rolled around and we left on the high tide, steaming our way south west past the numerous bumper boats. There was little in the way of bird life around as we began our journey. The only highlight being a great northern diver as we passed Dale, then we were truly out into the Celtic sea. I decided to join James for a couple of hours on cetacean watch, the others coming and going as they got used to their sea sickness. The marine mammals were not forthcoming, but the birdlife was good. At one point James called what he initially thought was a blackbird overhead, but as it turned we saw a flash of cream on its breast; it was a male ring ouzel, migrating back to the UK after a winter on the continent!

After a quick lunch for those that could eat (lamb broth), we got started. Water samples, grabs, dredges, and trawls. Catch sorting and weighing. Separating plaice and spider crabs for gut content analysis – dissecting said plaice and spider crabs and preserving them in formalin. We finished at nine thirty in the evening.

Federico and James jigged and fished from the back of the boat, Federico landing three dogfish. And suddenly, dolphins; chasing fish in the light off the stern. I dashed inside for my camera and managed a few quick shots of the figures ghosting in and out of the pool of light surrounding the boat. And beyond them, the eerie figures of loafing fulmars on the waters surface.

12/04/2016 What Lies Beneath
After a night’s steaming to the new sight, six am rolled around far too quickly. Still, I forced myself to get up and went in search of a cuppa. During the night the birds had surrounded us, and formed a ring of gannets, greater black backs, fulmars and kittiewakes. They loafed on the water’s surface as we took our first samples, eyeing the boat for any sign of a free meal. This morning I was filtering water samples, but I could tell things were wrong outside… there were no pots full of processed animals appearing. In fact, their first sample was being boxed up as Sarah and I had finished three niskin bottles worth of water. We were on decidedly cobbly ground and the large stones were fouling the grab.

As we waiting, a new bird arrived, exhaustedly fluttering to the crane above us. Today’s stow away was a chiffchaff, who explored the decks (and even the galley) in search of food. I eyed it from my station, itching to grab my camera; but we were trawling now, and we needed all hands.

We hit a snag on our second tow. Whilst bringing the net aboard the quick release slid loose, just a moment before the cod end swung safely over the stern, and the catch disappeared into the turquoise waters. Another half an hour lost after the palaver of the rock fouled grabs earlier in the day. 
Thankfully tempers were kept, and we swung the boats and prepared to run back along our course. Those of us not watching the net took the opportunity to rest up. Sarah, Nicky and I stretching our muscles with a few reps of squats, press ups and planks. Then we clock watched, counting the minutes until we could land this catch and steam to the next spot.

After an age the winches fired into life and the net rose to the surface. Phil and George span the second winch to draw in the cod end, but there was no bulge there to suggest the time it had been down. We’d damaged the net. Somewhere along the 30 minute run it had either snagged or we’d taken in a large boulder, and it had ripped the gut out of her. Anything in or subsequently entering the net had gleefully skipped out through the hole that remained. Grimly, the net was dragged aboard and Phil and George set about repairing it as we steamed for the next site. The sun shone regardless and the white paint of the Madog glowed so bright that she hurt the eyes.

Federico and goldfinch at the bow

The chiffchaff reappeared as we steamed to the next site, and even deigned to sit on Phil’s out stretched arm for an offered biscuit (which it declined). It bought a better mood with it. The second site passed quickly and we were soon dealing with our last dredges and grabs. Huge, sandy things with few animals in them. As we finished up a bonxie passed us to starboard. Glad to be done I headed gratefully in search of showers and another of Colin’s dinners

Sorting and Weighing the Catch

That evening we worked together in the dry lab. Only noticing that we had arrived off the coast of North Devon when our phones chirped into life. I worked on the methods for a paper while the others talks and worked around me. Then, as the sun dropped away, we found ourselves at the stern, peering out toward the sunset in hope of the elusive “green flash”. The lightshow never arrived, but we did see a beautiful calm sunset, framed by the merest whisp of cloud.

The second early morning was not sitting well with me, and I blearily drank my tea as the others appeared. However, by the time our 6:30 shift started I was happily pulling on my oilskins and boots. Sarah and I worked the niskin and filters again and we had the three samples squared away in no time. I gave the area a swift clean down and set up the labels for the next site before heading out to assist on deck. When we broke for breakfast at seven thirty I was done with fry-ups, opting instead for Shreddies and a banana, hastily drinking another coffee before we were due back on deck.During the final grab samples I noticed that an arctic tern had joined the parade of seabirds following the ship. After the trawls Federico, Nicky and I threw the dead catch to the waiting gannets, watching them plunge into the water after the easy meals.

In the afternoon the trawl brought more plaice for my samples, and very little else. We sorted the grabs and dredges quickly and had interesting (though meagre) catches in the trawls. Wrapping up at four I grabbed a cup of tea before meeting James on the foredeck for a shift as cetacean survey scribe. After half an hour of noting down sea bird abundance James noticed a pair of common dolphin approaching from port. Then nothing for another five minutes, then six dolphin came straight as us from the port side, moving to take station on the bow. They were swiftly joined by the earlier pair and skirted periously close to the ship. Abandoning James for a few minutes with my camera I snapped happily down into the water, watching as they rolled in the water to peer back up at me. I returned to take my place as scribe and after 6 more minutes was relieved by Niki, but the dolphins had gone.Below decks Colin had cooked steak and mushroom pie and I was happy to get some hot food inside me. After wolfing both it and a helping of rhubarb crumble down, Lucy and I headed back to the wet lab to dissect the day’s plaice catch. Parcelling and preserving the stomachs of 14 fish for analysis. Job done, I headed down to my bunk at eight.

We awoke to find that the winch had gone down overnight, and we wouldn’t be trawling without it. We took the time to carry our addition cetacean surveys while the engineers worked away. As we steamed between sites I took the time to dissect my catch, bagging the stomachs for preservation in formalin. I could see smaller fish in the gut contents of my plaice and excitement abounded. If there are microplastics in the guts of these smaller fish I could be looking at trophic transfer; I could find out something new.

In the morning we quickly finished of a site, knowing that w had an important stop to make later in the day. We were changing crews, and had to be in the harbour before the tide made entry impossible. I would be sad to see them go. 

We arrived back at Milford Haven at 1500, in glorious sunshine, and we rushed off for a taste of life land-side. I felt decidedly land-sick in Tesco, in a way that I hadn’t been on the boat. The lack of motion was bizarre, but I was determined to stock up on fruit for the remainder of the trip. Then, laden down with smoothies, grapes, plums and raspberries, I went in search of a fortifying pint and a game of pool in the Heart of Oak.

I forced myself to rise at 0630, knowing that my reward would be a full day in Milford Haven. After grabbing breakfast with Niki, Lucy and Rob, I signed myself ashore and headed off for a walk along the coast, a full two hours to myself. The others were heading to Skomer Island, but I saw the opportunity to get ahead on some of Andreas’s statistics (I am a firm believer that a holiday is only good if you can extend its affects after you get back to work. Either that or I have not fully rid myself of PhD writer’s guilt).

The walk was a welcome change, if a little urban in places. There were linnets, blackcaps, swallows, and my first house martins of the year. I skirted the harbour eastward, following an old railway line which on which was now the coastal path, then in at a little harbour. Here the path swung in to meet the road and I decided to double back on myself, unready for cars and civilisation.

I checked my emails for any emails regarding my interview the previous week… nothing; but I did have another offer of an interview elsewhere. The day I travelled back from Bangor. I swiftly called to communicate the issue, settling on a 5pm interview slot. It would be tight, but I was keen to impress my eagerness.

That evening the rest of the team went ashore to the Heart of Oak. I saw my chance for more time alone and retreated to my bunk with a book. 
19/04/2016Today marked a break in our routine. At 0500 we moved round to Dale to pick up the techs from Bangor who were to be calibrating the sonar. I sat and watched the sun rise with a coffee, snapping the occasional shot of a flock of brent geese, inching there way round into the bay at dale. Without much else to do, I worked, ticking off more work for Andreas and ringing Moors for the Future to confirm some details for the surveys.

By one the calibration was done, and once again we headed out from Milford, hoping to get the last grabs and anchor dredges we hadn’t managed two days earlier. In the flat calm we arrived on site with time to spare and quickly deployed the dredge. As we swapped the gear dolphins appeared to starboard, bow riding with us for 10 minutes. Then the 2 meter beam trawl came in, and with it some of the biggest brittle star catches we’d had all trip. There must have been a few thousand individuals in each trawl, but these were our last samples, and we sorted them with good grace. By five thirty we had washed down the wet lab, and I headed up for a few hours on a cetacean transect with James.
Steaming out to Lundy to begin our line west we were struck by the full force of the steadily lowering sun, its glare catching the sea between 0 and 20 degrees. Spotting anything ahead was a nightmare. The two hours past with little more exciting than a flock of twenty golden plover flew through, obviously on their migration north to breed.

That evening we watched All Is Lost, an almost dialogue-less movie in which Robert Redford plays “our man”. Solo sailing his vessel strikes a container, damaging his radio and positioning equipment. We followed the tail of mishap and bad luck to then end, which received a mixed reception from the science team. Throughout the film, Rob interjected with interesting facts about survival at sea, putting us all in a thoroughly positive mood before bed.
 20/04/2016James and I sat on watch from 0730 until 0830. There were plenty of puffins moving through and a steady trickle of migrating swallows. The light was better than the previous evening and, with ten minutes to spare, we spotted the first common dolphin of the day. As we wrapped up I went to the bow to get a couple of shots of birds as they flew past, then we swung to head back to land, coming head to wind. The ship hit the first oncoming wave with a bang. It was going to be a lumpy run.
Knowing there wasn’t much to be done in this swell, I slunk back to my cabin to sleep.
For me, the trip ended with a steam up the coast of Wales, and a slightly damp rib to shore in Holyhead. Federico, Sarah and I got the train together to Bangor, and I was grateful that the swaying carriage put off a great deal of my land sickness. It was a long run home, followed by a skype interview which bought me back down to earth with a bump. 

Since returning to land I have continued to rise early, getting to work for half seven; and have bumped into Colin and Phil in a bar in Beaumaris. But everything has seemed a little drab. Thankfully I still have some video footage to edit together, and a lot of pictures to wade through. 

Best of all, I have a host of new friends up and down the UK; and with lots of catch ups planned, I'm sure I won't be bored for long.

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