Monday, 30 March 2015

The Marine Biology of Rocky Shores

So after two busy weeks of tutoring at the Millport Marine Station, I've made it back to Glasgow where there's a decently-working internet connection and I can finally share some of the photos from the trip!

The coast at Farland Point. This is a classic example of an exposed rocky shore and is frequently surveyed by visiting student groups! Click for a larger version.
Over the past week, I've been helping a couple of groups of MSc students do some short fieldwork projects to get them used to the trials and tribulations of trying to do good scientific research in real, coastal ecosystems (which very rarely behave the way you think they will!). Because their work involved gathering lots of samples from the local rocky shore at Farland Point (just a convenient 5 minute walk from the Marine Station), it gave me some time to collect some nice photographs of the marine life while the students were working. The plan I have is to eventually collate these images into short photographic identification guides or posters for different plant and animal groups (which will be freely available online), but that will probably require a bit of work to sort out! In the meantime, keep an eye on the Marine Identification galleries for updates, and enjoy this very brief guide to a typical Scottish rocky shore!

The Subtidal Zone

Extremely low tides expose the kelp beds in the Subtidal Zone, which are usually covered by the sea. Click for a larger version.

With each equinox come big tides, and this week we got some great low tides and access to the subtidal zone (the part of the beach that is normally completely covered by water), which is great for exploring. This part of the beach is home to large, brown (and edible!) kelp species, which in turn are home to some surprisingly beautiful animals like the blue-rayed limpet which lives on the underside of the fronds. If you're lucky, you might also find some fully marine organisms down here that have been temporarily exposed by the tides.

Blue-rayed limpets are often found attached to the underside of kelp fronds in the subtidal zone and are incredibly pretty. It is believed that the blue colours are used to mimic (toxic) sea slugs which keep potential predators away. Click for a larger version.

Urchins, starfish and other fully marine organisms can sometimes be found during extreme low tides. Click for a larger version.

The Eulittoral Zone

Juvenile mussels may be common on the lower shore.  Click for a larger version.

Moving further up the shore into the "eulittoral" or mid-shore, we start to find more of the familiar rocky-shore species. Everything that lives here will spend some part of each day exposed to the air between tides, so everything has to be able to cope with increasingly long periods of dessication, temperature fluctuations and fresh water until the tide comes back in. As a result, shelled animals like winkles, limpets, dogwhelks and sometimes topshells are particularly common, since they can use the shells to seal themselves away when conditions get tough. The most common species here tend to be the wracks (brown algae), barnacles or mussels, all of which compete with each other for the limited amount of space available. Whichever ones are found in the greatest numbers on your particular shore will depend largely on the local environmental characteristics.

Dogwhelks are common on rocky shores and lay eggs shaped a bit like milk bottles (or popcorn kernels) in cracks in the rocks.  Click for a larger version.

Topshells are characteristically striped (but may occur in all kinds of colours) and are some of the prettiest snails you'll find on the beach. Click for a larger version.

The Upper Shore

Common lichens of the supra-littoral (splash zone). I believe these are: (a) Tephromela atra, (b) Caloplaca marina, (c) Verrucaria maura, (d) Ramalina siliquosa (sea ivory). Click for a larger version.

At the top of the shore, we find some of the toughest conditions for marine organisms to try and inhabit, and tend to only find quite specialised plants and animals like channel wrack for example. Above that, we then reach the characteristic bands of white, yellow and black lichens that mark the edge of every rocky shore in the world! This is where the marine and terrestrial environments meet.

The isopod Ligia oceanica is the UK's largest and can reach up to about 5 cm length. It is a common inhabitant of the splash zone. It's quite cute really! Click for a larger version.

Rockpools look like underwater gardens along the shore, but provide refugia for a large number of species when the tides go out. Click for a larger version.

Throughout the shore, rockpools can provide refuges from the worst of these conditions and are great places to carefully watch for crabs, small fish, squat lobsters, prawns, urchins, beadlet anemones and all kinds of stranded marine creatures. You're more likely to find more of these animals lower on the shore where conditions closer to the sea aren't quite so stressful for them, but you never know what you might find. I've found that dropping a few flakes of tuna into a pool works really well to tempt out any particularly hungry and hidden scavengers. Just make sure you use tuna in brine, not oil or else you'll make the pool all oily and won't be able to see anything. Also, since lots of tuna are having a hard time of things at the moment, please try and only use fish that has been sustainably sourced!

Beadlet anemones are very easily found in rockpools, but will retract their tentacles pretty quickly when they get disturbed and can take a while to emerge again. Click for a larger version.

Shore Birds

A rock pipit relaxing and preening on the shore. Click for a larger version.

Most of the shore birds you'll find on rocky shores will be largely similar to those found in other coastal habitats. Waders typically feed on sandy or muddy shores, but often come to rocky areas to rest or preen. One little bird that I've seen a lot of around Cumbrae's rocky shores though is the Rock Pipit. This is a cute little brown bird that is resident all around the coasts of the UK and pretty much only lives on or around rocky shores. Luckily for me, one of them was feeling particularly photogenic last week, letting me get some really nice shots of it singing and preening while I was only 2-3 m away!

How I took the photographs
All the above-water photographs of the marine life in this blog post were taken with my trusty Canon 7D and the Canon 60 mm macro lens, which I haven't written a review of yet but is pretty great. The bird photos were taken with my tried and tested Canon 300 mm lens with 1.4x converter which have yet to let me down.

My Go-Pro in a Sub-Zero Housing. The flat port corrects for the distortion that the early-version housings caused when used underwater, but it does create a dark circle around the images. Whether or not you like this effect is up to you. 

The underwater photos from the rockpools were taken using a Go Pro in a Sub-Zero housing with tinted, flat viewport. This particular housing doesn't distort the image you get when using the original fisheye housings and allows the camera to focus properly underwater. I made a simple stand for mine last week by gluing and cable-tying one of the mounts onto a 2 kg diving weight and set it onto the 5-second timelapse mode which worked pretty well, except for the lack of animals in my selected pool! Still, the photographs turned out quite nice regardless, and I'll be taking this setup out again to try in some beaches that are a little less disturbed than Farland Point!

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Straight from the (Sea)Horse's Mouth: Student Blogs from Millport

I posted a short blog this morning about the Marine Biology field trip that I was teaching on last week, but I didn't give much detail about what the students were actually learning, because I thought it would be much more interesting to hear it from them.

Such enthusiasm!
Over the course of the week, the students kept group blogs about what they were up to and any cool observations they made during the week. There are 14 of them in total, and there are new posts going up all the time now that we're back in the land of working internet access, and you can find them all at:

Just replace the "X" in the url with any number between 1 and 14 (e.g. and you should find yourself reading about some interesting coastal science!

Be warned though, there are a LOT of puns!

Back where it all started: Marine Biology at the Millport Marine Station

All the way back in 2001 I started my undergraduate degree in Aquatic Bioscience (I know, it's fancy!) at Glasgow University. I had gone to uni specifically to study marine and freshwater ecology, but because the first two years of the (four-year) degree focussed on a broad range of general biology subjects, it was only in 3rd year that we got to start studying anything related to marine ecology. It was a long time coming, but it was awesome to get started and our field trip to the Millport Marine Biology station (on the Island of Cumbrae) was a big part of that. It involved a stupid amount of work, but we were learning real marine ecology in the field for the first time, and that was pretty awesome. So, when I was asked if I wanted to go back this year as one of the course tutors, it was a pretty easy decision to make!

Sandy shore surveys at Kames  Bay. Click for larger version.

So last Saturday, I headed down to Cumbrae with 5 other staff, ready to teach 73 undergraduates about coastal ecology. To say the schedule was packed is a bit of an understatement, with the course content covering rocky & sandy shore surveys, plankton surveys, trawl surveys, microbiology labs, mark-recapture experiments and foraging observations on oystercatchers over a mere 6 days! On top of all that, they also had to keep daily group blogs (which was admittedly tricky without a good internet connection) and produce a short video describing a scientific paper in a creative and entertaining way, while also making time for lectures, briefings, cake and alcohol. Despite all that, the level of enthusiasm and excitement the students brought to the work made the entire course so easy to teach it was awesome.

We did a LOT of science this week. Click for a larger image.

After 12 years in research studying the macrofauna living in deep-water corals, parasites in Icelandic cod, the langoustine trawl fisheries along the west coast of Scotland, and human impacts on deep-sea fish communities (and all the stress of a PhD when things are going badly), coming back to this course was a really cool reminder of why I started out on this career path in the first place. And that is to say nothing about the awesome folk I've studied with, worked with and been cruise buddies with! It's been a long and slightly random journey at times to reach this point, but I wouldn't change a thing.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Solar Eclipse!

Today we had the most complete solar eclipse over Scotland in 50 years and it was... cloudy. Luckily, the weather-gods were smiling over Millport and there was enough of a break in the clouds around the peak moment that it was possible to see (and photograph) what was going on! As always, click on the images below to see a larger version.

The eclipse over the Clyde

The "peak" moment of the eclipse.

So that's it. This is the only solar eclipse we'll see over the Clyde for another 85 years!

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Troon Beaches & Harbour

Troon is a small town in Ayrshire on the west coast of Scotland, and is one of the places I try and get to with my camera at least two or three times a year. Aside from being conveniently close to Glasgow for a day trip, it is has a really varied coastline which makes it a great spot for photographing coastal birds.

Troon's beaches are conveniently close to Glasgow and Ayr.

Birds on the Beaches

A windy day at one of Troon's beaches

The beaches around Troon are mainly sandy with smaller patches of bedrock. This combination of habitats means that you get a really nice mix of different birds along the coast. The sandy areas are used as feeding grounds by wading birds like curlew, oystercatchers and dunlin, while smaller species like plovers, redshank and turnstones can be spotted feeding in the seaweeds around the rocky areas.

Redshank are a common sight on the rockier places

Turnstones are also quite easy to find!

This pair of Dunlin were too busy foraging around the edges of a freshwater stream to worry about me an my camera.

These beaches are really popular with local dog walkers (for good reason!), so do bear that in mind before you head down. Most folk tend to stay towards the upper parts of the beach, but there's so much space there's plenty of room for everyone. It also means that most of the wildlife here is quite used to humans, and although they won't tend to let you walk right up to them, they are a bit more tolerant of disturbances than in other places and will settle down again fairly quickly.

The beaches are popular with dog walkers too

Obviously, that doesn't mean you get a free pass to cause a disturbance to the wildlife yourself! They are still wild animals, and it is our job as photographers and wildlife-watchers to make sure that we respect that and don't disturb them. As a general rule of thumb, you can tell quite easily when an animal has noticed you: that's a good time to stop approaching them.


The views over to Arran are gorgeous on nice days...

The views from Troon look out over to the Isle of Arran, which can provide a really nice backdrop for any seascapes you might want to try. Also, when the weather turns, it's quite easy to find cool bits of coastline close to the road, so you can get some stormy shots of the sea without having to stray too far from shelter!

... And really cool on the stormy days!

Troon Harbour 

Gulls annoying a grey seal.
While you're here, it's worth remembering that Troon has a working harbour that is used by a decent number of fishing boats that fish the Clyde for Langoustines, and where there are fishing boats, there are usually grey seals!

Eider ducks in the harbour at Troon.

Troon harbour is also a surprisingly good place for Eider Ducks, and there seems to be a large population of the birds living in and around the harbour! Unless you're able to visit a breeding colony (like the Farne Islands for example), I've always found eiders particularly difficult to approach, so the group at Troon was pretty exciting to find!


Like this? Why not check out some of my other Location Guides.

You can see these and many more of my photos over in the Wild Ocean Photography galleries

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Great Cumbrae & Millport (Firth of Clyde)

The island of Great Cumbrae sits in the Firth of Clyde, approximately a 10 minute ferry ride from the seaside resort town of Largs on the mainland. Considering it is only about a 40-minute drive from Glasgow and given the proximity of large towns and ferry ports such as Greenock, Gourock and Ardrossan (not to mention Hunterston power stations!), a great part of the island's charm is that it still manages to feel as though it's miles away in the heart of the Scottish countryside. In addition, the island and its surrounding waters are a great place to see a huge variety of coastal marine wildlife from seabirds to seals.
Location of Great Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde

Millport & the South of the Island

Students working on Kames Bay

In the town of Millport are two large sandy bays (Kames bay and Fintry Bay) which are popular spots for dog walkers and horse riders, which doesn't always make them most peaceful spots for wildlife watching. But, if it's quiet, it can be a decent place to look for waders and you'll get some beautiful views south towards Ailsa Craig if the weather's nice. From the harbour you can also get some cool views of the seal colony if you have your binoculars with you (or a long lens).

Rocky pools along the coast are great places to play around with your camera and find some cool marine life in the process!

Rocky beaches dominate the rest of the coast which are brilliant for rockpooling (particularly at White Bay in the north of the island).

Blue-rayed limpets can be found on the underside of kelp fronds if you look at low tide.

The marine life here is quite typical for a Scottish rocky shore, and all the usual species of green and brown seaweeds, limpets, barnacles, winkles, mussels and beadlet anemones can be found readily in the pools. Blue-rayed limpets are also commonly found on Kelp fronds in the sublittoral zone (only accessible at low tide). If you have a net and fancy a bit of pool-dipping, you can also often small crustaceans (e.g. shrimp and amphipods) and occasionally small fish in many of the rockpools here. There is an easy circular path around Farland point which makes it suitable for most people, though it can get a bit muddy.

Coastal birds and Seabirds

There are a huge variety of coastal birds and seabirds around Great Cumbrae, which a quick trip around the island will prove! Eider ducks are common around the entire coast, and can regularly be seen diving for food, or calling to each other in large groups, though I've never been particularly successful at approaching them on the island. For that, I tend to find that fishing harbours are a better place to photograph them, but you never know your luck.

A curlew on the shore.
Bar-tailed godwits foraging on the shore.
Oystercatchers on Cumbrae.

Oystercatchers and curlews are also extremely common, and can often be seen in large groups, either resting or feeding at the beaches, along with shags and cormorants, lapwings, and various waders such as turnstones, dunlin and redshanks.

Gulls on the shore.
A cormorant in flight.

I have generally seen these species most often along the western side of the island and the bays in the north, although I would expect them to be seen around most of the coast. In the north and north-west of the island there are also several Swan (or Chinese) geese, which are a domestic species and are not native to Scotland. Around the town of Millport itself, it is not uncommon to spot red-breasted mergansers, as well as all the usual gulls you would expect to find in a seaside town!

Gannets can be commonly seen out in the Clyde channel.

Several species of seabird also live on the island, including a small colony of Fulmars which live on the cliffs in the south of the island. Kittiwakes and gannets can also commonly be seen further out at sea. There is a large gannet colony at Ailsa Craig, south of the Firth of Clyde, and the waters around Millport are a popular feeding area for these birds in the summer (particularly when the fishing boats are working).

Marine Mammals and Basking Sharks

Porpoise feeding between the islands of Great and Little Cumbrae.
The Firth of Clyde is home to a large number of marine mammals, including large groups of harbour porpoise, common dolphins and common dolphins. Minke whales can also be seen in this area. In the past, there have also been sightings of Killer whales (Orca), a Risso's Dophin, and even a humpback whale! Sightings of these species are incredibly rare however, and are certainly the exception rather than the norm. Nonetheless, taking a pair of binoculars out to the coast with you could certainly be worthwhile. 

Grey seals hauled out opposite Millport harbour.
Around the coast of Great Cumbrae, it is quite common to spot common and grey seals. There's a small haul-out area for grey seals just opposite the main harbour in Millport, and if you have a pair of binoculars you should be able to spot them there quite easily.

The waters around Great Cumbrae are famous for basking sharks, not least because this was until very recently, the home of the last basking shark fishery in the UK. In 2005, the Firth of Clyde had the second highest sightings rate for basking sharks in Scotland (after the Minches).
To see more photographs like the ones in this article, have a look at the SeabirdsCoastal Wildlife and Marine Mammals galleries.