Choughed to bits

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Sunday 18 September 2022 17:44

Grassholm. The furthest west in Wales I've ever been. Actually, it's the first time that I have ever been to Pembrokeshire. It was my first real holiday in five years and the first time Karen and I have been away together for more than two days. And my first blog in over six months. A lot of firsts. We absolutely loved it. I tried not to make it too nature-based but it just kinda happens that way anyway with such a wild coast. Day one and we headed out on two boat trips with Voyages of Discovery. The second one here saw us head out firstly to Grassholm, where thousands of Gannets are getting ready to leave. This island is around 11 miles off the coast and the half of it where they breed, appears white even at this distance.

Such wonderful birds. Even more tragic to see this less than a week after I found this sick bird on the South Downs north of Brighton. Bird flu. This is the price of cheap chicken. Anyways, back to the holiday.

A little further out to some reefs (looking back to Grassholm) and we saw lots of feeding birds including these Kittiwakes being harassed by Arctic Skuas. It's 20 years ago this summer that I did the RSPB contract at Rhosneigr, looking after the tern colony there. So when we stopped at one reef and heard the distinctive call of a Roseate Tern, it was just so exciting. I couldn't get a photo though, the sea was very mobile.

Earlier, on the way out, we saw a group of four Harbour Porpoise, about as close as I have ever been to them. That's Ramsey Island. Ramsey Sound was incredible with these eerie, glass-like patches of up-welling water, interspersed with some ferocious rapids and broiling seas around the hidden rocks.

One such area known as the Bitches has a cruel history. Shags seem to like the Bitches.

We saw plenty of Grey Seals too but my photos were pretty awful. The skipper nosed the dinghy into a sea cave, which was well cool!

Before we got to Pembrokeshire, a brief visit to the Worm's Head on the Gower produced the first of the daily Chough action, their calls rapidly becoming a common feature in the local sound-scape. A quick bit of rock-pooling produced what I think is a Daisy Anemone.

EDIT 20/09/22 - Thanks Evan, Daisy Anemone looks nothing like this, of course this is the Elegant Anemone.

With help of some locals, I spotted a HUGE Sea Bass in a deep gully (the tides were great, both big tides and easy tides - really great considering I did zero prep). I didn't manage a photo but the young fisherman who was looking for bait, was almost crying because he didn't think to lunge at it with his big net.

It was wicked to see a Spotted Cowrie with it's mantle out all over the shell. We never saw these again after this.

And the first of many netted fish. The obligatory Rock Goby.

Green Sea Urchins were also not seen again on the trip after the Gower. That's one way to get mussels quickly!

Oh yeah, Bloody-nosed Beetle is EVERYWHERE in South Wales. Here was a four way, the filthy buggers.

Sorry, five way! This pervert was late to the party.

Day two. I had ONE target for the WHOLE trip. The only thing I vaguely researched was Scaly Cricket. I knew it was at Marloes Sands but it was a slim chance being mainly nocturnal. But there were rockpools there too. And they were full of Montagu's Blenny, hugely distracting. I could look at these goofy little twerps all day.

We spent an hour in an area that looked good for what I imagined Scaly Cricket would like. Turned out we were in the right area but just unlucky. Well, if you can call it unlucky. I saw a large black gnaphosid but I lost sight of it in the scree. I searched, saw it again but it went under the shingle never to be seen again. The tide was coming in and I didn't want us to get cut off and walk up the steep steps (this was a 47 miles in six days kinda holiday) when I saw a small spider with four small spots. It was unmistakable. It was clearly Callilepis nocturna. I am at the base of a cliff without signal and my camera is 20m away in my coat pocket and this thing looks like it's going to run into the shingle. It froze long enough for Karen to grab my camera then jumped onto my hand and started doing circuits. I looked like David Bowie in Labyrinth messing about with his balls. I got it in the tray. Behold!

I was rather stoked. Thinking I had a first for Wales, we headed up the cliffs for food and signal. Only to find that it was discovered on the exact same beach 'recently'. This is where it gets really weird. It was found there 20 years ago by another Brightonian, and a chap I know well. Dave Bangs. I might not have got a first for Wales but I did get all the excitement of one and I also stumbled on one of the rarest UK spiders (it's still only at three sites). That's my 518th UK spider. Totally beats that stupid cricket. We went back on day four as that beach was just so beautiful. Here she is in all her glory. What a beauty!

I took the sucker this time but hardly used it. We found 16 more but 14 of these were from hand searching.

The habitat shot.

Whilst I poked around here for a little while, Karen did some reading and then told me about a place which is pretty good for Otters! Now, Otter is my biggest bogey species. That's day five sorted then! I did get one other rare spider here. A new site for Porrhoclubiona genevensis. It's known from the hectad but last seen there on Skokholm in 1934 by Bristowe! An important record then, not bad considering I only turned it on four times in the whole trip.

UPDATE 20/09/22 - It turns out Richard Gallon had both species from near there on a job in 2021! Oh well! But the main group I found appears to be in a slightly different area, so that's good.

But before day five. It's day three. And after a visit to Tenby in the morning which was lush, we headed to Wiseman's Bridge. The rockpooling was a let down. So I suggested walking along the beach to Saundersfoot where I could see an interesting looking rocky outcrop. A single large rockpool there, produced three fish that we didn't see anywhere else. First off though, probably the best underwater shot of the trip was of this Shanny. The Meadow Pipit of the rook pool. They get boring quickly. My TG-6 has been working hard under water of late.

First dip in this rock pool produced a lifer for me. I pushed a shoal of largish-looking fish into a blind corner and lunged with the net. I caught two but one jumped straight out of my empty Ferrero Rocher container. Took some figuring out this one but it's clearly Horse Mackerel. A fish of the open sea and not really a rock pool fish at all! Check out that dog leg in the lateral line and those weird ridges. Quite a strange fish. Nice to say that literally for once.

The second dip produced a single Long-spined Sea-scorpion. Common enough but the only one we saw and Karen was quite taken with its grumpy face and eyelashes.

But it was the third dip of the net that got me really excited. Initially, at the bottom of the net I thought this was a pipe fish but I soon realised it was an adult Fifteen-spined (or Sea) Stickleback!!! Just wow. This is a fish that I saw once, on Anglesey some 20 years ago and it was nothing like this. An absolute stunner.

I think we saw over ten species of fish on the trip. I think I got more into fish than spiders, which is a weird thing for any grown man to say but especially me.

But who knew how many spiders were lurking above them on that foot path/tunnel through the rock between Saundersfoot and Wiseman's Bridge? Loads of Meta menardi, Metellina merianae and a new hectad for Nesticus cellulanus. Herald and Small Tortoiseshell too. Plus these early Humans.

Earlier that morning we went on a long walk around the coast. Here is a flock of 30 Chough! Incredible. What's more incredible is that in the five minutes we walked past this flock, they were disturbed by two different dogs that were off the lead and by the second time, they left the field altogether. Imagine this stress, day after day after day. Put your choughing dog on a lead if you can't control it! There are enough pressures on nature beyond your delinquent dogs. It's a serious problem that dog owners, who are often nature lovers, have no perspective on. I don't think they see it as serious, or lack the long term thinking to recognise that this time, the time their dog does this, might just be the time that makes these animals leave the area altogether. Or worse. We never saw as many Choughs as we did this day (at least a group of 21 and another group of c36) but we did see or hear Choughs every day of the trip.

Right, nearly there. Day five. An early start to Bosherston Lily Ponds see the Otters was starting to feel like we were going to dip out. Some Common Calamint was nice to see though. 

Then a chap said, "There's a family of Otters up there!" We started running and we got there just in time! All those years electrofishing with the RSPB and nothing. Hours put in at the crack of dawn searching across the UK in the cold, nothing. And then there they were, not giving a monkeys about the hoards of people walking past, or their dogs. Amazing to watch this family of four with their synchronised diving. They reminded me of Studio Ghibli dragons but in the water instead of the air. A continuously rolling, relentlessly restless, wet, muscly and hairy sine wave of reconstituted fish. Sublime.

One final trip after a chap told us about Freshwater West, a nice west facing beach at the end of the peninsula. A bit of rockpooling there produced this lovely young Ballan Wrasse.

A nice under water shot of a Beadlet Anemone.

But the highlight here was walking down to the beach. I was distracted suddenly by lots of white snails, which of course were actually White Snails (Theba pisina). Another reason to use capitals to distinguish between a species and just a white snail, of which we have many (White Snail being one of them). Then Karen said; "What's that?"

It's only a nymph of the Boat Bug (Enoplpops scapha). One of my most wanted species and the last UK squash bug I needed to complete the set! Result.

It was an awesome trip and another important reason for this trip was to give myself time to start writing again. Getting back into writing this blog (and other side projects that I have struggled to find creative energy for this year) being one thing but the main reason was to kick start the book I am writing on pan-species listing, now that the field season has almost finished. And that has worked a treat, with an hour a day producing a lot of words and the flood gates are now open. This holiday might have only had four lifers in it (Callilepis nocturna, Horse Mackerel, Otter and Boat Bug) but boy, what an eclectic mix they were. A pan-lister's dream holiday, with such a cornucopia of different taxonomic delights. We will definitely go back to this part of the world! Thanks to Karen for putting up with me, I see a rockpool and I am just a giant toddler and for her photos. And a huge thanks to the hosts at Pantier near Roch too, a really lovely place to stay. Hopefully I will try and blog a bit more frequently now, too.

3 Response to "Choughed to bits"

Gibster Says:

Well hello stranger! I'm definitely liking the Leopard-spotted Gobyskin boots your young lass is wearing. Welcome back to blogland.

Stewart Says:

Great post Graeme, I hope this becomes more regular, Im inspired!

Peter Groves Says:

Thanks Graeme, I enjoyed your blog, and learnt a bit as well, Pete

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