On my first fen raft spider survey in July, this family of swans paddled slowly past us, not in the least interested in us clumsy humans on the dyke. Feeding happily amongst the water soldiers and reeds and apparently totally oblivious of us. I love the simple beauty in the sinuous curve of a swan’s neck -a living sculpture in flesh and feather.
Much later in the season, on the last day of the survey, in October, I saw them again. I’m pretty sure this is the same family. The cygnets are losing their youngster down which is becoming peppered with white feathers. They have grown well.
Here are some random images from Carlton -just things I liked when I saw them.
Two young swallows on a gate. Though they can fly, their mother was swooping down with tasty insects for them to eat. Weaning on the wing?
There are often cows on Carlton. This one was looking intently at us from a distance. In a rather sinister way, I thought.
The Pooh Bear cloud. This perfect little cloud immediately reminded me of Pooh Bear floating up a tree, pretending to be a cloud whilst suspended from a balloon, to get to a bees’ nest where he might find Hunny.
These little birds provoked much excitement in my walking partner on a fine September morning’s fen raft spider survey. She tends to hit people when excited but I got away lightly and unbruised. The reason for her excitement was thinking we might have seen Whinchats. Close examination of my pics confirmed they are Stonechats. Me, I wouldn’t know the difference if they flew up my nostrils. But this page should help me learn a thing or two.
Very shy and seemingly nervous, this individual ran at speed from the dyke just opposite us on a ditch we were surveying, only feet away. She bounded away in one direction, then turned and ran back and away in the opposite direction, giving me just enough time to get my camera out and zoomed in. I was panning by hand at full 1000 mm zoom without support, so I was pleased to get any shots at all, but I am happy with the movement these snaps show.
Native to South-East Asia, they are not under threat in the UK where they are thriving, but their numbers are declining in their home habitat. The UK is thought to have 10% of the world population, originating from deer that escaped from Whipsnade Zoo in 1929. They had been brought to London Zoo in 1873.
Oulton Marshes in North Lowestoft are also owned by Suffolk Wildlife Trust. As beautiful and calm a place as Carlton Marshes, but with a little more variation in land contours and with some enclosed wooded areas that feel like a very different place all of a sudden when you arrive in them.
On an introductory walk there, we came across two very unusual neighbours
An elegant aviator and bane of fishkeepers everywhere. A heron looks more like a pterodactyl in flight than any other bird in this part of the world. This one was looking for snacks at a respectable distance, and a bit later in the afternoon I was lucky enough to catch him in flight and landing.
Not very clear as I was panning at full 1000 mm zoom hand held with no mono-or tripod. To be remedied soon as I now have the gear and less excuse for blurry shots. But the spirit of the movement is still there I think.
For a few days in October 2017, the tail end of hurricane Ophelia whipped up dust into the atmosphere from the Sahara and fanned Iberian wildfires which were belching smoke into the atmosphere. The combined effect of suspended atmospheric particles was to scatter sunlight and absorb the blue end of the spectrum of sunlight, leaving only the red. So at 14.43 on the 17th of October, the sun emerged briefly from behind low clouds to look as though it was setting -but high in the sky. It was an apocalyptic vision and everyone found it very eerie. The overall light when the sun was behind clouds was still strange, and very diffuse and directionless. So much so that I noticed we were not casting any shadows. That was very strange indeed!
The Marine Conservation Society (MCS), under its Beachwatch initiative, runs a rolling program of beach cleaning events -The Great British Beach Clean- surveys of what washes up or is left on our beaches. Organised by the MCS and manned by volunteers, it’s a really practical way to contribute to marine conservation without getting your feet wet.
I joined the event locally in September. It was a bit blowy and rainy but we managed to collect quite a lot of stuff.
Volunteers on the sandy beach at Lowestoft, bin bags and litter-pickers in action.
My eyes were opened to what I rarely notice on my frequent beach walks. Here are the results of our morning’s work. If you’re interested in finding a local event, the MCS search page is easy to use.
You can support marine conservation even if you live miles from the coast simply by joining the MCS. Your subscription will help the sum of effort to care for our Blue Planet.
I became involved in a survey of the Fen Raft Spider (FRS) starting in July 2017 and running till October 2017. Dolomedes plantarius is the UK’s largest and least common species of spider. It is Red Listed by the IUCN and classified as ‘Vulnerable’. It is also Red Listed by several European countries, including the UK where it is currently classified as “vulnerable” -an “under threat of extinction” category.
Our foremost UK scientific authority on the FRS, Helen Smith, came to talk to us about it at Carlton, and I was immediately drawn to this strikingly beautiful complicated and elegant predator. The more I learnt about it, the more I wanted to know. So my hand went up when the call for survey volunteers went out. As a former mild arachnophobe I surprised myself.
Helen had bred around 6,000 spiderlings in a laboratory, and her own kitchen (!) and populated a section of ditches at Carlton marshes with them, as part of a conservation translocation programme run by Natural England. The purpose of our survey was to measure the extent (or not) of their spread and thus the success (or not) of the translocation. Translocation because the FRS is not naturally resident at Carlton. There are only three other populations in the UK -Redgrave and Lopham Fen in Suffolk, Pevensey Levels in East Sussex, and and area outside Swansea in Wales.
Our job was to amble along the dykes, covering both sides of the ditches in a mapped area of wetland, noting the location of FRS webs, and the presence of any spiderlings in the webs, or adults nearby, using the naked eye and close-focussing binoculars. On our first survey I couldn’t see any at all, until our guide had, with great patience, pointed out the location. We all found it hard at first, but, like any skill, we improved with practice.
The technique was a bit like looking at a “Magic Eye” picture. You have to de-focus your eyes and relax. You begin to notice hazy areas, then looking at them through binoculars in clear focus, you can see the webs and the detail. Spotting the adults was also tricky, as they camouflage well into the melee of reed, sedge and water-soldier leaves.
My first sighting of a ball of spiderlings.
To the left of centre, my first sighting of an adult Fen Raft Spider
A ball of spiderlings tight together
Are these flowerheads, or spiderlings spread out and sunbathing? It can be very hard to tell sometimes. Here the plant material (blunt-flowered rush) is in the middle and left of the web, and a ball of spiderlings is on the right.
Spiderlings spreading out on a sedge leaf, warming up in the sun in the safety of their nursery web
We had to learn to spot both new and old webs as both needed to be logged. Here’s an illustration.
I have been expertly advised that she’s a post-partum female. In a male, the two palps at the front of his head are used to store sperm in to inseminate the females. In this picture, because the palps curl under, it’s very easy to think they are clubbed at the tip when in fact they’re not; this would mark a spider out as male. In general, adult males have a wider cephalothorax (the head/chest segment with eyes and legs attached), a very narrow abdomen, and proportionately longer legs than the females.
Here she is again, closer in
In the centre you can see the shed skin of an adult FRS. It was dangling in the breeze.
and again -slightly different after being moved by the breeze. It looked as light as gossamer.
The funny thing about the photo above is that we only spotted the adult after I’d taken the pic -I was interested in the widely scattered spiderlings.
The pics below show a particularly dark, handsome individual, with striking stripes, enjoying a snack. The wide abdomen marks her out as a female.
On one of the last days I wished for a perfect pose from a FRS. Within five minutes my wish had been granted and this gorgeous creature came out from his rest and posed for me in a classic waiting-for-prey pose. This is a girl.
…. the spider climbed onto a water soldier and is resting her back legs on the meniscus of the water, waiting to sense vibrations signalling nearby prey
Below are two shots, far and near, of a lovely example of a labyrinth spider web.
A ditch on our last survey day of the year, a cloudless beautiful October morning. The water soldiers are scarce, most have sunk to the bottom of the ditch where they will stay till next spring. There were no spiders to see at all. No one is absolutely sure where they go, but it is thought they might go down into the mud at the bottom of the ditch with the water soldiers.
Goodbye till next year
Doing the survey yielded many positive things for me -the thrill of learning biology and botany again was invigorating -always my two most favourite subjects at school and in life. This alone made me feel 30 years younger! Then I have made new friends (you know who you are) and discovered the layout of Carlton Marshes. I’m also learning how to use my camera and a pair of binoculars properly -I thought I knew but thinking that is often a sign of ignorance.
It’s great to be directly involved in helping the recovery of an endangered species, no matter how small it is. It has its part to play in our world, and its absence is a red flag highlighting degradation of the environment, for the FRS will only live where the water quality is good. Conversely its recovery will signal a return to health of the local water and land. Head over to the definitive resource on the FRS here if you’d like to learn more about this fascinating creature.
Not everything in conservation goes smoothly. As I am learning, sometimes there can be unexpected failure.
In October 2017 I signed up to a marine conservation project set up by the organisation of Capturing our Coast, The project, Spermwatch, involves mapping out 150 metres of beach in three consecutive segments (transects), walking along them at the low tide line on specific dates, counting lugworm sperm puddles, noting these findings and other observations, then submitting them online through a simple survey tool. The project aims to collect as much data as possible to assess which environmental factors influence lugworm spawning, about which little is known. Lugworms are an important food source for fish and seabirds.
I had seen fishermen many times on our local beach, so I felt sure I’d have success, as fishermen use lugworms as bait, don’t they? This was, as I found out later, fallacious logic. And I am not a fisherman.
I set up the transects with the help of a mapping app on my phone, printed and laminated all the information I needed to take with me, checked the low tide times and listed the dates I could manage to do the survey. I was really quite excited.
A lugworm sperm puddle is a whitish puddle, looking very similar to a bird poo. It would be found near a lugworm cast, an extrusion of sand from a lugworm burrow, on the surface of a sandy beach. A cast looks like the squiggly pile made by a cooked strand of spaghetti dropped to the ground. My Italian heritage well qualifies me to use this simile. I’ve dropped a lot of spaghetti in my time. The male lugworm comes to the surface to deposit his sperm near the entrance of a female lugworm burrow, to be washed in by the rising tide to fertilise her eggs. All very courteous, no touch, and reminiscent of some courtly fin-de-siecle salon dance. Only with sperm.
My first survey date happened to fall on a weekend when one of my sisters came to visit. I informed her the night before that we would be going on Spermwatch -hastily explaining what it was, before she repacked her bags to escape from some dark rural Suffolk ritual she’d never heard of. The next day my long-suffering and loyal wife, sister and I set off to the beach, on a cold and windy morning. We looked, and we looked, and we looked. Nothing. Zilch. Not a sausage. Not a single cast or sperm puddle. Not even a bird poo.
We returned to the warmth of home and hot tea, wondering if maybe male lugworms don’t like cold and windy weather. I’m sure I’d think twice before emerging from my safe tunnel to ejaculate on a cold beach. It’s understandable.
So, comforted by this explanation, I planned the next survey. Even more exciting as I would be doing this Spermwatch with my friend Jonny. We’re Mates you see.
Jonny and I set off along the beach at the appointed time, and again, by the end of the first transect, nothing seen. We approached the fishing line of a fisherman, stretching obliquely across our path. As we needed to walk right up to the line and continue the other side of it, and as, presumably, fishermen don’t like seeing people appear to be about to snag their lines, I went up to the elderly man at the mechanical end of the line (the rod I am told -I am not a fisherman) to explain our purpose. He was very old and it was very windy, and it took some time before he understood my explanation of our intentions -very carefully phrased in polite terms, and avoiding all use of the word “sperm”, in case Jonny and I should otherwise find ourselves having to explain ourselves to the local police.
“Lugworms!”, he exclaimed. “You won’t find any lugworms ‘ere. No lugworms between North Norfolk and Ipswich. I’ve fished this beach since the 1950’s. Terrible fishing, Look, all I’ve caught is a coupl’a small dab”. He pointed to two very unhappy looking, small dab listlessly contemplating their demise in a bucket of seawater. “Its all the fault of the Common Market”, he went on. “The Dutch came in and took all the fish away….” his bitter tirade against all things European continued. I managed somehow to close the conversation and escape, thanking him for his time, and leaving him to collect more small fish in the cold.
Jonny and I abandoned the survey and I sadly concluded there was no point in continuing the project. I love the beach and continue to walk there most days with our dogs. Still no lugworm seen. But at least I’ve avoided the headlines in the local press: “Retired local doctor with Jonny claims to be seeking sperm on beach”.