Beat the Tide

I run along the darkened shoreline, chasing the margin of the coast as it meanders around the restless sea. On one side the bright lights of passing cars illuminate the pavement in front of me. The alternating light and shade of their headlight beams and of the pools of light falling from the street lighting creates an ever changing palette of shadows.

As I breathe in and out, rapid and regular breaths so the sea breathes with me, in and out across the sandy expanse of the beach. The sea is breathing slower, more deeply than me. The force of it’s exhalations brings the saltwater up against the rocky cliff edge ahead in a great ‘fwoosh’ of effort. Reaching the cliff face the water hits it’s ‘runner’s wall’, breaking apart and casting drops of water high into the night air. They twinkle as they catch the lights from the town, briefly illuminated in the cheery promenade glow before falling back down into shadowed obscurity. I can hear the higher pitch ‘tschhh’ as the wave steps back to get a better run up.

The path ahead of me is damp with sea spray and I know that I will probably get a shower. It doesn’t matter too much. The drivers snuggled in their cars with their heating vents and insulation from the elements might well see me and pity me. But it is to steal the thought of another runner to say that they have this the wrong way around. It is them who should be pitied. They can’t hear the wind making landfall from the sea, licking at the strings of lights overhead and whistling through rigging of the idle pleasure boats in the harbour. They can’t hear the flocks of sea birds simultaneously celebrating and berating the energy of the sea. They can’t feel the ice cold gusts needle at exposed skin and feel the satisfaction of warmth returning when it relinquishes. They can’t smell the salt in the air, on their skin, in their clothes.

I am running along the last little stretch of promenade as the white horse runs out of beach and clears the jump over the low wall. Wiping the saline drips from my face before the biting wind can exploit this cooling addition to my skin I round the corner and start to climb up and away from the sea, back towards home. As I climb I can hear my breathing become louder. The sea, below me now, breathes as it did before, no harder but no softer than when I passed it ten minutes earlier. Turning to watch from my vantage point the waves look smaller from this perspective. The wall looks smaller too, but no less of a barrier against the vast rolling blackness of the sea. It is a dividing line. The landward side illuminated as I had been by the lights of the town, the seaward site invisible in the inky darkness of night. I think the sea will need to put in a few more training hours to punch through this wall.

Em

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Cold Cold Cotswolds

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Cold Cotswold morning Photo credit: Em

Work has taken me to the Cotswolds this week. A pretty part of the country at any time of year, but the snow flurries falling through weak winter sunshine gives me the feeling I am driving through a glitter filled snow globe. The softly rolling hills are pastel pale in the morning light, muted hues bleached by chilling cold. The snow has been trying to fall for a little while and the dry stone walls and rough ploughed fields are collecting a light dusting in the cooler, sheltered nooks and crannies. Up above red kites circle, searching for the cooling bodies of the victims of this cold snap – the sleeping creatures lulled into wakening by the warmer weather of last week now exposed and unprepared, their resources low, easy pickings. I think I counted five within the hour. Small bursts of feathers erupt from the hedgerows, scooting along the linear habitat is search of food, or shelter, or perhaps just respite from this unforgiving weather.

Em

 

 

In Praise of a Dunnock

Common names are funny things.  Why is it that the Dunnock gets a consonant-heavy label where others get poetry or onomatopoeia? It has some fab colours going on, and a lively trilling song. Does it deserve a little better? After all, it has had alternatives: Hedge sparrow, hedge warbler or hedge accentor. If we are being pragmatic we should perhaps rule out hedge sparrow – it isn’t a sparrow. And while this wouldn’t be the only case of mistaken identity persisting in a name (I’m looking at you, flying fox (Pteropus)), I am all in favour of simplicity. I’ll concede, there is already a clan of warblers, but not all of them have taken the family name – Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Goldcrest have all eschewed their grouping. And anyway they aren’t even particularly closely related.

While small, the accentor group, to which the Dunnock does belong, all still hold this affiliation in their common name – all that is, except for the rebellious little Dunnock. As the only accentor found in the UK I’m faintly surprised they haven’t claimed and entirely dominated this name by now, like Adele, Oprah and Bono. Perhaps the Dunnock hoped for greater fame and recognition away from this group name? Since almost all references to it labour the point of distinguishing it from the house sparrow this seems to have failed as a strategy. You can’t even shorten it – ‘Dunny’ and ‘Dunno’ both have their problems.

Prunella modularis – the Latin name sounds like a viable common name too if I’m honest, if a little dated. Most Latin names are like vehicle registration numbers, postcodes and national insurance numbers in they feel a bit functional. With the exception of parking meters or tax forms we would rarely use these labels to identify ourselves – after all, they too were just bestowed on us by someone else for practical, administrative reasons. Perhaps I would feel a little differently if I understood the meanings and reasons in the scientific names. As it is I mainly just enjoy the double barreled duplication of Lutra lutra, Meles meles, troglodytes troglodytes and the like.

A change in the fate of a common name can come at a cost though. When surveying a local bird population I was advised by a friendly local that his favorite, the ‘dabchick’, was often found here. Diligently recording the sighted species I waited patiently for this newcomer to appear. After nearly an hour I was beginning to doubt my eyesight (or that of the old man). There was nothing else here, I had it all noted: swans, mallards, oystercatchers, herring gulls, black headed gulls, kingfishers, little grebe, sandpiper and curlew. Perhaps I had misheard him after all. Weeks later, idly leafing through an age-speckled Readers Digest guide to common birds the book fell open. There on the page, clearly labelled ‘Dabchick’, in aged technicolour was the bird known to me as the little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis). Both names are fine, but dabchick now holds special meaning for me.

So maybe Dunnock isn’t so bad. It’s quite unique in a way and it’s probably less hassle not to go the full deed-poll route – there are a lot of bird books around now, it would be a shame to reprint just for this. Maybe it is just because it’s a quiet, unobtrusive LBJ (little brown job) and that it’s OK to have a name that matches.

Em

A good book for these kind of things is: Collins Bird Guide (HarperCollins Publishers, London). I did mention an old Reader’s Digest one too but unless you want historical common names it’s better to get something that’s still in print.

Spoonbill

October on the Dart. Photo credit: Em

There is a little walk along the bank of the Dart that is an absolutely brilliant place for birdwatching and generally getting away from it all. It uses the intertidal segment of the foreshore so you have to time your walk around the tides – but this exclusivity adds to its allure. Slippery with large cartilaginous seaweeds this is not a gentle stroll. That day thick mats of wrack littered the path, mostly still attached to the substrate below by their holdfasts. Holding fast. Overhead the October sky was muted silvers and greys, the bank of cloud so solid and uniform it seemed hard to imagine deep blue of the summer sky was still up there. A slight mist tickled the tops of the trees. As I sat hunched on an almost dry rock, a gentle breeze meandered down the valley causing ripples on the river surface below.

There were quite a few birds out on the edge of the water, the receding tide revealing the mud flats below where squirrelling wriggling things hid from the watchful gulls and waders. We normally get Black-headed and Herring Gulls, though Black-backed Gulls are not that uncommon either. Forming unruly, messy groups they rarely settle for as long as other waders and waterfowl. Opportunistic, they seem never to commit to the effort of a more thorough scavenge. Watching a dense pack squabbling I realise they are mobbing a heron for its catch. The heron is vastly outnumbered but the gulls don’t realise that, they are not working together to steal the food.

I had meant to watch this drama unfold, like a television viewer in front of a TV soap transfixed but distant from the action, but something else caught my eye. Actually, three somethings. Offset from the group of gulls three white bodied waders were patrolling the edge of the tidal flats, heads down and intent on finding food. At first glance they looked like little egrets (Egretta garzetta), but considerably bigger than little egrets. Bigger and sweeping their bill in a hypnotic semi-circular manner back and forth, back and forth through the silt. I steadied the binoculars against my knee and folding my body into a makeshift stand I focused my eyes and attention.

The little egrets I have seen around the area have more of a foot shuffle approach. Like when you get up in the night to make your way tentatively to the bathroom knowing there may be clothing, books or other obstacles so you test the way with one foot extended, keeping the other under you for balance. This is slow progress but so too for the egrets. Their tickling, twitching feet disturb little fish and other prize morsels followed by a javelin jab of the beak, the long slender neck pulling the mouthful up out of the water, gulping, and the foot shuffle continues.

I waited and watched. Wiping the condensation from the eye piece of my binoculars, I think I knew what I was looking at, but I wanted them to lift their head, to see the tell-tale paddle ended bill, to know whether this was the flight of an overactive imagination or not. It seemed like an age passed. This must have been rich pickings as the birds were in no hurry for a break. Straining my eyes through the binoculars I could see no yellow patches around the beak, nor tan coloured necktie – but should I expect them to be in breeding plumage? I didn’t know.

Finally, as the bird closest to the rioting gulls swung inland, tracking some unknowable trail, it lifted its bill clear of the surface of the river. This was not an egret. The round ended spoon that gives the bird its name dripped drops of Dart water back into the river. It looked around and, untroubled by the birder on the bank it went back to foraging.  Platalea leucorodia. Definitely. Grinning, I pulled out my phone and inexpertly attempted to video them. Even on the closest zoom I couldn’t record anything other than the distant shapes making their pendulum like progress through the shallows. But I felt I needed to record this occasion, as a keepsake perhaps. I dallied, watching them for as long as I could neglect the buzzing persistence of emails. Eventually the damp of the rock seeped through my jeans and with the tug of responsibility nagging at my sleeve I got up and left them to it.

The Spoonbills hung around for a while on the river, showing up in a nearby segment in the November wetland bird count and back again to my patch in December. By this time there was just the one lonely spoon. Who knows what happened to the others. Looking back through records and the memory of the local birding experts it seems we haven’t had one of these for several years – so I feel especially honoured to have made their acquaintance.

Months later, walking with my binoculars, I attracted the attention of some walkers – had I seen anything that day? I listed off the rather ubiquitous birds I had seen, not wanting to dismiss the more common species from a report – after all, I had seen them. This didn’t appear to entertain my audience though, they wanted novelty, variety, rarity. I could not offer them this today, so with the polite smile of strangers they turned to go. Then, as an afterthought- Had I heard? There was a Spoonbill on the river not that long ago? Yes, I smiled, I had heard.

Em

In Search of Otter

It was probably a bit optimistic to think that just because I had made up my mind to go and see an otter that they would be so good as to bend to my plans. But having woken before sunrise and checked the tide time on the harsh white light of my phone screen it seemed as good a time as any. The sky was still more dark than light as I let myself out of the house. The morning air was unexpectedly mild so I left my thick hat behind on the windowsill, squashed against the glass as if peering into the still dark living room – hopefully I would be back before anyone noticed the unusual choice of hat rack. A hat only muffles your sense of hearing anyway.

For a few hundred meters down the road a furry black shadow trotted with me, a close friend, criss-crossing the road behind me like an over-zealous body guard. Felis catus. His entire frame is alert and fizzing with an energy that is so entirely absent when you see him at home. A blackbird explodes from a neighbours shrub, its alarm call breaking the still morning air. The cat freezes and presses himself down into the road, his eyes so wide and black they blend with the black fur of his face and he becomes a featureless puddle.

The village is quiet, still. A car wound its way through the lane ahead of me it’s headlights spilling up over the walls like flood water, heading towards the village shop. This is not a road to anywhere else, it just loops lazily back onto itself so aside from returning home this driver is probably after a paper, some milk. The shop is open, the pavement in-front of the windows is yellow, warm and welcoming. Looking in through the open door – it’s always open – there is no one in sight, perhaps off in a back room preparing for the day or crouchingly restocking a lower shelf. But that’s not why I am here so I turn away, down towards the water. Along the path, hedgerows sing. A tuneful mixture of blackbird, robin and other garden birds. Ahead, gulls wheel and call into the empty skies. Their calls carry well this morning. On the water the mallards are awake, adding their discordant tune to the morning choir. The whistling trill of a curlew carries across the wide river. Such a short refrain is hard to home in on, hard to pinpoint where it is calling from.

Clambering over the slippery rocks I spy a nice flat rock above the high water mark, an excellent vantage point from which to survey the river. But someone has beaten me to it. A wet, sweet smelling calling card, so fresh that it must have been overnight or this morning. Lutra lutra, the spraint was there clear as day. With clumsy predictability I scan the river, is it still here? Nearby? But there is not a single sign of its maker, it is as if it has simply arrived in some physic-defying feat of spontaneous creation.

I carry on upriver. A soft drizzle starts to fall, I am glad of my coat and think back to the hat I left on the windowsill. That may have been a mistake. Not much further along I find another spraint. This one is dried and no longer advertises its presence so strongly. I lean against the bank, sheltered from the developing rain by the trees that stretch out into the unoccupied space above the river. Canada geese fly overhead in a noisy squadron. Their silhouettes stand out against the sky which is growing brighter each minute as dawn advances. A lone swan labours downriver, its heavy wing beats audible from where I stand.

In the distance a small group of waders pick over the mud. Too distant, even with my binoculars, I cannot see them clearly enough. The group is too numerous to be Curlew, for our stretch of river that is, and besides I have turned a bend in the river from where I first heard the echoing call.

As I turn to leave a heron takes flight from its hiding place no far along from me. Had he been watching me as I watched the river? Waiting to see what this lone figure in a red coat picking its way along the shore line would do next? I have collected two pieces of driftwood along my walk and hike them up under my arm to carry up the hill and home. Smelling damply of the sea the cat will be delighted at my forage.

Table for two

Melting down 100g of lard the smell rising off the pan is not appetising. On a plate nearby there is about 50g of dried fruit, 25g of porridge oats and 25g of seeds. Don’t worry if this doesn’t sound appetising – if you can read this it isn’t meant for you. Instead this will be mixed together and pressed into the husk of a coconut, left to set and then hung outside for tomorrow’s dinner service. We have a ‘normal’ bird feeder, but this, ever-so-slightly-pretentious one is because I want to make that extra effort. In my mind this feeder is not a drive-thru, it is more of a kitsch pop-up restaurant, fleeting. The kind of thing you read about in TimeOut, to be a bit more adventurous and ‘try somewhere different’.

The birds seem to really like the fruit mix that never made it into a Christmas cake this year. The jewel coloured beads poke out of the milky white fat, nestled among the nuts and seeds, it looks good. Last time was a bit too oaty. More of a flapjack.

I have to hide the half coconut from the cat, his insatiable appetite extends as far as a fruity, nutty ball of lard. I snatch it away and place it out of reach, turning back to find him nonchalantly leaning over the empty bowl, his greedy tongue scraping at the bowl. Unapologetic.

It’s still cooling. If I put it out now it will run out and down, congealing on the ground, smothering the plants below with a sheen of grease. But later I will put out this belated Christmas present and invite some friends for dinner.

Em

Turning over an old leaf

Sori? Yep, sori. This isn’t lazy text speak but the technical word for the specialised regions where sporangia are grouped on the leaves of pteridophytes. I had to look that one up too (it means the bit where a fern keeps its spores). Actually, with botanical text books I often need to look up a whole series of words before I really understand what odd shaped word matches the odd shaped bit of plant I am looking at. But I don’t despair – that’s why they put the glossary at the back – all 15 pages of it.

On the underside of the hart’s tongue and shield ferns in front of me there are tiny but ever so precise brown patterns. On the first, the patterns are tribal stripes of war-paint. On the second, the patterns are perfect circles. So neat. How does it do this? How does the fern decide it’s pattern loyalty? (the infuriating little voice in my head has piped up: Evolution duh) but how? and why? What would happen if a renegade decided one day that spots and stripes are so passe. Sooo last season daahling. What if zigzags were the new must-have? Would all the other ferns slavishly throw out their wardrobes and copy the trend? This is the kind of rubbish that the voice in my head would rather not have to contend with.

Back to the botany books for me. The content might be more intellectual and high-brow than where my mind wanders to, but maybe the answer is also in here too. Perhaps the serious minded Victorian botanists, masters of classification, also took the odd break to ponder to the sartorial choices of ferns.

Em

PS I’d like to thank Stace, C. 2001. New Flora of The British Isles (Second edition). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge for the fact based components of this post.

 

Skylark Ascending

Oddly enough, I saw a lot more skylarks when I lived in Croydon than I do now. Leaving my old house and turning under the railway bridge it is a short hill climb up onto Farthing Downs – a SSSI (lowland calcareous grassland) with ‘favorable’ status. This oasis of green feels at least fifty miles further out from central London than it actually is. Managed by the City of London, this patch of green, bordered on three sides by a dense suburban patchwork of houses roads and other artifacts of city life, is the most extensive area of semi-natural downland habitat remaining in Central London.

Lifting the latch on the wooden gate you are met with the polite notice reminding those who enter that cattle graze these lands. This small herd of docile Sussex cattle are a rich milk chocolate brown, mooching around the Downs, tails swatting, harrumphing. One year they sported fashionable anklets of the same reflective material that adorns much of my running kit, an effort to make their great dark bulk more visible to night drivers. I have never had a problem with them. But then it only takes one hyped up dog to put everyone on edge. I am more wary of dogs than I am of these livestock.

The wildflowers that bloom from mid-summer onward add a colourful sprinkle of interest to the grassland and low shrubs that typify this park. At the very top a solitary oak stands unbowed and exposed. From here you can see for miles and miles. On a good day you can see the Shard. A glinting razor in the city – I am more thrilled by the distance from which I observe it than I am by the ability to see it. At the far end a thin strip of semi-natural mixed woodland joins up to the appropriately named Happy Valley. I couldn’t agree more – this rolling run route was definitely a major component of my happiness in the two and a bit years that I ran the rat race.

This landscape always made me think of the title of a book by Dave Goulson – A Buzz in the Meadow. A gift from my parents (is there a better gift than a natural history book?) I have turned this phrase over in my mind so many times running through this field that it seems irreversibly linked. But it is an apt description. In the warm summer evenings the fields would hum with insect energy.

I think I heard the skylarks singing up there for about six months before my untrained eye and novice ear could cooperate to pinpoint the tiny spec way up in the sky. I would spend minutes fighting off the lower altitude insects while gazing into the deep blue of the summer sky till me eyes hurt from the effort, unused as they are to working at distance. I love the skylark song. Who doesn’t? As I put in the hours observing and listening so the returns came back to me – I started to spot where they took off from, watched their wing-trembling ascent into obscurity, even started to map the distinct territories along my route.

Seeing one perched on a fence post I didn’t recognise it at first. Silent and still there was nothing to connect it to the airborne artist I knew. I always carry a bird guide in my pocket. This isn’t as geeky as it sounds – I have invested in the app based version of my favourite guide (Collins if you were interested). Keying it out I questioned myself, still doubting that this mottled, crest bearing sand coloured fellow was my old friend. But he knew me. He belted out his song as if in greeting.

So unmistakeable is the song that even far from home (the furthest I could get – New Zealand) I knew it in a heartbeat. It was an introduced species over there, and while there is much at fault with the range of introductions New Zealand has suffered I think, perhaps, I can sympathise with this one.

A popular feature in artistic and cultural references I can think of no better accolade to the skylark than the music of Vaughan Williams. In a few short blogs I have already mentioned this twice so perhaps to avoid repeating myself I will simply say that there are few birds that can live up to the comparison with such searing, soulful music but the Skylark can.

Here in Devon I have heard its call drift across arable fields once or twice, but not with the reliability that I had before. Dartmoor it is true, boasts a wealth of fine skylark song even in the tourist hotspot of Hay Tor but this is tough terrain for runners and unlikely to become a regular route for me.

To me then, there is a confusing disconnect between my experiences and the description on the British Trust for Ornithology website of the Skylark as ‘A truly agricultural bird’. The London borough of Croydon has a population density of over 4000 people per km2, and is not renowned for its agriculture. My corner of Devon has just 95 people per km2 – agriculture is far more pervasive. So where are the skylarks? Or instead, how long before the ‘truly agricultural bird’ label no longer rings true? Are we happy that in the future we may need to call it ‘A truly dependent on managed conservation land bird’? Not quite so catchy. The decline of our farmland birds is a complex topic and one which I am not qualified to dissect but I can, and will, observe.

Em

The Smell of Spring

Feet crashing, lungs grasping for air. Eyes scanning the path ahead, hunting for changes in texture and terrain, clues for legs to interpret to lengthen or shorten the stride to keep upright, to keep moving. Alive. This is not some fear drenched rabbit but a runner, not fleeing a ferocious predator but escaping nonetheless.

The leaves underfoot have been softly decomposing since Autumn, they don’t crunch anymore but melt into the soft soil below, soon they will be indistinguishable from it. Around my ankles flecks of ochre mud stick and coat my skin, my leggings, my shoes, in an approximation of the camouflage colouring of the powerful forest cats. Like cats, the muscles and skeleton of my body were made for endurance. The placement of each foot, the balance, angle, corrections and adjustments are so fluid and yet so hard to describe (just watch newly-coded robots trying to learn how to walk). But to master the movement is not to understand the component parts – best not  to question too closely.

The cool damp February air of the deciduous woodland is perfect for running. Sheltered from the wind each inhalation charged into my lungs, charged throughout my body – powered me. When the north wind whips across your face you feel that you must sip carefully at the air, that to take in a full gulp in the dose administered by the gust would freeze your lungs like so much liquid nitrogen. In summer, when sluggish heat descends across the landscape it feels like treacle, reluctantly drawn in and then forced out again. But not today. Today is just right.

As I race along the soft trail path I find a scent I haven’t smelled in a while. Carried in the air is the first hint of spring. The first tentative tendrils coiling out of the humus, the fungi and plants, exuded from the very bark of the tree trunks. This is not about bud burst or spring flowers – reliable indicators though they may be. I’m talking of something more intangible than that. It is the smell of the woodlands waking up. A delicate hint of a smell, not like the full and fleshy decomposing foghorn intensity of Autumn. And distinct again from the wholesome, sweet and pollen laden smell of trees at the height of summer’s long and balmy nights. The smell today is more like a promise, a soft hint at the rich texture of scents to come. Building gradually, like Vaughan William’s Lark, you know the orchestral intricacy that is yet to ascend and it detracts not a bit from the slow and ambling beginnings.

It’s possible that my nose is hyper-sensitive. If so, I can thank my Dad for this – he definitely shares my gift. Aside from the childish attraction of possessing a special gift, I am saddened by this thought – what if others can’t share this experience with me? What if, to them, the woodland is a riot of sights and sounds with little entertainment for the nose? For me, it can be the overriding reason why I visit the woods, why I destroy road shoes on muddy trails, why my Garmin watch beeps a ‘stop’ – not to catch my breath but to catch the scent, to breathe it deep and feel the woodland soak into my skin.

Em

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Pre-frogs and post-frogs

Frogs are a bit of a new one on me. Like all good biology students I am well versed in their fascinating lifecycle but I’ll be honest, I hadn’t really been ‘bitten’ in the same way I had with other species. Aside from finding one down the side of the bins last spring I’m not sure I have ever found them on my own. I’ve been shown them, by some highly skilled (and friendly) herpetologists but that only really serves to point out just how clueless I am about their presence! Having set out to find them I have had somewhat mixed success…

I like running. It gets me outside, it makes me feel good and I usually see quite a lot of wildlife along the way. This weekend my long run took me out of my village and into the countryside. The luscious green rolling hills look like damp and promising places to find amphibians almost any time of year in Devon, but right now, with heavy mist cloaking the fields and hedges it feels like the landscape was crafted with them in mind. Drenched by the morning mist (and sweat) I was feeling a little frog-like myself.

There is one segment of road in particular that is always awash with water. I don’t know if there is a spring or what it is but I have never seen it dry. This is where I found the first one. Unmistakeable, even in pancake form, this was my first ‘frog’ of the year. Unfortunately a car had found it first. Not the most promising start but a frog nonetheless.

At this time of year our frogs are on the move, going forth to their breeding ponds and multiplying  in truly mindboggling numbers. Devon frogs may well be slightly ahead of the rest of the country given that it is generally milder down here, and I was starting to think I had missed the frogspawn this year. Now, I’m no frog biologist, so I couldn’t tell you if my less-than living specimen was a male or a female dead frog. Nor can I tell you whether it had already fulfilled it’s biological purpose. But I do know it wasn’t the only one to lose a fight with a motor vehicle. There were three flattened frogs within a few strides. Poor frogs. I can only hope that the mortality rate from roads is not 100% and that this was just a numbers game.

That was actually my second frog related sighting. My first was a week or so ago, up on Dartmoor. Dartmoor deserves it’s own blog post…probably it’s own series, maybe a ten part high budget documentary… but before I get carried away let me just say it is a fantastic place to explore and if you can go there – do. On this particular day I was returning to Black-a-Tor Copse. For reasons that we shan’t dwell on I didn’t quite make it last time due to navigational errors. Black-a-Tor Copse is one of a handful of ancient woodlands on the moor. It literally drips with moss and lichen, the stunted trees all twisted and crooked – a Tim Burton paradise.

Dartmoor is higher (and colder) than the surrounding land so it was perhaps no surprise that the frogs here were slightly behind the Devon breeding schedule. Walking across some very boggy ground it was impossible to keep dry feet. It was probably possible to keep dry ankles and calves but not everyone is skilled at avoiding the deceptively deep boggy bits. When sizing up a pool against my (woeful) long jump skills I realised that the surface was heaving, bulging, groaning with frogspawn. The water was so thick with the jellied mass of eggs that you couldn’t tell the clumps apart. According to @BBCSpringwatch frogspawn is 99.7% water (for reference, we are about 60% water). Certainly some of the less well placed clumps were now desiccating fast and much less than that.

Looking closely at the frogspawn I could see that some of the jellies contained white spawn, instead of the black pips I was expecting. Having read up on this I don’t believe this was a good sign and is an indication that the embryo is dying and decomposing. A very helpful book by Trevor Beebee (ref below) suggests that such die off could be caused by a pathogen, temperature, pollution or something else. Mortality from frogspawn to adulthood is high though it seems that the greatest losses occur after the embryos hatch from the frogspawn. Perhaps predators don’t like the texture? Certainly a lot of frogspawn is left lying around which isn’t common in sought after food stuffs (think of the maltesers in the celebrations tin…). Once they become tadpoles they become a firm favorite of birds, fish, other amphibians so maybe its the jelly wrapper that predators don’t like?

Anyway, as you can tell, I haven’t found a (living) frog yet this year. But hold the headlines – I expect this relates to the skill and effort of the surveyor, not to an undocumented natural history calamity. All signs suggest that there are still frogs in Devon… I just need to keep looking.

Em

P.S. Here is the book I mentioned: Beebee, T., (2013) Amphibians and Reptiles. Pelagic Publishing, Exeter, p 66-69.