Category Archives: Volunteering

An Outbreak of Starfish – Wildlife Watch Explores Readymoney Cove

Before I’ve found the time to upload all of last year’s records, the rock pooling event season is upon me again. Junior comes along to help at my first Wildlife Watch event of the year for Cornwall Wildlife Trust at Readymoney Cove, undeterred by the bone-chilling wind.

A crowd of hardy young rock poolers, kitted out from head to toe in weatherproof gear, is gathered at the top of the beach and I am joined by Liz, a lovely volunteer assistant. Half the group have their hands up before I’ve even asked a question and these keen kids are practically bursting with stories and facts about crabs, blennies, pipefish and killer jellyfish. They also have high expectations of what we might find – seahorses and cuttlefish are among the requests – but most of all they want to see starfish.

Starfish of some sort are almost guaranteed on all our local beaches, especially cushion stars, which like to hide under rocks and overhangs. If we are lucky we might also find brittle stars, that walk on their five feathery arms, or even a gargantuan spiny starfish, so I am hopeful that we will be successful on our mission.

As the group spreads across the shore, the finds soon rush in. We turn shiny top shells in our fingers, hold chunky-clawed Xantho hydrophilus crabs, and to the immense joy of one young seahorse enthusiast, we find the next best thing to a seahorse: a male worm pipefish with eggs on his belly.

Xantho hydrophilus - the 'furrowed crab'.
Xantho hydrophilus – the ‘furrowed crab’.
Male worm pipefish with eggs
Male worm pipefish with eggs

Pipefish are close relatives of the seahorse and the male takes care of the female’s eggs, storing them in a special groove on his belly until they hatch. Coincidentally this pipefish has taken up residence next to an old pipe.

It only takes a minute for the children to discover a common starfish. I often find one or two on this beach, even though they’re not so common intertidally as offshore. The deep-water harbour alongside this beach is probably packed with them and sometimes young common starfish make their way into these sheltered pools. Today, however, there is something unusual going on.

One of the common starfish found - photo courtesy of Liz Barker
One of the common starfish found – photo courtesy of Liz Barker

Under the first stone I turn, I see two baby common starfish. As I look I notice a third, a fourth and then a fifth. On the side of the rock, there is yet another starfish. The adjacent rock has four more.

Common starfish at Readymoney Cove near Fowey
Common starfish at Readymoney Cove near Fowey

Everywhere on the beach, children are shrieking with excitement as they find more starfish. There are scores of them among the rocks I look at.

We could easily collect the starfish by the bucket-load, but these children know not to disturb the animals. We keep just a few for our trays so that we can watch them and all those who want to can have a go at holding a starfish before they are returned to their rocky homes.

While the children are caught up in the magic of starfish, I take a moment to explore the rocks at the sea’s edge and discover this wonderful yellow clubbed sea slug, Limacia clavigera.

Limacia clavigera - the yellow-clubbed sea slug
Limacia clavigera – the yellow-clubbed sea slug

There is never enough time to take many photos at these events as I am too caught up in the excitement of identifying finds and helping the children learn more about them. We also have plenty of discussions about the animals’ impressive defences and quirky eating habits.

The children do a perfect job of looking after the animals, returning them all safe and unharmed to their homes before the incoming tide floods back into the pools. Despite the chilly conditions, the kids are buzzing with happiness at finding so many starfish. A friend tells me her kids talked of nothing else all the way home.

Even Junior, who has seen most things before, is delighted with today’s finds and even more delighted when he secures the very last cheese and onion pasty from the beach shop for his lunch.

If you’d like to get involved with Wildlife Watch, book on to my rockpooling sessions or join any other Wildlife Watch events, check out the listings on the Cornwall Wildlife Trust pages.

Did you know that starfish can regrow their limbs? Find out more about the secrets of these iconic rock pool animals in my book Rock Pool: Extraordinary Encounters Between the Tides out on 2nd May with September Publishing and available through local and national bookshops and online.

Spring arrives early in the rock pools

There’s no better way to explore the shore than with a group of experienced rock poolers. During this month’s big spring tides, I was privileged to join a small, dedicated team to survey Hannafore Beach in Looe. Best of all, David Fenwick who runs the brilliant Aphotomarine website brought along his newly-converted marine laboratory camper van for a test run.

A few weeks on and I’m still downing hot chocolate to recover from the cold (any excuse!), but this was a priceless opportunity to expand my knowledge and encounter new species. Over the week we recorded over 230 species, some of which I never knew existed and I finally found my first Snake pipefish.

Glamorous beach wear for the new season - me wearing every piece of clothing I own under my waders! Photo by Cornish Rock Pools Junior.
Glamorous beach wear for the new season – I’m wearing every piece of clothing I own under my waders! Photo by Cornish Rock Pools Junior.

Day one got off to an inauspicious start. David’s marine lab van broke down on its way to the beach, meaning he missed the best of the tide that day. Those of us who did make it had to leap back into our cars to take refuge from the hail before we’d even got our boots on.  Despite the wind chill, we were soon in full swing. Incredibly, the pools were full of signs of spring.

Scorpion fish lay their clusters of yellow glitter-ball shaped eggs earlier than most other species. In some, the baby fish were already taking shape and hundreds of eyes gazed into my camera lens.

Scorpion fish eggs with eyes looking out.
Scorpion fish eggs with eyes looking out.
A Scorpion fish (Taurus bubalis) - perhaps one of the proud parents - relying on camouflage not to be seen.
A Scorpion fish (Taurus bubalis) – perhaps one of the proud parents – relying on camouflage not to be seen.

Along the grooved bellies of some of the worm pipefish, there were also lines of eggs. Like seahorses, it is the male pipefish that carries the eggs until they hatch.

It’s hard to think of slugs as migratory animals, but several sea slug species have made their annual journey onto the shore to breed. We saw lots of the rarely-recorded slug Aeolidella alderi. My friend Jan from Coastwise North Devon found one that had been chomping on a dark anemone. The colour had passed into the cerrata on its back so that instead of the normal bright white, this one looked almost red.

Aeolidella alderi sea slug - with pigment in its cerrata, probably from eating an anemone.
Aeolidella alderi sea slug – with pigment in its cerrata, probably from eating an anemone.

Another had distinct yellow tips to its antenna and cerrata. This species always has a ring of short white cerrata below the head, making them look like they’re wearing a white ruff.

Another Aeolidella alderi - this time with yellow tips to its cerrata and antennae.
Another Aeolidella alderi – this time with yellow tips to its cerrata and antennae.
An unusual yellow Daisy anemone - perhaps what the sea slug had been eating.
An unusual yellow Daisy anemone – perhaps what the sea slug had been eating.

Nearby, a relative of Aeolidella alderi, the more common ‘Great grey sea slug’ (Aeolidia sp. probably filomenae) is feasting on an anemone. This hungry slug isn’t holding back and has dived headfirst into its feast.

Headfirst into its lunch - a Great grey sea slug (Aeolidia sp.) eating a snakelocks anemone.
Headfirst into its lunch – a Great grey sea slug (Aeolidia sp.) eating a snakelocks anemone.

Yellow-clubbed sea slugs (Limacia clavigera) were also out looking for mates. They’re not easy to spot when the tide’s out, as they look like minute splodges of white jelly on the rocks. Once in the water, they are transformed, with spiral rhinophores sprouting from their heads and robust yellow-tipped cerrata sticking out from their heads and bodies.

Limacia clavigera - the yellow-clubbed sea slug exploring my petri dish.
Limacia clavigera – the yellow-clubbed sea slug exploring my petri dish.

When, towards the end of day 2, I glimpsed a shape gliding through the seaweed my heart leapt. I’ve been looking out for this fish for years to no avail, but this one was hovering above my foot. Snake pipefish, like other pipefish, freezes and relies on its fabulous camouflage to escape predators.

Snake pipefish showing off its distinctive trumpet nose and pale striped pattern.
Snake pipefish showing off its distinctive trumpet nose and pale striped pattern.

I was able to reach into the water and lift it out for a quick photo. It wasn’t slippery to hold, but it wound its body around my arm so I had to overcome the powerful urge to squeal and drop it.

Snake pipefish can grow to 60cm and have pale vertical lines down their bodies so are easily recognised. They like to live among sea grass beds so are not commonly seen on the shore.

Snake pipefish (Entelurus aequoreus) on a brief visit to my bucket before release.
Snake pipefish (Entelurus aequoreus) on a brief visit to my bucket before release.

Inevitably, other fish were more evasive. David saw a Conger eel among the kelp, but it slipped away.

Among many amazing and less-common species, David Fenwick showed me this rare prawn, Caridion steveni, which appeared to have an especially short, blunt ‘nose’ (rostrum) compared to some other species. Its bright red pigmentation helps it blend in to the seaweeds.

Caridion steveni - A rare prawn species (Hippolytidae family)
Caridion steveni – A rare prawn species (Hippolytidae family)

Among the weeds on the rocks, tiny spider crabs were everywhere, only visible when they moved their spindly legs. Even when I take close-up photos it can be hard to make out the shape of the crabs.

A small spider crab - Macropodia deflexa (identified by its downcurving rostrum)
A small spider crab – Macropodia deflexa (identified by its downcurving rostrum)

Junior spotted a crab with an even more amazing disguise. We were looking under a boulder when he gasped and pointed at a seaweed-covered stone.

What I thought was a seaweed-covered stone.
What I thought was a seaweed-covered stone.

‘It’s a crab, I saw it move,’ he whispered, as though it might hear him and realise the game was up.

Whichever way I looked at the stone that Junior was waving his finger at, it still looked inanimate. It was only when I picked it up that I felt the sharp spines of the Common spider crab (Maja bracchydactyla) lurking below the seaweed camouflage. We turned it over to see the crab’s legs neatly tucked under its carapace. Junior delighted in placing the ‘stone’ back in the water to watch it sprout legs and scuttle away into the safety of the seaweed.

Even up close it was hard to tell this is a crab - but I could feel the sharp spines on its shell and the legs began to move.
Even up close it was hard to tell this is a crab – but I could feel the sharp spines on its shell and the legs began to move.

On day one I reached, or frankly surpassed, my cold tolerance limit. By the end of the week I  was only able to function by keeping my hands thrust deep inside my scarf to warm them against my neck. I must have ressembled a trussed chicken, but there was no point caring. As always, the rewards outstripped the pain.

Next weekend we’re expecting some huge spring tides in Cornwall, and yet more freezing winds, so you know where I’ll be.

I’m excited to be leading a couple of fabulous training events on Friday 2 March in Falmouth and Sunday 4 March in Looe. Maybe I’ll see you there? Wrap up warm!

Ophiocomia nigra brittle star
Ophiocomia nigra brittle star
Humpback scallop
Humpback scallop
Jewel anemones
Jewel anemones

Giants of the Cornish rock pools

Last week I shared with you the miniature world of the sea slugs, so this week I’ll super-size things and bring you some big fish. Silly-season reports of Great-white sharks often hit the headlines in Cornwall, but I prefer rock-pool giants; they’re not made up, and you can get close to them without having your leg bitten off!

Cornwall is brilliant in all sorts of ways, our network of local, grassroots marine conservation groups being just one of them. The public launch, last week, of the new Three Bays Wildlife Group brought experts and volunteers together and gave me a chance to explore some new beaches in the St Austell area.

Judging by the squeals of excitement from the children and adults alike, the crabs, pipefish, prawns and anemones we found at the main rockpool ramble on Portmellon beach near Mevagissey went down well. By the end of the day, the local group had recruited lots of potential new volunteers.

Green shore urchin at Portmellon beach - adorned in seaweed
Green shore urchin adorned in seaweed. Portmellon beach.

Continue reading Giants of the Cornish rock pools

My First Fox Club Expedition To Porth Mear

It’s the middle of the night and I’m convinced there’s something wrong with my eyes. I’ve unplugged my phone, tried blinking several times but I’m still seeing flickering lights and flashes. Finally I twig what’s going on and open the curtains to reveal incessant sheet lightning.

My first thought is that it had better stop by the morning, else no-one will turn up to my first rock pooling event at Porth Mear with Fox Club, the junior branch of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. As a child, I was a keen member myself so I’ve been looking forward to this for months.

By the morning the lightning storm has given way to wind and rain, but conditions are less than inspiring. It’s amazing anyone shows up for rock pooling, but a few hardy well-wrapped-up folk do, as does a lovely volunteer assistant. Continue reading My First Fox Club Expedition To Porth Mear

Cross-Border Rockpooling with the Porcupine Marine Natural History Society

It sometimes feels like I don’t get out much – either socially or out of the county (Not that it’s a hardship to be in Cornwall!). So, I could barely contain my excitement at having the opportunity to attend the Porcupine Marine Natural History Society Conference in Plymouth. I packed my passport and set forth across the Tamar.

Not only did I mingle with the most amazing bunch of fellow marine wildlife obsessives and hear their latest findings, but the third day of the conference was spent rockpooling at Wembury in South Devon.

 

A prickle of Porcupines at work
A prickle of Porcupines at work at Wembury, Devon

While the environment at Wembury is similar to my home patch in South East Cornwall, a major difference is that Wembury has a marine centre, staffed by lovely people from the Devon Wildlife Trust. The centre promotes marine conservation and runs all sorts of public and educational events. It also provided a handy indoor base to set up some microscopes and a refreshment station. Luxury after my recent all-weather forays! Continue reading Cross-Border Rockpooling with the Porcupine Marine Natural History Society

Sharing the Love of Rockpooling

This week I’m planning rockpooling events for next year and adding identification pages to my website….

Yesterday it was so foggy you couldn’t see the sea in front of your wellies. Before that it was raining; before that it was blowing a gale and on the one day the sun came out I was nowhere near the beach. It’s not bad for eggcase hunts – which Cornish Rock Pools junior loves – but that’s about it.

This time of year, when the short days and inclement weather make even die-hard rockpoolers like me reach for the duvet, I turn to flicking through the 2017 tide table and dreaming of sunny days and gleaming expanses of shore.

Is it too early for New Year’s resolutions? Mine is to spend (even) more time sharing my love of rockpooling with others. I’ve put all the Looe Marine Conservation Group rockpooling events in my diary and I’m also hoping to volunteer with the utterly fabulous Fox Club (the junior branch of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust), helping to run events around the county. Then there will be other events for the local scouts and home educating groups to fit in, and who knows what else. Continue reading Sharing the Love of Rockpooling

Help our rockpool wildlife – Recording your finds is easier than ever

It’s always exciting when you find something new, something different, but did you know how easy it is to record your finds? Sending in your sightings can help conserve our fantastic wildlife.

"Rob's rock" -Compiling a species list on a Cornwall Wildlife Trust Shoresearch survey
“Rob’s rock” – Compiling a species list on a Cornwall Wildlife Trust Shoresearch survey

After the recent huge spring tides, I had a long list of species spotted at various beaches, and I was dreading writing everything up.

It was time to try out the new Online Recording for Kernow and Isles of Scilly (ORKS) website.

The Environmental Records Centre for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (ERCCIS) at the Cornwall Wildlife Trust now offers three ways to send in your seashore records. Continue reading Help our rockpool wildlife – Recording your finds is easier than ever