The Final Straight

Before I headed off to university, I used to compete as part of an athletics club. My specialties were the long jump, high jump and the short to middle distance runs. I still remember one competition day quite vividly, a pentathlon that culminated in an 800m event. This has always been the most gruelling event for me – 2 laps of the track at what is essentially a sprinting pace. My tactic was always to take the first lap easier, and once the first 400m was complete, I kicked it up to a full out sprint, passing by the other runners who hadn’t paced themselves as well. It felt great to sail past the other athletes as I made it onto the back straight and into the final corner.

But the hardest part was always the home straight. At this point, your lungs are stinging and your stomach begs you to stop and take a breath. This is when the race switches from physical strength to psychological. I remember this particular race, because it was raining, and I was tired from having competed all day, and there were 3 girls in front of me by the time I was on the last bend. I can still hear my coach cheering me on from the sidelines. I dug deep inside and found an extra gear. My body was screaming to stop, but I knew all I needed was just another 5 seconds of full out sprint to get to the end. I didn’t even realise I’d managed to overtake two of the other athletes. My eyes were locked onto a spot just beyond the finish line, and I wouldn’t let myself stop until it was under my feet. I came in second place, and I won a medal for my county. But nothing beat the feeling of collapsing into a heap on the track, lying on my back in the rain and letting my breathing finally steady.

I’m reminded of that day now as I find myself on the final straight of my PhD. Weeks away from a completed thesis, all my energy is going into keeping up the sprint of chapter writing. Some days I just want so badly to push the whole thing to one side and forget about it, but I keep trying to look to that spot just beyond the finish line.

My athletics coach taught me how to pace myself over long distances, and I still hear his words every time I go for a jog. “Remember to breathe in. You’ll breathe out automatically, so focus on breathing in.” When I wanted to stop, he took that as a sign to push me just a bit further. “It’s hurting because you’re pushing past your limit. The pain is a good thing, you’re growing. We’ll just do another minute or two, okay?”

In truth, I did not pace myself so well over my PhD. Since I’ve managed to leave the worst of it behind, I don’t mind divulging now that I battled a lot with anxiety and depression over the last couple of years. I wanted to hit the ground running when I started in my first year, and maybe I burnt myself out a little. There are other factors involved, of course. And it’s difficult to maintain a high level of motivation for one thing over a course of a few years. But I had some especially bleak times where it felt like finishing was impossible.

I will tell you now that everyone will experience something like this on their PhD. There are days when you don’t want to work, there will even be days when you want to quit. I firmly believe that at least some of my anxiety could have been assuaged had I just talked to my other friends about it sooner. Once I did, I realised I wasn’t actually some loser; everyone was feeling crappy. Yet there’s this whole stigma about not being able to just get on with it. So no one talks to each other about it, and everyone carries on thinking they’re the only one who’s struggling. We all put on a façade of rock solid steadiness that only isolates us from each other. If only we’d talk about it, we might see that we’re all just normal.

It’s okay to be depressed, and upset, and feel like you can’t do it. That’s no failing of yours. It took me a while to realise that, which is probably why it took me a long time to actually ask anyone for help. I made these horrid mental scenarios where people were disappointed in me, or angry with me, or just didn’t want to even know me anymore. In truth, everyone I’ve spoken to about it – which includes supervisors and various people in my department – have been nothing but supportive. In actuality, they were all just concerned and worried about me, and wanted to do whatever they could to support me so I could get my PhD finished. I felt a bit of a lemon once I realised this, and it did a lot to relieve some of the anxiety I’d been feeling.

A year ago, I didn’t feel like I could even reach the point I’m at now. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see the finish line – I’d lost sight of the goddamn track. And now here I am, on the final straight. I know it’s going to be painful, and my body will be begging me to stop, but I feel within me that I can do this now. It might take everything I’ve got, I might collapse into a heap once I make it, but I’ll make it all the same.

I’ll see you on the other side of that finish line.

A stirring photo of the open ocean for motivational purposes

A stirring photo of the open ocean for motivational purposes

Mystery of the Brown Beach Foam

Just a few weeks ago, I was in St Andrews for a meeting on the progress of our ocean acidification research group. Hard to believe it’ll all be coming to an end next year! St Andrews makes a fitting venue for a marine science meeting not only as the home of the Scottish Oceans Institute, but as a settlement perched neatly on the eastern Scottish coastline. With both rocky cliffs and sandy beaches sitting right next to each other, it boasts quite diverse wildlife. It’s a haven for seabirds and seals, and other marine mammals are seen regularly off shore. I made sure to give myself some time to walk along the West Sands (did not have time to recreate my own Chariots of Fire), and came across some rather neat things.

st andrews 1

I was surprised to find a fair few songbirds around, including song thrushes and pipits. They’re not the first birds I think of when I picture a sandy beach, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves alongside the gulls.

A chubby song thrush (Turdus philomelos) poking through seaweed on the strand line

A chubby song thrush (Turdus philomelos) poking through seaweed on the strand line.

A common gull (Larus canus) strutting his stuff.

A common gull (Larus canus) strutting his stuff.

I also came across a lot of washed up jellyfish. Only the one species, Aurelia aurita, also known as the moon jellyfish. Even in this semi decomposed state, it’s easy to ID. Just look for those 4 purple rings! They’re actually the jelly’s gonads. Just like plankton, jellies can form blooms where they appear in dense numbers. A jellyfish bloom is usually indicative of poor water quality though, so it’s probably not a great sign that these were everywhere.

Moon jellyfish, Aurelia aurita, slightly degraded but still recognisable with those purple gonads

Moon jellyfish, Aurelia aurita, slightly degraded but still recognisable with those purple gonads.

The gonad close up, complete with photo-bombing tiny insect.

The gonad close up, complete with photo-bombing tiny insect.

Of course, I can’t write a blog entry about the sea shore without mentioning algae. There was plenty around in the form of macroalgae, the seaweeds. Particularly abundant along this stretch of the West Sands was egg-wrack, Ascophyllum nodosum. This is a really common brown seaweed found throughout the north Atlantic, and actually the only species in the Ascophyllum genus. Those “eggs” are gas vesicles, filled with air to help keep the algae afloat when it’s underwater.

Seaweed eggs. I mean, gas vesicles of Ascophyllum nodosum.

Seaweed eggs. I mean, gas vesicles of Ascophyllum nodosum.

Frond of Ascophyllum nodosum

Frond of Ascophyllum nodosum.

There was a curious find distributed all along the beach that I overheard many holiday makers talking about. Along the strand line, sticking to piles of desiccating seaweed, were clusters of this weird, brownish foam. I saw a several folks poking the congealing stuff with sticks, trying to figure out what the heck it was.

Congealed foamy goodness

Congealed foamy goodness

Brown sea foam is a common phenomenon of coastlines in the North Sea shelf area, in particular around the UK, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. It can be a little disconcerting when you don’t know what it is. Local environment officers often get called out to the scene to test the waters, but they can usually tell what it is without having to take samples. The cause of the foam is not that much of a mystery – it’s in fact the doings of our old friends, the phytoplankton.

Phytoplankton foam!

Phytoplankton foam!

Well, one particular species of phytoplankton to be exact, Phaeocystis pouchetii. Another brown algae, and a globally distributed one at that. It’s abundant in the North Sea, but we encountered Phaeocystis in the Arctic and Antarctic too (though it may have been another equally well distributed species, P. globosa). P. pouchetii, like most Phaeocystis species, has two forms; a free-swimming, unicellular form that sports not one but two flagella, and a gelatinous colonial form. The plankton blooms in its colonial state, often forming aggregates that are so large, you can see them with your own eyes in the water. This is why we hated sampling a Phaeocystis station – they clogged up EVERYTHING.

In the North Sea, P. pouchetii blooms between March and September, and during these blooms, the cells churn out various kinds of organic compounds. While it’s still not fully understood why, we do know that the main compound produced, acrylic acid, is antibiotic, so it could be to ward off any harmful bacteria, or kill the competition. It might also make the cells unpalatable to grazers, though there is less evidence to support that hypothesis. At any rate, this organic material coalesces together through wave movement into these foamy masses, and eventually get washed up on the beach. When the bloom is particularly big, much larger clumps of foam make it to land. In the early 1980s, such a large Phaeocystis bloom occurred in the German Bight that the foam stacked 2m high in some areas of the German and Danish coast.

Not quite 2m high... but getting there...

Not quite 2m high… but getting there…

So, is it harmful? Well, no. It sure looks gross, and when the algae have a good year, it can be annoying for the people that own the beaches it ends up on as it does certainly turn people away from going to the seaside. I mean, I’m not advocating that you touch/jump around in/eat it, but it’s not deadly.

I personally think it’s really cool that an organism that is unable to be seen without a microscope can exude so much junk that it shuts down a beach.

But then again, I might be a little biased.

Close Encounters of the Furred Kind

In June and July last year, I was involved in a research cruise to the Arctic Circle. Our track started in Immingham in the UK, and ended in Reykjavik, Iceland. In between, we visited the Greenland ice shelf, Svalbard and the Barents Sea, all in the name of saving phytoplankton.

Our cruise track through the Arctic

Our cruise track through the Arctic

Now, before heading out on this trip, there was one animal on the top of my wishlist. I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about. Ursus maritimus, the largest terrestrial predator in the world and ambassador for the impacts of climate change. Yes, I’m talking about POLAR BEARS, people. Our PSO (Principle Scientific Officer, basically the head scientist) for the trip informed us in pre-cruise meetings that we would indeed be in polar bear territory, especially around Greeland, but that he couldn’t guarantee that we’d see any. Sometimes on Arctic cruises they see many, sometimes they see none. I kept my hopes small on that front to avoid the crushing disappointment I’d feel if we didn’t come across any at all.

We didn’t reach the Arctic sea ice until a couple of weeks into the cruise. I cannot tell you how excited I was for this. I had spent many years reading about and watching documentaries on the polar regions, and now I was finally going to experience this for myself. It was unreal. The whole area was untouched by humans, it was (rather sadly) so hard for me to comprehend how unspoiled and remote this place was. All of us gathered on the front of the ship to watch as we barged our way towards the East Greenland Current. The ice started as just a few chunks here and there, then a floating collection of small floes, before becoming a more continuous, thick ice sheet.

ice clouds

sea ice edge 1

sea ice edge 3

The sounds the ship made when it hit the larger chunks of ice were initially alarming (a horrendous metallic groan, like the whole thing was about to break), but faded into background noise once we were used to it. Everyone was far more captivated by the scenery anyway. We were followed by an armada of kittiwakes, which seemed to be making the most of the fish we were disturbing from under the ice. Most exciting for me was the appearance of the ivory gulls, an extremely rare bird. It is found only in the high Arctic, and is the only pure white gull in the world. They were so beautiful against the brilliant blue sky, they almost looked supernatural.

kittiwake 6

Of course, the one thing everyone was keeping their eyes peeled for was a polar bear. I knew it was a tad optimisitc, we’d only been in the sea ice for about 2 hours, it wasn’t like a bear was just going to walk up to the boat… right?

Well, I was wrong. While I was distracted by the ivory gulls swooping gracefully around the ship, someone spotted a bear through a pair of binoculars off in the distance. By this time, most people had gone back inside the ship and were eating dinner, with only a small group of us still outside, apparently determined to find something, anything. I rushed over to port side, along with the rest of us diehard wildlife spotters, and used my camera’s zoom to try and see the bear for myself. I took a few pictures – a yellow smear on a white background. It came a little closer, but was still a long way off. More photos. I remember looking at the little screen on my camera, zooming in a bit and smiling at the fact that at least the blob was distinctly bear-shaped.

blog bear 1

blog bear 2

I would have been happy with that, really. The captain made an announcement, stopped the ship and soon everyone had returned to the front deck. There was palpable excitement that we had this distance glimpse of such a rare animal. Everyone had cameras at the ready, taking as many snapshots as they could. And then it decided to come closer.

blog bear 3

And closer.

blog bear 4

Pretty soon I found that I could see the bear just fine with my own eyes. At this point, I kept blinking because I was sure this couldn’t be real. But the bear just continued coming closer until it couldn’t have been more than 20m away from us.

polar bear welcome

polar bear 3

polar bear

polar bear 2

I made sure that I regularly looked above my camera to just stare at it. There was a sort of hushed awe that had fallen over everyone. I’d never seen a bear at all, let alone a freaking polar bear. Its fur was so shaggy, its paws were enormous. It was a magnificent creature, its head alone must have been at least twice the size of mine. The fact that the bear had chosen to come to us made me feel all the more humbled. We were in its home, its realm, and it had decided to cross our path. I could see it continually processing what I imagine was an overload of information. It regularly smelled the air, no doubt getting a good whiff of our dinner. When you think about how completely barren and silent its habitat is normally, this must have been an incredibly confusing encounter for the bear. Thankfully, he was curious enough that he hung out by the boat for a good ten to fifteen minutes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTfpv28969w

Eventually, once the bear had decided that he couldn’t eat us without a significant amount of effort on his part, he left. After it disappeared, I turned to a few of my friends and finally started being outwardly excited, which mainly manifested as, “Holy crap, did we just see a polar bear?!” It was like I’d remained calm to make sure I could take the photos, then just degenerated into a flailing mass of over-stimulation. For the rest of the evening, the spirits of everyone on board were infectiously high, and I couldn’t wait to email my family with some of the pictures. It was truly a magical experience, and one that will stay with me for the rest of my days.

bye polar bear

My Return To Blogging

Hello. It’s certainly been a while. I’ve had quite a busy year, and since my last entry on this blog, I’ve been to the Arctic Circle and the Southern Ocean. It was quite the adventure. My travels to the poles were to investigate the effects of ocean acidification on plankton, but there was plenty of macrofauna to study, too! I have some ideas for some blog posts, which I will try to publish with some regularity, but for now please feast your eyes on the wonders of our polar ecosystems.

A snow-capped Arctic volcano, Jan Mayen.
A snow-capped Arctic volcano, Jan Mayen.
Greenland sea ice
Greenland sea ice
The Arctic sends a polar bear to welcome us to the sea ice
The Arctic sends a polar bear to welcome us to the sea ice
Ny-Alesund in Kongsfjorden, Svalbard
Ny-Alesund in Kongsfjorden, Svalbard
Elephant Island, one of the South Shetland Islands and very close to the Antarctic Peninsula
Elephant Island, one of the South Shetland Islands and very close to the Antarctic Peninsula
Chinstrap penguins porpoising
Chinstrap penguins porpoising
The JCR alongside at King Edward Point, South Georgia
The JCR alongside at King Edward Point, South Georgia

I plan on making some detailed posts about some of my experiences, but if you’d like to have a look at more photos, then please check out my Flickr account. I’ll be back, I promise!

Foula Island

As my next cruise approaches with alarming speed, I realised that there are a few stories I never shared on my blog from the end of my last one. It’s a shame, really, since I had some incredible experiences that left an indelible mark on me, and I wish I’d had the time when I was there to record them. My favourite story, and favourite moment of the cruise, occurred when we were just off the coast of the Shetland Islands in early July. It was 4am, and everyone was busy working on our final experiment of the cruise. The ship had stopped to allow us to take some samples from what would be the most northernly point of the whole cruise. I was busy filtering seawater when someone asked if I had been outside, which I hadn’t. I was a little puzzled as to why they were asking. Sure, it looked like it was a nice day outside, but it wasn’t like there hadn’t been any sunny, calm days on the cruise. My shipmate assured me I should go outside, and that I should grab my camera before I went. It wasn’t until I stepped out onto the deck that I understood what was so special.

The water was calm. …No, that’s the wrong word. I had seen calm in the North Sea, the water’s surface wrinkled by a moderate breeze, which had been a welcome contrast to the mountainous waves we encountered in the Bay of Biscay. But this water wasn’t just calm, it was completely still. The surface was like glass, forming a barrier between me and a slightly distorted, upside down version of the world that was trapped underwater. There were no clouds, and everything was just… blue.

I started taking pictures of the few birds that had settled around the ship. These are birds that, in general, are not seen from land. They are truly sea-faring birds that only come to land to breed. It was exciting to get the chance to photograph them up close, as they seemed not to mind swimming close to the odd metal whale lounging in the water. My supervisor noticed my interest in the birds, and told me I should have a look on the other side of the ship. Intrigued, I made my way to the front deck. I was stunned.

The water was filled with hundreds of birds, all floating on the immaculately flat surface. Behind them, rising up from the misty horizon, was Foula Island. I’ve read an account of Foula, describing it as rising “impurely out of the water”, and I can understand the use of the language. The island looked like a mountain, there are no gently sloping coasts, only the harsh incline of sheer cliffs. With the horizon shrouded in haze, it almost looked like it was just hovering above the water. It provided the perfect backdrop for the surreal bird show.

Most of the birds were fulmars, which at a casual glance appear like gulls, but are actually almost like small albatrosses. If you have a look at their beaks, you can see how greatly it differs from a gull’s, and they have a much “stubbier” appearance in flight. Like most of the seabirds present, they only come to land to breed at specific sites (they will only ever return to one site, returning to the same place year on year). They have quite a soft, gentle appearance, which I think comes from the big black eyes, with their smudgy outline.

The other prominent bird that accumulated was the great skua, which is something of a pirate in the avian world. Skuas frequently chase, harass and steal from other seabirds, and if that doesn’t make them swashbuckling enough, they also have a habit of killing and eating them. Skuas have been known to take down birds as large as black-backed gulls, which are almost as big as they are, so that’s impressive. They have a huge barrel chest, brown plumage flecked with white and an intimidating hooked bill. Despite all this, I only ever saw them being chased off by gangs of fulmars. Perhaps they wised up to the skuas’ antics and only move in groups for protection.

We hung around Foula for a good hour before the ship’s engines roared back to life and we steamed into the final leg of our cruise along the western coast of Scotland. The good weather happily followed us until we made it back to port, and made sure the final week of the cruise was actually pretty pleasant. I remember standing on the back deck as we pulled away from the Shetlands, watching Foula disappear into the haze, with the seabirds now gliding in the ship’s slipstream. Later I found out that “Foula” translates from Old Norse as “Bird Island”. I could not think of a more appropriate name.

Is a PhD For You?

This is a blog entry I actually wrote the majority of about a month ago, but then other things came along and bothered me, like work, and I never got round to posting it. I’m sure there’s some ironic witticism in the fact my PhD stopped me from writing about the experience of a PhD, but I’m sleep deprived and brain not work good.

Several weeks ago, I was speaking with someone who was approaching that odd limbo you find yourself in when you come to the end of a degree and have no idea what you’re going to do afterwards. She asked me what seemed like a fairly simple question: “Would you recommend doing a PhD?” I found myself at a loss for words, which rather surprised me. I felt as though I was somehow unqualified to answer that, despite being well into my second year. “Laura,” you might think, “that’s ridiculous. Who better to recommend a PhD than someone actually doing one?”

Well, the fact is a PhD is a very personal and individual journey, and I felt that recommending one solely off the experience of mine would be like recommending a band after only hearing one of their songs. I just don’t know how typical my experience is, and if any of the things I’ve felt or endured are particularly ubiquitous or unique. With that in mind, I decided in the end to ask people who are also battling their PhD (or have managed to conquer it, in one way or another) to find out what their experience has been like so I could compile them into one hopefully helpful place.

Without a doubt, the most overwhelming response was stressful. Not necessarily all the time, but everyone was willing to admit that stress is a big part of a PhD. I wrote a blog entry before about a PhD being like a parasite, that leaches away at your free time and is constantly making you feel guilty for not working on it. Indeed, the reason I’ve had to put off writing this blog is because I’ve been snowed under with work. One of my friends told me that the pressure from the PhD (but also pressure she puts on herself) makes some kind of “guilt-trip loop”, which drives her to work very long hours. Another friend told me that she’s found her PhD to challenge her not just academically, but personally as well. You will find out a lot about your stress limits on a PhD (good or bad…). As I’ve mentioned before, stress is most easily overcome by making sure you have a good bunch of PhD buddies who understand your very unique and somewhat self-inflicted pain.

Of course, stress is not just the realm of PhD students, so don’t let it be a defining factor in what you choose to do after your degree.

Another common answer was that a PhD makes you feel like an idiot. I have a lot of experience with that. I spent the whole of my first year convinced that I’d somehow tricked the panel in my interview into giving me a PhD, that I’d slipped through, and nervously awaited the moment they would suddenly turn on me and say, “Wait a minute… what are you doing here?” I very easily second guess myself, and end up convincing myself that I don’t know the answer to a very simple question. In most normal circumstances, if someone were to ask me something about my project, I would be able to give a confident, clear explanation. When I’m in a board meeting, or being quizzed by a supervisor or something, I suddenly doubt all that I know. Instead of a nice coherent string of sentences, I make odd, sometimes disturbing, noises. One of my friends told me that he had to give a presentation to one of their outside funders recently, and the things he talks about on a daily basis were suddenly just out of reach in his brain.

Someone on Twitter sent me a link to a very funny and very comforting article called The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research. It makes the very good point that in research, you will of course feel stupid because you are trying to answer questions that no one really knows the answers to yet. That’s why you’re there. In the face of the infinite number of things we do not know as a species, your imagined stupidity seems to fade into nothingness. And, as one of my friends remarked the other week, “at least I’m getting better at sounding like I know what I’m doing.”

Many people also commented on how lonely a PhD can be. In a science PhD, it’s hard to physically be alone as you are constantly working in a lab surrounded by people. It’s the isolation of not knowing anyone else that can really help explain what you’re doing that can be scary. “You are ultimately the only one responsible for the success or failure of your project” is one of the replies I got on Twitter. That can seem incredibly daunting when you first come to realise that. However, I’ve learned how to turn that fear into motivation to drive myself towards success. Nothing will drive you more than the feeling of impending doom! Sometimes it’s the social isolation, whether that’s having to work late nights to finish the sampling from your experiment, or needing to hunker down in a small dark room to write a report. I have groups of friends I haven’t seen on a regular basis for years. Actually, you can sometimes feel isolated from other friends even when you’re around them, usually when you talk about work. Sometimes people ask me what I’m doing, and I’ll start brief but once I get on a roll, I tend to get more and more enthusiastic and keep talking. Eventually I can see their eyes have glazed over and they just periodically nod while fantasising about punching me in the face.

Okay, I’ve focused on a lot of negatives… what about the good parts? Well, a fair few people mentioned fieldwork, which is something I get to enjoy on my PhD. Not everyone will work in the field (and not everyone will want to), but it’s certainly been a fascinating experience for me. Fieldwork is one of those things that’s hard to explain to people who have never done it, because (in my experience) a lot of people assume you go off on holiday for a month or two. In actuality, field work involves long hours working under pressure (you are very aware that you only have a finite amount of time to collect everything you want) with very few days off. Don’t think I’m complaining, because I’m not, I’m extremely lucky to have been able to work where I have and where I’m going to, and thoroughly enjoy myself (though, perhaps not 100% of the time…!). Travel in general is one of the perks of a PhD, whether through fieldwork, conferences, meetings, training exercises. You also get to meet people from many different places, which is a fascinating experience in itself.

The most positive things people said for their PhD was that despite all the negative bits, they still genuinely loved what they do. Most important was the subject, which I can vouch for. You need to really find your topic interesting, because that’s the only way you can keep yourself motivated to carry on when you feel like you just want to quit (and trust me, you will feel like that at some point, even if it’s just for half an hour). Honestly, it’s one of the things that excites me the most about my PhD. My job is to find out about stuff I genuinely love and find super interesting. That’s awesome! When I look through the comments I got about PhD experiences, people said things like “love my research topic”, “best job I’ve ever had” and ” can’t imagine a cooler more interesting project than what I’m doing”.

In summary, I have loved my PhD. I have also hated it at times, but my love of the topic makes sure the two of us kiss and make up. With than analogy in mind, I’ll leave you one of the most all-encompassing comments I received from my friend Julius.

Solitary, social, exciting, boring, stressful, relaxing, gives you highs, gives you lows, makes you feel smart and the next moment stupid, makes you feel you are going far and nowhere… whatever it gives you, I’ve never regretted and would choose it again and again (sounds like marriage…maybe it is a bit).

Wondrous Winter Wildlife in Essex

As my “Big Idea” for my ocean acidification blog post is still under construction, and I haven’t really done a local wildlife post in a while, I thought now might be a good time to write about the winter critters I’ve been spotting over the last few months. I mentioned in a previous blog post that we associate winter with a lack of life, a time where plants die, small animals hibernate and many birds migrate to much warmer climates. There is still plenty around though, even some new additions only seen in the winter time.

It might be difficult to believe, but some birds do actually migrate to the UK during the winter. These are birds that breed in places like Iceland and Norway, so come winter time, England seems like a nice place to visit for a beach holiday. Many of these are wading birds, and as it happens, Essex is a good place to spot these migrants. The Colne River offers the perfect array of habitats for waders; there are plentiful mudflats, brackish rivers and lagoons, and a vast selection of salt marshes. I’m lucky enough to live about 300m away from a tidal part of the river, and as such have been treated to rotating cast of local wildlife.

Common redshank (Tringus totanus)

The first guys to show up from around November onwards were these bright-legged chaps, common redshanks (Tringa totanus). Redshanks are medium sized waders, easily identified by their bright orangey-red legs and bill. Interestingly, these guys are resident in Essex all year round, but normally live on salt marshes. During the winter, they move inwards and are more frequently seen further up the estuary. They appeared in quite large numbers, sometimes there are groups of up to 10 of them all wading through the gooey mud.

Black-tailed godwit (Limosa limosa)

A month later, a pair of black-tailed godwits (Limosa limosa) turned up. Godwits are distinctive-looking waders that are easily told apart from shanks and sandpipers. They have long, straight bills, long legs, and a somewhat elongated neck. Two kinds of godwit occur in Europe, the black-tailed and the bar-tailed, and they are easily distinguished when in flight. The bar-tailed (as you might have guessed) has a striped tail, while the black-tailed, with its solid colouration, has a more “pied” appearance. There is a breeding population in East Anglia, but most godwits are winter visitors, and I think these definitely are. Over the last month or so, more of them turned up, and they got much more used to people so I have been able to get some good shots of them.

Other waders that I’ve noticed arriving since the winter months rolled in have included common sandpipers, some dunlins and a grey plover. I have been unable to get any (decent) photographs of these, but I am hoping I can snap them before they return to their breeding grounds.

I’ve also had a “stay-at-home” wader who seemed not to care when the weather turned nippy. This is my friend the lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), who first appeared on the river this summer, and appears to now have gathered some friends. Last week, I saw 4 lapwings on the river at once, which was quite a pleasant surprise. Lapwings are beautiful waders, and very distinct with their flicked up crest, dark eye mask, and greenish-purple feathers – it is impossible to mistake them for anything else. Their call is also somewhat unique, a squeaky “pee-wit!”, which happens to be another name for this bird. Seeing the lapwing on the river will always make me smile.

Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)

In addition to these, a non-wader also turned up on the river this winter. It is a member of a much overlooked group of birds – the ducks. I feel sorry for ducks. Because of the extremely widespread mallard, most people pass over ducks as “common”. In fact, I’m sure most people only think of a mallard when they think of ducks, and don’t realise the level of diversity that exists in the group. I feel sorry for mallards in particular. I wish they weren’t so common, because they are gorgeous animals. The beautiful shimmering emerald of the male’s head, with the brilliant blue wing patch, the sunny yellow bill and that little curled tail – this description for any other bird would have us conjure up an image of something very exotic. That’s why I was excited when this particular duck turned up, as I think it rivals the colours of the mallard.

Male Eurasian teal (Anas crecca)

This is the male Eurasian teal (Anas crecca), and I hope you can see why I was perhaps a little too happy when it turned up on the river just a couple of weeks ago. The identifying feature is of course the blue-green patch over the eye (incidentally, it’s where we get the name for the colour “teal”) bordered by cream on the chestnut head. Without the right lighting, the head appears much darker than in the photo. They are tiny little ducks, smaller even than the black-headed gulls that are always roaming the mudflats on the river. It’s actually the smallest dabbling duck commonly found in Europe.

Male and female teal

Teals can actually be found in the UK during any season, but in the winter populations from areas like Siberia migrate over here so they are seen much more often at this time of year. I was surprised to find them on the river as I’ve never seen one around here, and in the last few weeks the number of teals has gone from one pair to about fifteen. I guess there’s something in the water here.

While we’re on the topic of ducks, I would like to continue showing you that there is life beyond the mallard. Check out this handsome fellow who came and visited with his mate on the weekend.

Male and female tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula)

These are tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula), which, like the teals, are here all year round, but their numbers are bumped up in the winter by migrants from colder climes. I’ve actually seen tufted ducks here all through last year, so it seems that we have a few residents. I’ve cheated a little with these guys because I don’t see them on the river, they appear only on the pond behind my block of flats, or the lake on the university campus (but both of those are about 10 minutes from the river so… it counts). They’re medium-sized ducks, smaller than a mallard, but mallards are actually fairly large ducks (we just think of them as normal-sized ducks because they’re the most common). The males are quite elegant-looking, sporting a very smart black and white get up, golden eyes, and that nifty little head tuft. So, there you go, ducks can be very interesting, too.

Portrait of a male tufted duck

I would carry on with a section about the songbirds that either stay behind or come and visit through the winter, but I think I’ve rambled on about birds long enough. I need to save some material for future posts as well, anyway. I encourage you to look for the wildlife that comes and goes with winter in your own local patch, I guarantee you’ll find more than you expect. And, of course, spring is fast approaching! I saw a bumblebee on Saturday so it’s officially on its way. Keep an eye out for emerging butterflies, queen bees looking for new nests and the return of summer birds like swallows and meadow pipits. Happy spotting!

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